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Wednesday, August 20 2014 @ 11:33 AM CDT

Noam Chomsky's Legacy

Science

Noam Chomsky turns eighty-four today, more than a half century after he exploded onto the scene of linguistics, in in the late nineteen-fifties, as a young professor at M.I.T. His career began perhaps most notably with a book review that helped launch an entire field of linguistics (known as generative grammar) and laid waste to another (the behaviorist view of B. F. Skinner that then dominated psychology). From that moment forward, linguistics truly has never been the same.

Noam Chomsky's Legacy

by Gary Marcus
New Yorker

Noam Chomsky turns eighty-four today, more than a half century after he exploded onto the scene of linguistics, in in the late nineteen-fifties, as a young professor at M.I.T. His career began perhaps most notably with a book review that helped launch an entire field of linguistics (known as generative grammar) and laid waste to another (the behaviorist view of B. F. Skinner that then dominated psychology). From that moment forward, linguistics truly has never been the same.

He remains as influential, and divisive, as he was when Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a Profile of Chomsky in The New Yorker nearly a decade ago (“The Devil’s Accountant”). He has at least three new essays on linguistics coming out soon, and if time has slowed him down, it’s not by very much. A few months ago, I sent him a manuscript and he replied, with comments, in less than half an hour.

I can’t speak to his politics, for which he is equally well known. But since his earliest days, Chomsky’s scientific concerns have been as much about philosophy as linguistics. For most of us, words and sentences are tools for communicating. But for Chomsky, words and sentences are tools for understanding the nature and origins of knowledge. Chomsky sees himself, correctly, as continuing a conversation that goes back to Plato, especially the Meno dialogue, in which a slave boy is revealed by Socrates to know truths about geometry that he hadn’t realized he knew. Plato’s question was whether any of what we know about the world is innate as opposed to acquired through experience. For Chomsky, the interest in linguistics isn’t so much whether one language uses infinitives and another uses subjunctives but whether all languages are, at some level, deeply related and constrained by what Chomsky dubbed “universal grammar.”

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