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Essays by Me

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From Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 25:2, December 1964, 305-307.  Langer scholar Donald Dryden explains Langer's debt to this logician in the excerpt from his biographical essay  that I've appended to her memorial note.

Anthony Flood

April 23, 2008


Henry M. Sheffer, 1883-1964

Susanne K. Langer


Henry Maurice Sheffer was born in Southern Russia in 1883.  His early childhood was spent there, amid the great Ukrainian wheat fields.  But when he was about ten years old a momentous change occurred in his life: the family emigrated to America. After a brief stay in Philadellphia, his father settled permanently in Boston.  With amazing agility young Henry fitted himself into the new educational system, caught up to his schoolmates in the subjects they had laboriously learned in their four previous grades, and in due time found his place in the Boston Latin School.  An extraordinary ear for language seems to have helped him over the newcomer’s most formidable barrier, the strange tongue.  His linguistic talent was evident throughout his life.  He spoke English without any foreign accent, though with a New England “a” and “r” which reflected the sources of his learning.  The thorough training in Latin and Greek that the famous Boston Latin School provided, as well as some ability to read Hebrew which he owed to his grandfather in Russia (according to his mother, he wrote poems in Hebrew before he was ten years old), made a solid foundation for the acquisition of modern languages, French, German and Italian as well as English.  This man without any literary pretensions had a great and accurate command of the tongue he had made his own, so that his lectures and his few brief writings had a rare style and dignity, befitting the nature of his thought.

From the Latin School he went to, Harvard, and despite the stresses of poverty and precarious health, earned his scholastic degrees—A.B. 1905, A.M. 1907, Ph.D. 1908.  At that time, when his days as a student would normally have ended, he received a Sheldon Fellowship, which meant a year of travel and further study in Europe.

Since 1906 he had been assistant to Josiah Royce, who was then actively interested in symbolic logic and working out his own “System I.”  Royce’s metaphysical views struck no sympathetic chords in Sheffer’s mind, which was essentially scientific and mathematical, averse to idealistic cosmology and absolutist ethics; but Royce’s logic was a different matter.  The abstractness and fecundity of “I,” its purely relational character and the scope it gave to ingenious manipulation, inspired the brilliant young thinker to whom abstract conception was as easy as seeing with his eyes.  Symbolic logic was manifestly his field.  His Traveling Fellowship took him, accordingly, to England, where Bertrand Russell had lately published his Principles of Mathematics, to Germany, where Hilbert was working on the Boolean calculus and Zermelo on the formalization of mathematics, and finally to Italy, where Peano was conducting a seminar in the new “mathematical” logic.  (Here, again, Sheffer’s linguistic talent proved a major asset; when, later in his career, one of his students asked him: “But how did you manage with the language?”—his reply was: “Professor Peano was very considerate, and conducted the seminar in French for most of the first term, until I could speak Italian.”)

After the year abroad, his career was like that of many a young scholar, a series of short appoint-ments.  Until 1910 he continued as assistant to Royce; 1911-12, on a far call to the University of Washington, in Seattle, as Instructor in Philosophy and Psychology; 1912-13, back to the eastern scene, as Lecturer on Mathematical Logic at Cornell; then 1913-14, Instructor in Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Minnesota, the next year in Philosophy proper at the University of Missouri (1914-15), then, 1915-16, at City College in New York.

In the summer of 1916, Josiah Royce died, and his scheduled courses had to be taken over as best might be.  The following year Henry Sheffer, then at Michigan, was called back to Harvard, still in the capacity of Instructor, to assume part of that work, especially the symbolic logic, which alone was really to his taste.  After some reshuffling, however, he was able to offer courses on method, traditional logic, empiricism, philosophy of nature, and other topics to which his mental orientation was appropriate.  It was a hard period for a Department of Philosophy which had boasted of its “Great Five,” James, Royce, Palmer, Santayana and Münsterberg.  James had died in 1910; Palmer had retired, Santayana returned to Europe, and a few months after Royce’s death, Münsterberg fell dead in a Radcliffe classroom.  A few men whose influence was just beginning to reach beyond Harvard were carrying on.  Sheffer’s powerful mind did much to uphold the intellectual value of a sadly shattered department, and this at a time when the ascendancy of physical science was putting philosophy as such in jeopardy.  As a personage, the young instructor was obscure, indeed all but nameless, but as a person he was the inspirer and intellectual guide of a small group of perceptive, serious students, undergraduates as well as graduates, who looked forward to a new philosophical era, that was to grow from logic and semantics as the old tradition had grown from the value-centered doctrines of the Greek and mediaeval past.

Because this keen and original thinker never committed his thoughts to the printed page, he remained in the position of Instructor or Lecturer until 1927, when a severe nervous breakdown, brought on by professional hopelessness and extreme personal troubles, called general attention not only to his plight but also to his invaluable teaching.  At last he received his advancement to Assistant Professor (1927), Associate Professor (1929), and—at very long last—to Professor in 1938. He remained at Harvard until his retirement in 1952.

Sheffer’s chief contribution to logic, and (over his protests) to philosophy, was his demonstration of the influence which notation exercises on the appearance of relational structures, and therewith, of course, on the forms in which problems present themselves.  This “notational relativity,” as he called it, is familiar matter to semanticists today; but the discovery of its importance for our concepts of objective fact and demonstrable truth was the work of one extraordinary, little-known man, who pointed it out, year after year, to future philosophers, until it went abroad under other names than his, and revolutionized theory of knowledge.  The only book that ever bore his name was a Festschrift [Structure, Method, and Meaning: Essays in Honor of Henry M. Sheffer, Paul Henle, Horace M. Kallen, Susanne K. Langer, eds.] dedicated to him by his colleagues and friends, many of whom were his former students, who knew what they owed not only to his theories, but to the training he imparted.  Henry Sheffer was a teacher who gave his all, with no thought of public recognition, to the young, and therewith to the future of philosophy.


Donald Dryden on Sheffer's Influence on Langer

At Radcliffe [College, which Langer entered as a student in 1916], which had been chartered in 1894 to offer the equivalent of a Harvard University degree for women, Knauth [Langer’s maiden name] came under the influence of the Harvard logician Henry M. Sheffer, who introduced her to the rapidly developing field of formal logic.  

Sheffer had inherited from his teacher, the American philosopher Josiah Royce, an expansive vision of logic as the science of order or of forms in general, which Royce had pursued as an alternative to the more restricted view held by many of his contemporaries—and most fully developed by the British philosophers Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica (1910-1913)—that treated logic as the study of the principles of inference.  

In “The Principles of Logic” (1913) Royce had defined logic as “the General Science of Order, the Theory of the Forms of any Orderly Realm of Objects, real or ideal,” and he believed that its study would lead to an understanding of more and more comprehensive systems of order that were prior to and inclusive of logic in the more restricted sense, and from which the more specialized order systems of the various branches of knowledge could be derived.  

Sheffer does not appear to have shared his teacher’s metaphysical inter-ests, but he found in Royce’s logical investigations the means to pursue a study of relations, systems, and principles of order that went far beyond the confines of traditional logic.

In Sheffer’s hands symbolic logic became a general theory of structure, form, or pattern; Whitehead later called this approach one of the great advances in modern logic.  

In an unpublished manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library, “Henry Sheffer’s Legacy to His Students,” Langer recalls that she was inspired by the power of Sheffer’s logical imagination “to see logic as a field for invention, and to learn that in this traditionally stiff and scholastic pursuit” there was “as much scope for originality as in metaphysics.”

Under Sheffer’s tutelage she acquired confidence in her power to deal with difficult intellectual problems: “I remem-ber the growing sense of mental power that came with following his expositions, expecting to understand, even before the end of a discourse, a whole intricate conceptual structure with the same clarity as its simplest initial statements.”

Knauth’s abilities were evident to Sheffer, who wrote in a letter of recom-mendation on her graduation that she had “a firmer grasp of philosophy problems than many a Harvard Ph.D.”

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