Chomsky, Noam (1928–)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Noam Chomsky is the foremost linguistic theorist of the postWorld War II era, an important contributor to philosophical debates, and a notable radical activist. His influence is felt in many other fields, however, most notably, perhaps, in the area of cognitive studies.

Chomsky's main achievement was to distinguish linguistic competence from its manifestations in performance and to characterize competence as a system of explicit rules for the construction and interpretation of sentences. Indeed, this achievement provided a model for investigations, in this and other cognitive domains, that replaced then-dominant models based on the notion of analogy and oriented to the causal explanation of behavior.

The competence of individuals to use their language is constituted, on Chomsky's account, by their (tacit) knowledge of a formal grammar (or system of rules); their linguistic performance, involving the deployment of such knowledge, may be influenced by a host of extraneous factors that need not be accounted for by the grammar itself but, instead and if possible, by subsidiary theories (e.g., of perceptual processing, etc.). Furthermore, knowledge of such a system of rules permits a kind of creativity in performance that exhibits itself in the novelty, in relation to speakers' prior linguistic experiences, of (many of) the sentences they actually produce. (Crudely put, they can understand and produce sentences they have never before encountered.)

The competence/performance distinction reflects Chomsky's preference for "Galilean" theorizing (i.e., for a "modular" approach), and its introduction was tremendously liberating. A direct attack on performance, under broadly behavioristic auspices, had proved barren, for reasons Chomsky identified with devastating clarity in his review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Also pertinent was Chomsky's analysis of linguistic creativity in a second, distinct sense: the appropriateness and yet stimulus-independence (and therefore causal inexplicability) of much of what a speaker says in concrete circumstances. Shifting the linguist's problematic from behavior to the system underlying behavior was probably Chomsky's most important contribution to the development of "scientific" studies of social phenomena. (Of course, the competence/performance distinction owes much to Ferdinand de Saussure's earlier distinction between langue and parole. But Saussure did not think of the system underlying behavior as primarily rule-based, and so his distinction proved less fertile than Chomsky's.)

In a series of works beginning with Cartesian Linguistics, Chomsky took up what he came to call "Plato's problem"that of explaining how the gap is bridged between individuals' limited opportunities, as children, for acquiring knowledge of their (native) language(s) and the competence to make many subtle and complex discriminations that, as mature speakers, they do indeed possess. He solved this problem, siding with classical rationalists such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, by assuming the existence, as an innate species-wide attribute, of a "universal grammar." During the course of language acquisition, limited data fixes the values of free "parameters" associated with this grammar, thus providing a basis for full-blown knowledge of the language that far exceeds the ordinary "inductive" implications of these data.

Chomsky has also been a notable advocate, very significantly in a discipline previously marked by instrumentalist assumptions about theorizing, of a realist perspective on theoretical entities and processes. In early work deep structures were postulated as sources, via transformations, of familiar superficial structures of sentences. So, for instance, a superficially passive sentence was said to be derived from the same deep structure as its active counterpart. And while it might have been more in line with then-contemporary practice to treat these so-called deep structures as pure postulates, useful in simplifying the description and taxonomization of the superficial sentences of our "experience," Chomsky advocated, instead, that they be treated as having psychological reality and thereby fostered many profound psycholinguistic studies intended to bear out or refute this contention. A topic of continuing importance is whether it is only structures or, instead, derivational processes as well that are to be treated as "real."

Less noticed by commentators is Chomsky's profoundly individualistic approach to linguistic phenomena. For him, language itself is a secondary phenomena; primacy is accorded to an individual's competence, a purely psychological phenomenon. Indeed, Chomsky explains the coordination of linguistic interaction, not by reference to any transpersonal system of conventions (as might be thought appropriate in relation to other social phenomena), but, instead, to a harmonybetween the competence of the speaker and the marginally different competence of the hearerthat depends largely on the innate constraints on their (typically) quite separate episodes of language acquisition. Even if each learns in isolation from the other, and has quite (though not "too") different experiential bases for learning, each will acquire an "idiolect" that is accessible to the other: Otherwise rather different data-sets fix the free parameters of the universal grammar in sufficiently similar ways to permit mutual intelligibility.

Other philosophically important themes in Chomsky's work include: (1) his identification of the ideological interests that are served by certain allegedly "scientific" approaches to the study of human behavior; (2) his argument for treating the capacity for language as species-specific and thus as an aspect of the human "essence"; (3) his speculations about the possibility that there are innate limitations on the human capacity for knowledge of the world; and (4) his continued defense, in the face of broadly "postmodernist" opposition, of the role of reason in understanding and improving the human condition and of the viability of the notion of "progress" in relation to these projects.

See also Behaviorism; Cognitive Science; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Modernism and Postmodernism; Postmodernism.


works by chomsky

Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton, 1957.

"A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. " In The Structure of Language, edited by J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Cartesian Linguistics. New York: Harper, 1966.

Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972.

For Reasons of State. London: Fontana, 1973.

Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

works on chomsky

D'Agostino, F. Chomsky's System of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Harman, G., ed. On Noam Chomsky. New York: Anchor Press, 1974.

Kasher, A., ed. The Chomskyan Turn. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Sampson, G. Liberty and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Fred D'Agostino (1996)