Noam Avram Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (born 1928), American linguist and philosopher, was responsible for the theory of transformational grammar. As a political commentator he was critical of American foreign and domestic policy.

Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics in 1955. After that year, he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was Institute Professor of Linguistics.

Chomsky received international acclaim for his work in linguistics, philosophy, and social/political theory. A prolific writer, he revolutionized linguistics with his theory of transformational-generative grammar. His work in epistemology and philosophy of mind was controversial; his social and political writings were consistently critical of American foreign and domestic policy.


Transformational Grammar

In two seminal books on linguistic theory—Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965)—Chomsky argued that the grammar of human language is a formal system consisting of abstract logical structures which are systematically rearranged by operations to generate all possible sentences of a language. Chomsky's theory is applicable to all components of linguistic description (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and so forth). In phonology, for example, Chomsky argues that the sound system of a language consists of a set of abstract binary features (phonemic level) which are combined and recombined by means of phonological processes to produce the sounds which people actually say (phonetic level) (see Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English, 1968). In syntax, which has received the most attention by linguists, the theory specifies a set of abstract phrase-structure rules (deep structures) which undergo transformations to produce all possible sentences (surface structures).

Chomsky's assumption was that a grammar is finite, but that the sentences which people produce are theoretically infinite in length and number. Thus, a grammar must generate, from finite means, all and only the infinite set of grammatical sentences in a language. Chomsky has further argued that all languages have the same underlying, abstract structure—universal grammar.

Evidence for these claims is strong. The most commonly cited evidence is that children learn language rapidly, totally, and similarly by the age of five or six, irrespective of the culture into which they are born or the language which they learn. Chomsky thus claimed that children have innate linguistic competence, a reflection of universal grammar.

Chomsky broke from previous structuralist dominance of linguistics and revolutionized the field in several ways. First, he converted linguistics into a theoretical discipline. Second, he pluralized the word "grammar": he showed that there are many possible theories of language—grammars—and he argued that the purpose of scientific linguistics is to demonstrate which of all possible grammars is the most explanatory feasible. Third, he linked linguistics to mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and neuropsychology, thereby broadening the discipline immensely.

Chomsky's later work in linguistics focused on spelling out the details of universal grammar. He was particularly concerned with the sorts of constraints that limit the power of transformations (see, for example, Lectures on Government and Binding, 1981).

Critics of Chomsky generally argued that grammar is not a formal system, but a social tool. They raised as counter-evidence such things as language variation, social and cultural differences in language use, and what they claim to be the unprovability of the innateness hypothesis: that innateness is a theorist's intuition, not an empirical fact. In all fairness to Chomsky, he never ruled out variation or the functional aspect of language, but preferred instead to focus on the similarities across languages. His work, furthermore, generated considerable interest in both the neuropsychology and biology of language, which provided considerable evidence for innateness.


Rationalist Philosopher, Political Theorist

Chomsky demolished any connection between linguistics and behaviorist psychology with the scathing "Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" (1959), in which he argued that stimulus-response theory could in no way account for the creativity and speed of language learning. He then produced a series of books in favor of rationalism, the theory that a human is born with innate organizing principles and is not a tabula rasa (blank slate): Cartesian Linguistics (1966), Language and Mind (1972), Reflections on Language (1975), and Rules and Representations (1980).

Chomsky's rationalism engendered a resurgence of work in faculty psychology, the theory that the human mind consists of discrete modules which are specialized for particular cognitive processes: vision and language, for example. One of his statements in rationalist philosophy was Modular Approaches to the Study of Mind (1984).


Critic of American Policy Motives

Chomsky was also an ardent critic of American domestic and foreign policy. His libertarian socialist ideas can be found in such works as American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), For Reasons of State (1973), The Political Economy of Human Rights (1979), and Towards a New Cold War (1982). Chomsky's position was always that American international aggression is rooted in the American industrial system, where capitalism, by its aggressive, dehumanizing, and dominating nature, spawns a corresponding militaristic policy. Historian Michael Beschloss, writing for the Washington Post Book World found in Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins a strong denunciation of the "system of values and decision-making that drove the United States to the jungles of Southeast Asia." Chomsky's strongest vitriol, however, was directed toward the so-called "New Mandarins"—the technocrats, bureaucrats, and university-trained scholars who defended America's right to dominate the globe. Times Literary Supplement contributor, Charles Townshend noted that Chomsky "[sees] a totalitarian mentality" arising out of the mainstream American belief in the fundamental righteousness and benevolence of the United States, the sanctity and nobility of its aims. Yet "the publicly tolerated spectrum of discussion" of these aims is narrow. Chomsky transcended that narrow spectrum by offering examples to illuminate how American policies proved otherwise. Chomsky's political views, though, caused his historical/political scholarship to be taken less seriously than his work in linguistics. Steve Wasserman wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that Chomsky had been "banished to the margins of political debate. His opinions have been deemed so kooky—and his personality so cranky—that his writings no longer appear in the forums … in which he was once so welcome."

In later years Chomsky continued his criticism of American foreign policy in works such as The ABC's of U.S. Policy Toward Haiti (1994), Free Trade and Democracy (1993), Rent-A-Cops of the World: Noam Chomsky on the Gulf Crisis (1991), and The New World Order Debate (1991). Appreciation, if not acceptance, attended Chomsky's later works. According to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, Chomsky "continues to challenge our assumptions long after other critics have gone to bed. He has become the foremost gadfly of our national conscience." New Statesman correspondent Francis Hope concluded of Chomsky's lingering suspicions of government motives: "Such men are dangerous; the lack of them is disasterous."


Further Reading on Noam Avram Chomsky

Noam Chomsky's positions, written in readable form, are presented in his own two books, Language and Responsibility (1979) and The Generative Enterprise (1982). Good accounts of, and commentaries on, his ideas and theories can be found in Lyons' Noam Chomsky (1970), Newmeyer's Linguistic Theory in America (1980), Smith and Wilson's Modern Linguistics: The Results of Chomsky's Revolution (1979), and Piattelli-Palmarini's Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky (1980).

For more insight on Chomsky's political views see Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, 1997.