Remembering Richard Montague

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Ivano Caponigro has created a page memorializing Richard Montague on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

You should go read the whole page, which includes many pictures, a chapter from Ivano's in-process Montague Biography (the chapter title is "The birth of a new passion: natural language 1966"), and a YouTube video presenting Montague's 1967 explanation of his turn towards natural language.

Ivano's memorial page starts like this:

Richard Montague died exactly fifty years ago, in the early morning hours of Sunday March 7, 1971. Only forty years old, he was already a major figure in logic and philosophy. The only child of a modest couple from Central California who had him late in life, Montague had been one of Alfred Tarski’s brightest students at UC Berkeley. The UCLA philosophy department hired him at age 24, just a few months after hiring Rudolf Carnap. There Montague had a uniquely fast career, receiving tenure at age 28 and becoming full professor at 32. By the time of his death, he was second in rank and (almost) equal in salary only to Alonzo Church, who was 30-year his senior and one of the pillars of mathematical logic (and Alan Turing’s Ph.D. advisor). Montague’s students included, in chronological order, David Kaplan (who soon became his collaborator and department colleague), Nino Cocchiarella, Hans Kamp, Harry Deutsch, Dan Gallin, and Jeff Pelletier (the last three completed their dissertations with other advisors after Montague's death).

As his colleagues wrote in his obituary, “Montague was a man of powerful will as well as intellect, and when his views on educational or philosophical questions were in conflict with those of his colleagues, personal clashes could sometimes ensue. But those who knew him recognized also his qualities of humor, of sympathy, and of unshakable personal loyalty; the many friendships he formed with his colleagues were strong, uninterrupted, and deeply valued.”

In the last five years of his life, Montague extended his research interests to natural language and started developing what later became known as “Montague Grammar”, the research program that marked the birth of formal semantics of natural language, now a core component of linguistics (and my area of research).

Over the last nine years, I have worked on an intellectual and personal biography of Richard Montague. The tentative title is Richard Montague: The simplicity of language, the complexity of life. I started thinking about it much earlier, though, as a linguistics graduate student at UCLA in the late 90s. It was back then that I first asked myself and others the question “Who was Richard Montague?” and failed to find anything close to a satisfactory answer. It was puzzling and frustrating: the scholar and human being who had majorly affected my intellectual self and that of many others turned out to be a complete mystery.

I am still working on the biography. It has been an even bigger challenge than I initially thought, but also one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever attempted. One of the chapters for which I already have a full draft is about Montague’s turn towards natural language, just a few years before his death. In 1964, Montague was still sharing the skeptical attitude towards natural language common among logicians and philosophers of language:

[The] systematic exploration of the English language, indeed of what might be called the ‘logic of ordinary English’, […] would be either extremely laborious or impossible. In any case, the authors of the present book would not find it rewarding.
(D. Kalish & R. Montague, Logic: Techniques of Formal Reasoning, 1964)

Just a few years later, Montague had completely changed his view:

There is philosophic interest in attempting to analyze ordinary English.
('On the nature of certain philosophical entities', written in 1967)

I reject the contention that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages.
('English as a formal language', written in 1968)

Read the whole thing!


1 Comment

  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2021 @ 11:57 am

    “Barbara [Partee], I think that you are the only linguist who it is not the case that I can’t talk to,” is one heck of an example sentence.

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