Noam Chomsky is a contemporary psychologist, linguist, and political activist known both for his theory of innate grammar and for his political activism.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in Philadelphia. His parents were Hebrew scholars, and Chomsky and his younger brother were steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Chomsky’s mother was more left-leaning than her husband, and she influenced her son’s interest in social issues and politics.
Chomsky attended the Oak Lane County Day School and graduated from the Central High School of Philadelphia. He enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania and focused his studies on linguistics and philosophy, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Chomsky continued at the university to complete his PhD in linguistics in 1955, and he spent time at Harvard conducting research for his doctoral thesis. The four years he spent as a Harvard Junior Fellow produced not only a prominent thesis, but also led to the eventual publication of one of his most acclaimed books on linguistics, Syntactic Structures.
In 1955, Chomsky left Harvard to accept a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Within a few years, he earned a full professorship. Chomsky held several different titles during his long career with MIT, including Institute Professor and Ferrari P. Ward Professorship. He is presently an Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus. An expert in linguistics, Chomsky still travels regularly and conducts seminars, workshops, and speaking engagements. Chomsky has been very active in politics as well, and his anti-war views published in several of his writings caused controversy and led to several death threats.
Chomsky married Carol Doris Schatz, whom he'd known since childhood. Prior to her death from cancer in 2008, Chomsky's wife was heavily involved in his work, helping to coordinate his speaking schedule. The couple had two daughters and a son.
Contribution to Psychology
Chomsky is best known for his influence on linguistics, specifically, the development of transformational grammar. Chomsky believed that formal grammar was directly responsible for a person’s ability to understand and interpret mere utterances.
Although Chomsky did not believe that language was innate, he did theorize that animals and humans were both capable of similar types of comprehension when exposed to specific linguistic information, but only humans could continue to develop those abilities through a process he called a “language acquisition device” (LAD). Chomsky thought that if the LAD for all human languages could be discovered, it could result in features that would be universal to all tongues, known as “universal grammar.” In this regard, Chomsky argues that some fundamental structures of every language are innate and universal to all human tongues. He points to the fact that children develop a competent use of language even though they are often exposed to incomplete or inaccurate grammar, and they may not receive much direct teaching about how to speak.
Chomsky further developed his linguistic theories in a series of lectures that were published under the name of Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures. The lectures covered the Principles and Parameters (P&P) technique that Chomsky formed based on the assumption that every language had similar parameters that could be manipulated and modified. By doing so, learning a language would only require the acquisition of a core set of linguistic principles.
Chomsky also contributed to the field of phonology and influenced the works of other experts, including Michael Tomasello and Elizabeth Bates. He explored language hierarchy, a method of classification that has impacted the computer science field dramatically. Chomsky’s linguistic discoveries have benefited the field of psychology in many ways as well. Linguistics itself is a discipline of cognitive psychology and strives to understand how language is learned and used by children.
In addition to his impact on psychological approaches, Chomsky also contributed to the literary field with more than 100 published books. He has been recognized for his work as an activist, philosopher, scientist, and professor with numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science and the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.
In Popular Culture
Chomsky once debated philosopher Michel Foucault about human nature; Chomsky argued that human nature is heavily determined by biology and Foucault argued that social structures determine human values, personality, and social problems. Chomsky is known as a vigorous debater and has debated with people across the political spectrum, including conservative William F. Buckley, cultural critic Christopher Hitchens, and legal philosopher Alan Dershowitz.
Chomsky remains a popular speaker, particularly among progressives and liberals, and his political views continue to spark controversy. Most notably, he has advocated for a Palestinian state, heavily criticizing Israeli treatment of Palestinians. He often draws on his own experience of anti-Semitism to emphasize that opposing Israeli political choices is not anti-Semitic.