Proclaiming purportedly particulate sense-data

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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.


  1. John Cowan said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Huh? Say what?

    How the devil could you associate that verbal burble, that logorrhea, all that nothing about who-knows-what, with something like this?

    Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Lûci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex and automatic. The inventory included his legs, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face, and back with the mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry. He talked with his voice, even though he knew that his wife hated its blare and preferred to have him write.

    Or this, quieter but no less compelling in its way?

    I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid,
    coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

  2. Andy J said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 11:00 am

    Why is it that when I read the description of 'Kennetic Inquiry' my mind went straight to Donald Rumsfeld: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    John Cowan: Huh? Say what? How the devil could you associate that verbal burble, that logorrhea, all that nothing about who-knows-what, with something like <examples>

    Well, let me say first that I thought of Smith and Le Guin because I happen to have been re-reading both of them, for the nth time, and in particular those two works. And I didn't pick them up again because I thought their works are verbal burble or nothing about who-knows-what.

    And let me say second that nothing that I read in Bentley's 1950 Science article tempted me to try to revive his work on "kennetics", linguistic or otherwise.

    But there was a certain style of thought that was in the air in the middle of the 20th century, which Bentley seems to me to share with Linebarger (Smith) and Le Guin. I think it's the idea that by letting go of certain "old blockages" you can accomplish great new things, like inventing the ansible, or enter totally new domains "up and out". In Knowing and Known, Dewey and Bentley don't seem to have invented anything much, or set anyone else on the road to inventing anything. But the rhetorical stance seems similar to me.

  4. Aaron Davies said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    The only SF that it reminds me of is "Uncleftish Beholding", and only in that "kennetic" is presumably derived from the Anglo-Saxon "ken". Otherwise, it sounds more like the sort of impenetrable nonsense associated these days with Derrida.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    Perhaps Paul Linebarger could have made use of Bentley's prose in psychological warfare?

  6. MMcM said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    Some sense of what Bentley's on about, and how it relates to debates among logicism, intuitionism and formalism raging in the philosophy of mathematics in the early 20th century, can be had from "A. F. Bentley's Inquiries into the Behavioural Sciences and the Theory of Scientific Inquiry," by the economic historian Sidney Ratner (, particularly p. 47ff.

  7. dr pepper said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

    That appalling verbiage reminds me, not of Smith or LeGuin, but of Scientology, Lawsonomy or Orgone.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    dr pepper: That appalling verbiage reminds me, not of Smith or LeGuin, but of Scientology, Lawsonomy or Orgone.

    Exactly. Same mid-20th-century era, same meme pool, different value(s).

    Actually, this whole thread is too much weight for my original semi-stupid similarity flash to bear. Forget I ever said it, OK?

  9. Robert said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    >> Language is a functional of Experience, of Knowledge and of Fact: and Experience, Knowledge and Fact are functionals of it, and of another

    Am I allowed to object to what appears to be a misuse of the word functional here? This seems to be a "faith is a verb" kind of error. They appear to be using the noun functional as if it were a highfalutin synonym for function that could then be plugged in to the stock phrase 'as a function of'. A functional is a specific kind of function whose domain is a vector space (possibly of functions themselves) and whose codomain is the underlying field of the vector space.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    August 17, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

    Robert: Am I allowed to object to what appears to be a misuse of the word functional here?

    Certainly. But Bentley might charitably be taken to mean that Knowledge (for example) is itself some kind of function; and Language then is a functional from instances of such functions to something else. It's still pretentious nonsense, as far as I can see, but maybe it passes a type check.

  11. MMcM said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 12:25 am

    Not having seen the larger context on the off chance that it's clearer, and not really aiming to challenge Mark's sweeping critique, but in 1932, before Church and Kleene and so on had worked this stuff out, wouldn't functional just mean a function on something other than numbers, particularly functions.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 8:08 am

    MMcM: in 1932, … wouldn't functional just mean a function on something other than numbers, particularly functions.

    Here's what the OED says:

    B. n. Math. [ad. F. fonctionnelle in same sense (M. Fréchet 1906, in Rendiconti del Circ. matem. di Palermo XXII. 38; Fréchet ascribes the word to Hadamard (1903), who, however, used it only as an adj., in opération fonctionnelle).] A function the value of which depends on the whole form of another function; functional analysis, the analysis of functionals.

    1917 Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. III. 640 (heading) On bi~linear and n-linear functionals. 1918 G. C. EVANS Functionals & their Applications i. 1 The maximum of a function is a functional of that function.

    This is consistent with my suggestion that whether or not he had any coherent meaning in mind, Bentley was not just using functional as a fancy substitute for function.

    Of course, he wouldn't have approved at all of our talking this way about him, as if such things as words, meanings and individual humans could considered in isolation from the cosmos of man-himself-in-action-dealing-with things (a term that Sidney Ratner quotes in "A. F. Bentley's Inquiries into the Behavioural Sciences and the Theory of Scientific Inquiry", The British Journal of Sociology, 8(1): 40-58, 1957, cited by MMcM above). Ratner in context:

    Dewey and Bentley attacked with gusto and vigour the job of getting others to see 'language, with all its speakings and writings, as man-himself-in-action-dealing-with-things'. They rejected the still fashionable isolation of 'real' objects from 'minds', of 'words' from the speaker, of 'knowings' from the 'known'.

    Also this, about "Kennetic Inquiry":

    To him the knowing, thinking, speaking, writing processes are processes within nature, the world in the course of being known. As a naturalist he regards these processes as organic-environmental events, not confined to presumptively internal locations in presumptively separate organisms. He rejects the prevalent view that knowers inter-act with objects known, thinkers with thoughts, speakers and writers with words uttered or written. Instead, Bentley contends that scientifically controlled observation will reveal that each of these pairs, the knowing and the known, et al. forms 'one behavioural transaction in an common activity of organism-in-environment or environment-embracing-organism'.

    This transactional approach leads to the dropping of such words as 'knowledge', 'mind', 'consciousness', and 'concept'. Language becomes characterized as a specialized representative, or meaningful behaviour of organisms-in-the-world. As a human activity it covers things-in-a-world talked about by men, men-in-a-world talking about things, a man-and-thing complex composing the known world of Talk. All language involves three conponents: the Communicator, the Communicatee, and the Communicated, that function as elements in transactions in behavioural space-time. The 'meaning of a word' can best be understood as an event in human behaviour in the world when one rejects the view that the word is physical or bodily, and the meaning mental, or the theory that the 'meaning' may be assigned to the thing-meant while the 'word' is retained for the organism. Bentley proposes as a solution that Word and Meaning-of-Word be taken as one in the sense that behaviourally what does not have word-meaning is not a word, and whatever has word-meaning is a word.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 8:38 am

    Andy J: Why is it that when I read the description of 'Kennetic Inquiry' my mind went straight to Donald Rumsfeld?

    No doubt the repetition of the word known played the key role, but perhaps it was also because of the press coverage of the Plain English Campaign's Foot In Mouth Award for 2003, which Geoff Pullum found unconvincing.

  14. Josh said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    This old-time scientistic fumbling toward . . . something . . . is fascinating; but I wunna issue a nit-pick: the two SF stories in question are not of the same generation but are a generation apart -indeed, Le Guin has credited Smith's work with having inspired her to write science fiction. So it's more of a genealogy.

    I wonder who's an earlier exemplar of the "letting go of 'old blockages'" rhetoric –possibly The World of Null-A or some of those "psi powers" stories John Campbell liked to publish. I don't see much SF using that trope after the mid-Seventies . . .

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    Josh: I wonder who's an earlier exemplar of the "letting go of 'old blockages'" rhetoric –possibly The World of Null-A or some of those "psi powers" stories John Campbell liked to publish.

    Well, The World of Null-A was serialized in 1945, as Josh suggests, and was based on Korzybski's General Semantics, which certainly seems to draw from the same meme pool as Bentley and Dewey did, and flowered in the 1930s along with Bentley's ideas about logic and language.

    I don't know enough about the history of SF to have a well-informed opinion, but the fictional development of those ideas seems to be a feature of the post-WW-II generation.

  16. dr pepper said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

    I choked on Null-A when i got to the part where a community of humans, faced with a superior invading force, mounted a guerilla action to steal weapons from the enemy. The passage began with a description of "men and boys" in makeshift primative camouflage dropping out of the trees to assault the base with clubs. The idea was that, freed of A (aristotelian mindset and the self-limiting assumptions that go with it), they were able to immediately do what had to be done, rather being paralyzed by fear. And of course, the survivors brought back enough guns to enable the communtiy to successfully defend itself.

    My reaction, any group that assumes that fighters must necessarily be all male isn't partucularly freed.

    Also, there is a scene where a main character is captured and is told this is not one of the pre Null-A stories in which a heroic individual makes an amazing escape and overcomes the bad guys single handedly. But of course that's exactly what it turns out to be.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 7:40 am

    Ah, General Semantics. Unfortunately, it's impossible to fully understand a large chunk of pre-70's SF without knowing something about it. (The post-70's era belongs to Jaynes, of course.)

  18. David Weinstein said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    I can't agree with M. Liberman's view that "Process of Government" is obscure since the article observes that from WWII to the '60s it was read by poli sci students alongside The Federalist Papers and Democracy in America.

    [(myl) "M. Liberman's view"? The quoted passage by Nicholas Lehmann calls the book "an ex-classic, now sunk into obscurity". I was just paraphrasing Lehmann.]

    What I can't even understand is how a linguist can read about a book that appears from all the evidence to base its theory on a relatively trivial semantic distinction: groups! not personalities, beliefs, other forces!

    [(myl) This post is not about The Process of Goverment but about Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics, Knowing and the Known, and "Kennetic Inquiry". As a result, the rest of this long comment — arguing that I've misinterpreted The Process of Government — is entirely irrelevant, and has been deleted.]

  19. Frank Ryan said,

    September 19, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

    My appreciation to Matt Brown for bringing this blog to my attention.
    I wrote my Philosophy dissertation on Knowing and the Known and transactional methodology, and have published a number of essays on the topic, including “The ‘Extreme Heresy’ of John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley,” a two part essay in the Summer and Fall issues of The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (1997, 33.3 & 33.4).

    I’m excited that Arthur Bentley has been revivified here, but concerned that his virtually impenetrable style and fondness for bizarre neologisms invite dismissing him as a krank. He was a krank, but in a way that gave some bite to the overly cautious way Dewey typically expressed his significant insights. A typical example is “Telluridian-Sidereal Cosmos,” which really expresses only the mundane fact that the experiencable world is empirical and temporal.

    Transaction is a methodology, not a cosmology, and it denotes a systematic attempt to answer Hilary Putnam’s challenge to mind and world jointly contribute to whatever we might come to call "objects" in a world. The basic idea, developed by the classical pragmatists, is that the standard dualisms of traditional philosophy, self versus other, mind versus matter, subject versus object, are not isolated foundational posits somehow (and almost always unsuccessfully) brought together by synthesis or interaction, but emergent phases of dynamic problem-solving activity. Peirce called this "doubt-belief," which James James characterized as the "perchings and flights" of nonreflective and reflective consiousness. Dewey developed this into a full "method of inquiry," where problems imposed upon habituated or nonreflective experience generate cognitive hypotheses whose experimental verification is a genuine object-objective of inquiry–again–thought and thing as phases of this dynamic activity. The transactional approach is the general application of this methodology to sign-behavior, broadly construed.

    The dynamics of conflicting interest-groups in Bentley's The Process of Government is fascinating, though it should be tempered by the more optimistic and consensus-building orientation of Dewey's social philosophy. But since the blog's author had a special interest in the Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics, let me say a little something about this. In one way, we might regard it as directing the denial of subject-object dualism toward rehabilitating the foundations of mathematics. Bentley rejects both the foundationalism of Brower's intuitionism, where natural numbers and elementary operations are mental "givens," and the Platonic realism that demands a correspondence between symbols and some formal "reality." Instead, Bentley follows Hilbert's claim that the value of a mathematical or logical system lies exclusively in its consistency, a concept Bentley wants to push beyond the postulates, rules and theorems of any given system to a metalevel considerations of the terms, phrases and conceptions we use to talk about mathematics itself. But he also insists, with Dewey opposed to Hilbert, that the criteria of consistency are operational rather than formal–their justification is in their ability to attain systematic objectives, and not in some formal structure behind that.

    My specialization is philosophy, not mathematics, so I apologize for the rather crude statement of the foregoing. Nor do I have the expertise to either endorse or defend his interpretation. I do hope, however, that this at least expresses his basic aims in reforming mathematics in a way that makes it sound a bit less crazy.

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