What music does Noam Chomsky listen to

Noam Chomsky, the language explainer and world intellectual, turns 90

Noam Chomsky said five years ago at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum that his topics are those that should be on the front pages of the media but are never to be found there: the criticism of climate destruction, neoliberalism, globalization. Even in his 90th year of life, the American intellectual continued to fight for this to change. When he completes it this Friday, December 7th, Chomsky can look back on three roles in which he has significantly shaped the second half of the 20th century to the present day: as a linguist, philosopher and left-wing political activist.

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928. His parents were Jewish immigrants, the father was from Ukraine and had fled to the United States. The mother came from Belarus. The family lived in a kind of Jewish ghetto and was committed to left-wing Zionism. Noam wrote his first article on the threat posed by fascism as a ten-year-old and began to identify with anarchist politics as a teenager.

Noam Chomsky at the Global Media Forum 2013

Findings on the basic structures of language

He studied linguistics, mathematics and philosophy and made his master's degree in linguistics in 1951. The main theses of his doctoral thesis "Transformational Analysis" were later incorporated into a book that was to revolutionize linguistics: his groundbreaking monograph "Syntactic Structures" was published in 1957 (German 1973 as "Structures of Syntax").

With this book, Chomsky had already defined his own scientific life theme: the roots and limits of human cognitive abilities. His initial question seems simple: How can a child learn to speak within such a short time, after a few years form grammatically correct sentences in his mother tongue, maybe even in another language? In his research he came to the conclusion that language acquisition is an innate competence.

It is not learning by imitating what a child hears around them that turns them into a speaking being. According to his central thesis, the human brain is genetically imprinted with a structure that enables it to perceive the things in the world, to think about them - and to form an infinite number of sentences with a finite number of rules.

In 1967 Queen Elizabeth ("Queen Mum") awarded Chomsky an honorary doctorate

Chomsky's revolutionary universal grammar

His teaching, guided by mathematical thinking, that the basic structures of all languages ​​are the same and that human language use follows complex syntactic and logical rules - his "universal grammar" - was not limited in its effect to linguistics. It was also a statement within a philosophical dispute that went back to the time of the beginning of the Enlightenment. As early as the early 17th century, René Descartes believed that the ability to think in terms was innate. Chomsky transformed this "Cartesian rationalism" into the 20th century.

His theory did not go unchallenged - communication scientists of the 21st century, for example, no longer accept his fundamental distinction between humans and animals, since animals are now also granted cognitive abilities.

In 1961, Chomsky became a full professor at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After his retirement he remained connected to MIT as a linguist, and since the 1960s he has held guest lectureships all over the world. He has authored more than 100 books and has received dozens of awards, memberships and honorary doctorates. Since 2017 he has been teaching at the rather modest, but linguistically renowned University of Arizona in Tucson.

Chomsky was always curious, including about Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana in 2003

Left figure of identification of the world public

But his linguistic and philosophical achievements have faded more and more into the background in the perception of the world public compared to his left-wing political activism. Since the 1960s, when he protested against the Vietnam War, he has been something like the left conscience of a counter-public in the USA. He became known worldwide as a tireless critic of US governments, globalization and capitalism.

"For a privileged minority, Western democracy has the leisure, facilities and education that enable it to seek the truth hidden under the veil of distortion and perversion, ideology and class interests. Intellectuals have a responsibility to tell the truth and expose lies. "

Chomsky's quote from 1966 remained valid for him for decades and still corresponds to his claim today. After September 11, 2001, when he condemned the attacks but declared them in his book "9-11" to be the logical consequence of American imperialism and the inevitable answer to the exploitation and oppression of the Third World, he became a figure of identification for the global left . His criticism of US foreign and economic policy has made him the father of the Occupy movement. He is also repeatedly critical of Israel and its settlement policy, especially the cordoning off of the Gaza Strip. Like many Jewish American intellectuals, Chomsky supports the BDS, the organized call to boycott Israel.

In 2014, Chomsky supported Julian Assange and appeared with him on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London

The fight goes on!

Chomsky's last book "Global Discontents" brings together conversations that he had with his long-time interlocutor, radio reporter and writer David Barsamian, between 2013 and 2016. In it, Chomsky advocates radical changes to a system that is not up to the challenges of the future. In 2018 he deals in detail with the - in his opinion - increased risk of nuclear war due to President Trump's policies. "It's two to twelve," he concluded.

In his most recent book, "Kampf oder Untergang!" the former MIT professor warns repeatedly that humanity is in the most threatening phase of its history. Nevertheless, he remains confident because there are only two options: "We can be pessimistic and give up so that the likelihood of the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic and seize every opportunity to help make the world a better place." Chomsky made his choice.