This and that

Jonathan Bennett (1930-2024), Michael Tanner (1934-2024)

The deaths have been announced of two Cambridge philosophers.

Jonathan Bennett was here from 1956–1968, and I was and remain a huge admirer. His early little book Rationality is a masterpiece, and for a good few years I was much intrigued by his defence of a Gricean programme in the philosophy of language which comes to fruition in his Linguistic Behaviour. And when it came to my retirement and I had to radically downsize my ludicrously big library, one of the few history of philosophy books that I couldn’t bear to let go was his Kant’s Analytic which still strikes me as the very paradigm of how to make the Great Dead Philosophers live as exciting interlocutors with something to say which is still worth grappling with. His energetic, direct, straight-talking style as a philosopher I found inspirational over the years.

Bennett was a prolific publisher, not so Michael Tanner, who spent his whole career in Cambridge, first as an undergraduate and then from 1961 until his retirement in 2002 as a lecturer. But he had a great cultural influence on many students over the years, in the way that dons of a different era could do. His Wagner evenings were legendary (and his eventual short book Wagner is a terrific read, even for those of us who never quite caught the bug). And he became a wonderful reviewer of CDs for the BBC Music Magazine, and of opera for the Spectator. He was passionately engaged, opinionated, insightful because — as a loyal Leavisite — he thought such things really mattered to life. (For some reminiscences, see the comments on Brian Leiter’s blog here.)

Three things to read …

The death was announced a few days ago of W.W. Tait, whose work I have much admired over the years. His early technical work was on proof theory, and then he wrote with great knowledge and insight on the philosophy of mathematics and its history. His collection of papers The Provenance of Pure Reason is a must-read, and more excellent papers can be found on his otherwise minimalist website here. One piece of Tait’s which I can’t remember reading before and which will surely be of interest to anyone reading this blog is his piece contributing to Philosophy of Mathematics: 5 Questions: you can read it here.


Brian Leiter’s blog linked yesterday to a piece by a one-time colleague of mine, Leif Wenar, lambasting the pretentions of the “effective altruism” cult. I laughed out loud at his (surely just) comment that “To anyone who knows even a little about aid, it’s like [Will] MacAskill has tattooed “Not Serious” on his forehead.”. But this is serious stuff, and well worth a read here.


For some hard-core logical reading, here is another one-time colleague in action. Tim Button has just posted on the arXiv a forthcoming JSL paper “Wand/Set Theories: A realization of Conway’s mathematicians’ liberation movement, with an application to Church’s set theory with a universal set”. Tim describes a template for introducing mathematical objects which prima facie is much more liberal than standard set theory provides. Indeed it seems to very nicely encapsulate Conway’s liberation movement, allowing that (in Conway’s words)

(i) “Objects may be created from earlier objects in any reasonably constructive fashion.

(ii) Equality among the created objects can be any desired equivalence relation.”

Note, though, that Conway expected that any theory whose objects are so created in such a “reasonably constructive” fashion can be embedded within (some extension of) ZF. Tim aims to prove a stronger theorem: all loosely constructive implementations of the Wand/Set Template are not merely embeddable in (some extension of) ZF, but synonymous with a ZF-like theory. Which seems a surprise.

Markdown joy

A minor improvement here …

You can now use simple Markdown syntax (you know the kind of thing, *italics* for italics, **bold** for bold) in comment boxes.

This is explicitly signalled in comment boxes on the blog; but it is also the case with comment boxes on static pages.

(Nerdy trivia: this is enabled by using the multi-purpose Jetpack plugin — which is wild overkill: but I’ve turned off more or less every other Jetpack option so I hope that nothing is inadvertently broken.)

Core logic again

I have mentioned Neil Tennant’s system(s) of what he calls Core Logic once or twice before on this blog, in friendly terms. For the very shortest of introductions to the core idea of his brand of relevant logic, see my post here on the occasion of the publication of his book on the topic. (And there is a bit more info here in a short note in which I respond to some criticisms on Neil’s behalf — unnecessarily, it turned out, as he published his own rejoinder.)

I notice that Neil has now written a piece outlining his developed ideas on Core Logic for Philosophia Mathematica. If you want to know more, this might be a good place to start. You can download this paper here.

The blog is eighteen!

Post #1 was back on March 9th, 2006. And here we are again, with post #1715, and with the blog yet another year older, if not a year wiser. I’ll raise a glass.

Since its last birthday, I’ve started to put together archive pages to make it easier to find those old posts which may (or then again, may not) be still worth reading. I really must make the effort to complete that job.

But I’m afraid that just recently there hasn’t been so very much happening here. However, the end of the category theory project really, really, is in sight now, and when it at last gets off my desk, I do hope to have a bit more time and energy to devote to posting more often. For a start, there’s a pile of books — and not just logic books — I’d like to say something about.

Today though, my self-denying ordinance stands: it’s back to concentrating on reworking the final few pages of Category Theory II … Wish me luck.

Miracle on St David’s Day.

St Davids Cathedral. Wales

I have just noted, with delight, that the poet Gillian Clarke — the much admired, much loved, one-time National Poet of Wales — has a new collection of poems coming out from Carcanet Press this month. We have read and reread and read her work again ever since we lived in Wales, and find it so deeply appealing. If by some ill chance, you haven’t really come across her poetry, try — yes, do try — her Selected Poems of 2016, or at least browse her website.

In this new book, we are told, “The poems in … The Silence begin during lockdown, to whose silences Clarke listens so attentively that other voices emerge. As the book progresses, that silence deepens, in the poems about her mother and childhood, about the Great War and its aftermaths, and in her continuing attention to Welsh places and names, and the rituals which make that world come in to focus. In these scrupulous, musical poems, Clarke finds consolation in how silence makes room for memory and for the company of the animal- and bird-life which surrounds us. These poems, compulsively returning to key images and formative moments, echo and bring back other ways of living to the book’s present moment.”

Since the poem is on her website, I hope that Gillian Clarke will forgive me if I reproduce here a particularly touching poem of hers, appropriate to the day, dating back to a real event in the 1970s.

Miracle on St David’s Day.

‘They flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude’
(from ‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth)

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.

Ergo?

These days I rarely visit the philosophy news website Daily Nous. But my eye was caught by a recent post (or in fact, a re-post) inviting readers to report markedly good experiences with journals — to counterbalance the frequent complaints about various  journals for the slowness of getting any decision, and worse.  And in the replies, the journal Ergo comes in for a lot of praise as outstanding in handling submissions. That had to be a surprise to me, because (ok, I’m obviously way off the pace here!) the journal had previously never crossed my radar.

So I took a look, here. And at one level I’m hugely impressed. It’s a genuinely open-access journal; its procedures seem quite exemplary in principle, and by all accounts work excellently well in practice. The online reading experience is terrific, with a well-designed look’n’feel. And if you download a PDF of an article, it is also very decently designed. (Someone with a good eye was involved in tweaking the under-the-bonnet engines driving the site.) As you will probably know, I’m all for open-access, and Ergo seems a splendid model for journals. All credit to those involved.

But.

But ….

When I looked at the abstracts of the forty pieces published last year how many did I actually want to read?

Pretty much zero. I did try dipping into a few on topics that I could perhaps have mustered some interest in but (no names, no pack drill) I found them laboured and unexciting, and I just wasn’t drawn in at all. What did I overlook?

Now I’m well aware that this could indeed reflect much more on my increasing distance from the fray than on the quality of the papers. But equally, I really had little sense that I was missing out on a scene of bubbling intellectual ferment. I’m almost tempted to add: not like the good old days, eh?

(Oh, and I did notice that Analysis still comes in for praise in the Daily Nous comments. That’s good to hear.)

Schubert on Sunday 8: Julian Prégardien and Els Biesemans, Die Schöne Müllerin

Julian Prégardien, in wonderful voice, is utterly compelling. The plangent tones of the fortepiano and Els Biesemans’ utter involvement adds so much. The shared level of commitment makes for a heartbreaking performance, of great emotional intensity. Surely one of the very finest recorded performances on disc or otherwise that we have.

Why it is in grim times that such wrenching music can yet be, in its way, consoling I cannot tell.

A Christmas card

Angels by Benozzo Gozzoli, from his quite wonderful frescos in the Magi Chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

Who would have thought that the familiar words, “With every good wish for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year”, would have taken on such new weight over the last couple of years. Grim times.

So even more than usually, this comes with every good wish for a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Scroll to Top