“Love him, hate him, or fall somewhere in the middle, with Noam Chomsky you know what you're getting: clear, dispassionate analysis, unapologetic empiricism, and a humble spirit.
In the interviews included in "The Science of Language", James McGilvray draws out Chomsky on a host of topics: pure science and its method, universal grammar, common sense, universality, critiquing (neo, too often social)Darwinistic 'pop biology', euphemistic vocabulary, modern myth-building, the unique human capacity to do math, the (rather extensive) limitations of selective adaptation, Galileo's though experiments, the good and the bad of story-telling, and for me (a highlight) a simple explanation of his theory of "Merge", the sort of Big Bang in the development of the human capacity for language. There is also almost nothing - believe it or not - about politics or Chomsky's views on western history. The man, despite his genius, or perhaps as evidence of it, is willing to admit when asked about the connection between his research in linguistics and his political views, "...it's principled, but it's weak...there's no deductive connection. You could take any view on either of these topics, and it wouldn't be inconsistent to hold them." That's humble. And it's as refreshing as it is rare among those of our species blessed with the biggest brain-pans.
For those who've read extensively in Chomsky (smiling the entire time or gritting your teeth) there is probably not much new here for you, except perhaps another extended example of his tremendous ability to take an incredibly complex idea and say it in a way so that a child in school could get it. Researchers, academics, writers the world over can learn from Noam Chomsky. We all can.
If you aren't familiar with the vocabulary of linguistics, you'll have some challenges here, but McGavilray has included an excellent glossary and an appendix with some further explanations of Chomsky's remarks, putting them in a more accessible, broader context than the interview format could provide.
And finally, as a little treat, I was hugely entertained by his chastising of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker for some - in Chomsky's view - less-than-honest popular science writing they've engaged in. Fans of Pinker et al. might not be so thrilled. But don't take it too close to heart, that's just Noam being Noam.
And finally, a quote: "If you're teaching, say, physics, there's no point in persuading a student that you're right. You want to encourage them to find out what the truth is, which is probably that you're wrong."
His thoughtfulness enriches us all.”