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What Are We Reading and Writing?

Robert Barsky is a professor in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the Law School at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of three books on Noam Chomsky. His most recent books are Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law (Routledge Law 2016) and a novel called Hatched (Sunbury Press 2016). He recently reviewed Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky for Moment Magazine. Read the introduction below, and be sure to check out the full review at

chomsky_chris_knightChris Knight’s new book begins with the unpromising statement that he, in encountering Chomsky’s work, would have to “put aside” his “own cultural prejudices and assumptions” to “avoid dismissing every strange belief as incomprehensible nonsense.” The reader has to wonder where Knight has been for the past half-century to view Chomskian linguistic work as though it was a “previously unknown tribe,” and the reader familiar even slightly with Chomsky might be very concerned that Knight prejudges the “doctrines” encountered therein as “absurd”—unless of course Knight is a great expert on language research that has been undertaken for the past couple of thousand years. No such luck. He has had “no training in theoretical linguistics,” by his own admission, but is nonetheless confident enough in his lack of knowledge to talk about a “tribe” of military-funded linguists that “clustered around Chomsky in the formative period of his career.” What is he talking about? Would he say the same if he were to encounter, say, the “strange tribe” of physicists studying string theory, and then learn that physicists also receive lots of funding via the military from the U.S. government? He seems to be aware of his own biases, though, as he immediately claims to have no interest in conspiracy theories, and thus doesn’t believe for a moment that the “Pentagon’s initial funding of Chomsky’s ground-breaking work” was part of any “master plan.” This is a good thing, I presume, since the Pentagon’s funding of, say, aeronautical engineering, might otherwise fall under a master plan of, say, destroying the passenger train industry. But as it turns out, his arguments are even more fallacious…”

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