Profile: Noam Chomsky

The American linguistics professor who is forever at odds with his country


This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” The calling card for a linguist ready to knock over the apple cart of mainstream behavioural psychology in 1950s academia. A sentence may be grammatically correct but nonsensical. Grammar reigns, whether at a Surface, Deep or Universal level.

Who is he? Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928 to Ashkenazi parents of Ukrainian and Belarusian origin. His father worked long hours for low wages before becoming a Hebrew scholar and academic, while his mother taught at a synagogue. His parents he has described as “New Deal Democrats”.

The boy attended a school established on the principles of John Dewey, the educational reformer and pragmatist philosopher: learning should be experiential; knowledge is to be discovered; creativity is to be encouraged. Noam flourished. Another branch of learning was his uncle’s New York newspaper stand where working-class Jewish men of the Left would gather to discuss the pressing matters of the day. Chomsky would frequent it, listen and formulate ideas.

One of his earliest memories was seeing security guards beating women strikers outside a textile factory

At 16 he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study philosophy, logic and languages. His initial enthusiasm for the course began to wane and he considered leaving to work on a kibbutz. Then, after meeting the linguist and mathematician Zellig Harris, he decided to focus on linguistics. He earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees at Pennsylvania. His PhD thesis provided the basis for his first book, Syntactic Structures (1957).

What was Chomsky against and what was he for? The dominant school of psychology in the mid-twentieth century was behaviourism: the study of observable, measurable activity in humans and animals, using stimuli and responses to reinforce or weaken patterns of behaviour, in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. It was a flat-earth, mechanistic, non-transcendental bag of tricks.

Early pioneer J.B. Watson at Johns Hopkins University had ditched introspection and replaced it with rigorous (as well as some unusually cruel) experiments to observe and manipulate reflexes, create habits and inclinations. B.F. Skinner, the high priest of Harvard University’s animal laboratories, with considerable prowess in pulling habits out of rats, propagated the notion that the infant learns language through a similar application of cues, utterances and informed feedback.

Chomsky called this a travesty. The infant, he averred, begins to master its mother tongue without being explicitly taught. A uniquely human competence — inherent and inherited — enables the infant to map out the grammar of the language that it hears before being able to speak.

In time, sufficient vocabulary is acquired, which allows blank places in the map to be filled in: Sentence = noun phrase + verb phrase + modifier … It is hierarchical and structure-dependent.

The brain’s ability to use a limited number of phonemes (meaningful sounds in the child’s mother tongue) to represent objects, actions and relations allows, in the fullness of time, a system that uses finite means to comprehend and articulate an infinite number of utterances i.e. generative grammar.

This configuration of sound, word, grammar and meaning is uniquely human and pari passu applies to all 6,000 or so natural human languages. The commonality that unites all of these is called Universal Grammar (UG). Innate ideas and introspection are here again!

How about his more recent work? Theorising and published output has been collaborative and conversational in nature. There has been speculation on human evolution and primatology, discussions on the history of science, as well as musings on the merging of the linguistic and the neurological into one unified science.

In The Secrets of Words (2022) Chomsky ruminates: ”Puzzles and challenges abound, maybe even mysteries that are beyond our cognitive reach.” Stephen Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of The Language Instinct, has stated that Chomsky alters his theories from time to time to avoid becoming “a sitting target”. For example, he now concedes that the higher primates may possess a limited form of the language acquisition device (but without the human vocal tract).

The Great Depression formed Chomsky’s political views. One of his earliest memories was seeing security guards beating women strikers outside a textile factory. Since childhood he has held Far Left views and declares himself to be a libertarian socialist and anarcho-syndicalist.

Starting in the early 1960s, he took part in public protests against US involvement in the Vietnam War, leading to marches with Norman Mailer et al in Washington and at the Pentagon — “the most hideous institution on this Earth”. As dissent has turned to radicalism, his approach seems to be that of someone totally at odds with his country, its governance, foreign policy and the will of the majority of its people.

One wonders if he has a soft spot for the hard man in a distant land just trying to keep his people in line

Things got nastier in the 1970s with Chomsky’s response to Pol Pot’s slaughter of up to two million Cambodians. The statements of survivors and written accounts by journalists, as well as a Khmer-speaking French priest, François Ponchaud, were derided by Chomsky as “distortions at fourth hand”. One wonders if, like Sartre, another intellectual de gauche, Chomsky has a bit of a soft spot for the hard man in a distant land just trying his best to keep his people in line.

He has called Putin’s war against Ukraine “an act of criminal stupidity” and laments both sides’ casualties. Predictably though, he also says that Putin is pushing back against US-driven NATO expansionism, claiming: “NATO is the most violent, aggressive alliance in the world.” In doing so, he neglects to consider or relate to the situation facing the eastern European countries freed from the yoke of the Soviet empire in 1991.

They realised that the surest way of preserving their newly-found freedom after nearly half a century of Russian domination was through NATO and EC membership. NATO did not lure them in — they were hammering at the door, demanding to be let in.

After a career-long association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky is now a Laureate Professor in Linguistics, as well as Professor in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. At 95 he remains academically and politically active.

What will his legacy be? The key linguistic theories (UG, genetic endowment, language acquisition) and parts of the philosophy of language (language of thought, a priori knowledge, rule-governed innovation) will almost certainly endure. Two generations of linguists, many of whom, schooled in this tradition, have achieved positions of influence, will ensure that these theories continue to be expounded.

The belief that homo sapiens developed a language faculty — either gradually, through socialisation, or abruptly, as in Creazione di Adamo — at some point 70 to 100 millennia ago is a stab at guessing at a known unknown. Those parts of the work that may fare less well are the jargon-heavy Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and The Minimalist Program (1995).

His brand of political activism will be carried on by some in academia, by students and others. But will they possess Chomksy’s intellectual heft or authoritative, beguiling, charismatic presence?

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