Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.) is an American theoretical linguist whose work beginning in the 1950s revolutionized the field of linguistics by treating language as a unique, biologically based cognitive capacity unique to human beings. Through his contributions to linguistics and related fields such as cognitive psychology and philosophies of mind and language, Chomsky helped initiate and sustain what became known as the “cognitive revolution.” Chomsky also gained a worldwide following as a political dissident for his analyses of the pernicious influence of economic elites on U.S. domestic politics, foreign policy, and intellectual culture.

Basic Life and Ideas

Born to a middle-class Jewish family, Chomsky attended an experimental elementary school where he was encouraged to develop his own interests and talents through self-directed learning. At age 10, he wrote an editorial for his school newspaper lamenting the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. His research at that time and over the next few years was exhaustive enough to serve decades later as the basis for “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” (1969), Chomsky’s critical review of a study of the period by historian Gabriel Jackson.

At age 13, Chomsky began traveling alone to New York City, where he found books for his voracious reading habit and connected with a thriving working-class Jewish intellectual community. Discussions in this community enriched and confirmed the beliefs that would underpin his political views throughout his life: that all people are capable of understanding political and economic problems and making their own decisions on that basis; that all people need and derive satisfaction from acting freely and creatively and from associating with others; and that authority—whether political, economic, or religious—that cannot meet a strong rational justification is illegitimate. According to Chomsky’s anarcho-communism or libertarian socialism, the best form of political organization is one in which all people have the maximum opportunity to participate in cooperative activities with others and to take part in all community decisions that affect them.