Noam Chomsky is an American linguist (among other things) who is famous for two primary reasons: political activism and his contribution to modern linguistics. This is a brief, digestible primer for those who have heard about Noam Chomsky, but who don’t really know anything about him politically or academically.
1— Noam Chomsky and Political Activism
Noam has long been a fierce critic of American and British foreign policy. He is a critic of Israel, and was famously an early critic of the Vietnam War. He describes himself as a leftist but not a Marxist, and he uses the term “anarcho-syndicalist” to explain his political views (anarcho-syndicalism embraces the view that workers can gain power and control in a capitalist society through the use of unions). He has a huge activist following.
2— Noam’s Linguistics Alternative
In the 1950’s, Noam Chomsky founded the modern approach to linguistics. He created an alternative to behaviorism (behaviorism follows more of the “blank slate” view of the mind, which suggests that we’re born a blank slate and then respond to external stimuli. This would give the credit of language acquisition fully to the external world). Chomsky’s alternative approach was the first to convincingly apply psychology to linguistic theories.
As the psychologist Steven Pinker has said, “the problem of the study of language is really a problem of how human children acquire language, which they do without any lesson or instruction or not much in the way of feedback.” Chomsky held that the brain has a special circuitry for language acquisition, like a kind of algorithm that generates and interprets sentences. This contradicted the behaviorist notion that the brain simply memorized sentences like lists.
Chomsky steered the focus of linguistics away from making lists of linguistic constructions and toward the effort of understanding the mental software that allows us to acquire and use language. He contended that all languages conform to a universal grammar that exists in the brain.
Brief Overview of Criticism
His contributions have not been without critical opposition. He created a polarized academic state within the field of linguistics, and has faced criticism for having a lack of scientific rigor. He was once criticized because, of the thousands of papers published between 1970 and 1986 on the topic of Chomsky’s grammar, only one paper from an obscure journal even made an attempt at a mathematical statement. His political thoughts have also been criticized, with claims that his political reactions and rhetoric are too simplistic, dismissive and uninformed. He’s been accused of offering heavy-handed judgments with little to no empirical evidence, and of disregarding opponents by using an overbearing triumphalist rhetoric.
(Feature photo attribution: By Duncan Rawlinson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)