Noam Chomsky on Steven Pinker (and vice versa)

The relationship between Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker has been one of the more interesting relationships between two contemporary scientists and philosophers and recent history. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and cognitive scientist, and Chomsky, an MIT linguistic and analytic philosopher, have spent many decades crossing the same paths both literally and metaphorically. In an interview with Nathan Robinson, which we’ve had cause to mention before, summarized his views on Steven Pinker about as succinctly as one can.

“Well he did serious work in linguistics and experimental psychology. He’s an intelligent person. He’s a friend. Frankly I don’t think much of his recent books.” 

Noam Chomsky

February 14, 2019

Speaking of which, Chomsky was not the biggest fan of Pinker’s 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined which posits that humanity has consistently gotten less violent (among other things) over time. This runs right up against Chomsky’s brand of anarchism that posits that Government’s are typically the problem (as they are perpetually working for the wealthy whom politicians consistently need to appeal to). Chomsky rebuttals that it’s only when you have nation states that have large armies and open war, that death tolls mount up like they do in war.

Steven Pinker on Chomksy

Yet another heading that deserves it’s own novel Pinker, who never avoids a question, has been pressed to elucidate his opinions on Chomsky and has consistently given roughly the same response. The London Real podcast/web series ingeniously asked Steven Pinker to give a bio of Noam Chomsky in 2013 (before the issues we’re about to address) and the cognitive scientist said the following:

“Well he’s famous for two reasons. One of them is for political activism. He’s a very vociferous of American and British (the interview was for a London based show) foreign policy. He is a leftist but not marxist. He calls himself an Anarcho-syndicalist which is basically an anarchist of the left…he’s more of a communitarian anarchist…he has a huge following due to his prolific output in foreign policy, probably more than 100 books…”

Steven Pinker

2013

However he would hint, both in the above passage and the one below, about his relationship to the heralded linguist and his scientific contributions:

“He (Chomsky) founded the modern approach to linguistics starting in the 1950s when he was just in his 20s. He revolutionized the field and polarized the field. Most people in linguistics are either rabidly in favor of his theories or determined to bring him down…but in linguistics he was the first to give linguistics a psychological spin.”

Steven Pinker

2013

Chomsky Defends Pinker From Cancellation

We’ll end the first draft of this sure to be often updated article with a feel good bonding the two recently experienced together. In the Covid months of 2020, a group of woke radicals attempted a full on assault to have Steven Pinker fired from his tenured position at Harvard citing his re-tweeting of a tweet made by long time conservative commentator David Brooks. Among the measures the mob took included an attempt to have students and high ranking faculty at Harvard and MIT sign a letter saying that Pinker should be removed. Chomsky refused and issued the following condemnation.

I saw it, and explained why I wouldn’t sign. It’s a group of students. It is indeed very much like what we were talking about, way out at the margin but meat for the right, which has always supported “cancel culture,” suppression of talks and publication, silent disruption of meetings, and much more, as long as it was directed agains the left and is now pretending to be outraged as the wrong ox is gored.

Noam Chomsky

2020

Here Noam is simply arguing that “cancel culture” has always been a tool of the right and one that did damage to their “brand”—now realizing that it’s a negative they’ve been able to turn the table on liberals and leverage the tactic that they’ve long used to undermine free speech.

Pinker vs Chomsky: Who is more popular? 

Depending on the years in question, the graph(s) below change a great deal. For most of the last century, Chomksy has been the most popular and influential in the field. However Steven Pinker himself has been growing in popularity as his books for popular audiences have continued to gain steam in the public at large. Nevertheless, even over just the last twelve months, Chomsky has continued to reign supreme. In the graphs below, Noam is represented by the Blue line and Pinker is in Red. Only one state (Delaware) on the second graph, shows Pinker as more popular than Chomsky in the United States. 

As always, we will continue to accept errors and, if we can confirm that any errors have been made or we discover we have missed relevant details, we will update this page and update our errors page that documents all additions or corrections to pages after they are published. Finally it is important to note, especially for this article, that we try to emphasize the most recent opinions rather than older opinions as more recent opinions will be closer to their actual opinions. Should we become aware of position changes by anyone on the Scholar Fact Check, we will make the change and note it on the relevant page. 

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Though the two have never sparred in person, they haven’t be shy about offering an opinion on each other’s work. 

Ben Shapiro on Marijuana

The conservative commentator has changed his tone recently about the de-criminilzation of Marijuana. 

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