Sunday, February 19, 2017

Great Thinkers, Great Thoughts: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky (aka: Avram Noam Chomsky) was born on December. 7, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania., U.S. He is an American theoretical linguist whose work from the 1950s revolutionized the field of linguistics by treating language as a uniquely human, biologically based cognative capacity. Through his contributions to linguistics and related fields, including psychology and the philosophies of mind and language, Chomsky helped to initiate and sustain what came to be known as the “cognitive revolution.” Chomsky also gained a worldwide following as a political dissident for his analyses of the pernicious influence of economic elites on U.S. domestic politics, foreign policy, and intellectual culture.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Chomsky attended an experimental elementary school in which he was encouraged to develop his own interests and talents through self-directed learning. When he was 10 years old, he wrote an editorial for his school newspaper lamenting the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. His research then and during the next few years was thorough enough to serve decades later as the basis of  Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship (1969), Chomsky’s critical review of a study of the period by the historian Gabriel Jackson.

When he was 13 years old, Chomsky began taking trips by himself to New York City, where he found books for his voracious reading habit and made contact with a thriving working-class Jewish intellectual community. Discussion enriched and confirmed the beliefs that would underlie his political views throughout his life: that all people are capable of comprehending political and economic issues and making their own decisions on that basis; that all people need and derive satisfaction from acting freely and creatively and from associating with others; and that authority whether political, economic, or religious that cannot meet a strong test of rational justification is illegitimate. According to Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism, or libertarian socialism, the best form of political organization is one in which all people have a maximal opportunity to engage in cooperative activity with others and to take part in all decisions of the community that affect them.

In 1945, at the age of 16, Chomsky entered the University of Pennsylvania but found little to interest him. After two years he considered leaving the university to pursue his political interests, perhaps by living on a kibbutz. He changed his mind, however, after meeting the linguist Zellig S. Harris, one of the American founders of structural linguistics, whose political convictions were similar to Chomsky’s. Chomsky took graduate courses with Harris and, at Harris’s recommendation, studied philosophy with Nelson Goodman and Nathan Salmon and mathematics with Nathan Fine, who was then teaching at Harvard University. In his 1951 master’s thesis, The Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew, and especially in The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT), written while he was a junior fellow at Harvard (1951–1955) and published in part in 1975, Chomsky adopted aspects of Harris’s approach to the study of language and of Goodman’s views on formal systems and the philosophy of science and transformed them into something novel.

Whereas Goodman assumed that the mind at birth is largely a tabula rasa (blank slate) and that language learning in children is essentially a conditioned response to linguistic stimuli, Chomsky held that the basic principles of all languages, as well as the basic range of concepts they are used to express, are innately represented in the human mind and that language learning consists of the unconscious construction of a grammar from these principles in accordance with cues drawn from the child’s linguistic  environment. Whereas Harris thought of the study of language as the taxonomic classification of “data,” Chomsky held that it is the discovery, through the application of formal systems, of the innate principles that make possible the swift acquisition of language by children and the ordinary use of language by children and adults alike. And whereas Goodman believed that linguistic behavior is regular and caused (in the sense of being a specific response to specific stimuli), Chomsky argued that it is incited by social  context and discourse context but essentially uncaused enabled by a distinct set of innate principles but innovative, or “creative.” It is for this reason that Chomsky believed that it is unlikely that there will ever be a full-fledged science of linguistic behavior. As in the view of the 17th-century French philosopher Réne Descartes, according to Chomsky, the use of language is due to a “creative principle,” not a causal one.

Harris ignored Chomsky’s work, and Goodman when he realized that Chomsky would not accept his behaviorism denounced it. Their reactions, with some variations, were shared by a large majority of linguists, philosophers, and psychologists. Although some linguists and psychologists eventually came to accept Chomsky’s basic assumptions regarding language and the mind, most philosophers continued to resist them.

Chomsky received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 after submitting one chapter of LSLT as a doctoral dissertation (Transformational Analysis). In 1956 he was appointed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to a teaching position that required him to spend half his time on a machine translation project, though he was openly skeptical of its prospects for success (he told the director of the translation laboratory that the project was of “no intellectual interest and was also pointless”). Impressed with his book Syntactic Structures (1957), a revised version of a series of lectures he gave to MIT undergraduates, the university asked Chomsky and his colleague Morris Halle to establish a new graduate program in linguistics, which soon attracted several outstanding scholars, including Robert Lees, Jerry Fodor, Jerold Katz, and Paul Postal.

Chomsky’s 1959 review of Verbal Behavior, by B.F. Skinner, the dean of American  behaviorism, came to be regarded as the definitive refutation of behaviorist accounts of language learning. Starting in the mid-1960s, with the publication of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax  (1965) and Cartesian Linguistics (1966), Chomsky’s approach to the study of language and mind gained wider acceptance within linguistics, though there were many theoretical variations within the paradigm. Chomsky was appointed full professor at MIT in 1961, Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics in 1966, and Institute Professor in 1976. He retired as professor emeritus in 2002.

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Quotes by Noam Chomsky

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. 

There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, 'That person I see is a savage monster;' instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. 

If you're teaching today what you were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead or you are.

With the development of industrial capitalism, a new and unanticipated system of injustice, it is libertarian socialism that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led to many very good things. If you follow the trail, it led to kicking Europeans out of Asia - that saved tens of millions of lives in India alone. 

Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.

If there was an observer on Mars, they would probably be amazed that we have survived this long. 

The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people. 

The major advances in speed of communication and ability to interact took place more than a century ago. The shift from sailing ships to telegraph was far more radical than that from telephone to email!

Nationalism has a way of oppressing others

The probability of apocalypse soon cannot be realistically estimated, but it is surely too high for any sane person to contemplate with equanimity. 

The United States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi nationalism - mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the insurgents, but they couldn't deal with half a million people demonstrating in the streets.

It's a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided. 

Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it. 

I have often thought that if a rational Fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system. 

Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune. 

There is massive propaganda for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment. 

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. 

Debt is a social and ideological construct, not a simple economic fact.

Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever. 

The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests.

Social Security is based on a principle. It's based on the principle that you care about other people. You care whether the widow across town, a disabled widow, is going to be able to have food to eat.

Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism.

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