Nicholas Lemann ("Conflict of interests: Does the wrangling of interest groups corrupt politics — or constitute it?", The New Yorker, 8/11/2008) is promoting an Arthur Bentley revival:
In a year saturated with political conversation, can there be any topic that has not yet been discussed? Well, here’s one: 2008 is the centenary of a curious and mesmerizing book that was long considered the most important study of politics and society ever produced by an American—“The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures,” by Arthur Fisher Bentley. The reason its big anniversary hasn’t been celebrated is that “The Process of Government” is an ex-classic, now sunk into obscurity. The reason it should be celebrated is not just that it deserved its former place in the canon but also that it is uncannily relevant to this Presidential election. [...]
The University of Chicago Press brought out “The Process of Government” in 1908, to almost no notice. In 1911, Bentley quit Chicago and newspapering and moved to the small town of Paoli, Indiana, where he remained until his death, in 1957. He produced a series of increasingly abstruse books (sample title: “Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics”), and his renown grew steadily. His closest intellectual companion was John Dewey—a published collection of their correspondence runs to more than seven hundred pages—but Bentley’s papers, at Indiana University, also contain letters sent to him over the years by, among many others, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sidney Hook, Estes Kefauver, and B. F. Skinner.
If any book is more obscure than Bentley's 1908 The Process of Government, it must be his 1932 Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics. At least, I'd never heard of it, and it's not cited in e.g. Paul Benacerraf & Hilary Putnam, Philosophy of Mathematics, 1984; or Dale Jacquette, Philosophy of Mathematics, 2002; or George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From, 2001; etc. But reading Lemann's article made me wonder about it, and a quick internet search showed that Leonard Bloomfield reviewed this book, along with Bentley's 1935 Behavior, Knowledge, Fact, in Language 12(2): 137-141. (This issue is dated as April 1936 – June 1938, suggesting a more leisurely sense of time than journals generally have today.)
The review begins:
These books deal with several topics which your reviewer believes can be usefully studied in the light of linguistics. One of the books has the word 'linguistic' in its title, and the words 'language' and 'linguistic' occur very frequently on the pages of both. Moreover, they contain many sentences, which, torn out of context, would hold the same promise, such as LA 38: 'Every exact analysis, in, of, or by means of language, rests in preliminary provisional dissection and organization of linguistic materials.' 59: '… we proceed to examine linguistic phenomena in full play.' 63: 'We proceed, thus, under a full linguistic-semantic inspection." BKF 9: 'A science of language exists, of course, just as much as does a science of psychology', and so on.
This appearance, however, is deceptive. The word 'language', with its derivative 'linguistic', in these books does not mean that which linguists and many other people call 'language'. What it does mean, your reviewer, after careful reading, is unable to say. LA 32 we read: 'Language may be studied in terms of printed page, writing hand, reading eye, hearing ear or speaking voice.' In this statement any linguist will recognize a widespread popular error. The next sentence, however, says, 'In such specialized studies we have here no technical interest.' Then, 33: 'Language is a functional of Experience, of Knowledge and of Fact: and Experience, Knowledge and Fact are functionals of it, and of another', and 35: 'Language subdivides most generally into (a) Inchoate Implication. (b) Words-common. (c) Terms. (d) Symbols.' These subdivisions are then explained. Then again, BKF 131: 'Language, so viewed, is no such limited abstraction as is the "language" of the grammarian or philologist…" 145: 'We proceed now to the linguistic aspect', but again the linguistic reader's hopes are shattered, for the next sentence reads: 'Aristotle studied language and gave us laws of reasoning.'
Bloomfield has some strangely ominous comments on Bentley's misunderstanding of the behaviorist psychologist A.P. Weiss:
Perhaps the case of Bentley gives us the explanation for the fact that many keen students fail to understand Weiss's meticulously clear exposition. When Weiss speaks of 'language' he means exactly what he says, the language which is studied by linguists, the noise you make with your face. The linguistically untrained reader is so thoroughly accustomed to regarding (or rather, disregarding) language as some sort of mere subsidiary noise for the 'expression of ideas', that he fails to accept Weiss's words in their plain meaning. It is as though a citizen, going to court for some minor business, were greeted by the judge with the words, 'Good morning, I sentence you to death'. Under all the presuppositions of our place and time, the citizen would fail to accept these words until he felt the noose round his neck.
John Dewey, however, had a very different reaction. According to Thelma Z. Lavine, "America & the contestations of modernity: Bentley, Dewey, Rorty", in Herman Saatkamp, Ed., Rorty & Pragmatism, 1995:
John Dewey's proclivity to be intellectually and emotionally stimulated by persons who project creative vitality and goal-driven energy lasted throughout his life. One such object of Dewey's fascination had ventured to write to Dewy from the small town of Paoli, Indiana, in 1932 enclosing a copy of his book, Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics. Two and one-half years later, having finally read the book at the urging of Ernest Nagel, Dewey replied:
Dear Mr. Bentley:
Some time ago I received a copy of your Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics. I fear I didn't acknowledge it. . . . Recently I have read and am still re-reading it. it has given me more enlightenment and intellectual help than any book I have read for a very long time. I have been engaged during this year in trying to get my ideas on logical theory into systematic shape for publication, and I cannot put into words how much your book has meant to me in this process.
Their correspondence continued to the end of Dewey's life, and culminated in their joint 1949 work Knowing and the Known.
Here's the start of Bentley's explanation of their project, from "Kennetic Inquiry", Science 112(2922): 775, 1950:
Kennetic inquiry is a name proposed for organized investigation into the problem of human knowings and knowns, where this is so conducted that the full range of subject matters–all the knowings and all the knowns–form a common field. Such inquiry is to be undertaken under express postulation, and without specific allegation of assurance of ultimate factual status. The postulation deals with concrete instances of knowings and knowns instead of with purported facuties powers, or realities; and under it every specific instance of a knowing is taken along with its specific known as a single transaction in the field. It abandons, root, branch, and fruit, the conventional severance of detachable knowers from detachable knowns. To it the word "epistemological" rates as a historical curiosity, stripped of all pretense to authority in research, and ripe only for the museum. The words "philosophical" and "metaphysical" become similarly irrelvant to our inquiry: as irrelevant as they are in physical laboratories today when actual research in in progress Even the word "knowlege" itself is, at least for the time being, discarded, since it is steeped in vagueness, and unable to qualify technically as purveyor of determinable fact. The words "knowing" and "known remain, however, usable, if properly provided with plural forms and thus made able to stand for concrete instances of organic-environmental action in behavioral space and time.
Thus organized, knowings and knowns together become events in process in a cosmos, system, or field of fact, such as postulation projects and anticipates. The inquiry is then on the way, or believes itself on the the way, toward becoming science. It is science in the making if, by science, is understood a procedure of observation and postulation, with all observation recognizing that it takes place under postulation, and with all postulation recognizing that it arises out of observation; and if freedom for inquiry is secured through the smashing of the old blockages so long maintained under the dominance of inadequate speech forms of barbaric origin and overripe habituation, peculiarly those proclaiming purportedly particulate sense-sense.
Though I'm not sure that I can explain exactly why, this somehow reminds me of the generation of Science Fiction that includes Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed.
Anyhow, Penn's library copy of Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics is checked out, and I don't think that I'm interested enough to ask for it to be recalled. For the moment, at least, I think I'll leave Bloomfield and Dewey to argue about it among themselves.