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BURCHILL, Scott. "Human Nature, Freedom and Political Community: An Interview with Noam Chomsky"

Wednesday 6 December 2006, by ps

Citizenship Studies 2 (Feb. 98) # 1, p. 5-21.

For Noam Chomsky ’human nature’ is a clearly defined concept, biologically endowed and largely independent of social and historical conditions. Because its deepest properties are genetically determined, for Chomsky the study of human nature ought to proceed in much the same way the functions of other bodily organs are examined. His ground-breaking research into the language faculty, which he claims is one of the more accessible attributes of human nature, revolutionised the study of linguistics and cognitive science generally in the 1950s and 1960s. However, this approach has put him at odds with those, such as behavioural scientists and existentialist philosophers, who have long argued that physical and mental development should be understood as separate processes because of the overwhelming influence of environmental conditions on the latter. It also sets him apart from some recent post-modern thinkers who deny the existence of an intrinsic human nature, arguing that our moral and political values are socially and historically determined. For his part, Chomsky still finds it odd that what we take for granted in explaining physical growth becomes so ’controversial’ in a discussion of the psychological aspects of human nature. Noam Chomsky’s understanding of human nature underwrites his conception of desirable social and political arrangements. A good society, according to Chomsky, is one ’that leads to [the] satisfaction of intrinsic human needs, insofar as material conditions allow’ (Peck, 1988, p. 195).

It should give expression to an ’instinct for freedom’, the consciousness of which gives us ’the opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibilities of freedom, diversity, and individual self-realization’ (Chomsky, 1973, pp. 395-6). Libertarian socialists and anarchists like Chomsky believe complex industrial societies can be organised within a framework of free institutions and structures leading to, in Rocker’s words, a ’federation of free communities which shall be bound to one another by their common economic and social interests and arrange their affairs by mutual agreement and free contract’. An appreciation of Chomsky’s understanding of human nature provides some important clues to his political values, specifically his attitudes towards human rights, the nation state and alternative form of political community.The interview is divided in two parts: human nature and moral behaviour, and political community and globalisation.