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Philosophy: Oxford’s James Higginbotham takes reins of department

Photo by Irene Fertik

Philosopher James Higginbotham is among USC’s newest full professors and acting chairman of the philosophy department.

He comes with impressive credentials, most notably a seven-year teaching appointment at Oxford, one of the world’s top universities for philosophy. There, Higginbotham was holder of the chair of General Linguistics.

Before that assignment, Higginbotham was a professor of linguistics and philosophy for 11 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another top-rated university for philosophical and linguistics studies.

Higginbotham accepted the position at USC last year and taught here last fall, but didn’t take up permanent residence until August when he finished his teaching obligation at Oxford.

Higginbotham’s work centers on philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology.

For the past three decades, he has focused on Donald Davidson’s application of formal semantics methods in natural languages, and Noam Chomsky’s look at the relationship between syntax, semantics and cognition.

“I’m putting together the work of Chomsky and Davidson and juxtaposing it in ways that both would probably object to,” Higginbotham said.

Combining linguistics and philosophy is rare in academia, but something USC began to emphasize this year under the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Initiative.

Funded with a $2 million grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, the Humanities Initiative has stressed recruitment of such highly regarded faculty members as Higginbotham, said Joseph Aoun, dean of the College.

“We are extremely fortunate to have attracted someone of Jim Higginbotham’s caliber,” said Aoun. “He is a superb addition to our philosophy and linguistics faculties. His presence will make it easier to recruit outstanding graduate students and other prominent scholars.”

Ironically, Higginbotham’s own graduate studies at Columbia University included only one basic linguistic class – taken nearly by accident. The class marked an important shift in his academic research and studies.

“When I started graduate school in 1967 I had just returned from serving in the Vietnam War, where I became very interested in Chinese and Vietnamese language and cultures,” Higginbotham said.

“My major was philosophy and Chinese. I signed up for three philosophy courses including logic, and I looked in the catalog for something else that I might undertake. My eye lit on a graduate class called ‘Grammatical Structure.’ I rapidly discovered that I could solve the problems in morphology – the theory of word-formation – at least as quickly as the linguistics graduate students, and that gave me some confidence.”

He studied Chomsky’s “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax” in that linguistics course.

“It was an inspiration,” he recalled. “Within a short time I was happily analyzing Chinese with the new tools of generative grammar and reading the underground generative literature, which then circulated via the mimeograph machine and the ordinary post.”

He never took another linguistics class, but has contributed to the subject over the years.

“The chance circumstances of exposure, which brought me into contact simultaneously with generative grammar, philosophy of logic and language, and Chinese, happened to put me in a position to take part in a developing subject, to which I have tried over the years to contribute,” Higginbotham said.

Although Higginbotham has lived in cities around the world – including Stuttgart, Princeton, Lawrence, Kan., and Pisa, Italy – living on the West Coast is new for him. It was a big jump for the native New Yorker to settle in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles and New York are infinitely far apart in some respects, but extremely close in others,” Higginbotham said. “I more or less identify with New York because it’s where I was born and raised. My aesthetic and intellectual tastes were formed in New York. But both cities are multiethnic and multiracial. In both places you can do damn near anything.”

Aoun, a friend of Higginbotham’s from their MIT years, helped convince him to take the position at USC. “The philosophy and linguistics departments seemed to be getting stronger,” Higginbotham said. “Some of my colleagues and students are here. Coming to USC was an opportunity to do something new and help strengthen the department. Most importantly, I could combine linguistics and philosophy.”

Higginbotham resides in Marina del Rey, living a quintessential California existence. The avid Yankees fan does, however, miss going to the stadium to watch his team.

” I have grown reconciled to not being able to see the Yankees play, ” he said. “After all, I couldn’t get to Yankee Stadium easily from Oxford either. At least here I can watch them on television.”

Philosophy: Oxford’s James Higginbotham takes reins of department

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