The shyness of architects

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Martin Filler, "Maman's Boy", New York Review of Books 56(7), 4/30/2009

[Frank Lloyd] Wright's self-portrait as a heroic individualist served as the prototype for Howard Roark, the architect-protagonist of Ayn Rand's 1943 best-seller, The Fountainhead. But the novelist transmogrified Wright's entertaining egotism into Roark's suffocating megalomania, an image closer to that of another contemporary coprofessional: Le Corbusier, the pseudonymous Swiss-French architect and urbanist born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, twenty years after Wright.

Successful architects are generally not shy, apparently, and Le Corbu was even less shy than the others. But wait:

Most architects give lectures primarily to advertise themselves, and Le Corbusier was no less shy than his colleagues in basing his talks on his own work.

So in addition to being even less shy than his colleagues, he was also no less shy than his colleagues?

If you're having trouble, try it this way — to be less shy is to be more bold, or bolder; was Le Corbusier bolder than his colleagues in promoting his own work in his lectures, or no bolder than his colleagues?

We've often observed that the interaction among negatives and scalar predicates tends to wind up off by one or pointing in the wrong direction.  Unless I'm missing some subtle scope ambiguity, Martin Filler and the NYRB editors have contributed another example to our collection.

[hat tip to John V. Burke]


  1. acilius said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    Ah, so it's a "no eye injury is too trivial to ignore" construction. The first paragraph quoted put me on the wrong track- I spent a minute trying to figure out what the relationship was supposed to be between megalomania and shyness. I was all ready to argue that it's psychologically possible for a person to be megalomaniacal and shy at the same time, when I saw the example sentences and realized that that was completely irrelevant.

    [(myl) Exactly. ]

  2. Gwillim Law said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    The way I read it, Mr. Filler's point in the sentence in question is that the mere fact that Le Corbusier based his talks on his own work does not in itself distinguish him from other architects of the time. The following sentence, beginning "What set his appearances apart", tells what does distinguish him.

    [(myl) This is true, but I don't think it's relevant. Suppose the sentence had read "LC was just as reluctant as his colleagues to base his talks on his own work". This would also be consistent with the true differentiating factor being the belief that "his version of modernism held unique promise for elevating mankind to unprecedented levels of bodily well-being and psychic stimulation" — but it would be a bizarre and even untrue thing to say. But in fact, that's essentially what Filler's phrase "was no less shy than his colleagues" means, once it's unpacked. ]

  3. Ben F said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    I'm definitely "negation-blind." As with many of your previous examples, I see your point on the mistaken logic of the sentence, but I understand the author's intended meaning clearly, and had to perform some mental gymnastics to see it your way (not sure what this says about me, you, or the author here, but there you have it).

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Ben F. seems to be pointing out a mismatch between the semantic (not grammatical) machinery deployed by linguists vs. the organic processes in his own (and, often, my) head. In the latter, the "nots" and "lesses" aren't processed sequentially, but flow into a pot where they're stewed with the rest of the utterance to produce an odor of sense. Linguists' machinery demonstrates conclusively that the utterance is nonsense. Our pots yield an odor of sense. The latter is what matches the speaker's intention.

    If the speaker concocts an odor and spiels it out as (objectively) a nonsense expression, and listeners accurately reconstruct the odor, is there anything really wrong with the nonsense expression? Or is a linguist just executing it on the wrong kind of machine? Perhaps it comes down to being able to determine whether the listener's reconstructed odor really matches the speaker's. Barely articulate grunts would provide more confidence, and no less communication: "Architects self-promote. Corbusier architect. Corbusier self-promotion make him doubt others, promote constant theme of modernism. Corbusier think modernism make life better."

    Feynman commented on something like this, in connection with sociology, extracting about one grunt per page: "Some people get news from paper. Others get from TV." Is the rest of the verbiage, however ill-attended-to, just there for decoration, a sort of peacock's tail, and it's our job as readers to filter it out after we've evaluated the writer's fitness?

    [(myl) A more theory-neutral way of putting this would be to observe that the sentences in our mis-negation collection are a linguistic analog of optical illusions. ]

  5. Ellen said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    I wonder, does this relate to the similarity between "no and not"? "Not less shy" would have the intended meaning. I think that that, as well as "no less" being able to mean "just as", as in, same level of, makes it easy for at least some of us readers not to notice that the construction doesn't actually say what it means to. For, from the preceding paragraph, we know the same level of shyness means not shy.

  6. Gwillim Law said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    Excuse my persistence, but I disagree that "LC was just as reluctant as his colleagues to base his talks on his own work" has the same connotation as "was no less shy than his colleagues". For me, the latter invites, or at least permits, an ironic reading: "no less shy than his colleagues, who were by no means shy themselves". The corresponding ironic reading of the former would be "just as reluctant as his colleagues, who were not at all reluctant," which doesn't make sense.

  7. nascardaughter said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

    To me "No less shy than his colleagues" is a sort of sly/ironic… eh, almost coy?… phrase similar to what GL suggests above. Something like "no less brazen than his colleagues," for example, would not have the same jokey sort of effect — that Corbusier was "no less shy than his colleagues," who, the writer points out in the same sentence, were not exactly shy in this regard.

    "Just as shy" would convey a similar literal meaning, and yet also wouldn't work the way that "no less shy" does here. The reader would probably stumble over "just as shy" — maybe it's too direct for the indirect "joke" that's being made here, and/or maybe people are just more instantly familiar with this kind of use of "no less than" (I would guess that it gets used this way fairly often).

    [(myl) Perhaps — but I think you're giving the author credit for too much subtlety. A more parsimonious theory, I think, would be that this is one of those examples like "no head injury is too trivial to ignore", which was first discussed by Wason, P. C., and Reich, S. S., "A Verbal Illusion," Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (4): 591-97 1979, or "the importance of this contribution cannot be underestimated".]

  8. Emily said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 2:15 am

    I had always taken "no less shy" to be a stock ironic phrase roughly meaning bold or flamboyant, almost a cliche, but maybe it is not as common as I had thought.

  9. Ellen said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    Wait, I was suffering from the confusion this post is about when I commented before. I do still think, at least as far as readers understanding it just fine, that it's signficant that "no less" means, Not "more", but "equal to or more". And perhaps that makes it harder to catch the error in profreading. Though I'm not inclined to think it contributes to creating the error.

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