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Noam Chomsky Life and History

Noam Chomsky in 2004
Noam Chomsky 


(Avram) Noam Chomsky is an eminent linguist and a radical political philosopher of international reputation. He was born on December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA) where he grew up in a family of Ukrainian and Belarusian Jewish immigrants who had gone through New York before settling in Philadelphia. According to Chomsky they remained "immersed in both Hebrew culture and literature." Not surprisingly, therefore, Chomsky’s parents both taught at a Hebrew school. Before he was two years of age they sent him to an experimental progressive school, where he remained until the age of twelve. There he would learn that everybody has a place and that everyone can do something important. Chomsky himself remembers a childhood absorbed in reading. He can see himself curled up on a sofa reading the books he used to borrow from the library often up to a dozen at a time. Having until then been to a school where he would neither experience competition amongst his classmates nor any kind of ranking relative to others, he would not learn until middle school that he is a good student. His years there and subsequently in high school, however, were characterized by ruthless competitiveness and they remain a period of his life almost completely blocked out of his memory, except for the emotional aspects, which he has qualified as rather negative.
Today Chomsky is Professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he has taught all of his career. He founded generative linguistics, which in and of itself was a revolution in his field and beyond. He also became known to the general public, both at home and abroad by being a committed intellectual with a clear inclination for what he referred to early as "anarcho-syndicalism". Syndicalisme is a French word derived from Greek that means "trade unionism".
The first article Chomsky ever wrote was published in the school newspaper just a few weeks after his tenth birthday as an editorial on the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. Chomsky came across anarchism very young and even published an anti-fascist article when he was just twelve. Thanks to an assistance program for persons with disabilities in New York City in the 30s, Chomsky’s uncle who was a hunchback had been given a newspaper stand to tend behind the exit of the subway station of the 72nd Street and Broadway. The kiosk, as a result of being behind the exit hardly made any money, but it became a forum where radical ideas came together, and where the young Chomsky would work in the evenings and take part in the rich intellectual debates. Chomsky would even declare years later that it is where he got his political education.
Chomsky has been a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the National Academy of Sciences. Over the years Noam Chomsky has been invited to numerous major universities all around the globe. He has received at least ten honorary university degrees from around the world. In 1988, Japan awarded him with the Kyoto Prize for the Basic Sciences category. In terms of its prestige, its intent, and its monetary value ($350,000), it is very similar to the Nobel Prize. He has been the eighth most cited intellectual in the scientific literature for a long time and was identified in 2005 by the British magazine Prospect as the most influential living scholar in the world. Indeed his influence extends beyond that of science and in 1992 The Arts and Humanities Citation Index recognized Chomsky as being cited more than any other living scholar in the eighties and early nineties. Indeed, with William Shakespeare, Karl Marx and the Bible, Chomsky is apparently one of the top ten most cited in the humanities.
In 1945 he began studying philosophy, mathematics and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania where his teachers included the famous philosopher and systems scientist C. West Churchman, the distinguished philosopher Nelson Goodman and the renowned linguist Zellig Harris. In 1949 Noam Chomsky marries the linguist and education specialist Carol Schatz’s whom he knew since early childhood and with whom he would have three children, two girls and one boy (Aviva, Diane and Harry). Carol Chomsky died of cancer in 2008. Under the guidance of teachers such as the Russian linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson and one of his former mentors Nelson Goodman, Chomsky did research for several years at Harvard University on the grammatical constructions of Hebrew. In 1955 he presented a doctoral thesis on syntactic structures entitled "Transformational Analysis", which would pave the way for his revolutionary concept of transformational grammar.
Chomsky then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge where he was first appointed professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, before being promoted and take the Ferrari P. Ward chair in 1966. Finally in 1976 he became "Institute Professor", a title which is given to members of the faculty who have made major contribution to both their field as well as the MIT community. In total, Chomsky would teach linguistics at MIT for fifty years, retiring from the job in 2005.
A question often asked throughout the years by many people, including Chomsky himself, has been whether there is connection between Chomsky’s theoretical pioneering linguistics and his activist progressive politics. And if so, how strong is it? Chomsky today gives essentially the same answer to the question as he has throughout his career. Already in an 1971 interview he answered in a most interesting and genuinely honest way:
I would be very pleased to be able to discover intellectually convincing connections between my own anarchist convictions on the one hand and what I think I can demonstrate or at least begin to see about the nature of human intelligence on the other. But I simply can’t find intellectually satisfying connections between those two domains. I can discover some tenuous points of contact. [...] I happen to believe in the libertarian conclusions and I would like to discover a solid base for them in some conception of human nature. But of course I have to leave an open mind to the possibility that maybe I am completely wrong about this. Maybe in fact human beings are fundamentally competitive, aggressive. Maybe they have all the hateful characteristics which capitalist ideology presupposes. That’s a possible - empirical possibility. I don’t believe it but I also don’t think I can disprove it. I would like to believe that it’s false and that a different society will bring out and be built upon other much more desirable characteristics of human beings. And I would like to be able to show those characteristics exist, that they are in a sense fundamental. That they are muted and in fact deformed by capitalist ideology. But that remains to be demonstrated in my opinion and I don’t want to claim to have a demonstration where I only have a hope.
In strictly academic circles Noam Chomsky is best known as the theoretician who came up with the theory of transformational generative grammar, which revolutionized cognitive and linguistic sciences in the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, it has had a very important impact on both the analytic philosophy take of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, as distinct to the continental philosophy one. Philosophy of language investigates the use, nature and origins of language. Whereas philosophy of mind studies the nature of the mind, its properties, but also consciousness. We must think of what is known as the mind-body problem (Descartes), and particularly the discussion of the origin of knowledge common to both philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. The analytic and continental traditions approach each philosophy in ways that are significantly different.
It is important to note it is increasingly argued today that the opposition between analytic (Anglo-American) and continental (European) or critical philosophy is a division that needs to be transcended. One proponent of this view is the continental philosopher Simon Critchley, who teaches at the European Graduate School (EGS). He points out that just as continental philosophy can sometimes be guilty of obscurantism, analytic philosophy can as often be accused of scientism. Nevertheless, there are important differences in how they approach both philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. Furthermore, since they are closely related to both Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics, it is therefore critical to point to some of the main ones here.
Not surprisingly, Chomsky situates himself in the analytic tradition. Moreover, Chomsky has dismissed and accused some of the leading figures of the 20th century of a kind of obscurantism including Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, referring to them as a "postmodernist cult". In the mid nineties Chomsky was being asked about them and as a response he posted a final statement saying why he sees them that way. There he said about deconstruction that he could not really comment "because most of it seems to me gibberish". That "Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand..." In the same vein, in an interview Chomsky declared: "I don’t know this literature very well, and to tell you the truth, the reason I don’t know it is that I don’t find it interesting. I try to read it now and then but just don’t find it very interesting." Chomsky does not find anything interesting in this literature and concedes that maybe he does not understand it. Further, he asked on several occasions that someone explain to him in plain language what it is really about and what is new about it. As far as he can see there is nothing theoretically worthwhile there, partly because such literature does not appeal to scientific reason. In fact in many ways it wants to challenge reason and uses quite a few neologisms as a way to interrogate the way reason appears in a variety of ways in language. In this way it may be fair to say that Chomsky thus finds such thought even dangerous in the sense that, according to him, by unnecessarily complicating things without proving anything in the traditional sense, it may contribute to the kind of manufactured thought he is forcefully against both in his linguistic and political work. Yet Chomsky’s position is unexpected in a way because Derrida et al.’s work clearly situates itself as part of a kind of critical thought.
More telling still of the philosophical difference, in 1971 Chomsky was invited to debate the French thinker Michel Foucault on Dutch television for The International Philosophers Project. It gave rise to a fascinating debate, which has been published several times since then, most recently as The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature (2006). Chomsky argued for the concept of human nature as a political guide for activism. Indeed, Chomsky believes human nature to be something that is largely definable, and even as he concedes that we may never get to a perfect definition, he wants to act with the best definition we have. While Foucault on the other hand sees no human nature except for the concept of it, which is inevitably ridden with power. He argued that any notions of human nature cannot escape such influence and must therefore first be critiqued as such, which he considers to be an urgent task.
To a large extent, the different ways in which analytical and continental philosophy diverge emerge from the argument that experience and knowledge are mediated by conditions that, while they need to be critiqued, are not directly accessible to an empirical and thus scientific examination. This was first argued it is generally accepted by 18th century continental philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and it has had several important incarnations in continental philosophy since then. While on the other hand, as a a self-declared Cartesian, Chomsky (Cartesian Linguistics, 1966) clearly embraces the interpretation of the Cartesian cogito in Descartes’ famous dictum "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum) as the solid foundation for knowledge. In contrast with for example the interpretation of the influential continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who teaches at the European Graduate School, who on the one hand defends the Cartesian subject, and on the other together with Kant and Lacan refuses the possibility of the cogito to be a substantial object - a subject whose conditions for seeing can simply be transparent. It is important to note the Cartesian cogito has been the source of major debates in the history of philosophy too big to go into here. Christopher Wises’ 2011 book Chomsky and Deconstruction: The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge argues inter alia that it is not just that continental philosophers write "gibberish," but that they they critique many of Chomsky’s central theoretical givens. Interestingly, Wise does this by exploring the historical constructions of Chomsky’s linguistics. He tries to show that the very Cartesian foundation of Chomsky’s thought makes his claims to of being free of the old problems of metaphysics untenable. Indeed the book attempts to draw the necessary links between Chomsky’s linguistics and his political views by making clear the philosophical points they have in common.
Today, continental philosophers reject what they deem to often be scientism because they work with the assumption that science itself is filled with interpretations as much as other discourses. Here language is typically associated with logic in the old Greek sense of the word, discourse or reason, and thus seeks to interrogate it. And not as the mathematical reasoning meaning of the word logic that is central to analytic philosophy. Which means that for critical philosophy language is seen as being historically constructed. So while for analytic philosophy, problems of philosophical nature can be analyzed apart from their historical background, continental philosophy instead cautions that philosophical arguments themselves cannot be considered as separated from the contextual conditions of what is deemed to be a historical origin. This means that unlike analytical philosophy, continental philosophy see theory and practice as being inseparable, thus making the work of philosophy itself very much a part of personal and political transformation. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that the very link that Chomsky wants to find between his analytic philosophy and his politics seems more easily found in continental critical thought.
On a practical level, in analytical philosophy language is studied as a separate discipline, whereas in continental philosophy language is studied within its many branches, say from existentialism to deconstruction and beyond. If we consider how the two approach philosophy of mind, it is important to note that continental philosophy instead of putting much of the emphasis on logical analysis, it opens up the exploration to other forms of understanding of the human condition. Concepts of thought and perceptual experience are thus not treated only with analyses of linguistic forms, but include for example, the very content of experience beyond that of thinking logic, thus including historical logic as well.
Chomsky would direct the theoretical attack that made him famous against both behaviorism (B.F. Skinner), which had been the most prominent theory of mind in analytic philosophy for the first half of the 20th century, and against structural linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure), which would become extremely influential to the second half of 20th century continental philosophy. While behaviorism had become incredibly popular by seeking to understand behavior and language as a function of environmental histories, on the other hand structural linguistics examined language not in terms of its use but focused instead on its universal underlying system independent of empirical, contingent features of language, looking at how its elements relate to one another today (synchronically) rather than over time (diachronically).
In further contrast to behaviorism, while Chomsky recognized that structural linguistics was useful for the analysis of finite and thus collectable number of units of language (phonology; morphology), he nevertheless attacked structural linguistics and said of it in 1972: "impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language." Chomsky's key argument on structural linguistics is to show its inadequacy in explaining complex or ambiguous sentences. He demonstrated such analysis was insufficient for syntax, which is what Chomsky’s original research was focusing on, arguing that since an endless number of sentences can be uttered, it makes the collection of all of them impossible.
With generative grammar Chomsky suggested instead it is the linguist’s role is to create a small set of rules that can correctly generate all the combinations of words possible to form all the grammatical sentences of a language. He did that using an algorithm to predict all grammatically correct sentences. In particular contrast with behaviorism, Chomskyan revolutionary theory rests on the demonstrated assumption that many of the properties of language are in fact innate as well as the universality of its deep structures.
In addition to Chomsky’s classification of formal languages by their generative power (designated today as "Chomskyan Hierarchy"), he has authored several seminal texts in this field, including Syntactic Structures (1957), Aspects of Theory of Syntax (1965), Cartesian Linguistics (1966), Language and Mind (1968), The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975) and many more articles on both this topic and his politics, publishing practically a book or more a year since 1968. His most recent linguistic work deals with the "minimalist program" in cognitive science.
On October 20th 2008, just before the November 4th historical election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, in an important interview Chomsky was asked who to vote for in swing states. Chomsky suggested that people vote for Obama, the "lesser of the two evils", without illusions. Arguably, Chomsky’s analysis is being proven right by history:
Well, I would suggest voting against McCain, which means voting for Obama without illusions, because all the elevated rhetoric about change and hope and so on will dissolve into standard centrist Democratic policies if he takes office. However, there is a difference, and it's been studied quite closely by political scientists. There's a strong difference over time. You don't see it in any particular moment, but over time the general population, the large majority of the population other than the very wealthy, tends to do considerably better under Democratic than under Republican administrations. And the reason is sort of what you said: they reflect different elite constituencies, and the differences are quite striking and very noticeable. So if that's what matters to you, you know, that's usually a pretty good guy if you're voting. It's not that the Democrats represent public opinion. They don't. In fact, like the Republicans, they're pretty relatively right of public opinion on a host of major issues, including those of most importance to the public. In fact, what's happening now, it's interesting it's not being discussed. It's very striking; it tells you a lot about American democracy. For years, decades, in fact, one of the leading concerns, if not the top concern of the public, has been the health care system, which is understandable. It's a total catastrophe.
Several documentaries have been devoted to Chomsky including, most famously the 1992 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. His books, conferences and various articles on the United States, capitalism, the media, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made him a controversial figure and have earned him at times the condemnation of both liberal and conservative circles. This is perhaps especially true in France where the Jewish intelligentsia media leads a permanent campaign of vilification against him, accusing him of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and preventing any debate about its work. This perhaps stemmed partly from the "Faurisson Affair" in which one of Chomsky's short texts was arguably misused. Indeed, former professor of literature at the University of Lyons in France, Robert Faurisson was suspended from his duties in the late 1970s and prosecuted because he had, inter alia, denied the existence of gas chambers during World War II. A petition to defend freedom of expression was then signed by more than five hundred people, including Chomsky. In response to reactions to his signing the petition, Chomsky wrote a short text in which he explained that defending the right of a person to express their views does not mean one shares them. Chomsky gave his text to then friend, Serge Thion, allowing him to use it at will. However Thion used it as an opinion piece at the very beginning of Faurisson’s 1980 book, making it look like Chomsky defended him and thus what he stood for. Chomsky repeatedly pointed out that he never intended to have that text be published in that way but that when he found out and tried to prevent it it was too late.
Noam Chomsky, who has often defined himself as an "socialist anarchist" has been since the 60s one of the most active and most famous American intellectuals of the Left. As a pacifist he was one of the main opponents to the Vietnam War in the late 60s and today to the American-Israeli policy in the Middle East. As a supporter of the international anarcho-syndicalist movement and as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union (IWW), he has published numerous books critical of imperialism and the United States’ foreign policy as well as the role of the media in Western democratic societies.
As mentioned above, in those fields too he is the author of countless articles and books. Some of them include: The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967). "Human Rights" and American Foreign Policy (1978). Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism and the Real World (1986). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the post-Cold War Era (1991). Democracy in a Neoliberal Order: Doctrines and Reality (1997). Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (1997). Propaganda and the Public Mind (2001). Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (2002). Power and Terror: Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews (2003). Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy: Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice (2006). Hopes and Prospects (2010). Making the Future: The Unipolar Imperial Moment (2010). Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians (2010).
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