The Imperious Criterion of Meaning

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Patrick Radden Keefe, "Carl Icahn's Failed Raid on Washingon", The New Yorker 8/28/2017, mentions the title of Icahn's Princeton senior thesis:

In 1960, after studying philosophy at Princeton (where he wrote a thesis titled "The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning") and a stint in medical school (he was a hypochondriac, which did not help his bedside manner), Icahn shifted to Wall Street.

But Keefe doesn't mention what is now my favorite correction of all time — 2/12/2006 in the New York Times:

An interview on June 5, 2005, with Carl Icahn misstated a word of the title of a thesis he wrote while he was an undergraduate at Princeton. As a reader informed The Times two weeks ago, it is "The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning," not "Imperious Criterion."

In fact "the imperious criterion of meaning" fits much better with Mr. Icahn's subsequent career, as well as evoking Humpty Dumpty's philosophy of language:

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they're the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me please,' said Alice, 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

'Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

'Ah, you should see 'em come round me of a Saturday night,' Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, 'for to get their wages, you know.'



4 Comments

  1. AntC said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

    The Alice books are increasingly seen as a satire upon contemporary mathematical advances as wikipedia puts it.

    But this Humpty Dumpty passage is surely aimed (presciently) at E.B. White's "happiness boys".

  2. Ed M said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 6:30 am

    "wagging his head gravely from side to side"

    One wonders — how does an ovoidal creature wag its head. Has it a head to wag?

  3. GeorgeW said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 7:19 am

    Icahnic.

  4. AntC said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    @Ed M, the genre being a fantastical world, of course Humpty has a head to wag. It's humans that are difficult to make sense of:

    "The face is what one goes by, generally," Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone.
    "That's just what I complain of," said Humpty Dumpty. "Your face is the same as everybody has—the two eyes,—" (marking their places in the air with his thumb) "nose in the middle, mouth under. It's always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance—or the mouth at the top—that would be some help."

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