Noam Chomsky Essay - Critical Essays

Chomsky, Noam

Introduction

Noam Chomsky 1928-

(Full name Avram Noam Chomsky) American linguist, nonfiction writer, essayist, lecturer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Chomsky's career through 1999.

Hailed as one of the most brilliant and influential intellectuals of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky has attracted international renown for his groundbreaking research into the nature of human language and communication. A prolific scholar and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his work produced what is referred to as the “Chomskyan Revolution,” a wide-reaching intellectual realignment and debate with implications that transcend formal linguistics to include psychology, philosophy, and even genetics. Chomsky is also an impassioned political dissenter whose controversial criticism of American society, the mass media, and foreign policy—especially its effects on ordinary citizens of Third World nations—is the subject of many of his books since 1969.

Biographical Information

Born in Philadelphia, Chomsky was the oldest of two sons raised by parents William Chomsky, a Hebrew scholar of considerable repute, and Elsie Simonofsky, a Hebrew scholar and author of children's books. A precocious child, Chomsky took an early interest in Semitic languages, Jewish culture, and international affairs, particularly the prewar Zionist movement. After graduating from Central High School in Philadelphia, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and linguistics. There he came under the tutelage of Zellig Harris, a noted professor of linguistics, marking the beginning of Chomsky's career in that field. The school of structural linguistics in which Chomsky took his collegiate training held as its goal the formal and autonomous description of languages without wide reference to the meaning—or semantics—of utterances. Chomsky questioned this approach in his early work as a student at the University of Pennsylvania and broke with it more radically during the early 1950s. After completing his B.A. in 1949, Chomsky remained at the University of Pennsylvania to earn an M.A. in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1955. He married Carol Schatz, a linguist, in 1945, with whom he shares several children. From 1951 to 1955, Chomsky was supported by junior fellowships from the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, where he was immersed in new developments in mathematical logic, the abstract theory of thinking machines, and the latest psychological and philosophical debates. These ideas led him to develop further his earlier work on generative grammar and to pose new questions that challenged established linguistic scholarship. Chomsky took a teaching position at M. I. T. in 1955, where he has remained as a professor of modern languages and linguistics for more than four decades. He attracted widespread recognition in the academic community with his first book, Syntactic Structures (1957). In addition to his important research during the 1960s, Chomsky emerged as an outspoken critic of American military action in Vietnam, the subject of American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), and a major figure of the radical Left. He has since published many additional books in the fields of linguistics, social science, psychology, and government policy. Chomsky has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and has appeared as a visiting professor at major universities throughout the world. He was awarded the prestigious Kyoto Prize in Basic Science in 1988.

Major Works

In Syntactic Structures Chomsky introduced his pioneering linguistic theories concerning the acquisition and fundamental understanding of language. Refuting the prevailing theories of structuralist linguistics and behavioral psychology, Chomsky posited that language is not limited to a fixed corpus of learned utterances but consists of an infinitely variable system of “transformational-generative grammar.” Chomsky adapted this concept from mathematics; generative systems refer to the process of producing an infinite number of proofs from a single postulate through principles of inference. By working with rudimentary sentences and shifting the focus on syntactic processes and systems rather than analysis and classification of specific linguistic units, Chomsky revolutionized the study of language. As Chomsky notes, one's ability to grasp the meaning of an unfamiliar sentence or phrase demonstrates that language is not understood in strictly empirical or inductive terms but functions upon a system of limited rules that facilitates infinite creativity. His mathematically precise description of some of human language's most striking features lead to his belief that language acquisition is an innate ability and that all of the world's languages share certain “deep structures” that are genetically encoded. Chomsky's theories exerted a significant influence beyond the field of linguistics, particularly in related branches of psychology and philosophy. While his research reinforces the philosophical tradition of “rationalism,” the contention that the mind, or “reason,” contributes to human knowledge beyond what is gained by experience, it opposes “empiricism,” the view that all knowledge, including language, derives from external stimuli; Chomsky dismisses the empiricist argument in Language and Problems of Knowledge (1987). The basic premises of his theories have also made him one of the most trenchant critics of behaviorism, the view that suggests all human responses are learned through conditioning. Chomsky further developed his linguistic theories in Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966), Sound Patterns of English (1968), co-authored with Morris Halle, Language and Mind (1968), Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), Knowledge of Language (1986), and Language and Thought (1994).

Chomsky established himself as a forceful political dissenter with American Power and the New Mandarins. In this book he levels harsh criticism against the imperialistic values and foreign policy failures that led to American military involvement in Southeast Asia. The book's strongest vitriol is directed toward those so-called “New Mandarins”—the technocrats, bureaucrats, and university-trained scholars who defend America's right to dominate the globe. Chomsky also attacked the undeclared war in At War with Asia (1970), in articles, and from the podium; in the process he became better known for his political views than for his linguistic scholarship. Subsequent Chomsky books on American foreign policy have explored other political hotbeds around the world, including the Middle East in The Fateful Triangle (1983), drawing the conclusion that U.S. interests in human rights, justice, and morality are inevitably subordinated to the needs of big business. The very narrowness of public discussion is the subject of Deterring Democracy (1991), a book in which Chomsky examines how, regardless of the facts, the American mass media and the United States government conspire to limit the range of opinions that can be widely expressed. Chomsky discusses, for example, the fact that mainstream public opinion embraced only specific kinds of debates regarding the Sandinista government and the Contras in Nicaragua; he shows that the vast majority of lawmakers and reporters disagreed only as to which methods should be employed to rid that country of its communist leaders—no serious attention was given to the debate about whether the Sandinistas or the U.S.-backed Contras would best serve the people of Nicaragua. Chomsky also addresses the American government's “war on drugs.” Chomsky examines the U.S. government's propaganda campaign supporting its various “successes” and describes the positive news coverage these victories receive. He concludes that no substantial discussion arises about the effects of this war on the countries involved, and he bitterly denounces the ironic policy of the United States government of threatening trade sanctions against those East Asian countries that block the importing of U.S. tobacco, a product that is proven to be deadly. Manufacturing Consent (1988), co-authored with Edward S. Herman, examines the various ways in which news organizations ultimately serve the ideological aims of the government. Chomsky and Herman propose a “propaganda model” of the mass media in the United States; countering the commonly held belief that the mass media tend to respond to rather than create public opinion, the two authors argue that the major American news organizations actively misinform the public about the activities of the United States government. Chomsky has published many other volumes of sociopolitical critique in which he denounces the hypocrisy and prevailing ideology of American culture, the media, and democracy. Among them are Towards a New Cold War (1982), Turning the Tide (1985), The Culture of Terrorism (1988), Necessary Illusions (1989), and World Orders, Old and New (1994). Many of Chomsky's views and main themes are also outlined in Chronicles of Dissent (1992), a collection of interviews conducted with David Barsamian from 1984 to 1991, and The Chomsky Reader (1987).

Critical Reception

An independent-minded and enormously gifted thinker, Chomsky is widely recognized as one of the foremost intellectuals of the postwar era. He was named one of the thousand “makers of the twentieth century” by the London Times in 1970. A 1993 survey of the Arts and Humanities Citation Index also revealed that he was the most frequently cited living author, ranked eighth on the all-time list behind Plato and Sigmund Freud. Chomsky's highly original work as a linguist, particularly in Syntactic Structures, is credited with establishing the scientific study of language and exerting a profound interdisciplinary effect on the social sciences. The wide-reaching influence of his scholarship on contemporary philosophy, psychology, literary criticism, and anthropology has been referred to as the “Chomskyan Revolution,” a paradigm shift compared to the intellectual upheavals precipitated by René Descartes, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. Though most scholars praise the novelty and range of Chomsky's thought, he has received criticism for his rationalist perspective and emphasis on the genetic basis of language and learning, which, according to his detractors, reduces human behavior to a series of biologically predetermined activities. Chomsky's anarchist-libertarian political writings have elicited even greater controversy than his linguistic theories. Inevitably, American Power and the New Mandarins drew scathing criticism from those who oppose his views and high praise from those who agree with him. Subsequent works such as The Fateful Triangle and Deterring Democracy similarly received mixed evaluation, with reviewers finding fault in Chomsky's polemical tone and one-sided distortions. While many critics appreciate Chomsky's unwavering commitment to freedom in all its forms—intellectual, political, economic, social, and artistic—others have been less sanguine about the quality and influence of Chomsky's political views; in fact, some have labeled him a pariah and attempted to discredit him on a number of grounds. Branded as a “self-hating” Jew for his criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, Chomsky also attracted outrage and censure for defending the right to free expression of Robert Faurisson, a French neo-Nazi scholar who wrote an essay denying the historical reality of the Holocaust. Chomsky became increasingly alienated from the mainstream media during the 1970s, but has remained a popular lecturer on college campuses and an icon of radical activism. He was a vocal opponent to the Gulf War in 1991. Despite the mixed reception of his political commentary, Chomsky's major contribution to the study of linguistics and language acquisition remains undisputed.

Principal Works

Syntactic Structures (nonfiction) 1957

Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (nonfiction) 1964

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (nonfiction) 1965

Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (nonfiction) 1966

Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (nonfiction) 1966

Language and Mind (nonfiction) 1968

Sound Patterns of English (nonfiction) 1968

American Power and the New Mandarins (nonfiction) 1969

At War with Asia (nonfiction) 1970

Problems of Knowledge and Freedom:...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Criticism

John Searle (essay date 29 June 1972)

SOURCE: “Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics,” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972, pp. 16-24.

[In the following excerpt, Searle provides an overview of Chomsky's theories about language and their impact and influence on the study of linguistics. While hailing the importance of Chomsky's insights into the structure of syntax, Searle finds inadequacies in the semantic component of his linguistic theory.]

I

Throughout the history of the study of man there has been a fundamental opposition between those who believe that progress is to be made by a rigorous observation of man's actual behavior and those who believe that such observations...

(The entire section is 9675 words.)

Bernard Williams (review date 11 November 1976)

SOURCE: “Where Chomsky Stands,” in New York Review of Books, November 11, 1976, pp. 43-5.

[In the following review of Chomsky's Reflections on Language and Gilbert Harman's On Noam Chomsky, William provides discussion of Chomsky's linguistic studies, critical reaction to his theses, and some political implications of his ideas.]

Since the publication of Syntactic Structures nineteen years ago the general shape of Chomsky's position in linguistic theory has become familiar. The subject, as he conceives it, is a branch of cognitive psychology; its basic problem is posed by the human capacity to acquire a natural language, something which Chomsky...

(The entire section is 3178 words.)

Ian Hacking (review date 23 October 1980)

SOURCE: “Chomsky and His Critics,” in New York Review of Books, October 23, 1980, pp. 47-50.

[In the following review of Rules and Representations and Language and Learning, Hacking provides analysis of Chomsky's linguistic innovations, critical challenges to his conclusions, and discussion of Chomsky's debate with Swiss scholar Jean Piaget.]

From time to time, ever since Plato, grammar has been more than the bane of schoolchildren or a topic for scholars. It owes its present prominence outside linguistics to some theses stated twenty-five years ago by Noam Chomsky. There is, he said, a universal grammar common to all human languages. Children are...

(The entire section is 4520 words.)

Ken Richardson (review date 2 January 1981)

SOURCE: “Aboard Noam's Ark,” in New Statesman, January 2, 1981, p. 68.

[In the following review, Richardson discusses Chomsky's elaboration of his linguistic concepts in Rules and Representations and the publication of two critical commentaries related to Chomsky's work.]

Even the proverbial person-in-the-street must be aware that something exciting is going on in the scientific investigation of language. For the academic, however, the subject is boiling and the name of the prime instigator of all the excitement, Noam Chomsky, looms very large. Indeed his name is very rarely absent from any philosophical debate today, and probably comes top of a...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

Walter Laqueur (review date 24 March 1982)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Adolescence,” in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 12, March 24, 1982, pp. 37-9.

[In the following review of Towards the New Cold War, Laqueur finds serious flaws in Chomsky's factual distortions and political idealism, despite crediting Chomsky as an interesting and impassioned intellectual.]

There are, roughly speaking, two ways to review Mr. Chomsky's book [Towards the New Cold War]. One is to look for a particularly absurd statement or factual mistake (not necessarily of great relevance) early on in the book—for instance, the bomb explosion at the Munich Octoberfest in 1980, to which the author refers more than once....

(The entire section is 2074 words.)

William Steif (review date June 1984)

SOURCE: “Impasse in the Middle East,” in The Progressive, Vol. 48, No. 6, June, 1984, pp. 40-1.

[In the following review, Steif offers positive evaluation of The Fateful Triangle, which he praises as “a powerful and thoroughly documented tract.”]

Each day's news brings fresh evidence of the disastrous policies the United States and its surrogate, Israel, pursue in the Middle East. The development of those policies over the past half-century, and their role in the continuing victimization of the Palestinian people, is the theme of Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle.

Many American liberals will hate this book. People like Arthur...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Alan Tonelson (review date 13 April 1986)

SOURCE: “Institutional Structure Blues,” in New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1986, p. 28.

[In the following review, Tonelson offers unfavorable assessment of Turning the Tide, citing flaws in Chomsky's polemical tone and unwillingness to propose viable alternatives to the contemporary foreign policy he condemns.]

Today, in the flush of the Reagan era, it is easy to forget America's debt to the New Left scholars and writers who have explored the dark side of American history, politics and foreign policy. This loosely knit band of thinkers has been much less successful, however, at turning its findings into a convincing wholesale indictment of current...

(The entire section is 1111 words.)

Noam Chomsky with Jim Peck (interview date July 1987)

SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky: An American Dissident,” in The Progressive, Vol. 51, No. 7, July, 1987, pp. 22-5.

[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses his political views, objection to the Vietnam War, alternatives to Western capitalist society, and the problem of public ignorance concerning politics and international affairs.]

Noam Chomsky, Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is widely regarded as the world's foremost authority in the field of structural linguistics. Since the mid-1960s, he has also been one of America's leading political dissidents, particularly in his outspoken criticism of U.S. policy...

(The entire section is 3680 words.)

Peter Osborne (review date 11 March 1988)

SOURCE: “Don't Look Away,” in New Statesman, March 11, 1988, p. 33.

[In the following review, Osborne discusses Chomsky's political activities and offers positive assessment of The Chomsky Reader and The Culture of Terror.]

There was much concern among American political scientists in the late 1970s about the spread of something they called “Vietnam Syndrome”. This was not, as might be supposed, anything to do with the US government's apparently incurable tendency to intervene militarily in the internal affairs of foreign states. Rather, it was a condition taken to be affecting the American people themselves: a morbid aversion to the consequences of just...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Brian Morton (review date 7 May 1988)

SOURCE: “Chomsky Then and Now,” in The Nation, May 7, 1988, pp. 646-52.

[In the following review of The Chomsky Reader and The Culture of Terrorism,Morton provides an overview of Chomsky's controversial political writings and activities and his largely unfavorable critical reception.]

If only for the role he played during the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky should be honored as a national hero. His later work requires delicate assessment … but let's begin at the beginning.

The antiwar movement was composed of several different strands. Many young people romanticized the National Liberation Front, cherishing visions of the gentle land...

(The entire section is 6065 words.)

Edward P. Stabler, Jr. (review date September 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Knowledge of Language and Language and Problems of Knowledge, in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 56, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 533-36.

[In the following review, Stabler provides favorable assessment and summary of Chomsky's Knowledge of Language and Language and Problems of Knowledge.]

Noam Chomsky has recently produced two more books about language for a general audience. (Earlier works of a similar character include Cartesian Linguistics (1966); Language and Mind (1968); Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (1971); Reflections on Language (1975); Language and Responsibility (1977); and Rules...

(The entire section is 2126 words.)

Noam Chomsky with Rick Szykowny (interview date November-December 1990)

SOURCE: “Bewildering the Herd,” in The Humanist, Vol. 50, No. 6, November-December, 1990, pp. 8-17.

[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses contemporary world affairs, including U.S.-Iraq tensions shortly before the Gulf War, and the negative influence of the American mass media as a force of institutional propaganda and political misrepresentation.]

Reading the mainstream media, you'd never know that, for over 20 years, Noam Chomsky has been considered by many to be the most important political thinker in the United States. He is the author of American Power and the New Mandarins, Towards a New Cold War, On Power and Ideology, The...

(The entire section is 8477 words.)

Phil Edwards (review date 5 July 1991)

SOURCE: “The Lone Arranger,” in New Statesman and Society, July 5, 1991, p. 35.

[In the following review, Edwards offers positive assessment of Deterring Democracy, though finds fault in Chomsky's “browbeating style.”]

The late Napoleon Duarte, president of El Salvador, was a right-wing Christian Democrat—demonstrably so after 1980, when a quarter of his party left and joined the guerrillas. At the time of the mid-1980s election in which Duarte lost power, the BBC news characterised him as “left of centre”. Given that the only candidate to Duarte's right was a neo-fascist, this is a bit like calling Harvey Proctor a Red. A veil of normality had to...

(The entire section is 735 words.)

Matthew Rothschild (review date October 1991)

SOURCE: “Impassioned Advocate,” in The Progressive, Vol. 55, No. 10, October, 1991, pp. 39-43.

[In the following review, Rothschild offers positive evaluation of Deterring Democracy, though he cites weaknesses in Chomsky's tendency toward conspiracy theory and contradictory portrayal of the American public's relationship to the media.]

Noam Chomsky is the leading dissident in the United States. For twenty years, he has provided the most coherent left-wing analysis of U.S. foreign policy and the most trenchant critique of the mainstream media.

Though Chomsky has become almost a cult figure on campuses and in many progressive circles, he is a...

(The entire section is 3810 words.)

Noam Chomsky with Charles M. Young (interview date 28 May 1992)

SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky: Anarchy in the U.S.A.,” in Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992, pp. 42, 45-7, 70-3.

[In the following interview, preceded by an overview of Chomsky's career, Chomsky discusses his political and social views, his objection to media control and ideology, and his book Deterring Democracy.]

When Michael Albert went to Poland in 1980, he discovered that the Poles assumed there were two Noam Chomskys. “In linguistics, he's the Freud,” says Albert, Chomsky's editor at Z Magazine and a friend since the Sixties, when Albert, then a physics student, was organizing antiwar protests at MIT. “All the branches of modern linguistics stem from his work....

(The entire section is 7618 words.)

Ron Grossman (essay date 1 January 1993)

SOURCE: “Strong Words,” in The Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1993, p. 1.

[In the following essay, Grossman provides an overview of Chomsky's career, achievements in the field of linguistics, and controversy surrounding his political views and activities.]

Somehow, Noam Chomsky has managed to make himself both the Pied Piper and the odd man out of the ivory tower.

His fellow professors of linguistics divide history into two ages, B.C. and A.D.: Before Chomsky and After his Discoveries. In 1987, he won Japan's prestigious academic prize, the $285,000 Kyoto Award, for the revolutionary theory of language with which he essentially created modern...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)

Richard Wolin (review date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: “Noam on the Range,” in Dissent, Vol. 42, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 419-23.

[In the following review of World Orders, Old and New, Wolin finds fault in Chomsky's biased portrayal of the American government as a wholly negative, “monolithic” power structure.]

Toward the third hour of the hagiographic documentary about Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, a moment of truth emerges. Chomsky is lecturing at the University of Wyoming. He has just finished his familiar stump speech: fifty reasons why we live in a totalitarian society. Striving to revive the old thesis about American society as a form of “soft totalitarianism,” Chomsky argues...

(The entire section is 2821 words.)

Robert F. Barsky (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, MIT Press, 1997, pp. 201-17.

[In the following essay, Barsky provides an overview of Chomsky's linguistic studies, political engagement, and critical reception since the 1980s.]

In the early 1980s, Chomsky made important progress in his linguistic work, which led him to embark upon what has been described as a “new program.” The products of this are recorded in Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures (1981), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (1986), Barriers (1986), and, finally, in a more accessible form, in Language and Problems of Knowledge: The...

(The entire section is 5164 words.)

Neve Gordon (review date 14 June 1999)

SOURCE: “Neoliberals' Paleomarkets,” in The Nation, June 14, 1999, pp. 34, 36.

[In the following review, Gordon offers positive evaluation of Profit Over People, though notes contradictions concerning the incompatibility of social justice and free trade.]

In a book of interviews published a few years ago, Chronicles of Dissent, Noam Chomsky recounted a childhood incident that shaped his life. One day during first grade, a group began taunting a fat boy from his class. Chomsky wanted to defend him but fled instead. Following the event he was totally ashamed, and he determined never again to run away. “That's the feeling that stuck with me,” he...

(The entire section is 1201 words.)

Noam Chomsky with David Barsamian (interview date September 1999)

SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky,” in The Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 33-7.

[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses critical disapproval of his views, media manipulation, Gulf War propaganda, inconsistent and hypocritical condemnations of international human rights offenders, and American politics.]

Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist, writer, and professor of linguistics at MIT, is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign policy, international affairs, human rights, and the media. His works include Manufacturing Consent, with Ed Herman (Pantheon, 1988), Deterring Democracy (Verso, 1991), World Orders, Old...

(The entire section is 5227 words.)