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Noam Chomsky’s Linguistics
Avram Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, and political activist. Born in Philadelphia to Jewish émigré parents from Eastern Europe, Chomsky encountered anti-Semitism while young, and also was competitive as a child. His parents were New Deal Democrats, but he embraced the anarchism that he read at left-wing bookstores while visiting relatives in New York. Chomsky began college at the University of Pennsylvania at age 16, earning BA, MA, and PhD degrees in theoretical linguistics, and spent his career teaching and researching, mainly at MIT but also Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere. His impact on the field of linguistics has been transformative: he is the originator of the universal grammar theory, the theory of generative grammar, and the linguistics minimalist program. He is not without critics, however, and has been involved in intense controversies in the field. Since the 1960s Chomsky has also been a prominent political activist, critical of the U.S. security state, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and the War on Terror, and has been arrested several times. In 2017 Chomsky announced would be leaving MIT to teach at the University of Arizona. Chomsky entered the field of linguistics in the 1950s, a time when it lacked an overarching causal theory of language and was primarily concerned with cataloging different forms of speech. Chomsky set out to answer the research question, how are humans able to produce an infinite number of utterances from a finite set of language parts? Chomsky’s theory is biolinguistic, holding that syntactic knowledge is (at least partly) innate, inborn, and genetically transmitted. There is a universal syntax at the level of the deep structure of human language that underlies the variety and differences observed at the surface structure, regardless of social and cultural differences. This is based on observations of language acquisition by children, who while learning are exposed to only a finite subset of language yet acquire the ability to create and understand an infinite number of sentences, including those that have never been uttered before. Generative grammar is the theory by which Chomsky explains this: a limited set of computational rules, expressed in mathematical notation, that enable the universal deep syntactic structures to be transformed into manifold surface structures. In the 1980s, Chomsky posited a difference between i-language (internal language, the mentally represented linguistic knowledge that a speaker has) and e-language (external language, expressions of linguistic behavior, communal bodies of linguistic knowledge, or any other notion of what language is) and argued that i-language was the proper focus of the study of linguistic competence. Chomsky has also argued that recursion, the embedding of smaller language units into larger ones (such as subordinate clauses into larger sentences) is a key universal feature of human language. Chomsky reasons that the human species has a “language acquisition device,” (LAD) and that the task of linguistics is to determine what that is and what constraints it imposes on language. Chomsky’s generative grammar has been explicitly Cartesian in that it posits an innate human capability, and thus in its basic methodology leans towards a rationalist approach of drawing conclusions from first principles rather than empiricism, or drawing conclusions from data. It has often eschewed “corpus linguistics,” the practice of gathering large datasets of actual spoken or symbolic examples of language as used by humans for study. Of note, whatever the biolinguistic LAD might be, generative grammarians have not, as of yet, identified it in the human brain; support for it rests on the “poverty of stimulus” argument, the assumption that children are not exposed to rich enough data to learn language without an innate linguistic ability. Since the 1990s, Chomsky’s Minimalist Program is a research agenda that aims to situate generative grammar in the broader cognitive sciences. Generative grammar has come to dominate linguistics, particularly in North America, but has not evaded criticism and controversies. Already in the 1960s some of Chomsky’s students began to break with him, with some arguing that generative grammar’s necessary division between syntax, which was argued to be universal, and semantics, which are observably not, was not supportable in observed speech. This led to the so-called “Linguistics Wars,” with the most notable public split coming between Chomsky and George Lakoff, whose arguments met harsh public rebuke by Chomsky. Chomsky famously debated the question of human nature with French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault on Dutch television in 1971. In the 21st century, controversy over universal grammar centered on the work of linguistDaniel Everett. Everett claimed that the Piraha, a Brazilian Amazonian group, lacked grammatical recursion, a finding that challenged the hypothesis of innate syntax. Generative grammarians criticized his research, however, and Chomsky claimed it had no bearing on the role of universal syntax in language acquisition. Chomsky’s political activism has been rooted in his anarchism. Chomsky identifies as an anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist, although his political thinking is largely derivative -- he has not set out to develop his own political philosophy. One well-known contribution is the propaganda model that he and collaborator Edward S. Herman presented in their 1988 work Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky holds that corporate and state interests distort and suppress facts and reality through the mass media, think tanks, and other ideological institutions in order to maintain social control, while keeping up the appearances of representative democracy. Chomsky has engaged in anti-war and anti-imperialist criticism and activism for which he was arrested several times, and he was put on Nixon’s enemies list. Chomsky was a vocal supporter of the Occupy movement of the early 2010s. Most recently, he has said that Donald Trump’s election poses a threat to the survival of the human species through the increased potential for nuclear war and worsened climate change, and that American complaints about Russian interference in the 2016 election are a joke to the rest of the world, given the U.S. history of involvement in other country’s elections. Chomsky has written over 100 books, in addition to academic articles, opinion pieces, and public speeches, so his thinking is spread across a broad oeuvre. We will read two short texts and an article: 1. What Kind of Creatures Are We?, ( a short book (127 pages) written in 2016 in non-technical language addressing questions of language and human nature. It is available from Amazon for $13 new, as little as $8 used, and $10 on Kindle. 2. Language and Mind (, another short (185 pages) text from 1968 that gives a clear statement of Chomsky’s classic views on the relations between language and human nature. Available on Amazon for $40 new, as little as $19 used, and $20 on Kindle; used copies for as little as $4 can be had on ( 3. John Searle ,“A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics (,” New York Review of Books, 1972. This is a useful and clear summary of Chomsky’s classic theory of language. Secondary Resources: - The Noam Chomsky Website ( Noam Chomsky’s professor page ( at the University of Arizona - includes contact info and link to course listings. The Chomsky List ( - Noam Chomsky Book List · Where to Start with Noam Chomsky: His Best Books ( Wikipedia: Noam Chomsky (, Linguistics (, Generative Grammar (, Transformational Grammar (, Language Acquisition Device (, Linguistics Wars (, Minimalist Program (, Manufacturing Consent (, Recursion (, Daniel Everett (, Pirahã ( Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of Linguistics (, Computational Linguistics (, Innateness and Language ( Video: Chomsky criticizing the Vietnam War on Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr (, 1969. Video: Chomsky-Foucault debate (, 1971, with subtitles. A 1973 exchange in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) between George Lakoff and Chomsky in response to Searle’s “A Special Supplement.” I found this fascinating: the mercilessness of Chomsky’s reply to Lakoff seems unwarranted and gives a taste of the bitterness of the Linguistics Wars: · “Deep Language (,” George Lakoff, NYRB, 1973. · “Chomsky Replies (,” Noam Chomsky, NYRB, 1973. Manufacturing Consent (, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Pantheon, 1988 Video: Noam Chomsky - Manufacturing Consent (, 1992 documentary. Another NYRB exchange between Searle and Chomsky from 2002, in which Searle surveys the accomplishments and failures of generative linguistics and Chomsky replies: · “End of the Revolution (,” John Searle, NYRB, 2002 (requires a NYRB subscription). · “Chomsky’s Revolution (,” Sylvain Bromberger, NYRB, 2002. · “Chomsky’s Revolution: An Exchange (,” Noam Chomsky with final reply by John Searle, NYRB, 2002. The Piraha controversy: · “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha (,” Daniel Everett, Cultural Anthropology 46:4, August-October 2005. · “Talk, talk (,” The Economist, 2012 · “Angry Words (,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2012. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (, Noam Chomsky, Holt 2004. Video: Requiem for the American Dream (, Chomsky documentary (2016; payment required)

West End Neighborhood Library

2301 L Street NW · Washington, DC

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    What we're about

    Public Group

    Did you take a philosophy class in high school or college and wish you had taken more? Do you read philosophy texts independently but have no one to discuss them with? Then this group is for you.

    Somewhat of a hybrid, it is a combination study group and book club. The backgrounds of our members vary: some have never taken a philosophy course and are essentially self-taught; others have doctorates in the field. We read authors considered "canonical." Although the majority of writers have been European and American, we have read and are open to texts from other cultures. Representative philosophers have included Plato, Averroes, Confucius, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Sartre, Arendt, Rawls, Foucault, and Butler. Most of the time we read a single book by a single author, but if their output has been substantial we will consider an anthology. We started the group in 2010 with the classical period and finished in 2013 with twentieth century writers. In 2014 we returned to the classical period and are repeating the chronology, adding new writers who were missed the first time around (to see the past reading schedule, from 2000 forward, click here ( We are currently reading 20th century philosophers and expect do continue doing so into 2019. For the updated 2018 schedule, please click here (

    Meetings are currently held at the West End Library in DC, located 2301 L St NW, Washington, DC 20037,
    on the third Saturday of each month, from 1:00-3:00 PM. The Foggy Bottom-GWU metro station is nearby.

    Tips in Preparing for Meetings

    After you have finished the reading, ask yourself: (1) What are the philosopher’s principal ideas? (2) What arguments are used to support them, and are they strong or weak? (3) Who were the author’s major influences, and whom in turn did he/she influence? (4) What was the historical context in which the author wrote, and did this affect what was said? (5) Are the author’s works still relevant today and, if so, how?

    To help in answering these questions, attendees are encouraged to consult the secondary resources posted in each announcement. Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are especially useful.

    Rules of Conduct at Meetings

    Avoid monopolizing the conversation. If you've been speaking for several minutes, and sense others want to get in, relinquish the floor.

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    Challenging arguments and disputing facts are fine; personal attacks are not.

    If you have not read at least 50% of the recommended selections, consider skipping the meeting to allow other interested people to attend.

    Those who violate the rules of conduct repeatedly will be dropped from the group at the discretion of the organizer.


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    Although everyone is welcome to use our resources, our targeted audience, and membership, is now restricted to people who live in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia area. Those who joined before November 2016 have been grandfathered in.

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