Why I Choose Optimism Over Despair: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

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By C.J. Polychroniou
February 14, 2016

ne of philosophy's central and most perplexing questions is, "Who are we?" Indeed, virtually all essential questions about human civilization, power, authority and governance follow from the question of what kind of creatures we are.

But is there really something distinct about us as a species? Or, to put the question in a more traditional philosophical context, is there such a thing as human nature? Classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought so, and so did most philosophers that form part of the modern tradition, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and going all the way up to Nietzsche. Of course, scientists have also probed human nature, and continue to do so down to this day, with the question being of particular interest to linguists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists.

Noam Chomsky, one of the world's most influential linguists (the same prolific scholar known around the world for his trenchant critiques of US foreign policy and critical analyses on a wide range of social and political issues), has also been preoccupied for much of his life with the perennial question of what kind of creatures we are. His pathbreaking contributions to the field of linguistics have considerably advanced our understanding of the human mind, which has in turn influenced a diverse area of studies, ranging from cognitive science and computer science to philosophy and psychology.

Chomsky's latest book, just released by Columbia University Press, is fittingly titled, What Kind of Creatures Are We? The book is a collection of lectures delivered by Chomsky at Columbia University in December 2013, delving into areas like cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy and political theory. I talked with Chomsky about the book, his scientific explorations of language and the mind, and his views on society and politics in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, your latest book brings together your investigation into language and the mind and long-held views of yours on society and politics. Let me start by asking you as to whether you feel that the biolingustic approach to language that you have developed in the course of the past 50 years or so is still open to further exploration and, if so, what sort of questions remain unanswered about the acquisition of language.

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