Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky (2013) Movie Script

discovered Noam Chomsky by
picking up a couple of DVDs at
a video store in New York a few
consent" and "a rebel without
a pause. " I remember the sequence
where a few kids from a school
radio station are interviewing
Professor Chomsky at
their little station.
Noam was giving them his
full attention, as he does to
everyone who requests it.
Film and video are both, by
their nature, manipulative.
The editor or director proposes
an assembly of carefully
selected segments that he/she
has in mind. In other words, the context
becomes more important than the
content, and, as a result, the
voice that appears to come from
the subject is actually coming
from the filmmaker. That
is why I find the process
manipulative. The human brain forgets
the cuts... a faculty
specifically human that, I will
learn, Noam calls "psychic continuity. "
The brain absorbs a constructed
continuity as a reality and,
consequently, gets convinced to
witness a fair representation of
the subject. On the
other hand, animation
that I decided to use for
this film is clearly the
interpretation of its author.
If messages, or even propaganda,
can be delivered, the audience
is constantly reminded that they
are not watching reality, so
it's up to them to decide if
they are convinced or not.
Also, I have been looking for a
project that would add up a long
process to a hopefully coherent
result, a way to focus my often
shattered creativity and maybe
contribute to expose values I share.
Of course, the egotistic side of
me also felt empowered about the
prospect of spending some time
with "the most important thinker"
"alive," as he is described in a
paragraph which, coincidentally,
ends by asking why Chomsky
is an "American-hater," a
misconception only possible
if you consider that the same
people who run a country
also constitute it!
But what the hell? Professor
Chomsky is not getting
any younger, and I better hurry up.
After all, I just did a film
about my aunty for similar
reasons... not animated, though.
Then again, she is less
controversial, or is she?
We're gonna have a conversation,
and, um, sometimes it's gonna
run, or sometimes, not so.
Hopefully, it's not gonna be too
- No, it isn't bad.
Okay. 'Cause it's a bit noisy, so...
It's like that.
It's a old-fashioned
sound. - Yeah, it's good.
So I wanted you to be prepared.
Hearken back to your youth.
Doesn't it wreck the audio?
- A little bit, but... we will
hear the camera, but as long as
we understand the words, I don't
- Yeah.
So, I prepared my question
a little bit, but I... Uh...
Sorry, I'm a little
bit nervous. I-I, uh...
You are nervous?
- He is.
After all your experience
in the public eye?
No, not... It depends on the
person I'm meeting more than
me. So, I wanted to start with
asking you if you could record
the very first memory of your
First memory of my life?
- Yeah.
Yeah, I suppose.
There are memories that I can
date because I know where they
were. Mm.
So, I can date memories from
about a year and a half, when I
was sitting on a... I know
where it was, so it had to be a
year and a half... where I
was sitting on a counter in my,
uh... My aunt, who... my parents had
...which was unusual.
This was the 1930s.
So, there was a stream of aunts
and cousins and others who came
through, and there were several
aunts who spent time with us.
One of them was trying to get me
to eat oatmeal, which
I didn't want to eat...
...So I
just put it in my cheek
and refused to swallow it.
And she tried to figure out how
to get me to swallow that
oatmeal, but I must have sat
there for a long time.
I was a stubborn kid.
I was not going to eat that
I remember that very well,
and that had to be at about...
16 months or 17 months, and I
remember other things from that
time. I was in a nursery school.
I remember sort of standing
there looking around, wondering
what all these kids were
up to, and why, and so...
Mm-hmm. Do you think it's... it's
connected with the development
of language, the formation of
memories? Does it
correspond to where the
brain starts to grasp...
- A lot is being learned about
language acquisition. The
more intensively the topic
is studied...
...the more sophisticated the
research techniques, the more we
learn that children know quite
a lot of language, much more than
you would expect, before
they can exhibit any of that
- Mm-hmm.
The direct evidence about
this... and there's also
indirect evidence. So,
just to mention some of the
indirect evidence, there is
...technique of teaching
language to the deaf-blind.
Actually, my wife did a
lot of the work on this.
It's called the Tadoma method.
- Yes, with the hand!
Well, what they do is teach
the person to put their hand on
someone's face...
...and using the motions of the
face and the vocal chords, to
interpret what you're saying.
Extremely little... very little
information comes through, but
people get a very satisfactory
knowledge of language from
that. I mean, so much so that you
have to do pretty complex tests
to see what they don't know.
However, they have never
succeeded in using this
...for people who lost sight and
hearing before about 18 months
old. What seems to be the case is
that during the early
exposure, where the child is not
manifesting very much
knowledge, maybe producing a
word or two-word sentences,
they're acquiring the basic
character of the language...
quite a lot of knowledge, which
they can then build on when
they... it's unconscious, of
But they can build on it
when they get, at least later,
instruction which has
very little evidence.
And they can, in fact, live
in a society where people are
...and they can understand what
they're saying if they can put
their hand on your face. In
fact, I should say that, you
know, one of the most striking
things about language, which has
really not been studied...
Just consider an infant, you
know, a 1-day-old infant. Now,
there's all kinds of things
going on in the world. How
does the infant figure out
what part of what's going on
in the world has to do with
language? It's an incredible feat!
Now, their...
- well, you know what?
When I grew up, we used to
believe in reincarnation.
What? Reincarnation? Oh, that's Plato.
It's a fairy tale, but I
think it makes me look to a new
being as a fully completed person.
That's Plato. That's Plato's theory of
- Uh-huh.
He was puzzled by the
question of how you know so
much, and he said, "well, you
must remember it from an earlier"
life. " You're as smart as Plato.
So, I wanted to ask you,
quickly, the type of education
you received from your parents
and, quickly, at school.
- It was a Deweyite progressive
school, which was very successful.
And it was... for me,
at least, it was perfect.
It was
not unstructured, but it
did emphasize initiative,
creativity, and working with
others. There was no grading, you know,
but you... you were encouraged
to pursue your own interests...
Mm-hmm. -...
And... but within a
structure that was established.
So, you went, you did, you know,
Learned the things you had to
learn, but you were all pursuing
your own interests and often
working with others.
In fact, I didn't... I
wasn't even aware that I was
a good student until I went to
high school. I went from this relatively
free, creative, exciting
environment to a pretty
regimented academic high school
where everyone was ranked and
did exactly what they were
supposed to do and everyone's
trying to get into college and so on.
then I discovered I was a
good student. I mean,
I knew I had skipped a
grade, and everyone else knew
I'd skipped a grade, but nobody
else... The only thing anyone noticed
was I was the smallest kid in
the class, but it didn't mean
anything, aside from that.
And I can remember the school
years very well. I barely
remember high school.
It's kind of like a black hole.
- And do think competition is
- It shouldn't be th...
what's the point of being
better than someone else?
And where was this school?
- Right outside the city limits
of Philadelphia. It
was in kind of an open
countryside, so, you know, by
the time I was old enough to, my
best friend and I would spend
Saturday riding our bikes all
over the countryside.
Did you keep friends from
this age all during your life?
Uh, we sort of separated by
high school, you know, went our
ways. - Uh-huh.
You spent a lot of time on your own?
With my father, by the time I
was 10 or 11 or so, every Friday
night, for example, we would
read Hebrew classics, you
know, 19th-century
...essays. And that was just part of the
routine of incorporating the...
...the emerging reviving Hebrew
culture, that was all their
lives. I mean, that's what they
were devoted to... the revival
of... of the language, the
culture, and the palestinian community.
This hebraic revival
Did you say "palestinian community"?
Well, you know, it's
pre-Israel, so it's a Jewish
community in palestine.
- Okay.
Yeah. I suppose, by now, my father
would be called an anti-zionist.
He was then a deeply committed
zionist, but for him, it was
a cultural revival, basically.
Mm-hmm. - Not
particularly interested
in a Jewish
state. - Mm-hmm.
Do you remember if you had an
ambition for your future, as a
- A lot of crazy ambitions.
I remember once telling my
mother that I had decided that
when I grew up, I wanted
to be a taxidermist.
A taxidermist?
- Don't ask me why.
I guess I liked the word.
I was about 8 years old.
- So, since I'm ignorant, I got
the luck to discover descartes.
I mean, I knew who descartes
was, but I read him after I read you.
And I noticed it gives you the
tools to doubt what he's saying.
It's like the opposite of dogmatism.
I mean, that, you know, ought
to be the ideal of teaching,
anyway, whether it's
children or graduate students.
They should be taught to
challenge and to question.
Images that come from the
enlightenment about this say
that teaching should not be
like pouring water into a vessel.
It should be like laying out a
string along which the student
travels in his or her own
way, and maybe even questioning
whether the string's in the right place.
And, you know, after all, that's
how modern science started.
For thousands of years, it
was accepted by scientists that
objects move to their natural place.
So, a ball goes to the ground,
and steam goes to the sky.
And these things are kind of
like common sense, and they were
taken for granted for
literally thousands of years...
Mm-hmm. -...
From Aristotle.
And it wasn't until Galileo and
the modern scientific revolution
that scientists decided to be
puzzled by these obvious things,
and as soon as you start to
question things, you see nothing
like that makes any sense.
And every stage of science, or,
you know, even just learning...
serious learning... comes from
asking, "why do things work like that?"
Why not some other way?" All right?
You find that the world
is a very puzzling place,
and if you're willing to
be puzzled, you can learn.
If you're not willing to be
puzzled, and just copy down
what you're told or behave
the way you're taught, you just
become a replica of someone else's mind.
I mean, some of the technical
work I'm doing now is initiated
by my suddenly realizing that
assumptions that have been
standard throughout modern
history of generative grammar...
but, in fact, throughout the
traditional study of language...
just have no basis. And
when we ask, "okay, then",
why do we assume them?" You
have to look for a basis,
and lots of avenues open up.
And that happens constantly.
And do you remember when
you start to build your own
voice or your own philosophy, in a way?
And could you describe
how this process happened?
It's a constant process, and
it probably starts with my not
wanting to eat my oatmeal, you know?
"Why?" You
know? - Uh-huh.
And in any kind of scientific
inquiry, any kind of rational
inquiry... it's striking in
science... you have a conception
of how things ought to work.
If you look at the empirical
data, they're, usually, at
least partially recalcitrant.
Things don't fall into place.
So, you, typically, are working
with a conflict between a
conception of the way things
ought to work, in terms of,
you know, like, in simplicity,
naturalness, and a look at the
messy way in which things do
seem to work. The galilean revolution,
which was a real revolution in
the way of looking at the world,
for one thing, because of the
willingness to be puzzled about
what seemed to be simple
things, it's a hard move to make.
In the case I mentioned, it was
2,000 years, you know... smart
- Yeah.
They said that nature is simple...
...And it's the task of the
scientist to show that it's
simple, and if we've not been
able to do that, we've
failed as scientists.
So, if you find irreducible
complexity, you just haven't
understood. Well, that's a pretty good
guideline, and it does turn out
to be a very effective driving
element in inquiry.
Because... there's good reasons
where I think it ought to turn
out to be simple, you know?
mean, for Galileo and the
whole of early modern science
right through Newton... great
scientists, you know, huygens,
others, bernoulli, up through
Newton, you know, this is
that kind of classic period of
modern science... there
was a very clear concept of
intelligibility. The goal
of science was to show
that the world is intelligible,
and "intelligible" meant
something. It meant something that an
artisan could create, like gears
and levers, and something like a
model was these, let's say,
medieval clocks, you know, which
did all sorts of amazing things.
Now, that goes right through
Newton. It's called the mechanical
philosophy. "Philosophy"
just meant science.
So, it's mechanical
science, and that's the goal.
And then Galileo, at the end of
his life, was kind of distraught
because he was not able to
construct mechanical models of
the tides and the motion of the
planets and so on, so he felt
his life... scientific life had failed.
Mm-hmm. - But
then it went on.
Finally, you get to Newton, and
Newton demonstrated that, to his
dismay, that the world doesn't
work like a machine, that there
are what his scientific
colleagues called occult forces,
namely attraction and repulsion,
which don't operate by contact.
So, you can attract things
at a distance, which was just
unintelligible. Newton
himself thought that this
was, what he called an
absurdity, which no person with
any scientific understanding
could ever believe.
Uh-huh. - There
are just inherent
mysteries which are beyond
our cognitive capacities.
Well, that was correct, and that
was a real shocking discovery.
It has now been absorbed.
So, to talk about the current
stage is misleading, if
you're thinking about...
Emerging fields, like
cognitive science, because
we're not in that stage.
Mm-hmm. - We
haven't got to the
galilean stage, yet.
- Me, I work like a machine.
I know this sequence is quite
a struggle, and believe me, it's
taking me forever to animate
it. So, I'll take a break.
Noam kept coming back
to Galileo, Newton, the
enlightenment, and I tried
very hard to keep it short,
but it seems endless.
However, this is a very
important part, in fact,
and I must get through it.
I think that Noam is telling
me what it takes to do true
science... Something to do with ideas,
creativity, and rigorous
observation of nature and the
willingness to be proven wrong
and start the experiment again
all over at any time.
Richard feynman, the great
physicist, often talked about
science integrity and said you
should always publish the
results of your experiment,
especially when they prove you wrong.
He also had a funny story
about a good scientist that was
ignored. In 1937, young, he was called,
was trying to teach a rat to
count three doors to get some
food. So, he would place the food each
time in a maze, three doors
away from the right, to get it to
count three doors. He
would place the rat in a
different place each time,
with the cheese three doors
away. But the rat never counted the
doors. He always went right through the
door where the food was
placed the time before.
No matter where young placed the
rat and the food, the result was
the same. He thought the rat must
recognize a detail on the
door, so he repainted them all
identically. Still, the same result.
He then thought the rat could
still smell the food from where
it was the previous time, so
he put some chemical to wipe
any possible remaining smell.
Still, the rat went to the exact
same door. Maybe the
rat could notice some
light from the lab and use them
as a guide, so he covered the
maze. Still, the same result.
He eventually found out that
the rat could tell by the way the
floor sounded when he was
running down the corridor, so he
put the whole maze on sand.
The rat couldn't tell anymore
and had to learn to count the doors.
Feynman called this experiment
an a-class experiment because
young had to go through all the
possible steps before he could
affirm it was conclusive...
a rigor that he felt was,
unfortunately, uncommon in
the science the way it was
conducted at this time. Now
I am just adding stuff that
is not even from Noam. But
I've put a loop under it, so
it is not so much work.
The truth is that I am
frantically going through this
animation, and it has been two
years since I started,
so Noam is now 84.
I neglect my appearance, and I
should be focusing on the film I
am preparing, "I'cume
Des jours," but I won't
stop. I must finish the film and show
it to Noam before...
Well, before he's dead.
My room is a pile of animation
paper, my mother is at the
hospital, but I only care about
Noam's health, only to show him
the finished film. This is childish and
unscientific, but true.
A few sessions we did before,
we talked about evolution.
You're very skeptical, and I thought...
Not skeptical about evolution.
There's a common confusion,
outside of serious biology.
Now, I mean, natural selection's
a factor in evolution... no
serious biologist doubts that...
but it's one of many factors.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- For example, mutation's a factor.
- Yeah.
I mean, there are many other factors.
For example, if you just take
a look at our, you know, our own
genetic endowment, a lot of
it comes from transposition.
When you... when you talk
about the "andormant"...
The... "Enduremount"? How...
I'm sorry... how do you
say "undoment"?
- When you're born with what...
What? Like, uh...
- Innate.
Yeah. But do you use the word
- How do you spell it?
Write it on the blackboard.
I don't know what he's saying.
- Endowment!
Oh, endowment!
- Just had to write it down.
Sorry. I just couldn't hear.
- So, you think that we have a
way to comprehend the
world within our self...
-... And we can only comprehend
the world up to this limit?
- Well, that's just hume...
that's Newton and hume. So,
you try to discover, "what"
is this cognitive
endowment that we have?
That it is a fixed cognitive
endowment is not really
arguable, unless you think we're angels.
- But if we're part of the
organic world, we have fixed
capacities, just like I can't
fly, you know? These
capacities have a certain
scope, and they have certain limits.
That's the nature of organic capacities.
Then comes the question,
"okay, what are they?"
In fact, one of the striking
things is what I just mentioned.
We... our cognitive endowment
sort of compels us to regard the
world in mechanical terms.
We know that's wrong...
-... But we can't help seeing
the world like that. If
you look at the moon rising
in the early evening,
at the horizon, it's big.
Yeah. Yeah.
- And then it gets smaller and
smaller. It's called the moon illusion.
We know it's not true, but
you can't help seeing it.
Yeah. Well, I thought of it a lot, and
I know its one of the paradox,
but I think our brain zooms.
It's like if you see the world
through a window which is at a
far distance and you will see
a bridge in the distance and the
window delimits your attention,
then you would feel the bridge
is much bigger than what it is.
- But now you're trying to give
an explanation, and there's
been a lot of work on what the
explanation is.
- Yeah.
But whatever... and it's not
so trivial... but whatever the
explanation is, we can't
help seeing it, okay?
We just see it, just like we
can't help thinking that the
world works by physical
interaction, contact.
Some other part of our brain
tells us it's not true, well,
because of theories that have
been developed and say it can't
work like that.
- Yeah.
But that can't change our
perception and interpretation
because that's just fixed.
- Okay, try to visualize... or
I guess it's not visualizable,
but this endowment.
So, we see a tree, and
we understand it's a tree.
Does it mean that our brain is
equipped with a fixed capacity
that tells us, "this is a tree"?
- Here's another question where
it's good to be puzzled. "How
do we identify something as
a tree?" It's not so simple.
So, for example, you plant a
tree, say a willow tree, which
is a good example. It grows.
At some point, you cut a branch
off it, and you put that branch
in the ground. Now,
suppose it grows and it
becomes exactly identical
to the original tree.
Now, suppose the
original tree is cut down.
Is that new one the same willow tree?
Why not? It's genetically identical.
It has all the same properties.
But we know it's not the same
tree. Well, why not?
I mean, and if you go further,
it turns out our concept of
"tree" or "rock" or "person" or
anything is extremely intricate.
And furthermore... see, here's
what I think... it's just a
classic error that runs
right through philosophy and
psychology and linguistics,
right up to the moment...
...That's the... the idea that
words, say, meaning-bearing
elements like, say, "tree" or
"person" or, you know,
"John Smith" or anything...
pick out something in the
extramental world, something
that a physicist could identify,
so that if I have a word, say,
"cow," it refers to something
in a, you know, a scientist,
knowing nothing about my brain,
could figure out what counts as
a cow. That's just not true.
That's why you have classic
books with names like
"words & object"... "word
& object," quine's major
book, or "words and things,"
Roger brown's major book.
That referentialist assumption
is simply false about humans.
Mm-hmm. - And
it's true with
animals. Like, as far as we know, in
animal communication, yeah,
that's actually true, but for
humans, it's simply untrue.
And furthermore, every infant
knows it. And that poses a huge
evolutionary problem.
Where did that come from?
It imposes an acquisition
problem, a descriptive problem,
an evolutionary problem.
It's never been looked at
because everyone assumes,
"ah, well, there's just a
relationship. " That's
like assuming things move
to their natural place. We're
never going to have a real
understanding of semantics
unless those illusions are
thrown out.
Well, something that always
struck me since I was young is,
like, you get the representation
of the world by symbols first.
Like, logically, you would see
a dog, and then you would see a
drawing of a dog and
make the connection.
But in your life, you get
exposed to the representation of
a dog in a very,
actually simplified way.
And then you go to the... or
let's say you go outside and
you see a real dog.
- The trouble is, that's not
the way it works. Yeah, that's very
commonsensical, just false.
- No, I'm not...
I'm saying it's how
it's exposed, like...
it makes sense, and every
work on philosophy or
linguistics says exactly that.
This just happens to be false.
And furthermore, every infant knows it.
Now, fairy stories are based
on the fact that it's false.
Like, take a fairy story
that any child understands.
No, I'm not saying the child
believes it's a real dog.
What I'm saying is...
- that's not the point.
We do not identify dogs
in terms of their physical
- Hmm.
As you can see, I
felt a bit stupid here.
Let me explain. I think
I couldn't get my point
through to Noam. Misuse
of words and heavy accent
aggraved... I mean,
aggravated my attempt.
I was simply expressing that, in
life, we first encounter images
of certain things, such as
animals, then, later, we would
see the real thing.
For instance, I saw many
pictures of a tiger before
I saw a real one in a zoo.
There is nothing to argue about
that, but Noam kept saying it
was false because of my use
of the word "representation. "
I'm pretty sure that he
understood it as "mental"
"representation," as I was just
talking of an image in a book.
Nevertheless, it gave him
the opportunity to deepen his
argument, which is hard to understand.
So, I kept the whole thing,
even though I look stupid.
Meanwhile, I decided to recycle
some of my drawings since he was
making the same point again.
- We do not identify dogs in
terms of their physical characteristics.
- We identify dogs, for
example, in terms of a
property of psychic continuity.
Like, if a witch turns a dog
into a camel, and then some
fairy princess kisses the camel
and it turns back to a dog, it's
been a dog all along, even
when it looked like a camel.
I mean, that's the basis of fairy tales.
Yeah, I was not saying that it's...
but psychic continuity is
not a physical property.
Mm-hmm. - It's a
property that we
impose on things. So,
therefore, there is
no hope for finding a way of
identifying the things that are
related to symbols by looking
at their physical properties.
They're individuated.
They're identified in terms of
our mental constructions,
so they're basically mental
- Mm-hmm.
And that means the whole
referentialist concept has to be
thrown out... And you
have to look at the
relation of language to the
world in some different fashion.
So, and do you say we
constructed the world in
mirroring this image we
had in our mind, then?
We do it, but we don't do
it the way philosophers and
linguists think we do
it. We certainly do it.
So, for example, sure, we see
the world in terms of trees and
dogs and rivers and so on, but
then the question is, "well",
what are those concepts?"
Now, the standard assumption is
those concepts are linked
to physical... identifiable,
physical things in the
extramental world, and that
assumption is just
false. - Mm-hmm.
And unless we rid ourselves
of that assumption, we won't be
able to understand the way
thought and language relates
to the world. But that's
a topic that's just
taboo in philosophy and
psychology, so they're stuck.
They're like mechanics,
pre-Galileo, where everything
went to its natural place.
Well, as long as you keep to
that for thousands of years,
you're never going to understand
the mechanics of the world.
That's why... I think these are
the kinds of reasons why it
makes very good sense to think
back to the earliest stages
of the scientific revolution.
Not Einstein... that's
too sophisticated.
Let's go to the earliest stages,
where people had that incredible
intellectual breakthrough, and
they said, "let's be puzzled"
about what seems obvious. So,
why should we take it to be
"obvious that, if I let go of a
ball, it goes down and not up?"
Uh-huh. - "I
mean, it's sort of"
obvious, but why?" Well,
as soon as you're willing
to ask that question, you
get the beginnings of modern
science. If you're... if you're not
willing to ask that question,
you say, "well, it goes down"
'cause it belongs on the ground. "
No science develops.
- Once again, I had posed my
question the wrong way. I
was trying to ask if the way
humans built things such as
cities, art, cars, and so on,
was reflective of a sort of
a blueprint we would carry
within our endowment...
Like bees constructing their
hives, for instance. So,
next time I met Noam, I
showed him this animation,
hoping it would help to make
And it did make sense. At
the beginning of the second
interview, I showed the
work in progress to Noam, who
was quite pleased, it seems.
And I noticed in the second
interview that he was
more receptive to my ideas.
So I asked my question again,
but using bees and the hive as
an example made it more confusing.
I suppose there is an... Interaction.
So, if you watch children...
Building, trying to build a
house with cards, you know,
you stack them up and you put
something on top and...
They must have some initial
conception in mind of what
they're planning to do, but
it's certainly altered by the process.
You see, "well, this is not
going to stand, so I have"
to rearrange it and do
something in a different way. "
I mean, take the building
we're in... one of its striking
characteristics, when you're
sitting in my office, is that
there aren't any right angles
in many of the buildings, so...
Everything's a little skewed.
The... I don't know what was in
Frank Gehry's mind, but one
architect who came through,
working on the... looking at
the structure of the building,
suggested to me that it has, in
some respects, the character of
a three-dimensional version
of a mondrian painting.
Yes, so, I wanted to know if
you have any thinking of the
mechanism of inspiration.
- It's a mystery.
It's something common to humans.
You see it in young children.
You see it in scientists. You
see it in carpenters trying
to solve a complex problem
of how to build a house.
But... It's just something
that happens, in all kinds of
conditions... strange conditions.
So, for example, I was watching
a couple of carpenters working
on a summer cottage, and they
had a kind of an idea in mind,
but were kind of going along
to see how it would work.
They reached a problem that
looked insoluble, you know, and
they... so they took off for a
while, and then they came back,
and then they immediately did it.
And I asked, "how'd you do that?"
And they said, "well, we went
out and smoked some pot, and it"
just kind of came to us.
Who knows? That's inspiration.
- I wanted to get out this
sequence. For a short time period, I had
an episode myself where I
indulged into this habit... very
shortly, in fact. And,
looking back, it didn't do
me very good at all. Now
that I've said it, I can
keep this sequence. That's interesting.
For instance, in my case, I use
a lot of my misunderstanding as
a source of inspiration, and
I realize that lately, like,
because my English is not good,
many times, when people talk to
me, I understand something different.
I remember I was talking to my
friend, and she told me she had
made a model of a boat in a
forest, and I understood the
forest was in the boat, so I
imagined a sort of vegetable ark
of Noah... Noah's ark.
- Right.
I think something jarring takes
place, and that can happen in a
class, for example. You're lecturing.
A student raises a question.
Suddenly, you recognize that
something you thought was
obviously true has a problem
with it. And for a while, it may seem
insoluble, but you may take a
walk, or maybe overnight there's
something... when you're
sleeping, something comes to
you, and all of a sudden, you
just see ways of looking at
the... at the issue and the
world a little bit differently.
I think that's how,
from childhood on to...
People do creative work.
That's somehow the way it
happens. Actually
what's going on, nobody
- In the little clip I'll show
you, you're talking a lot about
how we try to interpret the
world and how we ought to
throw away what's believed in
linguistics or philosophy.
You say, "why do we recognize"
that this is a different tree
when it's been cut and it grows,
and it's identical?" And
since then, I've read about
genetics, and that's a clone.
Basically, when you reproduce,
it's asexual reproduction,
so it's a clone, so it's
potentially identical. But
my only... the only answer I
could give was that I know it's
a different tree because I saw
somebody come and cut
it, and then grow again.
Mm-hmm. - So I
was thinking, it's
probably less trivial than that.
- Well, actually, I think
there's a real point there.
Part of our concept of a tree
has to do with a certain, pretty
abstract, notion of continuity.
So, the original tree has a
continuous existence, which we
impose on it because,
genetically speaking, the branch
that was cut off is the same object...
-... But when it becomes a
tree, it doesn't have the kind
of continuity that we interpret
as continuity, and a different
intelligence could interpret
continuity quite differently
and say that the new one is the
real tree. That's our conception of
- Yeah.
...and it's a very complex one.
So, for example, there's
a children's story which my
grandchildren like...
liked when they were little.
It's a story about a
donkey named Sylvester.
And something happens, and it
turns Sylvester into a rock.
And the rest of the story is
the rock, Sylvester, trying to
explain to his parents...
parent donkeys... that it's
really their baby Sylvester.
And since children's stories
have happy endings, something
else happens, and it turns him
back to Sylvester and everybody's happy.
Well, the children understand
that the rock, though it has
none of the properties of a
donkey... physical properties...
and has all the properties of
a rock, is really Sylvester.
And, for example, if he was
turned into a camel later or if
something would be a jar...
he's got to come back and be
what he is...
Sylvester. - Mm-hmm.
All right. What that tells you is that,
without any instruction, of
course, an infant understands a
certain special kind of continuity.
It's a very specific kind,
even more... much more abstract,
even, than the case of the tree.
But there's a kind of psychic
continuity that we impose.
It's part of the interpretation
we impose on the world...
That... Identifies the objects
that are around us, whether it's
persons or rivers or rocks or
trees or anything else.
- I think I have an example
that, maybe, make me
understand the concept.
When I meet a friend that I
didn't see for 20 years, only
the appearance is completely
different, first I feel I'm
meeting a different person,
and then, in the course of the
conversation... it's generally
20 minutes, 30 minutes... this
person become my friend, and
the old image of my friend, like
his picture, becomes younger
than he is, so I readjust, and I
was wondering if this is
a phenomenon that everybody
- All time time.
I mean, we...
- but is this the same
phenomenon that we apply to objects?
Yeah. It's the same as with objects,
like the tree or a river
or... let's say, take the
Charles river over there,
the river going past the
building. What makes
it the Charles river?
You can have substantial
physical changes, and it would
still be the Charles river.
So, for example, you can reverse
the direction... it would
still be the Charles river.
You can break it up into
tributaries that end up
somewhere else, and it would
still be the Charles river.
You can change the content...
so, maybe you build a
manufacturing plant upstream and
the content is mostly arsenic,
let's say. Well, it's still the
Charles river. On the
other hand, there are
very small changes that you can
make, in which case it won't be
the Charles river at all. So,
suppose you put panels along
the side, so it goes in a
straight path, and you start
using it to ship freight up and down.
It's not the river
anymore... it's a canal.
Oh, yes.
- And now, suppose you make
some minimal physical change,
an almost-undetectable change,
which hardens it. It's
called a phase change...
undetectable, but it makes it
glass, basically, and you paint
a line down the middle, and
people start to using it to
commute to Boston, it's a highway.
It's not a river. Now,
somehow, we... and we can
go on and on like this... but
we understand all these things
without instruction, without experience.
They have to do with very
complex notions of continuity of
entities a physicist cannot
detect because they're not part
of... I mean, of course the
physical world is part of them,
but it's only one part.
A major part of how we
identify anything in the world,
no matter how elementary, is the
mental conceptions that we
impose on interpreting very
fragmentary experience. And
our experience is, indeed,
very fragmentary, so visual
experience is just, you know,
stimulations of the retina,
but we impose an extremely rich
interpretation of it, including
things like, let's say,
continuity. Actually, a lot of science
fiction is based on this.
So, if you, you know, if
somebody is in a spaceship, and
they get... I forgot what the
word is used... they
transposed, or something.
- Yes, tele... tele...
what is it?
- Teleportation.
Yeah, okay. And they
go somewhere else and
they reappear. Well,
I've watched my kids
watching these things.
They understand immediately
that it's the same person who
appeared over there, though
there's no continuity. On
the other hand, I ask them
sometimes, "well, suppose that
they had this teleportation",
or whatever it's called, and he
appears over there, and suppose
"he's still here. Which
one is the person?"
And at that point, you get confused.
- You don't know, because our
conceptions don't
give an answer to that.
Actually, there are classical
philosophical problems that
are based on this. One
famous one that's called
"the ship of theseus"... goes
back to the greeks... suppose
that theseus has a ship and
he's on the ocean and one of the
boards falls off, so he throws
it into the sea, and they put
another board there. It's
still the ship of theseus.
Now, suppose this keeps
happening until every board has
been replaced. Still
the ship of theseus.
Suppose someone on the shore has
been collecting all these boards
and reconstructs what, in fact,
was the actual original ship.
That's not the ship of theseus.
It's the one that theseus is on,
even though it's the other one
that's physically identical to
it... this one isn't. So,
there's no point trying to
solve the philosophical
problem. The problem is an
epistemological one. It's
only about the nature of
our cognitive systems. And,
so, it appears that, as far
as it's understood, non-human
animals have a direct connection
between symbolic representations
in their minds and identifiable
physical events in the world.
So, you take a vervet monkey,
which has alarm calls, and,
apparently, those alarm calls
are triggered automatically by
a certain, you know, movement of
leaves in a tree, which... they
give a predator call, you know,
and, apparently, it's reflexive.
- While I was doing these
interviews, I was editing
"the green hornet. "
One day, I walk into the edit
room, and I realized that some
of the object had a different
kind of entity than the other,
the one I had interacted with.
It's like if they jumped to tell
me the story we shared. The
sofa... I was so tired after
the shooting that I asked for
something more comfortable to
rest on. They treated me with a sofa.
But I had to move the chair
to the side to make room.
The coffee table... I dragged
it closer to the sofa so I could
check my e-mails while watching
the editing on a giant screen
that was specially installed for me.
And my editor, of course,
but he's a person, so it's not
surprising to have a relation with this.
Do you remember the first
exposition you had to
- Should I tell you an
embarrassing experience,
which I've felt guilty about
all my life? Okay.
In third grade, I decided I
wanted to do a science project
on astronomy, so the teacher
said, you know, "fine. "
And I went and looked. What
I finally did was, took the
encyclopedia britannica,
and I copied out a section on
astronomy, and I handed it
in, knowing that that's not the
right way to do it. And
nobody ever... there was
no... I mean, the teacher
could obviously tell, you know.
But there was no censure or
anything and, but, it's what...
I must have been... third grade,
so I was 8 years old, so
that's about 75 years of guilt.
I had the same experience
than you at school, much later.
The first essay I wrote, my best
friend wrote it for me, and I
got the best notation for the
class, so I had to read it in
front of everyone.
And have you felt guilty all your life?
Oh, so horrible!
- Okay.
But and the funny part is I...
- We're partners.
But the funny part is, I got
good grades after that.
- Yeah.
You know, like a lot of kids, I
had a chemistry set down in the
basement, and... Producing
horrible smells that drove my
parents crazy, and they were
hoping I wouldn't blow the place
up, and that sort of
thing. Electrical circuits,
chemistry... things like that.
Now, with one... my closest
friend, since nursery school,
right through high school was...
we would go every Saturday
afternoon... by the time we got
old enough to take the subway,
you know, 10, 11, we'd go to
the Franklin institute.
That's a science institute in
downtown Philadelphia,
which had lectures, exhibits.
And we'd spend most of the
afternoon in the... either in
the Franklin institute or the
museum of natural history, which
was right next door. That
was our Saturday afternoon.
Noam spent also hours at the
library, devouring 19th-century
French and Russian
literature. I had just finished
reading "fathers and sons" by
Ivan turgenev, and I pointed out
to Noam that constant feeling of
generalized deterioration of the
world that each generation
blames the next one for.
"When I was young, life was better. "
Things were much simpler.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah. " I was wondering if there were a
biological explanation
for this phenomenon.
When I was young, life was better.
Things were much simpler.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,
- But Noam took the
conversation to a different place.
It could well be a property
of urban, industrialized
societies. I'm not sure it's true of
peasant societies... a farming
society where you learn the
skills and you apply the skills
and you transmit them to your
children, and so on. I
mean, for example, one thing
that has been discovered...
surprised a lot of
anthropologists and agricultural
scientists... is that when
a people... when... there
have been development
programs in which, say, you
know, in, say, Liberia, there
happened to be one, where
scientific agriculture was
introduced... you know,
peasants were taught the most
sophisticated techniques
of agriculture and so on.
And they determined that yield dropped.
And when it was investigated, it...
eel dropped?
- Yield, the production.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
- So, they were producing less
with scientific agriculture
than with traditional peasant
agriculture. At first,
nobody knew why, but
when it was investigated, it
turned out that agriculture had,
in fact, become a science,
known only to women.
So, women had extensive,
detailed lore about planting...
you know, "you plant this seed,
under this rock, at this hour of"
"the day," and so on and so forth.
And it was transmitted from
mother to daughter for maybe
thousands of years.
And it got more and more
sophisticated, and it got to
give very high yields in not
very productive soil. And
the men in the community
didn't even know about
it... nor, of course, did the
outsiders who came in.
Well, you know, that's a case
where people kind of reproduce, improve.
I doubt that, say, those little
girls would have had the... the
feelings that you were describing.
You're getting something
from your mother, which is a
repository of, you know, endless
tradition, and maybe you find
ways of adapting it or slightly
improving it, but... but you're
essentially reproducing
what you grew up with.
And, so, how do you balance
this knowledge that's come from
the ages to the improvement of science?
Like, now science and the
technology has advanced, you
would feel that previous
knowledge would be obsolete, but
yet, there is an instinct... or
I don't know if it's correct to
call it an instinct, but people
know there is a science of
knowing what plant to use.
- It's lore, not instinct.
Yeah, how do you call that... "lo"?
"Lore," just accumulated,
unarticulated knowledge.
It's like you know how to behave.
I mean, you know, you're taught,
or you learn in childhood, how
to behave in social situations.
You can't articulate it...
- You're not conscious of it.
So if you find a child who has,
let's say, Asperger's syndrome,
I mean, they just don't
pick up social cues.
- They don't understand when
you're supposed to talk to
someone and when you're not
supposed to talk to them and how
you're supposed to act towards
them. I mean, these are children who
will have a lot of problems
from nursery school on.
I once asked a mental-health
specialist what it was... I
didn't know what Asperger's
syndrome was, 'cause I've heard
about it. And she laughed, and she told
me, "walk down the halls of
M.I.T., and half the people you"
see have Asperger's syndrome. "
How do you deal with somebody,
coming to you and talking about
- Astrology?
Yeah, because a lot of women,
for instance, and it's terrible
to generalize... Michle here,
she's going to kill me... but my
girlfriend, for instance... she
gets mad at me if I dismiss her
belief in astrology.
And I want to maintain my
- I don't dismiss the person's
interest in
it. - Uh-huh.
I mean, people have all
sorts of irrational beliefs...
me too, you know. I may
think they're irrational,
but to them, they're meaningful.
And, after all, some pretty
smart people were interested
in astrology, like Isaac Newton,
for example.
- Uh-huh?
So, it's not... it's not imbecility.
I mean, humans have a... kind
of like an automatic... in this
case, instinctive... drive
to find causal relations, to
explain things that are
happening in terms of causes.
When you can't see the causes,
you postulate hidden causes... I
mean, infants do this. You
can... you do experiments
with infants in which, you know,
something is moving along and
then something starts moving this way.
They'll make up in their minds
that there's some hidden contact
there that you can't see, you know.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
- And we just do this
instinctively. I mean,
if things are happening
around us, we try to find
some agent behind it...
-... Often an agent, you know,
like an active intelligence
that's doing it, sometimes
something mechanical. So
it pretty naturally leads to
beliefs like astrology,
especially because you find... I
mean, life is full of coincidences.
So you try to make a connection
between the coincidences, and
you find a pattern in the stars,
or it's a full moon, so this is
going to happen, and so on and so forth.
'Cause I notice in what
you're saying, like, you're not
a believer... if I do some
research on you, you're not
going to come up as atheist, and
I think because the religion is
really for a lot of people,
and you don't want hurt that.
Well, I think one or another
kind of religious belief is a...
it's a real cultural universal.
I don't think any group has ever
been discovered that doesn't
have some sort of belief in
something, you know, beyond
their conscious experience
that's directing things,
or that's somewhere in the
background and giving
their lives meaning.
I mean, they may not believe in
a divinity, but some sort of a
spirit in the world that we
can't grasp that's making sense
of things, that's
giving meaning to life.
Throughout history and
throughout every society we
know, people are just not
satisfied to think, "look, I go"
from dust to dust, and there's
no meaning to my life. "
Well, what's your
personal feeling on that?
I think you go
from dust to dust, and there's
no meaning in your life. But
that's hard for a lot... I
can easily understand why plenty
of people wouldn't be happy to
accept this. I mean, you can easily
understand if... let's suppose
a mother has a dying child...
-... And wants to believe that
she's going to see him again in heaven.
Okay, that's an understandable
belief, and I certainly don't
ridicule it or try to teach her
that... give her a lecture in
epistemology or something.
- You don't want to hurt
- It's something that I don't
personally have, and I don't
listen to rock music, either.
- But it doesn't mean that
other people shouldn't do it.
- Yeah, yeah.
And, furthermore, the fact of
the matter is that religious
beliefs do create communities.
They weld communities together.
And we're a tribal society.
You know, people form families
and clans and groups, social
groups, professional groups.
So you want to be part of something...
Yeah, yeah.
- ... And religion happens to
be, in fact... again,
cross-culturally... one of the
ways in which the group coheres
and gets something more out of
life than just my individual existence.
- So it's understandable that
there should be one or another
form of religious belief.
I think we should change the camera.
I think it's time for
the... for the break.
Lunch break?
- Oh, I see, okay.
So we get another camera next time?
Yeah, I'm gonna use this
one, because I... I'm...
- The discussion is so good, I
don't want to lose a drop.
In fact, I eventually decided
to stick to my plan and continue
to shoot the rest of the
interview with my old mechanical
bolex. This way, I could only film
short fragments of Noam, and I
was committed to what moments he
would appear in the final version.
I was also committed to have
to animate 98% of the whole film
and hear the sound of my cranky
camera each time Noam would
appear so I would have to
illustrate its sound every
single time.
Do you remember what was your
first thinking of linguistics?
There's background,
like when I was a child.
My father worked on history
of the semitic languages, so I
read work of his... like, I
read his doctoral dissertation
when I was... I don't
know... 10, 12 years old.
Uh-huh. - It
was on a medieval
grammarian... medieval Hebrew
grammarian... so I kind of knew,
had some acquaintance with the field.
Later, I sort of got
into it by accident.
And when I got into it, yeah,
I found it intriguing, but... and
did things that we were taught
to do, and, at some point, I
realized, "this doesn't make
any sense," you know, the way
we're taught to do
things was descriptivist.
So, the... the way you...
Linguistics at that time... and,
to a large extent, still...
is a matter of organizing data.
So, a typical assignment when
I was an undergraduate, let's
say, would be to take data from
some American Indian language
and put it into an organized form.
You didn't ask the question,
"well, why is the data this way
and not some other way?" That
wasn't a question that was
asked. In fact, I remember,
dramatically, the first talk
I gave when I was a graduate
student invited to a major
university to give a talk on
work that I was doing... you
know, the normal thing... the
leading figure in the
department, one of the famous
linguists, met me at the airport.
And you know, we drove to the college.
And on the way, we talked, and
I asked him what he was working
on. And he said he's not doing any
work now... what he's doing is
just collecting data and storing
it. And he had a good reason, which
is implicit in the linguistics
of that day in Europe and
the United States. Computers
were coming along, so
pretty soon, you'd be able to
analyze huge masses of data.
It was assumed that the
procedure, the methods of
analysis that had been reached
in the structuralist traditions,
that they were the right way
to understand everything about
language. Well, you
know, if you sharpened
up those procedures, you could
program them for a computer,
then you feed the data
in, and you're done.
How old were you when you...
- that was 1953.
- So, I mean, I kind of
half-believed it, because that's
the way I was trained, but the
other half of my brain was
telling me this makes absolutely
no sense.
- Can you tell me the
transition, and, also, the
inspiration that started your
- Well, it was pretty
straightforward. When I
was an undergraduate, I
had to get an honors thesis.
You'd do a piece of work that's
your honors thesis. And
the faculty member who I was
working with... very famous and
very significant person, very
influential... rightly, he
suggested to me that I do a
structural analysis of modern Hebrew.
Well, I knew some Hebrew, so
it made sense, and I did what we
were supposed to do. What
you're supposed to do is
get an informant and then
carry out field-work procedures.
So, there's a set of routines
you go through to take the data
from the informant, you know,
find the phonology, find the
morphology, you know, a few
comments about the syntactic
structure, comments about
the semantics, and that's your
thesis. So, I started going through the
routine with him. And
after about a month, I
realized this is totally ridiculous.
I mean, I know the
answers to these questions.
Why am I asking him? And
the questions that I don't
know the answers to, like the
phonetics, I don't care about.
But the parts that I care about,
I already basically know the
answers, so why do I care?
Why do I have to get it from
him? So, we... I stopped the
informant work, and I just
started doing what seemed like
the obvious thing to do...
write a generative grammar.
And that's what I did,
but it was kind of a hobby.
I don't think anyone even looked
at it... you know, the fact
that, finally, it was published
about 30 years later, I think.
Can you tell me, like, in a
simple way... like, this first
approach of generative grammar?
- It's almost a truism.
I mean, if you think about what
a language is... say, what you
and I know... we have, somehow,
in our heads, a procedure for
constructing an infinite array
of structured expressions, each
of which is assigned a
sound and assigned a semantic
interpretation. That's like a truism.
Furthermore, these structured
expressions have the property of
what's called "digital infinity. "
They're like the numbers...
the natural numbers... you know,
there's 5 and 6, but nothing in between.
That's not natural numbers anymore.
And the same with language.
There's a 5-word sentence, a
6-word sentence, there's
no 51/2-word sentence.
They're very much unlike the
communication system of bees or
any other system, you know.
Now, that's very rare in the
natural world... digital infinity.
And by that time... say, late
'40s... the mathematics of
it were well understood.
The theory of computation had
been developed, the theory of
recursive functions... so these
were familiar concepts within
contemporary mathematics.
And, you know, I studied them
when I studied advanced logic
and mathematics. And
it just sort of fell
together. The... you
have... you have this
system of digital infinity and
its procedure of some sort that
generates an infinity of
structured expressions.
Well, that's a generative
grammar... in fact, that's all
it is.
- Mm-hmm.
So that ought to be
the core of the study.
And then comes the question...
well, okay, what is it?
Then, you run into the problem
I mentioned before... as soon as
you try to do it, you find that,
in order to deal with the data
available, it has to be
extremely complex and intricate.
But that doesn't make any sense,
either, because every child
masters it in no time. So,
somehow it can't be rich and
complex. And then comes the field.
The field is to try to show
that what appears to be rich and
complex is, at the
core, just very simple.
Actually, there's... you know,
when you think about it, as we
started to do from the '50s...
there's an evolutionary basis
for this, too. Language
is a very curious
phenomenon. I mean,
one question we ought to
be puzzled with... well, two
questions... is, why are there
any languages at all, and
another one is, why are there so
many? If you go back, say,
50,000 years, both of those
questions were answered, because
that's when our ancestors left Africa.
And there's been no relevant
cognitive change since, so
children everywhere in the
world have the same capacity for
language acquisition. So,
the questions were finished
by about 50,000 years ago.
And if you go back very shortly
before that, maybe 100,000 years
ago, the questions were answered
'cause there weren't any languages.
From an evolutionary point of
view, that's the flick of an
- How do you have this record?
Well, that comes from paleoanthropology.
Ah, yeah, the tombs the Americans...
well, we know the fossil record.
We know the record of the, you
know, creation of artifacts, and
so on.
- Yeah.
And it's pretty well
recognized that there was a
sudden explosion... sometimes
called "the great leap forward"
roughly in that period, you
know, maybe 75,000 years ago.
You can argue tens of thousands
of years... it doesn't matter
much. From an evolutionary point of
view, it's an instant. So,
somewhere in that instant,
some small hunter-gatherer
group... you know, it could have
been a couple of thousand of
people... you suddenly find a
burst of creative
activity, complex tools...
Recording natural phenomena...
More complex family
structures... Symbolic
representation, you
know... art, and so on.
From an evolutionary point of
view, it's an instant.
Now, it's generally assumed
that... and it's hard to think
of an alternative... that that
instant must be the time when
language suddenly appeared,
'cause language is required
for all these things.
Before, there could have
been, you know, primitive
communication systems,
like every animal has.
But human language, with the
property I just mentioned... the
capacity for thought
constructing in your head...
when you walk around,
you're talking to yourself.
- You can't stop.
I mean, it takes a real act of
will not to talk to yourself.
And what you're doing
is thinking, basically,
recollecting, or, you
know, whatever it is.
- But you're making use of,
constantly, of this capacity
to construct an unbounded array
of structured expressions,
which have a meaning and a sound.
Now, that's the core of our
ability to create, to invent,
you know, plan, interpret...
- Yeah.
...and so on. Well,
that must have happened
right about that time. But
if it happened suddenly, it
has to be simple. There's no time.
In evolutionary time,
that's nothing, remember?
- Which means that some small
thing must have happened...
some small mutation, probably.
And one... and a
mutation is in one person.
It's not in a group.
Suddenly, it gave that person
the capacity to... this capacity.
Well, that person was unique
in the animal world... it could
plan, it could think, it
could interpret, and so on.
But if that happened... and
there's no pressures on that
system... no selection
nor other pressures.
- It just appeared.
Well, if it just appeared,
it's gonna be perfect.
It's going to be like a snowflake.
Uh-huh. - And it
just follows from
natural law... that's what
appears, like a snowflake is
what it is. You know, it doesn't evolve.
Well, you know, that capacity
would have been, in fact,
transmitted to offspring, partially.
And after some time, maybe
a couple of generations, this
capacity might have
dispersed through the group.
And at that point, there becomes
a reason to externalize it... to
find a way to take what's going
on in your head and turn in into
sound or gesture or something.
- Yeah. But does this capacity
give an advantage to
this person or this group?
It does give an advantage to
the person because, look, if you
have the capacity to plan and
interpret and so on, yeah, you
have advantages over others.
It's not such a trivial matter
for advantageous traits to proliferate.
They often just die off. So,
for all we know, this might
have happened many times in the
preceding couple 100,000 years,
but once it took... we know that
it took 'cause we're here, you
know? So, at one point, this took.
A number of people had it.
Some point, you start getting
externalization. Then,
you can get communication.
But what that means is that,
contrary to thousands of years
of speculation, and what's
almost universally assumed now,
communication couldn't have
been a significant factor in
evolution. It's a secondary process.
Today, during the lunch
pause, Noam went to see his
doctor and get some test results.
Are you worried about your
Mm. I'm not. Doctors are, but I'm not.
So, you don't have anxiety?
I figure, three score and 10... that's
what we're supposed to
have... 70 years, according to
the Bible. Anything else comes free.
When I was about 10 years old, I
used to get frantic about dying.
You know, what happens when
that spark of consciousness
disappears? I had
nightmares about it, but
by the time I was a teenager,
I figured it's ridiculous, you
know. My model is David hume.
When he died, he had his friends
with him, like Adam Smith, and
he was very placid, you know.
He said, "you know, this is the"
way existence works, and
goodbye, no afterlife...
nothing. "
- Do you mind if I ask you
about your feeling when
your wife passed away?
just as soon not talk about
- It's too soon.
I can't get over it, you know.
Yeah, I know. I'm sorry.
- Yeah.
I'm so sorry.
I gave you my home
I gave you my hope
the walls...
- It seems that you had the
perfect relationship from
the outside point of view.
It wasn't... you know,
nothing's perfect, but it was
very intimate, yeah.
- I think a lot of human beings
spend a lot of their life
trying to solve problems of a
relationship or find
a relationship, and...
Well, we pretty much solved
it when we were children.
We were
children when we got
- Yeah.
Carol was 19, and I was 20.
- here in my kitchen
soup is on lover
lover come on over
And do you think it
helped you in your work?
It's hard to say... I mean,
Carol was kind of a social
butterfly. You know, she was... as a
teenager, you know, went to all
kind of parties, dating, this
and that. I was very solitary.
But... and for a couple of
years, we more or less lived her
style of life. But,
you know, I'd sit in a
corner at the parties.
But after a while, we just
drifted into a very private
life, you know, saw a couple
friends. We... we weren't hermits...
like, you know, children,
grandchildren, friends, and so
on, but, mostly, we lived... we
preferred to be alone, you know.
- come on over
and we started to talk about
your education with... last
time, but more about the school.
Can you tell me a bit more about
the relationship you
had with your parents?
Things were quite
different in those days.
I mean, the relationship was
fine, you know, but not very
close, really. So,
for example, there were
things happening in my childhood
that I never would have dreamt
of talking to them about. We
were the only Jewish family
in a neighborhood that was
largely Irish and German
catholic. This is in the '30s, and
very anti-semitic, and pretty
pro-Nazi, in fact... the Irish
'cause they hated the British
and the Germans 'cause they
were Germans. It's not like today.
A boy in the streets wasn't
gonna get shot, you know.
But it was unpleasant, you
know. There was a lot of
anti-semitism. And the
streets... there were
streets I couldn't walk through
because the Irish kids lived
there, and I'd go somewhere else.
And... but I never talked
to my parents about it.
I don't think they
knew, till their deaths.
You know, by the time the
second world war came, everything
changed... superficially.
So, in December 7, 1941, the
people who had been still having
beer parties at the fall of
Paris, which I remember, were
walking around with tin hats,
telling everyone to pull
down their shades, because the
luftwaffe was going to bomb
the city and so on... a very
striking transition,
which taught me something.
But then, during the war, for
reasons I don't understand,
there were race riots
all over the place.
In fact, there was a teenage
curfew for a couple of years.
At 7:00...
- in Philadelphia?
Yeah, if we wanted to go out
after 7:00, we had to have
parental permission. And
I went to a Hebrew school,
and, actually, we had police
protection from the subway stop
to the school and back,
unless we were on the subway...
you were kind of on your own.
But I don't know why, but there
was some kind of phenomenon
that took place during the war.
And when did you hear about
the camps the first time?
Well, rumors were coming
through by '42, '43, but nobody
really knew the scale.
And it was downplayed,
strikingly downplayed. The
most dramatic as, actually,
as I'm sure you know, there were
international conferences to try
to do something about the
people who wanted to flee the
continent, but nobody was
willing to do anything.
Roosevelt, in fact, turned back
a ship at St. Louis, which came
with, I think, 1,000
refugees from Europe.
And they went to Cuba... sort of
wandered around the region, but
the U.S. just turned it back.
They were sent back to Europe.
Most of them ended up in,
you know, in gas chambers.
The most striking thing was,
after the war, in 1945, there
was... by then, everybody
knew... there was no longer any
pretext for not saving the survivors.
And there were a fair
number of survivors.
And they were living in
concentration camps, but the
camps were not very different
from the Nazi camps except that,
you know, the gas
chambers weren't... no...
no extermination, but living
under horrible conditions.
And they came back with a very
grim picture of what was life
was like in the camps.
- You mean the same camp in
- Same camps.
You know, maybe another
detention camp, but the
circumstances were not very different.
But they were like, not in
detention... they were...
Well, you know, they weren't
extermination camps... no gas
chambers, you know, no killing,
no slave labor... but the
conditions were
horrible. You should read
the Harrison commission.
- How do you call that?
Harrison? - Harrison...
I suppose it's obtainable.
It's a pretty grim picture of
life in the camps.
- "Generally speaking, three"
months after victory of Europe
day and even longer after the
liberation of individual groups,
many Jewish displaced persons
and other possibly
non-repatriables are living
under guard behind barbed-wire
fences, in camps of several
descriptions... built by the
Germans for slave-laborers and
Jews... including some of
the most notorious of the
concentration camps, amidst
crowded, frequently unsanitary
and generally grim conditions,
in complete idleness, with no
opportunity, except surreptitiously...
...have managed, in spite of
the many obvious difficulties, to
find clothing of one kind or
another for their charges, many
of the Jewish displaced persons,
late in July, had no clothing
other than their concentration
camp garb, a rather hideous
striped pajama effect, while
others, to their chagrin, were
obliged to wear German S.S. Uniforms.
"It is questionable which
clothing they hate the more. "
Actually, you know,
this is pretty normal.
I mean, treatment of
holocaust victims is grotesque.
But right now, take France...
the Roma were... you know, they
were treated pretty much like the Jews.
France is expelling them
to miserable poverty.
They're expelling basically
holocaust survivors and their
descendants, and it's
particularly dramatic in France
because there's so much
posturing there about holocaust
denial. I mean, you can't have a more
extreme case of holocaust
denial than taking survivors and
punishing them. And
as far as I can see in
France, there's almost
no discussion of this.
In fact, when the European union
protested, Sarkozy condemned
them, you know, for their
anti-French extremism and so on.
I mean, you know, the cynicism
about all of this is pretty
- Um... Can I come back to
maybe more happy matters?
Pick at random, and the
world won't be very happy.
I know, but we're going to
come back... go more
inside your memories and...
- I wanted to know if the...
the education you gave to your
children was influenced by what
you believe in language
acquisition or what's going on
with the brain.
- Well, I mean, the education
at home, yes. So, you
know, we read to the
kids and encouraged the kids
to read and encouraged them to
follow their own interests.
The three kids were quite
My... my son, from a very early
age, was mostly interested in
science and mathematics, so,
you know, by the time he was
10 years old, we were reading
together popular books on
relativity theory and things like that.
But we just let the kids go
where they wanted and encouraged
them. You know, they went in different
directions... it was fine
with us... and, you know,
tried to just encourage
them to do what they wanted.
The school was conventional.
We wanted them to go to the
public schools, and it
worked reasonably well.
And one child was not making out
in public school... we moved her
to a quaker school, which was better.
They... Essentially
picked their own paths.
They left home... they went off
to become political activists.
My older daughter spent a couple
of months at college, couldn't
stand it, and went off and
joined the united farm workers
and, ever since then, has
been very involved in political
activity. My young... her younger sister
went to Nicaragua in 1980 and stayed.
And my son went off in
a different direction.
But my children grew up in an
atmosphere of extreme political
tension. I don't know
how much they felt.
For example, I was in and out
of jail, and I was facing a long
jail sentence, enough so that my
wife went back to college after
17 years to try to get a
degree... an advanced degree...
because we assumed she'd have
to take care of the children.
She'd need a job. And the
kids kind of grew up in
this atmosphere, but I don't
think they felt any particular
tension. My wife told me once that my,
probably 8-, 10-year-old
daughter, I guess, told her when
she came home from school...
she asked, "what'd you do in"
show-and-tell?" She said,
"well I described... I
told them how my father was in jail. "
What makes you happy?
Children, grandchildren,
friends, you know.
I don't really think about it much.
I don't spend much... any time
in self-indulgence, especially
since my wife died. I do
almost nothing... don't
go to the movies, don't go
to the theater, don't eat out.
I do what I have to do. Mm.
But, I
mean, there are a lot of
things that are very gratifying.
So, for example, especially
seeing victims... like, I just
came back from Turkey, where I
was... I've been there several times.
And this... it's always issues
related to the repression of the
Kurds, which I was there one...
the first time I was there, it
was to take part in a
trial and be a co-defendant.
But, this time, it was for a
conference on repression and
freedom of expression. You
see people who are really
dedicated, courageous,
struggling all the time,
standing up against repression.
It's quite inspiring.
A couple of months before that,
I was in Southern Colombia.
And Colombia has the worst
human-rights record in the
hemisphere, and, of course, the
most U.S. military aid in the
hemisphere... they correlate.
These places I was visiting...
quite remote endangered
villages... and the people were
just inspiring. Actually,
it was a very moving
experience, personally. I
was there in part because they
were dedicating a forest
to the memory of my wife.
And it's the kind of compassion
and kindness that you just don't
see in the world we live
in. And it was just kind of
natural... no pretentiousness
about the ceremony.
And you... you see things like
that all over... all over the
world here,
too... - Mm-hmm.
...not much in the circles
in which we live... you know,
elite, intellectual circles.
- Yeah.
...much more abstract, even,
than the case of the tree.
There was a sudden explosion.
The answers to, like, the
phonetics, I don't care about.
My father worked on history
of the semitic languages.
During the early exposure,
where the child is not...
We learn that children
know quite a lot...
It's a story about a
donkey named Sylvester.
In one of your books from the
'70s, you give this example of a
sentence... "the man who is
tall is in the room," and how
the child naturally can
postulate the question.
And I was wondering if you could
explain, just quickly because I
could do a very nice
animation from that.
This is a simple question.
And it's interesting that it
never bothered anyone.
It's a little bit like, for
2,000 years, scientists
were satisfied with simple
explanation for an obvious
If you take an apple and you
detach it from a tree, it's
gonna go down. If you
take steam, it's gonna go
- Yeah.
So, 2,000 years... the answer
was, well, they're going to
their natural place...
end of discussion.
As soon as people started
getting puzzled about that, like
Galileo and Newton, then
you have modern science.
But can you...
- this is the same.
Take the sentence that
you gave me... "the man"
"who is tall is happy,"
or whatever it is.
If you want to form a question
from that, you take the word
"is," and you put it in the front.
So, "is the man who is tall happy?"
All right? That's the question.
You don't take the first
occurrence of "is. "
You don't take the
closest one to the front...
...and say, "is the
man who tall is happy?"
That's gibberish.
And how does it... why? I
mean, why doesn't the child do
the simple thing... take the
first occurrence of "is" and put
it in the front? That's,
computationally, that's
much easier than finding the
main occurrence, which requires
knowing the phrases and so on.
But it's an unconceivable error.
No child has ever made that error.
And it's the same in all... you
know, with minor variations...
it's the same principle that's
in all languages, so why?
Well, you know, there are some
interesting explanations for
why, but this is a good example
of the brute-force approach in
computational cognitive science,
where they, as a matter of
principle, want to believe that
the mind is essentially empty.
The man who is tall is happy.
The man who is tall is happy.
The man who is tall is happy.
Then, Noam took my pen and wrote
the following sentence.
- Look, there are serious
questions about it, like, take,
"the man who is tall is happy. "
This is a predicate, this is
the subject, okay, and this is
sort of the main element... you
know, that's the main element of
the whole sentence.
And that's the one that,
structurally, is closest to
the middle... to the beginning.
This one is more remote from the
beginning, structurally, because
you have to work through
this whole business, okay?
So, structurally speaking, this
is the closest to the front.
Uh-huh. - Linearly,
this is the closest
to the front.
- Right.
Now, the question is, why do
you use structural proximity and
not linear proximity? And
it's not just this case...
it's everything... every
language, every construction.
Is that the evidence of
this generative grammar?
Well, that's the data, and
there is a principle... I mean,
the principle is, keep to
minimal structural distance.
Okay, now where does that come from?
This part is probably
just a law of nature.
Computation tries to do things
in the simplest way, but the
structural distance part
is a fact about language.
I mean, you could have minimal
computation if you did it this
way. In that case, what we would
say... "is the man who tall is happy?"
The child picks structural
closeness because that's a
property of language, probably
genetically determined.
Yeah, but that's... that's
about all there is to it.
The man who is tall is happy.
- Yes, the man who is tall is
very happy.
- Is the man tall and he's
happy? Is the man who is tall happy?
Is the man who is tall happy?
Is the man who tall is happy?
Is the man who is tall happy?
Is the man who tall is happy?
Okay, I guess we're being...
- Yeah, I got to rush him over.
He's gonna miss the thing.
- Okay.
Good to see you again.
- Yeah.
I'm glad you're doing
We got to get you out of here. Your bag.