Noam the thinking of giants within the psychological

Noam
Chomsky stands today as an icon of progressive thinking in both the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries. Though he is not primarily known for being a
psychologist, his study of linguistics and philosophy had a large impact on the
psychological field. His writings on linguistic theory influenced the thinking
of giants within the psychological field, such as Georg Miller. Chomsky saw
linguistics as a fundamental branch of cognitive psychology; he believed
studying linguistics could bring new insight into research of mental processing
and human nature. His most prominent linguistic theory of universal grammar was
also his most controversial as it was in direct opposition to behaviorist
linguistic theories at the time it was introduced. Though later, and still
today, very basic points of his complex theory are generally accepted in
circles of linguists and psychologists. Through his work, Chomsky helped
establish a new relationship between the fields of psychology and linguistics.

            Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 in
Pennsylvania. His parents were highly-educated, Jewish immigrants who came to
the United States from Europe. Noam’s parents exposed him to Hebrew early on in
his childhood, initiating a fascination with learning languages. Chomsky moved
on to learn Arabic and would later become deeply involved in the field of
psycholinguistics. His liberal mother also influenced his interest in social
activism and politics from an early age. A bright boy, Noam Chomsky was
accepted to the University of Pennsylvania at the age of sixteen where he
completed his B.A. and master’s degrees in theoretical linguistics with theses
on Hebrew phonetics.

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In
1951, he was admitted to Harvard’s prestigious Society of Junior Fellows. At
the University, he wrote a lengthy manuscript: The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. It was in this
manuscript that Chomsky introduced his most well-known ideas on linguistic
theory, which dealt with the difference between syntax (“the logical
relationships among words governed by the grammar of language being used”) and
semantics (“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 make
sense out of mere expressions of words. Chomsky did not believe that mastery of a
language was innately wired into the human brain, but instead he theorized that
animals and humans were both capable of some level of comprehension when
exposed to specific forms of linguistic communication. But, his theory
proceeded, only humans could continue to develop their comprehension of the
linguistic information through a process he called a “language acquisition
device”. Chomsky thought that if the language acquisition device for all human
languages could be discovered, features that would be universal to all languages
could be produced. These features were what he coined “universal grammar”.                                                                                      Chomsky
focused his research on language acquisition in children: he noted that
children develop a grasp on language even though they are often exposed to
incomplete grammar or don’t receive much instruction on how to speak. He
believed the capacity of children to understand the syntax of their language
could not be learned by trial and error, but rather that there was an innate
“universal grammar” contained within the human brain whose features were
brought out through experience and interaction with language in the child’s
environment. Chomsky argued the deep structure, or underlying logic, of all
languages is the same and that human mastery of it is genetically determined,
not learned.

Chomsky’s
ideas were a modern-day version of Leibniz’s concept of “innate necessary
truth”. This was in direct opposition to the views of influential linguistic
theorists 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 linguistic
theory, Chomsky became friends with Miller during his time at Harvard. He began
having serious conversations with Miller on linguistic theory in children’s
acquisition of syntax. As this relationship developed, Chomsky published a
critique of BF Skinner’s book Verbal
Behavior, criticizing behaviorists’ inability to account for the fact that
children are universally able to acquire understanding of the grammar rules of
their language. Chomsky’s critique influenced Miller to shift from a
behaviorist position to a nativist position on the subject of linguistic
theory; this contributed to the process of Miller moving away from the subfield
of behaviorism in psychology altogether.

            Chomsky’s initial manuscript was
rejected for publication in 1955 because it was “too unconventional”; however,
he eventually distilled the manuscript into Syntactic
Structures, which was published in 1957. He also later developed the
Principles and Parameters approach to thinking about children’s acquisition of
language in his Pisa 1979 Lectures. The Principles and Parameters approach
stated that all languages have various principles of grammar that children can
come to learn quickly: once they know the principles of the grammar, they are
able to figure out easily how to express themselves sensibly within those
parameters.

            In 1955, Noam Chomsky left Harvard
to 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. He
became a leading opponent to the Vietnam War after publishing his essay “The
Responsibility of Intellectuals” in 1967. Chomsky held many titles during his
long involvement with MIT. Today, he remains at the Institute and holds the
titles of Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus. As seen
in his earlier conversations with Georg Miller, Chomsky is a serious debater
and has debated many figures with views ranging across the political spectrum.
He once debated Michael Foucault on human nature, arguing that human nature is
largely determined by biology. Such an argument remains true to Chomsky’s
tendency to lean towards nativist principles of thought.

            Noam Chomsky’s stint in the
psychological field was brief, but he was able to make strides in joining
together the study of psychology with linguistics. The key idea of Chomsky’s
psycholinguistic 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 broader
career in linguistics, philosophy, and most notably social activism. One of the
causes he has taken up recently is advocating for a Palestinian state. As a
Jewish man, he draws on his own experiences facing anti-Semitism to help others
understand that opposing Israeli political behaviors is not anti-Semitic.
Chomsky lives on as a widely applauded and widely criticized advocate for many
radical and controversial political causes.