Scholarship and Politics: The Case of Noam Chomsky

Stanley Fish in the New York Times:

Contibutors-images-slide-49RJ-articleInlineIt’s not often that you get a public confirmation of views you’ve been pushing for years. But that’s what happened to me last week when I attended the 2013 John Dewey lectures given by Noam Chomsky under the auspices of the Columbia University philosophy department.

The views I have been peddling to various audiences (without notable success) are: (1) The academy is a world of its own, complete with rules, protocols, systems of evaluation, recognized achievements, agreed-on goals, a roster of heroes and a list of tasks yet to be done. (2) Academic work proceeds within the confines of that world, within, that is, a professional, not a public, space, although its performance may be, and often is, public. Accordingly, (3) academic work is only tangentially, not essentially, political; politics may attend the formation of academic units and the selection of academic personnel, but political concerns and pressures have no place in the unfolding of academic argument, except as objects of its distinctive forms of attention. (If academic work had no distinctive forms of attention, it would be shapeless and would not be a thing.) (4) The academic views of a professor are independent of his or her real-world political views; academic disputes don’t track partisan disputes or vice versa; you can’t reason from an academic’s disciplinary views to the positions he or she would take in the public sphere; they are independent variables.

Now, as everyone knows, Noam Chomsky is a distinguished academic, a scholar who pretty much single-handedly reconfigured the discipline of linguistics and a strong presence in the landscape of other disciplines — philosophy of mind, psychology, biology, literary criticism, to name a few. But Chomsky is also a prominent public intellectual whose opinions on a wide range of political topics — American foreign policy, the Middle East, capitalism, fossil fuels, education, etc. — are well known and often controversial. So the question was, which Chomsky was going to show up at Columbia, or alternatively, could you have one without the other? The answer, it turned out, is “yes.”

More here.