Photo: Augusto Starita / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Born: December 7, 1928
Age: 91 years
Born Place: East Oak Lane, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Spouse: Carol Doris Schatz ( m. 1949; died 2008) || Valeria Wasserman (m. 2014)
Harvard Society of Fellows (1951–1955)
Avram Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes called “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 holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona, and is the author of more than 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.
Born to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Chomsky developed an early interest in anarchism from alternative bookstores in New York City. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania. During his postgraduate work in the Harvard Society of Fellows, Chomsky developed the theory of transformational grammar for which he earned his doctorate in 1955. That year he began teaching at MIT, and in 1957 emerged as a significant figure in linguistics with his landmark work Syntactic Structures, which played a major role in remodeling the study of language. From 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. He created or co-created 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 linguistic behaviorism, and was 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 rose to national attention for his antiwar essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. Associated with the New Left, he was arrested multiple times for his activism and placed 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 articulated the propaganda model of media criticism in Manufacturing Consent and worked to expose the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. His defense of freedom of speech, including Holocaust denial, generated significant controversy in the Faurisson affair of the 1980s. Since retiring from MIT, he has continued his vocal political activism, including opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and supporting the Occupy movement. Chomsky began teaching at the University of Arizona in 2017.
One of the most cited scholars alive, Chomsky has influenced a broad array of academic fields. He is widely recognized as having helped to spark the cognitive 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 scholarship, he remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism and contemporary state capitalism, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas are highly influential in the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, but have also drawn criticism, with some accusing Chomsky of anti-Americanism.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents, Ze’ev “William” Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, were Jewish immigrants. William had fled the Russian Empire in 1913 to escape conscription and worked in Baltimore sweatshops and Hebrew elementary schools before attending university. After moving to Philadelphia, William became principal of the Congregation Mikveh Israel religious school and joined the Gratz College faculty. He placed great emphasis on educating people so that they would be “well integrated, free and independent in their thinking, concerned about improving and enhancing the world, and eager to participate in making life more meaningful and worthwhile for all”, a mission that shaped and was subsequently adopted by his son. Elsie was a teacher and activist born in Belarus. They met at Mikveh Israel, where they both worked.
Noam was the Chomskys’ first child. His younger brother, David Eli Chomsky, was born five years later, in 1934. The brothers were close, though 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 was particularly influenced by the Left Zionist writings of Ahad Ha’am. Chomsky faced antisemitism as a child, particularly from Philadelphia’s Irish and German communities.
Chomsky attended the independent, Deweyite Oak Lane Country Day School and Philadelphia’s Central High School, where he excelled academically and joined various clubs and societies, but was troubled by the school’s hierarchical and regimented teaching methods. He also attended Hebrew High School at Gratz College, where his father taught.
Chomsky has described his parents as “normal Roosevelt Democrats” with center-left politics, but other relatives involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union exposed him to socialism and far-left politics. He was substantially influenced by his uncle and the Jewish leftists who frequented his New York City newspaper stand to debate current affairs. Chomsky frequented left-wing and anarchist bookstores when visiting his uncle in the city, voraciously reading political literature. He wrote his first article at age 10 on the spread of fascism following the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and, from the age of 12 or 13, identified with anarchist politics. He later described his discovery of anarchism as “a lucky accident” that made him critical of Stalinism and other forms of Marxism–Leninism.
Chomsky befriended two linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson, the latter of whom secured him an assistant professor position there in 1955. At MIT, Chomsky spent half his time on a mechanical translation project and half teaching a course on linguistics and philosophy. He 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 to 1958 he was also employed by Columbia University as a visiting professor. The Chomskys had their first child that same year, a daughter named Aviva. He also published his first book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, a work that radically opposed the dominant Harris–Bloomfield trend in the field. Responses to Chomsky’s ideas ranged from indifference to hostility, and his work proved divisive and caused “significant upheaval” in the discipline. The linguist John Lyons later asserted that Syntactic Structures “revolutionized the scientific study of language”. From 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
In 1959, Chomsky published a review of B. F. Skinner’s 1957 book Verbal Behavior in the academic journal Language, in which he argued against Skinner’s view of language as learned behavior. The review argued that Skinner ignored the role of human creativity in linguistics and helped to establish Chomsky as an intellectual. With Halle, Chomsky proceeded to found MIT’s graduate program in linguistics. In 1961 he was awarded tenure, becoming a full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Chomsky went on to be appointed plenary speaker at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, held in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which established him as the de facto spokesperson of American linguistics. Between 1963 and 1965 he consulted on a military-sponsored project “to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control”; Barbara Partee, a collaborator on this project and then-student of Chomsky, has said this research was justified to the military on the basis that “in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program.”
Chomsky continued to publish his linguistic ideas throughout the decade, including in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966), and Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966). Along with Halle, he also edited the Studies in Language series of books for Harper and Row. As he began to accrue significant academic recognition and honors for his work, Chomsky lectured at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966. His Beckman lectures at Berkeley were assembled and published as Language and Mind in 1968. Despite his growing stature, an intellectual falling-out between Chomsky and some of his early colleagues and doctoral students—including Paul Postal, John “Haj” Ross, George Lakoff, and James D. McCawley—triggered a series of academic debates that came to be known as the “Linguistics Wars”, although they revolved largely around philosophical issues rather than linguistics proper.
Chomsky endeavors to keep his family life, linguistic scholarship, and political activism strictly separate from one another, calling himself “scrupulous at keeping my politics out of the classroom”. An intensely private person, he is uninterested in appearances and the fame his work has brought him. He also has little interest in modern art and music. McGilvray suggests that Chomsky was never motivated by a desire for fame, but impelled to tell what he perceived as the truth and a desire to aid others in doing so. Chomsky acknowledges that his income affords him a privileged life compared to the majority of the world’s population; nevertheless, he characterizes himself as a “worker”, albeit one who uses his intellect as his employable skill. He reads four or five newspapers daily; in the US, he subscribes to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. Chomsky is non-religious, but has expressed approval of forms of religion such as liberation theology.
Chomsky has attracted controversy for calling established political and academic figures “corrupt”, “fascist”, and “fraudulent”. His colleague Steven Pinker has said that he “portrays people who disagree with him as stupid or evil, using withering scorn in his rhetoric”, and that this contributes to the extreme reactions he receives from critics. Chomsky avoids attending academic conferences, including left-oriented ones such as the Socialist Scholars Conference, preferring to speak to activist groups or hold university seminars for mass audiences. His approach to academic freedom has led him to support MIT academics whose actions he deplores; in 1969, when Chomsky heard that Walt Rostow, a major architect of the Vietnam war, wanted to return to work at MIT, Chomsky threatened “to protest publicly” if Rostow was denied a position at MIT. In 1989, when Pentagon adviser John Deutch applied to be president of MIT, Chomsky supported his candidacy. Later, when Deutch became head of the CIA, The New York Times quoted Chomsky as saying, “He has more honesty and integrity than anyone I’ve ever met. … If somebody’s got to be running the CIA, I’m glad it’s him.”
Chomsky was married to Carol (née Carol Doris Schatz) from 1949 until her death in 2008. They had three children together: Aviva (b. 1957), Diane (b. 1960), and Harry (b. 1967). In 2014, Chomsky married Valeria Wasserman.