Review of “What Kind of Creatures are We?” by Noam Chomsky

W. Tecumseh Fitch in Inference Review:

ScreenHunter_2273 Oct. 08 21.35Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential—and controversial—intellectuals of our time, and his writings have had enormous impact in linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and political discourse. If the breadth of these contributions is remarkable, the depth of his insights in each of these fields is formidable and daunting. This scope, combined with the fact that much of his scholarly writing is highly technical, sometimes makes the unity of his thinking difficult to discern. Indeed, until I read this short and accessible volume, I always found it difficult to reconcile Chomsky the linguist/philosopher with Chomsky the political critic—his focus on innate limitations in language and mind seemed at odds with his steadfast political championing of individual freedom against oppressive forces. This recent book, in refreshingly clear if sometimes still challenging prose, provides the answer, and reveals an underlying unity in Chomsky’s perspective and thought on these topics.

In the four essays that make up the chapters of this recent book, What Kind of Creatures Are We?, he clearly leads us through his thinking in the domains of language (“What is Language?”), philosophy of mind (“What Can We Understand?”), and politics and ethics (“What is the Common Good?”), returning in the final essay to the general question of human knowledge and the history of science (“The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?”). Of course, Chomsky is first and foremost a linguist, and it is natural that his own historical trajectory and that of this book start with language—in my opinion the most biologically special and cognitively precious capacity our species possesses. I will thus start this review with some historical context concerning Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics and cognitive science before turning to the contents of individual chapters.

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