Still ahead of his time

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This morning's NY Times science section is devoted to memorializing Charles Darwin, and the title of one of the featured articles is: "He was prescient in 1859, and is still ahead of his time." My first reaction to this headline was an unreflecting interpretation of it as simply meaning, 'Darwin was ahead of his time and his ideas are still on the cutting edge.'

But my second reaction was quite conscious: Wait a minute; this is an error — perhaps akin to those frequently noted confusions like "falling between the cracks" or "No brain damage is too minor to be ignored."  (If indeed they are properly considered confusions, see below.)

It would have been okay to have said "still ahead of the times," where "the times" refers, as intended, to the present time, and "still" serves to relate the present time to Darwin's time.  But read closely, either "still ahead of his time" is true simply because he was ahead of his time when alive, and so the predication would be satisfied in any situation in which the subject was ahead of his time when alive and so is utterly uninformative — or it would mean nothing at all.  But my third thought was provoked by the voice of the tiny angel of common sense that sits on the shoulder of every academic (or should), who whispered, "Whoa, even if this is an error in some persnickety sense, it shouldn't be cavalierly dismissed as such because the expression works in communicating its author's intention and so how it manages to do this while breaking the normal rules should be a matter of interest."

I've thought of two ways to begin to tame this small but toothy linguistic beast.  They are no more than beginnings. Doubtless other readers can think of more, or can improve my fumblings.

First analysis: "Still" in a context like this means something like 'up until now'.  We've called the headline an error because saying that Darwin's having been ahead of his time is still TRUE is uninformative, since there's no earthly reason to suppose it isn't still true. ("Yes, George Washington is still dead." [Please don't ask me again.])  But if we make the relatively small jump from TRUE to RELEVANT (and allow by common metonymy, or even the conventional meaning of the idiom "ahead of his/her time", "his" to be read as 'his ideas'), we get that Darwin was ahead of his time in 1859 and his ideas are still relevant now. So that's one way to tame the beast. Maybe we have no thoretical warrant to change TRUE to RELEVANT whenever it just happens to suit our purposes, but — what can I say? — that's life, or maybe journalism.

Second analysis: This one seems to require a twist, maybe a wrenching, of what literary critics call "free indirect style" ("style indirect libre", in the original French), in which indirect reference to speech or thought (vs. direct quotation) can ignore the normal shifting of time, as in, "What was she going to do now?" (We note that the word "now" can't normally refer to a time in the past.) On this analysis we grant ourselves license to speak of Darwin and his work as existing in the present time, even though we're not indirectly quoting anybody, and can then assert the work to be on the cutting edge of this time, while employing the word "still" to relate it to its original time.  Those more familiar than I am with the mixing or blending of Gilles Fauconnier's mental spaces can probably straighten me out on this, perhaps even dispensing entirely with the reference to free indirect style.

I'm not proud of either of these 'analyses' and hope LL readers can do better, since the small problem posed by the headline seems to me an interesting one.

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32 Comments »

  1. John Ross said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    This can be read as a reflection of the NY Times' admiration for Darwin, and their poetically expressed regret that he has died prematurely.

  2. Nik Berry said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    I can't improve on your analyses, but I wonder if this happened because someone rewrote "He was ahead of his time in 1859, and still is."

    Which also doesn't quite work, of course :)

  3. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    I don't know how pleasing this account is, but we could see "ahead of his time" as being a sort of idiomatic unit that means something roughly similar to "on the cutting edge".

    Another possible reading takes "his time" not to mean "the time Darwin was alive" but rather "the time Darwin's ideas reach full fruition", and reverse the directional metaphor in "ahead", so that "ahead of his time" doesn't mean "coming up with ideas from times later than he is alive", but rather "hasn't yet reached the point in time where his ideas are in full fruition". I suppose on this reading though it would make more sense to say "we are still ahead of his time" rather than "he is still ahead of his time".

  4. Schuyler said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Maybe we can think of 'his time' being not the time in which he lived, worked, and died, but instead as the time to which Darwin's ideas are suited: the time at which he will have 'arrived' in the national or world consciousness in a way that accurately recognizes the truths that he promulgated.

    After all, if you can write 'Darwin was ahead of his time' to begin with and thus place 'him' in a place that exists in some moment that would henceforth — from the perspective of Darwin himself (1809-1882) — come to be, we must acknowledge that that moment might still be standing by, biding its time until the opposing ideologies collapse. (Hence his prescience: as we do expect his ideas to prevail, after all, on the whole.)

    Thus, if our language had a future tense, we might be say that 'Darwin was, is, and [continues to be] ahead of his time.'

    As in fact the controversy and vitriol of the current national dialog, embodied by such figures from Richard Dawkins to James Dobson, would indicate. That controversy simply demonstrating how 'behind the times' with respect to Darwin's vision the American nation continues to be.

    p.s. Did anyone see yesterday's xkcd? Brilliant.

  5. Nathan said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Or, rather, "he is still ahead of our time."

  6. Sky Onosson said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    I think Kenny Easwaran's idiom analysis sounds right. After all, he can only be ahead of his time, not anyone else's. If "ahead of X's time" were more analytical, you would think that it would be possible to be ahead of another person's time – but it's not.

  7. Sky Onosson said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Apparently, Nathan's reading of the construction is different than mine!

  8. Trond Engen said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Shouldn't the headline read "still ahead of The Times"?

    One of them, anyway, One of the headlines, that is, Or one of the Times.

  9. David Denison said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    How about, as intended sense, something like the following?

    "He was prescient in 1859, indeed he was ahead of his time then [those two aren't exactly synonymous, are they?], and if he were alive now he would still be ahead of his time, in the sense that many people don't yet accept his ideas."

  10. Dan Milton said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    Was it Nicholas Wade's article you read and was it in the print version?
    The headline of the online article is "Darwin, Ahead of his Time, is Still Influential".
    I don't know if the change was to make better sense or just to fit the format.

  11. Devin Mullins said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    There are two questions here:

    1. How is it that this sentence communicated meaning, despite being wrong? Well, that's simpler than you're making it out to be — it's close enough to something that is correct, just as "Are a academic persnickety you," communicates meaning. I'd guess that this was just a mistake on the author's part.

    2. If this was intended, in what manner was it meant? I'd agree with Kenny's idiom assessment, there (especially since it's pretty close to my first point).

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    As admirable as it may be to welcome spontaneous usages into the fold, I'm voting for woolly-headed error here. The writer didn't think through what it meant, and didn't end up meaning much of anything. Each reader must either invent a series of alterations necessary to make it mean something (something probably, and in the end demonstrably, wrong anyway), or just extract a sort of grunt, "Darwin: good".

    Much of commercial "communications" work on the latter principle, where detailed analysis is not rewarded, and the typical reader knows better than to invest any such analysis. A linguist might reasonably explore it as a phenomenon of a nonsense utterance and analyze its production process. Did the original expression mean something, and then a copy editor obscured it? Or did it start out meaning nothing, but transparently so, and the copy editor obscured that?

  13. Mark P said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    I tend to come down close to Nathan Meyers. The headline can be construed to have a meaning, but without reading the article, it's impossible to know whether it is the meaning the writer intended. We can get a kind of general sense of what it means, but even that might be misleading. We have to do too much of the heavy lifting. Of course that's true of many headlines. For example, the headline cited by GKP in his earlier post.

  14. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    A similar idea was expressed rather more succinctly & gracefully by Richard Ellmann in his biography of Joyce: "We are still learning to be James Joyce's contemporaries."

  15. Paul Kay said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    I think Kenny Easwaran's suggestion that "ahead of his time" is being used as an idiom roughly synonymous with "on the cutting edge" is an attractive guess at what might have been going on in the head of the writer at the moment of composition, but I don't think that it can be generalized. We don't normally read things like, "Shakespeare's genius was universal; his psychological insights remain ahead of his time."

    In answer to Dan Milton's question, I read it in the West Coast version of the written paper. It's possible, for all I know, that someone at the Times noticed the oddity and corrected the online version after the early paper version was out of the barn.

    To Nigel Greenwood, Wow, nice!

  16. mollymooly said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    Googling throws up hits for ‘ahead not only of his own time, but of ours too’ and similar. Attempting variations on this, it's easy to get into troubles akin to the under-/over-negation discussed in the linked-to post.

    Paul May's First Analysis (moving from TRUE to RELEVANT) is reminiscent of pragmatic implicature. But implicature is based on the speaker and hearer having a common understanding that the literal meaning of an utterance is not the intended meaning. The present case lacks this commonality; instead, the hearer is (consciously or not) repairing an unconscious error made by the speaker.

  17. Paul Kay said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    Mollymooly, thanks. I'm not surprised though that Google shows ‘ahead not only of his own time, but of ours too’ and similar things. These (this one anyway) lack(s) the critical "still" and "his", which disconcertingly conflate past and present. (BTW, that's Kay, with a K.)

    Incidentally, starting a sentence by addressing someone who writes their name with a lowercase letter, as in this comment, puts in conflict the rule requiring faithful reproduction of names and the one enjoining us to start a sentence with a capital letter. The problem sometimes comes up in papers about languages with no writing system other than the one given them by the linguist, different linguists adopting different strategies.

  18. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 10, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Either of these analyses might explain how this headline could make sense, but I don't think either one explains how it does make sense on first read (or, as whispered by the little demon of common sense on your shoulder, how it "manages to [communicate its author's intention] while breaking the normal rules"). For that, I agree with mollymooly that "the hearer is (consciously or not) repairing an unconscious error made by the speaker", and the question seems to be, how do we repair that error? Is it the same way that we repair "falling between the cracks" and overnegations and "repair" metonymy and free indirect speech? (Do we even repair all of those the same way?)

  19. Jörg said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 1:37 am

    Re: "attractive guess…"
    Well, obviously. The question arises, though, whether we should really only qualify such odd phrases as mistakes that derive their oddity from a lack of conveyed information. It´s certainly a polite sign of helpfulness to be willing to interpolate the meaning of phrases which actually convey too much information, but in a journalistic context such phrasing tends to be employed in the service of insinuation far too often to be considered entirely benign.

  20. outeast said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 4:48 am

    I vote brainfart…

    Paul read and accepted the headline without a problem at first (I did, too, despite the tipoff that something must be wrong). This strongly suggests that the use of the idiom was superficially acceptable, which I guess it how it got passed, but maybe only bacause it fits so easily with 'prescient' and because it is a very familiar idiom (and hence the kind of thing we read without analyzing).

    Thinking about the phrase closely, however, not only makes it seem 'wrong' in the sense of being syntactically confusing, but factually untrue (Darwin is not ahead of the times now, in any sense). The NYT seems to have picked up on both problems: the headline (online) now reads (in different places) Darwin, Ahead of His Time, Is Still Influential and Darwin, Prescient With 'Origin', Is Still Influential.

    This correction involves two things: in the first place, the (new?) headline writer has used 'ahead of his time' and 'prescient' in the same position in the two headlines; and in the second, Darwin has been relabelled 'still influential' rather than 'still ahead of [the] time', which makes sense as being factually true…

  21. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    @ Paul Kay: Mollymooly … Incidentally, starting a sentence by addressing someone who writes their name with a lowercase letter, as in this comment, puts in conflict the rule requiring faithful reproduction of names and the one enjoining us to start a sentence with a capital letter.

    Wouldn't the standard way of dealing with this be to write "[M]ollymooly"?

    This reminds me of the problems encountered in the German Wikipedia when referring to musical works in minor keys (eg h-Moll-Messe, Bach's Mass in B Minor), since the charming, but redundant, German convention is to write minor keys in lower case. When I first looked it up a couple of years ago, it had the title H-Moll-Messe, with an aplogetic note explaining that the WP software couldn't cope with initial lowercase letters. I see that it now has the correct title, some programming genius presumably having overcome the problem.

  22. Faldone said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    I think part of the problem is that, if we know what something means we don't do a lot of parsing of the words used to state that something. I tossed the "No brain damage is too minor to be ignored" example at my wife and she couldn't imagine what was wrong with it. I tried to explain to her and couldn't come up with anything reasonable. I finally came up with the following:

    If something is said to be too hot to handle it suggests that if it were less hot it could be handled. If something is said to be too minor to be ignored it suggests that if it were less minor it could be ignored. Tossing the "No" in front of it just compounds the parsing problem

  23. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    @ Faldone: And what about that irritating saying 'It's a long road that has no turning"?

  24. Chris said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Thinking about the phrase closely, however, not only makes it seem 'wrong' in the sense of being syntactically confusing, but factually untrue (Darwin is not ahead of the times now, in any sense).

    I disagree. If you say that, for example, Thomas Paine was ahead of his time in rejecting slavery, you mean that he believed something that was not accepted at the time, but later would be accepted. In science in particular, something that was not accepted at an earlier time but is accepted at a later time is almost certain to have become accepted through proof, and there is a school of thought that holds that a similar process of accepting the successes and rejecting the failures guides social changes like the elimination of slavery as well, which I think underlies the "ahead of his time" metaphor. (Although I suppose someone could be said to be ahead of their time in fields that don't follow any systematic trend of progress, like fashion, I think it would be by loose analogy to science and social progress.)

    Therefore, Darwin's ideas were ahead of his time because most people in his time didn't yet realize they were true. Most people in our time don't yet realize they're true either, so they're still ahead of our time. (Although, of course, if you define the state of the times' knowledge by biologists rather than by the general population, then his ideas have been accepted and are no longer ahead of our time.)

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Faldone: What an excellent example. Like your wife, I took an embarrassing long time to catch your meaning. (I assume she has since got it.) Translating to the present context, we might compare "No grammatical oddity is too minor to ignore" vs. "No grammatical oddity is too minor to obsess on". They cannot both be true, here anyway.

  26. sleepnothavingness said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    I'm still struggling to think how I would decide if someone were ahead of their time NOW. I don't think I could, and this concept compounds my dissatisfaction with the original.

  27. Dan M. said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    I think you've missed an important alternative. In "Darwin is still ahead of his time.", 'Darwin' isn't the man, but is instead the text of the books that the man authored.

    Furthermore, the sentence is understandable only in respect to the particular subject. There's a blog about a modern biologist reading The Origin of Species for the first time (http://scienceblogs.com/bloggingtheorigin/2009/01/), and one of the repeated observations is that the book even now is an unusually clear and throrough argument for the theory.

    Darwin — the collected works of the man and Origin in particular — is ahead of [his] (this is given the grammatical gender of the man Darwin because that's the word used for the subject, even though the subject is not the man.) time because, even today, a reader experiencing those works (experiencing them today) is impressed with the clarity and completeness of the works.

    I think the claim of the original sentence is that even today, every time somebody experiences the works of Darwin, the effect is to advanced the reader's knowledge to a degree that takes a lot of time to catch up to by other means.

  28. mollymooly said,

    February 11, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

    I'm sorry for flubbing your name, Mr Kay, and for giving you pause with regard to capitalizing mine, especially as I don't mind either way.

  29. outeast said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 4:46 am

    Chris

    (Although, of course, if you define the state of the times' knowledge by biologists rather than by the general population, then his ideas have been accepted and are no longer ahead of our time.)

    This is exactly how I would define it – and reading the article makes it clear that this was the author's original sense, too.

    Identifying whether something is 'ahead of the time' on the basis of it having percolated through to awareness, understanding, and acceptance among the majority of the global population would be silly – it would mean almost all expert knowledge would be 'ahead of its time' in near perpetuity, which would rob the phrase of its meaning.

    In fact, though, I must own up to not having read the article before commenting before: the writer (Nicholas Wade) emphasises that some Darwinian hypotheses which were long out of favour have lately attracted renewed interest, and it seems to be this idea that makes Darwin still 'ahead of the times'. Wade cites specific areas, specifically group selection, morality as rooted in evolutionary biology, and sympatric speciation – and although I would dispute the characterization of Darwin as 'still ahead of the times' in having speculated about these ideas, I must concede that my claim that 'Darwin is not ahead of the times now, in any sense' was couched too strongly.

  30. Azimuth said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    Dan M. is onto something.

    As long as the ideas of Darwin are known in any form, especially as text, "his time" can extend to the now. Fictional characters are alive in the present, and so is Darwin.

    Of course, we don't say simply, "Darwin is still ahead of his time," because he is dead and so "his time" is ambiguous. But in "He was prescient in 1859, and is still ahead of his time," the ambiguity disappears.

  31. Aaron Davies said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    @Nigel Greenwood: i'm reminded of uncyclopedia, which used to stick something along the lines of "this article title should start with a lowercase letter, but computers have taken over the world" at the top of pages with that problem. (i'd link an example but i can't find one anymore.)

    i was also reminded of this by the recent post here about apostrophes' removal from street signs' being defended on the grounds that it helped emergency crews look up the streets' names: speaking as a programmer, any government agency that commissions an emergency services system without fuzzy search is guilty of misuse of public funds and should be closely investigated to determine whether the contractor in questions is someone on the council's brother-in-law.

  32. Matthew Korte said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    I think you are right in intuiting that the question hinges on the adverb "still".

    Persnickety grammarians are prone to digress about the appropriate literal reference of the expression "ahead of one's time". But the substitution of "his time" for "the times" becomes possible here because the resulting utterance, rather than in need of repair, is perhaps even more pragmatically relevant. "He was prescient in 1859, and is still ahead of his time" thus becomes roughly tautological, like "boys will be boys" or "what's done is done".

    Like "anyway", the adverb "still" can be used to show an adversative or contrastive relationship between two clauses, and it is this relationship that we should attend to. What does the second clause add to the first? Taken literally, tautologies are (by definition) informationally trivial. But when we encounter them, we rather actively search for a relevant interpretation of the repeated item, in this case prescience, timeliness or influence. The sentence is meaningful, not because it aims at precision, but because it doesn't.

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