Fred Sommers, 1987

Fred Sommers — A Tribute

Delivered to the Brandeis Faculty

October 23rd 2014 Meeting

Andreas Teuber, Department of Philosophy

Fred Sommers was the Harry A. Wolfson Chair in Philosophy at Brandeis.

He studied mathematics at Yeshiva College as an undergraduate and went onto Columbia University as a graduate student in philosophy where he wrote, he would say "duly wrote," his Ph.D. Dissertation on the me​taphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, the Whitehead who along with Bertrand Russell wrote Principia Mathematica which reduced the truths of arithmetic to truths of logic a decade into the last century. 

Fred's thesis gained him entry into the discipline. He was offered a job at Columbia where he taught philosophy for eight yeas before coming to Brandeis in 1963. He retired in 1993, but continued to think, work and write for another twenty years.

He had a remarkable career. And "remarkable" does not really capture it. 

At an early age he discovered he was interested in philosophical problems rather than merely studying the history of what others thought and said. 

He made a pact with himself to take up only those problems for which he could at least imagine a solution. 

Some problems, some of the most popular, Fred suspected had no immediate or apparent solution, such as trying to find answers to such questions as "Do we have free will?" "What is knowledge?” One could spend a lifetime, Fred thought, trying to answer such questions and make little or no progress. He decided to tackle problems that were manageable. 

This is an unusual resolution for a philosopher to make.

But resolutions like this one as well as others like it, self-reliant yet circumspect, were promises Fred made to himself throughout his life.

Here's a partial list:

1. Don’t tackle a problem if you do not have a systematic strategy for solving it.

2. Be independent of mind. Be bold.
3. Yet be incisive, be meticulous, be systematic, and careful.
4. Don’t shy away from hard problems so long as they allow for analytic treatment.
5. Make an effort to make some progress on some fundamental problem.
6. Don’t be seduced by philosophical fads. Stick to common-sense and a sensible approach.

Due, in some measure, to these very commitments  Fred had an astonishingly productive career, filled with moments of brilliance and startling originality.

When he was still a student he had an epiphany. He noticed that children with little or no logic from their education or from books were able to makes simple deductions.

Here’s how he tells it:

"Looking back to discern some special thematic interest that may be said to characterize much of my philosophical activity, I find I was usually drawn to look for ways to explain one or another aspect of our cognitive competence.

“I once saw a father warn an eight-year-old boy, who was approaching an aloof and unwelcoming dog, not to pet him, by saying ‘Not all dogs are friendly’. The boy, who did hold back, responded with ‘Some dogs are unfriendly; don’t you think I know that?’ 

"I admired how adeptly the boy had moved from ‘Not all dogs are friendly’ to ‘Some dogs are unfriendly’. I remember thinking that the boy certainly did not make this move by somehow translating ‘Not all dogs are friendly’ as something like ‘Not: for every x, if x is a dog then x is friendly’ and then, by (unconsciously) applying laws of “quantifier interchange” and some laws of propositional logic, to get to ‘There is an x such that x is a dog and not: x is friendly’.

“I wondered how the boy actually did it.

At the brink of modernity Descartes wrote in his Discourse on Method:  “philosophy begins with wonder.”

This moment of wonder stayed with Fred.​ It never left him and in 1982 he published his magnum opus "The Logic of Natural Languages."

It's essentially a bringing explicitly to light that moment with a father, a dog and that eight-year old boy.

Fred believed that all the reasoning we do, how we actually think, can be found in the natural languages we speak without having to put our capacity to reason "into an artificial quantificational idiom." 

As Fred was wont to say the newly invented logic of Frege and Russell and that is now taught in all our universities " offer[s]​ no clue to how the average person, knowing no logic and adhering to the vernacular, is so logically adept."

​Fred went back to Aristotle and Leibniz and came up with a logic that "explains" how we, “average, logically untutored people," think, how we, ordinary persons, are instantly capable of making common deductions.

In creating such a logic and showing its power to explain much of our cognitive competence to make logical judgments, Fred was, as the expression goes, "bucking a trend." 

In 2005 a conference was held in Fred's honor. "Old" though Fred’s logic may be, in its revived and reworked form, it had no small influence on the philosophy of others, and not only on philosophers but on linguists, computer scientists, AI enthusiasts, and psychologists , too.

In the Preface to the volume of collected papers from the 2005 conference with Fred's replies, aptly titled The Old New Logic, David Oderberg writes:

​"​What makes a philosopher important? It is not the job of the philosopher to dream up utterly new ideas and theories . . . The kind of originality that respects the best of the past is the originality which itself deserves the respect of present and future thinkers. Fred Sommers is among a handful of the senior philosophers of the last half-century to understand the intellectual, even moral, imperative of building on the past rather than forsaking it for new fashions and radical dead-ends. And it is in his virtually single-handed revival of the traditional Aristotelian or syllogistic logic that this sensitivity to philosophical tradition is most manifest."​

Fred was never one to shrink from controversy. He defended his logic with energy and argument. He was aware that “the short-term prospects for reviving term logic in the universities are admittedly not bright,” but believed, “the continued preeminence of predicate logic is by no means assured” and like Giordano Bruno never recanted.

At the age of 75 Fred wrote a tribute of his own to his first teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

​In that short memoir (“How the Rav Stayed with Me”) Fred tells us that “[when he] began graduate work in philosophy at Columbia University, [he] found to [his] astonishment that none of the lights in contemporary philosophy had [the Rav’s] intellectual stature and power."​

​As you read further you realize that every one of Fred's resolutions​ were commitments to ways to being in the world that he learned from Soloveitchik who was, as Fred wrote, "bold yet always aware of his limitations” and “selective in his choices of problems to be tackled."​

​Fred studied with the Rav week after week as one wishing to learn classical guitar might study and sit next to Segovia in apprenticeship. The relation between teacher and student was less an imparting of information, but more a version of drinking the other in. Fred drank Soloveitchik in and although he did not follow Soloveitchik in his philosophy or his taste in philosophers, Soloveitchik taught Fred how to think.

As Fred himself says: "What cannot be put into words is the inspiration I got from constantly watching a pure, honest and effortlessly brilliant, unfailingly clearheaded example of unpretentious genius who loved learning, loved argument, loved Torah, and was the embodiment of the maxim that a true scholar is never envious of his students, who took joy in us and long after we left his presence, we never ceased taking joy in him.

Our loves and learning start in strange places and often where we least expect them.

Fred Sommers will be missed, not only by the Department in which he taught for three decades, but by the profession itself.

Those of us who had the good fortune to meet him noticed what Provost Goldstein noted in his notice: “Fred Sommers embodied Brandeis at its best.”