70 years ago at just about this time in September, I packed my few belongings, went to Grand Central Station, took the shore line to South Station in Boston, took the T to Harvard Square, walked across Mass. Avenue to Harvard Yard and began my education as a freshman at Harvard. The very first course I took was Philosophy 140, Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic, and almost the first thing I learned from Quine, something hammered into me so that I would never forget it, was the distinction between use and mention. Although I started out my life as a logic student, I soon took the path of the Rake’s progress first to the history of philosophy, then to social and political philosophy, and then – Lord help me – to such things beyond the pale as Marx’s economics and even Afro-American studies. So I didn’t have much professional use for the distinction between use and mention, but along the way I became addicted to crossword puzzles and there I found repeatedly that a clear grasp of that distinction is absolutely essential.
For almost 6 months now I have been doing the New York Times crossword puzzle online, a choice I made because my handwriting has gotten so bad that I can scarcely read what I write. One of the side benefits of doing the puzzle that way is that the app keeps track of how I do, telling me for each day of the week my average speed and my best speed of solution. As those of you will know who are also addicted to the Times puzzle, Mondays are the easiest of the week, but sometimes they have a little gimmick in them and today that gimmick was three long across solutions in which the letters “itti” appear in sequence. The solution to another long across clue was “have it both ways.” Not have “it” both ways, which is what a Quine student would expect but simply “have it both ways.” This deliberate confusion of use and mention is one of the standard tropes in crossword puzzle clues and every time it comes up I get a slight frisson of pleasure and a sense that I am a boy once again taking Philosophy 140.