Saturday, January 28, 2012

Noam Chomsky Examined

The opinions of public intellectuals have served as a voice of reason and logic to the general public by examining both the advantages and disadvantages of the various stances on political and public issues. Of those who have been labeled a public intellectual, Noam Chomsky’s many contributions to both academics and international politics have proven to be worth investigating. To begin, Chomsky’s research in linguistics is considered to have advanced our understanding of grammar more than any other work this century. Furthermore, his academic work is utilized by several fields, including psychology and philosophy. In addition to contributing to linguistics, Chomsky is also one of the most influential libertarian socialists. Known for questioning the legitimacy of authority and making harsh criticisms of the United States’ democratic values, Chomsky’s political opinions continue to be highly respected in this day and age. Noam Chomsky most definitely fills the criteria required to be titled a public intellectual. However, we should consider what drives a person to become a public intellectual. By examining Chomsky’s life we will see that early on in his life Chomsky was driven by opposing forces that led him to become both an academic intellectual and a public intellectual.

Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology

Chomsky has been described as a major figure of analytic philosophy and thefather of modern linguistics.” He earned this title as a result of creating the Chomsky hierarchy, universal grammar theory, and Chomsky-Schutzenberger theory. Formulating these theories took many years of research, and through a critical examination of Chomsky’s linguistic work his upbringing proves to be a critical element in his focus of linguistics.

Chomsky began his career as an intellectual by studying philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945. Numerous times throughout his college career, Chomsky considered dropping out of college. Overall, he was discouraged that the institutional structure at Penn was similar to the structure that he loathed in high school. Although he was interested in the academic opportunities provided by Penn, Chomsky reflected upon leaving college, “to go to Palestine, perhaps to a kibbutz, to try to become involved in efforts at Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework”. The struggle of whether or not to stay in college was a crucial decision to make and symbolizes how Chomsky’s life is divided into two realms: the academic and the political.

Ultimately, Chomsky decided to defer his planned departure of working on one of the cooperative-labor kibbutzim and instead chose to continue his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. One of the most influential factors of this decision was meeting Zellig Harris in 1947.

Zellig Harris, a professor who shared many interests with Chomsky, was a key reason Chomsky sought out to research linguistics. Harris was born in Balta, Russia and left Russia to complete his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. These factors led him to teach at Penn and there he founded the first department of linguistics in the United States. Harris was known for his discovery of transformations as a mathematical analysis of language structure, but he is best remembered for attempting to organize descriptive linguistics into a single body of theory in his book Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951). In fact, it was Harris’ work on Methods in Structural Linguistics that influenced Chomsky’s decision to major in linguistics as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania:

My formal introduction to the field of linguistics was in 1947, when Zellig Harris gave me the proofs of his Methods in Structural Linguistics to read. I found it very intriguing and, after some stimulating discussions with Harris, decided to major in linguistics as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chomsky realized that the main reason he remained at Penn was because of Harris’ unconventional teaching approach. Unlike most other professors, Harris encouraged unstructured, lively, and creative debate, rather than course requirements and memorizing information. This led Chomsky to pursue a B.A. in Linguistics. Chomsky’s B.A. honor’s thesis, Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew, set the stage for his later work and was influenced by both his Hebrew upbringing and Harris’ work on the transformations of language structure.

Harris served not only as a major factor in keeping Chomsky in college, but motivated Chomsky to enter graduate school at Penn. Within a short period of time, Chomsky completed his master’s thesis, a revision of Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew. In the published version, Chomsky reinterpreted the notion of grammatical transformations Harris examined in Methods in Structural Linguistics, arguing that the grammatical transformations were operations on the productions of a context-free grammar.

Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew was Chomsky’s first major contribution to linguistics. However, one of Chomsky’s strongest works came out a few years later. After receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, Chomsky joined MIT’s staff in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1957 while at MIT, Chomsky published one of his best-known works in linguistics, Syntactic Structures.

In Syntactic Structures, Chomsky lays down the foundation of transformational grammar and tries to construct a formalized theory of linguistic structure. He begins by focusing on the grammar of a language, stating that the grammar of a language is the device that generates all sensical and nonsensical sequences of words for a language. Afterwards, Chomsky argues that the fundamental aim of linguistic analysis of a language is to separate grammatical sequences from ungrammatical sequences of a language and to study the structure of the grammatical sequences. From there he concludes that grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning. For the rest of his book Chomsky argues that language utilizes a transformational grammar that has a natural tripartite arrangement consisting of: phrase structure rules, transformational rules, and morphophonemic rules.

Syntactic Structures is regarded as one of the most influential pieces on current linguistic theory. From there on out, Chomsky continued to prove that he is an academic intellectual. His later linguistic and philosophical works assert that most of grammar is innate knowledge and has been termed universal grammar. This has had strong support in the field of psychology and has directly challenged many behaviorist theories and prior theories that have attempted to explain how children learn language and gain the ability to use language.

Before we move onto Chomsky’s political views, it is important to analyze what factors caused Chomsky into becoming an intellectual. It is obvious that Zellig Harris was a key reason as to why Chomsky studied linguistics and stayed at Penn, but even before Penn, Chomsky was highly motivated to become an academic intellectual. As it turns out, there are two very key factors for this drive: his father and the teaching style of his elementary and middle school.

Noam Chomsky’s father, William Chomsky, was a noted professor of Hebrew at Gratz College. William Chomsky was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States to pursue higher education. Within ten years of becoming a professor at Gratz College, William Chomsky became faculty president of Gratz in 1932 and held the position for thirty seven years. William Chomsky specialized in the history of Hebrew grammatical tradition and Jewish and Semitic studies and, like Noam Chomsky, was considered to be one of the world’s foremost Hebrew grammarians.

Noam Chomsky has admitted that at an early age his father would discuss his work. Noam Chomsky admired his father’s work and considered it a “normal” child behavior to become deeply intrigued by his father’s studies. It was not until his high school years that Noam Chomsky discovered he was extremely intelligent for his age.

It was this exposure at an early age that first got Chomsky involved with linguistics. Although Harris was a very influential figure later in Noam Chomsky’s life, this initial exposure at a young age was also crucial to Chomsky later becoming one of the most prolific linguists of this century. Even if Chomsky was never introduced to Harris, Chomsky would still become involved with linguistics. This is supported by fact that Chomsky cannot let things go unexamined. As previously discussed, Chomsky considered leaving college to go to a kibbutz. Although he chose not to leave college, in 1953 Chomsky left the United States to spend time living in HaZore’a, a kibbutz in Israel. When Chomsky left the kibbutz he said that he loved the experience, but he could not stay indefinitely because apart of him told him there is more to be done. Chomsky’s inner struggle between politics and academics forced him to see what it was like to live in a kibbutz because it was one of the closest things to an anarchistic society, but ultimately his academic studies tore him away from remaining in that society. If Chomsky left college to go to the kibbutz, Chomsky would still have chosen to only temporarily live in the kibbutz because his academic intellectual side would tear at him, forcing him to return. While Harris was an extremely important figure in Chomsky life, it was his father that sparked Chomsky’s academic lifestyle and interests in grammar and linguistics.

Another key factor for Chomsky’s academic success was the structure of his elementary and middle school. Chomsky attended Oak Lane Day School, an independent school that honored its student’s individuality by creating a setting that fostered intellectual, creative, and academic growth. The classes were somewhat unstructured and allowed Chomsky to become an infovore. Chomsky was not tested on what he knew or memorizing basic facts; instead Chomsky was challenged to think critically and examine the world for what it is. Chomsky has said that he vastly preferred his elementary and middle school teaching structure over his high school teaching structure because the students grew by learning from one another. High school proved to be extremely boring for Chomsky because he could easily learn what the teachers had to teach, but the teachers did not want to push their students to go beyond what was discussed in class. The open-ended nature of his elementary and middle school teaching pushed Chomsky to think critically at a young age, a trait which made him excel later in life becoming known as one of the greatest analytical philosophers of his time.

Without question, Chomsky’s work in linguistics has led him to become one of the most influential figures in modern academia. His father served as one of his most influential figures, being a key reason, along with Zellig Harris, that Chomsky pursued linguistics and grammar. Furthermore, the open-ended nature of his elementary school and middle school taught Chomsky early on to pursue knowledge at a deeper level. Altogether, these factors allowed Chomsky to thrive and become an academic intellectual.

Noam Chomsky the Public Intellectual

As a major figure of analytic philosophy and the “father of modern linguistics,” Chomsky is an extremely well accomplished intellectual. However, we are only starting to touch upon Chomsky’s career. As discussed, Chomsky is as influential in politics as he is in linguistics. Chomsky is a renowned libertarian socialist, but tries to avoid the ambiguity of labels. After a thorough examination of Chomsky’s political views, we will see that like his academic work, he was inspired very early on in his life.

Put simply, Chomsky asserts that all authority is inherently illegitimate and that the burden of proof is on those in authority to prove that they are legitimate or justified. Furthermore, if this burden cannot be met, the authority in question should be dismantled and replaced by alternative structures which are free and participatory and not based on authoritarian systems. However, Chomsky believes that sometimes an authoritative figure can be justified—for example, if your child runs into the street and you grab and pull them away. Chomsky uses this as an example of a justified authoritarian relationship. However, Chomsky argues that in most cases it is not that easy to prove that the authority is justified.

Furthermore, Chomsky envisions that future societies should be stateless, non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, and without private property in the means of production. He proposes that the economic system be executed in a manner that maximizes the liberty of individuals and minimizes concentration of power. In order to obtain this, Chomsky argues that we "must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the wage slavery, which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer”.

Chomsky admits that most of his life he favored an anarchist lifestyle, but he became a recognized public activist after the start of his teaching career at MIT with the 1967 publication of his essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals. In the essay, Chomsky attacks the intellectual culture in the United States and argues that they merely obey those in power. Chomsky believes that the people who oppose the Vietnam War on moral grounds are intellectuals who are not willing to stand up to the atrocity that our government is engaging in. According to Chomsky, social scientists and politicians use fake justifications to support the war while the intellectual culture ignores their lies. In The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky says that it is the intellectuals’ responsibility to search for the truth and expose the lies used by figures of authority. After The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky established himself in the realm of international politics. This initial criticism of the United States raised controversy; however, Chomsky has continued to contribute his political opinion over a vast variety of topics.

Chomsky has also focused on analyzing mainstream mass media, which he believes quite often is used as a tool to promote the interests of corporations and government. In Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the two present their idea that the news media follows a propaganda model. The propaganda model explains that more democratic societies like the United States use subtle, non-violent means of control. Herman and Chomsky explain that there are five filters that all published news must pass through. These five filters are controlled by the government and the elite, ensuring that all published media support their interests. Ultimately, the pair warns us about the published media and once again focuses on questioning all forms of authority and government.

Another focus of Chomsky’s work is the balancing of religion and politics. For many years there has existed a paradox of religious individuals being considered as public intellectuals. The most obvious reason against this view is that religion and democratic politics do not mix. Stephen Mack examines the topic of religion and public intellectuals in The Wicked Paradox: The Cleric as Public Intellectual explaining that religious figures and public intellectuals are mutually exclusive because religion and democratic politics make overlapping claims to meanings attached to humanity. However, Mack also explains that public intellectuals in America are a product of America’s secular and religious traditions. Therefore, religion seems to be tied to their opinions, although it may be in the best interest that it is not.

Chomsky himself responded to the paradox of religious public intellectuals in a 2007 interview conducted by Amina Chaudary titled On Religion and Politics. The interview focuses on religions’ influences on foreign policy today and the current religious conflict in Islam. Chomsky asserts that secularism is a vital component of democratic politics, for reasons that seem evident. A secular democracy is to uphold human rights that are neither pro- nor anti-religion and to remain neutral with regard to their own personal religious belief system. In the interview, Chomsky states that the religious intellectual should be considered a public figure that affects political policy. However, he continues that although we acknowledge the word of religious figures, we should question what they have to say in the same way we question any type of authoritarian or governmental figure. We must ask ourselves if what they are preaching is really what is best for the society as a whole, and not just buy into their demands. These words of wisdom show that although Chomsky is Jewish, he remains strong to his political belief that all authority is inherently illegitimate and the burden of proof is on those in authority to demonstrate otherwise.

After grasping the general depth of Chomsky’s political views, like his academics, it is essential that we trace how Chomsky developed these ideas. At a young age Chomsky was very inquisitive and was influenced by political events going on around the world. His first anarchist article was on the Spanish Civil War and was written at the age of ten while he was a student at Oak Lane Country Day School. Although his political beliefs were still developing, in the article Chomsky explained why the spread of fascist power was frightening. The core reason of his concerns was the spread of anti-Semitism that accompanied the fascist movement. In interviews, Chomsky stated that he associated fascism with anti-Semitism because his family was the only Jewish family in a mostly Irish and German Catholic neighborhood. The lower middle-class neighborhood was very anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi. The Fascist victory in Barcelona frightened Chomsky that things would only get worse.

Although his first political piece was written at the age of ten, Chomsky’s political views had been developing before then. Chomsky explains that occasionally he would travel to New York for a weekend and stay with his aunt and uncle. His uncle, who dropped out of school during the fourth grade, owned a newsstand on 72nd Street in New York that acted as an intellectual center for émigrés from Europe. Chomsky explains that the newsstand was extremely influential for his developing mind. Professors of various backgrounds would go to the newsstand and argue about different issues, and the newsstand was one of the first places he was exposed to a variety of political opinions. The newsstand in New York exposed Chomsky early on to the opinions of intellectuals, allowing Chomsky to develop a political opinion based on logic.

It seems hard to believe that someone at the mere age of ten already had a complex idea of their future political opinion, yet what influenced Chomsky actually began at birth. One of the biggest influences of his political opinion was his mother, who had been part of the radical activism movement of the 1930s. Chomsky’s mother, Elsie Chomsky, was a native of present-day Belarus but grew up in the United States. Elsie Chomsky grew up in the Jewish working class and fought for workers’ rights throughout her entire life. This exposed Noam Chomsky early on to the problems of authority and corporations. The early exposure, along with his intelligence, caused Chomsky to research the impact of authority and corporations, ultimately forming the backbone of his political theory later in life.

Without question, Noam Chomsky is both a leading intellectual and political activist. In terms of his intellectual career, he is considered the “father of modern linguistics” and is the eighth most cited source to date. His political activism started with his voice echoing through the halls at MIT, one of the premier universities in America, until he became one of the most renowned public intellectuals of the century. Even today at the age of 83, Noam Chomsky is considered the eleventh most important alive public intellectual by the 2008 Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll conducted by Prospect Magazine and Foreign Policy. However, by analyzing Chomsky’s academic and political career we see that he was influenced early on in life in both fields. His academic career was deeply influenced by his father, William Chomsky, a Hebrew grammarian, and by the teaching style of his elementary and middle school. Similarly, his political career was influenced by his mother, Elsie Chomsky, a radical activist of the 1930s, and by his uncle, who owned a newsstand and was deeply intrigued by current political issues. Overall, Noam Chomsky is not only a brilliant individual driven by logic and reasoning, but also one of my most influential individuals in terms of my personal political opinion.

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