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Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve (again)

From the obituary for Peter Strawson in the Guardian in 2006:

When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, “If you can’t put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying,” Strawson retorted: “If you can put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying.”

I actually agree with both of them, I think, though the versions of each I would go along with would insert an “often” or “usually” before “not worth saying.” Carnap, my philosophical grandfather (since Howard Stein, my Doktorvater, was a student of Carnap), would presumably have had more sympathy with Grice in this case than with Strawson (he said as much in his reply to Strawson in the Schilpp volume), but might also have agreed with his student Stein that there are things worth saying that, as Howard put it, can be “usefully vague” (by “vague” I assume he means something like “not amenable at the moment to any sort of formal or symbolic treatment”). He might also have added that the point wasn’t to put something into symbols but to make it more precise, that being “in symbols” is in itself no guarantee of precision, and that precision is (a) a matter of degree; (b) purpose-relative.

Humanities subjects have come in for a lot of criticism these days, especially since the disastrous testimony of those university presidents, where they idiotically walked right into Stefanik’s trap. I suppose most of what we in humanities subjects try to do falls into this grey area between what’s not worth saying because you can’t put it into symbols, and what isn’t worth saying because you can. It’s really hard to avoid those opposite pitfalls, and not everyone in the humanities is always even trying to avoid them, but I still think we should persist. That’s my wish for the new year.

I remember Leonard Linsky once telling me about Carnap in Champaign, where Leonard (in his first job, at the downstate U of I) had invited him for a guest semester, presumably at some point during the 40s. Leonard was appalled that his philosophy department was so unappreciative of their distinguished guest that they hadn’t even offered him an office; he had to sit in the common office room along with the lowly assistant professors like Leonard. So when curious visitors came to meet Carnap (quite a few, Leonard said), he often overheard parts of the conversations. One frequent visitor, he said, was a Catholic priest, who was interested in formalizing proofs of the existence of God. (“Putting it in symbols,” I guess; did that make it worth saying?) Leonard said he marvelled at Carnap’s patience with this guy, who was evidently a bit slow. Only once or twice did Carnap show any impatience; Leonard remembered him saying once, in quite an exasperated tone, “Can we just leave the concept of omnipotence out of this for now?”

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