Zellig Harris’s name is famous in linguistics primarily for his early work on transformational grammar and his influence on his most famous student, Noam Chomsky. However, much of his linguistic work has since fallen into comparative obscurity. Moreover, his political research and activism – about which he was especially guarded throughout his lifetime – has received scant attention.
In this meticulously-researched biography, Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism (MIT Press, 2011), Robert Barsky casts a great deal more light upon Harris’s story. Exploring his involvement in the Avukah student group in the 1930s and 40s, Barsky shows how Harris not only strove to advance the cause of socialist Zionism, but also shaped the destinies of several influential thinkers. He also traces the course of the revolutionary programme of linguistic enquiry that Harris laid out, inspired by the example of theoretical physics, and how this ongoing work came to be regarded as eccentric by practitioners of the dominant contemporary research trends.
In this interview, we discuss the utopian ideals of socialist Zionism, and the influence of Harris upon Chomsky’s political thought. We look at the contradictory facets of Zellig Harris as an individual. And we consider whether rationality is an unreasonable assumption, when it comes to inter-personal dynamics.