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David Caplan

PhD, Linguistics, MIT, 1971

Published onApr 19, 2019
David Caplan

Noam is one of the leading intellectual and social-political figures of the 20th century and has influenced countless people by his activity in these two areas. I will try to express how he has influenced me.

My first contact with Noam was in the social-political arena. I first met him when I was a junior at MIT in the antiwar movement, stuffing envelopes for an event in his house. What struck me most was the depth and breadth of his understanding of the origins of the war and the forces that were feeding its expansion, his calm way of talking about events that were so troubling to so many of us, and his courage in facing potential personal consequences for actions he took. This was how an intellectual could make the greatest contribution.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Linguistics program. Looking back on that time from the vantage point of almost 50 years during which some of the alternative approaches to these fields, that were justifiably dismissed at the time on grounds of empirical inadequacy, have appeared more viable due to increasing computational power, I am even more forcibly struck now than then by how much was achieved in understanding aspects of these fields using the “traditional” method of the application of logical thought to enormous erudition, by one of the greatest minds ever to have engaged in this work. Noam would routinely run reductio arguments and then select the weakest premise for elimination. Watching the sheer power of his mind at work was an unforgettable experience. It set a standard for thought that I have been trying to reach all these years.

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