February 6th, 2006


0.0.0 the voice of the turtle

L’IDÉE est tout. Le nom propre n’est que l’exemple et la preuve de l’idée.
THE IDEA is all. The proper name is not but the example and the proof of the idea.
—Alfred de Vigny, Réflexions sur la vérité dans l’art1
    The Fragestellung of John Robert Ross’ 1986 study of universal grammar,2 recounts a familiar legend as follows:
    The following anecdote is told of William James. I have been unable to find any published reference to it, so it may be that I have attributed it to the wrong person, or that it is apocryphal. Be that as it may, because of its bull’s-eye relevance to the study of syntax, I have retold it here.
    After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.
    “Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
    “And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.
    “That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”
    Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of
    “But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
    To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,
    “It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down!”
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