Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate
Avram Noam Chomsky (b. December 7, 1928) is the Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, often considered to be the most significant contribution to the field of theoretical linguistics in the 20th century. He also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology through his review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, in which he challenged the behaviorist approach to the study of mind and language dominant in the 1950s. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has also affected the philosophy of language and mind (see Harman, Fodor). He is also credited with the establishment of the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power.
Outside of academia, Chomsky is far more 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 (he is a member of the IWW). He is generally considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of United States politics. Between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar, and the eighth most cited scholar overall.
Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar and IWW member William Chomsky, who was from a town in Ukraine. His mother, Elsi 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.
The first article Chomsky wrote was at the age of ten about the threat of the spread of fascism. From the age of twelve or thirteen, he identified fully with anarchist politics.
In 1949, Chomsky married linguist Carol Schatz. They have two daughters and a son. Chomsky received a 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. Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor. Chomsky has been teaching at MIT continuously for the last 50 years.
Chomsky became one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War. He has a devoted following among the left, but has come under increasing criticism from liberals, as well as from the right, particularly because of his response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. Chomsky has faced various death threats; he was on a list created by Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Despite his criticisms, Chomsky has stated that he continues to reside in the United States because he believes it remains the greatest country in the world.
Chomsky has received many honorary degrees from the most prestigious universities around the world, including Swarthmore, Amherst, Cambridge, McGill, Columbia, and Harvard. Early in his career Chomsky was granted the prestigious McArthur Award. Chomsky was voted the leading living public intellectual in the 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll conducted by the British magazine Prospect.
Click here for supplemental reading about Noam Chomsky on Amazon.