James Higginbotham, 1941-2014

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James Higginbotham, professor of philosophy and linguistics at USC, died on Friday at the age of 72. USC News details his professional career, which straddled the disciplinary boundary between philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics.

USC Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics James Higginbotham, holder of the Linda Hilf Chair in Philosophy and renowned expert in generative grammar, linguistic semantics and the philosophy of language, has died. He was 72.

Higginbotham died surrounded by family and friends on April 25 at Marina Del Rey Hospital near his home after complications from pneumonia, his family said.

He was director of the School of Philosophy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences from 2000 to 2007 and chair of the Department of Linguistics from 2006 to 2014.


In addition to authoring nearly 100 papers on the philosophy of language and linguistics, he was a series editor of Oxford Cognitive Science, consulting editor since 1979 of The Journal of Philosophy and associate editor of Linguistic InquiryMind and LanguageRivista di LinguisticaNatural Language and Linguistic TheoryNatural Language SemanticsPragmatics and CognitionLinguistics and Philosophy; and Research in Language (Poland).

Since 1999, Higginbotham was professor of philosophy and linguistics at USC, holding the Hilf Chair since 2004. Prior to his arrival, he was professor of general linguistics at Oxford University from 1993 to 2000, during which time he was Oxford’s chairman of the Committee for Comparative Philology and General Linguistics, curator of the Centre for Linguistics and Philology, and member of the Board of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

When Higginbotham began his career, very few, if any, investigators combined mastery of philosophy of language, philosophical logic and theoretical linguistics. Now, partly because of Higginbotham’s example, there are many.


Andrew Simpson, professor of linguistics and East Asian languages and cultures, and chair of the Department of Linguistics, recalled the mid-1990s, when he was a graduate student in England.

“Jim was the Oxford professor with the deep, booming voice who distinctively used to refer to himself in his presentations as ‘Higginbotham’ rather than simply as ‘I,’ ” Simpson remembered,” Simpson said.

“Jim was the famous American professor whose work impressively straddled both linguistics and philosophy at the highest possible levels and whose razor-sharp intellect and wit made him an academic often to be feared, and not a person with whom to engage lightly,” he added.

When Simpson joined USC in 2007, Higginbotham was chair of the Department of Linguistics.

“Then I came to find that Jim was also incredibly kind and personable and considerate and regularly down-to-earth, and was far from being the distant, unapproachable intellectual I had somehow imagined him to be,” Simpson said.

“Jim’s work in linguistics has changed fundamental aspects of the way we think about the meaning of language, and his seminal works on the interaction of syntax and semantics continue to be recognized as incredibly influential, but for those who knew him personally, he will perhaps most strongly be remembered for his humor, his good will, his decency and the way he brought so much life to every interaction with others.”

1 Comment

  1. NQA2 said,

    July 14, 2014 @ 3:23 pm

    I know this prof, he is smart and nice

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