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 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!”
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You're very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”Within a tradition that spans from linguistics to cosmology, the instant subject identifies itself as cheloniology. It is dedicated to the study of the turtle hierarchy, its ontological composition, and its logical relations. It examines the makeup of the intelligible realm and the way whereby its parts follow from and lend support to each other. It concerns itself with issues in meaning and interpretation that are fundamental to the understanding of man’s place in nature, history, and society. All of these issues stem from the name relation, a connection that obtains among a language, a word or phrase within it, and its denotation.4 To the extent that it involves worlds and words interacting with thoughts and things, the story of the turtles shall serve as its leitmotif.
Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better? What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?
1. Alfred de Vigny, Œuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1984, t. II, p. 11.
2. Infinite Syntax, Ablex Publishing, 1986, p. xii.
3. A Brief History of Time, Bantam, 1988, p. 1.
4. See Alonzo Church, Introduction to Mathematical Logic (IML), Princeton University Press, 1956, § 01, p. 4.