In his first published essay on politics, Noam Chomsky announced his conviction that ‘[i]t is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.’footnote1 Acting on that conviction, Chomsky has long supplemented his work in linguistics with writing on contemporary political affairs, focusing principally on the politics of the Middle East, the immorality of us foreign policy, and the role of American mass media and intellectuals in disguising and rationalizing that policy.footnote2 By contrast with his work in linguistics, which is principally theoretical, Chomsky’s political writings in the main address more straightforwardly factual questions. As he emphasizes, these can be settled without special methods or training, and their significance can be appreciated through the application of common-sense norms and beliefs (for example, that aggression is wrong, concentrated power is dangerous, and citizens have greater responsibility for the policies of their own country than for those of other states), as aided by ‘a bit of open-mindedness, normal intelligence, and healthy scepticism.’footnote3

The characteristic focus, intensity and hopefulness of Chomsky’s political writings, however, reflect a set of more fundamental views about human nature, justice and social order that are not simple matters of fact. This article explores these more fundamental ideas, the central elements in Chomsky’s social thought. We begin (section i) by sketching the relevant features of Chomsky’s conception of human nature. We then examine his libertarian social ideals (section ii), and views on social stability and social evolution (section iii), both of which are animated by this conception of our nature.

To anticipate what follows, we take Chomsky’s social views to be marked by four key claims: (1) human beings have a ‘moral nature’ and a fundamental interest in autonomy; (2) these basic features of our nature support a libertarian socialist social ideal; (3) the interest in autonomy and the moral nature of human beings help to explain certain important features of actual social systems, including for example the use of deception and force to sustain unjust conditions, as well as their historical evolution; and (4) these same features of human nature provide reasons for hope that the terms of social order will improve from a moral point of view. Thus stated, these four claims are clearly neither concrete nor precise. But neither are they vacuous. They provide what we take to be a distinctive, optimistic perspective on human beings and human possibilities. The exposition that follows aims principally at a sympathetic clarification of this perspective. While our discussion is often critical, the criticisms themselves are intended to clarify Chomsky’s views and to underscore deeper points of agreement with them.

Before turning to that discussion, however, a cautionary remark about the character and self-conception of Chomsky’s work in this area is in order. Most important, Chomsky does not have a theory of society or justice, in the sense of a clearly elaborated and defended set of fundamental principles. In fact, he believes that significant progress in ethical and social inquiry requires a systematic theory of human nature, something that does not now (and may never) exist,footnote4 and that in the absence of such a theory social and ethical thought must rely on relatively speculative and imprecise ideas (‘guesses, hopes, expectations’footnote5). Moreover, Chomsky denies any originality for his social and ethical views, identifying himself as a merely ‘derivative fellow traveller’footnote6 in the anarchist and libertarian socialist traditions.

Finally, and no doubt in part owing to his conviction that his social and ethical views are neither systematically developed nor original, Chomsky presents those views in an occasional and sketchy fashion. Almost always announced as speculative, and often advanced only in response to promptings from interviewers, their presentation commonly takes the form of quotation from and endorsement of certain views of other thinkers (for example, Rousseau, Kant, Humboldt and Marx).footnote7 Apart from creating natural difficulties for any attempt at systematic summary, the character of Chomsky’s presentation underscores the need for caution in reading more into, or expecting more of, his work in this area than he invites. We hope that we have heeded our own warning in what follows.

As already noted, Chomsky believes that a substantive conception of human nature must play a central role in both the ethical assessment of social arrangements and in the explanation of their operation. By a ‘conception of human nature’ he means an account of the biological endowment of the human species, and in particular the aspects of that endowment that figure in the development of human cognitive systems—aspects that are common to all human beings (excepting those suffering from pathologies) and perhaps unique to the human species. At its core, Chomsky’s own conception of human nature draws together a romantic emphasis on the distinctive human capacity for creative expression and a rationalist contention that there is an intrinsic and determinate structure to the human mind.footnote8 In his work, these romantic and rationalist strands are joined through the contention that the intrinsic structure of mind provides a framework of principles that underwrites the possibility of the relevant forms of creative activity, while at the same time limiting the attainable forms of human expression.footnote9

This conception of human nature is most fully developed in Chomsky’s linguistic theory, which emphasizes both the creativity exhibited by normal human language use and the modularity of the human language faculty.footnote10 According to Chomsky, the ‘fundamental fact about the normal use of language’footnote11 is its ‘creative aspect’. Human beings have the capacity for a potentially unbounded novelty in the production of utterances that are appropriate to their circumstances, but that are not controlled by immediate stimuli (though they are commonly prompted by such stimuli). The linguistic knowledge expressed in such creativity is acquired by virtually all human beings in a relatively short period of time, and in the face of unstructured and impoverished inputs from the environment. Given this ‘poverty of the stimulus’, Chomsky argues that language acquisition can plausibly be explained only on the assumption that human nature includes a language ‘module’—an innate system of language-specific principles, or ‘universal grammar’.