During this time he became disillusioned with mathematics, and after sitting in on a linguistics course taught by Eric Hamp, he became more and more interested in the subject and began taking language courses


Prof Lawler's comment on ELU induced me to learn about the deceased linguist Prof James D. McCawley. Does anyone know how and why Prof McCawley became disillusioned with mathematics?

  • 1
    Possibly relevant: Richard Feynman, as an undergraduate math major at MIT, switched to physics because math to him seemed too academic. He had discussed his concerns with the chairman of the Math Department, who advised him to become an actuary.
    – user9732
    Aug 12, 2015 at 19:32
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    @ab2 when you reach the upper echelons of physics, the line between physics and mathematics blurs and is often non-existent. This has been the case in Newton's era, when he had to invent calculus for use in physics, and it's true now, with people like Ed Witten winning the Fields Medal.
    – prash
    Aug 12, 2015 at 20:22

1 Answer 1


I don't know the details, but here's what he said in an interview in Glot, a newsletter for linguists.

Originally, I was in mathematics, but for no particularly good reason — I really hadn’t thought much about what I was getting myself into. I was taking some language courses and enjoyed them and at the same time I got more and more turned off by mathematics. Eventually I thumbed through the University of Chicago time schedule and saw that there was something listed as linguistics. So I sat in on a linguistics course taught by Eric Hamp, which I greatly enjoyed. Then I got a mathematics scholarship to study in Germany, at the University of Münster. But instead of doing very much mathematics, I took all sorts of language courses, including a Dutch course. During that year, I got more and more turned off by mathematics. After I got back to Chicago, I wanted to take a language course just for the fun of it. Japanese was offered at a convenient time, so I took it and I fell in love with the language right away. I also started looking around in the library for linguistic books. I came upon Syntactic Structures and it really turned me on. Not long after that I saw the announcement for the new linguistics graduate program that they were starting at MIT. I applied, got accepted, went there, became a linguist and I have been enjoying life much more.ever since then.

How come?

Linguistics is fun!


Languages are weird and wonderful things. As long as you are perceptive enough there is plenty to keep you happy and busy. In that respect, I think linguistics is way to hell more interesting than mathematics. There’s a wonderful quotation from Bertolt Brecht at the beginning of Feyerabend’s Against Method: Ordnung gibt es meistens wo nichts ist. Sie ist eine Mangelerscheinung. “There is order mainly where there is nothing. It’s a phenomenon of absence.” And, well, Ordnung gibt es in der Mathematik.

I guess you could say he loved mathematics but he loved data more.

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