Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chomsky: Fishing for compliments

Of course, just as I pooped all over the NYTs for relentlessly aiming to sink the Chomsky program in linguistics and cog-sci so as to discredit his politics, they run an opinion piece by Stanley Fish (here) that is nothing if not sympathetic. Fish describes the recent Dewey Lectures that Chomsky gave at Columbia and, IMO, perfectly captures the tone of a Chomsky presentation. I have heard Chomsky deliver several of these series of lectures in my time, one of the earliest being the Woodbridge Lectures, also at Columbia, which became Rules and Representations. Fish perfectly captures what makes these Chomsky events so impressive.

First, the lack of histrionics. Chomsky's presentational style IS a bit boring, something Fish says he aims for (with success). He speaks in a low key monotone and cracks very few jokes (and those he cracks are not that funny!). What marks his talks is a kind of relentless logical inevitability. Starting from very simple premises he reaches what feel like very substantial conclusions taking very small steps. Chomsky at his best (which IMO is the usual case) doesn't lecture at you. Rather, he is more like an intellectual tour guide taking you on a very exciting ride, showing you connections that, once he points them out, seem obvious, and, as I said before, close to inevitable. As the tour is so wonderful, there is no need for the tour guide to be entertaining and this allows the ideas to take center stage and shine. As Fish notes, this makes for a wonderful intellectual experience, the kind of thing that one would love to be the academic norm.

There are two other features of a good Chomsky talk that Fish also highlights.

First, it is always very well informed. He is prodigiously well read and is able to recruit what he has absorbed very quickly to make a point. He understands his critics extremely well and so when he disagrees, the disagreements point to a serious divergence of views. I know of no other working intellectual that has engaged his critics so widely and persistently.

Second, he respects his audience. He answers virtually every question put to him in a pretty honest way. Not everyone is satisfied when he is done. But to a degree that I have found rare  in these sorts of venues, he takes all questions seriously and tries to get to the intellectual nub of the matter. For such a gifted polemicist, IMO, Chomsky doesn't engage much in ad hominem attacks. He relentlessly argues against positions he finds weak and muddled and based on unexamined presuppositions, but rarely does he cast aspersions on the moral or intellectual virtues of those who hold these views. As I've pointed out before, given how much everyone loves their ideas best, being on the receiving end of a Chomsky critique is no picnic and can feel very personal even when it is only (only!) one's ideas that are being excoriated. Nonetheless, in my experience (which has been extensive, even on the receiving end!) Chomsky rarely engages in personal attacks in public debate. Like all humans, he has his views about the people he engages (I assume), but unlike most, when engaging intellectual concerns he sticks to the intellectual agenda. Any position is fair game. The people who hold them are not.

Some in the comments section to the NYT piece remarked how nice it would be were Columbia to make these lectures available on line. Let me second that sentiment. I can think of few more pleasant ways to wile away a snow day (like the one I am enjoying now).

Last point: as Colin Philips noted in his e-mail to me bringing this Fish piece to my attention: before you let the NYTs off the hook, recall that this was an opinion piece, not a news report. Still, I do feel a bit sheepish. Don't worry, it won't last long.

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