Noam Chomsky: A Public Intellectual

Noam Chomsky: A Public Intellectual


As a renowned scholar, skilled linguist, and political genius, Noam Chomsky is arguably one of the most well-known public intellectuals of our time. Since earning both his undergraduate degree and PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, the now 89-year-old has since made remarkable contributions to philosophy, psychology, computer science, mathematics, childhood education, and anthropology alike. He has received the Helmholtz Medal, the Kyoto Price in Basic Sciences, and the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science just to name a few. With a vast number of achievements under his belt, Chomsky’s greatest beneficence is in both linguistics and psychology. Both of his books, Syntactic Structureand Verbal Behavior, contained revolutionary ideas about the way human beings understand and interpret language that shocked its readers when they were published in the 1950’s. Chomsky is an innovative linguistic but his one greatest contribution to the field was linking the human understanding of language to innate human ability.

The reason Chomsky is considered a revolutionary linguist is because he was the first to put a scientific spin on language. His Linguistic Theory is deeply rooted in biolinguistics- the idea that humans have a unique ability to construct sentences, refer ourselves to other persons, establish relationships between different objects, and eventually understand one another naturally. In simpler terms, the foundation of the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and then genetically transmitted. Chomsky’s theory states that even though there are currently 6,500 known spoken languages, there is truly only one. Every known language, past, present, and future, are simply different versions of a single theme. He argues that humans innately share an underlying linguistic structure despite sociocultural differences. Chomsky argues that language is the result of an evolutionary development specific to human beings, unlike any other species’ methods of communication. Accordingly, he rejects linguistic theories that refer to language as learned behavior.

According to Chomsky, children can pick up syntactic language by learning certain parochial features of their native tongue- due to language’s innate nature. He developed these strong beliefs through observation of human language acquisition. He observed that when children are exposed to linguistic stimuli, they grasp a much more advanced linguistic knowledge beyond their exposure. Through schooling, children learn a limited number of syntactic variations, yet are eventually able to understand and form advanced sentences including ones that have never been uttered. Through Chomsky’s observations he concluded that Primary Linguistic Data (PLD), interactions with language experiences during childhood, is a subsidiary of inborn linguistic capacity. A large portion of his argument stems from the fact that non-humans will never acquire the ability to understand and produce language even when exposed to the same PLD. These findings are one’s that helped Chomsky solidify his theory that humans are born with an innate sense of grammatical rules and guidelines. The theory is best known as the theory of Generative Grammar and has become increasingly accepted by other experts in the field.

Generative Grammar is Chomsky’s alternative to basic structural linguistics. Although this theory is constantly evolving, it contains a common theme: the human mind and how it takes in and stores information. Thus, the theory goes beyond language and delves into education and cognitive understanding. As mentioned, Chomsky believes that in order for a human being to take in new information there must already be existing information in order for said human to make sense of it. He calls this process “building”. This aspect of Generative Theory very closely aligns with the cognitive Information Processing Theory (IPT). IPT, in simple terms, suggests that the human mind takes in information, processes it, and formulates a response. To better understand, imagine trying to analyze whether or not someone knows how to ride a bike. This sort of analysis cannot be determined by abilities and dispositions. One would need to examine cognitive thought processes instead. This example underlies the cognitive framework of Chomsky’s Generative Grammar theory causing some experts to refer to it as “anti-behavioral”- an opposition to the behavioral norm of linguistics.

In Kevin Costley’s essay on Cognitive development theory he refers to Chomsky’s beliefs as “psycholinguistics”, a study accepted by some cognitive scientists and researchers. Without cognition, thinking and processing information would be impossible. Cognitions tend to agree with Chomsky because the science makes sense- empiricism is not an accurate way to measure mental states of cognitive thought and Chomsky’s theories are based off non-empiricism.

David Poeppel, NYU Department of Psychology’s lead researcher, stated in an article that the department’s “neurological findings support [Chomsky’s] theory: we make sense of a string of words because our brains combine words into constituents in a hierarchical manner- a process that reflects an ‘internal grammar’ mechanism”. The research, as current as 2015, align with Chomsky’s book Syntactic Structurespublished in 1957. Researchers found that we recognize a phrase such as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as grammatically incorrect and to not make sense. The findings also suggest that we are able to do so because of an abstract knowledge imbedded in the human mind to help us make such distinctions despite the lack of statistical relations between the words. On the contrary, neuroscientist and psychologists largely disagree with Chomsky stating that instead, our comprehension is based on statistical calculations between words and sound cues to structure. In other words, we understand sentence structure because of previous experience in hearing different words and phrases.

To get to the bottom of the debating and appease one of the opposing sides, Poeppel conducted an experiment as director at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt. He and his colleagues conducted several experiments using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electrocorticography (ECoG). These methods allowed the researchers to measure the tiny magnetic fields generated by the brain activity of patients undergoing neurosurgery. The study’s subjects listened to sentences that lacked intonational speech and word cues in both English and Mandarin Chinese. The participants listened to predictable sentences, unpredictable sentences, word lists, and other manipulated sequences with identical timing between each of the words. The structure of the experiment allowed researchers to isolate and identify how the brain processes linguistic abstraction by eliminating speech cues and statistical word information- two things seemingly necessary in building a sentence. Results found that the human brain distinctly tracks words, phrases, and sentences at the same time. Poeppel concluded that,

“Because we went to great lengths to design experimental conditions that control for statistical or sound cue contributions to processing, our findings show that we must use grammar in our head. Our brains lock onto every word before working to comprehend phrases and sentences. The dynamics reveal that we undergo a grammar-based construction in the processing of language”.

Despite Poepell’s seemingly foolproof experiment and conclusive results, the debate is still unsettled and remains extremely controversial. The notion of hierarchal, grammar-based structure building is still vastly unpopular.

Dr. Steven Mack’s essay, “The Cleric As Public Intellectual” discusses the age old opposition between religion and politics yet highlighted both as “claims to the deepest meanings we attach to our humanity”. Although linguistics and biology are not necessarily opposing fields, those who reject Chomsky’s theory may consider them so. His theory on a human being’s innate understanding of language caused upset in various scientific fields.  As a linguist, Chomsky is expected to focus on morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics and not so much psychology, cognitive thought, and other mental processes. As mentioned, his theory created an upset amongst neuroscientists and psychologists alike. These two groups of professionals, as well as many others, reject Chomsky’s notion that linguistics is indeed innate and biological.

Before this assignment, I did not know who Noam Chomsky is, nor the definition of a “Public Intellectual”. So, I took to google and found that a Public Intellectual is defined as “a well-known, intelligent, learned person whose written works and other social and cultural contributions are recognized not only by academic audiences and readers, but also by many members of society in general”. Unfortunately, this definition did not deepen my understanding of the foreign term nor help me decide who to write about. After a multitude of lists and rankings, I came across Noam Chomsky and decided to take a closer look after being bombarded with countless articles on linguistics, psychology, and politics and how he has influenced them all. I found him to be an extremely brilliant man with impressive degrees and new age ideas for his time. He has good intentions, a desire to uncover the truth, help the general public, and nothing else.

I shamelessly admit that Chomsky’s theory of Generative Grammar did not make very much sense at first, but I was still intrigued nonetheless. After much research and dictionary assistance, the pieces to the puzzle finally began to fit together. Toddlers often begin speaking before two years of age and do not require a formal teaching method to do so. Unlike reading and writing, children don’t need intense training in order to learn how to hear, process, and formulate a response. Many dismiss Chomsky by suggesting that children are simply repeating utterances they’ve heard from experiences with their parents etc. But research conducted clearly shows signs that children absorb an extensive knowledge of language far beyond what Primary Linguistic Data they are exposed to. Accordingly, animals do not have the capacity to understand and interpret language even when subject to the same PLD and never will. These innate linguistic abilities are the result of year of evolution specific to human beings, now functioning as a reconstruction of instincts.

A revolutionary thinker, Noam Chomsky single-handedly changed the view and set the standard for the way language acquisition and development Is viewed. He is an honest man who excels in comprehending complex ideas and explaining them to the general public. He also exhibits extreme critical awareness and uses his skills to inform and teach others. Noam Chomsky is a true intellectual in every sense. I have a deep respect for him and his accomplishments, even if his theory is one day proven undeniably incorrect.


2 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky: A Public Intellectual

  1. One aspect of Chomsky being described as a public intellectual (at least as it pertains to his contributions to linguistic theory) that confuses me a bit is how his body of work aligns with the characteristic that Mack described in his piece as “puncturing the myth makers” (ie, offering criticisms of widely held ideas) in a way that is visible and meaningful beyond one specific realm. Certainly, he is a brilliant scholar and has had vast and revolutionary influences to his realm of expertise, but when I think of a public intellectual, I immediately think of a person who is recognized by the wider public for their social and political ideals rather than only recognized by academics for their written theories and works. However, I think Chomsky probably fits into another form of public intellectual that I didn’t come across in my research, because as you describe, he completely altered the way linguists look at human language formation and communication and has engaged “with regularity” in fruitful debate with scientists and other thinkers regarding his thoughts on the subject matter.


  2. I like how you engaged with Chomsky’s linguistic theories–he is often only popularly known for his political engagement. Chomsky, in essence, doesn’t think that languages like “French” and “English” actually exist. Instead, he just thinks that there are large clusters of people who have similar enough linguistic features to facilitate actual communication. Then, we informally refer to them as speakers of a given natural language. To Chomsky, we use words for a given purpose–namely, to specify things in the world that we want to call attention to or otherwise talk about.

    Chomsky’s work has impacted not only linguistics but philosophy. In the philosophy of language, the problem of the relation between words, the mind, and the external world is a very difficult one. At some junctures in philosophy, thinkers have attributed a very conscious approach to language. Chomsky shows that this can’t be–that when we use words we do so without any conscious processes occurring and we do so instantaneously. It may make a lot of sense to us in hearing it, but was quite revolutionary when Chomsky introduced the ideas.


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