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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Happy 90th Birthday

As many of you may know, Noam just turned 90. In his honor, Michael Schiffman (with some help from Joahnn Hari and at the behest of Valeria Chomsky) put together short pieces by people on their Noamesque encounters. I contributed a little piece as well. Here it is.

Noam and Me[*]

It is not clear to me why it is that Noam would wish to know how I came to be a fervent acolyte, but the editors of this tribute assure me that he would. So here goes.

I met Noam when I was an undergrad at McGill. In fact I met him four different times.

The first time was through Harry Bracken. Harry taught philosophy at McGill and I was his student (and I also often ate lunch with him and Jim McGilvray (who, at the time, was a useful Empiricist foil for Harry (yes, Jim has changed))). One of Harry’s interests was to understand the contrasting Empiricist and Rationalist worldviews. He was a staunch Rationalist partisan and firmly believed that the world/universe would be a much better place were Rationalist conceptions of minds and persons the default. The class spent considerable time rehearsing the 17thand 18thcentury debates. We also spent a lot of time on Noam’s writing, which, at the time included Aspects(chapter 1), Language & Mind, and Cartesian Linguistics. Why Noam? Because for Harry, he was Descartes’ 20thcentury avatar, fighting the good fight against arch Behaviorists like Skinner and (our own home-grown Empiricist) Hebb. This was my first introduction to Noam: leader of the anti-Empiricist Rationalist resistance.

My second introduction built on this. The impresario was Elan Dresher. At the time, Elan was a grad student in linguistics. He was also a great friend and weekend drinking buddy. Like all young Montrealers, we went out Fridays and Saturday nights. Unlike all Montrealers, we seldom had dates. So we sat and talked, and talked, and talked. About everything. We argued about whether the Loch Ness monster existed (Elan argued compellingly that the evidence was mixed, and at least as good as the evidence for the existence of the Great Blue Bear (which we took as very solid)), about whether sugar grew in cubes (again Elan pointed out that the transition from cubes to grains was more “natural” (dare I say economical) than the transition from grains to cubes and so an elegant Nature would opt for the cube growth option), and, of course, about the virtues of Empiricism and Rationalism. We discussed and argued these points for hours, with Descartes’ views (and those of his modern day paladin Noam Chomsky) generally winning the day. 

I should add that at the time Elan was quite taken with the music of Woody Guthrie and he wrote a “train” ballad about Rene D that included the following verse:

Rene Descartes on the train line
Wearing an Engineer’s hat
Said, go and tell the people at Harvard
That a man ain’t nothing like a rat!

There were many more verses and I suggest that you get Elan to sing it for you when next you see him.

So the first two “meetings” with Noam were what we might today call somewhat “virtual.” The next one brought me closer to the actual life and blood Noam, though still at a small remove. Here’s the story.

I was a student at McGill from 69-75 (yes, six wonderful years) and at the time Noam was vey well known for his politics. It was thus somewhat odd that I mainly initially got to know him as a leading Rationalist linguist and philosopher (at the time, these two domains were close kissing cousins). However, given the times, I soon also started reading his political stuff. The Responsibility of Intellectualsand At War with Asiawere standards. But Noam was everywhere, writing in the New York Review of Books(something that he would not do ever again after the war) and the lefty rag of the times, Ramparts. At any rate, we all devoured this stuff. 

However, the US invasion of Viet Nam was not the only war of importance at that time. There was also the 67 war in the Mid East and the recurring intense conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. I (together with Elan) were quite involved with the latter at McGill. We both went to a Zionist High School (Herzliah) and co-edited a magazine (Strobe) that discussed some of these issues in its pages (actually, he was editor, I was his sidekick). At any rate, we were deeply involved. I (and Elan) was a lefty Zionist politically, favoring a two-state solution based on the 67 border (which, truth be told, I still think is the most realistic proximate decent option). But I was quite definitely a Zionist in that I believed that Israel was basically forced into its military and political responses by recalcitrant Palestinian (and Arab) initiatives (the old Ebanism “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” being a tacit mantra). I believed that Israel did not do much more than respond to events as best it could. This is important background for my third Noam meeting.

He published a piece in Rampartsarguing that Israel was the prime mover in the region and that it was responsible for initiating much of the trouble and intransigence. I could not believe what I was reading. I got really annoyed and decided to write Chomsky a letter showing him the error of his ways. What the hell did he know! Not much from what I could tell. So, I, a graduate of Herzliah and a lefty Zionist, was going to set him straight. I wrote him (yes, in those days we still wrote letters) a many-paged letter that went over his mistakes line by line and popped it into the mail feeling pretty good. I am not sure why, as I did not think that this intervention would lead anywhere. I honestly expected no reply. The whole effort was expansive virtue signaling (to myself largely), just good to get things off my chest and let Noam know that someone was monitoring his mistakes.

Well, you all probably know what happened next, as has happened to countless many before and since. Within the week I received a many-paged typed line by line reply to my letter telling me nicely (but firmly) that I might want to consult various sources (e.g. The Economist, BBC transcripts, various histories (those by the Kimche’s come to mind) etc.) that would show me that my view of the situation was not (ahem) entirely well grounded. This reply was entirely unexpected, and unfortunately quite impressive and extensive, but I was not convinced. I went to the library, chased down the sources, and wrote another revised note making similar points to the first but with slightly better backing. Suffice it to say, that after three or four iterations of this process I came to the tentative conclusion that I really did not know what I was talking about. I was not sure that Noam was right. But I was pretty sure that my former very firm views were very tenuous. This was a real revelation. Even bigger than discovering that Rationalism is right and Empiricism is (at best) wrong. I do not know if you have ever been privy to an episode of radical Cartesian Doubt where everything you thought was solid seems to evaporate (By the way, a bout of Cartesian Doubt is a bit like vegetables: good for you but not all that pleasant when you are in the midst of it). This was my first experience of that and if for nothing else, my third encounter with Noam will remain ever memorable (and my debt to him enormous).

The last intro was not epistolary but in the flesh. I met Noam for the first time (Elan was there too) at U Mass Amherst at the summer institute. I just walked up to him, introduced myself and we shook hands. He looked nothing like Descartes, or his demon. Elan agreed. 

So that’s how I got to meet Noam. Since then we have remained in contact, mainly via email (except for the four years in Cambridge when I got to see him pretty regularly). I discovered that there were more things that I did not understand beyond the politics and history of the Middle East. Many many (maybe a few too many?) more things. But I am sure that this is a standard reaction. I discovered that Noam likes nothing more than finding points of disagreement, and following ideas to see where they might lead. I found that I like that too, at least the way he does it. Noam’s great gift has been showing me how much fun it could be to think about things. It really is fun, even if that involves changing your mind again and again and again. Quite a nice gift, and I appreciate it every day.


[*]Thanks to my good and great friend Elan Dresher for vetting the contents and checking the spelling and punctuation. For those that do not know this, Elan played Noam in a skit he and Amy Weinberg and I performed for Noam’s 50thbirthday. I played Koko the Gorilla. Amy played Penny Patterson. The skit involved a debate between Noam and Koko about whether Gorillas could be linguistically competent. To my mind, Noam lost that debate. I can be very persuasive when a gorilla. I mention this here because one of the benefits of knowing Noam before spell checking is that he automatically corrected my spelling and punctuation when I gave him a paper to read. Given the historical connection between Noam and Elan, it seems fitting that Elan has done me that service here. I have always relied on the kindness of good copy editors.

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