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Syntax and Democracy: Noam Chomsky

Central, then, to Rawls's political theory is a syntactic proposition about the self—a distinction between "me" and "mine"—a syntactic distinction which is then transposed into an ontological distinction. I use the word "syntax" advisedly, knowing that the word is not neutral but heavily accented by its association with Noam Chomsky, an association which, as it happens, Rawls himself has likewise remarked upon. He calls attention, indeed, to a parallel between his theory of justice and Chomsky's theory of linguistics. Both, he says, operate at some remove from "familiar common sense precepts," and both involve "principles and theoretical constructs which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life."[26] And both aspire, we might add, to a level of noncontingency which can only be found in what Chomsky calls a "formalized general theory."[27] I want to explore further this point of contact between Chomsky and Rawls, as a way to focus more precisely on the linguistic properties of Rawls's language of justice. Chomsky is uniquely helpful here, for not only is he a formidable practitioner in both linguistics and democratic politics, but his syntactic theory, in its ambitions and limits,


also casts an admonitory light on the ambitions and limits of a syntax of political personhood.

Chomsky begins his challenge to traditional linguistics by taking issue with its self-conception as a taxonomic discipline; he urges, instead, that a proper study of language should focus not on its classifications but on its "generative" character. And for him, syntax above all is what makes a natural language "generative"—because it not only assigns structural properties to the semantic and phonological components of a sentence but also enables us to substitute words within the same structural category, and so to create an infinite number of new sentences, all equally rule observing and all syntactically equivalent. Substitutability and interchangeability, in short, are the central generative features of syntax. They make syntax the wellspring of language, its source of perpetual renewal as well as perpetual regularity. Indeed, for Chomsky, syntax represents not only the deep structure of sentences in one particular language but also (in its "transformational" capacity) the deep structure of all natural languages. It is the foundation of a "universal grammar," common to all human beings, at work in all mental processes, and indistinguishable from human cognition itself.

Chomsky's virtual equation of syntax and cognition, of course, comes at the expense of semantics, a time-honored area of linguistic (and philosophical) inquiry.[28] Chomsky, however, is openly impatient of semantic analysis, an impatience having to do, I suspect, with the way he defines the objectives of linguistics and the way he delimits its domain. While it is, "of course, impossible to prove that semantic notions are of no use in grammar," Chomsky cannot help pointing out that the "correspondences . . . between formal and semantic features in language" are so "imperfect" and "inexact" that "meaning will be relatively useless as a basis for grammatical description." For that reason, "grammar is best formulated as a self-contained study independent of semantics."[29] In short, semantics is not a fruitful object of study for Chomsky because, being always at the mercy of context, it is highly erratic, cannot sustain a grammar, does not lend itself to formalizable rules, and does not exhibit the properties of substitutability and interchangeability, whereas syntax does.[30]

Chomsky's elevation of syntax over semantics, in turn, opens outward into a set of definitional demarcations that map out the domain of linguistics as he understands it, demarcations that assign primacy,


in every instance, to terms that are universal and noncontingent. Chomsky thus distinguishes between competence and performance , arguing that linguistics can adequately study only the former, only the grammatical knowledge common to all speakers of a natural language, rather than the specific verbal behavior of some particular user.[31] He also argues that language is primarily a vehicle of thought, an activity self-sufficient unto itself, rather than a vehicle of communication, an activity dependent on an audience.[32] And since he equates syntactic knowledge with cognitive capability, he also argues, most controversially of all, that linguistic competence is innate, that it resides in a congenital faculty of language, unindebted to educational input and environmental influence. Putting himself squarely in the camp of the rationalist tradition associated with Descartes,[33] Chomsky thus turns language acquisition itself into a noncontingent phenomenon, "free from the control of detectable stimuli, either external or internal,"[34] not varying with particular environments or even with particular individuals. It is instead a guaranteed feature of human cognition, uniformly and universally present to all, "independen[t] of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state."[35]

Chomsky's peculiar insistences might be better gauged, I think, if we contrast him briefly with the later Wittgenstein, whose position on natural language, on grammar, and on grammatical rules is close enough to Chomsky's for their divergences to be instructive. Like Chomsky, Wittgenstein believes that grammatical description is constitutive of thought, that "grammar tells us what kind of object anything is."[36] Also like Chomsky, he believes that the "various transformations and consequences of the sentence" are possible only "in so far as they are embodied in a grammar," a grammar which "has the same relation to the language as the description of a game, the rules of a game, have to the game."[37] Unlike Chomsky, however, Wittgenstein has no desire to produce a foundational theory of grammar, no desire to locate a necessary basis for syntactic knowledge in human cognition. He argues, to the contrary, that "grammar is not accountable to any reality" and that the "only correlate in language to an intrinsic necessity is an arbitrary rule."[38] Language cannot be foundational for Wittgenstein because it is an artifact rather than a guarantee, a form of mediation rather than a form of emanation, and can only render back to us our customs, our communities, our shared agreements about how things are. It has its being not in the innate-


ness of cognition but in the socialness of convention; or, as Wittgenstein puts it in his famous dictum, "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life."[39]

Against Wittgenstein's emphatic rejection of the innateness of language, Chomsky's equally emphatic assertion of that innateness becomes all the more striking. He has been savagely attacked, in fact, on just this point.[40] Questioned about this in an interview with the New Left Review , Chomsky replies:

I would like to assume on the basis of fact and hope on the basis of confidence in the human species that there are innate structures of mind. If there are not, if humans are just plastic and random organisms, then they are fit subjects for the shaping of behaviour. If humans only become as they are by random changes, then why not control that randomness by the state authority or the behaviourist technologist or anything else?[41]

For Chomsky, then, "innate structures of mind" are above all a defense against the threats of "randomness," which for him mean especially political threats, threats from the state against its citizens. It is in this context, against the historical gravity of that threat, that we can best understand his foundationalist impulse, his desire to locate and to affirm linguistic "principles that are universal by biological necessity and not mere historical accident."[42] An unlearned competence, an innate grammar, a knowledge of syntax embedded in human cognition—these issues, brilliantly technical as they are, are nonetheless not strictly technical for Chomsky. They are so many bulwarks against the political vulnerabilities of human life, against the intolerable odds in favor of tyranny and oppression. And so, even though Chomsky's acknowledged intellectual debt is Cartesian rather than Kantian,[43] we might nonetheless speak of a categorical imperative in his linguistic theory, a desire to imagine an ethical domain free from contingency, free from the less than benign presence of the arbitrary, and free, for that reason, to pass judgment on the arbitrary. For him as for Rawls, the postulate of an ontological given—a guaranteed linguistic knowledge, a guaranteed deliberative rationality—is also the founding moment of political faith. And it is from this point of faith, this point of ethical inviolability, that the contingencies of politics might be adjudged, amended if necessary, resisted if necessary.[44] Chomsky's linguistic theory, then, like Rawls's political theory, is a


tribute to, a protest against, and a self-conscious battle with that all-too-elusive, all-too-ubiquitous demon of luck, whether it inheres in the "lottery" of life or whether it inheres in the "randomness" of unjust regimes. And ultimately the triumph of democracy is measured by the elimination of luck: by replacing its inequities and irregularities with something like a syntax of justice, so that the political subject can finally resemble the grammatical subject, its basic rights as uniform and as categoric as the structural properties of the latter.

The language of justice, then, for Chomsky as for Rawls, is very much a language of syntax. In Wittgensteinian terms, we might also think of this language as a descriptive "net,"[45] held out to the world to capture it and to render it intelligible, a net, in this case, made of necessarily coarse mesh, since it is meant to retrieve from the world only those features that are invariant, features that can yield a foundational principle. This is what I mean by its linguistic "porousness." The language of justice, precisely because it is a language of syntax, a language of structural guarantee , demands from the world a grammatical uniformity. It prohibits irregularities, and it also ignores miracles, occurrences so extraordinary as to exceed its grammatical description. It is thus a language of the lowest common denominator, one that, if adopted, would explain why we might have no quarrel with the world. But it would not explain why we might love the world.

For the world is indeed not lovable within the language of justice, being less like a world than like a grid. And most gridlike of all is the self conceived in its image, a self so thinly constituted and minimally featured that it too is not exactly lovable. The language of justice equips us only to act in those domains where we can think of one another as categoric persons: as possessors of equal rights, claimants of analogous liberties, recipients of similar attention. It cannot explain why we make friends with some and not others, fall in love with some and not others, talk to some and not others. Or rather, it can explain those things only by setting them aside, as matters of preference, unworthy of ethical or political consideration. In this sense, the language of justice not only aspires to transform the world into a grammar, a collection of syntactic subjects, it also enjoins us to treat actual persons as if they were syntactic ones, attending only to those features structurally assigned and formally generalizable.[46]

Within such a grammar, human attachment thus becomes some-


thing of an enigma, a conceptual puzzle. For given the thinness of the subject, it is not at all clear how that attachment is to be anchored, let alone what it is anchored to, or what inferences one might draw from its being anchored to one particular object and not to another. Rawls, oddly, remains untroubled by this problem; in a passage memorable for its equanimity, he writes:

The active sentiments of love and friendship, and even the sense of justice, arise from the manifest intention of other persons to act for our good. Because we recognize that they wish us well, we care for their well-being in return. Thus we acquire attachments to persons and institutions according to how we perceive our good to be affected by them. The basic idea is one of reciprocity, a tendency to answer in kind. . . . For surely a rational person is not indifferent to things that significantly affect his good; and supposing that he develops some attitude toward them, he acquires either a new attachment or a new aversion.[47]

The key word here is clearly "a rational person," liberally defined, for it is only under the most liberal definition that love and friendship can proceed with such commendable regularity, as an exchange of goodwill beneficial to both partners: routine, unvarying, matter-of-fact. There is nothing arbitrary about the loves of the rational person; they are strictly proportionate, strictly accountable, always "answering in kind" to the love he receives. His outgoing affection will always match the incoming goodwill. And, since it is a category of sentiment—rather than some particular individual—that he is responding to, we can assume that substitutability and interchangeability will be guaranteed features of his affective life. Without much exaggeration, then, we might call Rawls's "rational person" a grammatical subject, for his affections are happily rule observing, governed by a generative syntax that not only maintains a structural form but also endlessly renews that form by substituting any given term with an infinite number of syntactic equivalents.

If this sounds jarring, no doubt it is because we are not always so grammatical in love and friendship. A theory of formal universals, in this case, is virtually a parody of itself. Rawls, of course, is not the only philosopher to have trouble making ethical sense of affective preferences. As Gregory Vlastos has pointed out, personal affection also fares badly in Plato, for whom the highest form of love turns out to be "one furthest removed from affection for concrete human beings."[48]


Even so, there is something particularly comical, particularly threadbare, about Rawls's account of love and friendship. Michael Sandel, one of Rawls's ablest commentators, has seized upon just this point not only to highlight the unpersuasive thinness of the Rawlsian self but also to put forward a sustained critique of the language of justice, focusing especially on its inability to account for the phenomenon of friendship except as a secondary (and indeed derivative) virtue. The thinness of the Rawlsian self means that it will have no responsive chord, that its capacity for friendship will always be limited by its "restricted access to the good of others," so that "every act of friendship thus becomes parasitic on a good identifiable in advance."[49]

My own critique of the language of justice, while indebted to Sandel's, will focus less on its trivialization of love and friendship than on its tendency to locate these phenomena in a relation of externality to itself, as that which philosophy is not and cannot be concerned with. I have in mind not only Rawls's respectful dismissal of love and friendship as "higher-order sentiments,"[50] higher than the supposedly lowly domain of political philosophy, but also the obsessively repetitive pages in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals , where Kant insists, over and over again, that "the highest and unconditioned good can alone be found" in those instances when one acts "not from inclination, but from duty." Kant concedes that there might be those who actually "take delight in the contentment of others as their own work," but "an action of this kind, however right and however amiable it may be, has still no genuinely moral worth."[51] Indeed, for him, the only genuinely moral person is someone who does good not because he likes to but because he has no fondness for it, someone who is

cold in temperament and indifferent to the sufferings of others—perhaps because, being endowed with the special gift of patience and robust endurance in his own sufferings, he assumed the like in others or even demanded it. . . . It is precisely in this that the worth of character begins to show—a moral worth and beyond all comparison the highest—namely, that he does good, not from inclination, but from duty.[52]

Kant's moral agent, then, confronts a world he does not love, but which, for just that reason, he is bent on fulfilling his duty toward. To the extent that Kant remains the central figure in Western philosophy,


the language of justice is thus centrally premised on the opposition between "duty" and "inclination": the former acquiring the status of ethical sufficiency, the latter suffering the fate of ethical dismissibility. And to the extent that these principles of sufficiency and dismissibility do not coincide with what attaches most of us to the world, the language of justice must render a good part of our lives ethically meaningless. The return of the repressed, then, can appear only as a fatal contradiction, a fatal clashing of opposing claims: between democratic equality on the one hand and affective preferences on the other, between our political need for formal universals and our emotional attachment to substantive particulars. Since philosophy is unhelpful on this point, I turn now to two other genres of texts, literary and theological, to investigate within their confines the terms of this contradiction and, through their alternative traditions, to explore further some other, possibly more complex, possibly more nuanced ways of thinking about justice, in which "inclination" might have a place.

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