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CHOMSKY FOR BEGINNERS
By DAVID COGSWELL, Paul Gordon
For Beginners LLCCopyright © 1996 David Cogswell
All rights reserved.
The File on Chomsky A Biographical Sketch
Chomsky is reluctant to talk about his life. "I'm rather against the whole notion of making public personalities, of having some people be stars and all that," he says. Cults of personality distract people from real issues. The media are so absorbed with these public personalities, that "air time" is almost totally dominated with gossip, the details of hideous violent crimes, or sports. There is little information about anything you can do anything constructive about, including most of what your government is doing.
But though Chomsky may feel that the biographical details of his life are a distraction from the pressing issues that he wants to discuss, others are irresistibly curious about the lives of the originators of great ideas. Therefore we will take a quick look. But in deference to the man, we won't spend very long on the subject.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, on December 7, 1928. One of two sons, Chomsky was a child during Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in 1929 and lasted until World War II. The Chomsky family was spared the worst aspects of the Depression because both parents had Jobs. The effects of the crisis were still profound, however, and Chomsky says that some of his earliest memories are Depression scenes: people selling rags at the door, police violently breaking strikes, and so on.
His parents both worked as Hebrew teachers. Noam's father William Chomsky was a noted Hebrew scholar and the author of Hebrew, the External Language, one of the most popular books about the Hebrew language, published in 1958.
The family was deeply involved in Jewish culture, the Zionist movement, and the revival of the Hebrew language.
From age two age 12, Chomsky attended an experimental progressive school where there were no grades, where there was no such things as competition, and no such thing as a good student.
His family was practically the only Jewish family in a bitterly anti-Semitic Irish and German Catholic neighborhood where there was open support for the Nazis until the U.S. entered World War II. Chomsky was exposed fascism in Europe during the '30s.
His first published piece of writing was an editorial for his school newspaper about the fall of Barcelona. At the age of 12 he wrote a history of the Spanish Civil War.
He often visited an uncle in New York City who operated a magazine kiosk at the subway exit at 72nd and Broadway. Chomsky says his uncle was a hunchback with a background in "crime and left-wing politics." Because of his disability, he qualified to operate a kiosk. It was at the less trafficked exit of the subway entrance and did poorly as a business, but in the late '30s it became a hangout for European emigres. Young Chomsky spent many hours there participating in lively discussions of issues and ideas that took place on an almost ongoing basis. Chomsky says the kiosk was where he received his political education. His uncle was also well-versed in the work of Sigmund Freud, and Chomsky developed a broad understanding of Freudian theory while still a teenager.
In New York he was exposed to the Jewish working class intellectual culture with its concern for solidarity and socialist values. His aunts and uncles were materially poor but intellectually rich and maintained a tradition of lively discussion and penetrating inquiry into social and political processes.
In New York he discovered the anarchist book shops on Fourth Avenue where he would often browse and read.
Chomsky has described an experience that affected him deeply in which a bully was picking on "the standard fat kid," and everyone supported the bully while no one came to the aid of the victim.
"I stood up for him for a while," he says. "Then I got scared." Afterwards he was ashamed and resolved that in the future he would support the underdog, those unjustly oppressed. "I was always on the side of the losers," he said, "like the Spanish anarchists."
Though Chomsky is known for his intellect, his political ideas are driven more by moral principles. He was appalled by the way people taunted German prisoners through the barbed wire at a prison camp near his high school as though it was the patriotic thing to do to. At the same time, Chomsky was much more passionately opposed to Nazism than the people who were taunting the soldiers.
On the day of the Hiroshima bombing, says Chomsky, "I literally couldn't talk to any one. There was nobody. I just walked off by myself ... I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone's reaction." [CR]
To manage the expense of college, he commuted several hours a day to attend the university while living at home. He also worked as a Hebrew teacher evenings, afternoons, and Sundays. But his enthusiasm for the university waned. He lost interest in every subject he enrolled in. After two years, he decided to drop out. But he maintained his lifelong interest in radical politics and became even more deeply involved in Zionism activities. Many years later, in upholding many of the same principles, he would be called anti-Zionist.
Chomsky considered going to Palestine to help to further Arab-Jewish cooperation within a socialist framework. But he was put off by the "deeply anti-democratic" concept of a Jewish state.
Through his political interests Chomsky met Zellig Harris, a teacher of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Chomsky was one of many who found Harris immensely appealing. Harris shared many of Chomsky's political passions, so he enrolled in Harris' graduate classes. The first reading he did in the field of linguistics was of proofs of Harris' Methods of Structural Linguistics, which was published several years later.
At Harris' suggestion, Chomsky began taking courses in philosophy and mathematics. He had no background in them, but found them fascinating.
Under Harris' influence, Chomsky returned to college and studied linguistics. He calls his university experience "unconventional." The linguistics department was a small group of graduate students who shared political and other interests and met in restaurants or in Harris' apartment for all-day discussion sessions. Chomsky immersed himself in linguistics, philosophy, and logic. He was awarded BA and MA degrees though he had very little contact with the university system. He married linguist Carol Schaz in 1949. They were to have a son and two daughters.
One of Chomsky's philosophy teachers was Nelson Goodman, who introduced him to the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He was admitted in 1951 and awarded a stipend, which freed him for the first time in his life from the necessity to work outside of his research.
In 1953, while a member of the Society of Fellows, Chomsky went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for a few months. There was little food and the work was hard, but Chomsky enjoyed it. He saw the kibbutz as a functioning and successful libertarian community.
Chomsky and his wife considered going back to live on the kibbutz. He had no hopes or interest in an academic career and nothing holding him in the United States. But he was uncomfortable with the conformism and the racist principles underlying the institution.
Chomsky had been opposed to the formation of a Jewish state in 1947-48 because he felt the socialist institutions of the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine would not survive the state system.
When his term at Society of Fellows was scheduled to end in 1954 he had no job prospects, so he asked for an extension. His wife had gone back to the kibbutz for a longer visit and the two planned to return to stay. Instead Chomsky received a research position at M.I.T. and became immersed in linguistics.
In 1955 he received a Ph.D. from the university of Pennsylvania on the basis of his submission of a chapter of a book he working on. Though the book was virtually complete in 1956, it was so unconventional at the time that it was not published until 1975, and then only in part as Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory.
In the 1960's the escalation of the Vietnam war forced Chomsky to make a moral choice. He began active resistance to the war knowing that it was very likely that he would have to spend time in prison for it. He put a very comfortable position in academia in jeopardy to protest the war. Asked about why he took that risk, Chomsky has said, "It has to do with being able to look yourself in the eye in the morning."
In 1966, Chomsky wrote an article called "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" which appeared in The New York Review of Books. The article was widely acclaimed around the world. In publishing the article, Chomsky was acting on the responsibility that the article referred to:
"Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us ...
Not long after that article appeared, the New York Review of Books stopped publishing submissions by Chomsky. America's top intellectuals didn't take kindly to being told that they were little more than flunkies who dressed the lies of the ruling class in fancy language and looked the other way when their own government committed atrocities that they wouldn't hesitate to condemn if they'd been perpetrated by any other country. To the ruthlessly honest Chomsky, you judged your friends, your enemies, and yourself by the same set of rules.
Anything else would be cheating, wouldn't it?
In October 1967, Chomsky participated in the demonstrations that took place at the Pentagon and the Justice Department and was one of many who were jailed. Norman Mailer, who shared a cell with Chomsky described him in The Armies of the Night, as "a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity."
Since making the commitment to be politically active in the late '60s, Professor Chomsky has written a steady stream of books, articles, and pamphlets expressing his views. He appears almost anywhere he is invited to speak or discuss his views. In the meantime, he remains a professor of linguistics at MIT.
Despite the variety of his interests and pursuits, Chomsky's approach is amazingly consistent. He applies the same ruthlessly honest logic to every-thing he examines. He did not, however, spring forth fully formed, fully "Chomskian."
As with any important thinker, Chomsky's system of ideas rests on the work of many fine thinkers who preceded him.
we'll have a look at some of the more notable ones.
The Shoulders of Giants-Antecedents to the Thinking of Chomsky
Plato (428-354 B.C.)
Chomsky, along with every thinker in the tradition of Western Philosophy, owes something to Plato for laying a foundation for philosophy with his dedication to truth-seeking and his concern for developing a rational moral personality.
Plato asked, "How can a human know so much that he seems to have had little evidence for?" Chomsky asks the same question about the way children easily master language.
In Chomsky's approach to the study of linguistics and the cognitive processes, he, like Plato, searches for abstract and ideal forms as explanations rather than merely drawing generalizations from observations.
In Plato's Republic, he envisioned an ideal society in which justice is the ruling principle, an ideal which Chomsky would share. But Chomsky deviates from Plato's belief in the establishment of a hierarchy which places intellectuals in a privileged class.
Plato rejected democracy because in it political power is not attached to special qualifications. Chomsky prizes the democratic principle. Both reject tyranny, the exercise of irresponsible power by amoral men of criminal will.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Descartes is often called "The Father of Modern Philosophy."
Chomsky says that he believes in "Cartesian common sense," the scientific method as laid out in Discourse on Method by Descartes. In it, Descartes lays out rules to help navigate safely through chains of logic to reach reliable, though limited conclusions.
Descartes began by rejecting all philosophy before him and attempting to establish reliable premises upon which to build a system of thought that would yield the truth.
He had a dream that convinced him that, since the senses may deceive us, all true knowledge must come from reason alone. He had so much trouble finding any premises that he could believe in that he finally broke everything down to one basic principle. All he could be sure of, he said, was that he was thinking. From that he reasoned that it was safe to say he must exist. "I think therefore I am" became the starting premise of his philosophy.
His method for thinking logically toward reliable conclusions included the following rules:
Accept only clear and distinct ideas.
Break each problem into as many parts as necessary to solve it.
Work from the simple to the complex.
Always check for mistakes.
In all of Chomsky's thinking, he adheres tightly to these basic principles. In linguistics he moves beyond mere observation and tries to establish explanatory principles. He also brings scientific discipline to his observations of politics and the functioning of media.
Descartes tried to discover the principles that determined how we learn by looking at the difference between data (input) and knowledge (represented by output).
Descartes observed the discrepancy between the figure we are presented and the triangle we construct in our minds and argued that we see a triangle because there is something about the nature of our minds that makes the image of a triangle easily constructible by the mind, a kind of schema or template that we impose over the data of perception.
Chomsky asks ...
Chomsky follows the Cartesian example in his method of studying linguistics. He uses his observations as a jumping off point for abstract thinking and attempts to establish abstract principles.
In Meditations on the First Philosophy: Of Truth and Error, Descartes says,
For Descartes man's nature is unique in quality and comes from God.
Chomsky puts this idea in a modern scientific context by speculating that sudden and dramatic mutations may have led to qualities of intelligence that are, as far as we know, unique to humans.
Language is the most universal and characteristic of these qualities, though Chomsky allows that the same kind of uniqueness may be found in other areas as well. The study of language may offer a wedge, he says, or a model through which to gain a broader understanding of qualities that are uniquely human.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
In Discourse on Equality, Rousseau challenged the legitimacy of nearly every social institution. This was a central theme of the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to challenge the legitimacy of every institution, and to keep on challenging it (as Chomsky has) with "eternal vigilance."
The American system was designed with a view of human institutions that was not innocent. Power corrupts, so watch it. Freedom should never be taken granted.
Rousseau also condemned the individual control of property and wealth. He called them "usurpations by the rich ... established only by force, and force could take them away without [the rich] having grounds for complaint."
Chomsky's sense of social justice owes a great deal to Rousseau—he cannot imagine why a society filled with free people tolerate "a handful of men" to be "glutted with superfluities while the starving multitude lacks necessities."
Rousseau said the establishment of civil society is a conspiracy by the rich to guarantee their plunder. The rich "institute regulations of justice and peace to which all are obliged to conform." (As Anatole France would later say, these laws deny to the rich and the poor equally the right to sleep under the bridge at night.)
Excerpted from CHOMSKY FOR BEGINNERS by DAVID COGSWELL, Paul Gordon. Copyright © 1996 David Cogswell. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
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