December 7, 1928 -
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher,cognitive scientist, historian, logician, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as "the father of modern linguistics", Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy, and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He has spent more than half a century at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is Institute Professor Emeritus, and is the author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.
Legends of Anarchism
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Born to middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Chomsky developed an early interest in anarchism from alternative bookstores in New York City. At the age of sixteen he began studies at the University of Pennsylvania, taking courses in linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. He married fellow linguist Carol Schatz in 1949. From 1951 to 1955 he was appointed to Harvard University's Society of Fellows, where he developed the theory of transformational grammar for which he was awarded his doctorate in 1955. That year he began teaching at MIT, in 1957 emerging as a significant figure in the field of linguistics for his landmark work Syntactic Structures, which laid the basis for the scientific study of language, while from 1958 to 1959 he was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is credited as the creator or co-creator of the universal grammar theory, the generative grammar theory, the Chomsky hierarchy, and the minimalist program. Chomsky also played a pivotal role in the decline of behaviorism, being particularly critical of the work of B. F. Skinner.
An outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which he saw as an act of American imperialism, in 1967 Chomsky attracted widespread public attention for his anti-war essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals". Becoming associated with the New Left, he was arrested multiple times for his activism and landed a place on President Richard Nixon's Enemies List. While expanding his work in linguistics over subsequent decades, he also became involved in the Linguistics Wars. In collaboration with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky later co-wrote Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, an analysis articulating the propaganda model of media criticism, and worked to expose the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. However, his defense of unconditional freedom of speech – including that of Holocaust denial – generated significant controversy in what came to be known as the Faurisson affair of the early 1980s. Following his retirement from active teaching, he has continued his vocal political activism, including opposing the War on Terror and supporting the Occupy movement.
Chomsky's work has influenced a wide array of academic fields, with Chomsky himself being one of the single most cited scholars in human history. He is widely recognized as a paradigm shifter who helped spark a major revolution in the human sciences, contributing to the development of a new cognitivistic framework for the study of language and the mind. In addition to his continued scholarly research, he remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neo-liberalism and contemporary state capitalism, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas in these areas have proved highly significant within the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, but have also drawn criticism, with some accusing Chomsky of anti-Americanism and alleging that he is sympathetic to terrorism and genocide denial.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father was the Ukrainian-born William "Zev" Chomsky, an Ashkenazi Jew who had fled to the United States in 1913. Having studied at Johns Hopkins University, William went on to become school principal of the Congregation Mikveh Israel religious school, and in 1924 was appointed to the faculty at Gratz College in Philadelphia. His wife was the Belarusian-born Elsie Simonofsky (1903–1972), a teacher and activist whom William had met while working at Mikveh Israel.
Noam was the Chomsky family's first child, with his younger brother, David Eli Chomsky, being born five years later. The brothers were close, although David was more easygoing while Noam could be very competitive. Chomsky and his brother were raised Jewish, being taught Hebrew and regularly discussing the political theories of Zionism; the family were particularly influenced by the Left Zionist writings of Ahad Ha'am. As a Jew, Chomsky faced anti-semitism as a child, particularly from the Irish and German communities living in Philadelphia.
Chomsky described his parents as "normal Roosevelt Democrats" who had a center-left position on the political spectrum; however, he was exposed to far left politics through other members of the family, a number of whom were socialists involved in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. He was substantially influenced by his uncle, a dropout who owned a newspaper stand in New York City where Jewish leftists came to debate the issues of the day. Whenever visiting his uncle in New York City, Chomsky also frequented left-wing and anarchist bookstores, voraciously reading political literature. He later described his discovery of anarchism as "a lucky accident" which allowed him to become critical of other radical left-wing ideologies, namely Stalinism and other forms of Marxism–Leninism.
Chomsky's primary education was at Oak Lane Country Day School, an independent Deweyite institution that focused on allowing its pupils to pursue their own interests in a non-competitive atmosphere. It was here that he wrote his first article, aged 10, on the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona to Francisco Franco's fascist army in the Spanish Civil War. Aged 12, he moved on to secondary education at Central High School, where he joined various clubs and societies and excelled academically, but was troubled by the hierarchical and regimented method of teaching employed there. From the age of 12 or 13, he identified more fully with anarchist politics.
In 1945, Chomsky, aged 16, embarked on a general program of study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he explored philosophy, logic, and languages and developed a primary interest in learning Arabic. Living at home, he funded his undergraduate degree by teaching Hebrew. However, he was frustrated with his experiences at the university, and considered dropping out and moving to a kibbutz in Mandatory Palestine. His intellectual curiosity was reawakened through conversations with the Russian-born linguist Zellig Harris, whom he first met in a political circle in 1947. Harris introduced Chomsky to the field of theoretical linguistics and convinced him to major in the subject. Chomsky's B.A. honors thesis was titled "Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew", and involved him applying Harris's methods to the language. Chomsky revised this thesis for his M.A., which he received at Penn in 1951; it would subsequently be published as a book. He also developed his interest in philosophy while at university, in particular under the tutelage of his teacher Nelson Goodman.
From 1951 to 1955, Chomsky was named to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, where he undertook research on what would become his doctoral dissertation. Having been encouraged to apply by Goodman, a significant factor in his decision to move to Harvard was that the philosopher W. V. Quine was based there; both Quine and a visiting philosopher, J. L. Austin of the University of Oxford, would strongly influence Chomsky. In 1952, Chomsky published his first academic article, "Systems of Syntactic Analysis", which appeared not in a journal of linguistics, but in The Journal of Symbolic Logic. Being highly critical of the established behaviorist currents in linguistics, in 1954 he presented his ideas at lectures given at the University of Chicago and Yale University. Although he had not been registered as a student at Pennsylvania for four years, in 1955 he submitted a thesis to them setting out his ideas on transformational grammar; he was awarded his Ph.D. on the basis of it, and it would be privately distributed among specialists on microfilm before being published in 1975 as part of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Possession of this Ph.D. nullified his requirement to enter national service in the armed forces, which was otherwise due to begin in 1955. George Armitage Miller, a Professor at Harvard, read the Ph.D. and was impressed; together he and Chomsky published a number of technical papers in mathematical linguistics.
In 1947, Chomsky entered into a romantic relationship with Carol Doris Schatz, whom he had known since they were toddlers, and they married in 1949. After Chomsky was made a Fellow at Harvard, the couple moved to an apartment in the Allston area of Boston, remaining there until 1965, when they relocated to the city's Lexington area. In 1953 the couple took up a Harvard travel grant in order to visit Europe, traveling from England through France and Switzerland and into Italy. On that same trip they also spent six weeks at Hashomer Hatzair's HaZore'a kibbutz in the newly established Israel; although enjoying himself, Chomsky was appalled by the Jewish nationalism and anti-Arab racism that he encountered in the country, as well as the pro-Stalinist trend that he thought pervaded the kibbutz's leftist community.
On visits to New York City, Chomsky continued to frequent the office of Yiddish anarchist journal Freie Arbeiter Stimme, becoming enamored with the ideas of contributor Rudolf Rocker, whose work introduced him to the link between anarchism and classical liberalism. Other political thinkers whose work Chomsky read included the anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán, democratic socialists George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, and Dwight Macdonald, and works by Marxists Karl Liebknecht, Karl Korsch, and Rosa Luxemburg. His readings convinced him of the desirability of an anarcho-syndicalist society, and he became fascinated by the anarcho-syndicalist communes set up during the Spanish Civil War, which were documented in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). He avidly read leftist journal politics, remarking that it "answered to and developed" his interest in anarchism, as well as the periodical Living Marxism, published by council communist Paul Mattick. Although rejecting its Marxist basis, Chomsky was heavily influenced by council communism, voraciously reading articles in Living Marxism written by Antonie Pannekoek. He was also greatly interested in the Marlenite ideas of the Leninist League, an anti-Stalinist Marxist–Leninist group, sharing their views that the Second World War was orchestrated by Western capitalists and the Soviet Union's 'state capitalists' to crush Europe's proletariat.
Early career: 1955–1966
Chomsky had befriended two linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Morris Halleand Roman Jakobson, the latter of whom secured him an assistant professor position at MIT in 1955. There Chomsky spent half his time on a mechanical translation project, and the other half teaching a course on linguistics and philosophy. He later described MIT as "a pretty free and open place, open to experimentation and without rigid requirements. It was just perfect for someone of my idiosyncratic interests and work. In 1957 MIT promoted him to the position of associate professor, and from 1957–58 he was also employed by Columbia University as a visiting professor. That same year, Chomsky's first child, a daughter named Aviva, was born, and he published his first book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, a work that radically opposed the dominant Harris–Bloomfield trend in the field. The response to Chomsky's ideas ranged from indifference to hostility, and his work proved divisive and caused "significant upheaval" in the discipline. Linguist John Lyons later asserted that it "revolutionized the scientific study of language". From 1958–59 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Anti-Vietnam War activism and rise to prominence: 1967–1975
Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes. However, it was not until 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on United States foreign policy. In February he published a widely read essay in The New York Review of Books entitled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", in which he criticized the country's involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard's Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent. His other political books of the time included At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books. Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement, he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals. Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it, he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky, along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald, also founded the anti-war collective RESIST. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, he gave many lectures to student activist groups; furthermore, he and his colleague Louis Kampf began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independently of the conservative-dominated political science department. In 1970 he visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology; on this trip he also toured Laos to visit the refugee camps created by the war, and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.
As a result of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was ultimately arrested on multiple occasions, and U.S. President Richard Nixon included him on his Enemies List. He was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience, and his wife began studying for her own Ph.D. in linguistics in order to support the family in the event of Chomsky's imprisonment or loss of employment. However, MIT — despite being under some pressure to do so — refused to fire him due to his influential standing in the field of linguistics. His work in this area continued to gain international recognition; in 1967 he received honorary doctorates from both the University of London and the University of Chicago. In 1970, Loyola University and Swarthmore College also awarded him honorary D.H.L.'s, as did Bard College in 1971, Delhi University in 1972, and the University of Massachusetts in 1973.
Moreover, Chomsky's stature as an analytic philosopher continued to grow; in 1971 he gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at the University of Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year. He also delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University. In 1971 he partook in a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power. Although largely agreeing with Foucault's ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes and lambasting France as having "a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture." Chomsky also continued to publish prolifically in linguistics, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972), and Reflections on Language (1975). In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.
Edward Herman and the Faurisson affair: 1976–1980
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chomsky's publications expanded and clarified his earlier work, addressing his critics and updating his grammatical theory. His public talks often generated considerable controversy, particularly when he criticized actions of the Israeli government and military, and his political views came under attack from right-wing and centrist figures, the most prominent of whom was Alan Dershowitz. Chomsky considered Dershowitz "a complete liar" and accused him of actively misrepresenting his position on issues. Furthermore, during the early 1970s he had begun collaborating with Edward S. Herman, who had also published critiques of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Together they authored Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda, a book which criticized U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia and highlighted how mainstream media neglected to cover stories about these activities; the publisher Warner Modular initially accepted it, and it was published in 1973. However, Warner Modular's parent company, Warner Communications, disapproved of the book's contents and ordered all copies to be destroyed.
While mainstream publishing options proved elusive, Chomsky found support from Mike Albert's South End Press, an activist-oriented publishing company. In 1979, Chomsky and Herman revised Counter-Revolutionary Violence and published it with South End Press as the two-volume The Political Economy of Human Rights. In this they compared U.S. media reactions to the Cambodian genocide and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. They argued that because Indonesia was a U.S. ally, U.S. media ignored the East Timorese situation while focusing on that in Cambodia, a U.S. enemy. Taking a particular interest in the situation in East Timor, Chomsky testified on the subject in front of the United Nations' Special Committee on Decolonization in both 1978 and 1979, and attended a conference on the occupation held in Lisbon in 1979. The following year, Steven Lukas authored an article for the Times Higher Education Supplement accusing Chomsky of betraying his anarchist ideals and acting as an apologist for Cambodian leader Pol Pot. Although Laura J. Summers and Robin Woodsworth Carlsen replied to the article, arguing that Lukas completely misunderstood Chomsky and Herman's work, Chomsky himself did not. The controversy damaged his reputation, and Chomsky maintains that his critics deliberately printed lies about him in order to defame him.
Although Chomsky had long publicly criticized Nazism and totalitarianism more generally, his commitment to freedom of speech led him to defend the right of French historian Robert Faurisson to advocate a position widely characterized as Holocaust denial. Without Chomsky's knowledge, his plea for the historian's freedom of speech was published as the preface to Faurisson's 1980 book Mémoire en défense contre ceux qui m'accusent de falsifier l'histoire. Chomsky was widely condemned for defending Faurisson, and France's mainstream press accused Chomsky of being a Holocaust denier himself, refusing to publish his rebuttals to their accusations. Critiquing Chomsky's position, sociologist Werner Cohn later published an analysis of the affair titled Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers. The Faurisson affair had a lasting, damaging effect on Chomsky's career, and Chomsky didn't visit France, where the translation of his political writings was delayed until the 2000s, for almost thirty years following the affair.
Reaganite era and work on the media: 1980–89
The election of Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency in 1981 marked a period of increased military intervention in Central America. In 1985, during Nicaragua's Contra War – in which the U.S. supported the Contra militia against the Sandinista government – Chomsky traveled to Managua to meet with workers' organizations and refugees of the conflict, giving public lectures on politics and linguistics. Many of these lectures would be published in 1987 as On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures. In 1983 he published The Fateful Triangle, an examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the place of the U.S. within it, arguing that the U.S. had continually used the conflict for its own ends. In 1988, Chomsky then visited the Palestinian territories to witness the impact of Israeli military occupation.
In 1988, Chomsky and Herman published Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in which they outlined their propaganda model for understanding the mainstream media; there they argued that even in countries without official censorship, the news provided was censored through four filters which greatly impacted on what stories are reported and how they are presented. The book was adapted into a 1992 film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which was directed by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. In 1989, Chomsky published Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, in which he critiqued what he sees as the pseudo-democratic nature of Western capitalist states.
By the 1980s, a number of Chomsky's students had become leading linguistic specialists in their own right, expanding, revising, and innovating on Chomsky's ideas of generative grammar. By the end of the 1980s, Chomsky had established himself as a globally recognized figure.
Increased political activism: 1990–present
In the 1990s, Chomsky embraced political activism to a greater degree than before. Retaining his commitment to the cause of East Timorese independence, in 1995 he visited Australia to talk on the issue at the behest of the East Timorese Relief Association and the National Council for East Timorese Resistance. The lectures that he gave on the subject would be published as Powers and Prospects in 1996. As a result of the international publicity generated by Chomsky, his biographer Wolfgang Sperlich opined that he did more to aid the cause of East Timorese independence than anyone but the investigative journalist John Pilger. After East Timor's independence from Indonesia was achieved in 1999, the Australian-led International Force for East Timor arrived as a peacekeeping force; Chomsky was critical of this, believing that it was designed to secure Australian access to East Timor's oil and gas reserves under the Timor Gap Treaty.
Chomsky retired from full-time teaching, although as an Emeritus he nevertheless continued to conduct research and seminars at MIT.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Chomsky was widely interviewed, with these interviews being collated and published by Seven Stories Press in October. Chomsky argued that the ensuing War on Terror was not a new development, but rather a continuation of the same U.S. foreign policy and its concomitant rhetoric that had been pursued since at least the Reagan era of the 1980s. In 2003 he published Hegemony or Survival, in which he articulated what he called the United States' "imperial grand strategy" and critiqued the Iraq War and other aspects of the 'War on Terror.'
Chomsky toured the world with increasing regularity during this period, giving talks on various subjects. In 2001 he gave the D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, India, and in 2003 visited Cuba at the invite of the Latin American Association of Social Scientists. In 2002 Chomsky visited Turkey in order to attend the trial of a publisher who had been accused of treason for printing one of Chomsky's books; Chomsky insisted on being a co-defendant and amid international media attention the Security Courts dropped the prosecution on the first day. During that trip, Chomsky visited Kurdish areas of Turkey and spoke out in favor of the Kurds' human rights. A supporter of the World Social Forum, he attended their conferences in Brazil in both 2002 and 2003, also attending the Forum event in India.
His wife, Carol, died in December 2008.
Chomsky was drawn to the energy and activism of the Occupy movement, delivering talks at encampments and producing two works that chronicled its influence, first Occupy a pamphlet, in 2012, then, in 2013, Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity. Both were published by Zuccotti Park Press. His analysis included a critique that attributed Occupy's growth as a response to a perceived abandonment of the interests of the white working class by the Democratic Party.
In late 2015, Chomsky announced his support for Vermont U.S. senator Bernie Sanders in the upcoming 2016 United States presidential election.
In early 2016, Chomsky was publicly rebuked by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey after he signed an open letter condemning the Turkish leader for his anti-Kurdish repression and supporting terrorism. Chomsky accused Erdoğan of hypocrisy and added that the Turkish president supports al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.
In 2016, Chomsky released a documentary, entitled Requiem for the American Dream, that summarized his views on capitalism and economic inequality through a "75-minute teach-in".