When I was a third-year undergraduate student at METU (Turkey), there came a point where it was necessary for me to decide what to do with my life. I knew that I enjoyed thinking about human language and thought, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. One of my friends with leftist inclinations happened to mention this famous anarcho-syndicalist who is also the founder of modern linguistics. I knew at once that I was going to learn more about this guy. I went to the library, picked a book titled The Minimalist Program and read it for days without really understanding much. It was frustrating. Yet, the cellist on the front cover looked friendly and the symbols and abbreviations felt warm. It took me a long time to develop skills needed for linguistic analysis but within a couple of years I was well read in Chomsky’s more “philosophical” work on what linguistics is all about.
I had the opportunity to talk with Noam after I was accepted to MIT Linguistics. We discussed general methodological issues concerning linguistics. I think I complained about the “sentence-centric mindset” in linguistics or something like that. For me, the whole meeting was an invaluable opportunity to observe an individual with remarkable scientific integrity.
More generally, here is what I learnt from Noam and his work: (1) people are usually wrong (and sometimes quite wrong) and (2) it is usually necessary to go against the tide even if that entails some degree of solitude. These convictions have played an implicit but critical role in my research. It is a big joy (and a big responsibility) to challenge widely held beliefs and Noam has taught many how to master this art.