Chomsky, Noam Avram

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CHOMSKY, NOAM AVRAM (1928– ), U.S. linguist; son of Hebrew scholar William *Chomsky. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Chomsky studied linguistics with Zellig S. *Harris and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. His dissertation contained the beginnings of revolutionary linguistic conceptions. According to Chomsky, grammars must be written more rigorously if linguistics is to become a theoretical science. Grammatical rules, rather than being purely descriptive, should "generate" all (and only) the sentences of the language concerned, as judged intuitively by native speakers. These sentences would then be assigned their correct structure (or structures, in case of syntactically ambiguous sentences), again in accordance with intuition. Such generative grammars should consist of a syntactical central component, itself made up of three parts: (1) a base component with very simple rules ("phrase structure") generating "underlying (or deep) structures," and a set of more complex rules of transformations generating the "superficial (or surface) structures"; (2) a semantic component "interpreting" (as-signing meaning to) the deep structures; and (3) a phonological component providing the phonetic interpretations of the surface structures. Grammars adhering to such models have certain specific algebraic structures that can be studied by appropriate logical, algebraic, and automata-theoretic methods, giving rise to the new field of "algebraic linguistics." To account for our capacity for language acquisition, Chomsky employed ideas vaguely voiced by rationalists of the 17th and 18th centuries. He assumed that man is born with a species-specific capacity for evaluating competing grammars as well as with certain linguistic universals whose exact nature remains to be determined. Through an incisive critique of behavioristic theories of language and speech, Chomsky was instrumental in reviving mentalism in philosophy and psychology alike.

The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975), Reflections of Language (1975), and Language and Responsibility (in which he explores the relationship between language and politics, the history of ideas, and science) further developed his linguistic theories. The latter also bears evidence of his socio-political concerns. After receiving his doctorate, Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 19 years, receiving the first award from the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics.

In addition to his work as a linguist, Chomsky was active as an outspoken critic of American domestic and foreign policy, particularly in regard to American involvement in Vietnam. He refused to pay part of his taxes in protest against military spending, and from 1968 was a member of the executive committee of Resistance, a movement to encourage civil disobedience in opposition to the Vietnam War. He also lectured widely on the subject and wrote many political articles, a collection of which appeared in 1969 under the title American Power and the Mandarins. He went on to establish himself as perhaps the best-known and most persistent radical critic of what he perceived as governmental abuse of power and increasing authoritarianism worldwide. In Manufacturing Consent (a film of the same name was released in 1993), he argued that American public opinion was being manipulated through a de facto conspiracy of big business, television, and the press; he cited reporting of Indonesian government suppression of the population of East Timor as an important example that bolstered his case.

Chomsky describes himself as a "libertarian socialist" and a "supporter of anarcho-syndicalism." He has also defined himself as a Zionist, although he acknowledges that his definition of Zionism is considered by most to be anti-Zionism, the result of what he perceives to have been a shift (since the 1940s) in the meaning of the concept. He is highly critical of the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors. He has also consistently condemned the United States for its unconditional military, financial, and diplomatic support of successive Israeli governments. He characterizes Israel as a "mercenary state" within the U.S. system of hegemony.

Over the years, Chomsky has been involved in many public disagreements over policy and scholarship, both on ideological and academic grounds. His foreign policy writings remain very controversial, and he has both conservative and left-wing critics, who dispute his writings and political interpretations of world events.

Chomsky's many works include Syntactic Structures (1957), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Cartesian Linguistics (with M. Halle, 1966), The Sound Pattern of English (1968), Language and Mind (1968), At War with Asia (1970), Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (1971), For Reasons of State (1973), Middle East Illusions: Including Peace in the Middle East?Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (1974), Language and Responsibility (1979), The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. i and ii (with E.S. Herman, 1979), Towards a New Cold War (1982), Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (1983/1999), Turning the Tide (1985), On Power and Ideology (1986), Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (1987), The Culture of Terrorism (1988), Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989), Language and Politics (1989), Radical Priorities (1981), Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (1991), Deterring Democracy (1992), Chronicles of Dissent (1992), Year 501: The Conquest Continues (1993), Rethinking Camelot: jfk, the Vietnam War and u.s. Political Culture (1993), Letters from Lexington (1993), The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1993), World Orders, Old and New (1994), Keeping the Rabble in Line (1994), The Minimalist Program (1995), Language and Thought (1995), The Common Good (1998), Rogue States (2000), A New Generation Draws the Line (2000), 9–11 (2001), Understanding Power (2002), Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (2002), On Nature and Language (2002), The New War on Terrorism: Fact and Fiction (2003), and Hegemony or Survival (2003), as well as various political essays that have appeared in the New York Review of Books.

Chomsky is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, he is a member of other professional and learned societies in the United States and abroad and is a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the Kyoto Prize in basic sciences, the Helmholtz Medal, the Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award, the Ben Franklin Medal in computer and cognitive science, and others.


Abel, in: Commentary, 47 no. 5 (1969), 35–44; Steiner, in: New Yorker (Nov. 15, 1969), 217–36. add. bibliography: R. Milan, Chomsky's Politics (1995); D. Horowitz et al. The Anti-Chomsky Reader (2004).

[Yehoshua Bar-Hillel /

Rohan Saxena and

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]