Via Youtube: (1 of 3) Kant, Chomsky and the Problem of Knowledge

Sadly, the video does not include the discussion of both Kant and Chomsky, nor the Chomskian linguistic revolution.  Click through for parts 2 and 3.

Kant’s novel answer to the problem of how scientific knowledge is possible (Newton’s Principia), relies partly on David Hume’s assertion that no universal knowledge can be achieved by induction alone, as the video does a good job of explaining.

Here’s a quote from a previous post on this site:

The problem of how a judgment can be synthetic and a priori, then, presents itself to Kant as the problem of how two concepts, neither of which includes the other, can be connected in a way which does not rest upon past experience and is not vulnerable to future experience.”

Page 23 of ‘Kant’s Analytic‘ by Jonathan Bennett.

Kant realized that Science itself, and its claims to objective universal laws that are good for all time, past present, and future, and for all space (the tiniest particles to apples to the moon to all celestial bodies) were under threat from Hume’s induction problem, and he set out to find a solution.  Here’s a good summary from If-Then Knots (which also goes into the Kant/Chomsky connection):

‘Those propositions that we knew independent of any particular fact about the world (a priori) but which also contained new information about the world (synthetic) were synthetic a priori. 

How do we know such propositions?  On Kant’s account, synthetic a priori statements are derived from the conditions that make experience possible.  For example, we know propositions in geometry because they are derived from the conditions that make possible the experience of spatially extended objects.  From his account of mathematics as grounded in synthetic a priori statements about space and time, Kant felt that he could put Newtonian mechanics on objective and certain foundations.’


‘…Kant used the transcendental method to derive synthetic a priori propositions, which he argues form the foundation of scientific (ie, objective and certain) judgement.  Simple enough, right?’

One consequence of Kant’s view is that knowledge of objective reality is due to some extent on our own onboard apparatus.  Reality, or the reality which is knowable, has already conformed to our minds, rather than the other way around.  Kant thought his own project may best be used as a negative limit for possible knowledge, including the threat scientific knowledge faces from Hume’s problem of induction.  Kant’s views of time and space are complex: (and his thinking has some questionable connections to subsequent developments in mathematics).

Some of this is relevant, in part, to Chomsky’s work:

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is totally consistent with Kant’s epistemology (although, obviously, Kant never used it as an example, having been dead for 153 years when Chomsky first published his theory):


  1. The Universal Grammar is a priori.


Unlike his predecessors in the field of linguistics, Chomsky does not join the empiricists in claiming that learning a language is just a matter of imitation. There has to be something in our mind, something innate, that makes the knowledge of any human language possible. In fact, Chomsky has postulated the existence of a language organ in our brain that would come equipped with knowledge of the Universal Grammar. Non-human animals, lacking that language organ, can never become fluent in any human languages.


  1. Reality conforms to the mind


In the context we are discussing, by “reality” we mean “language”. In the empiricist’s view, the mind is just a passive receptacle of information—if you spoke to a child in any sort of language (English or Arabic, but also a computer language or an alien language) from the moment they are born, then the child would become fully proficient in it. In contrast, in Chomsky’s theory, a human child could never acquire a computer language or an alien language as their first language, since those languages do not conform to the Universal Grammar (FOOTNOTE: An alien language would doubtless conform to some sort of Universal Grammar, but it would be the Alien Universal Grammar, as opposed to the Human Universal Grammar.) So the Universal Grammar makes our knowledge of language possible, but also limits the kinds of languages we can know, just like our a priori of space makes our perception of physical objects possible, but also limits the kinds of objects we can perceive—to, for instance, three-dimensional objects.


So, Chomsky, may something of a Kantian in his revolutionary work on linguistics.

Yet, I was asked if there is any connection between Kantian transcendental idealism and Chomsky’s political philosophy, and I remain doubtful I could provide proof of such a connection.

It has remained confounding to me that Chomsky has clung to a philosophical idealism that serves, at best, as a platform to critique all human organizations relentlessly (especially the U.S. government, and “corporate tyrannies,” military and civil hierarchies but also fascist tyrannies and other oppressive regimes).

Perhaps, after Kant’s moral philosophy, Chomsky believes that we must derive the laws of morality a priori from reason itself, rather than from experience (and Humean habit), thus lending such laws a presumed universality and objectivity. Chomsky seems to hold a rather strong and positive definition of individual liberty, perhaps sharing a space in the social contract tradition which seeks to maintain the consent of the governed (a tradition which includes Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant all of whom approached the problem in different ways).  He remains highly skeptical of authority, claims to authority and argues that individuals are best served by anarchy, or anarcho-syndicalism, or some form of libertarian socialism.  The burden of proof, on this view, would be upon governments, institutions and groups of individuals to justify interference into the lives of individuals.   According to Chomsky, when people do deal with each other (as they must), they ought to do so voluntarily, entering and leaving obligations of their own will as do the leaders of a community council, or perhaps as occurs at a faculty meeting solving problems as they arise (not exactly practicable for most states, nor for the large scale of nation states).

It would be curious to imagine how such a view would respond to Hobbes’ fool, or any threats an individual might pose to any ruling body over him when it is rational for him to do so (a room full of anarchic libertarian socialists may have trouble finding common ground).  It is my belief that neither anarchists, nor community councils, nor faculties would maintain legitimate power for long, and the strong, free individual would soon find himself ruled by those who cared not for his positive, generally rights based, definitions of freedom.

Yet, as to the original question, I can’t seem to find satisfactory proof of a connection.  Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  A reader mentions Kropotkin, and points out that some of Chomsky’s thinking harkens to the heady days of the Russian Revolution (Chomsky’s family emigrated from Russia).

Related On This Site: The commenters find no clear argument I’ve made between Kant and Chomsky’s political philosophy: The Politics Of Noam Chomsky-The Dangers Of Kantian Transcendental Idealism?

Martha Nussbaum criticizing Chomsky’s hubris in Martha Nussbaum In Dissent–Violence On The Left: Nandigram And The Communists Of West Bengal

Perhaps Chomsky and Strauss both flirted with Zionism, but they were very different thinkers:…From Peter Berkowitz At Harvard: ‘The Reason Of Revelation: The Jewish Thought Of Leo Strauss’

Robert Nozick merged elements of Kant and Locke in a strong, libertarian defense of the individual A Few Thoughts On Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”From Slate: ‘The Liberty Scam-Why Even Robert Nozick, The Philosophical Father Of Libertarianism, Gave Up On The Movement He Inspired.’

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

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6 thoughts on “Via Youtube: (1 of 3) Kant, Chomsky and the Problem of Knowledge

  1. James Whittaker

    What you right here seems accurate to me and really interesting, I’m currently studying Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume and Kant and I draw much inspiration from Chomsky writings in my leisure time. it’s clear that Chomsky certainly is influenced particularly by the libertarian side of Rousseau, Hume and Kant in their conception of humans as having an instinct for freedom. There’s a clear link there between classical liberalism of Rousseau and Kant with Bakunin’s form of anarchism in that they both believe, to quote Rousseau’s overused but nonetheless potent words – ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains’. Chomksy draws particularly on Humbolt in this respect, and makes connections between language and politics in order to derive this conception of human nature. For more on this, see his essay Language and Freedom, it should be on his website or available online.

    He also draws on the economic side of classical liberalism, particularly Adam Smith and is very critical the manner in which Smith is often cherry-picked by modern day Reaganites and Thatcherites, he maintains Smith would have abhorred corporate capitalism. Also, his parents left Ukraine in 1913, so nothing to do with Bolshevism but nevertheless, Chomsky is ardently anti-Bolshevik and in Notes on Anarchism quotes Bakunin’s warnings that Marxism COULD lead to a ‘red bureaucracy’ where the rulers will ‘beat the people with the people’s stick’ which is how he perceived the USSR. When accused of defending the USSR and criticizing the US, he responded, ‘I insist we live in a free society and that the Soviet Union is a dungeon’. Also, Chomksy was involved in Zionist movements before establishment of the Jewish state, his position on the issue would now be considered anti-Zionist but he campaigned for a form of Arab-Jewish political cooperation in line with some of the ideas of the kibbutz movement in the 1940s, like you say, Strauss and Chomsky come from opposite ends of the spectrum.

    1. James,

      Thanks for sharing! I actually came at Chomsky because I was impressed with the analytical rigor and deep metaphysical revolutionary approach he brought to linguistics, but was endlessly frustrated at political screeds I found online, and the Chomskyites, with which I agree on very little.

      He is a very deep thinker however, and engaged, and often quite consistent in his retreat to anarchy when his libertarian socialism/anarcho-syndicalism leads to empirical quandaries. You’re definitely right on how he’s remained quite critical of the USSR, though I believe he did get carried into solidarity and sympathy with at least one questionable regime (maybe just as an apologist). The libertarian and the anarchist in him have the sense to mostly retreat when the authoritarian/totalitarian consequences as many of those ideas emerge once put into practice.

      He’s quite consistent in that regard, to be sure.

      I find the Rousseauan approach very active in Kant’s thinking and very much active at that point in the Enlightenment, and very active in Chomsky. As you put it well: ‘the instinct for freedom’ and its heritage is all around us and which through Rousseau helped the French to what I think is a decidedly more anarchic/libertine approach towards institutional authority especially during their revolution. I usually remain skeptical of a deeper rationalism and deeper Statism and national State identity which has resulted, but hey…

      I tend to find Locke and the American founders (I’m American) a helpful antidote to Hobbes, and to the Jacobins and the rationalists, as is Strauss a helpful antidote to the nihilism, and radicalism of much modern philosophy, including the absolute idealism of Hegel. Straussian neoclassicism can do a lot of heavy contextualizing in a unique way.

      ***Funnily enough, I often find myself in disagreements with libertarian friends and rationalists over Locke (they can smell claims to moral authority and legitimacy they find questionable from afar), but that also means a lot of the American project of ‘life, liberty, and happiness’ and ‘negative’ freedom (the Deism and defense of property) can come into question as well.

      I still look at Strauss as indeed ver

      1. James Whittaker

        I must admit to be something of a Chomskyite myself. Nonetheless, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said there, I’m not sure he is an apologist for any regimes I’m aware of but he often comes across sympathetic to regimes which have opposed US hegemony, Cuba or Viet Cong, for instance, but personally I think this is a misreading of his position. It seems inconsistent on what he writes about freedom, a value certainly not cherished by Marxist-Leninists in the Kantian/Rousseaun sense. Very interesting what you say on Rousseau, he influenced the French Revolution yet would have undoubtedly opposed it from the exchanges him and Voltaire had and his own writings on revolution. He would favour perhaps a more decentralised political system which even Hume gives some credence to in one of his essays on an Ideal Society. Locke is also an interesting one, he was involved in preserving the colonial stature of Carolina, he even wrote the constitution (which sanctioned the enslavement of black people) yet he is the intellectual force behind the American Revolution and is widely regarded as a lover of liberty. In this sense, Locke and Rousseau had somewhat inadvertent influences, though Locke’s position on a revolution in America is unclear, he certainly put a lot of work into the preservation of Carolina as a colony. Rousseau was even accused of giving the philosophical grounding to totalitarianism by Popper and Talmon which does make sense considering his endorsement of militarized, authoritarian states like Sparta. Rousseau admitted himself he is a ‘man of paradoxes’.

      2. James,

        Martha Nussbaum took a look at a letter Chomsky co-authored here (subscription required, I’m afraid)

        A piece by an anti-Chomsyite here

        I tend to look at Locke as highly influential in the American founding, in establishing a foundation for private property rights, in addressing some of the authoritarianism in Hobbes and his Leviathan, and in the separation of powers.

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