Avram Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is a US professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages. Outside of his linguistic work, Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist and is widely known for his left-wing political writings.

Noam Chomsky (photo by Donna Coveney)

Table of contents
1 Short biography
2 Contributions to Linguistics
3 Contributions to Psychology
4 Criticism of post-modern views towards science
5 Political Views
6 Accusations of anti-semitism
7 Other criticisms
8 Other concepts
9 Quotes regarding Chomsky
10 See also:
11 Bibliography
12 External links

Short biography

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar William Chomsky. Starting in 1945, he studied philosophy, linguistics, and mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. There he studied under Zellig Harris, a professor of linguistics whose political views he had some sympathy with. He received his Ph.D. from Penn in 1955, having conducted most of his research the previous four years at Harvard University. In his doctoral thesis he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, possibly his best known work in the field.

After receiving his doctorate, Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for nineteen years (he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics there). It was during this time that he became more publicly engaged in politics, arguing against American involvement in the Vietnam War from around 1965. In 1969 he published American Power and the New Mandarins, a book of essays on the same subject. Since then, he has been well known for his radical political views, lecturing on politics all over the world, and writing several other books on the subject. His beliefs, broadly classified as libertarian socialism, have earned him both a large following among the radical Left, as well as many detractors. He has continued to write and teach on linguistics also.

Contributions to Linguistics

Syntactic Structures was a distillation of his book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955,75) in which he introduces transformational grammars. The theory takes utterances (words, phrases, and sentences) to correspond to abstract "surface structures," which in turn correspond to more abstract "deep structures." (The hard and fast distinction between surface and deep structure is absent in current versions of the theory.) Transformational rules, along with phrase structure rules and other structural principles, govern both the creation and interpretation of utterances. With a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, man is able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences nobody has ever said before. The capability to structure our utterances in this way is innate, a part of the genetic endowment of human beings, and is called universal grammar. We are largely unconscious of these structural principles, as we are of most other biological and cognitive properties.

Recent theories of Chomsky's (such as his Minimalist Program) make strong claims regarding universal grammar -- that the grammatical principles underlying languages are completely fixed and innate, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. (Hence the term principles and parameters, often given to this approach.) In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words) and morphemes, and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.

This approach is motivated by the astonishing pace at which children learn languages, the similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur (and, according to Chomsky, should be attested if a purely general, rather than language-specific, learning mechanism is being employed).

Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating language development in children, but many of the predictions made by his theories have been repudiated by recent experiments in the field. This has led many researchers to challenge the Chomskyan or nativist theory of child language acquisition, proposing instead the emergentist or connectionist theory, based more around general processing mechanisms in the brain.

The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, is dominant among linguists but has been challenged by many, especially those working outside of the United States. One common criticism concerns the almost exclusive focus of Chomskyan linguists on English and a few other European languages. Chomskyan syntactic analyses are often highly abstract, and are based heavily on careful investigation of the border between grammatical and ungrammatical constructs in a language. (Compare this to the so-called pathological cases that play a similarly important role in mathematics.) Such grammaticality judgments can only be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists usually focus on their own native languages, usually English, French, German, or Italian. Chomskyan linguists assert that this focus is theoretically sound since, consistent with the principles and parameters approach, all languages have the same underlying principles, and thus you need study only one, or a few, languages to determine those principles. Unfortunately, in practice generative grammar analyses often break down completely when applied to languages other than the ones that they are based on. This is one of the prime motivations behind an alternative, approach, the functional-typological approach or linguistic typology (often associated with Joseph Greenberg), which is explicitly cross-linguistic and is based around surveying as wide a variety of the world's languages as possible, classifying the variation seen, and forming theories based on the results of this classification.

Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal language, and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes with increasing expressive power, i.e. each successive class can generate a broader set of formal languages than the one before. Interestingly, Chomsky argues that modelling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy) than modelling others. For example, while a regular language is powerful enough to model English morphology, it is not powerful enough to model English syntax. In addition to being relevant in linguistics, the Chomsky hierarchy has also become important in computer science, as it has important ties to and isomorphisms with automata theory.

His seminal work in phonology was The sound pattern of English. He published it together with Morris Halle. This work is considered outdated, and he does not publish on phonology anymore.

Contributions to Psychology

Chomsky's work in linguistics has had major implications for psychology and its fundamental direction in the 20th century. His theory of a universal grammar was a direct challenge to the established behaviorist theories of the time and had major consequences for understanding how language is learned by children and what, exactly, is the ability to interpret language. The more basic principles of this theory (though not necessarily the stronger claims made by the principles and parameters approach described above) are now generally accepted.

In 1959, Chomsky published a long-circulated critique of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book in which the leader of the behaviorist psychologists that had dominated psychology in the 20th century argued that language was merely a "behavior". Skinner argued that language, like any other behavior -- from a dog salivating in anticipation of dinner, to a master pianist's performance -- could be attributed to "training by reward and penalty over time." Language, according to Skinner, was 100 percent learned by cues and conditioning from the world around the language-learner.

Chomsky's critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for a revolution against the behaviorist doctrine that had governed psychology. In his 1966 Cartesian Linguistics and subsequent works, Chomsky laid out an explanation of human language faculties that has become the model for investigation in other areas of psychology. Much of the present conception of how the mind works draws directly from ideas that found their first persuasive author of modern times in Chomsky.

There are three key ideas. First, is that the mind is "cognitive", or that the mind actually contains mental states, beliefs, doubts, and so on. The former view had denied even this, arguing that there were only "stimulus-response" relationships like "If you ask me if I want X, I will say yes". By contrast, Chomsky showed that the common way of understanding the mind, as having things like beliefs and even unconscious mental states, had to be right. Second, he argued that large parts of what the adult mind can do are "innate". While no child is born automatically able to speak a language, all are born with a powerful language learning ability which allows them to soak up several languages very quickly in their early years. Subsequent psychologists have extended this thesis far beyond language; the mind is no longer considered a "blank slate" at birth.

Finally, Chomsky made the concept of "modularity" a critical feature of the mind's cognitive architecture. The mind is composed of an array of interacting, specialized subsystems with limited flows of inter-communication. This model contrasts sharply with the old idea that any piece of information in the mind could be accessed by any other cognitive process (optical illusions, for example, cannot be "turned off" even when they are known to be illusions).

The 1984 Nobel Prize laureate in Medicine and Physiology, Niels K. Jerne, used Chomsky's generative model to explain the human immune system, equating "components of a generative grammar ... with various features of protein structures". The title of Jerne's Stockholm Nobel lecture was "The Generative Grammar of the Immune System".

Criticism of post-modern views towards science

Chomsky has written a strong refutation of deconstructionist and postmodern criticisms of science.

I have spent a lot of my life working on questions such as these, using the only methods I know of--those condemned here as "science," "rationality," "logic," and so on. I therefore read the papers with some hope that they would help me "transcend" these limitations, or perhaps suggest an entirely different course. I'm afraid I was disappointed. Admittedly, that may be my own limitation. Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed.

Chomsky notes that critiques of "white male science" are much like the anti-Semitic attacks against "Jewish physics" (a reference to the terminology used by the Nazis to denigrate research done by Jewish scientists.)

In fact, the entire idea of "white male science" reminds me, I'm afraid, of "Jewish physics." Perhaps it is another inadequacy of mine, but when I read a scientific paper, I can't tell whether the author is white or is male. The same is true of discussion of work in class, the office, or somewhere else. I rather doubt that the non-white, non-male students, friends, and colleagues with whom I work would be much impressed with the doctrine that their thinking and understanding differ from "white male science" because of their "culture or gender and race." I suspect that "surprise" would not be quite the proper word for their reaction.
[Noam Chomsky on Rationality/Science - From Z Papers Special Issue http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/articles/95-science.html]

Political Views

Chomsky is one of the most well-known figures of the American left. He defines himself in the tradition of anarchism, a political philosophy he summarizes as seeking out all forms of hierarchy and attempting to eliminate them if they are unjustified. He especially identifies with the labor-oriented anarcho-syndicalist current of anarchism. Unlike many anarchists, Chomsky does not always object to electoral politics; he has even endorsed candidates for office. He has described himself as a "fellow traveller" to the anarchist tradition as opposed to a pure anarchist to explain why he is sometimes willing to engage with the state. Chomsky has also stated that he considers himself to be a conservative (Chomsky's Politics, p. 188, note Ch.6 #24), presumably of the Classical liberal variety. He has further defined himself as a Zionist; although, he notes that his definition of Zionism is considered by most to be anti-Zionism these days; the result of what he perceives to have been a shift (since the 1940s) in the meaning of Zionism (Chomsky Reader). In a C-Span Book TV interview, he stated:

"I have always supported a Jewish ethnic homeland in Palestine. That is different from a Jewish state. There's a strong case to be made for an ethnic homeland, but as to whether there should be a Jewish state, or a Muslim state, or a Christian state, or a white state--that's entirely another matter."

Overall, Chomsky is not fond of traditional political titles and categories and prefers to let his views speak for themselves. His main modes of actions include writing magazine articles and books and making speaking engagements. He has a large following of supporters worldwide, leading him to schedule speaking engagements sometimes up to two years in advance. He is particularly popular among many groups of university students in the United States and Canada. He also has a large group of critics, both conservative and liberal, as well as some anarchists, who, although they normally agree with his political analysis, consider his aforementioned support of electoral politics to go against their principles.

Criticism of the United States government

He has been a consistent and outspoken critic of the United States government. In his book 9-11, a series of interviews about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, he claims -- as he has done before -- that the United States government is the leading terrorist state in modern times. He has criticized the US government for its involvement in the Vietnam War and the larger Indochina conflict; its interference in Central and South American countries, and its military support of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Chomsky focuses his most intense criticism on official friends of the United States government while criticizing official enemies like the former Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese Army only in passing. He explains this by the following principle: it is more important to evaluate actions which you have more possibility of affecting. His criticism of the former Soviet Union and China must have had some effect in those countries however, as both countries banned his work from publication.

Chomsky has repeatedly emphasized his theory that much of the United States' foreign policy is based on the "threat of a good example" (which he says is another name for the domino theory). The "threat of a good example" is that a country could successfully develop independently from captialism, and United States' influences, thus presenting a model for other countries, including countries in which the United States has strong economic interests. This, Chomsky says, has prompted the United States to repeatedly intervene to quell "socialist" or other "independence" movements in regions of the world where it has no significant economic or safety interests. In one of his most famous works, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Chomsky uses this particular theory as an explanation for the United States' interventions in Guatemala, Laos, Nicaragua, and Grenada.

Chomsky believes the US government's Cold War policies were not shaped by anti-Soviet paranoia, but rather to preserve the United States' ideological dominance of the world. As he wrote in Uncle Sam: "...What the US wants is 'stability,' meaning security for the "upper classes and large foreign enterprises."

Though he does not necessarily support such regimes, Chomsky has criticized liberal academics who condemn socialist countries like Cuba or Vietnam. In his view, criticism of any country that "the United States is trying to subvert" merely serves to "buttress these efforts, thus contributing to suffering and oppression."

Chomsky and Socialism

Chomsky is deeply opposed to the system of "corporate state capitalism" practiced by the United States and its allies. Chomsky instead believes in the superiority of "control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions", referring to this as "real socialism". At the same time, he denounced the Soviet Union for running a brutal authoritarian police state while claiming to be socialist, and viewed the evolution of the Soviet state as a natural growth of the Bolshevik ideology. He calls Soviet-style Communism "fake socialism," and said that contrary to what many claim, the collapse of the Soviet Union should be regarded "a small victory for socialism."

Instead of a capitalist system in which people are "wage slaves" or an authoritarian system in which decisions are made by a centralized committee, in For Reasons of State Chomsky advocates a society with no paid labor. He argues that a nation's populace should be free to pursue jobs of their choosing. People will be free to do as they like, and the work they voluntarily choose will be both "rewarding in itself" and "socially useful." Society would be run under a system of peaceful anarchism, with no "state" or "government" institutions.

Another focus of Chomsky's political work has been an analysis of mainstream media (especially in the United States), its structures and constraints, and its role in supporting big business and government interests. He once described America's media as being a "mirror image" of the media in the Soviet Union, claiming that both nations have equally tightly controlled presses that are not allowed to express dissent or divergence from government (or "ruling class") policy. His book Manufacturing Consent -- The Political Economy of the Mass Media, co-authored with Edward Herman, explores this topic in depth, though most of his work incorporates some aspect of this analysis.

Chomsky and the Middle East

Chomsky "grew up...in the Jewish-Zionist cultural tradition" (Peck, p. 11). His father was one of the foremost scholars of the Hebrew language and taught at a religious school. Chomsky has also had a long fascination with and involvement in left-wing Zionist politics. As he described:

"I was deeply interested in...Zionist affairs and activities -- or what was then called 'Zionist,' though the same ideas and concerns are now called 'anti-Zionist.' I was interested in socialist, binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had developed in the Jewish settlement there (the Yishuv)...The vague ideas I had at the time [1947] were to go to Palestine, perhaps to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework, opposed to the deeply antidemocratic concept of a jewish state (a position that was considered well within the mainstream of Zionism)." (Peck, p. 7)

He is extremely critical of the policies of Israel towards the Palestinians and ethnic minority Jewish populations within Israel. Among many articles and books, his book The Fateful Triangle is considered one of the premier texts among those who oppose Israeli treatment of Palestinians and American support for Israel. He has also condemned Israel's role in "guiding state terrorism" for selling weapons to Latin American countries that he characterizes as U.S. puppet states, e.g. Guatemala in the 1970s. (What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Chapter 2.4) In addition, he has repeatedly and vehemently condemned the United States for its military and diplomatic support for Israel, and sectors of the American Jewish community for their role in obtaining this support. For example, he says of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

"The leading official monitor of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, interprets anti-Semitism as unwillingness to conform to its requirements with regard to support for Israeli authorities.... The logic is straightforward: Anti-Semitism is opposition to the interests of Israel (as the ADL sees them).

"The ADL has virtually abandoned its earlier role as a civil rights organization, becoming 'one of the main pillars' of Israeli propaganda in the U.S., as the Israeli press casually describes it, engaged in surveillance, blacklisting, compilation of FBI-style files circulated to adherents for the purpose of defamation, angry public responses to criticism of Israeli actions, and so on. These efforts, buttressed by insinuations of anti-Semitism or direct accusations, are intended to deflect or undermine opposition to Israeli policies, including Israel's refusal, with U.S. support, to move towards a general political settlement." Necessary Illusions

Middle East Politics, speech Columbia University 1999

Accusations of anti-semitism

Partially because of these criticisms, Chomsky has been accused of being anti-semitic on many occasions. The most outspoken of his critics include writer David Horowitz, who has toured college campuses distributing anti-Chomsky pamphlets, attorney/professor Alan Dershowitz, with whom Chomsky has engaged in many verbal battles through the media, and sociology professor emeritus Werner Cohn, who has written an entire book; Partners in Hate [1], about Chomsky's relationship to Faurisson (below). One of the most common charges is that the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is theoretical, and in practice anti-Zionism is a manifestation of anti-Semitism.

Chomsky's support for Israel Shahak, author of Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years, a book that claims that Judaism is a fundamentally chauvinistic religion, has led to more accusations of anti-semitism.

Chomsky rejects charges of anti-Semitism, citing that the definition presented by Israeli apologists is itself racist and ethnocentric. Often speaking out against bigotry of all forms, he is nevertheless often a victim of accusations of anti-semitism, which he dismisses as "ad-hominem attacks" and "typical propaganda."

The Faurisson Affair

In 1979, Robert Faurisson, a French professor, wrote a book claiming that the Naziss did not have gas chambers, did not attempt a genocide of Jews (or any other groups), and that the "myth" of the gas chambers had been put forth by Zionist swindlers for the benefit of the state of Israel and to the detriment of Germanss and Palestinians. (Hitchens, 1985) The Chorus and the Cassandra.

Serge Thion, a libertarian socialist scholar with a record of opposition to all forms of totalitarianism, asked Chomsky to sign a petition calling on authorities to insure Robert Faurisson's "safety and the free exercise of his legal rights." (Faurisson had been beaten up by students, then suspended from teaching by his university on the grounds that the university could not guarantee his safety. Later he was charged in court with "falsification of history".) A furore soon arose over the wording of the petition, which referred to Faurisson's "extensive historical research" and mentioned his conclusions as "findings". Chomsky's critics saw this as a defence of Faurisson's opinions and not merely of his right to state them. In reply, Chomsky wrote an essay entitled Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression, which dealt mainly with the freedom to conduct and publish unpopular research. It also stated that he had not found evidence of anti-Semitism in the parts of Faurisson's work that he had reviewed. Chomsky writes:

"Faurisson's conclusions are diametrically opposed to views I hold and have frequently expressed in print (for example, in my book Peace in the Middle East?, where I describe the Holocaust as "the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history"). But it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended. It is easy enough to defend those who need no defense or to join in unanimous (and often justified) condemnation of a violation of civil rights by some official enemy. [1]

Chomsky granted permission for this essay to be used for any purpose. Faurisson then used it as a preface for a book, without Chomsky's knowledge. Later Chomsky requested that Faurisson cease using it, but that request was declined.

Chomsky also commented on the difference between the acceptance of historical facts (in this case, the existence of gas chambers, denied by Faurisson) and the attitude towards certain people (hatred of the Jews, anti-Semitism, probably also held by Faurisson):

"I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers or even denial of the Holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the Holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence. I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson's work" (quoted in Noam Chomsky's Search for the Truth).

Chomsky's writings sparked a great furor. Many people held that Faurisson's statements were the archetype of anti-Semitism, and that the logical conclusion of Chomsky's statement would be that Nazism was not anti-semitic. The main argument for this is that Holocaust deniers are not interested in truth, but "motivated by racism, extremism, and virulent anti-Semitism" (Deborah Lipstadt, in Dimensions, the journal of the ADL).

In His Right to Say It, published in The Nation, Chomsky states: "It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers. " [1] His argument stressed the conceptual distinction between endorsing someone's view and defending his right to say it. Insofar as the latter does not imply the former, condemning censorhip should not be read as espousing the censored view.

Other criticisms

Chomsky has been involved in many very public disagreements over policy and scholarship. For example, when Chomsky and Herman wrote After the Cataclysm, Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, a book claiming that American media used "unsubstantiated" refugee testimonies, focused uniquely on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime, and ignored the US atrocities in Cambodia which preceded and led to the Khmer Rouge taking power, many attacked him as an apologist for those atrocities. (See Ear, 1995.)

Chomsky's critics often accuse him of being rather close-minded in his analysis of facts and history, and always writing from a pre-determined thesis that the United States government is vicious and opressive, and that its actions in foreign countries are always completely unjustified. They say Chomsky is overly harsh on American foreign policy makers, and fails to evaluate their stragetic restraints or motivations in the decision-making process, and instead always paints their actions as being fundamentally sinisterly motivated. As mentioned, he does not criticize or discuss America's enemies or their actions very often in his texts, which critics allege results in a very one-sided view of history. Chomsky's critics therefore argue that Chomsky frequently uses selective quotes and out-of-context facts in his persuit to always paint the actions of the United States in the worst possible light.

He has also often criticized as being a conspiracy theorist, for his often elaborate explanations of the US government's "concealed" motivations, which some critics view as unsubstantiated. He considers this criticism completely unfounded, as he himself is a critic of the conspiracy-mindedness of some of the left (regarding things like the Kennedy assassination). He says people's lack of knowledge of government policy is usually more due to their laziness in informing themselves regarding policy, than some supposed secret conspiracy to withhold information from them, since most of the information is in the public domain.

Other concepts

Other concepts of Chomsky's:

  1. Democratic Communications System: one that involves large-scale public participation, and that reflects both public interests and real values like truth, integrity and discovery.
  2. Investment Theory of Politics: a theory that the state is controlled by coalitions of investors who join together around some common interest.
  3. Externality: according to Noam Chomsky, the instance of destroying the environment for the sake of making a short-term profit is an example of viewing the environment as an externality. That is, we pay very little attention to it.

Quotes regarding Chomsky

See also:


a full bibliography on Chomsky's MIT homepage.


  • Chomsky, Noam, Morris Halle, and Fred Lukoff (1956). "On accent and juncture in English." In For Roman Jakobson. The Hague: Mouton
  • Syntactic Structures (1957). The Hague: Mouton. Reprint. Berlin and New York (1985).
  • Chomsky (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Chomsky (1965). Cartesian Linguistics. New York: Harper and Row. Reprint. Cartesian Linguistics. A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1986.
  • Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle (1968). The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Chomsky (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. Holland: Foris Publications. Reprint. 7th Edition. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993.
  • Chomsky (1986). Barriers. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph Thirteen. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.
  • Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Selected Works

About Chomsky and Chomsky archives

External links