Noam Chomsky

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[I]t does not require very far-reaching, specialized knowledge to perceive that the United States was invading South Vietnam. And, in fact, to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality [is] not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one's analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise.

Chomsky on the Vietnam War [83]

Chomsky joined protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes. [84] His 1967 critique of U.S. involvement, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", among other contributions to The New York Review of Books , debuted Chomsky as a public dissident. [85] This essay and other political articles were collected and published in 1969 as part of Chomsky's first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins . [86] He followed this with further political books, including At War with Asia (1970), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1974), published by Pantheon Books. [87] [88] These publications led to Chomsky's association with the American New Left movement, [89] though he thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm and preferred the company of activists to that of intellectuals. [90] Chomsky remained largely ignored by the mainstream press throughout this period. [91]

He also became involved in left-wing activism. Chomsky refused to pay half his taxes, publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested while participating an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. [92] During this time, Chomsky co-founded the anti-war collective RESIST with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald. [93] Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, [94] Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups and, with his colleague Louis Kampf, ran undergraduate courses on politics at MIT independently of the conservative-dominated political science department. [95] When student activists campaigned to stop weapons and counterinsurgency research at MIT, Chomsky was sympathetic but felt that the research should remain under MIT's oversight and limited to systems of deterrence and defense. [96] In 1970 he visited southeast Asia to lecture at Vietnam's Hanoi University of Science and Technology and toured war refugee camps in Laos. In 1973 he helped lead a committee commemorating the 50th anniversary of the War Resisters League. [97]

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky portrait 2017 retouched.png
Chomsky in 2017
Avram Noam Chomsky

(1928-12-07) December 7, 1928 (age 93)
Children3, including Aviva
Parent(s) William Chomsky
Elsie Simonofsky
Academic background
Education University of Pennsylvania
(BA, 1949; MA, 1951; PhD, 1955)
Thesis Transformational Analysis  (1955)
Doctoral advisor Zellig Harris [1]
External images
Chomsky participating in the anti-Vietnam War March on the Pentagon, October 21, 1967
Searchtool.svg Chomsky with other public figures
Searchtool.svg The protesters passing the Lincoln Memorial en route to the Pentagon

Because of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was arrested on multiple occasions and included on President Richard Nixon's master list of political opponents. [98] Chomsky was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience and his wife began studying for her own doctorate in linguistics to support the family in the event of Chomsky's imprisonment or joblessness. [99] Chomsky's scientific reputation insulated him from administrative action based on his beliefs. [100]

His work in linguistics continued to gain international recognition as he received multiple honorary doctorates. [101] He delivered public lectures at the University of Cambridge, Columbia University (Woodbridge Lectures), and Stanford University. [102] His appearance in a 1971 debate with French continental philosopher Michel Foucault positioned Chomsky as a symbolic figurehead of analytic philosophy. [103] He continued to publish extensively on linguistics, producing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), [100] an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972), [104] and Reflections on Language (1975). [104] In 1974 Chomsky became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. [102]

Edward S. Herman and the Faurisson affair: 1976–1980

Chomsky, photographed in 1977 Noam Chomsky (1977).jpg
Chomsky, photographed in 1977

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Chomsky's linguistic publications expanded and clarified his earlier work, addressing his critics and updating his grammatical theory. [105] His political talks often generated considerable controversy, particularly when he criticized the Israeli government and military. [106] In the early 1970s Chomsky began collaborating with Edward S. Herman, who had also published critiques of the U.S. war in Vietnam. [107] Together they wrote Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda , a book that criticized U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and the mainstream media's failure to cover it. Warner Modular published it in 1973, but its parent company disapproved of the book's contents and ordered all copies destroyed. [108]

While mainstream publishing options proved elusive, Chomsky found support from Michael Albert's South End Press, an activist-oriented publishing company. [109] In 1979, South End published Chomsky and Herman's revised Counter-Revolutionary Violence as the two-volume The Political Economy of Human Rights , [110] which compares U.S. media reactions to the Cambodian genocide and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. It argues that because Indonesia was a U.S. ally, U.S. media ignored the East Timorese situation while focusing on events in Cambodia, a U.S. enemy. [111] Chomsky's response included two testimonials before the United Nations' Special Committee on Decolonization, successful encouragement for American media to cover the occupation, and meetings with refugees in Lisbon. [112] The Marxist academic Steven Lukes publicly accused Chomsky of betraying his anarchist ideals and acting as an apologist for Cambodian leader Pol Pot. [113] Herman said that the controversy "imposed a serious personal cost" on Chomsky, [114] Chomsky said that "conformist intellectuals of East or West" deal with dissident opinion by trying "to overwhelm it with a flood of lies". [115] He regarded the personal criticism as less important than the evidence that "mainstream intelligentsia suppressed or justified the crimes of their own states". [115]

Chomsky had long publicly criticized Nazism, and totalitarianism more generally, but his commitment to freedom of speech led him to defend the right of French historian Robert Faurisson to advocate a position widely characterized as Holocaust denial. Without Chomsky's knowledge, his plea for Faurisson's freedom of speech was published as the preface to the latter's 1980 book Mémoire en défense contre ceux qui m'accusent de falsifier l'histoire. [116] Chomsky was widely condemned for defending Faurisson, [117] and France's mainstream press accused Chomsky of being a Holocaust denier himself, refusing to publish his rebuttals to their accusations. [118] Critiquing Chomsky's position, sociologist Werner Cohn later published an analysis of the affair titled Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers. [119] The Faurisson affair had a lasting, damaging effect on Chomsky's career, [120] especially in France. [121]

Critique of propaganda and international affairs: 1980–2001

External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, a 1992 documentary exploring Chomsky's work of the same name and its impact

In 1985, during the Nicaraguan Contra War—in which the U.S. supported the contra militia against the Sandinista government—Chomsky traveled to Managua to meet with workers' organizations and refugees of the conflict, giving public lectures on politics and linguistics. [122] Many of these lectures were published in 1987 as On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures. [123] In 1983 he published The Fateful Triangle , which argued that the U.S. had continually used the Israeli–Palestinian conflict for its own ends. [124] In 1988, Chomsky visited the Palestinian territories to witness the impact of Israeli occupation. [125]

Chomsky and Herman's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) outlines their propaganda model for understanding mainstream media. Even in countries without official censorship, they argued, the news is censored through five filters that greatly influence both what and how news is presented. [126] The book was inspired by Alex Carey and adapted into a 1992 film. [127] In 1989, Chomsky published Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, in which he suggests that a worthwhile democracy requires that its citizens undertake intellectual self-defense against the media and elite intellectual culture that seeks to control them. [128] By the 1980s, Chomsky's students had become prominent linguists who, in turn, expanded and revised his linguistic theories. [129]

In the 1990s, Chomsky embraced political activism to a greater degree than before. [130] Retaining his commitment to the cause of East Timorese independence, in 1995 he visited Australia to talk on the issue at the behest of the East Timorese Relief Association and the National Council for East Timorese Resistance. [131] The lectures he gave on the subject were published as Powers and Prospects in 1996. [131] As a result of the international publicity Chomsky generated, his biographer Wolfgang Sperlich opined that he did more to aid the cause of East Timorese independence than anyone but the investigative journalist John Pilger. [132] After East Timor attained independence from Indonesia in 1999, the Australian-led International Force for East Timor arrived as a peacekeeping force; Chomsky was critical of this, believing it was designed to secure Australian access to East Timor's oil and gas reserves under the Timor Gap Treaty. [133]

Iraq war criticism and retirement from MIT: 2001–2017

Chomsky speaking in support of the Occupy movement in 2011 Noam Chomsky Toronto 2011.jpg
Chomsky speaking in support of the Occupy movement in 2011

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Chomsky was widely interviewed; Seven Stories Press collated and published these interviews that October. [134] Chomsky argued that the ensuing War on Terror was not a new development but a continuation of U.S. foreign policy and concomitant rhetoric since at least the Reagan era. [135] He gave the D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture in New Delhi in 2001, [136] and in 2003 visited Cuba at the invitation of the Latin American Association of Social Scientists. [137] Chomsky's 2003 Hegemony or Survival articulated what he called the United States' "imperial grand strategy" and critiqued the Iraq War and other aspects of the War on Terror. [138] Chomsky toured internationally with greater regularity during this period. [137]

Chomsky discussing ecology, ethics and anarchism

Chomsky retired from MIT in 2002, [139] but continued to conduct research and seminars on campus as an emeritus. [140] That same year he visited Turkey to attend the trial of a publisher who had been accused of treason for printing one of Chomsky's books; Chomsky insisted on being a co-defendant and amid international media attention the Security Courts dropped the charge on the first day. [141] During that trip Chomsky visited Kurdish areas of Turkey and spoke out in favor of the Kurds' human rights. [141] A supporter of the World Social Forum, he attended its conferences in Brazil in both 2002 and 2003, also attending the Forum event in India. [142]

Chomsky supported the Occupy movement, delivering talks at encampments and producing two works that chronicled its influence: Occupy (2012), a pamphlet, and Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity (2013). He attributed Occupy's growth to a perception that the Democratic Party had abandoned the interests of the white working class. [143] In March 2014, Chomsky joined the advisory council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, [144] an organization that advocates the global abolition of nuclear weapons, as a senior fellow. [145] The 2015 documentary Requiem for the American Dream summarizes his views on capitalism and economic inequality through a "75-minute teach-in". [146]

University of Arizona: 2017–present

In 2017, Chomsky taught a short-term politics course at the University of Arizona in Tucson [147] and was later hired as a part-time professor in the linguistics department there, with his duties including teaching and public seminars. [148] His salary is covered by philanthropic donations. [149]

Chomsky signed the Declaration on the Common Language of the Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins in 2018. [150] [151]

Linguistic theory

What started as purely linguistic research ... has led, through involvement in political causes and an identification with an older philosophic tradition, to no less than an attempt to formulate an overall theory of man. The roots of this are manifest in the linguistic theory ... The discovery of cognitive structures common to the human race but only to humans (species specific), leads quite easily to thinking of unalienable human attributes.

Edward Marcotte on the significance of Chomsky's linguistic theory [152]

The basis of Chomsky's linguistic theory lies in biolinguistics, the linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically preset in the human mind and hence genetically inherited. [153] He argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of sociocultural differences. [154] In adopting this position Chomsky rejects the radical behaviorist psychology of B. F. Skinner, who viewed behavior (including talking and thinking) as a completely learned product of the interactions between organisms and their environments. Accordingly, Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and distinguished from modes of communication used by any other animal species. [155] [156] Chomsky's nativist, internalist view of language is consistent with the philosophical school of "rationalism" and contrasts with the anti-nativist, externalist view of language consistent with the philosophical school of "empiricism", [157] which contends that all knowledge, including language, comes from external stimuli. [152]

Universal grammar

Since the 1960s Chomsky has maintained that syntactic knowledge is at least partially inborn, implying that children need only learn certain language-specific features of their native languages. He bases his argument on observations about human language acquisition and describes a "poverty of the stimulus": an enormous gap between the linguistic stimuli to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic competence they attain. For example, although children are exposed to only a very small and finite subset of the allowable syntactic variants within their first language, they somehow acquire the highly organized and systematic ability to understand and produce an infinite number of sentences, including ones that have never before been uttered, in that language. [158] To explain this, Chomsky reasoned that the primary linguistic data must be supplemented by an innate linguistic capacity. Furthermore, while a human baby and a kitten are both capable of inductive reasoning, if they are exposed to exactly the same linguistic data, the human will always acquire the ability to understand and produce language, while the kitten will never acquire either ability. Chomsky referred to this difference in capacity as the language acquisition device, and suggested that linguists needed to determine both what that device is and what constraints it imposes on the range of possible human languages. The universal features that result from these constraints would constitute "universal grammar". [159] [160] [161] Multiple scholars have challenged universal grammar on the grounds of the evolutionary infeasibility of its genetic basis for language, [162] the lack of universal characteristics between languages, [163] and the unproven link between innate/universal structures and the structures of specific languages. [164] Scholar Michael Tomasello has challenged Chomsky's theory of innate syntactic knowledge as based on theory and not behavioral observation. [165] Although it was influential from 1960s through 1990s, Chomsky's nativist theory was ultimately rejected by the mainstream child language acquisition research community owing to its inconsistency with research evidence. [166] [167] It was also argued by linguists including Robert Freidin, Geoffrey Sampson, Geoffrey K. Pullum and Barbara Scholz that Chomsky's linguistic evidence for it had been false. [168]

Transformational-generative grammar

Transformational-generative grammar is a broad theory used to model, encode, and deduce a native speaker's linguistic capabilities. [169] These models, or "formal grammars", show the abstract structures of a specific language as they may relate to structures in other languages. [170] Chomsky developed transformational grammar in the mid-1950s, whereupon it became the dominant syntactic theory in linguistics for two decades. [169] "Transformations" refers to syntactic relationships within language, e.g., being able to infer that the subject between two sentences is the same person. [171] Chomsky's theory posits that language consists of both deep structures and surface structures: Outward-facing surface structures relate phonetic rules into sound, while inward-facing deep structures relate words and conceptual meaning. Transformational-generative grammar uses mathematical notation to express the rules that govern the connection between meaning and sound (deep and surface structures, respectively). By this theory, linguistic principles can mathematically generate potential sentence structures in a language. [152]

Set inclusions described by the Chomsky hierarchy Chomsky-hierarchy.svg
Set inclusions described by the Chomsky hierarchy

It is a common conception that Chomsky invented transformational-generative grammar, but his actual contribution to it was considered modest at the time when Chomsky first published his theory. In his 1955 dissertation and his 1957 textbook Syntactic Structures, he presented recent developments in the analysis formulated by Zellig Harris, who was Chomsky's PhD supervisor, and by Charles F. Hockett. [lower-alpha 5] Their method is derived from the work of the Danish structural linguist Louis Hjelmslev, who introduced algorithmic grammar to general linguistics. [lower-alpha 6] Based on this rule-based notation of grammars, Chomsky grouped logically possible phrase-structure grammar types into a series of four nested subsets and increasingly complex types, together known as the Chomsky hierarchy. This classification remains relevant to formal language theory [172] and theoretical computer science, especially programming language theory, [173] compiler construction, and automata theory. [174]

Following transformational grammar's heyday through the mid-1970s, a derivative [169] government and binding theory became a dominant research framework through the early 1990s, remaining an influential theory, [169] when linguists turned to a "minimalist" approach to grammar. This research focused on the principles and parameters framework, which explained children's ability to learn any language by filling open parameters (a set of universal grammar principles) that adapt as the child encounters linguistic data. [175] The minimalist program, initiated by Chomsky, [176] asks which minimal principles and parameters theory fits most elegantly, naturally, and simply. [175] In an attempt to simplify language into a system that relates meaning and sound using the minimum possible faculties, Chomsky dispenses with concepts such as "deep structure" and "surface structure" and instead emphasizes the plasticity of the brain's neural circuits, with which come an infinite number of concepts, or "logical forms". [156] When exposed to linguistic data, a hearer-speaker's brain proceeds to associate sound and meaning, and the rules of grammar we observe are in fact only the consequences, or side effects, of the way language works. Thus, while much of Chomsky's prior research focused on the rules of language, he now focuses on the mechanisms the brain uses to generate these rules and regulate speech. [156] [177]

Political views

The second major area to which Chomsky has contributed—and surely the best known in terms of the number of people in his audience and the ease of understanding what he writes and says—is his work on sociopolitical analysis; political, social, and economic history; and critical assessment of current political circumstance. In Chomsky's view, although those in power might—and do—try to obscure their intentions and to defend their actions in ways that make them acceptable to citizens, it is easy for anyone who is willing to be critical and consider the facts to discern what they are up to.

James McGilvray, 2014 [178]

Chomsky is a prominent political dissident. [lower-alpha 7] His political views have changed little since his childhood, [179] when he was influenced by the emphasis on political activism that was ingrained in Jewish working-class tradition. [180] He usually identifies as an anarcho-syndicalist or a libertarian socialist. [181] He views these positions not as precise political theories but as ideals that he thinks best meet human needs: liberty, community, and freedom of association. [182] Unlike some other socialists, such as Marxists, Chomsky believes that politics lies outside the remit of science, [183] but he still roots his ideas about an ideal society in empirical data and empirically justified theories. [184]

In Chomsky's view, the truth about political realities is systematically distorted or suppressed by an elite corporatocracy, which uses corporate media, advertising, and think tanks to promote its own propaganda. His work seeks to reveal such manipulations and the truth they obscure. [185] Chomsky believes this web of falsehood can be broken by "common sense", critical thinking, and understanding the roles of self-interest and self-deception, [186] and that intellectuals abdicate their moral responsibility to tell the truth about the world in fear of losing prestige and funding. [187] He argues that, as such an intellectual, it is his duty to use his social privilege, resources, and training to aid popular democracy movements in their struggles. [188]

Although he has joined protest marches and organized activist groups, Chomsky's primary political outlets are education and publication. He offers a wide range of political writings [189] as well as free lessons and lectures to encourage wider political consciousness. [190] He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World international union. [191]

United States foreign policy

Chomsky at the 2003 World Social Forum, a convention for counter-hegemonic globalization, in Porto Alegre Noam Chomsky WSF - 2003.jpg
Chomsky at the 2003 World Social Forum, a convention for counter-hegemonic globalization, in Porto Alegre

Chomsky has been a prominent critic of American imperialism [192] and believes that World War II is the only justified war the U.S. has fought in his lifetime. [36] He believes that the basic principle of the foreign policy of the United States is the establishment of "open societies" that are economically and politically controlled by the United States and where U.S.-based businesses can prosper. [193] He argues that the U.S. seeks to suppress any movements within these countries that are not compliant with U.S. interests and to ensure that U.S.-friendly governments are placed in power. [187] When discussing current events, he emphasizes their place within a wider historical perspective. [194] He believes that official, sanctioned historical accounts of U.S. and British extraterritorial operations have consistently whitewashed these nations' actions in order to present them as having benevolent motives in either spreading democracy or, in older instances, spreading Christianity; criticizing these accounts, he seeks to correct them. [195] Prominent examples he regularly cites are the actions of the British Empire in India and Africa and the actions of the U.S. in Vietnam, the Philippines, Latin America, and the Middle East. [195]

Chomsky's political work has centered heavily on criticizing the actions of the United States. [194] He has said he focuses on the U.S. because the country has militarily and economically dominated the world during his lifetime and because its liberal democratic electoral system allows the citizenry to influence government policy. [196] His hope is that, by spreading awareness of the impact U.S. foreign policies have on the populations affected by them, he can sway the populations of the U.S. and other countries into opposing the policies. [195] He urges people to criticize their governments' motivations, decisions, and actions, to accept responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, and to apply the same standards to others as to themselves. [197]

Chomsky has been critical of U.S. involvement in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, arguing that it has consistently blocked a peaceful settlement. [187] Chomsky also criticizes the U.S.'s close ties with Saudi Arabia and involvement in Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, highlighting that Saudi Arabia has "one of the most grotesque human rights records in the world". [198]

Capitalism and socialism

In his youth, Chomsky developed a dislike of capitalism and the pursuit of material wealth. [199] At the same time, he developed a disdain for authoritarian socialism, as represented by the Marxist–Leninist policies of the Soviet Union. [200] Rather than accepting the common view among U.S. economists that a spectrum exists between total state ownership of the economy and total private ownership, he instead suggests that a spectrum should be understood between total democratic control of the economy and total autocratic control (whether state or private). [201] He argues that Western capitalist countries are not really democratic, [202] because, in his view, a truly democratic society is one in which all persons have a say in public economic policy. [203] He has stated his opposition to ruling elites, among them institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and GATT (precursor to the WTO). [204]

Chomsky highlights that, since the 1970s, the U.S. has become increasingly economically unequal as a result of the repeal of various financial regulations and the rescinding of the Bretton Woods financial control agreement. [205] He characterizes the U.S. as a de facto one-party state, viewing both the Republican Party and Democratic Party as manifestations of a single "Business Party" controlled by corporate and financial interests. [206] Chomsky highlights that, within Western capitalist liberal democracies, at least 80% of the population has no control over economic decisions, which are instead in the hands of a management class and ultimately controlled by a small, wealthy elite. [207]

Noting the entrenchment of such an economic system, Chomsky believes that change is possible through the organized cooperation of large numbers of people who understand the problem and know how they want to reorganize the economy more equitably. [207] Acknowledging that corporate domination of media and government stifles any significant change to this system, he sees reason for optimism in historical examples such as the social rejection of slavery as immoral, the advances in women's rights, and the forcing of government to justify invasions. [205] He views violent revolution to overthrow a government as a last resort to be avoided if possible, citing the example of historical revolutions where the population's welfare has worsened as a result of upheaval. [207]

Chomsky sees libertarian socialist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas as the descendants of the classical liberal ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, [208] arguing that his ideological position revolves around "nourishing the libertarian and creative character of the human being". [209] He envisions an anarcho-syndicalist future with direct worker control of the means of production and government by workers' councils, who would select temporary and revocable representatives to meet together at general assemblies. [210] The point of this self-governance is to make each citizen, in Thomas Jefferson's words, "a direct participator in the government of affairs." [211] He believes that there will be no need for political parties. [212] By controlling their productive life, he believes that individuals can gain job satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment and purpose. [213] He argues that unpleasant and unpopular jobs could be fully automated, carried out by workers who are specially remunerated, or shared among everyone. [214]

Israeli–Palestinian conflict

Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a [Palestinian] population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder.

Chomsky criticizing Israel, 2012 [215]

Chomsky has written prolifically on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, aiming to raise public awareness of it. [216] He has long endorsed a left binationalist program in Israel and Palestine, seeking to create a democratic state in the Levant that is home to both Jews and Arabs. [217] He has called the adoption of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine "a very bad decision." [36] Nevertheless, given the realpolitik of the situation, he has also considered a two-state solution on the condition that the nation-states exist on equal terms. [218] Chomsky was denied entry to the West Bank in 2010 because of his criticisms of Israel. He had been invited to deliver a lecture at Bir Zeit University and was to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. [219] [220] [221] [222] An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman later said that Chomsky was denied entry by mistake. [223]

News media and propaganda

External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Chomsky on propaganda and the manufacturing of consent, June 1, 2003

Chomsky's political writings have largely focused on ideology, social and political power, the media, and state policy. [224] One of his best-known works, Manufacturing Consent , dissects the media's role in reinforcing and acquiescing to state policies across the political spectrum while marginalizing contrary perspectives. Chomsky asserts that this version of censorship, by government-guided "free market" forces, is subtler and harder to undermine than was the equivalent propaganda system in the Soviet Union. [225] As he argues, the mainstream press is corporate-owned and thus reflects corporate priorities and interests. [226] Acknowledging that many American journalists are dedicated and well-meaning, he argues that the mass media's choices of topics and issues, the unquestioned premises on which that coverage rests, and the range of opinions expressed are all constrained to reinforce the state's ideology: [227] although mass media will criticize individual politicians and political parties, it will not undermine the wider state-corporate nexus of which it is a part. [228] As evidence, he highlights that the U.S. mass media does not employ any socialist journalists or political commentators. [229] He also points to examples of important news stories that the U.S. mainstream media has ignored because reporting on them would reflect badly upon the country, including the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton with possible FBI involvement, the massacres in Nicaragua perpetrated by U.S.-funded Contras, and the constant reporting on Israeli deaths without equivalent coverage of the far larger number of Palestinian deaths in that conflict. [230] To remedy this situation, Chomsky calls for grassroots democratic control and involvement of the media. [231]

Chomsky considers most conspiracy theories fruitless, distracting substitutes for thinking about policy formation in an institutional framework, where individual manipulation is secondary to broader social imperatives. [232] While not dismissing them outright, he considers them unproductive to challenging power in a substantial way. In response to the labeling of his own ideas as a conspiracy theory, Chomsky has said that it is very rational for the media to manipulate information in order to sell it, like any other business. He asks whether General Motors would be accused of conspiracy if it deliberately selected what it used or discarded to sell its product. [233]

Other disciplines

Chomsky has also been active in a number of philosophical fields, including philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. [234] In these fields he is credited with ushering in the "cognitive revolution", [234] a significant paradigm shift that rejected logical positivism, the prevailing philosophical methodology of the time, and reframed how philosophers think about language and the mind. [176] Chomsky views the cognitive revolution as rooted in 17th-century rationalist ideals. [235] His position—the idea that the mind contains inherent structures to understand language, perception, and thought—has more in common with rationalism (Enlightenment and Cartesian) than behaviorism. [236] He named one of his key works Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966). [235] This sparked criticism from historians and philosophers who disagreed with Chomsky's interpretations of classical sources and use of philosophical terminology. [lower-alpha 8] In the philosophy of language, Chomsky is particularly known for his criticisms of the notion of reference and meaning in human language and his perspective on the nature and function of mental representations. [237]

Chomsky's famous 1971 debate on human nature with the French philosopher Michel Foucault was symbolic in positioning Chomsky as the prototypical analytic philosopher against Foucault, a stalwart of the continental tradition. [103] It showed what appeared to be irreconcilable differences between two moral and intellectual luminaries of the 20th century. Foucault's position was that of critique, that human nature could not be conceived in terms foreign to present understanding, while Chomsky held that human nature contained universalities such as a common standard of moral justice as deduced through reason based on what rationally serves human necessity. [238] Chomsky criticized postmodernism and French philosophy generally, arguing that the obscure language of postmodern, leftist philosophers gives little aid to the working classes. [239] He has also debated analytic philosophers, including Tyler Burge, Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, Saul Kripke, Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Willard Van Orman Quine, and John Searle. [176]

Chomsky's contributions span intellectual and world history, including the history of philosophy. [240] Irony is a recurring characteristic of his writing, as he often implies that his readers know better, which can make them more engaged in the veracity of his claims. [241]

Personal life

Chomsky (far right) and his wife Valeria (second from right) with David and Carolee Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2014 Chomsky and others.jpg
Chomsky (far right) and his wife Valeria (second from right) with David and Carolee Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2014

Chomsky endeavors to separate his family life, linguistic scholarship, and political activism from each other. [242] An intensely private person, [243] he is uninterested in appearances and the fame his work has brought him. [244] He also has little interest in modern art and music. [245] McGilvray suggests that Chomsky was never motivated by a desire for fame, but impelled to tell what he perceived as the truth and a desire to aid others in doing so. [246] Chomsky acknowledges that his income affords him a privileged life compared to the majority of the world's population; [247] nevertheless, he characterizes himself as a "worker", albeit one who uses his intellect as his employable skill. [248] He reads four or five newspapers daily; in the US, he subscribes to The Boston Globe , The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , Financial Times , and The Christian Science Monitor . [249] Chomsky is non-religious, but has expressed approval of forms of religion such as liberation theology. [250]

Chomsky has attracted controversy for calling established political and academic figures "corrupt", "fascist", and "fraudulent". [251] His colleague Steven Pinker has said that he "portrays people who disagree with him as stupid or evil, using withering scorn in his rhetoric", and that this contributes to the extreme reactions he receives from critics. [252] Chomsky avoids attending academic conferences, including left-oriented ones such as the Socialist Scholars Conference, preferring to speak to activist groups or hold university seminars for mass audiences. [253] His approach to academic freedom has led him to support MIT academics whose actions he deplores; in 1969, when Chomsky heard that Walt Rostow, a major architect of the Vietnam war, wanted to return to work at MIT, Chomsky threatened "to protest publicly" if Rostow were denied a position at MIT. In 1989, when Pentagon adviser John Deutch applied to be president of MIT, Chomsky supported his candidacy. Later, when Deutch became head of the CIA, The New York Times quoted Chomsky as saying, "He has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've ever met. ... If somebody's got to be running the CIA, I'm glad it's him." [254]

Chomsky was married to Carol ( née  Carol Doris Schatz) from 1949 until her death in 2008. [248] They had three children together: Aviva (b. 1957), Diane (b. 1960), and Harry (b. 1967). [255] In 2014, Chomsky married Valeria Wasserman. [256]

Reception and influence

[Chomsky's] voice is heard in academia beyond linguistics and philosophy: from computer science to neuroscience, from anthropology to education, mathematics and literary criticism. If we include Chomsky's political activism then the boundaries become quite blurred, and it comes as no surprise that Chomsky is increasingly seen as enemy number one by those who inhabit that wide sphere of reactionary discourse and action.

Sperlich, 2006 [257]

Chomsky has been a defining Western intellectual figure, central to the field of linguistics and definitive in cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology. [258] In addition to being known as one of the most important intellectuals of his time, [lower-alpha 9] Chomsky carries a dual legacy as both a "leader in the field" of linguistics and "a figure of enlightenment and inspiration" for political dissenters. [259] Despite his academic success, his political viewpoints and activism have resulted in his being distrusted by the mainstream media apparatus, and he is regarded as being "on the outer margin of acceptability". [260] The reception of his work is intertwined with his public image as an anarchist, a gadfly, a historian, a Jew, a linguist, and a philosopher. [9]

In academia

McGilvray observes that Chomsky inaugurated the "cognitive revolution" in linguistics, [261] and that he is largely responsible for establishing the field as a formal, natural science, [262] moving it away from the procedural form of structural linguistics dominant during the mid-20th century. [263] As such, some have called Chomsky "the father of modern linguistics". [lower-alpha 4] Linguist John Lyons further remarked that within a few decades of publication, Chomskyan linguistics had become "the most dynamic and influential" school of thought in the field. [264] By the 1970s his work had also come to exert a considerable influence on philosophy, [265] and a Minnesota State University Moorhead poll ranked Syntactic Structures as the single most important work in cognitive science. [266] In addition, his work in automata theory and the Chomsky hierarchy have become well known in computer science, and he is much cited in computational linguistics. [267] [268] [269]

Chomsky's criticisms of behaviorism contributed substantially to the decline of behaviorist psychology; [270] in addition, he is generally regarded as one of the primary founders of the field of cognitive science. [271] [234] Some arguments in evolutionary psychology are derived from his research results; [272] Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was the subject of a study in animal language acquisition at Columbia University, was named after Chomsky in reference to his view of language acquisition as a uniquely human ability. [273]

ACM Turing Award winner Donald Knuth credited Chomsky's work with helping him combine his interests in mathematics, linguistics, and computer science. [274] IBM computer scientist John Backus, another Turing Award winner, used some of Chomsky's concepts to help him develop FORTRAN, the first widely used high-level computer programming language. [275] Immunologist Niels Kaj Jerne's 1984 Nobel lecture applied Chomsky's generative grammar theory to the immune response process. [276] Chomsky's theory of generative grammar has also influenced work in music theory and analysis. [277] [278] [279]

Chomsky is among the most cited authors living or dead. [19] [258] He was cited within the Arts and Humanities Citation Index more often than any other living scholar from 1980 to 1992. [19] Chomsky was also extensively cited in the Social Sciences Citation Index and Science Citation Index during the same period. The librarian who conducted the research said that the statistics show that "he is very widely read across disciplines and that his work is used by researchers across disciplines ... it seems that you can't write a paper without citing Noam Chomsky." [258] As a result of his influence, there are dueling camps of Chomskyan and non-Chomskyan linguistics, with the disputes between the two camps often acrimonious. [280]

In politics

Chomsky's status as the "most-quoted living author" is credited to his political writings, which vastly outnumber his writings on linguistics. [281] Chomsky biographer Wolfgang B. Sperlich characterizes him as "one of the most notable contemporary champions of the people"; [243] journalist John Pilger has described him as a "genuine people's hero; an inspiration for struggles all over the world for that basic decency known as freedom. To a lot of people in the margins—activists and movements—he's unfailingly supportive." [252] Arundhati Roy has called him "one of the greatest, most radical public thinkers of our time", [282] and Edward Said thought him "one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions". [252] Fred Halliday has said that by the start of the 21st century Chomsky had become a "guru" for the world's anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements. [252] The propaganda model of media criticism that he and Herman developed has been widely accepted in radical media critiques and adopted to some level in mainstream criticism of the media, [283] also exerting a significant influence on the growth of alternative media, including radio, publishers, and the Internet, which in turn have helped to disseminate his work. [284]

Sperlich also says that Chomsky has been vilified by corporate interests, particularly in the mainstream press. [140] University departments devoted to history and political science rarely include Chomsky's work on their undergraduate syllabi. [285] Critics have argued that despite publishing widely on social and political issues, Chomsky has no formal expertise in these areas; he has responded that such issues are not as complex as many social scientists claim and that almost everyone is able to comprehend them regardless of whether they have been academically trained to do so. [188] According to McGilvray, many of Chomsky's critics "do not bother quoting his work or quote out of context, distort, and create straw men that cannot be supported by Chomsky's text". [188]

Chomsky drew criticism for not calling the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War a "genocide". He said it was "certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it genocide so cheapens the word". [286] In an interview with Emma Brockes for The Guardian , Chomsky said that Ed Vulliamy was "caught up in a story which is probably not true" in his reporting on the existence of Bosnian concentration camps. After the interview was published, Chomsky said it misrepresented his views. The Guardian agreed with Chomsky and published a correction, which was criticized by multiple Balkan watchers. [287] [288]

Chomsky's far-reaching criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and the legitimacy of U.S. power have raised controversy. A document obtained pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the U.S. government revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) monitored his activities and for years denied doing so. The CIA also destroyed its files on Chomsky at some point, possibly in violation of federal law. [289] He has often received undercover police protection at MIT and when speaking on the Middle East, but has refused uniformed police protection. [290] German news magazine Der Spiegel described Chomsky as "the Ayatollah of anti-American hatred", [140] while American conservative commentator David Horowitz called him "the most devious, the most dishonest and ... the most treacherous intellect in America", whose work is infused with "anti-American dementia" and evidences his "pathological hatred of his own country". [291] Writing in Commentary magazine, the journalist Jonathan Kay described Chomsky as "a hard-boiled anti-American monomaniac who simply refuses to believe anything that any American leader says". [292]

Chomsky's criticism of Israel has led to his being called a traitor to the Jewish people and an anti-Semite. [293] Criticizing Chomsky's defense of the right of individuals to engage in Holocaust denial on the grounds that freedom of speech must be extended to all viewpoints, Werner Cohn called Chomsky "the most important patron" of the neo-Nazi movement. [294] The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called him a Holocaust denier, [295] describing him as a "dupe of intellectual pride so overweening that he is incapable of making distinctions between totalitarian and democratic societies, between oppressors and victims". [295] In turn, Chomsky has claimed that the ADL is dominated by "Stalinist types" who oppose democracy in Israel. [293] The lawyer Alan Dershowitz has called Chomsky a "false prophet of the left"; [296] Chomsky called Dershowitz "a complete liar" who is on "a crazed jihad, dedicating much of his life to trying to destroy my reputation". [297] In early 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey publicly rebuked Chomsky after he signed an open letter condemning Erdoğan for his anti-Kurdish repression and double standards on terrorism. [298] Chomsky accused Erdoğan of hypocrisy, noting that Erdoğan supports al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, [299] the al-Nusra Front. [298]

In February 2020, before attending the 2020 Hay Festival in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Chomsky signed a letter of condemnation of the violation of freedom of speech in the emirate, referring to the arrest of human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Other signers included authors Stephen Fry and Jung Chang. [300]

Academic achievements, awards, and honors

Chomsky receiving an award from the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, David Krieger (2014) Chomsky and Krieger.jpg
Chomsky receiving an award from the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, David Krieger (2014)

In 1970, the London Times named Chomsky one of the "makers of the twentieth century". [152] He was voted the world's leading public intellectual in The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll jointly conducted by American magazine Foreign Policy and British magazine Prospect. [301] New Statesman readers listed Chomsky among the world's foremost heroes in 2006. [302]

In the United States he is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Linguistic Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Philosophical Association, [303] and the American Philosophical Society. [304] Abroad he is a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, an honorary member of the British Psychological Society, a member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, [303] and a foreign member of the Department of Social Sciences of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. [305] He received a 1971 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 1984 American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology, the 1988 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the 1996 Helmholtz Medal, [303] the 1999 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, [306] the 2010 Erich Fromm Prize, [307] and the British Academy's 2014 Neil and Saras Smith Medal for Linguistics. [308] He is also a two-time winner of the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language (1987 and 1989). [303] He has also received the Rabindranath Tagore Centenary Award from The Asiatic Society. [309]

Chomsky received the 2004 Carl-von-Ossietzky Prize from the city of Oldenburg, Germany, to acknowledge his body of work as a political analyst and media critic. [310] He received an honorary fellowship in 2005 from the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin. [311] He received the 2008 President's Medal from the Literary and Debating Society of the National University of Ireland, Galway. [312] Since 2009, he has been an honorary member of International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI). [313] He received the University of Wisconsin's A.E. Havens Center's Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship [314] and was inducted into IEEE Intelligent Systems' AI's Hall of Fame for "significant contributions to the field of AI and intelligent systems." [315] Chomsky has an Erdős number of four. [316]

In 2011, the US Peace Memorial Foundation awarded Chomsky the US Peace Prize for anti-war activities over five decades. [317] For his work in human rights, peace, and social criticism, he received the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize , [318] the Sretenje Order in 2015, [319] the 2017 Seán MacBride Peace Prize [320] and the Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award. [306]

Chomsky has received honorary doctorates from institutions including the University of London and the University of Chicago (1967), Loyola University Chicago and Swarthmore College (1970), Bard College (1971), Delhi University (1972), the University of Massachusetts (1973), and the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste (2012) among others. [101] His public lectures have included the 1969 John Locke Lectures, [306] 1975 Whidden Lectures, [102] 1977 Huizinga Lecture, and 1988 Massey Lectures, among others. [306]

Various tributes to Chomsky have been dedicated over the years. He is the eponym for a bee species, [321] a frog species, [322] and a building complex at the Indian university Jamia Millia Islamia. [323] Actor Viggo Mortensen and avant-garde guitarist Buckethead dedicated their 2003 album Pandemoniumfromamerica to Chomsky. [324]

Selected bibliography

See also


Explanatory notes

  1. English: /nmˈɒmski/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ) NOHMCHOM-skee, Hebrew: [ˈnoʔam ˈχomski] .
  2. "In thinking about the Effect of Chomsky's work, we have had to dwell upon the reception of Chomsky's work and the perception of Chomsky as a Jew, a linguist, a philosopher, a historian, a gadfly, an icon, and an anarchist." (Barsky 2007:107)
  3. "Since his Cartesian linguistics (1966) it has been clear that Chomsky is a superb intellectual historian—a historian of philosophy in the case of his 1966 book, his earliest incursion into the field; later writings (e.g., Year 501) extended the coverage to world history. The lectures just mentioned and other writings take on highly significant and sometimes not properly appreciated, and often misunderstood, developments in the history of science." (Otero 2003:416)
  4. 1 2
    • Fox 1998: "Mr. Chomsky ... is the father of modern linguistics and remains the field's most influential practitioner."
    • Tymoczko & Henle 2004, p. 101: "As the founder of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, observed, each of the following sequences of words is nonsense ..."
    • Tanenhaus 2016: "At 87, Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, remains a vital presence in American intellectual life."
    • Smith 2004, pp. 107 "Chomsky's early work was renowned for its mathematical rigor and he made some contribution to the nascent discipline of mathematical linguistics, in particular the analysis of (formal) languages in terms of what is now known as the Chomsky hierarchy."
    • Koerner 1983, pp. 159: "Characteristically, Harris proposes a transfer of sentences from English to Modern Hebrew ... Chomsky's approach to syntax in Syntactic Structures and several years thereafter was not much different from Harris's approach, since the concept of 'deep' or 'underlying structure' had not yet been introduced. The main difference between Harris (1954) and Chomsky (1957) appears to be that the latter is dealing with transfers within one single language only"
    • Koerner 1978, pp. 41f: "it is worth noting that Chomsky cites Hjelmslev's Prolegomena, which had been translated into English in 1953, since the authors' theoretical argument, derived largely from logic and mathematics, exhibits noticeable similarities."
    • Seuren 1998, pp. 166: "Both Hjelmslev and Harris were inspired by the mathematical notion of an algorithm as a purely formal production system for a set of strings of symbols. ... it is probably accurate to say that Hjelmslev was the first to try and apply it to the generation of strings of symbols in natural language"
    • Hjelmslev 1969 Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Danish original 1943; first English translation 1954.
    • Macintyre 2010
    • Burris 2013: "Noam Chomsky has built his entire reputation as a political dissident on his command of the facts."
    • McNeill 2014: "[Chomsky is] often dubbed one of the world's most important intellectuals and its leading public dissident ..."
    • Hamans & Seuren 2010, p. 377: "Having achieved a unique position of supremacy in the theory of syntax and having exploited that position far beyond the narrow circles of professional syntacticians, he felt the need to shore up his theory with the authority of history. It is shown that this attempt, resulting mainly in his Cartesian Linguistics of 1966, was widely, and rightly, judged to be a radical failure"
    • McNeill 2014: "[Chomsky is] often dubbed one of the world's most important intellectuals ..."
    • Campbell 2005: "Noam Chomsky, the linguistics professor who has become one of the most outspoken critics of US foreign policy, has won a poll that names him as the world's top public intellectual."
    • Robinson 1979: "Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today."
    • Flint 1995: "The man once called the most important intellectual alive keeps his office in ... the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."


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Further reading