Wait...What? 2: Remembering Charles Parsons

By Peter Ludlow

On April 19, 2024, my former dissertation advisor, Charles Parsons passed away at the age of 91. He passed away on the same day as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, which meant that his death was largely lost amid the sea of tributes to Dennett in social media. I suspect, however, that there are many philosophers that consider Parsons to have been the greater philosopher by some margin, though neither Dennett nor Parsons were much concerned with such metrics. Parsons worked on issues at the very foundations of mathematics because they were of great interest to him, and he wasn’t under any sort of illusion that others shared his interests. 

I started graduate school at Columbia University in 1979, before Parsons moved on to Harvard University. When I met him, I took him to be well into his 60s – part of that was because of his thinning grey hair and wispy grey beard, but he also had the manners of someone much older -- as though he had come from another century altogether. It was only when I started writing this essay that I realized he was only 46 when I met him. A Barnard undergraduate that took logic from him at the time described Parsons as looking like a “shriveled Mr. Potato Head.” The undergrad was dating herself a bit with that description; in the day, Mr. Potato Head didn’t come with the plastic body – you just plugged the nose and ears and eyes into an actual potato. If you liked your creation, you might slide it in a desk drawer for safekeeping only to remember it a year later. That is what Charles Parsons looked like to me forever after I heard her description – a Mr. Potato Head, made from a real potato and forgotten in a desk somewhere. 

Charles had a reputation for not being very good at informal communication. In my experience he wasn’t that good at official communications either. This was particularly so in office meetings with him. His office was a large space filled with books and ancient dissertations and some even more ancient chairs. They creaked when you sat on them. In a meeting with Parsons you had to be prepared for five, ten, twenty minute pauses in which nothing was said. I would try my best to sit quietly without making my chair creak, but it was nearly impossible to stay that still. I had the feeling he was testing me to see how long I could sit quietly. Sometimes I thought he had collected creaky chairs for this very purpose. I pride myself on being able to out-silence people, but I was no match for Charles, certainly not in his office. 

Years later I met a sociologist who had been a student of Charles Parsons’ father, the great sociologist Talcott Parsons. He told me about one time when he was sitting in Talcott Parsons’ office at Harvard while Talcott pontificated endlessly. Fiddling with his chair, my acquaintance apparently pressed a button that caused his chair to fully recline. Desperate, and embarrassed, he managed to right himself and restore the chair to its initial position. Meanwhile Talcott was still talking, apparently oblivious to what had happened. 

On hearing that story I had a mental image of young Charles Parsons sitting at the dinner table while his father conversed with Max Weber and other academic luminaries. I imagined poor Charles unable to get in a word edgewise and eventually giving up on the whole talking thing. Logic and the philosophy of mathematics were not so noisy and that is where he found his academic safe place. 

You might be thinking that he must have said something in those office meetings, creaking chairs and all, but it is more accurate to say that things were communicated. A typical meeting might go something like this: I would sit in a chair and try to not let it creak while Charles read a chapter from my dissertation or consulted his notes on the chapter. Then he would ask me about a passage. “What do you mean by …”. And I would then try to explain. Then he would look puzzled. Then I would try to explain again. He would sit in silence looking more depressed than puzzled. Then I would say “I’ll try to rewrite that.” Then he would go to the next page and ask, “what did you mean by…”. 

Sometimes he would pause and ask about me about how I had formalized something. That was particularly frightening because he was a master of formally dense work. He had papers in which he exhausted the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets and still needed weird squiggles and whatnots to formalize his ideas. But he felt that this should be left to professionals. When logical formalism made its way into my dissertation, he would always have an issue with it. What did I really want to say there? Eventually I would agree that I could better make my point in old fashioned English, and he would nod, seeming satisfied, as though he has successfully removed a sharp pair of scissors from the hands of a small child. 

I’m sure Charles must have had strong convictions about things, but I never saw him articulate anything that wasn’t cautious. Some Italian philosophers in Padua told me that they once had dinner with him and asked him if he was related to Talcott Parsons. He reportedly replied, “I think so…he would be my father.” Apparently, he thought the answer depended on how you define “relative;” there was, after all, the logical possibility that someone had left the infant Charles at Talcott’s doorstep and then there was the thorny question of whether that made him less of an actual relative etc. This caution could be frightening in a dissertation advisor. Once, as happens to many graduate students, I had a crisis of confidence about my dissertation. As I sat in his office, trying not to let my chair creak, I asked him something like “so…is this project a bust?” Parsons sat and thought a minute: “Oh…I don’t think so… [sound of creaking chairs] … [more creaking] … [end of meeting].” 

Apart from not being particularly communicative, Parsons would sometimes do things that annoyed me to the point of homicidal fantasies. I took a modal logic class from him one term. It began with thirteen students and was whittled down to four by the final exam. One student looked at the final and dropped the course. 

I took the exam, but one of the exam questions was just bad. A standard assignment in logic is to prove a theorem given certain axioms and rules of inference. In other words, you have mechanical rules to derive a sentence and your job is to figure out how to construct the derivation. It is like solving a puzzle. Sometimes the puzzle is easy, and sometimes it is really hard – you can spend days on it. But then sometimes it is impossible – there is no solution to the puzzle. If someone gives you one of those on an exam it is particularly cruel. 

After spending an entire day on the derivation in our take-home final I had a hunch that this was a puzzle with no solution. I decided I would try to give a logical proof that this was so. This puzzle, so far as I knew, involved an axiom system that Parsons dreamed up and thus didn’t exist anywhere in the literature. I constructed a model theory using Kripke’s methods and proved that the axiom system was consistent and complete with respect to the model I had constructed. I then showed, based on the model theory, that there could be no such theorem. I had proved it was a puzzle with no solution. Now, technically doing this involved understanding everything that Parsons had taught in the class and understand how to apply it to a new problem, so I included my proof in my answers to the take home exam. Parsons admitted I was right and that he would therefore throw out the question entirely. No credit given for that answer. It occurred to me later that the bad exam question was intentional – a way of seeing if we actually knew what we were doing. Would we find the error? Would we prove it was an error? Who knew? Charles wasn’t telling. But what were the chances that he screwed up a logic exercise? Zero maybe? 

Once I took a class from Parsons on the philosophy of mathematics and I had written a paper on substitutional quantification. The idea of substitutional quantification is, crudely, that you don’t quantify over objects but rather over names. Why would you do this? Well you might do this in mathematics to avoid abstract objects in mathematics. The problem is that names are themselves abstract objects (they aren’t ink markings or sounds, but types of ink markings and sounds). Parsons has some papers on how you can get around this problem, but I argued that his moves didn’t really work – names themselves are problematic abstracta too! Parsons gave me a B+ for the paper. Irked, I sent it off to a logic journal, which happily published it without revisions. When I showed him a copy of the published article, he paged through it while standing in the hallway outside of his office. “You were a bit unkind to Benacerraf….you spelled name wrong…[turning page]…twice.” 

My initial read on Charles and his concern for Benacerraf’s name was that he was miffed with me because I disagreed with him, but I later came to understand that he was just disappointed in me. He felt that the paper could have been improved with some additional work. Publication was not a worthy goal. Anything can be published; excellence was a different goal altogether. 

Positive feedback did come from Charles, but it rarely came directly from him. Sometimes it came via department secretary, who apparently didn’t know that positive feedback was not to be reported. Another time, someone told me that they had been reading a letter of recommendation that Charles had written for another student who was applying for a job, and right in the middle of it he announced that he wanted to take the opportunity to recommend me for the job. That was harsh if true (I never saw the letter, because, after all, it wasn’t my recommendation letter). I’m sure he supported the student more elsewhere (and me less so elsewhere), it was just that he had clear ideas about who was best for this job. 

And now that I think of it, he did say something positive once. The central move in my dissertation was to explore some old philosophical ideas using tools from generative linguistics. The problem I focused on was an idea that went back to Jean Buridan in the 14th Century, was recycled by Quine in the 1950s, and then picked up by linguists in the 1970s. Could it be that when you say, “I want a unicorn” there is a hidden propositional attitude hidden in the syntax of natural language? – so that when you say such a thing you are actually representing something like “I want that I have a unicorn.” Parsons was stuck for a long time on exactly how these implicit linguistic forms in Chomskyan linguistics worked and pressed on that issue relentlessly. Then one day I said something that made sense to him, and our conversation went like this. 

Charles: I see, so it is like a structure… 

Me: …yes? 

Charles: …interesting… 

Me: …yeah… so…why is that interesting exactly? 

Charles: (staring into space and stroking his beard) … [sound of creaking chairs] … 

It was only afterwards that I figured out why he thought it was interesting, and I felt that I could almost read his mind in that moment; I was sure I was following him down some path, deeper and deeper into his philosophical happy space. At the time, when the rest of the philosophy world was complaining about out lack of epistemic access to abstracta like numbers (e.g. the aforementioned Benacerraf) and proposing that we do “science without numbers” (Hartry Field), Charles was attempting to work out theories for how one could get epistemic access to such things, and one idea that he rather liked and one that he linked with his work in continental philosophy, was the idea that access to mathematical objects was mediated and made possible by what he called “structures.” What they were and how they worked was complicated, but he had a theory that tied everything together, from Kant and Husserl to Gödel. In our meeting I realized he was thinking of the implicit linguistic clause as a structure that could mediate access to propositions (a kind of abstract object to be sure). That basic idea has run through a lot of my work since then and I attribute the idea to my work to Charles, but he never actually articulated the idea per se. I can’t explain this except by directing you to the fragment from Heraclitus regarding the Oracle at Delphi: “The Lord whose Oracle is in Delphi neither indicates clearly nor conceals, but gives a sign.” 

I want to say something about his teaching. Based on his taciturn manner, people might get the impression that Charles was not a good classroom teacher. That was not my experience. When I was a graduate student, I had a terrible time attending classes – I had some sort of agoraphobia thing going on and when I got bored, I would freak out and have anxiety attacks. I skipped out on whole semesters at times. Once I introduced myself to one of my professors at the faculty holiday party after the term had concluded. The teacher said “yes, I know you, you are a famous truant.” But I don’t recall that I ever missed a class by Charles. He was the most undramatic speaker ever, but everything he said was fascinating to me. It never even occurred to me to skip one of his classes. And anxiety never overcame me in his classes. 

Some people have reported that Charles was actually a very clear expositor in the classroom, and this is certainly true for logic classes, at least up until someone asked him a question. Questions could derail him for long periods of time. It was better to sort things out with fellow students after class. His level of clarity dropped off considerably in graduate seminars. Once I presented material on substitutional quantification in one of his classes. It was nerve-racking because there were other professors in the classroom, including Sydney Morgenbesser, who sat in back and made jokes about me being the “substitutional teacher.” After I lectured, making no sense for half the class, Parsons took over and lectured the second half of the class, freelancing on topics like the different kinds of existence that you could get with substitutional quantification. Afterwards, Morgenbesser came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “well… at least you were clearer than Parsons.” 

People have described Charles as being sweet, and he was definitely sweet in his own way. One graduate student told me about something she had seen him do at a reception. Charles left his drink on a table and walked over to grab some ice from an ice bucket. On the way back to his drink he was intercepted by someone who wanted to talk to him. Unsure of how to explain his drink icing mission to his new conversational partner he just slid his ice into his coat pocket. Sometimes this led to behavior that was less sweet. The same student reported that one summer she got married and subsequently changed her name. On the first day of the following term, Charles decided to introduce the class members and went around the room, introducing each person. When he got to her, he paused for a second, and then he proceeded to the next student without introducing her. He wasn’t trying to be mean, he just didn’t know how to handle the fact that he didn’t know her new name. Normies would have just asked her about her new name, but Charles would rather just slip the ice into his pocket. 

A former colleague of mine who was a young logician and a huge fan of Parsons’ work saw him sitting alone at a table at a conference and so he went and introduced himself and explained how he really appreciated Parson’s work. Parsons declined to converse with the young logician, apologizing and explaining that he was listening to (i.e. eavesdropping on) a conversation at the next table. It was on Canadian politics. I explained to my colleague that it was nothing personal. It was just Charles being focused on something that was important to him in that moment. 

In the fullness of time Parsons actually became more sociable. He became sociable enough so that when Quine retired, Harvard tapped Parsons to be the next Edgar Pierce Chair in Philosophy. And actually, not only did Parsons seem more social as time went on, but he also seemed to be getting younger. As I said, when I met him 1979 I thought he was in his 60s. Two decades later I was sure he was in his 50s. It struck me that he was a real-life Benjamin Button. About 10 years ago, people reported to me that he was becoming much more social – “absolutely voluble,” according to one report. I believed them. I imagined him looking 20 years old by then, holding court at a dinner party with ribald tales of the nutty deeds of early 20th Century sociologists. 

I can imagine Charles as a real-life Benjamin Button, but there here are other things that I can’t imagine. For example, I can honestly say, with 45 years of hindsight, that I can’t imagine having a better dissertation advisor than Charles Parsons. Despite his challenges with everyday pragmatics, he was able to instill in me a concern for care and precision that was previously missing from my work. And even today, although I do not write with the care and precision that I should, it remains an aspiration of mine. I often wonder, as I write, what would Charles have said about this? Would he be disappointed in my lack of precision and clarity? 

The other thing that Charles impressed upon me, through his work, but also through our interactions, was his way of approaching problems. That was to look for an important Archimedean point in a subject area – something on which everything turned – and then dig deeper and deeper into that important point, and then dig deeper still, not worrying about whether anyone was ever going to follow you down that path. And whether that method helped me in the eyes of other philosophers, it helped me in my own eyes. It helped me to take pride in my own work. My work has never been, nor will it ever be at the level of Charles’s work, but my work certainly became much stronger and much deeper thanks to his instruction and his influence. To this day, when I am writing, I often imagine him standing behind me, reading my work over my shoulder, stroking his wispy grey beard, and looking very perplexed…while my chair creaks beneath me. 


I’ve let some time pass before writing this because I didn’t want to write an obituary. I wanted to write about my experience with Charles – the good and the bad and the sometimes hilarious. For a beautiful remembrance of Charles that is closer to an obituary, I recommend the “appreciation” piece written by Gila Sher.

(Photo: Steve Pyke)

About the Author

Peter Ludlow is a permanent resident of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and sometimes a resident of Miami and Medellin, Colombia. He works in and writes about various topics in philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, virtual worlds, cyber rights, hacktivism, and blockchain technologies. He has also written on the topics of bullshit, why we should dissolve the American Philosophical Association, and why the latest book by former APA President Philip Kitcher is so terrible. MTV.com once described him as one of the 10 most influential video game players of all time (ALL time – going back to Aristotle!). He owns Bored Ape #1866.

His 3:16 interview is here.