Philosophy’s Power-Hitter

Oxford philosopher and linguist James Higginbotham strengthens USC’s already distinguished Department of Philosophy.
ABANDONING THE City of Spires for the City of Angels, philosopher and linguist James Higginbotham is a new heavy hitter on USC’s roster of star humanists. The acting chairman of the philosophy department comes with impressive credentials – most notably his last seven years at Oxford, one of the world’s top universities for philosophy, where he also held a chair in general linguistics. A native New Yorker, he also spent 11 years as professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, another top-rated university for philosophy and linguistics.
Higginbotham’s work centers on philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology. For 30 years, he has focused on UC Berkeley philosopher Donald Davidson’s application of formal semantics methods in natural languages, and MIT linguist Noam Chomsky’s study of 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,” he quips.

IRONICALLY, HIGGINBOTHAM'S graduate studies at Columbia University included a single basic linguistic class.
“I had just returned from serving in the Vietnam War, where I became very interested in Chinese and Vietnamese language and cultures,” he recalls. On a whim, he took a course in grammatical structure. “It was an inspiration,” he says. “Within a short time I was happily analyzing Chinese with the new tools of generative grammar.”
Joseph Aoun, dean of USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – himself a noted linguist and a friend of Higginbotham’s from their MIT years – helped convince the Oxford don to take the job at USC. “Coming to USC was an opportunity to do something new and help strengthen the department,” Higginbotham says. “Most importantly, I could combine linguistics and philosophy.”
Although Higginbotham has lived in cities around the world – among them Stuttgart, Princeton and Pisa – living on the West Coast is a first. The avid Yankees fan misses going to the ballpark to watch his team, but takes a philosophical attitude: “I have grown reconciled to not being able to see the Yankees play,” he says. “After all, I couldn’t get to Yankee Stadium easily from Oxford, either. At least here I can watch them on television.”

– Gilien Silsby

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Photograph by Jeffrey Trachtman

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