Gary Marcus wrote up a piece on Chomsky in the New Yorker in honor of Chomsky’s 84th birthday. It’s a useful piece, as these things go, though I could not help feeling that Gary threw in some back-handed compliments, snide asides and less than charitable character judgments so as to retain his bona fides as an impartial commentator. The New Yorker is not a great admirer of Chomsky’s (see e.g. the execrable MacFarquhar piece cited in Gary’s birthday greeting or its rather silly coverage of Everett’s “discoveries” in Pirãha that purportedly demonstrated that the UG thesis is false) and it seems that even if one comes to praise Chomsky in the pages of the New Yorker it is important bury him a little in the process.
What character traits emerge (mainly towards the middle-end of the piece)? It seems that he is “relentless” (in a good sense, i.e. the pursuit of “linguistic truth”) but also “maddening,” “not a particularly good listener,” “aims to win every argument,” is “contrarian” (i.e. likes odd arguments, “the odder the better”), “unfairly” “dismissive,” speaks “flippantly,” is a mission sanctioning “guru,” who abuses “a kind of first-mover advantage” that he enjoys even in areas in “which he is not an expert.” Frankly, not a very flattering picture. Maybe Gary thinks that the warts add authenticity to the portrait he limns and thus reinforces his overall judgment that Chomsky deserves his intellectual leadership given his “wisdom to pose the right questions.” Maybe.
Chomsky has indeed played a very large role in Linguistics as well as other areas of cognitive science and philosophy. He has done so by, as Gary noted, asking the right questions as well as outlining plausible routes to answers. But Gary does not mention Chomsky’s usual technique for gaining an audience. He has done this by repeatedly uncovering the (often unrecognized) presuppositions that have dominated a line of inquiry and by arguing at length and in detail that these are far from evident, indeed often false. Doing this often involves rejecting conventional wisdom and goring prized oxen. This never goes down well, but not because Chomsky is rude or dismissive or a bad listener or relentless or a guru or a lover of odd arguments, but because he thinks that some widely accepted intellectual views are WRONG, and he almost always has numerous reasons for thinking so. This really can be infuriating (believe me I know) as nothing wounds the amour propre of your average scientist/academic/intellectual than to have it cogently argued that your work is either wrong or (worse) wrong-headed. Chomsky has made such arguments on myriad topics repeatedly and at great length. Whether he is a good listener or not (in my experience he listens just fine), he is an excellent reader, critic and correspondent. He may be dismissive of semantics, but this comes along with several 100 pages of reasons why. He may not be an expert in evolution, but he has written extensively on why he thinks that much research on the topic is bunk (Lewontin, somewhat more of an “expert” (?), concurs (c.f. his chapter in the 'Invitation to Cognitive Science' vol 4) and is even harsher), same with data mining, on why performance (processing dynamics) studies are less likely to advance his interests in UG than other kinds of investigations, etc. What Gary leaves out of his profile is the seriousness with which Chomsky takes the intellectual positions he strongly disagrees with. He pays his adversaries the courtesy of taking their ideas very very seriously, something that is considerably less true for many of his critics who are often satisfied with criticizing rather bad caricatures of his views (e.g. Norvig, Everett, Quine).
Though I believe that Gary’s character summary is inaccurate, I do agree with one of his overall points: Chomsky can be infuriating. However, what makes him annoying beyond belief are not his character peccadillos but (i) the fact that he so often right and even when incorrect, not far off target and (ii) that his views come backed with mounds of well reasoned arguments. This really is infuriating, and for that, linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy owe him a big “thank you.”