Noam Chomsky

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Noam Chomsky
Chomsky at an antiwar rally in Vancouver, 2004
Born (1928-12-07) December 7, 1928 (age 89)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Other names Avram Noam Chomsky
Alma mater
Era 20th/21st-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Generative linguistics, analytic philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas

Avram Noam Chomsky (/ˈnm ˈɒmski/; born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, logician,[20][21][22] social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as "the father of modern linguistics,"[23][24][25] Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy. He has spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is currently Institute Professor Emeritus, and is the author of over 100 books on politics and linguistics. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.

Born to a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family in Philadelphia, Chomsky developed an early interest in anarchism from alternative bookstores in New York City. At the age of sixteen he began studies at the University of Pennsylvania, taking courses in linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. He married fellow linguist Carol Schatz in 1949, and from 1951 to 1955 was appointed to Harvard University's Society of Fellows, where he developed the theory of transformational grammar for which he was awarded his doctorate in 1955. That year he began teaching at MIT, soon becoming a significant figure in the field of linguistics for his publications and lectures on the subject. He is credited as the creator or co-creator of the universal grammar theory, the generative grammar theory, the Chomsky hierarchy, and the minimalist program. Chomsky also played a pivotal role in the decline of behaviorism, being particularly critical of the work of B. F. Skinner.

An outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which he saw as an act of American imperialism, in 1967 Chomsky attracted widespread public attention for his anti-war essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." Becoming associated with the New Left, he was arrested multiple times for his activism and earned a place on President Richard Nixon's Enemies List. While expanding his work in linguistics over subsequent decades, he also became involved in the 'Linguistics Wars.' In collaboration with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky later developed the propaganda model of media criticism and helped to publicize the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. His defense of unconditional freedom of speech – including that of Holocaust denial – generated significant controversy in what came to be known as the Faurisson Affair. Following his retirement from active teaching, he has continued his vocal public activism, for instance opposing the U.S.-led War on Terror and supporting the Occupy movement.

Chomsky's work has been highly influential in a wide array of academic fields, with Chomsky himself being one of the most cited scholars of his generation. In addition to his continued scholarly research, he remains a leading critic of United States foreign policy, neoliberal capitalism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas in this area have proved highly influential within the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, yet have generated significant controversy, with some critics accusing Chomsky of anti-Americanism and alleging that he is sympathetic to genocide denial and despotic regimes.

Early life

Childhood: 1928–45

Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[26] His father was the Ukrainian-born William "Zev" Chomsky, an Ashkenazi Jew who had fled to the United States in 1913. Having studied at Johns Hopkins University, he went on to become school principal of the Congregation Mikveh Israel religious school, and in 1924 was appointed to the faculty at Gratz College in Philadelphia. Independently, William researched Medieval Hebrew, and would publish a series of books on the subject.[27] Chomsky's mother was the Belarusian-born Elsie Simonofsky (1903–1972), a teacher and activist whom William had met while working at Mikveh Israel.[27] Described as a "very warm, gentle, and engaging" individual, William placed a great emphasis on educating people so that they would be "well integrated, free and independent in their thinking, and eager to participate in making life more meaningful and worthwhile for all," a view subsequently adopted by his son.[28]

"What motivated his [political] interests? A powerful curiosity, exposure to divergent opinions, and an unorthodox education have all been given as answers to this question. He was clearly struck by the obvious contradictions between his own readings and mainstream press reports. The measurement of the distance between the realities presented by these two sources, and the evaluation of why such a gap exists, remained a passion for Chomsky."

Biographer Robert F. Barsky, 1997[29]

Noam was the Chomsky family's first child, while his younger brother, David Eli Chomsky, was born five years later.[30] The brothers were close, although David was more easy-going while Noam could be very competitive.[31] Chomsky and his brother were raised Jewish, being taught Hebrew and regularly discussing the political theories of Zionism; the family were particularly influenced by the Left Zionist writings of Ahad Ha'am.[30] As a Jew, Chomsky faced anti-semitism as a child, particularly from the Irish and German communities living in Philadelphia; he recalls German "beer parties" in his neighborhood celebrating the fall of Paris to the Nazis.[32]

Chomsky described his parents as "normal Roosevelt Democrats," having a centre-left position on the political spectrum, but he was exposed to far left politics through other members of the family, a number of whom were socialists involved in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.[33] He was influenced largely by his uncle who owned a newspaper stand in New York City where Jewish leftists came to debate the issues of the day.[34] Whenever visiting his relatives in New York City, Chomsky frequented left-wing and anarchist bookstores, voraciously reading political literature.[35][36] He later described his discovery of anarchism as "a lucky accident,"[37] allowing him to become critical of other radical left-wing ideologies, namely Stalinism and other forms of Marxism–Leninism.[38]

Chomsky's primary education was at Oak Lane Country Day School, an independent Deweyite institution that focused on allowing its pupils to pursue their own interests in a non-competitive atmosphere.[39] It was here that he wrote his first article, aged 10, on the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona to Francisco Franco's fascist army in the Spanish Civil War.[40] Aged 12, he moved on to secondary education at Central High School, where he joined various clubs and societies and excelled academically, but was troubled by the hierarchical and regimented method of teaching employed there.[41] From the age of 12 or 13, he identified more fully with anarchist politics.[42]

University: 1945–55

Chomsky was appointed to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, pictured in 1906

In 1945, aged 16, Chomsky embarked on a general program of study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he explored philosophy, logic, and languages and developed a primary interest in learning Arabic.[43] Living at home, he funded his undergraduate degree by teaching Hebrew.[44] However, he was frustrated with his experiences at the university, and considered dropping out and moving to a kibbutz in Mandatory Palestine.[45] His intellectual curiosity was reawakened through conversations with the Russian-born linguist Zellig Harris, whom he first met in a political circle in 1947. Harris introduced Chomsky to the field of linguistics and convinced him to major in the subject.[46] Chomsky's B.A. honors thesis was titled "Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew", and involved him applying Harris' methods to the language.[47] Chomsky revised this thesis for his M.A., which he attained at Penn in 1951; it would subsequently be published as a book.[48][49] He also developed his interest in philosophy while at university, in particular under the tutelage of his teacher Nelson Goodman.[50]

From 1951 to 1955, Chomsky was named to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, where he undertook research on what would become his doctoral dissertation.[51] Having been encouraged to apply by Goodman,[52] a significant factor in his decision to move to Harvard was that the philosopher W. V. Quine was based there; both Quine and a visiting philosopher, J. L. Austin of the University of Oxford, would strongly influence Chomsky.[53] In 1952, Chomsky published his first academic article, "Systems of Syntactic Analysis", which appeared not in a journal of linguistics but in the The Journal of Symbolic Logic.[52] Being highly critical of the established behaviorist currents in linguistics, in 1954 he presented his ideas at lectures given at the University of Chicago and Yale University.[54] Although he had not been registered as a student at Pennsylvania for four years, in 1955 he submitted a thesis to them setting out his ideas on transformational grammar; he was awarded his Ph.D. on the basis of it, and it would be privately distributed among specialists on microfilm before being published in 1975 as The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory.[55] Possession of this Ph.D. nullified his requirement to enter national service in the armed forces, which was otherwise due to begin in 1955.[56] George Armitage Miller, a Professor at Harvard, read the Ph.D. and was impressed; together he and Chomsky published a number of technical papers in mathematical linguistics.[57]

Anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker (left) and democratic socialist George Orwell (right) were both influences on the young Chomsky.

In 1947, Chomsky entered into a romantic relationship with Carol Doris Schatz, whom he had known since they were toddlers, and they married in 1949.[58] After Chomsky was made a Fellow at Harvard, the couple moved to an apartment in the Allston area of Boston, remaining there until 1965, when they relocated to the Lexington area.[59] In 1953 the couple took up a Harvard travel grant in order to visit Europe, traveling from England through France and Switzerland and into Italy.[60] On that same trip they also spent six weeks at Hashomer Hatzair's HaZore'a kibbutz; although enjoying himself, Chomsky was appalled by the Jewish nationalism and anti-Arab racism he encountered in the country, and the pro-Stalinist trend that he thought pervaded the kibbutz's leftist community.[61]

On visits to New York City, Chomsky frequented the office of Yiddish anarchist journal Freie Arbeiter Stimme, becoming enamored with the ideas of contributor Rudolf Rocker, whose work introduced him to the link between anarchism and classical liberalism.[62] Other political thinkers whose work Chomsky read included the anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán, democratic socialists George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, and Dwight Macdonald, and works by Marxists Karl Liebknecht, Karl Korsch, and Rosa Luxemburg.[63] His readings convinced him of the desirability of an anarcho-syndicalist society, and he became fascinated by the anarcho-syndicalist communes set up during the Spanish Civil War documented in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938).[64] He avidly read leftist journal Politics, remarking that it "answered to and developed" his interest in anarchism,[65] as well as the periodical Living Marxism, published by council communist Paul Mattick. Although rejecting its Marxist basis, Chomsky was heavily influenced by council communism, voraciously reading articles in Living Marxism written by Antonie Pannekoek.[66] He was greatly interested in the Marlenite ideas of the Leninist League, an anti-Stalinist Marxist–Leninist group, sharing their views that the Second World War was orchestrated by Western capitalists and the Soviet Union's "state capitalists" to crush Europe's proletariat.[67]

Early career: 1955–1966

Chomsky had befriended two linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson, the latter of whom secured him an assistant professor position at MIT in 1955. There Chomsky spent half his time on a mechanical translation project, and the other half teaching a course on linguistics and philosophy.[68] He later described MIT as "a pretty free and open place, open to experimentation and without rigid requirements. It was just perfect for someone of [his] idiosyncratic interests and work."[69] In 1957 MIT promoted him to the position of associate professor, and from 1957–58 he was also employed by Columbia University as a visiting professor.[70] That same year, Chomsky's first child, a daughter named Aviva, was born,[71] and he published his first book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, a work that radically opposed the dominant Harris-Bloomfield trend in the field.[72] The response to Chomsky's ideas ranged from indifference to hostility, and his work proved divisive and caused "significant upheaval" in the discipline.[73] Linguist John Lyons later asserted that it "revolutionized the scientific study of language."[74]

From 1958–59 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey,[75] and in 1959 he published a review of B.F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior in the journal Language, in which he argued against Skinner's view of language as learned behaviour.[76] Opining that Skinner ignored the role of human creativity in linguistics, his review helped him to become an "established intellectual,"[77] and he proceeded to found MIT's Graduate Program in linguistics with Halle. In 1961 he was made full professor of foreign language and linguistics, thereby gaining academic tenure.[78] He was appointed plenary speaker at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, held in 1962 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, which established him as the de facto spokesperson of American linguistics.[79]

He continued to publish his linguistic ideas throughout the decade, including in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1966), Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966), and Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966).[80] Along with Halle, he also edited the Studies in Language Series of books for Harper and Row.[81] He continued to receive academic recognition and honors for his work, in 1966 visiting a variety of Californian institutions, first as the Linguistics Society of America Professor at the University of California, and then as the Beckman Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.[82] His Beckman lectures would be assembled and published as Language and Mind in 1968.[83] The ensuing debates between Chomsky and his critics came to be known as the 'Linguistics Wars,' although they revolved largely around debating philosophical issues rather than linguistics proper.[84]

Rise to prominence

Anti-Vietnam War activism: 1967–1975

"[I]t does not require very far-reaching, specialized knowledge to perceive that the United States was invading South Vietnam. And, in fact, to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality [is] not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one's analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise."

Chomsky on the Vietnam War[85]

Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.[86] However, it would only be in 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on the United States' foreign policy.[87] In February he published an influential essay in The New York Review of Books titled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," in which he criticized the country's involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard's Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.[88] He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent.[89] In 1971 he gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures in Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year, with his other political books of the time including At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books.[90] Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it,[91] he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.[92]

Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, in 1967 he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon.[93] During this time Chomsky founded the anti-war collective RESIST along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald,[94] and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.[95] In 1970 he visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, and on this trip also toured Laos to visit the country's refugee camps created by the war.[96] Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement,[97] he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals.[98]

President Richard Nixon placed Chomsky on his 'Enemies List'

Supporting the student protest movement, he gave many lectures to student activist groups, but questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests.[99] Along with colleague Louis Kampf, he also began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independent of the conservative-dominated political science department.[100] His public talks often generated considerable controversy, particularly when he criticized actions of the Israeli government and military.[101] His political views came under attack from right-wing and centrist figures, the most prominent of whom was Alan Dershowitz; Dershowitz considered Chomsky to be a "false prophet of the left,"[102] while Chomsky accused Dershowitz of actively misrepresenting Chomsky's position on issues, calling Dershowitz "a complete liar"[103] and accusing him of being "on a crazed jihad, dedicating much of his life to trying to destroy my reputation."[104] As a result of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions, and U.S. President Richard Nixon included him on his Enemies List.[105] He was aware of the potential repercussions of his activism, and his wife began studying for her own Ph.D. in linguistics in order to support the family in the event of Chomsky's imprisonment or loss of employment.[106]

Although under some pressure to do so, MIT refused to fire him due to his influential standing in the field of linguistics.[107] His work in this area continued to gain international recognition: in 1967 the University of London awarded him an honorary D. Litt while the University of Chicago gave him an honorary D.H.L.[108] In 1970, Loyola University and Swarthmore College also awarded him honorary D.H.L.'s, as did Bard College in 1971, Delhi University in 1972, and the University of Massachusetts in 1973.[109] During this period he delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Memorial Lectures at Leiden University, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University.[110] In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.[110] Chomsky continued to write on the subject, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972),[107] an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972),[111] and Reflections on Language (1975).[111] In 1971 he carried out a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power.[112] Although largely agreeing with Foucault's ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes[113] and lambasting France as having "a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture."[114]

Edward Herman and the Faurisson Affair: 1976–1980

Noam Chomsky (1977)

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chomsky's publications expanded and clarified his earlier work, addressing his critics and updating his grammatical theory.[115] During the early 1970s he had begun collaborating with Edward S. Herman, who had also published critiques of the U.S. war in Vietnam.[116] Together they authored Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda, a book which criticized U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and highlighted how mainstream media neglected to cover stories about these activities; the publisher Warner Modular initially accepted it, and it was published in 1973. However, Warner Modular's parent company, Warner Communications, disapproved of the book's contents and ordered all copies to be destroyed.[117]

While mainstream publishing options proved elusive, Chomsky found support from Mike Albert's South End Press, an activist-oriented publishing company.[118] In 1979, Chomsky and Herman revised Counter-Revolutionary Violence and published it with South End Press as the two-volume The Political Economy of Human Rights.[119] In this they compared U.S. media reactions to the Cambodian genocide and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. They argued that because Indonesia was a U.S. ally, U.S. media ignored the East Timorian situation while focusing on that in Cambodia, a U.S. enemy.[120] Taking a particular interest in the situation in East Timor, Chomsky testified on the subject in front of the United Nations' Special Committee on Decolonization in both 1978 and 1979, and attended a conference on the occupation held in Lisbon in 1979.[121] The following year, Steven Lukas authored an article for the Times Higher Education Supplement accusing Chomsky of betraying his anarchist ideals and acting as an apologist for Cambodian leader Pol Pot. Although Laura J. Summers and Robin Woodsworth Carlsen replied to the article, arguing that Lukas completely misunderstood Chomsky and Herman's work, Chomsky himself did not. The controversy damaged his reputation,[122] and Chomsky maintains that his critics printed lies about him to deliberately defame him.[123]

Although Chomsky had long publicly criticized Nazism and totalitarianism more generally, his commitment to freedom of speech led him to defend the right of French historian Robert Faurisson to advocate a position widely characterized as Holocaust denial. Without Chomsky's knowledge, his plea for the historian's freedom of speech was published as the preface to Faurisson's 1980 book Mémoire en défense contre ceux qui m'accusent de falsifier l'histoire.[124] Chomsky was widely condemned for defending Faurisson,[125] and France's mainstream press accused Chomsky of being a Holocaust denier himself, refusing to publish his rebuttals to their accusations.[126] Criticizing Chomsky's position, sociologist Werner Cohn published an analysis of the affair titled Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers, although this volume contained numerous falsified claims.[127] The Faurisson Affair had a lasting, damaging effect on Chomsky's career,[128] and Chomsky didn't visit France, where the translation of his political writings was delayed until the 2000s,[129] for almost thirty years following the affair.[130]

Reaganite Era and the Media Critique: 1980–89

The election of Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency in 1981 marked a period of increased military intervention in Central America.[131] In 1985, during Nicaragua's Contra War – in which the U.S. supported the Contra militia against the Sandinista government – Chomsky travelled to Managua to meet with workers' organizations and refugees of the conflict, giving public lectures on politics and linguistics.[132] Many of these lectures would be published in 1987 as On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures.[133] In 1983 he published The Fateful Triangle, an examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the place of the U.S. within it, arguing that the U.S. had continually used the conflict for its own ends.[134] In 1988, Chomsky then visited the Palestinian territories to witness the impact of Israeli military occupation.[135]

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman published Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in which they outlined their propaganda model for understanding the mainstream media; there they argued that even in countries without official censorship, the news provided was censored through four filters which greatly impacted on what stories are reported and how they are presented.[136] The book was adapted into a 1992 film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which was directed by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick.[137] In 1989, Chomsky published Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, in which he critiqued what he sees as the pseudo-democratic nature of Western capitalist states.[138]

By the 1980s, a number of Chomsky's students had become leading linguistic specialists in their own right, expanding, revising, and innovating on Chomsky's ideas of generative grammar.[139] By the end of the 1980s, Chomsky had established himself as a globally recognized figure.[140]

Increased political activism: 1990–present

In the 1990s, Chomsky embraced political activism to a greater degree than before.[141] Retaining his commitment to the cause of East Timorese independence, in 1995 he visited Australia to talk on the issue at the behest of the East Timorese Relief Association and the National Council for East Timorese Resistance.[142] The lectures that he gave on the subject would be published as Powers and Prospects in 1996.[142] As a result of the international publicity generated by Chomsky, his biographer Wolfgang Sperlich opined that he did more to aid the cause of East Timorese independence than anyone but the investigative journalist John Pilger.[143] After East Timore's independence from Indonesia was achieved in 1999, the Australian-led International Force for East Timor arrived as a peacekeeping force; Chomsky was critical of this, believing that it was designed to secure Australian access to East Timore's oil and gas reserves under the Timor Gap Treaty.[144]

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003

Chomsky retired,[145] although as a Professor Emeritus he nevertheless continued to teach and conduct research at MIT.[146]

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Chomsky was widely interviewed, with these interviews being collated and published by Seven Stories Press in October.[147] Chomsky argued that the ensuing War on Terror was not a new development, but rather a continuation of the same U.S. foreign policy and its concomitant rhetoric that had been pursued since at least the Reagan era of the 1980s.[148] In 2003 he published Hegemony or Survival, in which he discussed what he called the U.S. "imperial grand strategy" and looked at the Iraq War and other aspects of the 'War on Terror'.[149]

Chomsky toured the world with increasing regularity during this period, giving talks on various subjects.[150] In 2001 he gave the Lakdawala Memorial Lecture in India,[150] and in 2003 visited Cuba at the invite of the Latin American Association of Social Scientists.[150] In 2002 Chomsky visited Turkey in order to attend the trial of a publisher who had been accused of treason for printing one of Chomsky's books; Chomsky insisted on being a co-defendant and amid international media attention the Security Courts dropped the prosecution on the first day.[151] During that trip, Chomsky visited Kurdish areas of Turkey and spoke out in favour of the Kurds' human rights.[151] A supporter of the World Social Forum, he attended their conferences in Brazil in both 2002 and 2003, also attending the Forum event in India.[152]

His wife, Carol, died in December 2008.[145]

Linguistic theory

“What started as purely linguistic research... has led, through involvement in political causes and an identification with an older philosophic tradition, to no less than an attempt to formulate an overall theory of man. The roots of this are manifest in the linguistic theory... The discovery of cognitive structures common to the human race but only to humans (species specific), leads quite easily to thinking of unalienable human attributes.”

Edward Marcotte on Chomsky's linguistic theory[153]

Within the field of linguistics, Chomsky is credited with helping to inaugurate the "cognitive revolution."[154] He is largely responsible for establishing the field as a formal, natural science,[155] moving it away from the procedural form of structural linguistics that was dominant during the mid-20th century.[156]

The basis to Chomsky's linguistic theory is rooted in biolinguistics, holding that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted.[157] He therefore argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences.[158] In adopting this position, Chomsky rejects the radical behaviorist psychology of B.F. Skinner which views the mind as a tabula rasa ("blank slate") and thus treats language as learned behavior.[159] Accordingly, he argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and is unlike modes of communication used by any other animal species.[160][161] Chomsky's nativist, internalist view of language is part of the philosophical school of "rationalism," and is contrasted with the anti-nativist, externalist view of language, which is part of the philosophical school of "empiricism."[162][163]

Universal grammar

Main article: Universal grammar

The Chomskyan approach towards linguistics studies grammar as an innate body of knowledge possessed by language users, often termed universal grammar.[164][165] Since the 1960s, Chomsky has maintained that syntactic knowledge is at least partially inborn, implying that children need only learn certain parochial features of their native languages.[166] Chomsky based his argument on observations about human language acquisition, noting that there is an enormous gap between the linguistic stimuli to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic knowledge they attain (see: "poverty of the stimulus" argument). For example, while a human baby and a kitten are both capable of inductive reasoning, if they are exposed to exactly the same linguistic data, the human will always acquire the ability to understand and produce language, while the kitten will never acquire either ability. Chomsky labeled whatever the relevant capacity the human has that the cat lacks as the language acquisition device (LAD), and he suggested that one of the tasks for linguistics should be to determine what the LAD is and what constraints it imposes on the range of possible human languages. The universal features that would result from these constraints constitute "universal grammar" or UG.[167][168]

Different grammatical deep structures of a sentence
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"[Chomsky's] vision of a complex universe within the mind, governed by myriad rules and prohibitions and yet infinite in its creative potential, opens up vistas possibly as important as Einstein’s theories."

Daniel Yergin in The New York Times Magazine[153]

Transformational generative grammar

Beginning with his Syntactic Structures (1957), a distillation of his Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955), Chomsky challenges structural linguistics and introduces transformational grammar.[169] This approach takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax characterized by a formal grammar; in particular, a context-free grammar extended with transformational rules.[citation needed]

Chomsky's theory posits that grammar consists of both "deep structures" and "surface structures." Surface structure "faces out" and is represented by spoken utterances, while deep structure "faces inward" and expresses the basic relations between words and conceptual meaning. The generative grammar dictates that the syntax, or word order, of surface structures adheres to certain principles and parameters, while transformational grammar “consists of a limited series of rules, expressed in mathematical notation, which transform deep structures into well-formed surface structures. The transformational grammar thus relates meaning and sound.”[153][170]

Chomsky hierarchy

Main article: Chomsky hierarchy

Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes/types,[171] or groups, with increasing expressive power, i.e., each successive class can generate a broader set of formal languages than the one before. Interestingly, Chomsky argues that modeling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy) than modeling others. For example, while a regular language is powerful enough to model English morphology, it is not powerful enough to model English syntax. In addition to being relevant in linguistics, the Chomsky hierarchy has also become important in computer science (especially in programming language,[172] compiler construction, and automata theory).[173]

Minimalist program

Main article: Minimalist program

Since the 1990s, much of Chomsky’s research has focused on what he calls the “minimalist program,” which attempted to demonstrate that the brain’s language faculties are the minimum faculties that could be expected, given certain external conditions that are imposed on us independently. Chomsky began to place less emphasis on something such as a universal grammar embedded in the human brain, and more emphasis on a large number of plastic cerebral circuits. Along with this plasticity would come an infinite number of concepts. The brain would then proceed to associate sounds and concepts, and the rules of grammar that we observe would in fact be only the consequences, or side effects, of the way that language works.[161]

Political views

"The second major area to which Chomsky has contributed - and surely the best known in terms of the number of people in his audience and the ease of understanding what he writes and says - is his work on sociopolitical analysis, political, social, and economic history, and critical assessment of current political circumstance. In Chomsky's view, while those in power might - and do - try to obscure their intentions and defend their actions in ways that make them acceptable to citizens, it is easy for anyone who is willing to be critical and consider the facts to discern what they are up to."

James McGilvray, 2014[174]

Chomsky's political views have changed little since his childhood,[175] and he adopted the emphasis on political activism that was ingrained in Jewish working-class tradition.[176] He is usually characterized as an anarcho-syndicalist and/or a socialist libertarian.[177] He views these positions not as precise political theories but as ideals which he thinks best meet the needs of humans: freedom, liberty and community, and association under the conditions of freedom.[178] Unlike some other socialists, such as those who accept Marxism, Chomsky believes that politics lies outside the remit of science.[179]

The key thrust behind much of Chomsky's political world-view is the idea that the truth has been hidden from the people by a vast propaganda machine, and that it is this truth which he wishes to expose.[180] He believes that "common sense" is all that is required to break through the lies and see the truth, if it is employed using both critical thinking skills and an awareness of the role that self-interest and self-deception plays on both oneself and on others.[181]

Although he had joined protest marches and organized activist groups, he identifies his primarily political outlet as being that of education, offering free lessons and lectures to encourage wider political consciousness.[182] He is a member of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and the Industrial Workers of the World international union.[183] Chomsky is also a member of the interim consultative committee of the International Organization for a Participatory Society, which he describes as having the potential to "carry us a long way towards unifying the many initiatives here and around the world and molding them into a powerful and effective force."[184]

Capitalism, socialism, and the United States

In his youth, Chomsky developed a dislike of capitalism and the selfish pursuit of material advancement.[185] At the same time he developed a disdain for the authoritarian attempts to establish a socialist society, as represented by the likes of Stalinism.[186] Chomsky believes that libertarian socialism should "properly be regarded as the inheritor of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment",[187] and says that his ideological position revolves around "nourishing the libertarian and creative character of the human being."[188] He contends that there is little moral difference between chattel slavery and renting one's self to an owner or "wage slavery." He feels that it is an attack on personal integrity that undermines individual freedom, and holds that workers should own and control their workplace.[189]

Chomsky highlights that since the 1970s, the U.S. has become increasingly economically unequal as a result of the repeal of various financial regulations and the rescindment of the Bretton Woods financial control agreements.[190] He characterizes the U.S. as a de facto one-party state, viewing both the Republican Party and Democratic Party as manifestations of a single "Business Party" controlled by corporate and financial interests.[191] Chomsky highlights that within Western capitalist liberal democracies, at least 80% of the population has no control over economic decisions, which are instead in the hands of a management class and ultimately controlled by a small, wealthy elite.[192] Noting that this economic system is firmly entrenched and difficult to overthrow, he believes that change is possible through the organized co-operation of large numbers of people who understand the problem and know how they want to re-organise the economy in a more equitable way.[193] Although acknowledging that corporate domination of media and government stifle any significant change to this system, he sees reason for optimism, citing the historical examples of the social rejection of slavery as immoral, the advances in women's rights, and the forcing of government to justify invasions to illustrate how change is possible.[190] He views violent revolution to overthrow a government as a last result to be avoided if possible, citing the example of historical revolutions where the population's welfare has worsened as a result of the upheaval.[192]

He has stated his opposition to ruling elites, among them institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and GATT.[194]

United States foreign policy

Chomsky believes that the basic principle of the foreign policy of the United States is the establishment of "open societies" which are economically and politically controlled by the U.S. and where U.S.-based businesses can accordingly prosper.[195] He believes that 'official,' sanctioned historical accounts of U.S. and British imperialism have consistently whitewashed their actions in order to present them as having benevolent motives in either spreading democracy or, in older instances spreading Christianity; criticizing these accounts, he seeks to correct them.[196] Prominent examples that he regularly cites are the actions of the British Empire in India and Africa, and the actions of the U.S. in Vietnam, the Philippines, Latin America, and the Middle East.[196]

Part of the reason why he focuses most of his criticism on the U.S. is because during his lifetime the country has militarily and economically dominated the world, and because its liberal democratic electoral system allows for the citizenry to exert an influence on government policy.[190] His hope is that by spreading awareness of the negative impact that imperialism has on the populations affected by it, he can sway the population of the U.S. and other countries into opposing government policies that are imperialist in their nature.[196] He urges people to criticize the motivations, decisions, and actions of their governments, to accept responsibility for one's own thoughts and actions, and to apply the same standards to others as one would apply to oneself.[197]

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Chomsky has long endorsed the left binationalist program, seeking to create a democratic state in the Levant that is home to both Jews and Arabs.[198] However, acknowledging the realpolitik of the situation, Chomsky has also considered a two state solution on the condition that both nation-states exist on equal terms.[199] As a result of his views on the Middle East conflict, Chomsky has been officially banned from entering Israel since 2010.[200]


Chomsky has also been active in a number of philosophical fields, including the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of science.[201] In these fields he has been highly critical of many other philosophers, in particular those operating within the field of cognitive science.[201]

Personal life

Chomsky endeavors to keep his family life, linguistic scholarship, and political activism strictly separate from one another,[202] stating that he is "scrupulous at keeping [his] politics out of the classroom."[203] An intensely private person,[204] he is uninterested in appearances and the fame that his work has brought him.[205] He also has little interest in modern art and music.[206] He reads four or five newspapers daily; in the U.S., he subscribes to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Christian Science Monitor.[207] He characterizes himself as a "worker," albeit one who uses his intellect as his employable skill.[145] He acknowledges that his income and the financial security that it accords him means that he lives a privileged life in comparison to the majority of the world's population.[208]

Chomsky is non-religious, although he has expressed approval of forms of religion such as liberation theology.[209] He is known for his "dry, laconic wit," and has attracted controversy for labeling established political and academic figures with terms like "corrupt," "fascist," and "fraudulent."[210] Chomsky's colleague Steven Pinker noted that he "portrays people who disagree with him as stupid or evil, using withering scorn in his rhetoric," and that this contributes to the extreme reactions that he generates from his critics.[211] He avoids attending academic conferences, including left-oriented ones such as the Socialist Scholars Conference, preferring to speak to activist groups or hold university seminars for mass audiences.[212]

Chomsky was married to Carol Doris Schatz (Chomsky) from 1949 until her death in 2008.[213][214] They had three children together: Aviva (b.1957), Diane (b.1960), and Harry (b.1967).[215] In 2014, Chomsky married Valeria Wasserman.[216]

Reception and influence

"[Chomsky] has become the most cited living author of our time, and he is among the top ten authors of all time. His voice is heard in academia beyond linguistics and philosophy: from computer science to neuroscience, from anthropology to education, mathematics and literary criticism. If we include Chomsky's political activism then the boundaries become quite blurred, and it comes as no surprise that Chomsky is increasingly seen as enemy number one by those who inhabit that wide sphere of reactionary discourse and action."

Sperlich, 2006[217]

Chomsky's legacy is as both a "leader in the field" of linguistics and "a figure of enlightenment and inspiration" for political dissenters.[218] Despite his academic success, his political viewpoints and activism have resulted in him being mistrusted by the academic and political establishments, and he has been treated as being "on the outer margin of acceptability."[219]

In academia

Linguist John Lyons remarked that within a few decades of publication, Chomskyan linguistics had become "the most dynamic and influential" school of thought in the field.[220] His work in automata theory has become well known in computer science and he is much cited within the field of computational linguistics.[221] By the 1970s, his work had also come to exert a considerable influence on philosophy.[222] Chomskyan models have been used as a theoretical basis in various fields of study; the Chomsky hierarchy is often taught in fundamental computer science courses as it confers insight into the various types of formal languages, and this hierarchy has also generated interest among mathematicians, particularly combinatorialists. Some arguments in evolutionary psychology are derived from his research results.[223] Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was the subject of a study in animal language acquisition at Columbia University, was named after Chomsky in reference to his view of language acquisition as a uniquely human ability.[224]

The 1984 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine and Physiology, Niels Kaj Jerne, used Chomsky's generative model to explain the human immune system, equating "components of a generative grammar… with various features of protein structures." The title of Jerne's Stockholm Nobel Lecture was "The Generative Grammar of the Immune System".[225]

Chomsky has been a highly influential academic figure throughout his career, and was cited within the Arts and Humanities Citation Index more often than any other living scholar from 1980 to 1992.[226] His linguistic work has influenced a wide range of domains, including artificial intelligence,[227] cognitive science,[228] computer science,[229][230] logic,[231] mathematics, music theory and analysis,[232][233][234] psychology,[235] and immunology.[225] He has been described as "arguably the most important intellectual alive,"[236] and academia regards him as a paradigm shifter who "contributed substantially to a major methodological shift in the human sciences, turning away from the prevailing empiricism of the middle of the twentieth century."[237]

In politics

Chomsky biographer Wolfgang B. Sperlich characterizes the linguist and activist as "one of the most notable contemporary champions of the people,"[204] while journalist John Pilger described him as a "genuine people's hero; an inspiration for struggles all over the world for that basic decency known as freedom. To a lot of people in the margins – activists and movements – he's unfailingly supportive."[211] Arundhati Roy called him "one of the greatest, most radical public thinkers of our time,"[238] and Edward Said thought him to be "one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions."[211] Fred Halliday stated that by the start of the 21st century, Chomsky had become a "guru" for the world's anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements.[211] The propaganda model of media criticism that he and Herman developed has been widely accepted in radical media critiques and adopted to some level in mainstream criticism of the media,[239] also exerting a significant influence on the growth of alternative media, including radio, publishers, and the internet, which in turn have helped to disseminate his work.[240]

"[Chomsky's] become the guru of the new anti-capitalist and Third World movements. They take his views very uncritically; it's part of the Seattle mood – whatever America does is wrong. He confronts orthodoxy but he's becoming a big simplifier. What he can't see is Third World and other regimes that are oppressive and not controlled by America."

Fred Halliday, 2001[211]

However, Sperlich notes that Chomsky has been vilified by corporate interests, particularly in the mainstream press.[146] University departments devoted to history and political science rarely include Chomsky's work on their syllabuses for undergraduate reading.[241] German newspaper Der Spiegel described him as "the Ayatollah of anti-American hatred,"[146] while conservative commentator David Horowitz termed him "the most devious, the most dishonest and... the most treacherous intellect in America", one whose work was infused with an "anti-American dementia" and which evidences Chomsky's "pathological hatred of his own country".[242] Writing in Commentary magazine, the journalist Jonathan Kay described Chomsky as "a hard-boiled anti-American monomaniac who simply refuses to believe anything that any American leader says".[243]

His criticism of Israel has led to him being accused of being a traitor to the Jewish people and an anti-Semite.[244] Criticising Chomsky's defence of Holocaust deniers on the grounds of freedom of speech, Werner Cohn accused Chomsky of being "the most important patron" of the Neo-Nazi movement,[245] while the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accused him of being a Holocaust denier himself.[246] The Electronic Intifada website claims that the Anti-Defamation League "spied on" Chomsky's appearances, and quotes Chomsky as being unsurprised at that discovery or the use of what Chomsky claims is "fantasy material" provided to Alan Dershowitz for debating him. Amused, Chomsky compares the ADL's reports to FBI files.[247] The ADL have also characterised him as a "dupe of intellectual pride so overweening that he is incapable of making distinctions between totalitarian and democratic societies, between oppressors and victims."[246] In turn, Chomsky has claimed that the ADL is dominated by "Stalinist types" who oppose democracy in Israel.[244]

The Guardian said of Chomsky's debating ability, "His boldness and clarity infuriates opponents—academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him on."[248][249]

His far-reaching criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and the legitimacy of U.S. power have raised controversy.[250] He has often received undercover police protection at MIT and when speaking on the Middle East, although he has refused uniformed police protection.[251]

Academic achievements, awards, and honors

By 2005, Chomsky possessed around thirty honorary degrees, awards, and prizes.[252] In early 1969, he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University; in January 1970, the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at University of Cambridge; in 1972, the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi; in 1977, the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden; in 1988 the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto, titled "Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies"; in 1997, The Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom in Cape Town,[253] in 2011, the Rickman Godlee Lecture at University College, London,[254] and many others.[255]

Chomsky has received honorary degrees from many colleges and universities around the world, including from the following:

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. In addition, he is a member of other professional and learned societies in the United States and abroad, and is a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal, the Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award, the 1999 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, and others.[276] He is two-time winner of The Orwell Award, granted by The National Council of Teachers of English for "Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language", receiving the honor in both 1987 and 1989.[277]

He is a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Department of Social Sciences.[278]

In 2004 Chomsky received the Carl-von-Ossietzky Prize from the city of Oldenburg, Germany to acknowledge his body of work as a political analyst and media critic.[279] In 2005, Chomsky received an honorary fellowship from the Literary and Historical Society.[280] In 2007, Chomsky received The Uppsala University (Sweden) Honorary Doctor's degree in commemoration of Carl Linnaeus.[281] In February 2008, he received the President's Medal from the Literary and Debating Society of the National University of Ireland, Galway.[282] Since 2009 he is an honorary member of IAPTI.[283]

In 2010, Chomsky received the Erich Fromm Prize in Stuttgart, Germany.[284] In April 2010, Chomsky became the third scholar to receive the University of Wisconsin's A.E. Havens Center's Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship.[285]

The Megachile chomskyi holotype, a bee that was named after Chomsky

Chomsky has an Erdős number of four.[286]

Chomsky was voted the world's leading public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll jointly conducted by American magazine Foreign Policy and British magazine Prospect.[287] In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted seventh in the list of "Heroes of our time."[288]

Actor Viggo Mortensen with avant-garde guitarist Buckethead dedicated their 2006 album, called Pandemoniumfromamerica, to Chomsky.[289] In 2013, a newly described species of bee was named after him: Megachile chomskyi.[290]

On January 22, 2010, a special honorary concert for Chomsky was given at Kresge Auditorium at MIT. The concert, attended by Chomsky and dozens of his family and friends, featured music composed by Edward Manukyan and speeches by Chomsky's colleagues, including David Pesetsky of MIT and Gennaro Chierchia, head of the linguistics department at Harvard University.[291][292]

In June 2011, Chomsky was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, which cited his "unfailing courage, critical analysis of power and promotion of human rights."[293] Also in 2011, Chomsky was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI's Hall of Fame for "significant contributions to the field of AI and intelligent systems."[227][294]

Bibliography and filmography

See also



  1. Safty 1994.
  2. Noam Chomsky (September 22, 2011). Noam Chomsky on the Responsibility of Intellectuals: Redux. Ideas Matter. Event occurs at 09:23. Retrieved October 16, 2011. 
  3. Chomsky, Noam (1996). Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian. London: Pluto Press. pp. 28–29. The real importance of Carey's work is that it's the first effort and until now the major effort to bring some of this to public attention. It's had a tremendous influence on the work I've done. 
  4. Robert F. Barsky (1998). "3". Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. MIT Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-262-52255-7. 
  5. Wolfgang B. Sperlich (2006). Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-1-86189-269-0. 
  6. Brent D. Slife (1993). Time and Psychological Explanation: The Spectacle of Spain's Tourist Boom and the Reinvention of Difference. SUNY Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-7914-1469-9. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Carlos Peregrín Otero, ed. (1994). Noam Chomsky: Critical Assessments, Volumes 2–3. Taylor & Francis. p. 487. ISBN 978-0-415-10694-8. 
  8. "Noam Chomsky Reading List". Left Reference Guide. Retrieved 8 January 2014. 
  9. Noam Chomsky. "Personal influences, by Noam Chomsky (Excerpted from The Chomsky Reader)". Retrieved 2013-05-29. 
  10. Hugh LaFollette, Ingmar Persson, ed. (2013). The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (2 ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-51426-9. 
  11. William D. Hart. Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture. Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-77810-7. 
  12. Stephen Prickett (2002). Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism Versus Irony, 1700–1999. Cambridge University Press. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-521-00983-6. 
  13. John R. Searle (June 29, 1972). "A Special Supplement: Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics". NYREV, Inc. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Chomsky Amid the Philosophers". University of East Anglia. Retrieved 8 January 2014. 
  15. Gould, S. J. (1981). "Official Transcript for Gould's deposition in McLean v. Arkansas". (Nov. 27).
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  19. Keller, Katherine (November 2, 2007). "Writer, Creator, Journalist, and Uppity Woman: Ann Nocenti". Sequential Tart.
  20. Edwin D. Reilly (2003). Milestones in Computer Science and Information Technology. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-1-57356-521-9. In 1956, the logician Noam Chomsky showed that there are only four basically different forms Church-Turing thesis of grammar, which, in decreasing order of sophistication, he called grammars of Type 0, 1, 2, and 3. . Viewed July 15, 2012.
  21. H. L. Somers (2003). Sergei Nirenburg, H. L. Somers, Yorick Wilks, ed. Readings in Machine Translation. MIT Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-262-14074-4. I think that this should be of sufficient interest to warrant some more detailed exhibition, especially since this insight is due to an important new, not to say revolutionary, view of the structure of language, recently outlined by the American linguist and logician Noam Chomsky [2], and could perhaps, in its turn and in due time, be turned into a new method of machine translation, which would be more complex than the known ones but also more effective. . Viewed July 15, 2012.
  22. Carlos Peregrín Otero, ed. (1994). Noam Chomsky: Critical Assessments, Volume 1; Volume 3. Taylor & Francis. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-415-10693-1. Chomsky is a professional linguist, a competent mathematical logician, and a trained methodologist with a keen critical sense and an uncanny ability to follow the most abstruse mathematical argument or, if necessary, to produce one himself. 
  23. Fox, Margalit (December 5, 1998). "A Changed Noam Chomsky Simplifies". New York Times. Retrieved October 7, 2014. Mr. Chomsky... is the father of modern linguistics and remains the field's most influential practitioner. 
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