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Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky
Widely considered to be the father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky is the most cited living author and a well-known political dissident. He has been named the word's leading intellectual (The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll).

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, in 1928. He wrote his first article (about the threat of the spread of fascism) at the age of 10, and rapidly developed his interests in philosophy and linguistics, studying at the University of Pennsylvania (1945-1949). In 1955 he earned a PhD in linguistics and went on to work on a number of problems in linguistics, introducing his theories of "generative grammar" and the famous "Chomsky Hierarchy," which has left a profound influence on modern psychology as well. His work shed new lights on the problems of acquisition of language in children, showing that children have innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages. Chomsky's work in phonology too, "The Sound Pattern of English" (1968), had a fundamental influence for the later theories.

Chomsky was one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War with the publication of his essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." He has since been the most fearless critic of the US foreign policies and has worked hard to raise consciousness about the unnecessary use of power and human rights violations.

Chomsky has written dozens of books, covering linguistics, as well as social/political issues, in which he is a bestselling author. He has received honorary degrees from dozens of universities around the world. He is an Institute Professor emeritus and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and often travels, giving lectures on politics.


Quotes by Noam Chomsky

ON LANGUAGE
ďLanguage is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.Ē

Cover of Noam Chomsky's 1968 book, "Language and Mind."
(Excerpt from "Language and Mind") - "For the first time in many years, it seems to me, there is some real opportunity for substantial progress in the study of the contribution of the mind to perception and the innate basis for acquisition of knowledge. Still, in many respects, we have not made the first approach to a real answer to the classical problems. For example, the central problems relating to the creative aspect of language use remain as inaccessible as they have always been. And the study of universal semantics, surely crucial to the full investigation of language structure, has barely advanced since the medieval period. Many other critical areas might be mentioned where progress has been slow or nonexistent. Real progress has been made in the study of the mechanisms of language, the formal principles that make possible the creative aspect of language use and that determine the phonetic form and semantic content of utterances. Our understanding of these mechanisms, though only fragmentary, does seem to me to have real implications for the study of human psychology. By pursuing the kinds of research that now seem feasible and by focusing attention on certain problems that are now accessible to study, we may be able to spell out in some detail the elaborate and abstract computations that determine, in part, the nature of percepts and the character of the knowledge that we can acquire the highly specific ways of interpreting phenomena that are, in large measure, beyond our consciousness and control and that may be unique to man."

ON MEDIA
"There is just one message that is constantly driven into people's minds: the only thing there is to life is to passively consume. Whatever you do, donít think for yourself, donít question your life and the world in general, and donít concern yourself with the fate of others. I saw it happening to my grandchildren by the time they were two years old. The motto is: eat, drink, buy, and otherwise devote your time to sport, personal relationships and sex. And it works, itís all very effective. Teenagers actually spend their free time in shopping malls, and obesity is a really serious disease. Of course, itís all aimed at exploiting instinctive behavior. And the school system is mostly designed to create obedience and conformity. Anyone who fails to adapt for any reason is soon filtered out."

ON POLITICS

Cover of Noam Chomsky's 2003 book, "Hegemony or Survival."
"States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions."

"A few years ago, one of the great figures of contemporary biology, Ernst Mayr, published some reflections on the likelihood of success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He considered the prospects very low. His reasoning had to do with the adaptive value of what we call "higher intelligence," meaning the particular human form of intellectual organization. Mayr estimated the number of species since the origin of life at about fifty billion, only one of which "achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilization." It did so very recently, perhaps 100,000 years ago. It is generally assumed that only one small breeding group survived, of which we are all descendants.

Mayr speculated that the human form of intellectual organization may not be favored by selection. The history of life on Earth, he wrote, refutes the claim that "it is better to be smart than to be stupid," at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than humans in terms of survival. He also made the rather somber observation that "the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years.

We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid. The most hopeful prospect is that the question will not be answered: if it receives a definite answer, that answer can only be that humans were a kind of "biological error," using their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else.

The species has surely developed the capacity to do just that, and a hypothetical extraterrestrial observer might well conclude that humans have demonstrated that capacity throughout their history, dramatically in the past few hundred years, with an assault on the environment that sustains life, on the diversity of more complex organisms, and with cold and calculated savagery, on each other as well.

Visit Chomsky.info to view a complete list of Chomsky's books.

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