May 122022

This weekend, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland will be hosting an event in honor of Norbert Hornstein. I am unfortunately unable to attend (due in part to choices made by certain individuals, pictured here). But I’m not going to let that stop me from voicing my full-throated appreciation for the man and what he has meant to me, both personally and intellectually.

Not to take anything away from all the wonderful teachers I’ve had the benefit of learning from over the years, but Norbert taught me what science is & should be, better and more clearly than anyone I’ve run into before or since. It is from Norbert that I learned about Paul Feyerabend’s work. It is Norbert who really and truly impressed on me that, as a general matter, the amount of energy and attention paid to “method” usually stands in an inverse relation to the depth of theoretical insight involved, and that the former all too often serves as a stand-in when the latter is altogether missing. It is thanks to Norbert that I truly came to understand how so much of what passes for “cognitive science” today is, in reality, neither “cognitive” nor “science.” It is Norbert that clarified to me the often inverse relationship between epistemological primacy and ontological primacy, at least when it comes to a mentalist investigation of the human capacity for language.

Though it ranks rather low on his list of accolades and achievements, he also championed (back in 2014) the hiring of this syntactician (me) who was opposed to the bulk of Chomsky’s minimalist project, even though the minimalist project was near and dear to Norbert’s heart at the time. And once I was hired, he (along with his colleagues) really & truly handed over the proverbial keys to the UMD syntax program to Masha and me, to steer as we saw fit. This is something that, in an ideal world, might go without saying or be trivial; but our world is very much not that world. Every senior academic pays lip service to the idea that when they hire someone, they’re looking for an individual who will challenge them and who will fearlessly pursue an independently-minded research agenda. But lip service is usually all it is; syntax hires over the past 15 years have been characterized, first and foremost, by an overwhelming, almost pathological intellectual timidity. Senior faculty fastidiously avoid hiring colleagues who will challenge their own belief systems even in the slightest – or who might, heaven forbid, threaten to outshine those senior linguists’ own profile in the field. (I’d be hopelessly biased if what I had in mind here is jobs which I myself applied for and didn’t get. But suffice it to say that those are not the instances I have in mind as I write this.) Against that backdrop, consider that Norbert had no qualms whatsoever hiring someone who didn’t think Abstract Case was correct; who had argued in print that the Strong Minimalist Thesis was provably wrong; and who thought that paying attention to morphosyntactic evidence was, in the end, a more fruitful way of investigating the nature of human language than quantifier scope could ever be. And then he went ahead and let that person (and their like-minded colleague) reshape the grad syntax program, one which he founded, according to their own scientific tastes.

While no one has ever accused Norbert of being overly gentle in the defense of his own ideas, it is truly remarkable how that defense was always delivered out in the open, straightforwardly, for all to see. I’ve long suspected that the reason Norbert never felt the need to engage in the same underhanded tactics that so many of our colleagues in the field use to defend their tiny intellectual turf is that, deep down, they know they are imposters, and Norbert has always known that he is not. And if that’s indeed the case, then all I have to say is: he’s goddamn right.