Noam the thinking of giants within the psychological

NoamChomsky stands today as an icon of progressive thinking in both the twentiethand twenty-first centuries.

Though he is not primarily known for being apsychologist, his study of linguistics and philosophy had a large impact on thepsychological field. His writings on linguistic theory influenced the thinkingof giants within the psychological field, such as Georg Miller. Chomsky sawlinguistics as a fundamental branch of cognitive psychology; he believedstudying linguistics could bring new insight into research of mental processingand human nature. His most prominent linguistic theory of universal grammar wasalso his most controversial as it was in direct opposition to behavioristlinguistic theories at the time it was introduced. Though later, and stilltoday, very basic points of his complex theory are generally accepted incircles of linguists and psychologists. Through his work, Chomsky helpedestablish a new relationship between the fields of psychology and linguistics.

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            Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 inPennsylvania. His parents were highly-educated, Jewish immigrants who came tothe United States from Europe. Noam’s parents exposed him to Hebrew early on inhis childhood, initiating a fascination with learning languages.

Chomsky movedon to learn Arabic and would later become deeply involved in the field ofpsycholinguistics. His liberal mother also influenced his interest in socialactivism and politics from an early age. A bright boy, Noam Chomsky wasaccepted to the University of Pennsylvania at the age of sixteen where hecompleted his B.A. and master’s degrees in theoretical linguistics with theseson Hebrew phonetics. In1951, he was admitted to Harvard’s prestigious Society of Junior Fellows. Atthe University, he wrote a lengthy manuscript: The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory.

It was in thismanuscript that Chomsky introduced his most well-known ideas on linguistictheory, which dealt with the difference between syntax (“the logicalrelationships among words governed by the grammar of language being used”) andsemantics (“the meanings of words used in a communication”).  Chomsky proposed unconventional views on syntax,and he is best known for his development of “transformational” or “generative”grammar. Syntax and grammar are responsible for a person’s ability to makesense out of mere expressions of words.

Chomsky did not believe that mastery of alanguage was innately wired into the human brain, but instead he theorized thatanimals and humans were both capable of some level of comprehension whenexposed to specific forms of linguistic communication. But, his theoryproceeded, only humans could continue to develop their comprehension of thelinguistic information through a process he called a “language acquisitiondevice”. Chomsky thought that if the language acquisition device for all humanlanguages could be discovered, features that would be universal to all languagescould be produced. These features were what he coined “universal grammar”.                                                                                      Chomskyfocused his research on language acquisition in children: he noted thatchildren develop a grasp on language even though they are often exposed toincomplete grammar or don’t receive much instruction on how to speak. Hebelieved the capacity of children to understand the syntax of their languagecould not be learned by trial and error, but rather that there was an innate”universal grammar” contained within the human brain whose features werebrought out through experience and interaction with language in the child’senvironment.

Chomsky argued the deep structure, or underlying logic, of alllanguages is the same and that human mastery of it is genetically determined,not learned. Chomsky’sideas were a modern-day version of Leibniz’s concept of “innate necessarytruth”. This was in direct opposition to the views of influential linguistictheorists of the time, as well as psychologists BF Skinner and Georg Miller,who theorized that children acquired syntax through a gradual learning process.Although Chomsky’s linguistic theories contrasted behaviorist linguistictheory, Chomsky became friends with Miller during his time at Harvard.

He beganhaving serious conversations with Miller on linguistic theory in children’sacquisition of syntax. As this relationship developed, Chomsky published acritique of BF Skinner’s book VerbalBehavior, criticizing behaviorists’ inability to account for the fact thatchildren are universally able to acquire understanding of the grammar rules oftheir language. Chomsky’s critique influenced Miller to shift from abehaviorist position to a nativist position on the subject of linguistictheory; this contributed to the process of Miller moving away from the subfieldof behaviorism in psychology altogether.            Chomsky’s initial manuscript wasrejected for publication in 1955 because it was “too unconventional”; however,he eventually distilled the manuscript into SyntacticStructures, which was published in 1957. He also later developed thePrinciples and Parameters approach to thinking about children’s acquisition oflanguage in his Pisa 1979 Lectures. The Principles and Parameters approachstated that all languages have various principles of grammar that children cancome to learn quickly: once they know the principles of the grammar, they areable to figure out easily how to express themselves sensibly within thoseparameters.            In 1955, Noam Chomsky left Harvardto accept a position at MIT and remained there after becoming a professor.

During his time at MIT, he became much more involved in political advocacy. Hebecame a leading opponent to the Vietnam War after publishing his essay “TheResponsibility of Intellectuals” in 1967. Chomsky held many titles during hislong involvement with MIT. Today, he remains at the Institute and holds thetitles of Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus. As seenin his earlier conversations with Georg Miller, Chomsky is a serious debaterand has debated many figures with views ranging across the political spectrum.

He once debated Michael Foucault on human nature, arguing that human nature islargely determined by biology. Such an argument remains true to Chomsky’stendency to lean towards nativist principles of thought.            Noam Chomsky’s stint in thepsychological field was brief, but he was able to make strides in joiningtogether the study of psychology with linguistics.

The key idea of Chomsky’spsycholinguistic work is that the most important properties of language are innate;learning a language is just a process of triggering innate understandings of”universal grammar” through experiential input. His work led him to a broadercareer in linguistics, philosophy, and most notably social activism. One of thecauses he has taken up recently is advocating for a Palestinian state.

As aJewish man, he draws on his own experiences facing anti-Semitism to help othersunderstand that opposing Israeli political behaviors is not anti-Semitic.Chomsky lives on as a widely applauded and widely criticized advocate for manyradical and controversial political causes.


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