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Friday, May 25, 2012

Apparitions

In David Berlinski's world, the great mathematicians and logicians of times past are alive and well, and make regular appearances in the here and now. Leibniz comes late one night to sit by Berlinski's desk and discuss his curious notion of an encyclopedia of human concepts, "his lush old-fashioned wig proving irresistible to my cats, who have come creeping from their tower to bat at it."*

And Gottlob Frege [1848-1925] somewhat surprisingly team-taught logic with Berlinski at an unnamed California college at an unspecified point of the later twentieth century:


Our classes were always well attended because logic was a prerequisite for an engineering degree, and they were, I must say, well received, Frege and I both receiving excellent if somewhat innocent standardized student evaluations, any number of students somehow saying the same thing, that while Mr. Berlinski should learn to match his ties and suits, Mr. Frege is very nice. No wonder they never complained about his clothes. Frege would dress severely, no matter the sunshine, which even in February seemed to light up every corner of the campus, wearing the same black frock coat and batwing collar that, no doubt, he had worn in Germany. You must imagine the man at the blackboard, the thick German chalk in his fingers, his back always toward our students and the logical symbols going up and down the board, the steps separated, when necessary, by heavily drawn lines.


Is Berlinski romanticizing the intellectual figures of the past in his literary fantasies? No doubt he is. But then perhaps Frege and other pioneers of logic were indeed special, and alive to the wider implications of their work in a way most contemporary logicians are not. This may be because they were wrestling with big ideas rather than merely technical elaborations of those ideas. Peter Smith has recently made the point that today's more 'advanced' logic is less philosophically interesting than the more basic stuff (in effect the work of the great pioneers).

Berlinski was taught logic by the legendary Alonzo Church, and so has in my mind a certain reflected glory, a certain aura, as he is a link to a great age of human thought. Like an old colleague and friend of mine who was taught by Willard Van Orman Quine, a fact which - quite irrationally - made me very forgiving of his many personal failings.**

One last quote...


Sometime in the fall after the spring in which Frege and I had taught logic together in California, my great friend, the logician DG took his life. He had loved someone a great deal and for a very long time, and when it was over he had only logic left and logic was not enough. He was cremated in Colma at the insistence of his wife; I watched as the conveyor belt took his coffin toward the winking red lights; there was a roar from far away as the gas-fired jets ignited, and two hours later, I was given a plain wooden box with his ashes.

I took the box with me to one of those sparse California hills, which are covered with chaparral and a few scrub oaks standing in copses.

I was about to scatter the ashes when I noticed that Frege had joined me. He was dressed, as always, in black. I opened the box and let the salt-smelling wind carry the ashes far away.

Frege looked into the middle distance. I thought he would remain silent.

"I always come for my own," he said, just before vanishing himself, leaving me alone with the smell of wild sage.




* All quotations are from Berlinski's The Advent of the Algorithm (Harcourt 2001).

** In truth, he is a good and intelligent man. (Hello John!)