My first meeting was arranged by Tanya Reinhart. It was 1992, and I was very new to this field. Sitting on a chair outside Noam’s office in Building 20, I began thinking of what happened to Skinner, Quine, Kripke, and others. I didn’t expect a cozy conversation, and was thrilled with the outcome: helpful and, in fact, quite friendly.
But what I remember more clearly is my posture throughout the meeting and how it ended. I was using both hands to keep my legs crossed in a figure 4 position, trying to stop things from shaking. When the meeting was over, and I got up to leave, my leg was completely numb. I tried to stand up, and collapsed on the floor. Noam helped me up. I tried again. He helped me up again. He then asked if this happens often, took me over to his assistant, wished me well, and headed to his next appointment. I never fell again in Noam’s office, though I was beaten to the ground often enough and learned so much while trying to get up on my own.
I remember telling my father after the first meeting that I had met the smartest person I would ever meet. So many of us have. And we can say this despite all these Thursday lectures, where we learned that the best chess player, even the winner of every debate that ever was, has got to be pretty lousy in many other things (see, e.g., Chomsky’s comments on Churchland’s use of the adjective fallible in New Horizons . . . , p. 107).
But even if smartest is somewhat meaningless, there are clearly many appropriate superlatives. For example, Noam is surely the most opinionated person I have ever met. Surprisingly, he is in a rather profound way also the most open-minded.
Among the most important things I think we’ve learned from Noam is that there are so many areas where the best way to be open-minded is by figuring out how opinionated you can be. And that, very often, can be done only if you are willing to take important risks, adopt strong positions, defend them vigorously, and investigate their bounds and limitations, sometimes eventually reversing course and arguing for the opposite position with the same vigor.
Then there’s, of course, the fact that no one can intimidate Noam. And again, at the same time, there is no one who is not important enough to deserve his respect and serious consideration, even a young student from a small university in a far away country who can’t stand on his own two feet.
Noam, so excited that we are able to celebrate this special birthday with you. Looking forward to many more meetings, and many more opportunities to be beaten to the ground. Thank you for everything.