[Ads-l] "If a tree falls..."

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Aug 22 14:59:24 EDT 2020

> On Aug 22, 2020, at 1:26 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> 1866 _Columbia Democrat and Star of the North_  (Bloomsburg, Pa.) (Apr.
> 11)) :  ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS...Philosophy tells us if a tree should
> fall in the forest, where there was no ear to hear, there would be no sound.
> If this is old stuff, too bad. Don't read it.
> It's surprising that a correspondent should ask the question without an
> earlier occurrence being found.
> JL

I always associated this with Bishop Berkeley (1685 – 1753), but perhaps it’s just based loosely on his philosophy.  The version I’m used to poses the question of whether a tree makes a sound in those circumstances, rather than providing a negative answer.  And the city in California (where I had my first teaching job) was named for him, so he must have been asking good questions. Of course the year I taught at Berkeley, if the tree didn’t make a sound it’s probably because everyone was stoned and/or had the Grateful Dead  turned up too loud. 


> On Mon, May 16, 2005 at 10:26 PM Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at yahoo.com>
> wrote:
>> The date is probably of no interest, but in case it is :  I first heard
>> the conundrum (and it was presented as such) posed by my ninth-grade
>> science teacher, Mr. Rathman, in late 1962 or (most likely) early '63.
>> Mr. Rathman's visage strongly resembled that of Joe Kubert's Sgt. Rock as
>> drawn for DC Comics. He would interrupt class each day for a minute or two
>> as a twelfth-grade lab assistant delivered a quart container of buttermilk,
>> which he instantly chugalugged.  Why ? Nobody asked.
>> Another of his sayings which has stuck in my mind is, "Half of everything
>> we think we know is wrong.  BUT WHICH HALF ?"
>> JL
>> *Fred Shapiro <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>>* wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society
>> Poster: Fred Shapiro
>> Subject: Re: "If a tree falls..."
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> On Wed, 11 May 2005, Duane Campbell wrote:
>>>> Can anyone help me determine the origin of the philosophical conundrum
>> "If
>>>> a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"
>>>> Fred Shapiro
>>> I am frankly surprised to see such a question from an esteemed language
>>> professional. It is not a philosophical conundrum at all. It is a
>> semantic
>>> question intended to play on the man in the street's ignorance of how
>>> language works. There are two answers, and both are simple. If by "sound"
>>> you mean the waves set off by the tree falling, the answer is "yes." If
>> you
>>> mean "sound" as the interpretation of those waves by the appropriate
>> part of
>>> the brain, the answer is "no."
>> This is probably not worth responding to, but let me set out the following
>> explanation:
>> If there were no "external" world to serve as cause of our sensations,
>> where would our sensations and our ideas about the world come from? It
>> is God who must provide them, Berkeley argues. "To be is to be
>> perceived," he insists, but everything that exists must therefore be
>> perceived, all the time, by God. (It was regarding Berkeley's philosophy
>> that some wit formulated the old gambit, "If a tree falls in the
>> forest...")
>> Kathleen M. Higgins and Robert C. Solomon, A Short History of
>> Philosophy (1996)
>> Finally, let me note that I am pleased if I am "esteemed," but I am
>> certainly not a "language professional."
>> Fred Shapiro
>> --------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Fred R. Shapiro Editor
>> Associate Librarian for Collections and YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
>> Access and Lecturer in Legal Research Yale University Press,
>> Yale Law School forthcoming
>> e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu http://quotationdictionary.com
>> --------------------------------------------------------------------------
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> -- 
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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