The simplicity of language, the complexity of life

Richard Montague


Richard Montague died exactly fifty years ago. He was only forty years old. Just a few years earlier, in the late 60s, he had extended his logical and philosophical interests towards natural language, starting a research program that will mark the birth of formal semantics as a linguistics subfield.

Sunday March 7, 2021

Richard Montague died exactly fifty years ago, in the early morning hours of Sunday March 7, 1971. Only forty years old, he was already a major figure in logic and philosophy. The only child of a modest couple from Central California who had him late in life, Montague had been one of Alfred Tarski’s brightest students at UC Berkeley. The UCLA philosophy department hired him at age 24, just a few months after hiring Rudolf Carnap. There Montague had a uniquely fast career, receiving tenure at age 28 and becoming full professor at 32. By the time of his death, he was second in rank and (almost) equal in salary only to Alonzo Church, who was 30-year his senior and one of the pillars of mathematical logic (and Alan Turing’s Ph.D. advisor). Montague’s students included, in chronological order, David Kaplan (who soon became his collaborator and department colleague), Nino Cocchiarella, Hans Kamp, Dan Gallin, and Jeff Pelletier (the last two completed their dissertations with other advisors after Montague's death).

As his colleagues wrote in his obituary, “Montague was a man of powerful will as well as intellect, and when his views on educational or philosophical questions were in conflict with those of his colleagues, personal clashes could sometimes ensue. But those who knew him recognized also his qualities of humor, of sympathy, and of unshakable personal loyalty; the many friendships he formed with his colleagues were strong, uninterrupted, and deeply valued.”

In the last five years of his life, Montague extended his research interests to natural language and started developing what later became known as “Montague Grammar”, the research program that marked the birth of formal semantics of natural language, now a core component of linguistics (and my area of research).

Over the last nine years, I have worked on an intellectual and personal biography of Richard Montague. The tentative title is Richard Montague: The simplicity of language, the complexity of life. I started thinking about it much earlier, though, as a linguistics graduate student at UCLA in the late 90s. It was back then that I first asked myself and others the question “Who was Richard Montague?” and failed to find anything close to a satisfactory answer. It was puzzling and frustrating: the scholar and human being who had majorly affected my intellectual self and that of many others turned out to be a complete mystery.

I am still working on the biography. It has been an even bigger challenge than I initially thought, but also one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever attempted. One of the chapters for which I already have a full draft is about Montague’s turn towards natural language, just a few years before his death. In 1964, Montague was still sharing the skeptical attitude towards natural language common among logicians and philosophers of language:

[The] systematic exploration of the English language, indeed of what might be called the ‘logic of ordinary English’, […] would be either extremely laborious or impossible. In any case, the authors of the present book would not find it rewarding.
(D. Kalish & R. Montague, Logic: Techniques of Formal Reasoning, 1964)

Just a few years later, Montague had completely changed his view:

There is philosophic interest in attempting to analyze ordinary English.
('On the nature of certain philosophical entities', written in 1967)

I reject the contention that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages.
English as a formal language', written in 1968)

You can listen to this change in Montague’s own voice. The audio recording below is from a presentation Montague gave at a symposium in Amsterdam on August 26, 1967. Many thanks to Barbara Partee for finding it and helping to digitize it. At 5:54, Montague states: "I deplore this distinction between formal languages and informal languages."

Open it on YouTube for more details.

From then on, Montague kept thinking, teaching, and writing about natural language up to the day of his death. He even had a book under contract on natural language.

So what happened in the mid-60s that made Montague change his mind about natural language so radically? Thanks to archival research and interviews, I have found a reliable answer, in which W.V.O. Quine plays a crucial role, and Noam Chomsky does too. It all happened in the first half of 1966 in Amsterdam, where Montague was happy to take a sabbatical refuge after a stormy time in his department.

The link on the image below takes you to the chapter in the biography addressing this question. The chapter is still tentative, a draft, and feedback of any kind is more than welcome. Please keep in mind that the chapter, like the whole biography, is written with a general audience in mind, without presupposing any background in linguistics or logic.

Moving to Los Angeles to work at UCLA in 1955, Montague also managed to develop into a successful real estate and stock market investor. He drove a Bentley and lived in a nice house up the hills, on Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills, next to the estates of Hollywood stars Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.

Montague was very close to his parents Lorraine and Monte, who had left the Bay Area to be near their son. They lived down the hill, in the San Fernando Valley, in one of the units of a small apartment building Montague had bought and they managed.

Montague was a gay man who, unusual in those days, didn’t hide his sexual orientation, living together with his Black partner Robert ("Bob") Marcus Lee for more than a decade.

Montague was an extremely gifted pianist and organist, liked to entertain friends and offer parties, knew several languages, enjoyed movies (but found Westerns "too dusty"), loved literature, and was close to Christopher Isherwood’s circle of gay artists in Santa Monica. He would have been 90 years old today.

Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.

Italo Calvino, Six memos for the next millennium, Lecture 1: Lightness, 1988

Ivano Caponigro
University of California San Diego
professional website

Images of Montague

4 November 1969. Montague, at age 39, in his Bentley; the last photo we have of him. (Photo owner: Ivano Caponigro)

August 1967. Montague (left), at age 36, with his student Hans Kamp at UCLA. (Photo by Olga Troelstra-Bakker by permission.)

August 1960. Montague (left), at age 30, with his friend, colleague, and collaborator Don Kalish at Stanford. (Photo by Stig Kanger, by permission of Kim and Thomas Kanger.)

1954. Montague, at age 24, as the Minister of Music at the First Christian Church in Oakland. (By permission of Mark Gladson.)

1944. Montague (right) at age 14 with his best friend Bob Gilbeau. (By permission of Robert "Bob" Gilbeau)

1934. Montague at age 3 or 4. (By permission of Karen Paaske on behalf of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society.)

1931. Montague at age 1 (circa) . (By permission of Karen Paaske on behalf of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society.)

This is the best-known photo of Montague, if not the only one. It is undated, but it is likely to have been taken in the mid-60s, probably at a private event. A copy used to hang on the walls of the UCLA philosophy department, together with the photos of other illustrious faculty members. There are several other copies around (I have two). The original was owned by Bob Lee, Montague's partner. The philosopher Nathan Salmon, who started studying at UCLA right after Montague's death, was looking for a room to rent in late 1971, 1972, or possibly 1973. One of the landlords he contacted was Bob Lee, who was still living in the first house Montague bought and they shared. Unfortunately, Lee had already rented his room, but when he heard that Salmon was studying philosophy he mentioned that he used to know a philosophy professor and had a photo of him. Salmon let Diane Wells, the UCLA philosophy librarian, know about the photo and gave her Lee's phone number. She promptly arranged with Lee to obtain copies for the department.

(The digital elaboration of this photo on this web page is by Luciano Caponigro.)

Clips of Montague

1939 or 1940. Brief silent movie that Montague shot and interpreted at age 9 or 10. 1939 or 1940. Open it on YouTube for more details. (Owner: Ivano Caponigro; gift of Paul Heaney)

End of 1944/Beginning of 1945. Audio clip of Montague at age 14 singing and playing a song he wrote and recorded for his best friend Bob Gilbeau. 1945. Open it on YouTube for more details. (Owner: Ivano Caponigro; gift of Robert "Bob" Gilbeau)

7 July 1953. Brief silent video clip of Montague at age 22 at the wedding of his high school best friend Bob Gilbeau. Open it on YouTube for more details. (By permission of Robert "Bob" Gilbeau)

Montague's Family

Montague's parents Lorraine and Edgar ("Monte"). Late 1910s/early 1920s. (By permission of Karen Paaske on behalf of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society.)

Montague's mother Lorraine. July 5, 1953. (Owner: Ivano Caponigro; gift of Robert "Bob" Gilbeau)

Montague's father Edgar ("Monte"). Not dated. (By permission of Karen Paaske on behalf of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society.)

Graduation photo of Robert ("Bob") Marcus Lee (1928-2012), Montague's partner from 1955 on. Bob received a B.A. in history from UCLA. This is the only photo we have of him. 1953. (By permission of Eric G. Mandel.)

Chez Montague

Montague's home, 2840 North Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills. 1960s. (LAPD Montague file, by permission.)

Montague's bedroom office corner. March 7, 1971. (LAPD Montague file, by permission.)

Montague's Bentley (S1 or S2 model). March 7, 1971. (Owner: Ivano Caponigro)