December 06, 2003

Reichenbach on university and society

Most linguists know Hans Reichenbach through his work on logic, and especially on the semantic representation of tense and aspect. I used to have George Lakoff's copy of Reichenbach's 1947 work Elements of Symbolic Logic, with George's enthusiastic marginal notes. I borrowed it when I was a student, and at some point I lent it to a student in turn. I hope that he or she enjoyed reading it as much as I did. Reichenbach's simple little system of relations among Speech, Event and Reference times was a brilliant success -- I remember reading it and thinking: "Oh. Yes. Now tense and aspect makes sense." It's enough to make anybody believe in the feasibility of linguistic semantics, at least for a while.

Steven Gimbel's recent article "If I Had A Hammer: Why Logical Positivism Better Accounts for the Need for Gender and Cultural Studies" features Reichenbach prominently in another role, as the author of a 1918 essay “Die Socialisierung der Hochschule”. Gimbel "argue[s] that its central arguments are easily and naturally extended from opening the universities of post-World War I Germany to culture studies in the contemporary state of the academy." He also asks why "[i]f ... Nietzsche and Heidegger were the darlings of the most repressive and powerful, and the positivists were those people actively risking their lives and well-being for the emancipation of humans from tyranny...[w]hy did the logical positivist mode of valuation branch off from the fashionable left and become considered its opposite?”

Gimbel frames an argument for "gender and culture studies" based on Reichenbach's distinction between "community" and "society" and his 1918 call for "all academic rights be made independent of class, party, church, sect, race, sex, or citizenship." I'm not sure that I follow all the steps in Gimbel's logic. But I retain enough respect for Reichenbach's Logic to pay some attention to his politics. So read the whole thing!

[via A.L.D]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 6, 2003 02:27 PM