MIT philosophy: Sylvain Bromberger, 1924-2018


Sylvain Bromberger

By Paul Egré, Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRS, ENS, Paris*


Sylvain Bromberger, philosopher of language and philosopher of science, passed away on September 16, 2018 in Cambridge, MA. His loss leaves an unfillable gap in the lives of his relatives, friends, colleagues, and former students, who admired his history, his extraordinary intellectual depth and independence, his sharp wit, and his wry affection for life.

Bromberger shared an equal interest in philosophy and in linguistics, two subjects that he loved and on which he had a significant impact during the more than 50 years he spent at MIT as a professor of philosophy. Born in 1924 in Antwerp to a French-speaking Jewish family, he escaped the German invasion of Belgium with his parents and two brothers on May 10, 1940. After reaching Paris, then Bordeaux, where the French government had installed itself temporarily, his family obtained one of the last visas issued by the Portuguese consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Bayonne (to whom he would later dedicate the volume of his collected papers On What We Know We Don’t Know: Explanation, Theory, Linguistics, and How Questions Shape Them, published by CSLI in 1992).** They crossed into Spain just before the Nazi armistice with France was signed and fled into Portugal from where they obtained passage on the ship Nyassa, bound for New York harbor.

After his arrival in New York, Bromberger first attended the École Libre des Hautes Études, and then George Washington High School. In 1942, shortly after being admitted to Columbia University, he chose to join the ranks of the American Army where he served for three years in the infantry. The choice, he once told Paul Egré and Robert May, was not so much to earn American citizenship as to engage in a war he thought was his. As a Belgian citizen and refugee, he could easily have chosen not to be drafted. From 1943 to 1945, he took part in the liberation of Europe as a member of the 405th Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division, first in the Netherlands, then in the bitter winter Ardennes offensive and the invasion of Germany, where he was wounded in 1945. After being liberated from the US Army, Sylvain resumed his studies at Columbia University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1948. He first studied physics, then philosophy of science under Hans Reichenbach and Ernest Nagel. He was supervised at Harvard by Morton White, receiving a PhD in 1961 for a thesis titled “The Concept of Explanation”. A Lecturer at Princeton in 1955, and Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago in 1959, he joined MIT in 1966 where he became full Professor, retiring officially in 1993 and remaining a very active Emeritus until his death. Over the years, he trained many generations of MIT students, teaching alongside Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle, Thomas Kuhn and Ken Hale.

A significant part of Bromberger’s work concerns fundamental issues in epistemology, namely the theory of knowledge and the conditions that make knowledge possible or impossible. He devoted a substantial part of his thinking to an examination of the ways in which we get to apprehend unsolved questions and to find scientific answers to them. Socrates’ often cited motto is “I know one thing; that I know nothing.” Bromberger’s book On What We Know We Don’t Know offers an obvious echo to the Socratic remark. Even the style of Bromberger’s work bears an affinity to Socrates’, in part due to Bromberger’s sense of puzzles and of the constant tension between knowledge and ignorance, and in part due to a form of epistemological modesty that infuses his writings. Bromberger was not a radical sceptic, to whom knowledge would count as an illusion. He was, however, what Hume would call an “academic sceptic”, drawing constant and careful attention to the fact that “in seeking its goal science repeatedly runs into difficulties”, the most important to him pertaining“to our ability to conceive, formulate, consider, connect, and assess answers.”

Bromberger’s early work dealt with his critique of the so-called deductive-nomological model of explanation, due to the German-American philosopher Carl Hempel and his associate Paul Oppenheim. Playing on the fact that Carl Hempel sometimes went by “Peter,” Bromberger dedicated his essay “Why-Questions” “to Carl G. Hempel and to Peter Hempel as a token of gratitude for the tough-mindedness of the one and the gentle-mindedness of the other.” The deductive-nomological model of explanation says that to explain a phenomenon is to deductively derive the statement reporting that phenomenon from laws (universal generalizations) and antecedent conditions. For example, we can explain that this water boils from the law that all water boils at 100°C, and that the temperature of the water was elevated to exactly 100°C. In the 1950s, the deductive-nomological model came under attack, notably from Nelson Goodman, who questioned what makes a universal statement a law as opposed to an accidental generalization.

In seminars and conversations, Bromberger pointed out to Hempel another limitation of the DN-account of explanation, namely, some explanations seem asymmetric or directional. For instance, one can calculate the actual height of a flagpole from the length of its shadow, and the angle of the sun to the horizon. But it seems counter-intuitive to say that the length of the shadow explains the height of the pole, although it is quite natural to say that the height of the pole explains the length of the shadow. Of that example, Bromberger reminds us in the preface to his collected papers: “In fact it appears in none of my published papers! It is described in papers by Hempel in which he generously recalls that I once presented him with the difficulty.” However, it is in relation to that puzzle that Bromberger set out to think about the proper understanding of the verb explain and the notion of explanation.

As Bromberger notes of his method, “the paper was written under the influence of ordinary language philosophy,” using grammar and linguistic analysis as tools toward an understanding of concepts. One simple though key observation made by Bromberger in his analysis of explanation was that we may not only explain that the water boils at 100°C, but also how it boils, and even why it boils when heated up. This feature gradually led Bromberger to think about the semantics and pragmatics of questions and their answers. Bromberger’s “Why-questions” paper, dated 1966, and probably his most influential article, is concerned with the problem of what defines correct answers to a why-question. In his work on explanation, Bromberger highlights the fact that most scientifically valid questions put us at first in a state in which we know all actual answers to the question to be false, but in which we can nevertheless recognize the question to have a correct answer (a state he calls “p-predicament”, with “p” for “puzzle”). According to Bromberger, why-questions are particularly emblematic of this state of p-predicament, because in order to ask a why-question rationally, a number of felicity conditions (or presuppositions) must be satisfied, which are discussed in his work. The paper had an influence on ulterior accounts of explanation, notably Bas van Fraassen’s discussion of contrastivism in his book The Scientific Image (to explain a phenomenon is to answer a why-question with a contrast class in mind). Still today, why-questions are recognized as questions whose semantics is hard to specify, in part for reasons discussed by Bromberger, having to do with the open-endedness of answers, an aspect to which Bromberger devoted a few more of his papers, in particular his paper “Rational Ignorance,” in which he discusses the ways in which a scientist needs to evaluate his ignorance and assess which questions are worth pursuing and which might not yet be mature for a rational investigation.

After his arrival at MIT, Bromberger helped solidify collaboration between philosophers and linguists. He played a pivotal role in establishing MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy in 1977, the philosophy section of which he headed for several years. He became a very close friend of Morris Halle (who had also been a student at George Washington High School in the same years, even though they had limited contact back then), to Jay Keyser, and to Noam Chomsky, to name only a few. About his friendship and collaboration with Morris Halle, he wrote the following in 2015: “How did Morris and I become co-author despite our very different backgrounds and interests? It starts with the fact that Morris and I shared a maxim: “Do not collude with insanity in yourself or in others.” I don’t remember which of us thought of it, or when we agreed to help each other abide by it. It is a demanding maxim – try it for a week! – and yet, but for our adopting it, we might never have become co-authors. It all happened during a period of intense disagreement among members of our respective sections. (…) Morris and I, like our colleagues, became obsessed by the issue, and we talked about almost nothing else while we commuted daily back and forth between Newton and MIT. A pointless bi-daily waste of time together! Fortunately one of us finally growled what had to be growled (Probably not the exact words): “Damn it! Here we are, blatantly colluding with insanity in ourselves and in others! Let us stop it!” Of course, but how? Our solution: From here on, on the way in, Morris would talk to me about phonology, and on the way back I would talk to him about philosophy. And so we did. Predictably, after a while we discovered that we could do even better by focusing during both trips on the points of contact between our respective interests.

While his work on questions had led him to investigate the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic analysis of interrogatives, Bromberger immersed himself in generative linguistics, with a particular interest in generative phonology, and the methodology of linguistic theory, teaching a seminar on the latter with Thomas Kuhn. Several of his papers from that period onward are concerned with the individuation of linguistic entities and in particular with the type-token distinction. As Bromberger notices, there is a tension between the fact that linguistics rests on information about word types and sentence types, and the fact that “that information is obtained by attending to utterances, that is, to tokens.” A puzzle ensues, for Bromberger, which forces us to think about the relation between types and tokens. The thesis Bromberger defends in “Types and Tokens in Linguistics”, and in “The Ontology of Phonology” (coauthored with Morris Halle), as well as in his last published papers “Vagueness, Ambiguity, and the “Sound” of Meaning” (2012) and “Words” (2011), is that types are essentially dispensable entities, and that the business of linguistic theory, starting with phonology, concerns concrete particulars, “mental events that occur in real time, in real space, have effects, are finite in number”. Bromberger did not think he had achieved a full understanding of the nature of linguistic tokens, but his encouraging hope, beautifully summed up in “Words”, is that new answers will be found, and that “these answers will break up the notion of word into a number of more precise and theoretically manageable ones. Meanwhile there is work to be done. Much is being done. Philosophers could be most helpful in that work. They have relevant analytical skills that are invaluable and that few others have had the chance to develop.”

In 1993, on the occasion of his retirement, a collection of essays in linguistics in his honor was published by MIT Press under the title The View From Building 20, edited by Ken Hale and Jay Keyser, and featuring essays by Chomsky, Halle, Marantz, Kenstowicz, among other distinguished colleagues. The volume is preceded by a short preface that gives a wonderful insight into his personality, and speaks of his beloved wife Nancy (1925-2014). More recently, in the spring of 2017, Paul Egré and Robert May put together a workshop honoring Bromberger. It was held at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, with talks on themes from his work, including metacognition, questions, linguistic theory, and problems concerning word individuation. As the first speaker, Bromberger, at age 92, gave a detailed and memorable presentation on the difference between why-questions and how-come questions, summarizing his latest research on the syntax of wh-complements across a variety of languages, and ending with more puzzles to think about.

On the occasion of the workshop, Egré and May read aloud an impressive number of testimonials from colleagues and former students from all over the world. While they all deserve mention here, three of them paint a particularly lively portrait of the man and his unique imprint on others.

The first was sent by his friend Morris Halle (1923-2018) and recalled the following story: “The first time I noticed Sylvain was when we were both students at George Washington High School in New York City in 1940. He was performing in a kind of one-man show. He took the part of a French monk who had a favorite flea named Eulalie that he kept in his robes. At the end of the performance the flea disappeared. I remember that the performance over three quarters of a century ago was brilliant. In fact, it was on the basis of this performance that 20 years later I persuaded Noam to hire him at MIT. Perhaps if you are lucky, he will recreate the performance today. In those high school years many of the kids had escaped from Europe. They formed cliques depending on their native language. Sylvain’s was French. Mine was German. It wasn’t until he came to MIT that we became friends. He came to us from the philosophy department at the University of Chicago where he had been a professor. Like me and Noam he never left.”

The second, from Noam Chomsky, was an evocation of the walks that he and Bromberger used to take along the Charles River in the years they taught together. “Those walks,” Chomsky writes, “were a high point of the day for many years, as were the seminars we co-taught and the many other occasions when we could spend some time together, almost always leaving me with the same challenging question: Why? Which I’ve come to think of as Sylvain’s question. And leaving me with the understanding that it is a question we should always ask when we have surmounted some barrier in inquiry and think we have an answer, only to realize that we are like mountain climbers who think they see the peak but when they approach it find that it still lies tantalizingly beyond.”

A third note, from philosopher of language and former student Robert Stainton, reports the following anecdote, so emblematic of Bromberger’s coy scepticism: “When I showed Sylvain the final draft of my thesis, which I completed in 1993, he absolutely insisted that I remove something. There was a line in the Acknowledgments which thanked him as "the greatest supervisor a person could ever want." He asked: "How could you know? I'm the only one you've had." [I invite all who know Sylvain to imagine the voice with which his query was posed.] I bowed to Sylvain's logic, and that line was changed. Almost a quarter century later, I draw ever so many positive lessons from this little anecdote. There is a lesson about Sylvain's scrupulous attention to detail and his intellectual honesty. There is a lesson about his humility, despite a life extraordinary in every way. (These facets of his character shine through in his tremendous contributions to philosophy and linguistics too, of course.) But I also draw a negative lesson. Sylvain, teacher, mentor, friend: I was right, and you were wrong all those years ago. You simply were the greatest supervisor a person could ever want.”

Sylvain traveled widely with Nancy over the 64 years of their marriage, from the American Southwest to Sweden and to the Brazilian Amazon, but he felt most at home in Cambridge, New York City and the French speaking parts of Europe. One of his great pleasures was to converse in French, his native language, with friends, colleagues and students. A loving father and grandfather, he raised two sons, Allen and Daniel, and three grandchildren, Michael, Abigail and Eliza, who were his biggest admirers of all.

Today those of us who were lucky enough to know Sylvain have lost the dearest of friends, a unique voice, a distinctive smile and laugh, someone who yet seemed to know that life is vain and fragile in unsuspected ways, but also invaluable in others. The former aspects he mentioned only in passing, rarely alluding to his experience during the war, but enough to convey a world of hardship and tragedy. The latter aspects he incarnated every day, by his generosity, his gentle demeanor, his unique perspective and his sharp mind. Most of all by his constant appetite for new ideas: at the age of 94, a few weeks before his health began abruptly to deteriorate, Sylvain was still active in his summer house on Martha’s Vineyard. He was reading papers on the phonology of sign languages. He was reflecting on the way in which default logics might help him to further his theory of why-questions. He was attending to exchanges posted by his friends on the social network. He would always ask what your latest project was about, why it was interesting, and how you would deal with a specific problem. Most of all, his hope was that philosophy, linguistics, and the brain sciences would eventually join forces to uncover unprecedented dimensions of the human mind, erasing at least some of our ignorance.

2nd October, 2018

*Many thanks to Daniel Bromberger, Allen Bromberger, Alex Byrne, Samuel Jay Keyser, Robert May, Agustín Rayo, Philippe Schlenker, and Benjamin Spector for their valuable input and suggestions.

**Mendes was imprisoned for his clandestine efforts to save lives. He died a pauper. Years later the Portuguese government recognized his extraordinary heroism. They invited Bromberger to return to Portugal to appear on a televised panel along with others to remember Mendes. Subsequently, a foundation honoring him was established and Bromberger served on its board for many years. As a result of his experience in the war, Bromberger became, moreover, a lifelong advocate of peace and justice.

group photo, left to right: Samuel Jay Keyser, Sylvain Bromberger, Morris Halle, Noam Chomsky, Robert Berwick

complete bibliography

MIT philosophy
updated: 17-oct-18