Infinite Use of Finite Means

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Matthew Garrett

What Kind of Creatures Are We?
By Noam Chomsky
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, xxiv, 167 pages, $14.95 paperback.

Who Rules the World?
By Noam Chomsky
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016, x, 318 pages, $18 paperback.

On Anarchism
By Noam Chomsky
New York: New Press, 2013, xvi, 170 pages, $15.70 paperback.

Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change
By Noam Chomsky and C.J. Polychroniou,
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017, 207 pages, $16.95 paperback.

The Instinct for Cooperation:
A Graphic Novel Conversation
with Noam Chomsky
By Jeffrey Wilson
Illustrated by Eliseu Gouveia
Lettered by Jay Jaco
New York: Seven Stories Press, 2018, 112 pages, $13.95 paperback.

Decoding Chomsky:
Science and Revolutionary Politics
By Chris Knight
New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2018, xiv, 285 pages, $18 paperback.

NOAM CHOMSKY WOULDN’T like it, but let’s begin with dialectics. Ideological mystification inheres not in the answers given to a particular problem, but in the questions that constitute the problem in the first place.

The insight is Marx’s, of course, and it’s integral to the historical-materialist method of immanent critique. We lift ourselves out of an ideological bind by discovering its limits, and we find those edges by rigorously elaborating the ideology’s own logic, showing how and why it cannot adequately answer even its own queries.

To approach a problem in this way is to identify how class struggle conditions knowledge. The boundaries are set not by some intrinsic shortcoming in our cognitive circuitry, but by the relational conflict between dominant and dominated classes. That conflict is inscribed within thought itself, as a relational social practice, and the only way to solve problems of consciousness is to reanimate them within the field of social power.

Hermetic, rationalist systems can only reiterate the problem, since they are incapable of the dialectical movement between the system and its social ground. Rationalism thus revolves around a core of irrationality, of material it cannot understand because it cannot situate itself in relation to it.

In a weirdly Ptolemaic way, the irrational kernel determines what the rationalist can and cannot understand. We confront a version of this dilemma in the work of Noam Chomsky, which is both enabled and constrained by the closure of its system.

The Kernel of Linguistics

The rational kernel of Chomsky’s linguistics is the observation that language makes infinite use of finite means. Every speaker can produce an endless array of grammatical sentences, although they have a limited experience of the language.(1) At the core of this curious circumstance is Chomsky’s concept of the generative grammar, a “system of rules that in some explicit and well-defined way assigns structural descriptions to sentences.”

Every speaker has “mastered and internalized” the generative grammar, of which the speaker obtains no consciousness; generative grammars are “beyond the level of actual or potential consciousness,” beyond what a speaker knows she knows.(2)

Crucially, the accent in Chomsky’s linguistics is on practice. Or, in the words of Chomsky’s beloved thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt, “language is peculiarly confronted by an unending and truly boundless domain, the essence of all that can be thought. It must therefore make infinite employment of finite means, and is able to do so, through the power which produces identity of language and thought” (quoted in What Kind of Creatures Are We? 7).

Chomskian linguistic theory has undergone many changes since its emergence in the late 1950s, but this insistence on the infinite use of finite means and the centrality of the generative grammar remain foundational.

The Freedom Principle

Although not always recognized as such, Chomsky’s politics are consistent with his linguistics. His is not a deterministic perspective on human capacities, but instead a theory of human freedom.

As he writes in a commentary on Rousseau, there is “no inconsistency in the notion that restrictive attributes of mind underlie a historical evolving human nature that develops within the limits that they set; or that these attributes of mind provide the possibility of self-perfection; or that, by providing the consciousness of freedom, these essential attributes of human nature give [human beings] the opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibilities for freedom, diversity, and individual self-realization.” (On Anarchism, 127)

In short: without formal limits, there is no freedom. It is precisely the “intrinsic and restrictive properties of mind” that provide the precondition for “creative acts.” (128) Thus, no freedom without constraint.

Once you commit yourself, as Chomsky does, to the notion of the generative grammar and thus to an intrinsic and universal human capacity (biologically given!) for language — once you identify the hard substance of “human nature” in this way, then any domination of any person by any other way is illegitimate until proven otherwise.

Chomsky’s standard-bearer in this regard is the anarchist Rudolf Rocker, who held to what he saw as the historical tendency of “the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life” (What Kind of Creatures Are We? 62). For Chomsky, social restrictions on human development must be subject to the simplest, most reasonable of imperatives: “Justify yourself.” (63) If justification is not forthcoming, social relations must be reconfigured — always from below.

Though accused often by enemies (and some purported comrades) on both the left and the right of obscurantism in both politics and philosophy, Chomsky’s pedagogical theory is no less egalitarian (and no less indebted to Humboldt).(3)

Education is not a matter of “pouring water into a vessel,” but rather of “laying out a string along which learners proceed in their own ways, exercising and improving their creative capacities and imaginations, and experiencing the joy of discovery.” (71)

Egalitarianism and Argumentation

Foregrounding his egalitarianism, one comes to understand Chomsky’s pugnacious, often intolerant style of argument and explanation. Given the universal human capacity for language, and therefore for reason, every interlocutor must be treated as an equal.

For Chomsky, that precisely does not mean that intellectual disputes should be artificially polite. On the contrary, what matters most is rational argument, clarity of expression, and declaration of one’s commitments. One should never try to persuade. Instead, one should “lay out the territory as best one can so that others can use their own intellectual powers to determine for themselves what they think is taking place and what is right or wrong.” (Optimism over Despair, 51)

Given Chomsky’s role as a kind of guru for all manner of left and progressive political people (the one who thinks so that they don’t have to), we may be both heartened by and wary of statements like these. But as so often, one suspects that Chomsky would fail even to identify the problem: for him, the fact that everyone can think for themselves means that there’s no reason for anyone not to. Get it together, people.

Indeed, that basic position — use your intelligence! — has been Chomsky’s watchword, within and beyond linguistics. Although his commentaries on the historical conjuncture have been read religiously by leftists and others since the late 1960s, he has functioned more as a clearinghouse for radical and anti-imperialist arguments than as a theorist or historian in his own right.

That is, by his own reckoning, just as it should be. The few exceptions are telling, perhaps most obviously the monumental Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), co-authored with Edward Herman. Taking its title from Propaganda (1928), by the public-relations man and junior-imperialist Edward Bernays, the book demolished the U.S. press, showing it to be gleefully supine before power and thoroughly integrated into the nexus of capital and empire.(4)

The crime is double: not only the original obscenity of (for example) the counterrevolutionary slaughter in Indochina, but the further violation of human intelligence by the cunning camouflage operations of the “free” media, which reduce the rational animal to a spectator. Brutality, murder, and exploitation are both routinized and hidden from view.

In their analysis, Chomsky and Herman offer nothing of the dialectical richness of Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle (1967), who might have been a valuable fellow-traveler in chronicling the nauseating transition from active intelligence to passive consumption; nor do they dabble in other modes of systemic analysis (focused on the way the relationship between the media and capital and empire is itself mediated) that might satisfy a more discerning Marxist readership.

Yet to offer up that predictable complaint at this point seems uncharitable. For what remains as clear as a thunderbolt is Chomsky’s dogged fidelity to the human mind: to an irreducible ingenuity that sustains our ties to one another and provides a materialist basis for optimism against despair.

The Meaning of “Mind”

What is this “mind”? At a minimum for Chomsky, it is what remains after Isaac Newton showed that the material, physical body had no basis in physics: following Newton, there could be no mechanical account of the physical world.

For Chomsky, Descartes’ concept of mind was unaffected by Newton’s revolution. So while “it has become conventional to say that we have rid ourselves of the mysticism of ‘the ghost in the machine,’” it is in fact correct to say that “Newton exorcised the machine while leaving the ghost intact.” (Optimism over Despair, 192)

The ghost is the generative grammar, the capacity to produce sentences with unbounded creativity from a limited means (grammatical procedures plus the lexicon). That unbounded creativity however, is not linked to an intrinsic purpose, what the philosopher Baruch Spinoza would call a “conatus.”

Assuming a thoroughly biological materialism, Chomsky sees language as a “biological object,” not a tool of human design. Languages are “like the visual or immune or digestive system.” (What Kind of Creatures Are We? 15) Language is not even “for” communication, which Chomsky sees as a kind of secondary development out of its function as “essentially an instrument of thought.” (16)

Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that a specifically social and historical conatus (infinite use, tending toward freedom) is admissible within Chomsky’s framework, so that our biological capacities are historically activated at different levels based on social circumstances.

A classic example within literary history is the emergence of so-called “free-indirect discourse” in novels in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Mixing the language of a character with the grammar of a narrator, free-indirect discourse has become ubiquitous in novelistic narrative, instantly recognizable to, say, any reader of thrillers or detective fiction. (“He checked his watch again. Three o’clock. The killer would arrive on the 3:17 from Oakland.”)

But since these are strictly “unspeakable sentences,” they require a substantial social infrastructure (printing presses, relatively large-scale readerships, the use of italic typefaces, the underlying institutions of fiction and novel-reading, and so on) before they can be historically actualized.(5)

The same goes for any number of linguistic phenomena: they are grammatically (which is to say, structurally) possible but require historical “activation” to appear. Once again: infinite use of finite means.

Force and Fragility

Understanding language as Chomsky does produces a certain political pathos, as one recognizes both the force and the fragility of human thought. Chomsky sees this dynamic in parallel with the long class struggle between producers and exploiters, and is admirably insistent, in characteristic anarchist fashion, on a definition of “class struggle” that already assumes feminist, queer, anti-racist, and Indigenous politics.

Chomsky proceeds with full recognition of the precariousness of our intelligence, and the voraciousness with which those in power feed on the distortions of our capacities.

On one side, there are the exploiters — and not just the capitalists. Chomsky’s deeply anti-Bolshevik standpoint is rooted in his commitment to human freedom; he quotes Marx to discredit (yet again) Leninism in its elitist modes: “The Leninist intelligentsia […] fit Marx’s description of the ‘conspirators’ who ‘preempt the developing revolutionary process’ and distort it to their ends of domination.” (Optimism over Despair, 180)

On the other side, we see human freedom flourishing wherever it finds the chance, whether Occupy in 2011 or Barcelona in 1936: “Whenever you have a glimpse of freedom people start acting like free, sensible human beings. They break out of these chains of indoctrination and privatization.” (The Instinct for Cooperation, 81)(6)

But again: freedom exists only in relation to constraint.(7) For Chomsky, there is a severe limitation on the human aptitude for understanding and self-knowledge.

Perhaps one reason for Chomsky’s hostility to dialectical thought (beyond his devotion to Descartes) is an allergy to Hegel’s basic argument that self-consciousness may take shape through thought’s dynamic and ever-unfolding encounter with the world — and more significantly, Marx’s avowal of the unity of theory and practice.

In contrast with the dialectic, which operates as it were “without” us, Chomsky’s notion of mind is of a faculty that is limited like any other biological organ.

The natural sciences are for him our best instrument — both for grasping the world and for recognizing that we can never grasp it all: “There is no reason to believe that humans can solve every problem they pose or even that they can formulate the right questions; they may simply lack the conceptual tools, just as rats cannot deal with a prime number maze.” (What Kind of Creatures Are We? 105)

One may be forgiven for an abrupt surge of solidarity with the rats in this sentence, who do not pose for themselves the problem of the prime-number maze but instead find themselves entrapped within a nightmare designed by their human torturers. That sudden, interspecies camaraderie is a vertiginous, allegorical reminder that humankind poses for itself those problems for which it can find a solution, and that the real mystification lies with the ruling class: not just in the answers it produces, but in its very questions.

Yet how refreshing it is to read, for those very reasons, the great rationalist reminding us of our limits. And how welcome his uncompromising scrutiny of power, his ferocious denunciation of our rulers and their servants, and his invitation to make free and infinite use of our miraculous and feeble finite means.


  1. “Speaker” refers to a language user generally, as sign language and other modalities of use indicate that vocalization is merely contingent.
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  2. Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965), 8.
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  3. The groaning of Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky provides a few pleasures, including an informative précis of Chomsky’s intellectual and institutional background, but its attempt at character assassination is unconvincing, even for a reader (like the present writer) who is by no means Chomskian.
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  4. Bernays himself is a great historical monstrosity: nephew of Sigmund Freud and great-uncle of a Netflix founder, in uniting the highest and lowest of human capacities he may be the “missing link” of human degeneration under late capitalism.
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  5. The standard, Chomskian account is given in Ann Banfield, Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1982; reprinted 2005).
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  6. The Spanish Civil War is, obviously, a historical inflection point for Chomsky, one of the defining political events of his anarchist formation. His anti-Bolshevism is wound together with the anti-Stalinism learned from that historical episode. Chomsky’s readings of Lenin can be insightful, particularly his more sympathetic treatment of the left Lenin of State and Revolution, but one also looks in vain for a rigorous account of the state in Chomsky’s work: that is, a situation in which he would have to take Lenin seriously as a political figure rather than a morally objectionable figurehead.
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  7. For Chomsky, constraint is first and foremost a matter of the internal, intrinsic capacities of the individual organism: in short, the language faculty or generative grammar. It seems reasonable to regret the absence within his work of a more historically nuanced coordination of that internal economy of freedom and constraint with Marx’s account of the dialectic of freedom and necessity (given in volume three of Capital), according to which a material basis must be secured in relation to (and as the precondition for) any historically actualized realm of freedom.
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May-June 2019, ATC 200