"Let yourself be puzzled by the obvious." - Noam Chomsky

Posted on February 16,2013 by sdmosaligantimspp

Noam Chomsky, the dot on the left, answering questions after the screening of the documentary. Noam Chomsky, the dot on the left, answering questions after the screening of the documentary.

My first introduction to linguist/cognitive scientist/political critic Noam Chomsky was through Ali G's prankster interview where he was asked such monumental questions as, "Why don't you create a new language?... you could make a lot of money." Chomsky responded with, "You can do it if you like, and nobody would pay the slightest attention to you because it's a waste of time." (I'd post a link to the interview except Ali G asks some questions that might not be so school-blog-friendly)

Luckily, my latest exposure to Chomsky fostered a more intellectual and - how do you say - IN-PERSON feel. :) Given that Boston is a "college town," the universities often host events, many of which are free, featuring high-profile professors and researchers presenting their thoughts and ideas. On Tuesday, MIT hosted a free screening of the animated documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, a film based on an interview with Chomsky, followed by a Q&A with the man himself. After practicum, Kishore and I booked it to MIT, stood in line for about 45 minutes, met some MIT student who we really vibed with (I knew she was my kinda people when she dropped the f-bomb like a thousand times), and then finally got seated and had our minds blown.

The interview focused mostly on Chomsky's linguistic work, which is based on a computational-cognitive approach to understanding language. He has a fondness for being skeptical about taken-for-granted knowledge, particularly in regards to language - how is this unbelievably complex verbal code, our primary means for communicating our inner world to others, acquired? How is it that infants and toddlers are able to grasp the structures and rules of language despite such relatively minimal exposure to it? Are we all innately wired with some cognitive blueprint for syntax and linguistic structure? Chomsky's open-mindedness, flexibility of thought, and overall "let's start from scratch" approach inspires me to be okay with looking at psychology with a sense of healthy skepticism.

After having provided such richly complex, abstract responses, Chomsky was then asked, "What makes you happy?" He stumbled for a moment - "uh, uh." As we sat in anticipation of some wow-inducing response that would give us the answer to happiness, he said, "My kids, my grandkids, and my friends." No verbs, prepositions, adjectives. No skepticism about his answer or about the definition of "happiness." Just a cut-to-the-chase certainty: kids, grandkids, friends. After all this intellectual talk, it felt sort of bland (I mean, if that's all he's gonna say, could he at least drop an f-bomb or something to spice it up?).

Once the event was over, Kishore and I walked to Central Square for a bite. On the walk, we talked about the film - debated about language and such - and then grabbed a wrap and smoothie and listened to a live bluegrass show without speaking much. Suddenly I realized that Chomsky had gotten it right - I knew exactly what he meant: we can sit and intellectually search for answers, but, in the end, the only truth of which I am certain is how happy I am spending time, even if just in silence, with a best friend. :)

(Link to the event/movie trailer: http://lsc.mit.edu/schedule/2013.2q/desc-isthemanwhoistallhappy.shtml)