The University of Arizona

The Chomsky-UA Connection

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences | January 9, 2012

Noam Chomsky continues to collaborate with and still maintains connections to several UA faculty members.

UA professor Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Pello Salaburu of the University of the Basque Country with Noam Chomsky (center) at an international conference in San Sebastian, Spain in 2008.
UA professor Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Pello Salaburu of the University of the Basque Country with Noam Chomsky (center) at an international conference in San Sebastian, Spain in 2008.

Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned linguist, intellectual and political activist, will set foot on the University of Arizona campus for the first time next month. 

The UA linguistics department 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 faculty members and students in the department.

"Chomsky's visit is an extraordinary opportunity for us," said UA 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 members on college campuses.

Now in his 80s, Chomsky has not slowed down, and still is traveling, lecturing, writing and grabbing headlines. He's as famous – probably more so – for his political involvement as for his linguistic prowess.

His 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," Bever added. "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 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," said 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 1950s when as an undergraduate taking a graduate seminar, he watched the famous confrontation between Chomsky and American behaviorist 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," recalled 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," Bever said.

"It was like the battle of two titanic ideas, but a battle that was won and lost respectively after the opening salvos," Bever added. "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 linguist 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 Nobel laureate 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 all have spent time at MIT's linguistic department as fellows.

Also, Simin Karimi, UA's linguistic department head, 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 Carnie, who was at MIT between 1991-95, has been extensive.

"I am a Chomskyan syntactician. The name says it all," Carnie said.

"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," Carnie added.

He noted that the firs time was in the 1950s with the book "Syntactic Structures," then again in the 1960s with "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax." Then, during the early 70s, Chomsky advanced the theory of interpretive semantics.

This kept occuring: In the 1980s with government and binding theory; also in 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," Carnie said.

While the faculty is 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."

Contacts

Lori Harwood

UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

520-626-3846

harwoodl@email.arizona.edu


Simin Karimi

UA Department of Linguistics

520-621-5399

karimi@email.arizona.edu