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Noam Chomsky
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Noam Chomsky

Dr. Avram Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages. Outside of his linguistic work, Chomsky is also widely known for his left-wing political views, in particular his criticism of the foreign policy of United States governments.

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Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Contributions to linguistics
3 Contributions to psychology
4 Criticism of science culture
5 Political views
6 Criticism


Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar William Chomsky. Starting in 1945, he studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, learning from Zellig Harris, a professor of linguistics whose political views he identified with.

Receiving his Ph.D in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, Chomsky had conducted most of his research the previous 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 linguistic field.

After receiving his doctorate, Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 19 years, receiving the first award from the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and linguistics. It was during this time that Chomsky became more publicly engaged in politics, arguing against American involvement in the Vietnam War from around 1964. In 1969, Chomsky published American Power and the New Mandarins, a book of essays also on the Vietnam War. Since that time, Chomsky has become well known for his political views, speaking on politics all over the world, and writing several other books on the subject. His beliefs, broadly classified as libertarian socialism, have earned him both a large following among the left, as well as many detractors on all sides of the political spectrum. He has continued to write and teach on linguistics also.

Contributions to linguistics

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 (words, phrases, and sentences) to correspond to abstract "surface structures," which in turn correspond to more abstract "deep structures." (The hard and fast distinction between surface and deep structure is absent in current versions of the theory.) Transformational rules, along with phrase structure rules and other structural principles, govern both the creation and interpretation of utterances. With a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, man is able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences nobody has ever said before. The capability to structure our utterances in this way is innate, a part of the genetic endowment of human beings, and is called universal grammar. We are largely unconscious of these structural principles, as we are of most other biological and cognitive properties.

Recent theories of Chomsky's (such as his Minimalist Program) make strong claims regarding universal grammar — that the grammatical principles underlying languages are completely fixed and innate, 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) and morphemes, and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.

This approach is motivated by the astonishing pace at which children 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 is being employed).

Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating language development in children, but most researchers who work in this area do not support Chomsky's theories, often preferring emergentist or connectionist theories based around general processing mechanisms in the brain. However, this is true of researchers in almost any branch of linguistics, and there is ongoing work on language acquisition from a Chomskyan perspective.

Generative grammar

The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, though quite popular, has been challenged by many, especially those working outside of the United States. 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 grammaticality judgments can only be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists usually (but by no means exclusively) focus on their own native languages or languages in which they are fluent, usually English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese or one of the Chinese 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 analysed. However, the claims made about language universals have become stronger rather than weaker over time; for example Kayne's suggestion in the 1990s that all languages have an underlying Subject-Verb-Object word order would have seemed implausible in the 1960s. One of the prime motivations behind an alternative approach, the functional-typological approach or linguistic typology (often associated with Joseph H. Greenberg), is to base hypotheses of linguistic universals on the study of as wide a variety of the world's languages as possible, classifying the variation seen, and forming 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 hierarchy

Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal language, and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes 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 modelling 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), as it has important ties to and isomorphisms with automata theory.

His seminal work in phonology was The sound pattern of English. He published it together with Morris Halle. This work is considered outdated (though it has recently been reprinted), and he does not publish on phonology anymore.

Contributions to psychology

Chomsky's work in linguistics has had major implications for psychology and its fundamental direction in the 20th century. His theory of a universal grammar was 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, is the ability to interpret language. 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 1959, Chomsky published a long-circulated critique of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book in which the leader of the behaviorist psychologists that had dominated psychology in the first half of the 20th century argued that language was merely a "behavior." Skinner argued that language, like any other behavior — from a dog salivating in anticipation of dinner, to a master pianist performance — could be attributed to "training by reward and penalty over time." Language, according to Skinner, was completly learned by cues and conditioning from the world around the language-learner.

Chomsky's critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for a revolution against the behaviorist doctrine that had governed psychology. 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 other 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. The former view had denied even this, arguing that there were only "stimulus-response" relationships like "If you ask me if I want X, I will say yes". By contrast, Chomsky showed that the common way of understanding the mind, as having things like beliefs and even unconscious mental states, had to be right. Second, he argued that large parts of what the adult mind can do are "innate". While no child is born automatically able to speak a language, all are born with a powerful language learning ability which allows them to soak up several languages very quickly in their early years. Subsequent psychologists have extended this thesis far beyond language; the mind is no longer considered a "blank slate" at birth.

Finally, 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).

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".

Criticism of science culture

Chomsky has written strong refutations of deconstructionist 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 notes that critiques of "white male science" 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." [1]

Political views

Chomsky is one of the most well-known figures of the left-wing American politics. He defines himself in the tradition of anarchism, a political philosophy he summarizes as challenging all forms of hierarchy and attempting to eliminate them if they are unjustified. He especially identifies with the labor-oriented anarcho-syndicalist current of anarchism. Unlike many anarchists, Chomsky does not always object to electoral politics; he has even endorsed candidates for office. He has described himself as a "fellow traveller" to the anarchist tradition as opposed to a pure anarchist to explain why he is sometimes willing to engage with the state.

Chomsky has also stated that he considers himself to be a conservative (Chomsky's Politics, pp. 188) presumably of the classical liberal variety. He has further defined himself as a Zionist; although, he notes that his definition of Zionism is considered by most to be anti-Zionism these days; the result of what he perceives to have been a shift (since the 1940s) in the meaning of Zionism (Chomsky Reader). In a C-Span Book TV interview, he stated:

"I have always supported a Jewish ethnic homeland in Palestine. That is different from a Jewish state. There's a strong case to be made for an ethnic homeland, but as to whether there should be a Jewish state, or a Muslim state, or a Christian state, or a white state — that's entirely another matter."

Overall, Chomsky is not fond of traditional political titles and categories and prefers to let his views speak for themselves. His main modes of actions include writing magazine articles and books and making speaking engagements. He has a large following of supporters worldwide, leading him to schedule speaking engagements sometimes up to two years in advance. He was one of the main speakers at the 2002 World Social Forum.

Chomsky on terrorism

Chomsky clearly distinguishes between the targeting of civilians and the targeting of military personnel or installations, thereby demonstrating that in his view causes, reasons or goals do not justify acts of terrorism. For Chomsky, terrorism is objective, not relative. He states in his book 9-11:

"Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism." (pp. 76)

On the efficiency of terrorism:

"One is the fact that terrorism works. It doesn't fail. It works. Violence usually works. That's world history. Secondly, it's a very serious analytic error to say, as is commonly done, that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Like other means of violence, it's primarily a weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly, in fact. It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems and their terror doesn't count as terror. Now that's close to universal. I can't think of a historical exception, even the worst mass murderers view the world that way. So take the Nazis. They weren't carrying out terror in occupied Europe. They were protecting the local population from the terrorisms of the partisans. And like other resistance movements, there was terrorism. The Nazis were carrying out counter terror."

Criticism of the United States government

He has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the
United States government. In his book 9-11, a series of interviews about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he claims, as he has done before, that the United States government is the leading "terrorist" state in modern times.

Chomsky has criticized the government for its involvement in the Vietnam War and the larger Indochina conflict, as well as its interference in Central and South American countries and its military support of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Chomsky focuses his most intense criticism on official friends of the United States government while criticizing official enemies like the former Soviet Union and the North Vietnam only in passing. He explains this by the following principle: it is more important to evaluate actions which you have more possibility of affecting. His criticism of the former Soviet Union and China must have had some effect in those countries; both countries banned his work from publication.

Chomsky has repeatedly emphasized his theory that much of the United States' foreign policy is based on the "threat of a good example" (which he says is another name for the domino theory). The "threat of a good example" is that a country could successfully develop independently from capitalism, and the United States' influences, thus presenting a model for other countries, including countries in which the United States has strong economic interests. This, Chomsky says, has prompted the United States to repeatedly intervene to quell "socialist" or other "independence" movements in regions of the world where it has no significant economic or safety interests. In one of his most famous works, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Chomsky uses this particular theory as an explanation for the United States' interventions in Guatemala, Laos, Nicaragua, and Grenada.

Chomsky believes the US government's Cold War policies were not entirely shaped by anti-Soviet paranoia, but rather to preserve the United States' ideological and economic dominance in the world. As he wrote in Uncle Sam: "...What the US wants is 'stability,' meaning security for the "upper classes and large foreign enterprises."

Views on socialism

Chomsky is deeply opposed to the system of "corporate state capitalism" practiced by the United States and its allies. He supports the Mikhail Bakunin view of socialism, requiring economic freedom in addition to the "control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions." He refers to this as "real socialism", and describes Soviet-style socialism as similar in terms of "totalitarian controls" to the US-style capitalism —each is a system based in types and levels of control, rather than in organization or efficiency. (In defense of this thesis, Chomsky sometimes points out that Frederick Winslow Taylor's philosophy of scientific management was the organizational basis for the Soviet Union's massive industrialization movement as well as the American corporate model.)

Chomsky has illuminated Bakunin's comments on the totalitarian state as predictions for the brutal Soviet police state that would come. He echoes Bakunin's statement "...after a year" [..] "the revolutionary will become worse than the czar himself," which expands upon the idea that the tyrannical Soviet state was simply a natural growth from the Bolshevik ideology of state control. He has also termed Soviet communism as "fake socialism," and said that contrary to what many in the United States claim, the collapse of the Soviet Union should be regarded "a small victory for socialism," not capitalism.

In For Reasons of State Chomsky advocates that instead of a capitalist system in which people are "wage slaves" or an authoritarian system in which decisions are made by a centralized committee, a society could function with no paid labor. He argues that a nation's populace should be free to pursue jobs of their choosing. People will be free to do as they like, and the work they voluntarily choose will be both "rewarding in itself" and "socially useful." Society would be run under a system of peaceful anarchism, with no "state" or "government" institutions.

Mass media analysis

Another focus of Chomsky's political work has been an analysis of mainstream media (especially in the United States), its structures and constraints, and its role in supporting big business and government interests. Unlike totalitarian systems, where physical force can be readily used to coerce the general population, democratic societies like the US can only make use of non-violent means of control (despite minor instances of state violence). In an often-quoted remark, Chomsky states that "propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state." (Media Control) His book Manufacturing Consent -- The Political Economy of the Mass Media, co-authored with Edward S. Herman, explores this topic in depth, and presents the theory behind the analysis incorporated in subsequent works (see Propaganda model).

Chomsky and the Middle East

Chomsky "grew up...in the Jewish-Zionist cultural tradition" (Peck, p. 11). His father was one of the foremost scholars of the Hebrew language and taught at a religious school. Chomsky has also had a long fascination with and involvement in left-wing Zionist politics. As he described:

"I was deeply interested in...Zionist affairs and activities — or what was then called 'Zionist,' though the same ideas and concerns are now called 'anti-Zionist.' I was interested in socialist, binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had developed in the Jewish settlement there (the Yishuv)...The vague ideas I had at the time [1947] were to go to Palestine, perhaps to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework, opposed to the deeply antidemocratic concept of a jewish state (a position that was considered well within the mainstream of Zionism)." (Peck, p. 7)

He is extremely critical of the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians and ethnic minority Jewish populations within Israel. Among many articles and books, his book The Fateful Triangle is considered one of the premier texts among those who oppose Israeli treatment of Palestinians and American support for Israel. He has also condemned Israel's role in "guiding state terrorism" for selling weapons to Latin American countries that he characterizes as U.S. puppet states, e.g. Guatemala in the 1970s, as well as US-backed right-wing paramilitaries (or, according to Chomsky, terrorists) such as the Nicaraguan Contras--see Iran-Contra Scandal. (What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Chapter 2.4) In addition, he has repeatedly and vehemently condemned the United States for its military and diplomatic support for Israel, and sectors of the American Jewish community for their role in obtaining this support. For example, he says of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

"The leading official monitor of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, interprets anti-Semitism as unwillingness to conform to its requirements with regard to support for Israeli authorities.... The logic is straightforward: Anti-Semitism is opposition to the interests of Israel (as the ADL sees them).

"The ADL has virtually abandoned its earlier role as a civil rights organization, becoming 'one of the main pillars' of Israeli propaganda in the U.S., as the Israeli press casually describes it, engaged in surveillance, blacklisting, compilation of FBI-style files circulated to adherents for the purpose of defamation, angry public responses to criticism of Israeli actions, and so on. These efforts, buttressed by insinuations of anti-Semitism or direct accusations, are intended to deflect or undermine opposition to Israeli policies, including Israel's refusal, with U.S. support, to move towards a general political settlement." Necessary Illusions

Middle East Politics, speech Columbia University 1999


Accusations of anti-semitism

Despite being Jewish, Chomsky has been accused of being anti-semitic on several occasions. Three people in particular have made this allegation:

One of the most common charges is that the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is theoretical, and in practice anti-Zionism is a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

Chomsky's support for Holocaust survivor Israel Shahak, author of , a book that claims that Orthodox Judaism is a fundamentally chauvinistic religion, has led to more accusations of anti-semitism, as have his criticisms of Jewish activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Chomsky rejects charges of anti-semitism, arguing that the definition presented by Israeli apologists is itself racist and ethnocentric. In a 2003 New York Times interview, he said, "It is a shame that critics of Israeli policies are seen as either anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. It's grotesque. If an Italian criticized Italian policies, would he be seen as a self-hating Italian?" [1] Chomsky often expresses disappointment at certain Jews' support for policies that disregard humanist and traditional Jewish principles.

Other criticisms

Chomsky has been involved in many public disagreements over policy and scholarship. For example, when Chomsky and Herman wrote After the Cataclysm, Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, a book claiming that the American media used unsubstantiated refugee testimonies and distorted sources it relied on, in regard to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime, his apparent unwillingness to acknowledge that atrocities were being committed caused some critics, such as Anthony Lewis, to attack him as being a Pol Pot apologist. Chomsky's views on the Cambodia situation changed as facts were revealed, but he ultimately argued that focusing on Pol Pot's atrocities did little more than serve to take away attention from what he described as "comparable American atrocities." He also denied that Cambodian violence was inspired by Marxist ideology, and argued that the United States in fact helped Pol Pot rise to power. Some scholars who reviewed this controversy, such as Milan Rai, consider it to be propaganda designed to generate "endless defence" in response to the critics, in order to distract attention from the substantive issues.

Chomsky's conservative critics often accuse him of being rather close-minded in his analysis of facts and history. Such critics accuse him of always writing from a pre-determined thesis that the US government is vicious and oppressive, and that its actions in foreign countries are always completely unjustified. They say Chomsky is overly harsh on American foreign policy makers, and rarely offers any background or context on the "atrocities" he chronicles. Critics claim that he does not criticize or discuss America's enemies or their actions very often in his texts, which, they argue, results in a very one-sided view of history. Chomsky's critics therefore argue that Chomsky frequently uses selective quotes and out-of-context facts in his pursuit to always paint the actions of the United States in the worst possible light. Chomsky for his part has repeatedly said that criticizes the US because it is his country, and thus the one he can most likely change. He also believes there is a defficency in contemporary US criticism, and argues that criticism of other regimes has already been tackled by other authors, whom he quotes and supports.

Chomsky has been criticized as being a conspiracy theorist, for his often elaborate explanations of the US government's "concealed" motivations, which some critics view as unsubstantiated. He considers this criticism completely unfounded, as he himself is a critic of the conspiracy-mindedness of some of the left (regarding things like the Kennedy assassination). He says people's lack of knowledge of government policy is usually more due to their laziness in informing themselves regarding policy, than some supposed secret conspiracy to withhold information from them, since most of the information is in the public domain.

Chomsky has been criticized by various leftist groups too. He is criticized for being an anti-communist, for characterizing the Soviet Union as a state-capitalist tyranny while ignoring social benefits that people in that society may have had, and holding the Soviet Union to unreasonably high standards when it needed to protect itself from "western subversions" (as his critics put it). He has been criticized for being anti-Marxist, since he is critical of dogmatic Marxism, regarding it as a "religion" [1], and is strongly against historical determinism. He is also criticized for being a sellout anarchist, as he doesn't categorically oppose participating in current systems that are imperfect in his view, such as electoral politics.

Chomsky was criticized for citing reports from both Human Rights Watch and the German Embassy when he alleged that the US attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory killed thousands of Sudanese civilians. Allegations [1] were made that Human Rights Watch had made no such estimates, to which Chomsky has responded [1].

Quotes regarding Chomsky


See a full bibliography on Chomsky's MIT homepage [1].



Selected works

About Chomsky

See also:

External links

Official sites

Unofficial archives

Select speeches and interviews

Select articles