Tribute to Noam Chomsky
Reading Noam Chomsky as a philosophy graduate student in the mid-1960s changed my life. At the time, ordinary language philosophy was preoccupied with usage and social conventions, and it was possible to study philosophy in Oxford without thinking seriously about the relation between language and mind. Chomsky’s work was a revelation to me, and the two years I spent at MIT studying for my PhD in Linguistics under his supervision were one of the richest intellectual experiences of my life. His lectures were gems—razor sharp, funny, sometimes polemical, always exciting. Though I ended up working on pragmatics rather than syntax, I still come out of one of his lectures on syntax feeling inspired.
Chomsky is not known for his optimism about pragmatics. I was once asked to interview him about pragmatics for a radical philosophy journal that was planning a special issue on his work. Seizing the opportunity, I spent hours re-reading every word he’d written on pragmatics, planning a series of devilish questions that would inevitably lead him to reconsider his views. After my first question, he said “Before we start, let’s lay out some groundwork,” and spent the rest of the interview talking about syntax. So I never did change his mind. But I also persevered with pragmatics at least partly because of another remark of his. At one of his public lectures, an economics student expressed serious dissatisfaction with the current state of economics and asked for his advice. Chomsky said, “If you don’t like what’s going on in your subject, don’t get out—stay and try to make it better.” I feel the same about pragmatics.
What I admire most about Chomsky is not only his intellectual strength but also his moral qualities: his honesty, his generosity in responding to questions, his willingness to reply to emails from people who probably have no idea how busy he is. I’ve benefited enormously from reading him, listening to him, watching him, and working with him. Many congratulations, Noam, and best wishes for a very happy birthday.