The Chomsky Connection

This February, Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned linguist, intellectual, and political activist, will be setting foot on the University of Arizona campus for the first time.

The UA department of linguistics is understandably abuzz about the upcoming visit. In the world of linguistics, Chomsky is king. And he will not merely be dropping by to give a lecture, he will be spending a few days at the UA, giving two formal lectures – one academic and one for the general public – and also spending time with the faculty and students in the department.

“Chomsky's visit is an extraordinary opportunity for us,” said linguistics graduate student Jeff Punske. “He is the father of modern linguistics. Our meeting is akin to physics students getting to have a salon with Newton or Einstein. It is that big.”

Chomsky, who according to The New York Times is “arguably the most important intellectual alive,” is credited with revolutionizing the field of linguistics by introducing the Chomsky hierarchy, generative grammar and the concept of a universal grammar.

Over the years, Chomsky has been a profoundly influential voice, publishing numerous books and lecturing widely on U.S. foreign policy, Mideast politics, terrorism, democratic society, and war. His media criticism has included the 1988 book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.”

Chomsky is an iconic figure for many students and faculty on college campuses. Now in his 80s, he has not slowed down, still traveling, lecturing, writing, and grabbing headlines. He’s as famous – probably more so – for his political involvement as for his linguistic prowess. Chomsky’s fame has extended into popular culture, leading such fans as Bono of U2 to describe him as the “Elvis of academia.”

”The most obvious feature of Chomsky is that he is a man for all seasons,” said Tom Bever, a UA Regents’ Professor of Linguistics.  “He does the work of three public figures: field-leading linguist, political and social theorist, public commentator and speaker. Any one of these polymorphisms would be sufficient success for most mortals.”

Chomsky’s connections to the UA are deep and long-standing, mostly stemming from the various sojourns of UA linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Chomsky worked for more than 50 years.

“We have an unusually large number of people who were either Noam’s students or departmental fellows,” says Bever, “Indeed, the joke in the linguistics world is a that UA linguistics is ‘MIT-west’.”

Bever can claim the longest connection, having met Chomsky in the last 1950s when as an undergraduate taking a graduate seminar, he watched the famous confrontation between Chomsky and B.F. Skinner.

“Chomsky had just published his devastating critique of Skinner's attempt to show how operant stimulus-response theory could account for language structure and learning,” recalls Bever. “I remember two things vividly about this confrontation: Skinner continually referred to Chomsky as "Mr. Xomsky,” and Chomsky, at only 30, made intellectual mince meat of this famous 65-year-old dean of psychology.

“It was like the battle of two titanic ideas, but a battle that was won and lost respectively after the opening salvos,” Bever adds. “David slew Goliath quite handily. The outcome of this event for me was eventually life-shaping.” 

Bever went on to be one of the first graduate students in the new linguistics program started at MIT by Chomsky and Morris Halle. Even though Bever and Chomsky have not collaborated directly since, they have enjoyed a collegial give and take over the years.

“He has harassed me, productively, about psycholinguistics and I have returned the compliment,” said Bever. “We have had many personal and email exchanges on many topics. Interacting with him is always a bit electric. But after a few initial sparks, he actually turns into a reasonably normal guy.” 

Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a UA professor of linguistics and cognitive science, met Chomsky in May 1974 when he organized a conference on biolinguistics (the first of its kind) with Chomsky and Salvador Luria. In 1980, Piattelli-Palmarini was the organizer and the editor of the famous debate between Chomsky and Jean Piaget, which was subsequently translated into 11 languages.

From 1985 to 1994, Piattelli-Palmarini was a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Cognitive Science, and in 2005, he was a visiting professor at the MIT Department of Linguistics.

“Chomsky and I interacted quite assiduously in those periods,” Piattelli-Palmarini said. 

He has invited Chomsky to lecture at his home institutions before —  in 1983, when Piattelli-Palmarini was the director of a center for the history and philosophy of science in Florence, Italy, and again in 1997, when he was a professor at the San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy.

The two men’s collaborations continue to this day. In 2008, Piattelli-Palmarini helped organize an interdisciplinary international conference in San Sebastian, essentially devoted to an encounter with Chomsky. He co-edited the resulting volume titled “Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country” published by Oxford University Press. And in 2009, Piattelli-Palmarini, Chomsky and Robert Berwick organized a workshop in honor of and in memory of his wife, Carol Chomsky. The resulting volume will be published in 2012.

“In the last 30 years or so, I cannot think of another author who has influenced my thinking, my writing and my teaching more than Chomsky,” Piattelli-Palmarini said.

In addition to Bever and Piattelli-Palmarini, UA linguists Diana Archangeli, Heidi Harley, Andrew Carnie, and Andrew Barss have all spent time at MIT’s linguistic department as departmental fellows. Department head Simin Karimi met with Chomsky when she was a visiting scholar at MIT and considers herself a “second-generation” student, as her advisor Joe Emonds was a student of Chomsky’s.

Chomsky’s influence on Professor Andrew Carnie, who was at MIT between 1991-1995, has been extensive. “I am a Chomskyan syntactician. The name says it all. The very paradigm I work in wouldn't exist if it weren't for Chomsky. He’s not only reinvented the discipline once, he's done it multiple times. First in the 1950s with the book “Syntactic Structures,” then again in the 1960s with “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax,” then again in the early 70s with the theory of interpretive semantics, in the 1980s with government and binding theory, and the 90s and 2000s with multiple versions of what is called the minimalist program. He literally invented the discipline and has been leading it for 50 plus years.”

While the faculty are excited to see Chomsky again, Piattelli-Palmarini relays that the anticipation goes both ways. “He tells me he is very excited too. It’s his first visit ever to this University, where so many longtime friends, ex-students and colleagues are.”

Chomsky Lectures at the UA

Academic Lecture
February 7, 4 p.m. –  “What is Special About Language?” in the Student Union Memorial Center, North Ballroom.

Public Lecture/SBS Annual Lecture Series
February 8, 7 p.m. – “Education for Whom and For What?” in Centennial Hall
http://web.sbs.arizona.edu/college/chomsky

The Chomsky visit is sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Science, Confluence: Center for Creative Inquiry, and the Department of Linguistics. Additional support comes from the College of Education, Elise Collins Shields and Creston Shields, the Arizona Daily Star, as well as from the School of Anthropology, the Department of Computer Science, the Cognitive Science Program, the Department of Communication, the School of Geography and Development, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, the School of Government and Public Policy, the Department of History, the College of Humanities, the School of Journalism, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Psychology, the Department of Sociology, and UA BookStores.

Contact: Lori Harwood, director of external relations for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 520-626-3846, harwoodl@email.arizona.edu, Simin Karimi, head of the Department of Linguistics, 520-621-5399, karimi@email.arizona.edu