Noam Chomsky speaks as keynote at ASU philosophy club conference

The Undergraduate Philosophy Club at ASU looks to expand first ever philosophy conference into a regional event

Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and some ASU students agree.

On March 23, the Undergraduate Philosophy Club hosted its first annual ASU Undergraduate Philosophy Conference, where students from multiple disciplines shared their written philosophical work and analyses with attendees.

Aritro Majumdar, the treasurer and marketing coordinator of the club and mathematics senior, said the club wanted to hold this event at ASU because of the lack of philosophy conferences in the Southwest. 

“I love having really good, authentic conversations (and) being real and being open minded,” Majumdar said. “If you create a space like this where, even if the argument may be invalid, it’s still a good place for you to try and at least for you to just express what you’re thinking, and then try and fail.”

When the club was deciding to hold the event, Majumdar said they started to consider who they would have as their keynote speaker for the conference. 

Then, the club's vice president Mark Sharma said, “What if we ask Noam Chomsky?” 

“(Chomsky) is a philosopher in a sense," Sharma, a philosophy senior said. "He certainly focuses a lot more in political science, but very much so philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. Upon hearing that, he did accept our invitation. It honestly gave us a lot to hope to say, ‘Hey, this is going to bring a lot of focus to our club.'”

Tara Daly, a freshman double majoring in molecular biology and philosophy who spoke at the conference, said knowing Chomsky would be speaking motivated her to attend and share her philosophical essay at the event.

“I was like, 'Oh my gosh. I don’t even care about submitting my paper. I just want to see Noam Chomsky!'” Daly said. “I loved philosophy in high school, but I thought, ‘What’s the point of studying it in college?’ Now I realize it’s a passion worth pursuing.”

Following the main philosophy conference where students shared their works, UPC officers held a forum for Chomsky to speak about his linguistic studies and his philosophy of language. Guests were able to ask questions online and in person for Chomsky. 

In a questionnaire, Chomsky discussed an important idea in the theory of language to the audience.

"Almost all of your use of language is internal," he said. "Virtually all of the use of language has nothing to do with communication. The idea that language has evolved as a system of communication, or designed for communication, makes no sense."

Chomsky blamed the modern idea of behaviorism on this widely spread misconception. Historically, Chomsky has opposed famous behaviorists like B.F. Skinner.

He also answered a question on if machines think, especially with the recent emergence of A.I. technology.

"The question of if machines think is too meaningless to deserve a discussion, because we have no any idea what thinking is," Chomsky said. "Since we have no grasp of the general concept of thought, we can't really answer the general question of if we have thoughts other than those we can linguistically articulate. (Computers) do things that we call thinking, but whether they do, how do we find out?"

Sharma said after Chomsky's session that UPC hopes to work with philosophy clubs from NAU and UA to make this event greater in the future.

“We thought for the first year doing the conference, it should be ASU-based because we’re the ones starting it and Chomsky really kicked it off,” Sharma said. “We are hoping (other colleges) would make the conference become a regional conference.”

Chomsky serves as a model and inspiration to students interested in philosophy, Majumdar said.

“We can use the foundations he laid to make our own thoughts and formulate our own opinions,” Majumdar said. “(Chomsky) has done some philosophical work, and that’s not really highlighted as much in my opinion, so I think bringing him in that philosophical light is very, very fascinating.”

Majumdar credited ASU for lifting the club and supporting their conference. 

Nathanael Pierce, the president of UPC, said Noam Chomsky speaking at the event was an “enormous blessing and gift for (the) club.”

“We hope to continue what we’re doing as just a group of people with an unquenchable thirst for questions and answers who seek their answers,” Pierce said. “I expect that in the future, we’re going to have growth as a community, not (just) in numbers but also dialogue because that’s what philosophy is — it’s to build upon each other.”

Editor's Note: Mark Sharma previously worked for The State Press as an opinion columnist.

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