Noam Chomsky on How He Found His Calling
Michael Kasenbacher: The question I would like to ask is what is really wanted work? Maybe we could start with your personal life and your double career in linguistics and political activism? Do you like that kind of work?
Noam Chomsky: If I had the time I would spend far more time doing work on language, philosophy, cognitive science, topics that are intellectually very interesting. But a large part of my life is given to one or another form of political activity: reading, writing, organising, activism and so on. Which is worth doing, it's necessary but it's not really intellectually challenging. Regarding human affairs we either understand nothing, or it's pretty superficial. It's hard work to get the data and put it all together but it's not terribly challenging intellectually. But I do it because it's necessary. The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren't being paid for it. It's work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns.
MK: The philosopher Frithjof Bergmann says that most people don't know what kind of activities they really want to do. He calls that 'the poverty of desire.' I find this to be true when I talk to a lot of my friends. Did you always know what you wanted to do?
NC: That's a problem I never had - for me there was always too much that I wanted to do. I'm not sure how widespread this is - take, say, a craftsman, I happen to be no good with tools, but take someone who can build things, fix things, they really want to do it. They love doing it: 'if there's a problem I can solve it'. Or just plain physical labour - that's also gratifying. If you work on command then of course it's just drudgery but if you do the very same thing out of your own will or interest it's exciting and interesting and appealing. I mean that's why people look for work - gardening for example. So you've had a hard week, you have the weekend off, the kids are running around, you could just lie down to sleep but it's much more fun to be gardening or building something or doing something else.
It's an old insight, not mine. Wilhelm von Humboldt, who did some of the most interesting work on this, once pointed out that if an artisan produces a beautiful object on command we may admire what he did but we despise what he is - he's a tool in the hands of others. If on the other hand he creates that same beautiful object out of his own will we admire it and him and he's fulfilling himself. It's kind of like study at school - I think we all know from our experience that if you study on command because you have to pass a test you can do fine on the test but two weeks later you've forgotten everything. On the other hand if you do it because you want to find out, and you explore and you make mistakes and you look in the wrong place and so on, then ultimately you remember.
MK: So you think that basically a person knows what it is that he or she wants to do?
NC: Under the right circumstances that would be true. Children for example are naturally curious - they want to know about everything, they want to explore everything but that generally gets knocked out of their heads. They're put into disciplined structures, things are organised for them to act in certain ways so it tends to get beaten out of you. That's why school's boring. School can be exciting. It happens that I went to a Deweyite school until I was about 12. It was an exciting experience, you wanted to be there, you wanted to go. There was no ranking, there were no grades. Things were guided so it wasn't just do anything you feel like. There was a structure but you were basically encouraged to pursue your own interests and concerns and to work together with others. I basically didn't know I was a good student until I got to high school.