Avram Noam Chomsky, Ph.D (born December 7, 1928) is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, considered to be one of the most significant contributions to the field of linguistics made in the 20th Century. He also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology through his review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, in which he challenged the behaviorist approach to the study of mind and language dominant in the 1950s. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has also affected the philosophy of language and mind (see Harman, Fodor). He is also credited with the establishment of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980–1992 time period, and was the eighth most cited scholar in any time period.
Beginning with his critique of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Chomsky has become more widely known — especially internationally — for his media criticism and politics than for his linguistic theories. He is generally considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of United States politics. Chomsky is widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist and a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism (he is a member of the IWW).
Chomsky was born in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar and IWW member William Chomsky, who was from a town in Ukraine. His mother, Elsie Chomsky (born Simonofsky), came from what is now Belarus, but unlike her husband she grew up in the United States and spoke "ordinary New York English". Their first language was Yiddish, but Chomsky says it was "taboo" in his family to speak it. He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto", split into a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side", with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature". Chomsky also describes tensions he personally experienced with Irish Catholics and anti-semitism in the mid-1930s, stating, "I don't like to say it but I grew up with a kind of visceral fear of Catholics. I knew it was irrational and got over it but it was just the street experience."
Chomsky remembers the first article he wrote was at the age of ten about the threat of the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. From the age of twelve or thirteen, he identified more fully with anarchist politics.
A graduate of Central High School of Philadelphia (184th Class), in 1945 Chomsky began studying philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, learning from philosophers C. West Churchman and Nelson Goodman and linguist Zellig Harris. Harris's teaching included his discovery of transformations as a mathematical analysis of language structure (mappings from one subset to another in the set of sentences). Chomsky subsequently reinterpreted these as operations on the productions of a context-free grammar (derived from Post production systems). Harris's political views were instrumental in shaping those of Chomsky.
In 1949, Chomsky married linguist Carol Schatz. They have two daughters, Aviva (b. 1957) and Diane (b. 1960), and a son, Harry (b. 1967).
Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He conducted much of his doctoral research during four years at Harvard University as a Harvard Junior Fellow. In his doctoral thesis, he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, perhaps his best-known work in linguistics.
Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy). From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor. Chomsky has been teaching at MIT continuously for the last 50 years.
It was during this time that Chomsky became more publicly engaged in politics: he became one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War with the publication of his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in The New York Review of Books in 1967. Since that time, Chomsky has become well known for his political views, speaking on politics all over the world and writing numerous books. His far-reaching criticism of US foreign policy and the legitimacy of US power has made him a controversial figure.
Chomsky has in the past received various death threats because of his criticisms of U.S foreign policy. He was on a list created by Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, of planned targets; during the period that Kaczynski was at large, Chomsky had all of his mail checked for explosives. Chomsky also states that he frequently receives undercover police protection, in particular while on the MIT campus, though Chomsky himself states that he does not agree with the police protection.
Despite his criticisms, Chomsky has stated that he continues to reside in the United States because he believes it remains the "greatest country in the world," a comment that he later clarified by saying, "Evaluating countries is senseless and I would never put things in those terms, but that some of America's advances, particularly in the area of free speech, that have been achieved by centuries of popular struggle, are to be admired." Chomsky travels frequently, giving lectures on politics. His lectures have been described as compelling and sincere, though largely devoid of personality or emotion. Chomsky has acknowledged this criticism, seeing it more as a virtue: "I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way…I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is…People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important." "We don't want to be swayed by superficial eloquence, by emotion and so on."
Syntactic Structures was a distillation of his book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 75) in which he introduces transformational grammars. The theory takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax which can be (largely) characterized by a formal grammar; in particular, a Context-free grammar extended with transformational rules. Children are hypothesized to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages (i.e. they assume that any language which they encounter is of a certain restricted kind). This innate knowledge is often referred to as universal grammar. It is argued that modeling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" of language: with a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, humans are able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences no one has previously said.
The Principles and Parameters approach (P&P) — developed in his Pisa 1979 Lectures, later published as Lectures on Government and Binding (LGB) — make strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. (Hence the term principles and parameters, often given to this approach.) In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.
Proponents of this view argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to learn languages. The similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur (and, according to Chomsky, should be attested if a purely general, rather than language-specific, learning mechanism were being employed), are also pointed to as motivation for innateness.
More recently, in his Minimalist Program (1995), while retaining the core concept of "principles and parameters", Chomsky attempts a major overhaul of the linguistic machinery involved in the LGB model, stripping from it all but the barest necessary elements, while advocating a general approach to the architecture of the human language faculty that emphasizes principles of economy and optimal design, reverting to a derivational approach to generation, in contrast with the largely representational approach of classic P&P.
Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating the acquisition of language in children, though some researchers who work in this area today do not support Chomsky's theories, often advocating emergentist or connectionist theories reducing language to an instance of general processing mechanisms in the brain.
The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, though quite popular, has been challenged by many, especially those working outside the United States of America. Chomskyan syntactic analyses are often highly abstract, and are based heavily on careful investigation of the border between grammatical and ungrammatical constructs in a language. (Compare this to the so-called pathological cases that play a similarly important role in mathematics.) Such grammatical judgments can only be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists often focus on their own native languages or languages in which they are fluent, usually Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese or one of the Chinese languages. However, as Chomsky has said:
The first application of the approach was to Modern Hebrew, a fairly detailed effort in 1949–50. The second was to the native American language Hidatsa (the first full-scale generative grammar), mid-50s. The third was to Turkish, our first Ph.D. dissertation, early 60s. After that research on a wide variety of languages took off. MIT in fact became the international center of work on Australian Aboriginal languages within a generative framework thanks to the work of Ken Hale, who also initiated some of the most far-reaching work on Native American languages, also within our program; in fact the first program that brought native speakers to the university to become trained professional linguists, so that they could do work on their own languages, in far greater depth than had ever been done before. That has continued. Since that time, particularly since the 1980s, it constitutes the vast bulk of work on the widest typological variety of languages.
Sometimes generative grammar analyses break down when applied to languages which have not previously been studied, and many changes in generative grammar have occurred due to an increase in the number of languages analyzed. It is claimed that linguistic universals in semantics have become stronger rather than weaker over time. The existence of linguistic universals in syntax, which is the core of Chomsky's claim, is still highly disputed. Still, Richard Kayne suggested in the 1990s that all languages have an underlying Subject-Verb-Object word order. One of the prime motivations behind an alternative approach, the functional-typological approach or linguistic typology (often associated with Joseph Greenberg), is to base hypotheses of linguistic universals on the study of as wide a variety of the world's languages as possible, to classify the variation seen, and to form theories based on the results of this classification. The Chomskyan approach is too in-depth and reliant on native speaker knowledge to follow this method, though it has over time been applied to a broad range of languages.
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, 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 compiler construction and automata theory).
His best-known work in phonology is The Sound Pattern of English, written with Morris Halle (and often known as simply SPE). Though extremely influential in its day, this work is considered outdated (though it has recently been reprinted), and Chomsky does not publish on phonology anymore.
Chomsky's work in linguistics has had major implications for modern psychology. For Chomsky, linguistics is a branch of cognitive psychology; genuine insights in linguistics imply concomitant understandings of aspects of mental processing and human nature. His theory of a universal grammar was seen by many as a direct challenge to the established behaviorist theories of the time and had major consequences for understanding how language is learned by children and what, exactly, the ability to use language is. Many of the more basic principles of this theory (though not necessarily the stronger claims made by the principles and parameters approach described above) are now generally accepted in some circles.
In 1959, Chomsky published an influential critique of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book in which Skinner offered a speculative explanation of language in behavioral terms. "Verbal behavior" he defined as learned behavior which has its characteristic consequences being delivered through the learned behavior of others; this makes for a view of communicative behaviors much larger than that usually addressed by linguists. Skinner's approach focused on the circumstances in which language was used; for example, asking for water was functionally a different response than labeling something as water, responding to someone asking for water, etc. These functionally different kinds of responses, which required in turn separate explanations, sharply contrasted both with traditional notions of language and Chomsky's psycholinguistic approach. Chomsky thought that a functionalist explanation restricting itself to questions of communicative performance ignored important questions. (Chomsky-Language and Mind, 1968). He focused on questions concerning the operation and development of innate structures for syntax capable of creatively organizing, cohering, adapting and combining words and phrases into intelligible utterances.
In the review Chomsky emphasized that the scientific application of behavioral principles from animal research is severely lacking in explanatory adequacy and is furthermore particularly superficial as an account of human verbal behavior because a theory restricting itself to external conditions, to "what is learned", cannot adequately account for generative grammar. Chomsky raised the examples of rapid language acquisition of children, including their quickly developing ability to form grammatical sentences, and the universally creative language use of competent native speakers to highlight the ways in which Skinner's view exemplified under-determination of theory by evidence. He argued that to understand human verbal behavior such as the creative aspects of language use and language development, one must first postulate a genetic linguistic endowment. The assumption that important aspects of language are the product of universal innate ability runs counter to Skinner's radical behaviorism.
Chomsky's 1959 review has drawn fire from a number of critics, the most famous criticism being that of Kenneth MacCorquodale's 1970 paper On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, volume 13, pages 83–99). This and similar critiques have raised certain points not generally acknowledged outside of behavioral psychology, such as the claim that Chomsky did not possess an adequate understanding of either behavioral psychology in general, or the differences between Skinner's behaviorism and other varieties; consequently, it is argued that he made several serious errors. On account of these perceived problems, the critics maintain that the review failed to demonstrate what it has often been cited as doing. As such, it is averred that those most influenced by Chomsky's paper probably either already substantially agreed with Chomsky or never actually read it. Chomsky has maintained that the review was directed at the way Skinner's variant of behavioral psychology "was being used in Quinean empiricism and naturalization of philosophy".
It has been claimed that Chomsky's critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for the "cognitive revolution", the shift in American psychology between the 1950s through the 1970s from being primarily behavioral to being primarily cognitive. In his 1966 Cartesian Linguistics and subsequent works, Chomsky laid out an explanation of human language faculties that has become the model for investigation in some areas of psychology. Much of the present conception of how the mind works draws directly from ideas that found their first persuasive author of modern times in Chomsky.
There are three key ideas. First is that the mind is "cognitive", or that the mind actually contains mental states, beliefs, doubts, and so on. Second, he argued that most of the important properties of language and mind are innate. The acquisition and development of a language is a result of the unfolding of innate propensities triggered by the experiential input of the external environment. The link between human innate aptitude to language and heredity has been at the core of the debate opposing Noam Chomsky to Jean Piaget at the Abbaye de Royaumont in 1975 (Language and Learning. The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, Harvard University Press, 1980). Although links between the genetic setup of humans and aptitude to language have been suggested at that time and in later discussions, we are still far from understanding the genetic bases of human language. Work derived from the model of selective stabilization of synapses set up by Jean-Pierre Changeux, Philippe Courrège and Antoine Danchin, and more recently developed experimentally and theoretically by Jacques Mehler and Stanislas Dehaene in particular in the domain of numerical cognition lend support to the Chomskian "nativism". It does not, however, provide clues about the type of rules that would organize neuronal connections to permit language competence. Subsequent psychologists have extended this general "nativist" thesis beyond language. Lastly, Chomsky made the concept of "modularity" a critical feature of the mind's cognitive architecture. The mind is composed of an array of interacting, specialized subsystems with limited flows of inter-communication. This model contrasts sharply with the old idea that any piece of information in the mind could be accessed by any other cognitive process (optical illusions, for example, cannot be "turned off" even when they are known to be illusions).
Chomsky strongly disagrees with post-structuralist and postmodern criticisms of science:
I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of; those condemned here as "science", "rationality", "logic" and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me "transcend" these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed.
Chomsky believes that science is a good way to start with history and understanding human affairs:
I think studying science is a good way to get into fields like history. The reason is, you learn what an argument means, you learn what evidence is, you learn what makes sense to postulate and when, what's going to be convincing. You internalize the modes of rational inquiry, which happen to be much more advanced in the sciences than anywhere else. On the other hand, applying relativity theory to history isn't going to get you anywhere. So it's a mode of thinking.
Chomsky has also commented on critiques of "white male science", stating that they are much like the anti-Semitic and politically motivated attacks against "Jewish physics" used by the Nazis to denigrate research done by Jewish scientists during the Deutsche Physik movement:
In fact, the entire idea of "white male science" reminds me, I'm afraid, of "Jewish physics". Perhaps it is another inadequacy of mine, but when I read a scientific paper, I can't tell whether the author is white or is male. The same is true of discussion of work in class, the office, or somewhere else. I rather doubt that the non-white, non-male students, friends, and colleagues with whom I work would be much impressed with the doctrine that their thinking and understanding differ from "white male science" because of their "culture or gender and race." I suspect that "surprise" would not be quite the proper word for their reaction.
Chomskyan models have been used as a theoretical basis in several other fields. The Chomsky hierarchy is often taught in fundamental computer science courses as it confers insight into the various types of formal languages. This hierarchy can also be discussed in mathematical terms and has generated interest among mathematicians, particularly combinatorialists. A number of arguments in evolutionary psychology are derived from his research results.
The 1984 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine and Physiology, Niels K. 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".
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.
Noam Chomsky has been engaged in political activism all of his adult life and expressed opinions on politics and world events which are widely cited, publicized and discussed. Chomsky has in turn argued that his views are those which the powerful do not want to hear, and for this reason he is considered an American political dissident. Some highlights of his political views:
* Power is always illegitimate unless it proves itself to be legitimate. The burden of proof is on the authority. If it can't be proven, it should be dismantled. Authority that puts some above others is illegitimate by assumption similarly to the use of violence by a nation.
* That there isn't much difference between slavery, and renting yourself to an owner, or "wage slavery." He feels that it is an attack on personal integrity that destroys and undermines our freedoms. He holds that those that work in the mills should run them.
* Very strong criticisms of the foreign policy of the United States. Specifically, he denounces what he feels are the double standards of the US government, which result in massive human rights violations. Chomsky argues that while the U.S. may preach democracy and freedom for all, the U.S. has a history of promoting, supporting and allying itself with non-democratic and repressive organizations and states.
* He has argued that the mass media in the United States largely serve as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations, with the three parties all largely intertwined through common interests. In a famous reference to Walter Lippmann, Edward S. Herman and Chomsky have said that the American media manufactures consent among the public.
* He has opposed the U.S. global war on drugs, claiming its language to be misleading, and referring to it as "The war on certain drugs". He favors education and prevention in the issue, as opposed to military and police action.
"US domestic drug policy does not carry out its stated goals, and policymakers are well aware of that. If it isn't about reducing substance abuse, what is it about? It is reasonably clear, both from current actions and the historical record, that substances tend to be criminalized when they are associated with the so-called dangerous classes, that the criminalization of certain substances is a technique of social control."
* Critical of the American capitalist system and big business, he describes himself as a libertarian socialist who sympathizes with anarcho-syndicalism and is highly critical of Leninist branches of socialism. He also believes that libertarian socialist values exemplify the rational and morally consistent extension of original unreconstructed classical liberal and radical humanist ideas to an industrial context. Specifically he believes in a highly organized society based on democratic control of communities and work places. He believes that the radical humanist ideas of his two major influences, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, were "rooted in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, and retain their revolutionary character."
* He holds views that can be summarized as anti-war but not strictly pacifist. He prominently opposed the Vietnam War and most other wars in his lifetime. However, he maintains that U.S. involvement in World War II was probably justified, with the caveat that a preferable outcome would have been to end or prevent the war through earlier diplomacy. In particular, he believes that the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was "among the most unspeakable crimes in history".
* He has a view of broad free-speech rights, especially in the mass media; he opposes censorship and refuses to take legal action against those who may have libeled him.
Chomsky has frequently stated that there is no connection between his work in linguistics and his political views, and is generally critical of the idea that competent discussion of political topics requires expert knowledge in academic fields. In a 1969 interview, he said regarding the connection between his politics and his work in linguistics:
I still feel myself that there is a kind of tenuous connection. I would not want to overstate it but I think it means something to me at least. I think that anyone's political ideas or their ideas of social organization must be rooted ultimately in some concept of human nature and human needs. (New Left Review, 57, Sept.-Oct. 1969, p. 21)
On September 20, 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recommended Chomsky's book entitled Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. Chávez stated that it was a good book to read because it demonstrates why the greatest danger to world peace currently is the United States, causing a prolonged round of applause from the majority of the General Assembly.
Despite his Jewish heritage Chomsky has been accused of antisemitism for his views on Israel's foreign policy and involvement in the Faurisson affair, among other issues. Chomsky has argued that his actions in the Faurisson affair were limited to a defense of the rights of free expression of someone he disagrees with, and that critics subsequently subjected this limited defense to various interpretations.
In the late 1970s he was accused of apologism for the Khmer Rouge, after he and Edward S. Herman charged that publicized accounts of the Cambodian genocide, also known as the Killing Fields, in the Western media were anti-communist propaganda.
He has stated at various times how people could rightfully object to his working at MIT which is the largest non-profit US military contractor and the 12th largest military contractor overall. From Serendipity and Self-Justification: "Chomsky maintains that it was impossible at that time for MIT and its researchers to sever ties with the military-industrial complex and continue to function. What he proposed then he stands by even today: universities with departments that work on bacterial warfare should do so openly, by developing departments of death. His intention was to inform the general population of what was going on so that individuals could make informed and unencumbered decisions about their actions."
In the spring of 1969 he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University; in January 1970 he delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at Cambridge University; 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"; and in 1997, The Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom in Cape Town, among many others.
Noam Chomsky has received many honorary degrees from the most prestigious universities around the world, including the following: University of London, University of Chicago, Loyola University of Chicago, Swarthmore College, Delhi University, Bard College, University of Massachusetts, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Amherst College, Cambridge University, University of Buenos Aires, McGill University, Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Columbia University, University of Connecticut, University of Maine, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Harvard University, Universidad de Chile, University of Calcutta, Universidad Nacional De Colombia, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology. 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 Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, and others. He is twice winner of The Orwell Award, granted by The National Council of Teachers of English for "Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language".
In 2007, Chomsky will receive The Uppsala University (Sweden) Honorary Doctor's degree in commemoration of Carolus Linnaeus.
Chomsky was voted the leading living public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll conducted by the British magazine Prospect. He reacted, saying "I don't pay a lot of attention to polls". In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted seventh in the list of "Heroes of our time".