Laureation Address – Professor Noam Chomsky

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Professor Noam Chomsky
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Professor Stephen Reicher
School of Psychology
Tuesday 19 June 2012

(L-R) Prof Steve Reicher School of Psychology (laureator for Prof Chomsky), Prof Noam Chomsky, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Louise Richardson, Dame Antonia Byatt and Prof Andrew Murphy School of English (laureator for Dame Antonia)

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Professor Noam Chomsky.

Now, in presenting Noam Chomsky to you, I am faced with a dilemma. I could list his many achievements as the father of modern linguistics, godfather of the cognitive revolution, social activist, relentless critic of states and individuals who oppress and abuse. And at the end of that list, you would appreciate why he has been dubbed ‘the world’s greatest public intellectual’ and why – probably more to his liking – Noam Chomsky has been described (by Edward Said, no less) as ‘one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions’.

But there would be two problems with such a list. The first is that I simply wouldn’t have time to read it out. To give just one indication, this is the 38th honorary degree Professor Chomsky has received over 45 years. The second reason, I will come to presently. So, instead of a list, I want to talk about an idea. It is an idea which unites the various strands of Noam Chomsky’s work. It is an idea that needs, today more than ever, to be honoured. This idea is freedom.

Let me start with language. Chomskyian linguistics is sometimes presented as something complex and forbidding. But at its root is an argument that is of great power because of its great simplicity. Chomsky argues that there are a small number of rules of language which permit human beings to generate an infinite number of grammatical (and intelligible) sentences. The trick, of course, was to specify the rules, and to do that was an act of genius. But the underlying argument is one we can all understand.

Chomsky goes on to argue that human brains are inscribed with these rules. We all have a natural language faculty. That explains one of the most miraculous aspects of the human experience. I suspect most parents here, watching proudly as their sons and daughters stride the stage, will recall them as mewling babies and wonder how they came so quickly to talk and think and argue and argue back so well that now they stand with degrees in their hands from one of the world’s great universities. Well, Noam Chomsky helps us understand how. There is another point here. Often, human nature is seen as something that limits us and lessens us; something which is used to suggest that we cannot overcome our circumstances or create new worlds. But Noam Chomsky’s point is that our natural capacity for language liberates us. It allows us to utter utterances never uttered before, to think new thoughts, to contest old views and to imagine better worlds. For him, nature has provided a cognitive architecture to set us free. Human beings, he shows us, are creative, searching, self-perfecting beings.

And so, in the tradition of Kant and Rousseau and von Humboldt, Chomsky holds that there is something degrading in social systems which limit our ability to be fully human, which seek to turn us into dupes or drudges or machines. That is why he rails against the media which try to limit rather than stimulate our thought and understanding, and against governments which commit crimes against human dignity. But, for us today, there is another aspect of his argument which is perhaps more relevant. Since the 1960s and the Vietnam war, Noam Chomsky has confronted intellectuals with their responsibilities. Those of us, students and academics alike, who have the immense privilege of untrammeled enquiry, need to use our privileges well, not simply to service the status quo, but to question it and challenge it. In a time when we are told that the purpose of universities is to increase economic growth and enrich students (which is why they should pay huge fees), Chomsky offers us a far more inspiring view. The university, for him, exists to enhance critical thought, to increase freedom, to let humanity flourish. If nothing else, it means questioning whether growth means maximizing consumer goods or maximizing the values that are important for life.

I just have time left now to return to my second reason for not listing all Professor Chomsky’s many achievements. It is because, throughout his life, he has always resisted the ‘personalising principle’. He has argued that human achievements are always collective and to ignore that, to think only of yourself, your own achievements and your own benefit, is the most inhuman principle of all. So in honouring you, Professor Chomsky, we honour the principle of freedom that you articulate so powerfully. We honour the spirit of speaking truth to power without which no university has any right to call itself as such. And we honour all those you have inspired to use their creativity and take their fate into their own hands.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution both to science and to society, I invite you to confer on Professor Noam Chomsky the Degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

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