In Memoriam: Erland Josephson (15 June 1923 – 25 February 2012)

I just saw via Sten Lindström on facebook that Swedish actor Erland Josephson has passed away. He was known for his roles in Bergman’s Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), Fanny och Alexander (1982), and Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986). I think I’ll follow Sten in sharing this brilliant scene from Fanny och Alexander.


Click, click (#25): Oil!

I watched There Will Be Blood for the fourth time last night. I love this movie. I especially love that it lost Best Film back in 2008, so that I can shake my head in faux-indignation when ever someone mentions No Country For Old Men. (Not that No Country is a bad movie – but I mean, seriously.)

Originally, the role of Elia was supposed to be played by DiCaprio. When he pulled out, the less experienced Paul Dano – who was already cast as Elia’s brother Paul – got the part instead. It turns out to be one of the movie’s most poignant features. The twin brothers.

When I first saw the movie I actually entertained the idea that Paul didn’t even exist – there was only one brother, Elia, who both sold the information about the land to Plainview for $500, and negotiated the sale for the Sunday family. There’s some evidence for that. Paul’s weird question about which church Daniel belongs to. The awkward first meeting between Elia and Daniel. The fact that Paul is only mentioned twice in the movie after his scene. (Once in the famous milkshake dialogue at the end.)

On the other hand, the first time he is mentioned again is when Elia berates and abuses his father for being as stupid as his (other) son. Although the father doesn’t himself respond to the mention of Paul (he is on the floor, protecting himself), it does suggest that Paul isn’t merely Elia’s guise. More interesting, perhaps, is the parallel between Elia’s opportunist brother – who sells his family to start his own fortune – and Daniel’s brother. Although Henry Plainview turns out to be an impostor, it is revealed that Daniel did have a half brother,  but one who died from tuberculosis before he could reach Daniel. These inverse fates of the protagonists’ brothers converge on the main storyline at crucial points. Above is a screenshot from the scene outside San Francisco when Daniel understands that he’s been had — and Henry understands he’s finished. (Remember the last line?)

A favourite moment is the baptism in the Church of the Third Revelation. Of Day-Lewis’s many astonishing accomplishments in the movie is his sudden shift to the honest outburst “I abandoned my son!” Apparently, Elia’s private retribution – smacking Plainview in the face – wasn’t scripted. Just a moment’s inspiration from Dano, and one which visibly stuns his co-star. But the true genius of the scene is the unheard conversation. It’s a what’s-in-the-suitcase moment.

That we won’t know just makes it better, of course.



Headless Politicians: Santorum and the Guillotine

For some time I thought I’d touch on the topic of the guillotine. Not because it’s a particularly Napoleonic topic, but because it’s one of the most persistent symbols of the French revolution. When Rick Santorum decided to enrich the world of politics with the following nonsense, I thought that was as good an excuse as anything:

They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the the guillotine. (New Yorker – w/ video)

Tempting as it is, I’ll avoid saying anything about the hysterical incoherence and historical inaptitude displayed above. It’s just about what we’d expect anyway.

It is often claimed that the guillotine was invented by one Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. But that’s not true. Guillotin was instrumental to its implentation, yes, but he did no invent it. In 1789, as a deputy of the Assemblée Constituante, Dr. Guillotin proposed a reform to the nation’s penal code. The two first articles were as follows:

1. Offences of the same kind will be punished by the same kind of penalty.

2. In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same, whatever the nature of the offense of which he is guilty; the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism. [1]

What could be more in the spirit of the revolution than that everyone were to be executed in the same manner, regardless of class. In fact, this was no triviality: traditionally nobles were executed by decapitation, while commoners were hanged. Either way, it was cruel fate. I recall that Norwegian cult author Jens Björneboe spends a significant part of his The history of bestiality cataloguing  the history of failed executions. Although hangings were unpleasant and could easily be botched by someone without the requisite knowledge of knots and strangulation, the pre-revolutionary decapitation by sword was an even more harrowing affair. The executioners were often unable to severe the head on the first couple of attempts, and occasionally needed a series of blows before the gruesome ordeal was over. No wonder really, considering the pressure they were under: Bjørneboe recounts how mobs of spectators would occasionally lynch the incompetent executioner.

Enter the guillotine. Wonderfully rational, a purveyor of equality, and ultimately the symbol of the revolution’s backlash. It was commissioned by a committee set down by the Assembly (including Dr. Guillotin), and the first prototype was made in 1792 by Tobias Schmidt, a German harpsichord maker. [1] Among its many famous victims were King Louis XVI. He was executed on January 21st, 1793 at Place de la Révolution (now place de la Concorde). You can read a first-hand account of the episode here. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was executed in October the same year. In the relative short time of le Terreur (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794) more than 15 000 were executed by guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre, the man who controlled the infamous Committee of Public Safety (Comité de Salut public) , was himself guillotined in July 1794. Just days prior to Robespierre’s fall, the Committee had Joséphine’s first husband — Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais — arrested and executed. Joséphine was arrested with her husband but released when the Committee was abolished.

The history of the guillotine does not end with the Terror, however. It was in use in France until 1977 (the death penalty was officially abandoned in 1981). The last public execution by guillotine, on the other hand, was in 1939.

Another famous execution that caught Björneboe’s attention was the guillotining of Henri Languille on June 28th, 1905 (picture above). Present was a Dr. Beaurieux who wrote a sensational medical account of the minutes after the decapitation.

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. “After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds. [2]


Source: [1], [2]

Two Doctoral Fellowships at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP)

Below is an advertisement for two studentships at MCMP. Please distribute, and send it on to any students who are working in formal philosophy. The ad will be online on our new MCMP website later today.

Two Doctoral Fellowships at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy

Deadline: March 12th, 2012

Two PhD Fellowships in Mathematical Philosophy

Two doctoral fellowships are being advertised at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP). The MCMP, which is devoted to applications of logical and mathematical methods in philosophy, was established in 2010 at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (LMU) based on generous support by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Directed by Professor Hannes Leitgeb, the Center hosts a vibrant research community of university faculty, postdoctoral fellows, doctoral fellows, and visiting fellows. The Center organizes at least two weekly colloquia in Mathematical Philosophy and a weekly internal a work-in-progress seminar, as well as various other activities such as workshops, conferences, reading groups, and the like.

The successful candidate will partake in all of the Center’s academic activities and enjoy its administrative facilities and financial support. More information on the Center can be found at <>

Over and above the Center, the Faculty of Philosophy, Philosophy of Science and Study of Religion at LMU offers a wealth of expertise in all areas of philosophy.

The successful applicants, who will become PhD students at the LMU, are supposed to use logical or mathematical methods in their philosophical work, and/or to reflect on these methods philosophically. PhD projects can, of course, be carried out in logic or philosophy of mathematics, but they are not restricted to these fields — for instance, work in epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and so forth are equally encouraged, as long as formal methods play a significant role in the corresponding research  projects.

In general, applicants should be in possession of the skills that would normally be gained by achieving an MA or equivalent in philosophy, logic or a closely related field. The doctoral stipends are for three years, they are intended to cover the period of dissertation research and writing, and they should be taken up by September 2012 (although there is some flexibility on that side). Each stipend will amount to EUR 1500 of monthly salary (normally tax-free, but excluding insurance). Additionally, the Center helps its fellows with the costs that arise from attending conferences (fees, traveling, accommodation).

Dissertations may be written in English or German. The official language at the Center is English, and the successful candidates need not be able to speak German. There is also the possibility, though no obligation, to do some teaching in either English or German.

Applications are due by March 12th, 2012, and should include:

1. A cover letter that addresses, amongst others, one’s academic background and research interests.
2. A curriculum vitae.
3. A proposal for a dissertation project (3 pages).
4. A sample of written work (e.g., a seminar paper or a published article).
5. Academic transcripts from university study.
6. Two confidential letters of reference addressing the applicant’s qualifications for doctoral research. These should be sent from the referees directly.

We especially encourage female students to apply. The Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich in general, and the MCMP in particular, endeavor to raise the percentage of women among its academic personnel.

Applications, letters of reference, as well as any questions ought to be directed to

Barbara Poehlmann
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen
Fakultaet fuer Philosophie, Wissenschaftstheorie
und Religionswissenschaft
Lehrstuhl fuer Logik und Sprachphilosophie / MCMP
Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1
D-80539 Muenchen


If possible at all, we prefer to receive applications and letters of reference by e-mail (sent to


Jacob’s Ladder, St Helena

One of St Helena’s famous landmarks is Jacob’s Ladder. The 699 step staircase was built in 1829, so it would have been there when Charles Darwin visited the island seven years later. Napoleon, on the other hand, was eight years too late to ascend the stairs to heaven.

I look forward to running up the stairs when I get to St Helena. I have no concrete idea of how long it will take me. The whole thing is 600 feet high, but the incline looks brutal.

Napoleon would probably have appreciated the irony of sharing his Promethean island with Jacob’s ladder. Maybe Jacob’s dream would ring through to him, or at least remind him of his lost empire: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves”.

Gentzen Calculus for Contraction-Free Logics: A question

Here’s a quick question about contraction-free logics. Ross Brady has written some awesome papers on Gentzenizations of contraction-free relevant logics (1990, 1991, 1996, 1996b). Brady has already given a sequent calculus for RWK (using signed formula) and LRWKQ (i.e. first-order RWK without distribution). What I’d really like, however, is a sequent calculus for RWKQ. Does anyone know of a reference or an easy way of modifying the systems already available?

The Physiognomy of Napoleon

What did Napoleon look like? There are hundreds of painted portraits, etchings, sculptures, busts, drawings, figures, and caricatures. But what did he really look like? Most of the portrayals (even some of the of most famous) were not made while Napoleon was alive. Others were made for propaganda reasons and heavily censored. Did any contemporary artist have both the nerve to ignore censorship and the audacious talent to be not accurate but revealing? Napoleon’s painters were an impressive lot: David, Ingres, Gros, Gérard all painted famous portraits, yet confusingly different.

Worse, the first-hand accounts of his apparence and features are equally mystifying, some polished tributes to the man, others no better than slander. I found this wonderful little collection of quotes compiled by Tom Holmberg. The accounts come from different times of Napoleon’s life, from people who saw a schoolboy or an emperor, a fiasco or sphinx, a conqueror or corruptor. Ultimately, all we see is the legend.