Sylvain Bromberger

In the annual NYT Magazine “The Lives They Lived” issue (yesterday in print, 12/27 on-line), “Sylvain Bromberger: He theorized about not knowing — and he lived with it too” by James Ryerson, with a story of a mysterious escape from the Nazis and a distinguished career in philosophy.

Some straightforward information and a reminiscence, from the MIT Philosophy site, in an obit “Sylvain Bromberger, 1924-2018” by Paul Egré:

After being liberated from the US Army [in WW2], 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.

… A … 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.”

Sylvain visited at Stanford at some point in the late 1980s (I think), and Jacques and I had him and his wife Nancy (1925 – 2004) to our house several times; he had some ideas for joint work on phonology that he and I might pursue together, but the plans never jelled.

Then, on the occasion of his retirement from MIT, the MIT Press festscrift The View from Building 20: Essays in Linguistics in Honor of Sylvain Bromberger, ed. by Ken Hale & Samuel Jay Keyser (1993). The table of contents:


Then from the Times piece:

(#2) The Bromberger family in 1941 in New York, with Sylvain, wearing glasses

On June 22, 1940, a 15-year-old [French-speaking] Belgian Jew named Sylvain Bromberger and his family found themselves in a crowd of fellow refugees in front of the Portuguese consulate in Bayonne, France. They fled to France the month before, shortly after Germany’s surprise attack on Belgium. But now France had surrendered to Hitler, and Bayonne, too, would soon be occupied by German forces. The Brombergers were desperate to acquire visas that would allow them to travel to Portugal. The situation, however, did not look promising. “I can still feel our fear and despair,” Bromberger recalled nearly 60 years later. “The line ahead of us seemed impossibly long, did not seem to move, and the Germans were presumably on their way.”

Then something unexpected happened. The refugees’ passports were gathered up en masse, taken into the consulate and stamped with the necessary visas. With this paperwork in hand, the Brombergers were able to reach Portugal safely. From there they obtained passage on a ship bound for New York City, which would become their new home. Five years later, as an infantryman in the United States Army, Bromberger returned to Europe for the invasion of Germany, where he reckoned firsthand with the fate that he and his family narrowly avoided.

… as a young man, he later explained, “I took my visa for granted.” Even as he grew older, he did not seek to understand why.

What Bromberger would try to understand, over the course of six decades as a philosopher of science, was the very nature of questions and answers: the various ways in which we can be ignorant of something; how we manage to formulate questions about what we don’t know; by what means we might best decide which questions are worth pursuing; and what counts as an answer. In the 1960s he began investigating the character of “why” questions, in particular what makes them routinely among the most obscure and puzzling questions we face.

… In 1986, the Portuguese government belatedly acknowledged the heroic actions of a man named Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was stationed as the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, France, in June 1940. Defying an explicit directive from his government, Sousa Mendes issued visas to tens of thousands of refugees. He was removed from his post and severely punished (he would die in poverty in 1954) but not before issuing visas to refugees in nearby Bayonne as well. This was why Bromberger and his family were able to escape.

Bromberger discovered this explanation only by chance. There had been nothing unusual about his ignorance. “Most people who were saved by Sousa Mendes,” he noted, “don’t know that they were saved by Sousa Mendes.” The trouble with “why” questions, Bromberger always insisted, was only with the difficulty of the questions, not with the value of the answers. On the contrary, he observed, answers to “why” questions “unveil what is otherwise hidden, they link what seems otherwise unconnected.” These discoveries, he wrote in a book that he dedicated to the memory of Sousa Mendes, “are some of our most beautiful intellectual prizes.”

Sylvain in his later years, looking characteristically genial:


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