Authors: Noam Chomsky

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American linguist and social critic

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Syntactic Structures, 1957

Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 1964

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965

Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar, 1966

Cartesian Linguistics, 1966

Language and Mind, 1968, enlarged 1972

American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969

At War with Asia: Essays on Indochina, 1970

Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar, 1972

For Reasons of State, 1973

Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood, 1974

The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, 1975

Reflections on Language, 1975

Language and Responsibility, 1979

After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, 1979 (with Edward S. Herman)

The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, 1979 (with Herman)

Rules and Representations, 1980

Lectures on Government and Binding, 1981

Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There, 1982

The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, 1983, updated 1999

Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace, 1985

Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use, 1986

Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World, 1986

The Chomsky Reader, 1987

The Culture of Terrorism, 1988

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1988 (with Herman)

Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, 1989

Deterring Democracy, 1991

U.S. Gulf Policy, 1991

What Uncle Sam Really Wants, 1992

A Minimalist Program for Linguistic Theory, 1992

Language and Thought, 1993

Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture, 1993

Year 501: The Conquest Continues, 1993

Bare Phrase Structure, 1994

World Orders, Old and New, 1994, expanded 1996

The Minimalist Program, 1995

The Common Good, 1998

On Language, 1998

Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization, 1999

The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, 1999

Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, 1999

Chomsky on Miseducation, 2000 (Donaldo Macedo, editor)

A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor, and the Standards of the West, 2000

New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 2000

Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs, 2000

9-11, 2001

Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky, 2001 (with David Barsamian)

On Nature and Language, 2002 (Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi, editors)

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002 (Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, editors)


Avram Noam Chomsky (CHOM-skee) achieved renown both as a pioneer in the field of linguistics and as a political dissenter. He was born on December 7, 1928, in Philadelphia, the son of William Chomsky, a Russian Jewish immigrant who taught Hebrew, and his wife, Elsie (Simonofsky) Chomsky. During his studies for a doctorate, Chomsky engaged in the theoretical work that produced a new type of linguistics: generative transformational grammar. Soon after receiving a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, he became assistant professor of modern languages and linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When his groundbreaking Syntactic Structures was published in 1957, Noam Chomsky’s unorthodox linguistic theories had only a few supporters in the academic world. He gained a wider reputation in 1959 by publishing a blistering review of Verbal Behavior (1957), a work by the behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner. By 1965, when Chomsky’s second major theoretical work, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, appeared, his theories had won acceptance in universities throughout the United States.{$I[AN]9810001299}{$I[A]Chomsky, Noam}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Chomsky, Noam}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Chomsky, Noam}{$I[tim]1928;Chomsky, Noam}

From the mid-1960’s onward, Chomsky was widely viewed as the most articulate opponent of the Vietnam War in academic circles. In 1969 his essays on the Vietnam War and on American liberal intellectuals’ alleged responsibility for that war, written for various magazines since 1966, were published in American Power and the New Mandarins. Later, two other collections of essays on the war appeared, At War with Asia and For Reasons of State; the latter also included an attack on behaviorist psychology and two essays expounding Chomsky’s political ideal of libertarian socialism.

With the end of the Vietnam War, Chomsky’s type of political analysis went out of fashion for a while. In the 1980’s his popularity was revived somewhat by widespread anxiety about the growing United States involvement in Central America. In The Fateful Triangle Chomsky accuses the United States of encouraging what he regards as Israeli intransigence toward the Palestinian Arabs; in Turning the Tide, he attacks American policy toward Nicaragua and El Salvador; and in Manufacturing Consent (adapted for film by the National Film Board of Canada in 1993), he criticizes as biased American press and television coverage of United States foreign policy. In the 1990’s Chomsky’s concerns focused on American involvements in Haiti and Bosnia. He continued to write and speak about American foreign policy and to teach courses in linguistics at MIT.

Prior to Chomsky, linguistics accepted behaviorist psychology’s explanation of how human beings learn language. Behaviorists, who saw no substantial difference between animal learning and human learning, contended that human beings learn language the way they learn anything else, by response to environmental stimulus and by habit. Chomsky argues that the speed with which children learn their native language and their ability to create new sentences that they have not heard before cast doubt on any stimulus-response theory of language learning. Instead, Chomsky contends, children have innate genetic equipment, shared with none of the lower animals, allowing them to grasp the grammar of their native tongue.

Chomsky insists that linguistics go beyond the mere description of previously undescribed languages. Its goals, he argues, ought to be those of making explicit that set of rules, or generative grammar, by which the native speaker of a language produces all grammatical sentences and only grammatical sentences; of stating such rules with mathematical precision; and of discovering the universal grammar, or set of rules governing speech production in all languages. In a generative grammar, Chomsky contends, the sounds and words of a sentence, the surface structure, are generated from the deep structure, those underlying grammatical relationships most important to meaning, through transformational operations. Chomsky uses this deep-structure/surface-structure dichotomy to explain such previously unexplained phenomena as sentence ambiguity.

In his politics as in his linguistics, Chomsky is an iconoclast. Although sometimes critical of Soviet actions, Chomsky rejected the Cold War dichotomy between a righteous United States and an evil Soviet Union in favor of a dichotomy between bullying big powers and righteous small countries. He saw American intervention in both Vietnam in the 1960’s and Central America in the 1980’s as acts of aggression by a big power against smaller countries; he regards such intervention as immoral in principle and as a reflection of deeprooted imperialistic tendencies. The real goal of American foreign policy makers, according to Chomsky, is not to promote democracy but to secure for American corporate interests the markets and resources of the Third World.

Chomsky thinks that Americans, like Russians, can be blinkered by ideology. In the 1960’s he saw the influence of behaviorism behind liberal intellectuals’ support for, and involvement in the making of, America’s Vietnam policy. In the 1980’s he argued that an unthinking acceptance of the dogma of the United States’ inevitably beneficent role in the world kept journalists from sufficiently criticizing the actions of either their own government or the governments of such U.S. allies as El Salvador and Israel.

During the Vietnam War, critics accused Chomsky of making too sweeping an indictment of his fellow intellectuals, of resorting too often to vituperation rather than rational argument, of underestimating the dangers to American security, and of applying simplistic moralism to a complex moral dilemma. Chomsky’s polemics of the 1980’s aroused similar complaints. Yet despite the opposition that it provoked, Chomsky’s relentless hammering undoubtedly did much to make American public opinion, by the end of the 1980’s, profoundly skeptical about the benefits of United States military intervention abroad. His book on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon of September 11, 2001, 9-11, was greeted with outrage by many conservatives, as he laid part of the blame for the event on the effects of capitalist globalization and U.S. foreign policy on Third World and especially Muslim nations. Nonetheless, Chomsky reiterated and expanded his criticism of the United States in his later book, Understanding Power.

Although Chomsky’s political views have been considered dogmatic by some, his linguistic theory is no inflexible dogma. Criticized by other scholars, it has been modified by Chomsky himself. The deep-structure/surface-structure dichotomy, for example, was first stated explicitly in 1965; his sharp distinction between the grammaticality and the meaningfulness of a sentence was erased in 1965, only to be reasserted five years later. Sociolinguists fault Chomsky for ignoring the societal context of language use, philosophers have questioned his notion of an innate human faculty for learning language, and some of his own disciples have at times disagreed with their master.

Yet however much Chomsky’s linguistic theories have been disputed, it is indisputable that Chomsky was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century, a man read as much for the questions he raised as for the answers he tried to give. His theories revived the old debate among philosophers about the existence of the mind. By discrediting behaviorism, Chomsky forced rethinking among psychologists as well, stimulating research on speech perception and childhood language acquisition.

BibliographyBarksy, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press, 1997. A biography that emphasizes Chomsky’s political views.Calvin, William H., and Derek Bickerton. Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press, 2000. Calvin, a neurophysiologist, and Bickerton, a linguist, attempt to reconcile Chomsky’s ideas of deep linguistic structure with evolutionary theory about the development of the human mind.Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky: Selected Readings. Edited by J. P. B. Allen and Paul Van Buren. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. The readings in this book were selected from a variety of books and articles representing the main scope of Chomsky’s linguistic work during the twelve years prior to its publication. Basic principles, syntax, phonology, semantics, and language acquisition are covered.Cogswell, Davis. Chomsky for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996. An illustrated introduction to Chomsky’s linguistic theories; assumes no linguistics background whatsoever.Edgley, Alison. The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. New York: Routledge, 2000. Focuses on Chomsky as a political theorist. Discusses his thoughts on equality and freedom, politics and the media, and nationalism and state capitalism.Haley, Michael C., and Ronald F. Lunsford. Noam Chomsky. New York: Twayne, 1994. Based on a series of interviews with Chomsky, the primary focus of this book is to give an overall sense of the basis and development of Chomsky’s theoretical work.Harris, Randy A. The Linguistics Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. The ongoing impact of Chomsky’s linguistics work is discussed.Huck, Geoffrey G., and John A. Goldsmith. Ideology and Linguistic Theory: Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates. New York: Routledge, 1995. Although Chomsky’s linguistic and political concerns seem to be unrelated, his linguistic theories illustrate his philosophical stance regarding society. These interactions are analyzed here.Leiber, Justin. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview. New York: Twayne, 1975. Leiber provides a philosopher’s interpretation of Chomsky’s thought. The book is based on presentations from a course taught by the author.McGilvray, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. A comprehensive and informative guide to Chomsky’s philosophy and his writing.Mehta, Ved. “John Is Easy to Please.” In John Is Easy to Please: Encounters with the Written and Spoken Word. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Good introduction to Chomsky’s thought.Ramaiah, L. S., and T. V. Chandra. Noam Chomsky: A Bibliography. Gurgaon, Haryana, India: Indian Documentation Service, 1984. This is an attempt to provide a complete listing of all literature on and by Chomsky. Entries are arranged in alphabetical order by the name of the author.Smith, Neil. Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A thorough introduction to both Chomsky’s linguistic theories and his political positions.Winston, Morton. On Chomsky. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. An overview of Chomsky’s theories and their place in twentieth century thought and beyond. Written for a college audience.
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