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Moses Ilyich Schönfinkel

February 23, 2019


Moses Schonfinkel

Rereading a chapter on currying in the book named Lambda-Calculus and Combinators, I came across a paragraph that I highlighted earlier:

(currying) Named after Haskell Curry, one of the inventors of combinatory logic. Curry always insisted that he got the idea of using h from M. Schönfinkel’s, but most workers seem to prefer to pronounce ‘currying’ rather than ‘schönfinkeling’".

Moses Ilyich Schönfinkel was born in 1889 in Ekaterinoslav (also my hometown, renamed in 1926 to Dnepropetrovsk and renamed in 2016 to Dnipro).

From Wikipedia:

Schönfinkel developed a formal system that avoided the use of bound variables. His system was essentially equivalent to a combinatory logic based upon the combinators B, C, I, K, and S. Schönfinkel was able to show that the system could be reduced to just K and S and outlined a proof that a version of this system had the same power as predicate logic.

Schönfinkel attended the Novorossiysk University of Odessa, studying mathematics under Samuil Osipovich Shatunovskii, who worked in geometry and the foundations of mathematics. From 1914 to 1924, Schönfinkel was a member of David Hilbert's group at the University of Göttingen.

After he left Göttingen, Schönfinkel returned to Moscow. By 1927 he was reported to be mentally ill and in a sanatorium. His later life was spent in poverty, and he died in Moscow some time in 1942. His papers were burned by his neighbors for heating.

Unfortunately, there is very little information on the Schönfinkel's biography on the Internet. A quick fact checking shows that the phrase about Schönfinkel's papers burned by his neighbors is linked to a review Yanovskaya's article. I have read the review carefully and found only this (see the last sentence):

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The author gives the biographical information that Shönfinkel became mentally ill and died in Moscow in 1942.

Let's look into the original article (in Russian):

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Этот блестящий ученик Шатуновского, к сожалению, рано выбыл из строя. (Заболев душевно, Шейнфинкель умер в Москве в 1942 г.)

In English:

This brilliant student of Shatunovsky, unfortunately, early out of action. (Mentally ill, Scheinfinkel died in Moscow in 1942).

This is all about Schönfinkel's last years in the article.

Another source that I found is a bit odd. Howard Gregory in his book Language and Logics speculates on Stalin's influence on Schönfinkel:


It sounds very prejudiced and politized (especially, taking into account that was no Ukraine when a "Ukrainian Jew" Schönfinkel was born and lived in Ekaterinoslav, Russian Empire).

• • •

I would appreciate if someone who knows the more details of this story about the papers burned by neighbors, will help me to find the proofs of it.