Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Lost Boy” tetrastich

And again, again,  I turned into the street,
finding the place  where corners meet,
turning to look again
to see    where Time had gone …

[-- Th. Wolfe, “The Lost Boy” (1937)]

[Note:  Finding “found poetry” in the consistently lyrical work of Thomas Wolfe  is like finding fish in an aquarium; but anyhow, this one’s pretty.]

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Star Trek ministich

a planet-size base   that hangs in the heavens
like a Christmas bauble,  with inverted boulevards
and skyscrapers  curving around  inside

[-- Anthony Lane, reviewing the latest Trekkie offering, in this week’s New Yorker]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Word of the Day: "indefatigable"

Reading aloud one evening, my wife pronounced indefatigable as in-de-fa-TEEG-a-ble -- quite on the measure of British class-i-fi-CATE-or-ee.   I personally say in-de-FAT-ig-a-ble;  but that is morphosemantically opaque, whereas her version nicely brings out the notional relation to fatigue (with its French-derived oxytone).  Might this be another case where the Brits displace the accent?  But no, according to the dictionaries, no;  she came up with it on her own hook.

[Note:  The above is an update to a more extensive essay, here.]

Something to hum in the summer

Lemon ices.
Slices of time
with a wedge of lime.

[Those verses occurred to me  while reading a text on Special Relativity.
They do not constitute a substantive contribution to the subject,
but they were the best I could do at the … time.]

La Canicule

[ Outside the Beltway, USA , 24 juillet 2016]

Canicule vient du latin Canicula, qui signifie « chien », en liaison avec Sirius, étoile principale de la constellation du Grand Chien. Elle ne concerne donc à l'origine que la période annuelle du 24 juillet au 24 août, où cette étoile se couche et se lève en même temps que le Soleil3,4, ce qui avait laissé penser aux anciens qu'il existait un lien entre l'apparition de cette étoile et les grandes chaleurs. Ainsi Pline l'Ancien écrivait : « Quant à la Canicule, qui ignore que, se levant, elle allume l'ardeur du soleil ? Les effets de cet astre sont les plus puissants sur la terre : les mers bouillonnent à son lever, les vins fermentent dans les celliers, les eaux stagnantes s'agitent. Les Égyptiens donnent le nom d'oryx à un animal qui, disent-ils, se tient en face de cette étoile à son lever, fixe ses regards sur elle, et l'adore, pour ainsi dire, en éternuant. Les chiens aussi sont plus exposés à la rage  durant tout cet intervalle de temps ; cela n'est pas douteux5. »

[Figure at left:  Dr Justice, slowly going extinct]

At present, our area is suffering the worst heat-wave in years.   Where you are, possibly even worse.  (If you’re in Morocco, for sure.)

Blow *harder* ... !

I thought for a bit  before deciding on the title for this post -- something that would get across the sense of moral revulsion, as towards a rabid dog, and not just reflect a reading on the thermometer.  Heat wave and its literal equivalents -- Hitzewelle, ola de calor, موجة حر -- won’t cut it.  (Indeed, Heat Wave has been used benignly, as the title of a romantic song.)  A literal quasi-equivalent of canicula -- “dog days” -- won’t work, since it has been defanged through sentimental journalistic use (“the dog days of summer”/ “it’s a dog’s life”).   Life under the local “heat dome” seemingly involves more than a matter of Fahrenheit.  The atmosphere itself seems infected.  Yesterday, I went out briefly for a task on the front lawn;  by the time I headed back into the house, I was having difficulty breathing, as though the air had the thickness of mercury, vicious and viscid, and had to be laboriously sucked-in and plungered-out.  It wasn’t just the heat and it wasn’t just the humidity, since at that point I had yet to even break a sweat.  It recalled the old miasmatic theory of the cause of malaria -- mala aria—"bad air".

[For further meteorological meditations, click here.
For a blithe take on the whole schmier, here.]


[Update 25 July]
A classic conundrum of philosophy is, “What is it like to be a bat?”  That’s a toughie; but today I know what it’s like to be a muffin, browning in the oven’s all-enveloping heat.

[Update 26 July] Finally defying the unrelenting mid-to-high-90s temperatures, my wife and I ventured forth from our A/C cocoon, to go down and look at the lake.  Reaching it, and finding ourselves still alive, we proceded further, to check out our friend the local snake.  He  -- or rather she, for we witnessed her parturition -- lives at the base of the footbridge. Sometimes we see her and sometimes we don’t.  Reptiles (cold-blooded, seeking to be warm) like to sun themselves on rocks, so there was hope;  on the other hand, desert-dwellers shelter from the noonday heat in burrows.  Now, this isn’t the Gobi, or the Sahara; but would today’s Eastern seaboard heat  prove too much even for a snake?
It turned out that our serpentine friend had already slithered out of sight, seeking the comparative cool beneath the rock.  Marveling at the wisdom of Nature, and at the folly of suburbanites who feel obliged to take exercise, even on a day like today, we gathered our remaining forces, and headed back.

[Update 27 July]  From his woodsy cabin in northern California, our brother writes:

This heat is oppressive!  It might even hit 72 on Friday!  Crank up the AC. 

As for you, well, just swelter in place.

(One detects a touch of Left Coast schadenfreude.)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rainmaker Monostich

Secretaries and clerks and flunkies
move quietly about   on the heartpine floors.

[from John Grisham’s legal-thriller of 1995.
Cf.  “In the room, the women  come and go …” ]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bean gatha

In a saucepan,
place two tablespoons of water,

one tablespoon of butter,

and the vegetables.
Bring to a full boil
over medium-high heat,
separating vegetables with fork
to hasten thawing.


Reduce heat to low,   cover,
and simmer,
ve - ry      gent -   ly,
until vegetables are   tender --
eight to ten minutes.
(If all liquid   evaporates
before vegetables are      tender,
add a small amount of water.)

Do not drain.

Makes 1 ¾ cup.

[found on the back of a package, Berkeley, ca. 1972.
I was vegetarian at the time.]

[For further examples of "found poetry", click here;  or just look around you.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jour de la Bastille

Félicitations à nos alliés de plusieurs guerres, et meilleurs vœux pour une solide coopération entre nos nations.
Et heureux anniversaire à mon épouse Suzanne Marie, née en ce jour il y a, eh ben, quelques années et le pouce, et qui porte un nom français en l’honneur de cette amitié  plusieurs foix séculaire.
Pour célébrer, voici le palmarès de nos aperçus hexagonaux:
La francophonie

A beautiful friendship

À propos de Nice

Et puis, le soir, ce carnage, souillant la fête et la nation.

Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Ils nous viennent de l’Afrique, et des pays de Mahomet. 
Chez nous  de même.

Aux armes,  chrétiens!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday Morning: Trying to Arise

Gravity has me  plastered  to the mattress.
So strong   the tug of it,
I could stick to the ceiling just as well.

Something wants me urgently
at the center
of the

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Consilience in Linguistics (neu bearbeitet)

[This note is a spin-off from our initial essay, Consilience, along with its sidekick Consilient Connections (distinguishing vertical from horizontal consilience);  and is sibling to such other special mini-studies as Consilience in Psychology, Consilience in Mathematics [currently closed for reconstruction], and the purely satirical Consilience and Cognitive Science.]

The whole notion of “Consilience [with]in …” a specific field  is contrary to the Wilsonian/vertical-reductionist conception of the grand principle.  Instead we are noticing similarities in various regions of a field, which may have no analogues outside that field, nor follow synthetically as consequences of other principles outside that field.  Accordingly, the various discipline-specific mini-essays may have little in common, let alone contribute to a grand TOE of the sciences.  They are more in the spirit of the various volumes of the “Bobbsey Twins”.   I do plan to stop, though, somewhere short of “Consilience in Stamp-Collecting” and “So!  You Want 2 B a  Consilientist ”.


First:  Where does linguistics stand in the disciplinary matrix of the sciences?  Its status has often been fragile:

Finck and Wundt tried to rob linguistics of its autonomy  by incorporating it into psychology … Croce and Vossler tried to incorporate it into aesthetics.
-- Jan Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras:  Europe in 1900 (1967, Eng. transl. 1978), p. 443

Now, much of the thrust of linguistics, over the past nigh-on one hundred years, especially in America, has been an assertion of its disciplinary autonomy -- not a branch of sociology, or history, or language studies -- even with respect to its ancestor philology, and further with regard to various components of linguistics itself, which one hoped  neatly to delineate.


… the need felt by many  to keep linguistics an autonomous discipline, to prevent it from slopping over  into psychology, sociology, neurophysiology, etc.
-- Roger Lass, On explaining language change (1980), p. 121

This depreciatory rhetoric of “slopping over” is diametrically at variance with Wilson’s utopian holistic vision for Unified Science.

Indeed, over the past  close-on to a century, or at any rate  over a good fifty years during the heyday of the growing prestige of the field, other disciplines have looked to linguistics more than it to them.  As:

The appeal of linguistics methodologically  to anthropology  is in part because of its achievement of units at once concrete and universal.
-- D. Hymes & J. Fought, American Structuralism (1975), p. 153.

In terms of the sociology of science, this influence is reminiscent of the Physics Mesmerism earlier spawned by the pizazz of the field that invented The Bomb.

That, in fact, may explain a lot.   For the study of syntactic and semantics structures plainly finds nothing of ready use for it from current physics (“The Propositional Island Condition:  a String-Theoretic Approach”), whereas the neighboring scholarly fields of psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc., have been -- not to put it too unkindly -- not especially successful of late.  They do not, so to speak, have The Bomb;  so linguistics has been free to go its own way.

The linguistic scene in Europe during the nineteenth century, and up to about Weimar, had a decidedly less isolated or self-sufficient feel, with the same Grimm brothers who wrote straight sound-law Germanistik and who launched the massive Wörterbuch, likewise collecting their equally-celebrated work of folklore,  Kinder- und Hausmärchen.   Saussure, with his penchant for dichotomies and abstractions, culminating in his purely cerebral reconstruction of the Indo-European laryngeals  not visible in the extant texts (a ghostly forerunner of the key notion of “empty categories” in the Chomskyan school), were atypical (notice that he published precious little in his own lifetime, his main influence being posthumous, his penchants  more to the liking of a later time).   There were, to be sure, occasional Declarations of Linguistic Independence similar to those which later characterized American structuralism and its progeny --

Linguistics must be regarded as an independent science, not to be confused with either physiology or psychology.
--  Baudouin de Courtenay (1871)

but more characteristic were the plumbing of ancient literatures, the quasi-folkloristic dialectological spelunkings in the hills and hamlets of the hinterland, and so concrete, sleeves-rolled-up a tendency as that of Wörter und Sachen.   As a Romance philologist once put it, emphasizing the Unentbehrlichkeit of the sister-disciplines for linguistics,

Man komme also nicht mit dem beliebten « ne supra crepidam »;  das gilt wirklich nur für Schuster.
-- Hugo Schuchardt, (1892), in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 105

These humanistic traditions were carried on at Berkeley by my Doktorvater Yakov Malkiel, a White Russian refugee and time-capsule of Mitteleuropäische Kultur, whose journal Romance Philology (and it really was as deeply his, as The Rambler was Doctor Johnson’s) featured both linguistic and literary articles side by side.   It was this tradition I relished, and which informed my dissertation (later published as The Semantics of Form in Arabic, in the Mirror of European Languages), to the virtual exclusion (alas, for professional advancement) of the then-current trends.   It is a Kulturgut deeply to be savored, in centuries to come, long after the squabbles of Amerian Vietnam-era linguistics shall have faded into the mists of history.


The fiercest assertion of linguistic independence -- what we might dub the thesis of the Idiosyncrasy of Human Language (it obeys principles peculiar to itself, not generally shared among other features of animate beings) -- has come from the Chomsky camp (that bastion of the intellectually fierce and rhetorically ferocious)

The proper perspective of linguistic independence is given a trenchant formulation by Chomsky:

How can a system such as human language arise in the mind/brain, or for that matter in the organic world, in which one seems not to find anything like the basic properties of human language?  That problem has sometimes been posed as a crisit for the cognitive sciences.   The concerns are appropriate, but their locus is misplaced:  they are primarily a problem for biology  and the brain sciencies, which, as currently understood, do not provide any basis for what appear to be fairly well-established conclusions about language.
-- Noam Chomsky,  The Minimalist Program (1995), p. 2

[Sidenote:  This stance exactly parallels our own with respect to the (possibly not entirely unrelated) question of Free Will, in our diatribes against the eliminative materialists, who, failing to discover Free Will in a test-tube, declare that it must therefore not exist.  Morality they seem to have discerned cringing at the bottom of  an Erlenmeyer flask, and identify it with oxytocin, or oxycontin, or some damn thing.   Our retort:  Free Will (and with it,  possible prolegomena to morality) stands unspattered;  good luck with whatever it is you’re doing, and ever saying anything useful about these.]

But similar American declarations of disciplinary independence go back a ways:

The history of structural linguistics in the United States  can be readily interpreted in terms of three successive (and overlapping) movements:

(1) the movement for autonomous study of language, i.e., for a profession of linguistics;
(2)  the movement for autonomous study of linguistic structure;
(3) the movement for autonomous study of grammar (syntactic structure)

Chomsky’s classification of linguistics as a branch of cognitive psychology, like Hockett’s classification of linguistics as a branch of cultural anthropology, does not imply any less of autonomy.
-- D. Hymes & J. Fought, American Structuralism (1975), p. 227-8

Back when I began at university,  linguistics as a discipline  was still largely at stage (1).  At Harvard College, they didn’t allow you to major in Linguistics simpliciter -- that was apparently perceived as being too narrow, like majoring in sausages or non-Abelian groups.  It had to be a combined major, say, Linguistics and Math.  (That is not necessarily a bad thing:  such disciplinary spread virtually forces you to think ‘consiliently’.)  I actually did briefly consider doing that, owing to the personal magnetism of two visiting luminaries:  George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky.  And while this-all takes us right off the topic of Consilience,  and back to the sociology of the wacky Sixies, perhaps the anecdotes may be worth retailing for their own sake.

It was my sophomore year (in many ways, my sophomoric year).  The campus was in turmoil, partially and fitfully shut-down.  The center had not held,  and we were whirling.
            Into this maelstrom  stepped  Noam Chomsky, meeting with Harvard undergraduates,  not to lecture, but to hear us out.   Already he was better known as a political commentator than as a linguist (I had eagerly read his foresightful American Power and the New Mandarins);  a small but respectful student audience  gathered at his feet -- or rather, he at ours:  for the students had occupied the available sofas and chairs,  and he himself sat down on the floor with the rest of the overflow.  He spoke softly, when he spoke at all;  listening, thinking, listening …
What he said that day, I don’t remember (how often are our memories  wordless, alas!)  but his sense or essence of open-mindedness, yet centeredness (most of us  were neither)  powerfully remains.    I left the meeting  feeling  that we student activists were truly juvenile, even if  largely right on the central issue of the Vietnam War;  and have him to thank that, thenceforward, I may have been  marginally less of an imbecile  than would otherwise have been the case.

Where Chomsky was all calm -- Jovian -- Lakoff was all energy -- Mercurial -- and tended to create a fevered atmosphere wherever he bustled -- not unlike that at campus protests and SDS meetings.  It was attractive, in a way, to an undergraduate whose veins flowed full with the sap of the Zeitgeist. 
However, I had, before my freshman year, renounced my original intention of majoring and English with a view to becoming a writer, penitentially donning the sackclothlike labcoat of a chemistry major,  in part because I knew myself to be subject to the Siren-calls of pride and cliqueishness  that went with the literary life.  And in Lakoff and his entourage (for there is no other word for the cloud of virtual particles that surrounded him), that factor was much in evidence.  So I drew back.  (Years later, at Berkeley, our paths would once again anastomose.)

What really settled it, though, was the practical reality of what it would mean to take courses from the permanent Harvard faculty (Lakoff was just passing through, and Chomsky taught over at M.I.T.)  I lasted just two meetings of the introductory course taught by droning Professor Undertaker (as I thought of him;  the real surname lies not too distant in phonological space).

Senior year, I applied to graduate school in math at Stanford and Berkeley.   When both accepted, I asked Lynn Loomis which he would recommend.   He was very practical:  no finicky attempts at comparing this professor with that, just:  Berkeley is bigger.  That proved wise advice, for exactly the same meta-reason for which I turned down Yale (whose English department had been making beckoning advances) and chose Harvard because, well, what the hell.  Once again, I wound up pursuing a course of studies entirely different from that in which I had applied.  After dropping out of math from impecunity, I stumbled upon a much more inviting introductory lecture-series by Charles Fillmore of Berkeley linguistics, and there was a thriving department ready to take me on;  whereas Stanford, at that time, didn’t even have a full-fledged Linguistics Department, just a Program within English.   So it looked as though, providentially, I had landed in the right place.

Yet how often have I dwelt in retrospect, how different my intellectual life (and with it, life tout court) might have been, had I instead found myself across the bay at Stanford.  For, despite its shoestring beginnings, by the time I received the doctorate (1981), Stanford had burgeoned into the M.I.T. of the West, whereas the Berkely department -- like the surrounding town -- was falling victim to centrifugal forces, partly political, and partly personality-driven, but more particularly, in the case of Linguistics, because the Rota Fortunae had made another half-turn, resurrecting MIT-style linguistics to a second run of pre-eminence, and sending the fortunes of Berkeley-style Generative Semantics down, down, down…   Fuit Ilium!

~ ~ ~

Below, a miscellany of consilient influences.


The syntactic cycle (cyclic ordering of rules in syntax) has been called “analogous” to the phonological cycle (e.g. Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind (1968), p. 39).   This, however, is  from a disciplinary standpoint  quite a domestic affair, and need not be ‘consilient’ with anything outside linguistics.   And indeed, as Chomsky remarks later in the same pamphlet (p. 66), “One cannot expect structuralist phonology, in itself, to provide a useful model for investigation of other cultural and social systems.

A word of caution.  By saying that a theory of sense ‘breaks down’ the complex ability of linguistic productivity,  I do not mean to suggest that the explanation must be reductive, but only that the theory of sense must articulate [unpack, make plain] the structure of complex ability.  If the ability is best explained by reducing it to other abilities, the theory of sense says what these are … If the ability is best explained holistically, … then it explains how the ability functions holistically …
-- Norbert Hornstein, Logic as Grammar (1984), p. 127


The whole thrust of modularity is that, while tout might more or less se tenir , within  a given module, the modules themselves are connected, in some cases, only the way the wheels and the engine and the windshield of a car are connected, in subserving a larger whole.

Ctr. a sort of ideological purity:

By strongly syntactic, I mean  not only that the theory is developed using syntactic notions,  but also that the principles invoked, and the distinctions advocated, have no natural semantic analogues.
… In fact, a stronger point can be made:  the natural distinctions and generalizations that a natural semantic theory of interpretation would [consiliently] make available  lead us to expect configurations of data that are simply not attested.
-- Norbert Hornstein, Logic as Grammar (1984), p. 102, 4

And,  more polemically, emphatically rejecting any extradisciplinary aid:

An extreme position was taken by Kurylowicz:  “One must explain linguistic facts by other linguistic facts, not by heterogeneous facts. … Explanation by means of social facts is a methodological derailment.” (1948).  For Kurylowicz, even the influence of other languages was irrelevant:  “the substratum theory has no importance for the linguist”.
-- U. Weinreich et al.  in W. Lehmann & Y. Malkiel, Directions for Historical Linguistics (1968), p. 177

All of this -- taken as  a program rather than a description -- is strictly unexceptionable, apart from the final “the” in front of the word “linguist”.  With that restrictive article, the passus passes over into the overweening;  as who should say,  “The wearyingly multifarious  and mostly insensate behaviors  of non-penguin species  is of no concern to The Zoologist.”
Contrast, indeed, in the very same volume, the opinion of one of its editors (Y. Malkiel, p. 28): 

In languages where “progressive” and “conservative”, “aristocratic” and “rustic” variants are suggested by differences in form, no truly satisfactory interpretation is conceivable  without an equal share of attention  granted to the social matrix.”

Along with many other stances that could be cited. (“Pike’s tagmemics  expressly linked to an analysis of cultural behavior as a whole”).


In post-Chomskyan linguistics, hardcore practitioners have usually been at pains to distinguish concepts and processes peculiar to the human language faculty, from those obtaining elsewhere, be it in bee-langue, or the “language of flowers” or “the Brain’s Inner Language” (this, from an article in this morning’s New York Times), or neuranatomy or chemistry or physics or -- horrendo referens -- Psychology with its “general learning strategies.”  By contrast, generativists revel in any apparent structural or procedural harmony within their discipline -- striving, for example, to see how much material can be gleichgeschaltet under the sway of the Empty Category Principle -- the awe-inspiring ECP (the Great and Powerful).


Rules relating S-Structure to LF are of the same kind that operate in the Syntax:  Move alpha.
-- Norbert Hornstein, Logic as Grammar (1984)

Outsiders are unlikely to gasp at this last, nor to marvel about the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Move-alpha.  (“alpha” here stands for:  anything at all.  A slightly more general formulation  would be Stephenson’s Rule:  Do Stuff.)


It is desireable for the overall theory to be articulated into strata, and for certain general notions or procedures to recur at different strata, at least masking their differences in basic material, and perhaps providing a genuine generalization.    Thus:  segmentationcompositionality; and projection.  E.g. (Hornstein):  The Projection Principle:  the Theta Criterion applies at D-structure, ((S-structure)), and LF  (these being the antiseptic rechristening of the old deep structure, surface structure, and logical form, which proved too exciting for the peasantry and had to be withdrawn from general circulation).


The technical tools for dealing with “rule-governed creativity” [basically, a synchronic system of limitless productivity] as distinct from “rule-changing creativity” [diachronic evolution] have only become readily available during the past few decades, in the course of work in logic and foundations of mathematics.
-- Noam Chomsky, “Current Issues in Linguistic Theory”, repr. in Jerry Fodor & Jerrold Katz, eds., The Structure of Language (1964), p. 59


There are books and papers that speculate about the evolution of human language while studiously ignoring all of linguistic research
-- Paul Bloom, reviewing LINGUA EX MACHINA:
Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky With the Human Brain.
By William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton.


Appendix: Historical references to collaboration or lack of it, between linguistics and neighboring fields:

Summing up the wide-ranging work of the philologist and etymologist Hugo Schuchardt (floruit 1864 - 1927, magnum jubilaeum), Leo Spitzer writes:

Schuchardt hat nicht nur über fast alle allgemeinen Probleme der Sprachwissenschaft  nachgedacht, sondern alle irgendwie zur Linguistik peripherisch gelegenen Gebiete des Lebens  abgesucht, von der Sprachwissenschaft als Zentrum aus  seinen Beitrag der Lösung der drängenden Lebensprobleme  gegeben.
-- Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p.

Schuchardt himself, however, in places posits the wisdom of keeping linguistics sauber getrennt:

Hamitische Sprachen sind solche die von Hamiten gesprochen werden, oder Hamiten sind die  welche hamitische Sprachen reden.  Jenes ist die anthropologische Erklärung, dieses die linguistische … Mißverständnissen kann nur dadurch vorgebeugt werden, daß Linguistisches und Anthropologisches strengstens auseinandergehalten werde.
-- review (1912) of  C. Meinhof, Die Sprachen der Hamiten; repr. Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 334


Referring to the theoretical-semantic efforts of the pre-eminent 19th-century psychologist Wilhelm Wundt:

Wundt’s failure seems to have discouraged others from taking up the matter in earnest, for during the last 30 years, no one has made public any system of semasiology worthy of serious consideration.  Semantic work from 1900 to 1930  has been characterized by an astonishing and highly regrettable lack of contact and collaboration between psychologists and philologists.
-- Gustav Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning (1931)


Contra sociological-anthropological structuralisme:

… eager souls who think they can easily borrow  and fruitfully adapt  a formal model  from simpler and perhaps more fortunate fields such as linguistics  or even phonetics.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 122

(Here he means rather phonology;  it is phonology, and not phonetics, that is structuralist.)


Where does linguistics fit in -- among the humanties, or the sciences?

Um die Sprachwissenschaft   haben sich bekanntlich  die Natur- und die Geistes- (order Geschichts-)wissenschaften gerissen,  wie in der mittelalterlichen Legende  die Teufel und die Engle  um die Seele des Menschen.  Jetzt pflegt man sie  ihrem Inhalt nach  zu den Geisteswissenschaften,  ihrer Methode nach  zu den Naturwissenschaften zu zählen;  mit fast dem gleichen Rechte  könnte man das Umgekehrte tun.
Ich halte an der Einheit der Wissenschaft  fest,  und vermag  beispiesweise  zwischen Biologie  und Sprachwissenschaft  keine tiefere Kluft wahrzunehmen  als zwischen Chemie und Biologie.
-- Hugo Schuchardt, (1892), in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 105


Ardennes Forest monostich

May 14, 1940:

Disaster  came faster
than the French could comprehend …

Exactly one month later:

The hooked-cross flag of Hitler    
from the Eiffel Tower.

[--Wm Shirer, The Nightmare Years (1984), p. 503, 523]

Thursday, July 7, 2016


2 Nature:  1 death.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Urysohn Metrization Theorem: a Perceptualist approach

At least since Locke, and down to our own day, an especially gormless form of empiricism, which we may call perceptualism, has held sway.
This theory is too boring even to summarize, let alone polemicize against, let alone analyze;  but -- credit where due -- we offer a

Perceptualist Proof of the UMT

(1)  I see … an array of color-patches, in my visual field. …  They form  (or so it seems to me, at this particular instant) … a topological space.

(2) They -- the pattern -- I see at once (unless I am but dreaming) -- it’s:  Regular !!

(3)  I focus on a single point (“Andrew”), and the topology there.  It has, one imagines, were there world enough and time to actually count and Booleanize all the open sets (1, 2, 3, …. ) a countable basis.
I try another point (“Bertha”):  likewise, the basis of the topology there is (let us say  -- obviously we could never really know this, any more than we can truly know that we have hands) countable.
Might this be the general case ??

(4) And -- yes! -- Charlie and Denise and Edmund and … all are graced with a topology enjoying a countable basis!   The space as a whole thus has one [NDLR: Fallacious step, but what do you expect] -- it’s Second-Countable !!!

(5)  And now … hoving in from beyond the horizon, as though from nowhere, it’s … look … a metric!  A very metric!  Hurrah!  The space is metrizable !!!!!!!

(6)  Q.E.D.

Saturday, July 2, 2016


The Fourth of July celebration -- in origin quite earnest, and a time for historico-political speechmaking -- has gradually softened and loosened, like an old sweater, into a fairly agenda-free holiday for kids:  Fireworks, fun, and french fries.  Well I recall, how we as kids  lined up along Ridgewood Avenue, excitedly half-comprehendingly, to watch the parade flow by.

As you grow older, some of it does get old.  Brief bursts of bright blotches against the night sky  no longer move me -- not, at any rate, so much as the least glimpse of God’s own handiwork, like the more permanent pattern-and-colorburst on the leaves of a coleus, or a lady cardinal in the bush.

But in another way, the meaning of this day grows ever deeper, even sombre.  For the success and permanency of the American Revolution was by no means a foregone conclusion -- we were truly in uncharted territory back then.   The more you learn about history, and the more history itself keeps happening, you are forced to conclude:  Most revolutions  go awry.

To begin with our own.   Contrary to the impression we get in school, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, a bare one third of the American population was in favor of rebelling against Britain; a third against; a third undecided.   The perfect setting for an immediate post-revolution civil war.  Yet it did not happen (the Civil War a century later fell along quite different lines).  The only threat came again externally, in 1812 (“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”), when the wrath of the British Empire was again turned against us, and the nation’s capital was set in flames.   The pinwheels and cherry bombs of latter days  commemorate an actual peril.

Remarkably as well, we managed, over the years and (by now) centuries, to maintain (most of us) extremely cordial, even intimate relations with the Mother Country -- an unusual trans-hemispheric affinity, unmatched by the relations of the Latin American countries to Spain and Portugal (let alone Haiti or Algeria to France).

Consider next the French revolution -- “next”, because in fact it was subsequent to our own, having broke out in 1789; though the way Europeans run on about it, you’d think it was the first revolution in the history of the world.  Anyhow, it remains a proud occasion;  the French version of Independence Day is Bastille Day, celebrated on July 14, with great fanfare.  (For our friendly nod to our old ally, click here:  Merci la France.)
Yet their revolution was -- franchise oblige -- a gorawful bloody cock-up.  Not content with overturning centuries of monarchy, the revolutionaries proceeded to la Terreur, and to a sort of overreaching ideological Gleichschaltung that foreshadowed the Bolshevik excess. And to crown it all, it didn’t stick:  within a couple of decades, the kings were back.

France did not ultimately found a Republic that stuck, after the imperial and revived-monarchical interludes, until 1871, with the Third Republic (which segued into the Fourth and Fifth without a relapse into pre-Republican polity).   Nor did this event stem in any direct way from the events of 1789.  As William Shirer tells it, in The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969, chapter “A Freakish Birth):

It came into being by a fluke.  The National Assembly, elected in 1871 … had not wanted a Republic.  Nearly two thirds of its members were Monarchists.  But they could not agree on a king …
So the lawmakers … sort of backed into the harness of a republic … by a majority of one vote … 353 to 352 -- though there would have been a tie  had one deputy, who was against it, not been late in arriving for the balloting.  Even then it was not clear to many members that they were actually choosing a republic.  The day before, they had rejected it, or thought they had.

By contrast, the Constitution that came out of our revolutionary days  has lasted and guided us down to the present, with comparatively modest and incremental additions.

Since the end of the Second World War, world history has been spotted by rebellions and revolts, mostly anti-colonial, in quest of independence.   And for the most part, the results have not been pretty.
MyanmarZimbabwe.   Algeria. Somalia.  Cambodia.  South AfricaCongo.  The fragment that is Pakistan, and the mini-fragment of Bangladesh.  And now most recently, South Sudan and Azawad.  Names like tombstones along the  the corpse-strewn path of History’s forced-march.

And thus the American declaration of independence, which shone at the time, shines yet more brightly now, against the contrasting dark.  It is as though the metal of which men then were made, deemed sturdy bronze at the time, were revealed, in the fullness of time, with the reckonings in and the dust dispersed, to have been, in actual and astonishing fact, of purest gold.

[The perspective of this essay thus falls under the general rubric of American exceptionalism.]

[4 juillet 2014]  The above is a reprint of our essay from earlier years at this time.
Additionally, this morning’s Washington Post has a quite readable portrait of a contemporary attempt to recapture Independence to the potential exclusion of certain other values (such as civilization):


And, a view from England: