Prerequisites

[These are some thoughts as I’m getting ready to teach our first semester graduate introduction to semantics. This fall, I’m also serving as acting Graduate Program Director, while Sabine is on sabbatical leave. So, I figured I should write down some points that I often address in sermons in introductory classes. Let me know if you have comments or disagree with anything.]

Any scientific topic of sufficient theoretical complexity and with interesting empirical breadth cannot be taught from first principles. Teaching and learning of such topics is a messy affair, something that it’s important to get used to. Many of these thoughts are also relevant when one is confronted with a new article at the cutting edge of research or when one is listening to a research presentation.

Ideally, one might start from what is common ground among the students in the class (or one’s readers). But especially when people with different backgrounds and diverse interests come together, there’s actually very little that is truly common ground. So, what to do? One strategy is to pretend there’s more common ground than there really is and let people catch up as fast they can.

Presupposition Accommodation

In a way, when you’re new to a topic, you’re in a kind of situation that is familiar from the study of “presupposition accommodation” (I wrote a survey-ish article about this a while back). Imagine you enter an elevator and two people you vaguely know are in the middle of a conversation. One says “she’s in town for a conference.” The other: “we should talk to her about epistemic modality in Bulgarian”. And so on. As an eavesdropper, you can learn a lot from such conversations even if you never figure out who “she” is. Your task is to piece together what the common ground of the conversation is, without being explicitly informed about everything that’s being taken for granted. In classes and reading new work, that’s very often the case as well. Of course, while in the elevator it might be a faux pas to just barge in and ask who they are talking about, in classes it’s OK to ask clarifying questions about things that seem to be taken for granted. Maybe the question will be deflected and deferred to a later time, a conversation outside class or a TA tutorial, but at least it’s fine to register that you’re not entirely on board with the assumptions being made.

It’s important to get comfortable with not understanding everything, working to figure out the essence of what’s going on, and patiently and actively waiting for the pieces to drop into place. Yes, it’s often disorienting but if you keep at it, the picture will become clearer over time and tools and concepts will become second nature eventually.

“Stupidity”

In other words, you need to become used to feeling “stupid”. I mean this in an entirely non-disparaging sense: obviously, you’re not stupid. What it is is that you’re not completely understanding a complex topic. Of course, that is in fact the permanent condition of science. The whole point of science is to work at things we don’t understand and make some progress towards understanding, but that progress will then result in even more things we don’t understand. Answers to questions simply beget more questions. On my office door, I have a print out of a short article on this very topic.

When you’re in an almost perpetual state of progressive ignorance, and if you’re always surrounded by other super-smart people, it is very easy to lose sight of the inevitability of the feelings of “stupidity”. Instead, one easily starts to actually believe that one is inadequate and really is stupid compared to the others. This phenomenon is very widespread. I suffer from it myself. It’s important to be aware of it and if possible, turn it into a positive power. Here are two ways of thinking about it:

  1. “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity”, 1933). Russell’s observation has been substantiated in psychological research and is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

  2. Another term for the dynamic is “Imposter Syndrome”. At the last LSA Summer Institute, Penny Eckert and Monica Macaulay gave a presentation on the syndrome and the slides are available. Here is a good blog post with further links on this set of issues.

Coping with boredom

At the other end of the spectrum, a class may at times underchallenge you. You may already (think you) know everything or the pace is such that anything that is new to you takes very little effort to pick up. So, you’re bored. There are three strategies to cope with such boredom and it may make sense to mix these strategies depending on your energy levels, the semester schedule, and what else you have to do.

Coast: You might decide to just take it easy for a while: just do the little that is needed to stay with the class and devote your energies to other tasks. This is legitimate. Faculty may choose to do this as well at times. It can’t be the dominant strategy, though, if it means that you’re not moving forward in your chosen field.

If the material appears too easy for you, there are two ways of deepening your engagement and thereby making it appropriately hard again.

Going meta: figure out how you would teach the material. The easiest way to do this is to actually teach it: in groups with your fellow students, some of whom probably find the material more challenging than you do, work on explaining things a different way from the way it was done in class. And even if you don’t have such an early outlet for your pedagogical insights, presumably in a few years you will definitely have to teach and it’s good to have thought about it beforehand. Pedagogical insights are also very useful for writing papers because the deeper your penetration of the topic is and the better you understand what it takes to convey its intricacies, the clearer your prose will be.

Deep dive: any topic has fractal levels of complexity. We may skate over that in class but you can go deeper. Find current research in the area and read it. Think about using other methodologies to study the relevant phenomena: what is the language acquisition angle on the topic? Is there relevant psycholinguistic work? What is the cross-linguistic picture? How do syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology work together? If you find anything that grabs your interest, pursue it, talk to colleagues and faculty about it. Rinse and repeat.

Keep reviewers in the loop

S&P makes a point of keeping reviewers informed about the fate of papers they review, copying them on the editorial decision, forwarding the other reviews, and letting them know if and when the paper gets published. We think that reviewers deserve to be kept in the loop. I get annoyed when I work on reviews for other journals and am not at all kept in the loop.

At this time of the year, I begin to feel the same about promotion and tenure letters I wrote over the summer. I find it irksome that departments do not let me know what happened to the cases I wrote for. Why is this not common practice?

Every department needs a publication advisor

Every academic department anywhere should designate one of their members to be Publication Advisor. This will be someone who, with the help of their local librarians and whoever else can be helpful, informs themselves about the current state of scholarly publishing. They will learn about their institution’s Open Access Policy (if it exists; otherwise, they may initiate discussions about putting such a policy in place). They will learn to read publication agreements and spot potential pitfalls. They will make themselves familiar with the practices of the leading journals in their discipline. They will look for discipline-appropriate ways of publishing that will give readers open access to research results.

When a member of the department has a manuscript to submit, they can consult the Publication Advisor in their search for a good venue. Throughout the submission and publication process, they can ask the Publication Advisor for advice.

Some universities have staff members who try to fill that role for the entire university. I think that a more local, embedded approach is needed to make progress on the ground.

This idea was prompted by the latest skirmish in the war between scholars and mercenary publishers: http://blogs.library.duke.edu/scholcomm/2014/03/27/attacking-academic-values/ (Nature playing hardball with Duke over Duke’s OA Policy).

Not unrelated: http://news.sciencemag.org/people-events/2014/03/german-university-tells-elsevier-no-deal. More from Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/medizin/uni-konstanz-stoppt-verhandlungen-mit-elsevier-zu-teuer-a-961084.html.

My Academic Genealogy – Part 2

This is the second part of my reconstruction of my academic lineage, in which we encounter someone whose dissertation defense lasted seven hours and someone else who basically compiled his dissertation the night before it was due.

I am still learning quite a bit about each of these academic ancestors of mine, but because this could take a while, I wanted to present at least the outlines of the tree and give a few notes on the characters in it.

In the first part, we reached Eduard Schwartz, who defended his dissertation in 1880 in Bonn and who worked with two advisors, Franz Bücheler and Hermann Usener. Before we go further, I have to note that with Schwartz, there’s a blemish in my academic ancestry: Wikipedia says that in 1928, Schwartz became a supporter of the antisemitic Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (although they also report that he had no sympathy for the Nazis). We’ll soon see that there is a modicum of anticipatory redemption earlier in the tree.

Bücheler & Usener

Usener and Bücheler were the twin towers of classical philology in Bonn, lifelong friends, and jointly advised plenty of other students besides Schwartz. Here are pictures of them:

With them, the tree branches in an interesting way. Bücheler and Usener both got their degrees in Bonn (Bücheler in 1856 at the age of 18 (!) and Usener in 1858 at the age of 24). Both of them had two advisors, as far as I can tell, and they shared one of them.

Franz Bücheler (* 3. Juni 1837 in Rheinberg; † 3. Mai 1908 in Bonn) graduated on March 13, 1856 in Bonn with a dissertation entitled “De Ti. Claudio Caesare Grammatico” (freely downloadable from Google), which deals with Latin orthography during the time of Emperor Claudius. He lists as advisors Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker and Friedrich Ritschl. Here are the title page and the vita from his dissertation:

Hermann Carl Usener (* 23. Oktober 1834 in Weilburg; † 21. Oktober 1905 in Bonn) wrote a dissertation called “Analecta Theophrastea” (freely viewable and downloadable from the library in Munich). He dedicates the work to his two main teachers: Christian August Brandis and, again, Friedrich Ritschl. Here are the title page, dedication, and vita from the dissertation:

The Bonn-centrism of this period of our genealogy is both personally appropriate (given my years in nearby Cologne and my frequent visits to Bonn) and historically non-accidental: Bonn was a pre-eminent center of classical philology. A history of the University of Bonn points out the two successive triumvirats of classical philology that taught in Bonn: Usener, Bücheler, and Kekulé, and before them, Welcker, Ritschl, Jahn. The author claims that these six would have to be mentioned among the twelve most important scholars in classical studies during the 19th century. In fact, Wilamowitz is quoted as saying that the history of classical philology simply is the history of Bonn’s philological seminar.

Continuing from Usener and Bücheler, there are now three ancestors to look at: Brandis, Welcker, and Ritschl. Brandis and Welcker had no doctor father that I can identify, so only Ritschl’s branch of the tree continues into the past.

Brandis

Christian August Brandis (* 13. Februar 1790 in Holzminden; † 21. Juli 1867 in Bonn) graduated on January 12, 1812 (at the age of 21) at the University of Copenhagen, with a thesis “Commentationes Eleaticarum” (a collection of fragments from Xenophanes, Parmenides and Melissus). He had studied at the University of Kiel before, starting at the age of 18 (so it took him little more than 3 years to get his first degree). Brandis doesn’t seem to have had a clear advising relationship with anyone. I haven’t found out who, if anyone, might have been his sponsor in Copenhagen. Even his autobiographic sketch doesn’t include any mention of teachers or advisors in Copenhagen, just a list of people he hung out with. He does say that his defense lasted seven hours, so maybe that left such a scar that he repressed the memories. In any case, unless I manage to find out more, this branch of the tree ends with Brandis. Here is the title page of his thesis:

There is no vita or dedication in the thesis.

Welcker

Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker (* 4. November 1784 in Grünberg; † 17. Dezember 1868 in Bonn) studied classical philology at the University of Giessen. He had to earn his keep by teaching at a kind of prep school and in his free time wrote his dissertation “Exercitatio philologica imaginem Ulyssis quae in Iliade exstat adumbrans”, which got him his doctorate two days before Christmas 1803 (when he was barely 19 years old). (I have not been able to access the work.) Welcker was home-schooled as a youth and seems to have continued mainly as an autodidact, so just like with Brandis, the tree ends with his node.

In something of an anticipatory redemption for the academic family, he was a notorious liberal and was arrested at least once.

Welcker was house teacher and friend in the Humboldt household when they were in Rome. He wrote a history of Greek gods and Mommsen said of him that the gods wouldn’t let him die before he had finished writing their history; he lived to the ancient age of 84. He was director of Bonn’s university library for 35 years.

I should note that another of Welcker’s students, Friedrich Christian Dietz, has massive progeny among modern linguists, since Uriel Weinrich and through Weinrich, William Labov, are among his decendents. See the relevant subtree here. So, all of the people tracing back their ancestry to Dietz are distant cousins of ours.

Ritschl

Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl (* 6. April 1806 in Großvargula (Thüringen); † 9. November 1876 in Leipzig) got his degree at the University of Halle in 1829 (at the age of 23). He taught at various universities but for the longest time in Bonn. He is the founder of the Bonn School of Classical Philology and thus was perhaps the true ancestor of Usener, Bücheler, Schwartz, von der Mühll, and Theiler, and thus of Egli, Kratzer, and myself. To see the topics that he covered in his teaching, we can inspect the list of all of the classes he taught when he was at the University of Leipzig from 1866 to 1876.

His most famous student is Friedrich Nietzsche, who he taught in Bonn and Leipzig, and who he helped to his first professorial appointment, in Basel, which Nietzsche got without having written a dissertation. Thus, through Ritschl’s mentorship of Nietzsche, my academic family has acquired a truly illustrious cousin!

Ritschl’s main teacher in Halle was Christian Karl Reisig but Reisig had died by the time he got his doctorate, so we will also need to trace back the lineage of his official sponsor, Moritz Meier. The story of Ritschl’s studenthood is well re-told by William Clark in his book “Academic charisma and the origins of the research university” on pages 230-237 (based largely on Ribbeck’s biography of Ritschl). Here’s the gist of it:

Ritschl started as a student in Göttingen in 1824, studied in Leipzig in 1825 and 1826, and then went to Halle. He had studied with Gottfried Hermann in Leipzig and then studied with Hermann’s student Reisig in Halle. Reisig was in a feud with Moritz Meier, who had been appointed director of the philological institute over Reisig’s head. That feud was in fact a continuation of a feud between Reisig’s teacher Hermann and Meier’s teacher Böckh. We will get back to this (a faint echo in the past of the sixties’ Linguistics Wars?).

Reisig founded and ran a private society which was meant to be a rival to the official institute run by Meier. Clark picks up the story:

In Ritschl’s student days at Halle, public disputation enjoyed high esteem anew, especially among the classicists. Nonclassicists trembled when they faced classicists as opponents in disputation, still conducted in Latin. Internecine warfare between the classicists had arisen from the projection of the Hermann-Böckh feud into the camps of Reisig’s society versus Meier’s Greek section of the Halle seminar. Ritschl had transferred to Halle in 1826, the year after the Hermann-Böckh feud had become bitter. He soon made a name for himself as an opponent at disputation. He sought to annihilate students from the seminar’s Greek section — students, that is, of Böckh’s student Meier — in disputations.

In 1828, Heinrich Foss, the senior student in the seminar and a devoted disciple of Meier, wrote and tried to defend his doctoral dissertation. Foss himself had previously attacked a student named Wex from Reisig’s classics society at Wex’s public disputation. Ritschl sought to play the avenger by attempting to destroy Foss at Foss’s public disputation in 1828. Foss received his doctorate, but the disputational battle between him and Ritschl supposedly not only split the gown but also the town of Halle in two camps. “Even the ladies” of the town supposedly took sides in this doctoral drama.

After Reisig’s death, Ritschl was without a doctor father. But Meier took the high road and took him under his wings. He even said that if Ritschl could get his doctorate and his habilitation before the fall of 1829, he would get him a job as a lecturer (Privatdozent). But this meant that Ritschl had to get two pieces of written work done by the fall. So, he did what every good student would do: procrastinate. In the end, a heroic effort got everything done just in time:

he spent three days, with a total of nine hours sleep, shaping the emendations into a coherent dissertation. He then paid for three typesetters to work through two nights to get the dissertation printed on time — the printer probably had other obligations for the normal day hours. “This was the thing composed, set, printed, and bound at night — a true work of the the night.” But it was done. He did the theses the night before the disputation. After two hours sleep, he appeared at the public disputation at 10:00 a.m. I do not know if any of Meier’s seminar students tried to annihilate Ritschl. But, by 3:00 p.m., 11 July, after five days labor with little sleep, a new doctor of philosophy existed.

Here is the title page of the dissertation, which is available from the Bavarian State Library:

I already mentioned that there will be more to say about the Hermann-Böckh feud. But clearly, bad blood arose easily in those days. Ritschl was the central party in the so-called “Philology War of Bonn”. The gist: Ritschl wanted to hire an additional faculty member to strengthen classical philology in Bonn when his colleague Welcker was getting on in years. He chose Otto Jahn and got him hired without Welcker’s knowledge, while Welcker was abroad on sabbatical. Welcker wasn’t all too thrilled when he found out. Jahn tried hard to become Welcker’s friend, which angered Ritschl. Years later, Jahn tried to get his friend Hermann Sauppe hired, this time behind Ritschl’s back. Sauppe in the end didn’t accept the offer, but Ritschl went ballistic and started a campaign against Jahn. Ritschl was reprimanded by the ministry of education, the press got riled up, the parliament discussed the case. Fun and games. In the end, Ritschl left Bonn to take a position in Leipzig. Soon though, Bücheler and Usener restored Bonn Philology to its leading status.

In the next installment, I will talk about Ritschl’s teachers Meier and Reisig, and their teachers Hermann and Böckh. Reisig, by the way, is often mentioned as the first philologist to take semantics seriously, under the term “Semasiology”, which he coined.

Charles Leonard Hamblin

[This is a revision of a 2003 blog post.]

A student in my 2003 advanced semantics class asked about C.L. Hamblin, who in semantics is mostly — and justly — famous for his early montagovian paper on questions: C.L. Hamblin: 1973. “Questions in Montague English”, Foundations of Language 10: 41–53. [By the way, Foundations of Language was the precursor journal of Linguistics and Philosophy.]

But who was he and what else did he do? I didn’t know, but in 2003 I found two web pages by Peter McBurney about him. It turns out that he was both a philosopher and apparently a pioneer in computer science (he died in 1985):

[Francisco Gomes Martins pointed out to me this week that my old post about Hamblin had defunct links in it. Luckily, the Wayback Machine at archive.org still has copies. So, that’s what’s linked to above.]

Two tidbits: “According to his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, Hamblin spoke 25 languages, mostly from the Asian-Pacific region, but also including ancient Greek. … At the time of his death, he was apparently attempting to set words of Wittgenstein to music.”

After I first posted about this, Peter McBurney, the author of the two web pages referred to above, wrote to me to remind me that

Hamblin’s book on Imperatives (published posthumously in 1987 by Blackwell, Oxford) was also influential with some linguists. This book has also influenced some recent work in computer science, on automated delegation between computational entities.

Peter McBurney followed up with another email:

Dear Kai —

In your email of 8 May, you asked me about Charles Hamblin’s teachers in London. I have now had the opportunity of reading Hamblin’s PhD thesis at University of London. Although no one is thanked or acknowledged in his thesis, I have learnt from a former PhD student of Hamblin that he did his PhD under Karl Popper.

The thesis presents a strong critique of Claude Shannon’s then-recent theory of information for failing to deal with the meaning of information, along with a semantic theory of question-response interactions. Hamblin proposes a possible-worlds semantics for these, which is interesting in light of the fact that this was written 3 years before Saul Kripke’s first publication on the matter in 1959. Hamblin’s thesis also considers everyday usage of the word “information” and how this bears on any theory of information. His thesis is a mix of computer theory, philosophy of logic, formal logic, and philosophy of language — perhaps one of the earliest works in which these disciplines were combined.

Best,

— Peter

Francisco asked me whether Hamblin’s thesis is available online. After some digging, it turns out it is:

http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=3&uin=uk.bl.ethos.504487

You have to register for free and go through some hoops but in the end you will be able to download a pdf of Hamblin’s thesis. Here’s the cover page:

Google Scholar personalized updates

If you have made a personal profile on Google Scholar, there is now a new feature when you go to the Google Scholar site: personalized updates, “My updates”, a list of new articles that Google’s algorithm determines are related to your own work. When I checked my updates this morning, it looked quite accurate, lots of stuff that I find relevant, quite a bit of which I already knew about but some that I didn’t. What would be good is a weekly email summarizing what’s new, but in the absence of this it’s another page to check out once in a while.

My academic genealogy

Kai's Stammbaum, Part 1

I received my PhD from UMass in 1994 with a dissertation called “Restrictions on Quantifier Domains”. I started teaching at MIT in 1993 and was finishing my dissertation during my first year of teaching here. My dissertation advisor (Doktormutter, “doctor mother”) was Angelika Kratzer. There were other very strong influences, of course, chief among them Barbara Partee, but for the purposes of the tree I will go by formal dissertation advisor relationships where possible. I will find some other occasion to talk more about my own intellectual biography and research career.


Angelika Kratzer

There are many ways in which Angelika was the perfect doctor mother for me. But one aspect I want to highlight here is that just like me, she has a passion for the history of our field. Her dissertation abounds in historical connections, one of which that struck me early on was the emphasis on the contributions of John Wallis [If you’re interested in this kind of thing, John Wallis appears as a character in a fun novel: “An Instance of the Fingerpost”]. This kind of historiographic interest was something I just soaked up. One of my early encounters with semantics, in fact, was a seminar taught by Professor Schepers of the Leibniz Research Institute in Münster on medieval semantics (William of Sherwood, William of Ockham, etc.) and other classes like that. For example, I learned to read Aristotle in the original and wrote one of my first college-level term papers on the notions of contradiction and contrariety in Peri Hermeneias (using not just the original but also medieval Arabic commentaries thereon).

Angelika wrote her dissertation entitled “Semantik der Rede: Kontexttheorie – Modalwörter – Konditionalsätze” doi:2027/mdp.39015015396008 in 1978. Her official advisor at the University of Konstanz in Germany was Urs Egli. I will not expand on Angelika’s intellectual biography, something she has already sketched on her website. Here’s an excerpt:

“I wasn’t born to become a professor. The town I grew up in didn’t have a high-school for girls. Girls went to a Middle School run by nuns, learned cooking and bookkeeping, and got married. The next town over did have a high school for girls, but it only had a Modern Language track. The boys’ high school there had Modern Languages, too, but there also was a Science and a Classics branch. For reasons that nobody could remember any longer, the Classics track took in a few girls every year. I was one of them, and nine years of Latin and six years of Greek – six days a week – must have turned me into a linguist. I discovered modern linguistics when I tried to find a way to combine my love for the shape of languages and mathematics, and discovered the close-to-Utopian Linguistics Department in Konstanz after getting lost at the traditional University of Munich and taking a year off as an assistant teacher at the Lycée Jean Dautet in La Rochelle (France). I cobbled a graduate education together for myself via research assistantships and scholarships that took me to the University of Heidelberg and to Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Before coming to Amherst, I was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen and taught at the Technical University in Berlin.”

[She further talks about] “a dream of a community of scholars that I myself was part of as a young student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Konstanz, where Arnim von Stechow and Peter (Eberhard) Pause took me in as a colleague and friend, and where I first met Irene Heim, (Thomas) Ede Zimmermann, and my thesis advisor Urs Egli. Other academic teachers whose lectures and seminars left a mark on me include Peter Glotz (film and communication), Wolfgang Braunfels (history of art), Hans Rheinfelder (Dante), and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, who was a guest professor at Konstanz for a semester.”

[About her dissertation she adds:] “From the time I started my dissertation work in New Zealand with the help of Max Cresswell, George Hughes, John Bigelow, and David Lewis, I have been interested in context dependent semantic phenomena, in particular tense, modals and conditionals. My dissertation Semantik der Rede (Semantics of Discourse) dates from 1978, but the questions I struggled with then are still very much alive these days, and I keep returning to them.”

Angelika has shared with me this picture taken after her dissertation defense:

Urs Egli

Urs Egli wrote a 1967 dissertation entitled “Zur stoischen Dialektik” at the University of Bern (Switzerland) under the direction of Willy Theiler. This information was a bit hard to find. I obtained an interlibrary loan copy of Egli’s dissertation and there is a page with a statement from Dekan (Dean) Prof. Dr. E. Walder that the dissertation had been accepted by the philosophical-historical faculty of the University of Bern at the request of Herr Prof. Dr. W. Theiler. I show here the title page, the decanal note, and the vita from the end of the thesis (a traditional component of doctoral dissertations).


An aside: A striking (mostly unsurprising) thing to see in Egli’s acknowledgments is that in his long list of professors whose lectures and seminars he attended, there is not a single woman. In fact, Angelika is not just the only woman in my entire tree, but there is no other woman to even be mentioned in the intellectual biographies of any of these men [this may not be strictly true, since it seems that Anna Comnena might be in the tree]. Our community has come a long way when I can honestly say that the four most important people in my immediate academic background are Angelika, Barbara, Irene, and Sabine.

When I first posted this first installment of my genealogy, I was contacted by Urs Egli and his wife, Renata Egli-Gerber. They shared with me a number of relevant materials, including a hard copy of Egli’s dissertation, some other writings, and an academic autobiography, which I can now make publicly available: “Wie man in Europa sowohl Altphilologe als auch Semantiker werden konnte”. For those who do not read German, here’s some highlights:

Egli entitles these memoirs: “How in Europe one could become both a classical philologist and a semanticist”. He was fascinated by Latin and Greek in school where he delved deep into grammatical and historical studies of those two ancient languages. He was also influenced early by the writings of Carnap, but it wasn’t possible to study mathematical logic or model-theoretic semantics in Bern, so after graduating from high school in 1960, he enrolled in General and Historical Linguistics and Greek and Latin, against the hopes of his high school teachers who thought he should study physics or “at least” biology. But his chosen disciplines offered at least a fail-save career option: he obtained a high school teacher’s diploma for Greek and Latin.

Around 1962, he discovered Chomsky’s “Syntactic Structures” in the university library and started thinking about ways to connect generative grammar, logic, and philology. He was a student of Georges Redard (a student of Emile Benveniste, in turn a student of Meillet’s, in turn a student of Saussure’s). Redard, though, wasn’t willing to advise a disertation on logic and formal grammar. So, what Egli finally settled on was a topic in the history of logical semantics (an area that he was drawn to through Bochenski’s work) and Willy Theiler in the same department as Redard agreed to advise the thesis. He wrote on stoic logic and semantics, combining logical analyses drawing on Mates and Lukasiewicz and philological work of Theiler, von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Eduard Schwartz, Fuhrmann, Kochalsky, and von der Mühll. The thesis was accepted in 1967.

Redard, who knew Chomsky from a summer school, wrote to Chomsky and helped Egli get an offer of a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, but he couldn’t go there because of health reasons. (Egli adds that not going to MIT may have been a good thing because he suspects that at the height of the “linguistics wars”, he might not have thrived there, because of his tendency to try to give all approaches their due and to combine them where possible.) So, he went to Cologne to work with Hansjakob Seiler, the director of the linguistics department there (who was just about to retire when I myself started studying linguistics there in 1984 and who was replaced by Sasse, who I took several seminars from). While there, he discovered the third significant work that informed his career: Montague’s universal grammar (through Helmut Schnelle’s exposition). He wrote his “habilitation” (second dissertation to earn the right to be a professor) on Montagovian/Chomskyan themes. This time, Redard advised the work and Egli stresses that the combination of insights that he put together seems to him to realize one of Redard’s favorite aphorisms of Saussure’s: “la linguistique sera algébrique ou elle ne sera pas”. Indeed. In 1974, the philosophical-historical school of the University of Bern accepted the habilitation.

Egli says that apart from his official genealogy through Theiler, von der Mühll, Schwartz, which is what I will be tracing here, he has a second lineage through Redard (associating him with Max Niedermann, Jacob Wackernagel, Emile Benveniste, Antoine Meillet, and Ferdinand de Saussure). And then, obviously, there is the intellectual influence, which we all share, of Carnap, Chomsky, and Montague.

Willy Theiler

Willy Theiler (* 24. Oktober 1899 in Adliswil; died 26. Februar 1977 in Bern) taught at the universities of Königsberg (1932–1944) and Bern (1944–1968). Here’s a photo of him from an obituary article in the journal Gnomon:

Theiler’s dissertation “Zur Geschichte der teleologischen Naturbetrachtung bis auf Aristoteles” was filed at the University of Basel (also Switzerland) in 1924 (at the age of 25) under the direction of Peter von der Mühll. A later edition is in fact dedicated to von der Mühll.

According to Theiler’s obituary, von der Mühll was an extraordinary teacher whose seminars attracted many young scholars over the years. Even though there were 43 years between Theiler’s dissertation and Egli’s dissertation, Egli writes in his acknowledgments that von der Mühll had helped him with some information about manuscript transmission. Theiler supervised 26 dissertations (and more at institutions other than the ones he was teaching at) over his career. He was an eminent philologist, specializing in ancient philosophy.

Peter von der Mühll

With Peter von der Mühll (* 1. August 1885 in Basel; died 13. Oktober 1970 also in Basel), the tree leaves Switzerland; he was Swiss and taught at Zürich and Basel, but he got his doctorate in Göttingen (Germany) in 1909 (at the age of 26) with a dissertation entitled “De Aristotelis Ethicorum Eudemiorum auctoritate” under the direction of Eduard Schwartz, who together with Jacob Wackernagel and Friedrich Leo made Göttingen a center of excellence in classic studies. From now on in the tree, all dissertations were written in Latin. This one is a mere 47 pages long and it has a DOI: 2027/uc1.b2619343. Unfortunately, Google’s scan of the last page of the dissertation, which has a Vita including acknowledgments, is a bad scan cutting off the right side of the text, so it’s not really useful, except that one can see that he acknowledges Wackernagel among others. So, I obtained a fresh scan from Harvard’s Widener Library. I am posting a four page excerpt with the title, dedication, and Vita pages.


Von der Mühll didn’t publish all that much in his career, focusing on his teaching, advising, and on administrative duties (he was rector of the University of Basel for a while). Here’s a photo (again from an obituary article in Gnomon):

Eduard Schwartz

Eduard Schwartz (* 22. August 1858 in Kiel; died 13. Februar 1940 in München) was mainly trained at the University of Bonn (when I lived in Cologne and regularly visited Bonn, the Intercity trains used to announce that Bonn was the birth place of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven and the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany … in that order).

He received his doctorate there with a dissertation entitled “De Dionysio Scytobrachione” (freely downloadable as a pdf from Google Books) in 1880 (at the age of 22; note that the ages at which these academic ancestors got their degrees are decreasing as we go back in time, indicating how professionalized the discipline has become over time). His co-advisors were Franz Bücheler and Hermann Usener. His dissertation has a list of 11 controversial theses at the end (a feature you can still see in linguistics dissertations from the Netherlands, and which recurs in the dissertations further up the tree). The title page lists three fellow students who served as the disputants at the defense (again, a traditional component of doctoral dissertations for a while). His doctorfathers are acknowledged on the next page in the dedication, and his vita contains a list of other teachers.


[To be continued]

Morris & Noam Recursion

I’ve already shared this picture via the requisite social networks, but here it is for the blog:

A picture taken after Noam Chomsky’s keynote talk at Ling50@MIT, the scientific reunion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MIT Linguistics phd program. Morris and Noam are holding a 1988 picture of them holding a 1953 picture of them … Or, as Bob Frank put it: “The linguists the colleagues the department invited applauded posed for a picture.”