Pinker's Farewell

MIT Communications Forum, Cambridge, MA

In this personal and reflective event, Pinker looks back at twenty plus years at MIT and shares his deep appreciation for the place where "ideas and content always come first."

Recalling his earliest work at the MIT Center for Cognitive Science, he describes the maddening problem of how children learn to use verbs correctly. You can splash the wall with paint and can splash paint on the wall; you can spill water on the floor but you can’t spill the floor with water. Pinker theorized that children unconsciously divide the world of actions into categories like geometry and force, and that humans have evolved a grammar based on this intuitive physics. Pinker discusses Noam Chomsky’s “enormous” impact on him, as well as his profound differences with Chomsky concerning the evolution of humans’ innate ability to acquire language. In spite of jibes from outsiders (often journalists), Pinker says he reveled in teaching MIT’s introductory psychology course. Finally, he describes many sleepless nights while pondering the “most agonizing choice of my career”—his decision to leave MIT for Harvard.

Watch the video of this event.

This discussion is moderated by Professor Samuel Jay Keyser--Peter de Florez Emeritus Professor at MIT and an emeritus member of the Linguistics and Philosophy faculty. He is currently special assistant to the Chancellor at MIT.

Keyser's most recent book is The Pond God published by Front Street Books.