Noam Chomsky

Kai Eriksson

Posted on May 02 2018

Born: December 7th1928

Known as: linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, social critic, political activist and historian



1955 PhD in linguistics in University of Pennsylvania
1957 Professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
1957 First book Syntactic Structures introduces Transformational Grammar
1950-1970s “Linguistic Wars”
1960s Universal Grammar Theory becomes prominent
1967-1975 Anti-Vietnam War Activist, arrested multiple times and put into US Enemies List
1970s Political writings start to be published in mainstream press too
1971 Famous debate with Foucault about human nature
1988 Introduces the Propaganda Model of media, published in Manufacturing Consent
1990s Increased political activism
1993 Emerge of Minimalist Program
2000s Touring the world and giving lectures and speeches on human rights
2001-2003 Wide commentary on the War of Terror, 9/11 and Iraq War
2010 Predicts the rise of an authoritarian, charismatic figure in the US politics
2016 Strong Trump critic, increasing in critic of US foreign policies






One of the founders of cognitive science

  • Influenced decline of behaviorism
  • Contributed to paradigm shift in human sciences


    Influenced scientific study of language

    • Developed a theory of transformational grammar
    • Co-created the universal grammar theory, generative grammar theory, the Chomsky hierarchy and the minimalist program

    Over 100 books published

    • About politics, mass media, linguistics and war

          One of most cited scholars

            • Numerous honorary degrees and awards
            • American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award & Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science

                Political Activist

                • His political views spark controversy
                • Favours (moderately) left-wing ideologies
                • A leading critic of US foreign politics
                • A critic of Israeli treatment of Palestinians
                • Votes for extreme freedom of speech 

                    Most recent political and economic criticism:

                    • Predicts a market crash because of “Trump bump”
                    • Meaning, that the economic boom caused by the election victory of Trump is going to go down
                    • Behind this is the idea that the record high stock market and economic rise is only temporal and fuelled by the hype around Trump





                      (Co-)founded discipline of cognitive science


                        Criticized behavioural sciences for over-simplicity and superficiality (mostly Skinner and Skinner’s theory of Verbal Behaviour)


                          Behaviouristic explanation of reinforcement could not explain language learning and all varieties of human behaviour – thus, cognitive explanations were required


                            Chomsky argued, that there needs to be pre-existing or innate and abstract representational structures (such as grammar) for all human beings


                              • All human learning then occurs within these structures
                              • These findings led to the theory of universal grammar

                                Paradigm shift: With the emerge of cognitive science, focus of psychology was turned from the observation of visible human behaviour to the human mind and its processes


                                  • Such as linguistics and its cognitive components



                                    Theory of Universal Grammar


                                    Chomsky does not believe that language is innate.

                                      However, he thinks that grammatical structures are innate to every human being.

                                        Thus, he argues that the ability to learn language is innate.

                                          • Based in human biology
                                          • Distinct from other aspects of human cognition


                                              Theory of Transformational-Generative Grammar*


                                              Chomsky introduced the idea of transformations producing new sentences based on innate grammar rules

                                                • Grammar thus is seen as a system of rules that generate, firstly, combinations of words, and secondly, grammatical sentences


                                                Two types of rules make up transformational-generative grammar:

                                                  • Phrase structure rules
                                                  • Transformational rules

                                                      (*Often referred to simply as Transformational Grammar)



                                                          Chomsky Hierarchy


                                                           = Hierarchy of classes that consist of formal grammars

                                                            Contains a logical structure that provides a basis for understanding relationships between grammars.

                                                              Strongly influenced computer sciences.



                                                                  Minimalist Program


                                                                  A branch of generative grammar

                                                                    A conceptual framework to guide the development of linguistic theory

                                                                    • Guidance in form of basic questions, such as “What is language?”

                                                                      Includes the idea that our universal grammar already consists only of what is necessary for us, thus being perfect in itself




                                                                          On psychology

                                                                          • Establishing linguistics as a discipline of cognitive psychology

                                                                            On theoretical computer sciences and programming

                                                                            • Exploring methods of language hierarchy classification with Chomsky Hierarchy

                                                                              On politics and human rights

                                                                              • Being an active commentator and critic
                                                                              • Drawing attention to social injustice

                                                                                Sparks media attention


                                                                                  Raises general discussion




                                                                                  SOCIAL CRITICISM


                                                                                  Chomsky has published several political writings with the following themes:


                                                                                  Ideology and power: 

                                                                                  • The centralization of power
                                                                                  • Neoliberalism and contemporary state capitalism

                                                                                    Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
                                                                                    • Describes it as “worse than South-African Apartheid”
                                                                                    • Is especially against the US actions supporting Israel

                                                                                      US overseas war operations: 
                                                                                      • American Imperialism
                                                                                      • Wars of Aggression

                                                                                        Mainstream news media: 

                                                                                        • As reinforcing and acquiescing to state policies and marginalizing perspectives
                                                                                        • “Free-market version of censorship”

                                                                                          Inequality and concentration of wealth and power



                                                                                              CRITICISM TOWARDS CHOMSKY

                                                                                              Been accused of anti-Americanism (the Democratic party after the publishing of the book 9/11; Dershowitz 1992; Horowitz 2004)


                                                                                                Been accused of being sympathetic to terrorism (mainstream media after the publishing of his book 9/11)


                                                                                                  Criticism against Universal Grammar Theory:


                                                                                                    • Said to be unnecessary and unrealistic (Everett 2012; Tomasello 2008)
                                                                                                    • Said to ignore social and psychological variables
                                                                                                    • Said to be in conflict with biology and Darwinian principles. Slow-changing genetic structures would not be able to catch up with the quickly changing nature of language (Christiansen & Chater 2008)
                                                                                                    • Said to be concerned only with syntax, ignoring semantics
                                                                                                    • Said not to be falsifiable (Sampson 2005)

                                                                                                      Chomsky is said to portray people who disagree with him as stupid or evil, using scorn and irony


                                                                                                          DIIPLE RECOMMENDS 


                                                                                                          • Who Rules the World? (2016)
                                                                                                          • The Essential Chomsky (2008)
                                                                                                          • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988)
                                                                                                          • Syntactic Structures (1957)


                                                                                                          • Requiem on American the Dream (2015)


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