Noam Chomsky Introduction - Essay


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.