Noam Chomsky's naturalistic approach to the study of language has affected the philosophy of language and mind. He is credited
with the establishment of the Chomsky–Schützenberger hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power.
The following material has been adapted from the Wikipedia: Noam Chomsky website.
Noam Chomsky was born December 7, 1928, in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar. His mother, Elsie Chomsky (born Simonofsky), came from what is now Belarus, but unlike her husband she grew up in
the United States and spoke "ordinary New York English". Their first language was Yiddish, but Chomsky says it was "taboo" in his family to speak it. He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto", split into
a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side", with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature". Chomsky also describes tensions he personally experienced with Irish Catholics
and anti-Semitism in the mid-1930s, stating, "I don't like to say it but I grew up with a kind of visceral fear of Catholics. I knew it was irrational and got over it but it was just the street experience."
Chomsky remembers the first article he wrote was at the age of ten about the threat of the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. From the age of twelve or thirteen, he identified more fully with
A graduate of Central High School of Philadelphia (184th Class), in 1945 Chomsky began studying philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, learning from philosophers C. West Churchman and Nelson Goodman and linguist
Zellig Harris. Harris's teaching included his discovery of transformations as a mathematical analysis of language structure (mappings from one subset to another in the set of sentences). Chomsky subsequently reinterpreted these as operations on the productions
of a context-free grammar (derived from Post production systems). Harris's political views were instrumental in shaping those of Chomsky.
In 1949, Chomsky married linguist Carol Schatz. They have two daughters, Aviva (b. 1957) and Diane (b. 1960), and a son, Harry (b. 1967).
Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He conducted much of his doctoral research during four years at Harvard University as a Harvard Junior Fellow. In his doctoral thesis, he began to
develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, perhaps his best-known work in linguistics.
Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy). From 1966
to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor. Chomsky has been teaching at MIT continuously for the last 50 years.
It was during this time that Chomsky became more publicly engaged in politics: he became one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War with the publication of his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in The New York
Review of Books in 1967. Since that time, Chomsky has become well known for his political views, speaking on politics all over the world and writing numerous books. His far-reaching criticism of US foreign policy and the legitimacy of US power has made
him a controversial figure.
Beginning with his critique of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Chomsky has become more widely known for his media criticism and politics than for his linguistic theories. He is generally considered to be a key intellectual figure within
the left wing of United States politics. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980-1992 time period, and was the eighth most cited scholar in any
time period. Chomsky is widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist and a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism.
Contributions to linguistics
Syntactic Structures was a distillation of his book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory in which he introduces transformational grammars. The theory takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax which can be (largely) characterized by a formal
grammar; in particular, a Context-free grammar extended with transformational rules. Children are hypothesized to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages (i.e. they assume that any language which they
encounter is of a certain restricted kind). This innate knowledge is often referred to as universal grammar. It is argued that modeling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" of language: with a limited
set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, humans are able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences no one has previously said.
The Principles and Parameters approach (P&P)
— developed in his Pisa 1979 Lectures, later published as Lectures on Government and Binding (LGB) — make strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, 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, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine
the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.
Proponents of this view argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to 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 were being employed), are also pointed to as motivation for innateness.
More recently, in his Minimalist Program (1995), while retaining the core concept of "principles and parameters", Chomsky attempts a major overhaul of the linguistic machinery involved in the LGB model, stripping from it all
but the barest necessary elements, while advocating a general approach to the architecture of the human language faculty that emphasizes principles of economy and optimal design, reverting to a derivational approach to generation, in contrast with the
largely representational approach of classic P&P.
Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating the acquisition of language in children, though some researchers who work in this area today do not support Chomsky's theories, often advocating emergentist or
connectionist theories reducing language to an instance of general processing mechanisms in the brain.
The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, though quite popular, has been challenged by many, especially those working outside the United States of America. 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 grammatical judgments can only
be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists often focus on their own native languages or languages in which they are fluent, usually Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese or one of
the Chinese languages.
Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes, or groups, 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 modeling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy)
than modeling 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 (especially in compiler construction and automata theory).
Contributions to psychology
Chomsky's work in linguistics has had major implications for modern psychology. For Chomsky linguistics is a branch of cognitive psychology; genuine insights in linguistics imply concomitant understandings of aspects of mental processing and human nature.
His theory of a universal grammar was seen by many as 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, the ability to use language
is. Many of 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 some circles.
In 1959, Chomsky published an influential critique of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, a book in which Skinner offered a speculative explanation of language in behavioral terms. "Verbal behavior" he defined as learned behavior
which has its characteristic consequences being delivered through the learned behavior of others; this makes for a view of communicative behaviors much larger than that usually addressed by linguists. Skinner's approach focused on the circumstances in
which language was used; for example, asking for water was functionally a different response than labeling something as water, responding to someone asking for water, etc. These functionally different kinds of responses, which required in turn separate
explanations, sharply contrasted both with traditional notions of language and Chomsky's psycholinguistic approach. Chomsky thought that a functionalist explanation restricting itself to questions of communicative performance ignored important questions.
(Chomsky-Language and Mind, 1968). He focused on questions concerning the operation and development of innate structures for syntax capable of creatively organizing, cohering, adapting and combining words and phrases into intelligible utterances.
In the review Chomsky emphasized that the scientific application of behavioral principles from animal research is severely lacking in explanatory adequacy and is furthermore particularly superficial as an account of human verbal behavior
because a theory restricting itself to external conditions, to "what is learned", cannot adequately account for generative grammar. Chomsky raised the examples of rapid language acquisition of children, including their quickly developing ability
to form grammatical sentences, and the universally creative language use of competent native speakers to highlight the ways in which Skinner's view exemplified under-determination of theory by evidence. He argued that to understand human verbal behavior
such as the creative aspects of language use and language development, one must first postulate a genetic linguistic endowment. The assumption that important aspects of language are the product of universal innate ability runs counter to Skinner's radical
It has been claimed that Chomsky's critique of Skinner's methodology and basic assumptions paved the way for the "cognitive revolution", the shift in American psychology between the 1950s through the 1970s from being primarily
behavioral to being primarily cognitive. 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 some 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. Second, he argued that most of the important properties of language and mind are
innate. The acquisition and development of a language is a result of the unfolding of innate propensities triggered by the experiential input of the external environment. Subsequent psychologists have extended this general "nativist"
thesis beyond language. Lastly, 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).