Tarski’s theory of truth as a reason to leave linguistics?

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According to Elif Batuman, “Confessions of an Accidental Literary Scholar“, The Chronicle Review, 2/12/2010:

I didn’t care about truth; I cared about beauty. It took me many years—it took the experience of lived time—to realize that they really are the same thing.

In the meantime, I became a linguistics major. I wanted to learn the raw mechanism of language, the pure form itself. For the foreign-language requirement, I enrolled in beginning Russian: Maybe someday I could answer my mother’s question about what Tolstoy was really trying to say in Anna Karenina.

The nail in the coffin of my brief career as a linguist was probably a seminar I took that winter about the philosophy of language. The aim of this seminar was to formulate a theory that would explain to a Martian “what it is that we know when we know a language.” I could not imagine a more objectless, melancholy project. The solution turned out to consist of a series of propositions having the form “‘Snow is white’ is true if snow is white.” The professor, a gaunt logician with a wild mane of red hair, wrote this sentence on the board during nearly every class, and we would discuss why it wasn’t trivial. Outside the window, snow piled deeper and deeper.

By contrast with the philosophy of language and my other classes in psycholinguistics, syntax, and phonetics, beginning Russian struck me as profoundly human. I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story, and Russian (the study of a particular language) to resemble a set of rules, but the reality was just the opposite.

Apparently Batuman was an undergraduate at Harvard, so some people whose 02138-ology is more current than mine should be able to decode the identity of that gaunt logician.  Good academic gossip, I guess, but I don’t care much (although I do wonder what department (s)he was in).  Rather, I’m interested in the idea that Tarski’s theory of truth should be the critical factor in a young woman’s decision to abandon linguistics.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Alfred Tarski (1901–1983) described himself as “a mathematician (as well as a logician, and perhaps a philosopher of a sort)” (1944, p. 369). He is widely considered as one of the greatest logicians of the twentieth century (often regarded as second only to Gödel), and thus as one of the greatest logicians of all time. Among philosophers he is especially known for his mathematical characterizations of the concepts of truth and logical consequence for sentences of classical formalized languages, and to a lesser extent for his mathematical characterization of the concept of a logical constant for expressions of those same languages. Among logicians and mathematicians he is in addition famous for his work on set theory, model theory and algebra, which includes results and developments such as the Banach-Tarski paradox, the theorem on the indefinability of truth (see section 2 below), the completeness and decidability of elementary algebra and geometry, and the notions of cardinal, ordinal, relation and cylindric algebras.

I’ve often complained about the fact that linguistics as an academic discipline formed late, left with scraps from the table of many already well-established fields: anthropology, education, literary studies, classical and modern languages, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, speech pathology, and so on.  For both external and internal reasons, the field has tended to accept a narrow definition of its scope, at the same time as many other fields (especially anthropology and language departments) have largely lost interest in linguistic analysis.

In philosophy, the “linguistic turn” (which Tarski took part in) was given that name only on its tombstone, so to speak. When language was at the center of philosophy, for better or for worse, linguistics as an academic field got little or no bureaucratic benefit.  Now the philosophers’ focus has mostly shifted.

And the only time (as far as I can tell) that the Chronicle of Higher Education has ever referred to Tarski, he’s the intellectual bad guy in an anecdote about abandoning linguistics for literary studies. Typical.


  1. Robert said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    I can’t say I care too much for someone’s opinion if they really think truth and beauty are the same thing.

    In any case, this story reminds me of one told by Joel Spolsky here (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/CollegeAdvice.html (near “I remember the exact moment when”)).

  2. Kutsuwamushi said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    I had expected linguistics (the general study of language) to resemble a story

    It sounds like she was more suited to literary studies than linguistics to begin with.

    Of course, one person’s objectless and melancholy project is another person’s quest for truth or beauty. I think that the marvelous complexity of language is beautiful, but find literary studies to be unfulfilling–one might say objectless and melancholy. This isn’t because literary studies is inherently deficient, but just because I’m not well-suited to it.

  3. Dave M said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    Yes, “‘Snow is white’ is beautiful if and only if snow is white” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

    I don’t know who our red-headed Harvard man is, but it seems to me that if the subject of that class was the attempt “to formulate a theory that would explain to a Martian ‘what it is that we know when we know a language,'” then the villain of the piece is probably not Tarski but the early Donald Davidson, who adapted Tarski’s work in formal logic for his own interest in natural languages like English. As it happens, even Davidson seemed to lose interest in this task in the mid-80’s, but that early work helped to set up his later much more interesting and important work, which most contemporary philosophers of language either ignore or fail to understand, to their detriment imho but don’t get me started on that.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    “‘Snow is white’ is beautiful if and only if snow is white”

    In Batuman’s book, the professor’s sentence uses “iff,” not “if.”

  5. Russell said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    Must come as a shock to learn that some people find satisfaction in both linguistics (even formal) and literary studies.

    Also as a side-note, at least in my experience there are linguists who like (or have no objection) to call theories or hypotheses “stories” (“my story for morphological blocking involves…”, “we need a coherent story for ellipsis”), and those who find it objectionable.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    Way back when (ok, it was I think the spring semester of 1987), I took a philosophy of language course as an undergraduate that was in the philosophy dep’t but which counted for credit toward the linguistics major. It, shall we say, confirmed my decision to abandon philosophy as a major in favor of linguistics, and tended to confirm my long-running theory that you apparently don’t have to know very much about language to make it in the philosophy of language business. While the teacher’s own philosophical commitments were a bit outre (I can’t recall if he claimed to be a Freudian Aristotelian or vice versa — this was J. Lear, who later went off to the U. of Chicago) he as far as I could tell from spot-checking in later years dutifully taught us the straight-up Anglo-American analytical dudes’ canon on philosophy of language, so the fault was with the canon, not with him.

  7. Vance Maverick said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    I too was disappointed in this cheap shot when I read it in her book. But don’t let it discourage you — she doesn’t spend much time on things she doesn’t feel the need to be fair to, instead dwelling to better effect on what she really cares about, i.e. literature. A promising book.

  8. John Cowan said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Truth is beauty. So is exuberance. We have these on the best of authority. But Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.

  9. uberVU - social comments said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 12:05 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Tarski’s theory of truth as a reason to leave linguistics http://goo.gl/fb/by70

  10. Carl Voss said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 12:25 am

    The logician must be Richard Heck.

  11. Ogmiok said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    Could linguistics ever be a big enough tent to comfortably accommodate both propositions, “‘Snow is white’ is true if snow is white” and “truth=beauty”? Right now, I’m guessing, there’s not even space for the first, let alone the second.

    Part of the explanation for the narrowness of linguistics as a discipline is no doubt the willingness of literature departments to attend to the second, more poetic proposition. But I’m pretty confident, as a literature student who stays sane by reading outside the discipline, that the sort of theorizing that follows from that sort of logic would not sit well with (what I understand to be) the fundamental standards of linguistics as it exists.

    Maybe as literature departments leave language behind for culture (even if they insist on calling it “discourse”), it’s time for linguistics to make a move…but please don’t lose your soul or your reassuringly reasonable empiricism.

  12. Nassira Nicola said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    Hmm. She seems to have graduated from Harvard the spring before I entered, so I can verify that, whoever the logician/philosopher-of-language was, he was certainly not a member of the linguistics faculty. (Incidentally – based on the description, he seems unlikely to be a current or emeritus member of the philosophy faculty, either.) It seems particularly unfair to damn an entire undergraduate major based not only on one class, but on one class taught by someone outside the major department. (Not that the material isn’t relevant to linguistics, but the perspective on the material isn’t necessarily going to be representative of what it means to major in linguistics. Especially at Harvard, for heaven’s sake.)

    That said, I remember long nights spent in the ling lounge, drawing stick figures of smoking women on the white board, trying to figure out the point of “Ann smokes” iff Ann smokes. I recall concluding, at the time, that the point was to demonstrate the stupidity of semantics (the topic of the elective mini-tutorial in which Ann was being discussed). Now that I’m not only older and wiser, but also a teacher and sometimes a semanticist, I’d say the point is more likely that we’re not doing a great job explaining Tarski to undergrads. I have yet to meet a non-semanticist who doesn’t resent poor Ann and her baffling nicotine maybe-habit.

  13. Will said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    beauty = having a high level of aesthetic value
    truth = having a high level of acceptance as fact and/or conformance to reality

    it’s true that both of these things are highly subjective, but they are most definitely *very* different concepts. and though they often overlap (what is true is also often beautiful), i find it difficult to see how anyone could logically equate them. on the other hand, i can definitely see how one could irrationally equate them — they are both romanticized concepts that are difficult to grasp or define. my conclusion is that batuman’s statement was an irrational one.

    and for what it’s worth i find structured literature analysis for the most part unbearable dull (even though i generally enjoy reading literature), and i find linguistic philosophy, however esoteric or logically malformed, very interesting.

  14. Aloysius Trebeck said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:09 am

    The gaunt, red-headed logician was Richard Heck, of the philosophy department. A favourite with undergraduate “concentrators”, he was a masterful teacher and an enigmatic presence on campus. To be blunt, a cult figure. He’s at Brown now, and ever worth a look. http://frege.brown.edu/heck/

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    Joel Spolsky has a hole in his head, and he almost always falls in. It’s fun to spot the place where it happens. Probably in that essay, it’s where he misses that the people concerned with making things work are in the Engineering department, not the Science department.

  16. Mark said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:20 am

    O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
    With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
    As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

  17. Ian Tindale said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 3:30 am

    The world is flat is beautiful, seemingly.

  18. Alon Lischinsky said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    Although I suppose this is far from what Batuman intended, the proposition that truth = beauty, far from being a poetic boutade of contemporary literary studies, is actually a core tenet in a rather rigorous philosophical system: see Aquinas’ De Veritate, q.1 a.1 sc.2.

    Not that Aquinas’ theories have been of much use in linguistic research, of course.

  19. Szwagier said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    It’s anecdotal evidence, sure, but I’ve heard some beautiful lies in my time.

  20. Mark P said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    Scientists sometimes say a particularly appealing theory is beautiful. Sometimes they say it’s elegant. In almost no case do they say it’s true.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    I tried to read Russian literature while at Harvard, but found it objectless and melancholy (except for Turgenev, but I was told that wasn’t really Russian literature).

  22. language hat said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    It’s sad to see people leaping on Batuman for a casual side remark about truth and beauty and for her reaction to a bad class — as if all the rest of us were careful, as college students, to distinguish dutifully between a bad class and the discipline it represented. (I myself gave up on anthropology based on a lousy class.) She’s a fine writer with an unusually informed take on Russian literature, which is worth a lot more than being fair to linguistics. Everybody doesn’t have to appreciate everything.

    tended to confirm my long-running theory that you apparently don’t have to know very much about language to make it in the philosophy of language business.

    This has been my experience as well.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    Just on the specific Tarski issue alluded to by myl, I have long had a perhaps totally off-the-wall theory (full proof too long to fit in this margin) that something like Tarskianism (perhaps pop-Tarskianism — maybe Tarski himself wasn’t a pure pop-Tarskian) is one of the driving forces of Strunk-and-Whiteism. Illustrative example: if you think that all a sentence really is is a somewhat messy way of specifying its own truth conditions, so two sentences with the same truth conditions necessarily “mean” the same thing, then there will appear to be no point in a natural language giving you the ability to choose to say either “Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown” or “The football was pulled away from Charlie Brown by Lucy.” So the One Right Way principle kicks in and the passive is to be avoided at all costs. (Someone with that way of thinking might have to concede that the sentences *mean* the same thing but mean in “in different ways,” or to talk about “emphasis” as if it could be cleanly cordoned off from meaning. That’s exactly where I think things start to get really interesting whereas it may be where at least some people coming at it from an analytical-philosophy background start to lose interest.)

  24. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    You guys are funny – analysing Batuman’s statement about truth and beauty!

  25. peter said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    J. W. Brewer said (March 24, 2010 @ 11:09 am)

    “that something like Tarskianism (perhaps pop-Tarskianism — maybe Tarski himself wasn’t a pure pop-Tarskian)”

    Well, Tarski himself took pains to insist his theory only applied to formal languages, so applying it to natural language strikes me as pop- or even non-Tarskian.

  26. James said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    First, I’d like to agree with Dave M. that although the point of the schema-T sentences is obviously Tarski-related, in this case it was Davidson and not Tarski under discussion. (Briefly, Tarski was giving a definition of truth, whereas Davidson takes truth as primitive and uses the sentences to characterize what a speaker has to know to know the language, so the direction of explanation is reversed between the two philosophers’ use of the schema.)
    Second, assuming (as seems very likely) that the instructor was indeed Richard Heck, I must disagree with language hat about the quality of the class (and informedness of the instructor). Heck is a superb teacher (as Aloysius Trebeck says). Analytic philosophy of language isn’t for everyone, but it’s not a good idea to conclude that it must be a bad class.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    @J. W. Brewer: You know you’re talking about pop-Strunk-and-Whiteism, right? Strunk and White said, “the passive voice is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

  28. Barbara Partee said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    I’m off at a conference with only a minute to write — hope I can find time to write more soon. But Montague always had his students read Tarski (his teacher) and that Davidson work; and those “Snow is white” is true iff snow is white sentences have a place somewhat analogous to the statement that “Birds fly” is grammatical in English. In both cases there’s a potentially infinite list of seemingly trivial remarks about what the speaker of English knows. The excitement begins when you try to figure out a finitely stateable set of rules (call it a ‘theory’ if you like) from which they all follow. I.e. some finite specification of those infinitely many facts, something that would fit inside a human brain, and be learnable by a human kid who starts with the right apparatus.
    And without the philosophers and logicians to help, I don’t know if linguists could ever have invented formal semantics on their own; we might have had to invent logic and philosophy first. Of course we’ve done a whole lot with it that logicians and philosophers might not have thought about doing. And I’m happy that there’s a new resurgence of mutual interest and cross-fertilization between linguistics and philosophy once again.
    I certainly don’t find it easy when students ask why the Tarski sentences aren’t trivial. A huge part of the problem is using English as both object language and metalanguage. Somehow writing down truth conditions for the & of propositional logic looks less trivial; but those are also just the truth conditions for sentence-connecting “and”.
    I sympathize with all parties to this discussion. Also the ‘de gustibus …’ part — I had considered majoring in Russian until I discovered that you couldn’t major in “Russian grammar” (at least not at Swarthmore) — all the other students were just studying the grammar to get access to Russian literature. I enjoyed reading Russian literature but couldn’t figure out what “studying” it was all about, and was scared of all literature courses because nobody could explain to me how you knew when you had the right answer. Math was much more comprehensible. (But that can’t be the whole story because I loved philosophy too.)

  29. language hat said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    I must disagree with language hat about the quality of the class (and informedness of the instructor). Heck is a superb teacher (as Aloysius Trebeck says). Analytic philosophy of language isn’t for everyone, but it’s not a good idea to conclude that it must be a bad class.

    I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I personally thought it was a bad class, or that he was a bad teacher. On the “what care I how fair he be, if he be not fair to me” principle, a class that’s not right for you is in your mind a bad class, and that’s how I was using the expression. I’m sure there were budding anthropologists in my anthro class who liked it a lot more than I did, and for them it was a good class.

    without the philosophers and logicians to help, I don’t know if linguists could ever have invented formal semantics on their own

    *bites tongue*

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    I am more than happy to restate my thesis as involving a connection between pop-Tarskianism and pop-Strunk-and-Whiteism. Of course, to reliably distinguish S&W themselves from pop-S&Wism I’d have to actually go back and *read* S&W, and life’s just too short. And then there’s the question of whether writers should be exculpated from responsibility for the foreseeable misuse of their products any more than manufacturers are.

  31. Pavel said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    language hat said,
    It’s sad to see people leaping on Batuman for a casual side remark about truth and beauty and for her reaction to a bad class

    No, the passage quoted above is not just a casual side remark about a bad class. The overall rhetorical effect is to disparage the field of linguistics, so naturally it would upset any linguist who doesn’t view the enterprise as “objectless”. Of course everyone is entitled to have their own interests and inclinations, but saying “I didn’t find linguistics worthwhile” is not the same as implying “Linguistics is not worthwhile”. And being “a fine writer with an unusually informed take on Russian literature” doesn’t excuse casting aspersions on someone else’s field of study. It’s sad to see people leaping to Batuman’s defense for such an unthinking remark.

  32. Andy said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    If “‘Snow is white’ is beautiful if and only if snow is white” then Snow White is beautiful but not her red-haired dwarf.

  33. Hermeticus said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    It’s definitely Heck– I took the same class. Her reaction is the same as a lot of people looking for profundity from philosophy and encountering the 3-truth-conditions-and-a-cloud-of-dust style of the analytical tradition. But Heck’s a good teacher. And as good-natured takedowns of philosophy at Harvard go, Gertrude Stein’s final exam for William James still wins.

  34. language hat said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    The overall rhetorical effect is to disparage the field of linguistics, so naturally it would upset any linguist who doesn’t view the enterprise as “objectless”. Of course everyone is entitled to have their own interests and inclinations, but saying “I didn’t find linguistics worthwhile” is not the same as implying “Linguistics is not worthwhile”.

    Excuse me, where did she say “Linguistics is not worthwhile”? I must be going blind, because I can’t find it. If you seriously think she’s disparaging the field of linguistics rather than explaining her own personal development, I don’t know what to tell you.

    [(myl) To clarify the point I was trying to make: Batuman is entitled to whatever reactions she pleases to Heck on Davidson on Tarski on Truth. But I found it ironic that she blamed linguistics for a body of work for which generations of university administrators earlier awarded (a significant amount of intellectual and bureaucratic) credit to philosophy — work encountered in a philosophy course, taught by a member of the philosophy department. The irony is compounded by the fact that this is one of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s rare mentions of linguistics.]

  35. anon said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    What’s an anagram of Banach-Tarski?

    Banach-Tarski Banach-Tarski.

  36. language hat said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    The irony is compounded by the fact that this is one of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s rare mentions of linguistics

    Oh yeah, I definitely feel your pain there. Linguistics needs to be defended from a lot of people; I just don’t think Ms. Batuman is one of them.

  37. Jason Merchant said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Here’s where Batuman dissed linguistics in her Chronicle piece: “When I got back to school that fall, I couldn’t face linguistics again—it had let me down, failed to reveal anything about language and what it meant.” This is worth disagreeing with at the very least.

    [(myl) Especially if the let-down is epitomized by Heck on Davidson on Tarski. Even if you grant her opinion of the sterility of those ideas, it’s misleading to imply that linguistics has nothing else to say about “language and what it means”.]

    This discussion recalled for me Liesl Schillinger’s review of Batuman’s book in the NYTimes this weekend, where Schillinger wrote the following: “In scorching, arid Samarkand, she devotes months to the study of the challenging Old Uzbek language (70 words for duck, 100 words for crying)”. Eskimo, anyone? (Apparently without realizing that Batuman’s native language, Turkish, would make it less challenging for her to learn Uzbek than to learn Russian.) Can’t blame Batuman for this (at least I can’t, not having read Batuman’s book: though probably she’s the source of the claim about ducks in Old Uzbek, no?–should’ve stayed in a few more linguistics classes, it seems).

  38. marie-lucie said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    Batuman’s disappointment with “linguistics” reminds me of a friend who enrolled in a psychology class in order to learn about what makes people tick but instead found herself having to study rats.

  39. language hat said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    This is worth disagreeing with at the very least.

    Why? She’s talking about her own experience with it, not rendering an objective assessment of the discipline as a whole. Be glad she actually took linguistics — too few people do. She probably absorbed a few facts along the way.

  40. Clay said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    I feel like she is one of the many who needs to realize that there is the logical/syntactical side of things, and then there is the historical/anthropological side of things, in the world of linguistics. I am a ling minor rather than major for the very same reason she is a linguistics ex-patriate altogether. Couldn’t do the cold calculation side of things; needed to use language to find something evident in people.

  41. Alexander said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    About what Jason said:

    In some other discussions of Batuman’s experience in Samarkand, the claim made about Old Uzbek is less silly: it had words for 70 kinds of duck (mallard, merganser, …), not 70 words for duck. Same for crying (howling, weeping, …).

    Ignoring the relation between Old Uzbek and Turkish is funny in the context of the NYT, since the editors just last week let Nicholas Wade, in his recent Science Times article on the Xinjiang mummies, refer to the Uyghurs as “Turkish-speaking”. So Batuman’s lucky it wasn’t Wade who wrote about her studies, since then they wouldn’t have existed.

  42. Lluc Potrony said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 6:09 am

    When learning, one has to set a lot of room for the unknown if one wants to avoid this kind of pitfalls. If someone holds clear-cut expectations for some subject most of the time he/she will be dissapointed by the outcome. This is intrisical to learning. When you learn something you don’t know that, so your expectations are based on wild speculation, hopes, etc. This expectations are an important part of the motivation and also an unavoidable feeling. I think that one must be prepared to get one’s expectations somewhat frustrated and face it adopting a positive stand. When you got something unexpected, you are forced to reevaluate your beliefs. This crisis may help to widen your mind, if you will. Or you could get frustrated and close to other opinions. I always find very refreshing to have several points of view of the same matter.

  43. Graeme said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 7:47 am

    I’m way outside my formal disciplines here (law and mathematics).

    But I was drawn to linguistics out of curiosity – of the sort that made me wish journals like the Chron of Higher Ed popularised it – because I stumbled into socio-linguistics. Which struck me as an avowedly ‘human’ field of study. Maybe Ms Bautman needed a dose of socio-linguistics first?

  44. language hat said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Yes, I suspect she would have enjoyed sociolinguistics.

  45. Stan said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    A few days ago I referred to Tarski in a blog comment, so it was a pleasure to see him appear again so soon, albeit in a rather negative light. I hardly ever see him mentioned except in specialised contexts. Tarski’s compatriot Korzybski, with whose work I’m more familiar, seems to fare little better.

  46. Bill Benzon said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    I’ve got a recent post over at The Valve that seems relevant:


    It’s about intellectual style. Batuman’s preferred intellectual style seems to be at odds with the logical & formal side of linguistics. Of course, it would have been better if she hadn’t blamed linguistics for that.

  47. Richard Heck said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    Just to confirm what others have said, yes, the course to which Batuman refers was mine. And thanks tremendously to everyone who has said such kind things about my teaching. I had no idea!

    I’m a little puzzled by Batuman’s description of the course as a “seminar”, since she seems to have been an undergraduate at the time and surely wouldn’t have been ready to take a graduate seminar on this sort of stuff. Truth be told, these courses tended to be small, with maybe 8-10 undergraduates and a number of graduate students, so maybe it seemed like a seminar. In any event, I seem to have taught this course in the Spring of 1996 and the Fall of 1999. Which one she took, I don’t know. The syllabi, for anyone interested, are available on my website.

    For what it’s worth, Batuman pretty much mangles what that course was about. As others have surmised, the topic was largely the Davidsonian tradition in philosophy of language and, more recently, semantics. The bit about Martians, as people may also have realized, actually doesn’t describe the goal of the course at all, though the issue (which is about the ambitions of semantics) does come up in an exchange between Michael Dummett and John McDowell that we must have read. But Batuman is correct that I was pretty obsessed in those days with the question whether T-sentences, such as “`snow is white’ is true iff snow is white” are analytic, a priori, necessary, conceptually true, or whatever, and I’ve written on the issue more than once since then.

  48. Troy S. said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    For non-logicians, “iff” is commonly-used shorthand for “if and only if.”
    Makes a logician blink when he sees Swedish elevators labeled “upp.”

  49. Ian Tindale said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    Doesn’t the “and” in “if and only if” violate the differentiation between the first “if” and the following “only if”? In other words, can‘t it suffice with just the “only if”?

  50. Alissa said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    ‘If’ and ‘only if’ introduce different parts of a conditional. So, if you were to say “‘Snow is white’ is true if snow is white.” if it is the case that snow is white, ‘snow is white’ must be true (but, potentially, it could also be true if snow is blue). If you say “‘Snow is white’ is true only if snow is white.” ‘snow is white’ cannot be true if snow is not white, but it is not necessarily true that ‘snow is white’ is true even when snow is white. So, to capture both parts of this, that ‘snow is white’ is true in those situations in which snow is white, and to prevent ‘snow is white’ from being true in any other situation, it is phrased as “‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.

    There is no problem with the ‘and’. In a proof, to get a biconditional (iff), you prove the conditional in both directions. This is essentially proving the conjunction of ‘if’ and ‘only if’.

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