Who is Noam Chomsky and what is he known for?

Noam Chomsky is a famous American cognitive scientist, linguist, analytic philosopher and socio-political critic. He is widely considered “the father of modern linguistics”.

Noam Chomsky: Early Life and Education

Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, U.S.A on December 7, 1928. His parents were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and prominent scholars. Chomsky attended a progressive elementary school where he published his first article at the age of 10. The article was published in his school newspaper and based on the rise of fascism in Europe post the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly, his report was so well researched that Chomsky referred to it for another essay he later presented at New York University.

Chomsky entered the University of Pennsylvania as the Second World War came to a close. He did not find university intriguing and considered leaving until he met the linguist Zellig S. Harris. The American scholar who had discovered structural linguistics greatly inspired Chomsky to complete his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in linguistics. His master’s thesis was titled The Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew and his doctoral dissertation was on Transformational Analysis.

During his postgraduate work, Chomsky worked in the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1951-55. The four years at Harvard helped Chomsky later publish his most renowned book, Syntactic Structures in 1957.

Chomsky later left Harvard to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955. He worked as a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy for almost fifty years before retiring in 2005. The years 1958 to 1959 saw Chomsky as a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. Here the linguist helped create the universal grammar theory along with the generative grammar theory and the Chomsky hierarchy.

Noam Chomsky married his childhood friend Carol Doris Schatz in 1949. They were together till 2008 when she passed away from cancer. Chomsky had a son and two daughters with his wife.

Chomsky’s most major influence has been on the field of linguistics.

Universal Grammar (UG)

Universal grammar, sometimes known as mental grammar proposes that human language ability has a genetic basis. A few structural rules are independent of sensory experience. These principles are basic structural features universally present in all-natural languages. They describe the formulation of all human languages. These are innately present in a child’s mind. The presence of such natural principles helps in the more rapid learning of languages among children than adults. Parameters are optional variances in linguistic structure. These impact word order, language sounds and cause languages to differ from each other. As children grow up, their psychological development helps them adopt different parameters to learn new languages. Chomsky used the theory of universal grammar to argue against Skinner’s behaviourist perspective of language acquisition.

Transformational Grammar (TG)

Transformational grammar is also called transformational- generative grammar. This theory suggests that grammar is a system of rules used to generate combinations of words to form grammatically correct sentences. Moreover, defined operations or transformations are utilized to produce new sentences from pre-existing ones. TG assigns a deep structure and surface structure to relationships between similar sentences. For example, “My friend owns a dog” can be called the surface form of a deep structure like “I have a friend. She owns a dog”. Further, deep structures are helpful in understanding ambiguous sentences. For example, “Barking dogs can be dangerous” may have a deep meaning such as “Dogs can be dangerous when they bark”.

Chomsky Hierarchy

Noam Chomsky proposed four types of grammars: Type 0 (unrestricted grammar), Type 1 (context-sensitive grammar), Type 2 (context-free grammar) and Type 3 (regular grammar). This hierarchy was given in 1956 in an effort to divide formal grammar into groups. Although this concept is old, it is relevant in today’s time since it also has applications in computer science. For example, the Chomsky hierarchy helps answer questions such as “Can a natural language like English be described with the same methods used for artificial languages such as programming?”

Read: What is Linguistics and its branches?

Noam Chomsky is an important figure in analytic philosophy.

This is a branch of philosophy characterized by an emphasis on language. Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar and Universal Grammar theories are continuations of analytic philosophy. While other analytic philosophers view language as an external social object, Chomsky considers it as an internal natural object, part of human beings’ biological endowment. In the last half-century, Chomsky has directly participated in several philosophical debates with key figures like Quine, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson and John Searle. In 1971, Chomsky debated French philosopher Michel Foucault which illuminated irreconcilable differences between the two intellectuals. Foucault’s position on human nature was critical while the former believed in universalities present amongst all human nature such as moral justice.

Read: Foucault’s Governmentality

Noam Chomsky is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.

This is an interdisciplinary field of study covering topics of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and linguistics. Chomsky helped spark the cognitive revolution rooted in rationalist ideals in contrast to previous positivist ones. His major contribution to cognitive science was his criticism of Skinner’s behaviourism and the resultant confusion between subject matter and evidence. Chomsky further went on to establish that other animals cannot acquire knowledge of human languages. Hence, he established that the problem of language acquisition was biologically isolated to human cognition.

Political Criticism

Noam Chomsky’s political views are supported by his study of linguistics and philosophy. He has gained a reputation for his numerous radical views that are often described as a libertarian socialist. He was always interested in the subject of politics but became formally involved only in 1964 when he protested against the Vietnam War. He argued that the war was a poorly veiled attempt of the United States to use its military power to consolidate economic control over regions of developing countries.

Chomsky spoke up about the requirement of compliance of ordinary citizens to enable the rule of the leaders. Since this could not be guaranteed by force in democracies such as the United States, propaganda was the way forward. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), Chomsky revealed evidence of skewing of data, selection of relevant information and the invention of data in support of dominant views. Mainstream media and journalists deliberately made the decision to support corporations and their agendas in domestic politics and U.S. foreign policy. In their work, The Political Economy of Human Rights (1979), Chomsky and Edward Herman exposed how similar events have been reported differently. They compared the reporting on the communist regime in Cambodia with Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor since they occurred at a similar time and location. While both atrocities had almost equal human losses and impacts, the former was given much more publicity in the American media. Through exaggerated reports of atrocities committed in Cambodia, the United States was able to maintain the Cold War and acquire access to the area’s natural resources such as oil deposits. Hence, Chomsky criticized journalists and mass media for using covert coercion to further the agenda of the state.

In 2002, Chomsky sparked controversy with his collection of essays titled 9-11: Was There an Alternative? This publication analyzed the response of the United States to the September 11 attacks with regard to foreign policy and control of the media. Chomsky denounced the unforgivable atrocities of the attack itself but called the American use of power an example of “a leading terrorist state”.

Chomsky is a prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy and has argued against American involvement in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is also outspoken against neoliberalism and state capitalism present in the United States. More recently, Chomsky has advocated against Trump’s idea of a tiny and isolated America and supported the need for climate change action.

Chomsky: Selected Works

Noam Chomsky has authored more than 100 works on topics ranging from linguistics to politics. Some of these have been mentioned in the earlier text, and a few other important publications have been listed below:

Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964)

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965)

The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967)

Language and Mind (1972)

Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972)

Knowledge of Language (1986)

Powers and Prospects (1996)

Rogue States (2000)

Hegemony or Survival (2003)

On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (2013)

Other relevant works of Noam Chomsky are available at his official website

Noam Chomsky: Major Achievements, Awards And Honors

Chomsky’s career has spanned more than half a century during which he received many awards:

APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Psychology (1984)

Orwell Award (1987, 1989)

Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1988)

Helmholtz Medal (1996)

Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science (1999)

Erich Fromm Prize (2010)

Sydney peace prize (2011)

US Peace prize (2011)

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (2014)

He was also offered a position as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Linguistic Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Philosophical Association, an honorary member of the British Psychological Society and an honorary member of The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI).

Finally, Chomsky was also awarded many honorary doctorates from prestigious universities around the world such as the University of London, the University of Chicago, Bard College, Delhi University and the University of Massachusetts.

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