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Noam Chomsky

Noam Avram Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is a US professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages. Aside from his linguistic work, Chomsky is widely known for his left-wing political writings.

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Chomsky's Political Orientation Chomsky describes himself as an anarcho-syndicalist, libertarian socialist, and anti-Bolshevik. He has further defined himself as Marxist and Zionist; although, he notes that his definition of Zionism is more commonly known as anti-Zionism; the result of what he percieves to have been a shift (since the 1940s) in the meaning of Zionism (Chomsky Reader).

Noam Chomsky (photo by Donna Coveney)

Short biography Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar William Chomsky[?]. Starting in 1945, he studied philosophy, linguistics, and mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. There he studied under Zellig Harris[?], a professor of linguistics whose political views he had some sympathy with. He received his Ph.D. from Penn in 1955, having conducted most of his research the previous four years at Harvard University. In his doctoral thesis he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, possibly his best known work in the field.

After receiving his doctorate, Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for nineteen years (he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics there). It was during this time that he became more publicly engaged in politics, arguing against American involvement in the Vietnam War from around 1965. In 1969 he published American Power and the New Mandarins, a book of essays on the same subject. Since then, he has been well known for his radical political views, lecturing 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 radical Left, as well as many detractors. He has continued to write and teach on linguistics also.

Contributions to Linguistics

(Note: the following paragraph is an unordered collection of views Chomsky expressed only early in his career and those he has always expressed.)

Syntactic Structures was an elaboration on his doctoral thesis from 1955, in which he introduces transformational grammars. He considers utterances (words and sentences) to represent the surface structure of deeply rooted concepts inside the brain (surface structure versus deep structure, a distinction he doesn't use anymore). Transformation rules govern the process of creating utterances. The capability to carry out these processes is genetic and innate[?]. They happen subconsciously. With a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms man is able to produce an infinite number of sentences. This includes sentences nobody has ever said before. Other people will readily understand them because of their innate language understanding capability. When a child learns to speak the mother's language, Chomsky claims, then this language generating/analysing system (a universal grammar) is set to a specific set of rules the child gets from the language community. Any child can learn any language as the first language. He notes that a child learns the language at an astonishing pace and his theory sets out why this is the case. Later on, when the rule set becomes stabilized, language learning becomes much harder.

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 modelling 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, 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, and he does not publish on phonology anymore.

Chomsky's theories went through many changes. The most recent account was published under the title The minimalist program in 1995. The first chapter deals with the theory of principles and paramaters which is in part speculation, the second emphasizes the role of economy in language. The third states a minimalist program for linguistic theory while the fourth categories and transformations gives an elaboration while at the same time changing some things laid out previously.

Chomsky's research interest is in the human language faculty that he calls I-language in his recent writings. He focuses on questions that consider the internal functioning of the brain. And there he looks at the language generating process rather than at the generated objects.

A chimpanzee named in Chomsky's honor, Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000), was the subject of a famous experiment to teach sign language to a non-human species, in test of Chomsky's and other's thoughts on language as differentiated by species. Most people agree that, whatever Nim managed to learn, it had significant qualitative differences from human sign language.

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 had certain irresistible consequences for understanding how language is learned by children and what, exactly, is the ability to interpret language.

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 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's performance, could be attributed to "training by reward and penalty over time." Language, according to Skinner, was 100 percent learned by cues and conditioning from the world around the language-learner.

Chomsky's devastating critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions fired the opening shot of open 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).

Criticism of post-modern views towards science

Chomsky has written a strong refutation 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 attacks against "Jewish physics" (a reference to the terminology used by the Nazis to denigrate research done by Jewish scientists.)

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.
[Noam Chomsky on Rationality/Science - From Z Papers Special Issue http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/95-science]

Political Views

Chomsky is one of the most well-known figures of the American left. He considers himself to be a "libertarian socialist or (anarchist)," a political philosophy he summarizes as seeking out all forms of hierarchy and attempting to eliminate them if they are unjustified. Unlike many anarchists, Chomsky does not always object to electoral politics; he has even endorsed candidates for office.

Chomsky has also stated that he considers himself to be a conservative (Chomsky's Politics, p. 188, note Ch.6 #24), presumably of the Classical liberal variety. His main modes of actions include writing magazine articles and books and making speaking engagements. He has a large following of supporters, leading him to schedule speaking engagements sometimes up to two years in advance. He also has a large group of critics, both conservative and liberal, as well as some anarchists, who, although they normally agree with his political analysis, consider his aforementioned support of electoral politics to go against their principles.

Criticism of the United States

He has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the United States government. In his book 9-11, a series of interviews about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, he claims -- as he has done before -- that the United States government is the leading terrorist state in modern times. He has criticized the US government for its involvement in the Vietnam War and the larger Indochina conflict; its interference in Latin American affairs in countries like Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua, and Argentina; 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 Vietnamese Army only in passing. He explains this by the following principle: it is more important to evaluate actions which you have more possibility of affecting.

Note: This section requires more coverage of Chomsky's earliest and most widely influential work, that on the Vietnam War including his classic American Power and the New Mandarins. The present material is heavily weighted to post-1980 writings.

One focus of his political work has been an analysis of mainstream media (especially in the United States), its structures and constraints, and its role in supporting ruling class interests. His book Manufacturing Consent -- The Political Economy of the Mass Media, co-authored with Edward Herman[?], explores this topic in depth, though most of his work incorporates some aspect of this analysis.

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. (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 Brith, 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 (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-c10-s20)

Middle East Politics, speech Columbia University 1999 (http://ps.wikipedia.com/wiki.cgi?Middle_East_Policy_(Chomsky))

Accusations of anti-semitism

Partially because of these criticisms, Chomsky has been accused of being anti-semitic on many occasions. The most outspoken of his critics include journalist David Horowitz, who has toured college campuses distributing anti-Chomsky pamphlets, attorney/professor Alan Dershowitz, with whom Chomsky has engaged in many verbal battles through the media, and sociology professor emeritus Werner Cohn[?], who has written an entire book; Partners in Hate, about Chomsky's relationship to Faurisson (below). 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 Israel Shahak, author of Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years - a book that claims that Judaism is a fundamentally chauvinistic religion, has led to more accusations of anti-semitism.

Chomsky rejects charges of anti-Semitism, citing that the definition presented by Israeli apologists is itself racist and ethnocentric. Often speaking out against bigotry of all forms, including anti-Semitism, Chomsky is nevertheless often a victim of such accusations, which he dismisses as "ad-hominem attacks" and "typical propaganda."

The Faurisson Affair

In 1979, Robert Faurisson[?], a French professor, wrote a book claiming that the Nazis did not have gas chambers[?], did not attempt a genocide of Jews (or any other groups), and that the "myth" of the gas chambers had been put forth by Zionist swindlers for the benefit of the state of Israel and to the detriment of Germans and Palestinians. (Hitchens, 1985) The Chorus and the Cassandra (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/other/85-hitchens).

Shortly after, Chomsky signed a petition condemning censorship of Faurisson's works in France. The petition claimed that Faurisson's works were based on "extensive independent historical research." (quoted in On Faurisson and Chomsky) Following a controversy regarding this petition, Chomsky wrote an essay entitled Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/8010-free-expression), which dealt mainly with the freedom to conduct and publish unpopular research, but also stated that he had not found evidence of anti-Semitism in the parts of Faurisson's work that he had reviewed. Chomsky writes:

"Faurisson's conclusions are diametrically opposed to views I hold and have frequently expressed in print (for example, in my book Peace in the Middle East?, where I describe the Holocaust as "the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history"). But it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended. It is easy enough to defend those who need no defense or to join in unanimous (and often justified) condemnation of a violation of civil rights by some official enemy. [1] (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/8010-free-expression)

Chomsky granted permission for this essay to be used for any purpose; it was used as the preface for a book by Faurisson. (Later Chomsky requested that Faurisson cease using it, but that request was declined.) Chomsky went on to write:

"I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers or even denial of the Holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the Holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence. I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson's work" (quoted in Noam Chomsky's Search for the Truth).

Chomsky's writings sparked a great furor. Many people held that Faurisson's statements were the archetype of anti-Semitism, and that the logical conclusion of Chomsky's statement would be that Nazism was not anti-semitic. For example, Deborah Lipstadt[?], author of a book about holocaust revisionist David Irving, wrote in Dimensions, the journal of the ADL:

"Intellectuals are hardly immune from irrational, mystical thinking. Some do so in the name of "free speech," free inquiry," or "intellectual freedom." It is this commitment to free inquiry and the power of mythical thinking that explains, at least in part, how revisionists have attracted leading figures and institutions. Noam Chomsky is probably the best known among them....Though Alfred Kazin was right on target when he recently described Chomsky as a "dupe of intellectual pride so overweening that he is incapable of making distinctions between totalitarian and democratic societies, between oppressors and victims," Chomsky's argument shocked many people, including those who thought they were inured to Chomsky's antics. Chomsky's example shows why the dangers of free inquiry should be taken seriously. [2] (http://www.adl.org/braun/dim%5F14%5F1%5Fdeniers.asp)

She calls the belief that all arguments are equally legitimate a "convoluted notion" and states that Holocaust deniers are not interested in truth, but "motivated by racism, extremism, and virulent anti-Semitism."

In His Right to Say It, published in The Nation, Chomsky states: "It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers. " [3] (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/8102-right-to-say) His argument stressed the conceptual distinction between endorsing someone's view and defending his right to say it. Insofar as the latter does not imply the former, condemning censorhip should not be read as espousing the censored view.

Noam Chomsky's position in supporting the right of Faurisson to publish is consistent with anarchist ideas regarding freedom of speech.

Other criticisms

Chomsky has been involved in many very 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 American media used "unsubstantiated" refugee testimonies, focused uniquely on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime, and ignored the US atrocities in Cambodia which preceded and led to the Khmer Rouge taking power, many attacked him as an apologist for those atrocities. (See Ear, 1995.)

Quotes Regarding Chomsky

  • "In all American history, no one's writings are more unsettling...Chomsky is among our greatest dissenters." -- James Peck[?]

See also:

External Links



  • Chomsky, Noam, Morris Halle, and Fred Lukoff (1956). "On accent and juncture in English." In For Roman Jakobson. The Hague: Mouton
  • Chomsky, Noam (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle (1968). The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. MIT press.


Selected Works

  • Chomsky & Herman, Edward (1979). After the Cataclysm, Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0896081001
  • Chomsky (1980). Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/8010-free-expression): (English translation of original French)
  • Chomsky (February 28, 1981). His Right to Say It (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/8102-right-to-say) in The Nation
  • Chomsky (1983, 1999). Fateful Triangle. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0896086011
  • Peck, James (Ed.) (1987). Chomsky Reader 1987 ISBN 0394751736
  • Chomsky (1989). Necessary Illusions (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-overview).
  • Chomsky (1992). What Uncle Sam really wants (http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/sam/). Berkeley: Odonian Press.
  • Chomsky (1993). The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Berkeley: Odonian Press.
  • Chomsky (1993). Year 501: The Conquest Continues, Boston: South End Press.
  • Chomsky (2000). Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs, Cambridge: South End Press.
  • Chomsky (1996). Class Warfare. Pluto Press.
  • Chomsky (1999). Profit Over People. Seven Stories Press.
  • Chomsky (2001). 9-11, Canada: Seven Stories Press.

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