December 7, 2013
In 1955, while at work on his PhD, NOAM CHOMSKY (born 1928) – whose parents escaped the pogroms, who was raised in a working-class Jewish household, who at the age of four looked through the window of a Philadelphia trolley car at strikers being beaten by police outside a textile factory – composed a bewitching sentence: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Don’t be fooled by the euphony, mystery, and declamatory force. Chomsky – whose early, brave, and public antiwar activism as a young MIT professor set him on a path to becoming the American Left’s favorite intellectual – is emphatically not a poet. His point was that the sentence was as unlikely to be encountered in the world as its syntactically malformed twin, Furiously sleep ideas green colorless, but was nonetheless recognizable as a possible sentence in English. Chomsky – who describes himself as an anarcho-syndicalist – wished to point out the failure of behaviorist theories to account for a child’s ability to acquire language. He observed that we must be born in possession of a universal grammar which, when customized by a limited amount of stimulus into the grammar of a given language, can generate all its possible sentences. “I don’t have any particular talents that everybody else doesn’t have,” Chomsky insists when asked about his seemingly limitless access to historical facts, about the quantity of media he consumes and synthesizes on a daily basis. Thus are the two Chomskys – linguist and activist – united in their grasp of functional infinity.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).