wrote in The New York Times that, Judged in terms of the power,
range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably
the most important intellectual alive. The line is irresistible for anyone
writing a story about him, though Chomsky himselfa frequent critic of
the Times (and most other mainstream news media)likes to point
out that the next, less-quoted sentence is: Since thats the case, how
can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?
own writing never appears on the op-ed page of the Times or any
other mainstream newspapers, which helps explain why so many people vaguely
recall his name but know nothing else about him. This doesnt seem to
bother him too much. Being relegated to the political margins is proof
of his Propaganda Modelin which various filters, most of them economic,
ensure that the mass media play a propagandistic role.
the United States, what I say should be marginalized, he once said. In
fact, if I stopped being marginalized, Id rethink what Im doing.
yet: according to a recent survey by the Institute for Scientific Information,
only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud
are cited more often in academic journals than Chomsky, who edges out
Hegel and Cicero. He is staggering in his productivity, says Dr. Edward
Herman, the emeritus professor of finance who has collaborated with Chomsky
on books and essays about politics, including Manufacturing Consent:
The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Hes also an incredibly
generous man with his time.
Penns on-line library catalogue under author: chomsky noam and
no fewer than 98 titles appear. That includes a few duplications, as well
as interview collections like Keeping the Rabble in Line (with
David Barsamian), but it doesnt include biographical works like Chomsky
for Beginners (whose cover depicts the donnish professor as a superhero,
complete with a cape and a red N on his chest) or Robert Barskys
Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (which can be downloaded off the
Internet). Several massive Web sites devote themselves to his on-line
output, including Bad News: Noam Chomsky, which modestly describes
itself as sort of a supplement to the far more essential Noam Chomsky
Archive. Various documentaries of his speeches and interviews are
available on video, including Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and
the Media, a two-part video documentary which chronicles Chomskys
efforts to impart some intellectual self-defense against what he sees
as the power-serving manipulations of most news organizations.
a link between his linguistic theories and his political views is easier
said than done. Some say that his generative-language theory emphasizes
a commonand creativehuman heritage, an honorable liberal notion. While
he is politically a man of the left, I suggest, the notion of a genetic
language faculty seems to run counter to the (usually) left-liberal view
that environment, not heredity, is what most shapes humans.
has been assumed, but I dont think it makes any sense, he says quietly.
For one thing, the idea that your cognitive systems are biologically
unstructured is just insane. The only question is why anybody believes
it, since its so obviously outlandish. And I certainly dont think it
has anything to do with the left. In Cambridge in the 1950s, the few of
us graduate students who did not accept the prevailing, largely behaviorist
orthodoxy were all on the left. And the ones who most advocated it were
people who were extremely reactionary. I dont draw any particular conclusions
from that, just to point out its not a left-right issue.
Three knuckle-strikes and youre out, I figure, and shut off my tape
recorder. As we get to our feet and step through the door leading from
his office, I mention ruefully that we got to about half the questions
on my list. You can always send me some more by e-mail, he says gently,
and we shake hands goodbye. I take him up on his offer, which makes me
part of the problem: some of his e-mails are almost 4,000 words long.
Chomsky, in particular, says flatly and often that he has very little
concern for language in and of itself; never has, never will. His driving
concern is with mental structure, and language is the most revealing tool
he has for getting at the mind.Randy Harris,
The Linguistic Wars.
been more than 40 years since Chomsky first kicked open the door of linguistics
with his theory of generative grammar and a human language faculty. Most
of his work since then has essentially been refining and deepening that
theory. (He now refers to the language faculty as the I-language, I
standing for internal, individual, and intentional.) And
yet he remains the 800-pound gorilla in linguistics, the one whose work
every student has to deal with, and whose dominance in the field is often
compared to the relative dominance of people like Einstein and Freud.
linguistics for the last 40 years is a matter of agreeing or disagreeing
with Chomskycontributing to that program, or trying to contribute from
a slightly different perspective, says Lila Gleitman. But he wont go
away. He set the agenda; he was a great technical contributor; and he
was a great empirical contributor. So at many, many levels, he just dominated
the field and pervaded the field.
has transformed not just linguistics but the whole of cognitive psychology,
says Anthony Kroch, professor and chair of linguistics. He hasnt done
it alone, and it will take a while for people to understand what was happening.
who received his doctorate from Chomskys department at MIT in the early
70s but was not interested in becoming an acolyte, later performed an
analysis of historical syntax in 16th-century English. He thought the
data he was using would pose a challenge to Chomskys generative paradigmuntil
he analyzed it.
work I did in the early 80s made me appreciate in a personal way what
an impressive thinker Chomsky was, because I had started out to prove
him wrong, and I had succeeded in proving him rightor at least the data
made more sense if I believed him than if I disbelieved him. And thats
convincing in a way that no amount of just listening to somebody else
could possibly be.
Chomsky pleased with Krochs findings, I wonder, or was he indifferent
because he knew he was right to begin with?
think the latter, Kroch answers quickly. You could say, Well, arrogant
son of a bitch, and so on. But remember what Einstein said when people
went and measured the perturbations in the orbit of Mercury, and somebody
asked him, What would you have said if it had come out the other way?
Einstein said, I would have said that they made an error. That sounds
but once you know something really deeply, you sort of know it.
And I think Chomsky had reason to think that he had really got hold of