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"A Very Powerful Personality"

Hilary Putnam, in his preface to The Form of Information in Science, recalls a graduate course that he took at Penn with Harris called Linguistic Analysis. There was only one other undergraduate in the class ­ Noam Chomsky; the course material was difficult and filled with technicalities; "but the powerful intellect and personality of Zellig Harris drew me like a lodestone, and, although I majored in Philosophy, I took every course there was to take in Linguistic Analysis from then until my graduation" (xi).

Now a professor at Harvard, Putnam has been a friend of Chomsky's since high school. He does not appear to have been part of the Harris circle, but his observations coincide with those made by many who knew Harris. Willie Segal, who now teaches at the University of Colorado, also knew Harris well, and speaks in reverential terms about his personality, adding, "No one person has had a greater influence on my personal development" (24 Apr. 1995).

Seymour Melman asserts that "Zellig was a very powerful personality [who] functioned for many people as a mentor, apart from his function as a teacher. He set a standard for honesty in personal dealings, and for a very unpretentious personal style that gave emphasis to, on the one hand, intellectual achievement, [and,] on the other, to the constructive activity that the kibbutz represented'" (26 July 1994). Describing Harris's generosity, Melman remarks:

Harris was also very unassuming. To many people, that may have seemed to be almost reclusive. For example, he would rarely sign things. He was more interested in the intrinsic ideas, and in getting the cooperation of the whole group in thinking through political issues, and social issues broadly understood. It doesn't require a giant leap of imagination to see how many of these characteristics are mirrored in Noam Chomsky. Something else: he clearly stood for democratic dealings amongst people, and was never a friend of authoritarianism of any kind. (26 July 1994)
This evocation of Harris does resonate with that of Chomsky, and the sense that many who have been taught or influenced by him ­ such as Abramovitch, Epstein, Herman, Melman, and Otero ­ have of him. Harris's attitude towards the importance of the movement rather than individual achievement is reflected in Chomsky's attitude towards biographical studies. Harris's teaching style, so clearly charged with the spirit of left libertarianism, and his commitment to encouraging rather than stifling individual creativity, are echoed in Chomsky's approach to pedagogy, group relations, and appropriate political frameworks.

Whether Chomsky inherited this disposition from Harris, or whether Harris's values simply fit into his own is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that an intriguing overlap exists. The power of Harris's personality remains vivid in Chomsky's recollection: "he was a much greater influence than is recognized, extending to all sorts of people. The first time I met Nathan Glazer [a member of Avukah], for example, after a few minutes I asked him whether he knew Harris. He said yes, he'd studied with him 25 years earlier. I didn't tell Glazer why I'd asked. The reason was that he was mimicking all sorts of idiosyncratic Harris gestures. Not the only case" (13 Dec. 1994).


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