September 11, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Reflections on retirement

So, I am about to retire and become Emeritus Professor at the end of the month. That makes one think! The problem is I have been thinking for a while – but to no avail!

People ask me what I’ll do and I say I don’t know – and I really don’t. I’ll still supervise some students. I’ll still be involved in various projects, officially (physics) and unofficially (synthetic biology and the Making Science Public project). I might get involved in future projects in an advisory capacity. But what do I want to BE in the future? That is the question!

While musing about these things, I met a new colleague, Scott Pacey, bequeathed to the School of Sociology and Social Policy by the University after it dissolved the Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies. Scott studies the interplay between religion, society and culture in the contemporary Chinese world. We had a lovely chat and we, or rather I, rambled on about my life and how I had meandered from French and philosophy into psychology and then into the sociology, history and philosophy of various sciences.

The past

To my surprise we discovered that we had both read some texts by the 19th-century Oxford scholar and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller. He was Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, a position founded on his behalf. He was also elected to the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres as a foreign correspondent (supported in this by his friend and one of my linguistic heroes, Michel Bréal). There was a sort of European thing going on all through the 19th century in the arts and sciences!!!

I had studied Müller’s thoughts on language some 30 years ago; Scott had read his reflections on sacred books of the East a bit more recently. He reminded me that Müller had been quite an eccentric character and wondered whether his life and work might deserve some further digging. Of course, there are already biographies out there, the first written by his daughter Georgina in 1902 and the latest published a century later in 2002. So what could I add to that, I wondered?

The future

Would I enjoy returning to the Bodleian and rummaging around in old books, taking painstaking notes, assembling them all into yet another book? Would I really like doing that again? Would I have the patience? Would there be a point to it all? Would I be able to produce something as lively and interesting as the great history of science books that I so enjoy devouring at the moment (and that, I know, are being written as we speak). Or should I turn my back on all that and become something entirely different? Reinvent myself?

The present

But to come back to Müller… People might think ‘what the heck is interesting about Max Müller’? To those I say: You might have recently come across him when reading reviews of the witty but controversial book The Kingdoms of Speech by Tom Wolfe – in which the author ‘takes aim at Darwin and Chomsky’ – and … I agree with Jerry Coyne, misses quite spectacularly. Müller makes an appearance in all this and doesn’t cover himself in glory either. Another review of the book mentions for example that “Max Müller, professor of modern languages at Oxford, declared ‘the science of language will yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of evolutionists and to draw a hard and fast line between man and brute.”

A review by Charles C. Mann deals more thoroughly with Müller and his fight with Darwin which had fascinated me some decades ago – you should read the whole review. It also deals with a question that, strangely, Scott and I had broached in our lunch time chat the other day: should one/can one really try and ‘find’ the ‘origins’ of language?

What is language anyway, a product of our biological nature or a human artefact – as suggested by Wolfe? It might, in fact, be neither; it might be, at least to some extent, as my old colleague Rudi Keller said in a book that I enjoyed translating millions of years ago (and here we return to the very beginnings of my academic life), an ever-changing product of the ‘invisible hand’ process.

Interestingly, and that will by my final twist in these meandering thoughts, Keller developed his theory of language change as an invisible hand process partially in reaction to Max Müller’s ‘argumentative contortions’ about language!

PS I had just pressed the publish button when I opened the newspaper/the Observer and saw this article: “Bonfire of the theories: Wolfe battles Chomsky over roots of language“. Well worth a read – comments by Chomsky in particular.

Posted in Personal Reflection