Who Is Noam Chomsky and Why Is He Famous?

Love him or hate him, there can be no doubt that Noam Chomsky is one of the world's most respected thinkers.

Noam Chomsky is one of the world's most controversial figures. But he is undoubtedly one of the most important public thinkers of our time. 

Whether you agree or disagree (as many do) with his views, his works on linguistics and cognitive science have proved to be revolutionary. He is highly active in the public domain and regularly voices his views and opinions on various topics from geopolitics to artificial intelligence. 

Here we briefly explore the man and his life's work. 

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What is Noam Chomsky best known for?

Noam Chomsky, or Avram Noam Chomsky to give him his full name, is a famed American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. He is often referred to as the "Father of modern linguistics". 

Chomsky is also well respected as a major analytical philosopher and is one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. 

"Cognitive science is the study of the mind and what it does, including many scientific disciplines that touch on the subject." - study.com.

noam chomsky photo
Source: Σ/Wikimedia Commons

This field of science studies the mind's structure and encompasses various fields of study including: -

  • Education, the study of how people learn.
  • Philosophy, the study of knowledge, reality, and existence.
  • Artificial intelligence, the study of thinking machines and systems.
  • Psychology, the study of behavior and the mind.
  • Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system.
  • Linguistics, the study of language.
  • Anthropology, the general study of human society and culture.

This field of study attempts to understand the complexity of the human mind through a more general, overlapping approach.

Chomsky currently holds various Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) us important positions as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and as a laureate professor at the University of Arizona. He has also penned well over 100 books covering various topics including, but not limited to: -

  • Linguistics,
  • War,
  • Politics, and;
  • Mass media

Ideologically, Chomsky self-identifies as an anarcho-syndicalist and a libertarian socialist (a contradiction in terms? We'll let you decide). 

What was Noam Chomsky's theory?

By far Chomsky's greatest contribution to the world is his theory of linguistics. 

This theory lies within the larger field of biolinguistics, which is a linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically present in the human mind and hence genetically inherited.

Chomsky argues, therefore, that all human languages share a common underlying linguistic structure irrespective of their socio-cultural differences. In this sense, it is a rejection of the concept of the human mind being a "blank slate" at birth by the likes of other great philosophers like John Locke.

It is also a rejection (on the subject of linguistics) of the work of B .F. Skinner who proposed that behavior in humans was a completely learned product form an organism's interactions with the world and other organisms. 

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"His theory asserts that languages are innate and that the differences we see are only due to parameters developed over time in our brains, helping to explain why children are able to learn different languages more easily than adults. One of his most famous contributions to linguistics is what his contemporaries have called the Chomsky Hierarchy, a division of grammar into groups, moving up or down in their expressive abilities.

These ideas have had huge ramifications in fields such as modern psychology and philosophy, both answering and raising questions about human nature and how we process information." - Biography.com

Chomsky also proposes that language is a uniquely human ability and leaps and bounds ahead of other forms of communication exhibited by animals in the animal kingdom. 

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Needless to say, Chomsky's work is not without its fair criticisms and challenges

Why is Noam Chomsky so important?

Chomsky is not only a well-respected and highly-cited academic. He has also come to be known for his outspoken views on geopolitics and a great many other subjects. 

Chomsky is both loved and despised in equal measures and is not shy to have his voice heard, for better or worse. He has chiseled out a reputation for his often radical political views, which he describes as "libertarian socialist".

He has long been anti-war and anti-interventionist on the geopolitical stage. He adamantly opposed the Vietnam War and is often one of the strongest voices opposing conflicts to this day.

Because of his outspokenness, Chomsky often attracts controversy. One notable example was his support for the free-speech rights of Robert Faurisson in the late-1970ss

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Faurisson, a French lecturer at the time, denied the existence of the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps. 

"As a result, Chomsky found himself in the middle of heated controversy, and in response, he asserted that his views are "diametrically opposed" to Faurisson's conclusions and his intent was to support Faurisson's civil liberties, not his Holocaust denial. The incident haunted Chomsky for decades, however, and his reputation in France, in particular, was damaged for some time afterward." - biography.com

He was also on the receiving end of a lot of controversy over his 2002 collection of essays on the September 11 attacks. Called 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, Chomsky acknowledged the event as an atrocity, but was simultaneously scathing of some elements of the U.S.'s foreign policy that could also be considered "terrorist" in nature. 

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It became a best-seller and was unsurprisingly denounced by many critics as a distortion of American history. It was also praised by supporters as offering an honest analysis of events leading to 9-11 that weren't being reported by the mainstream media.   

Chomsky is still very active in current affairs and is a highly-respected and sought-after thinker. He continues to author new books and contributes to a wide variety of journals around the world. 

He is also very active on the lecture circuit.

Some facts about Noam Chomsky

Here are some interesting facts about the man and his life's work. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Chomsky was born on the 7th of December 1928  in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were Russian immigrants of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Noam is currently 90 years old.

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2. Chomsky's political views are heavily influenced by his childhood experiences of hearing discussions on current affairs at his uncle's newspaper stand in New York City. But many of his wider family were involved in the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union that exposed him to socialism and far-left politics at a young age.

He would frequent left-wing and anarchist bookshops in his youth and read voraciously.

3. Chomsky wrote his first article when he was ten years old. The subject was on the rise of fascism in Europe following the fall of Barcelona to Franco's army during the terrible events of the Spanish Civil War.

4. Chomsky holds three university degrees (BA, MA, and Ph.D.) all in the field of linguistics. He is also a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University for his academic contributions. 

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5. Chomsky's views are heavily influenced by the German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker. He was also strongly influenced by the works of George Orwell in his youth, particularly Orwell's well-founded criticisms of socialism

6. Chomsky is one of the most-cited living sources in the world. This is in part due to his prolific writings, but also for his many, often poignant, quotations. 

7. Chomsky has appeared in many films, documentaries, and TV series' throughout his life. These include things like "Best of Enemies", "Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?", and "The U.S. vs. John Lennon". 

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