Sylvain Bromberger who died on Monday at age 94 was an MIT professor of philosophy whose work involved reconciling the various incarnations of generative grammar with work within the philosophical tradition, most notably semantics, epistemology and formal logic. In this capacity. he worked closely with MIT linguists including my father Morris, though their acquaintance preceded Sylvain’s arrival at MIT by many years, both having been graduates of George Washington High School in the early 1940s.
Since most of my postings here involve politics, I’ll mention that while neither Morris nor Sylvain would be described as activists, they had strong political views. These applied in particular to another GWHS grad from the same time, namely, Henry Kissinger. Both were utterly appalled not only by Kissinger but by the possibility that such an individual could exist. “Six million Jews, and they had to miss him” was my father’s line, one which Sylvain heartily applauded.
It stands to reason that both Morris and Sylvain were reliable presences opposing Kissinger’s wars-those directly prosecuted by him and those he inspired-extending thoughout most of my adult life. Sylvain would participate in these as part of the Veterans for Peace brigade, often in uniform displaying his combat medals.
I mention this partly because both Morris and Sylvain would be generically classified as suburban liberals. But if so, they were hardly the cartoon cut outs which revolutionary leftists routinely deride: their views on the fundamental immorality and stupidity of military aggression remained until their last conscious hours-it is safe to assume. And they were liberals, definitively not neoliberals, having regarded the cuts to New Deal social welfare programs with concern and alarm. Eventually, this would express itself as contempt for the New Democrat/Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party-maybe not soon enough for my taste, but they got there eventually.
As most of those reading this are probably aware, Sylvain and Morris were close friends, both secular Jewish emigres, temperamentally and culturally similar. But there were some basic differences between them.
One was that Sylvain was good at math and Morris wasn’t. Or at least he claimed not to be though Morris did claim to be good at algebra, which was true, but not much more. Sylvain was good at pretty much any math I ever tried to do-a reliable source for help on calculus homework (I remember him explaining limits to me in a way that I wish I could remember) and even differential equations.
The other difference was that Morris was funny but he didn’t tell jokes. Sylvain did-and I’ll pass a couple along here because they give a good idea of who Sylvain was, but also because they’re funny and give a good idea of some of the attitudes prevalent in circles in which Morris and Sylvain moved.
Postulate: One is not a number.
Proof: When you step on one bug you don’t step on a number of bugs. Therefore, one is not a number.
The other is a bit edgier and I’ll leave the referent X undefined for the moment.
Postulate: The number of stupid X’s is infinite.
Proof: For every stupid X you give me, I can find an X that is stupider.
Therefore, the number of stupid X’s is infinite.
As I recall, X in the original was logicians, though it might have been philosophers. Sylvain could be quite withering about his own field. His views along these lines were consonant with MIT linguists many of whom took at face value Steven Weinberg’s notorious dig against philosophers “as having been primarily useful in defending real science from attacks from other philosophers.” But Sylvain-and the linguists- were, of course, always ready to admit plenty of exceptions. The shared terrain of semantics, in recent years perhaps the most fertile area of linguistics is notable for researchers from both fields working on equal footing. While I never discussed this with Sylvain, I would imagine he found this gratifying.
Another difference between Sylvain and my father is sad to relate: as Morris went into decline, Sylvain remained uncannily as I remembered him from decades ago almost to the very end. Seeing him was a real comfort for all of us, particularly in the final months of Morris’s life.
What did change over the years is that I began to actually be able to understand enough about some of the issues in the field to argue with him. It is at that point that I began to appreciate why Sylvain why was regarded as highly as he was at MIT and elsewhere. He was reminiscent of Noam in that he didn’t care who you were-or who I was. Ideas were evaluated at on their own terms, but also sympathetically, with an eye towards extracting the most value out of them by recognizing whatever it was in them that was novel, original or unfamiliar.
That said, Sylvain was somewhat skeptical of some of the core assumptions of generative linguistics. In particular, Sylvain seemed to take a philosopher’s view of language as a formal system designating relationships between entities, one which exists independently of the biological system in which it happens to be instantiated.
He seemed to be uncomfortable with the orthodox Chomskyan view of language as natural object, the study of it ultimately being an investigation into the properties of a human organ. Recent versions versions construe linguistics as the biolinguistics program-nothing more or less than a subfield of biology. I recall him mildly scoffing at this suggestion, though as I remember, we didn’t pursue it.
What our discussion moved onto was our recognition that we were both less up to speed than we felt we should be with the nuts and bolts of current versions of syntactic theory. Sylvain had, for many years, maintained a solid command of them, so I regret that I didn’t follow through with arranging a blackboard session with him. Perhaps I might finally have been able to get a handle on how tense affixes are assigned via the feature checking mechanism.
I can well imagine I would have been provided the same kind of lucid explanation which I got from him almost a half century ago. No doubt others could supply something like it, but not very many.
Brains and mensches like Sylvain don’t grow on trees.