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Robert May

For Noam

Published onApr 19, 2019
Robert May
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For Noam

I’ve known Noam Chomsky for half his life. I first met him as a graduate student at MIT, when he was 45, but I had first seen him two and a half years earlier, when he gave the inaugural Russell lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Although I had read his political essays in high school, my first exposure to his linguistic ideas was in college, when I first read Aspects, and I was hooked by the end of first chapter.

I arrived at MIT in September 1973, and for the next four fall semesters spent Thursday afternoons in Noam’s class. Noam would walk in, take off his watch and place it on the table, roll up his sleeves, and teach, without a break, until he was done. Those classes led to a series of Noam’s seminal papers, “Conditions on Rules of Grammar” and “On Wh- Movement” notably, and in many ways my favorite, the Introduction to the published version of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. The last is one of the few places where Noam indulges in intellectual autobiography, and his description of the transition from structural to generative linguistics is an essential reflection on the intellectual history of the mid-20th century. The discussions with Noam during those years about the emergent ideas about Logical Form that were the topic of “The Grammar of Quantification” was the formative experience for the core of what I have thought about since, in linguistics and philosophy.

Inevitably, after graduate school I saw Noam less often, especially after I moved to California in the mid-1980s. But there are occasions that stick in my mind. The Pisa lectures in 1979; in 1988 in Israel, at a conference held in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; in 1993, when Noam gave a series of lectures at UC Irvine, where I was teaching at the time; the Dewey lectures at Columbia in 2013, and in 2016 at the memorial conference for Jim Higginbotham at Rutgers. There are wonderful anecdotes about each of these, some touching, some amusing, but space is too short to do justice to the telling.

Noam’s commitment to the growth and enhancement of knowledge as one of the truly good endeavors in a world filled with venality gives one hope. Noam remains eternally an optimist even as each day he works to reveal the evils that surround us, from the Vietnam War a half century ago to the dangers of nuclear warfare and climate change today, with so many stops in between. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to have known Noam and to have been his student. A day does not go by when I do not think of his teachings, his ideas, his comportment as an intellect, and the standards he sets for thought and life. For what he has meant in my life, I am indebted. But incalculably more important is what Noam has meant to the world, and for that we are deeply thankful and grateful.

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