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Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle

“Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination”*…

Philosophy as a discipline, Siobhan Lyons argues, finds itself precariously balanced between incomprehensible specialization and cheap self-help…

As long as there has been such a subject as philosophy, there have been people who hated and despised it,’ reads the opening line of Bernard Williams’s article ‘On Hating and Despising Philosophy’ (1996). Almost 30 years later, philosophy is not hated so much as it is viewed with a mixture of uncertainty and indifference. As Kieran Setiya recently put it in the London Review of Books, academic philosophy in particular is ‘in a state of some confusion’. There are many reasons for philosophy’s stagnation, though the dual influences of specialisation and commercialisation, in particular, have turned philosophy into something that scarcely resembles the discipline as it was practised by the likes of Aristotle, Spinoza or Nietzsche…

A fascinating historical review of philosophy and a suggestion that the field has wandered astray: “Whither philosophy?” in @aeonmag. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Immanuel Kant


As we think about thinking, we might spare a thought for a poster child of the phenomenon sketched above– Alan Watts; he died on this date in 1973. A writer, speaker, and self-styled “philosophical entertainer,” he is known for interpreting and popularizing Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu philosophy for a Western audience.

Watts gained a following while working as a volunteer programmer at the KPFA radio station in Berkeley. He wrote more than 25 books and articles on religion and philosophy, introducing the emerging counter culture to The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first best selling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), he argued that Buddhism could be thought of as a form of psychotherapy. He considered Nature, Man and Woman (1958) to be, “from a literary point of view—the best book I have ever written”. And he explored human consciousness and psychedelics in works such as “The New Alchemy” (1958) and The Joyous Cosmology (1962).

His lectures, mostly recorded in the 60s and 70s, found posthumous popularity through regular broadcasts on public radio, especially in California and New York, and more recently on the internet (on sites and apps such as YouTube and Spotify).


“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom”*…

Sir Francis Bacon, portrait by Paul van Somer I, 1617

The death of Queen Elizabeth I created a career opportunity for philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon– one that, as Susan Wise Bauer explains– led him to found empiricism, to pioneer inductive reasoning, and in so doing, to advance the scientific method…

In 1603, Francis Bacon, London born, was forty-three years old: a trained lawyer and amateur philosopher, happily married, politically ambitious, perpetually in debt.

He had served Elizabeth I of England loyally at court, without a great deal of recognition in return. But now Elizabeth was dead at the age of sixty-nine, and her crown would go to her first cousin twice removed: James VI of Scotland, James I of England.

Francis Bacon hoped for better things from the new king, but at the moment he had no particular ‘in’ at the English court. Forced to be patient, he began working on a philosophical project he’d had in mind for some years–a study of human knowledge that he intended to call Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human.

Like most of Bacon’s undertakings, the project was ridiculously ambitious. He set out to classify all learning into the proper branches and lay out all of the possible impediments to understanding. Part I condemned what he called the three ‘distempers’ of learning, which included ‘vain imaginations,’ pursuits such as astrology and alchemy that had no basis in actual fact; Part II divided all knowledge into three branches and suggested that natural philosophy should occupy the prime spot. Science, the project of understanding the universe, was the most important pursuit man could undertake. The study of history (‘everything that has happened’) and poesy (imaginative writings) took definite second and third places.

For a time, Bacon didn’t expand on these ideas. The Advancement of Learning opened with a fulsome dedication to James I (‘I have been touched–yea, and possessed–with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties . . . the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution …. There hath not been since Christ’s time any king or temporal monarch which hath been so learned in all literature and erudition, divine and human’), and this groveling soon yielded fruit. In 1607 Bacon was appointed as solicitor general, a position he had coveted for years, and over the next decade or so he poured his energies into his government responsibilities.

He did not return to natural philosophy until after his appointment to the even higher post of chancellor in 1618. Now that he had battled his way to the top of the political dirt pile, he announced his intentions to write a work with even greater scope–a new, complete system of philosophy that would shape the minds of men and guide them into new truths. He called this masterwork the Great Instauration: the Great Establishment, a whole new way of thinking, laid out in six parts.

Part I, a survey of the existing ‘ancient arts’ of the mind, repeated the arguments of the Advancement of Learning. But Part II, published in 1620 as a stand-alone work, was something entirely different. It was a wholesale challenge to Aristotelian methods, a brand-new ‘doctrine of a more perfect use of reason.’

Aristotelian thinking relies, heavily, on deductive reasoning for ancient logicians and philosophers, the highest and best road to the truth. Deductive reasoning moves from general statements (premises) to specific conclusions.

MAJOR PREMISE: All heavy matter falls toward the center of the universe. MINOR PREMISE: The earth is made of heavy matter. MINOR PREMISE: The earth is not falling. CONCLUSION: The earth must already be at the center of the universe.

But Bacon had come to believe that deductive reasoning was a dead end that distorted evidence: ‘Having first determined the question according to his will,’ he objected, ‘man then resorts to experience, and bending her to conformity with his placets [expressions of assent], leads her about like a captive in a procession.’ Instead, he argued, the careful thinker must reason the other way around: starting from specifics and building toward general conclusions, beginning with particular pieces of evidence and working, inductively, toward broader assertions.

This new way of thinking–inductive reasoning–had three steps to it. The ‘true method’ Bacon explained,

‘first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it deducing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments.’

In other words, the natural philosopher must first come up with an idea about how the world works: ‘lighting the candle.’ Second, he must test the idea against physical reality, against ‘experience duly ordered’–both observations of the world around him and carefully designed experiments. Only then, as a last step, should he ‘deduce axioms,’ coming up with a theory that could be claimed to carry truth. 

Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion: Bacon had just traced the outlines of the scientific method…

Francis Bacon and the Scientific Method

An excerpt from The Story of Western Science by @SusanWiseBauer, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

* Francis Bacon


As we embrace empiricism, we might send carefully-transmitted birthday greetings to Augusto Righi; he was born on this date in 1850. A physicist and a pioneer in the study of electromagnetism, he showed that showed that radio waves displayed characteristics of light wave behavior (reflection, refraction, polarization, and interference), with which they shared the electromagnetic spectrum. In 1894 Righi was the first person to generate microwaves.

Righi influenced the young Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, who visited him at his lab. Indeed, Marconi invented the first practical wireless telegraphy radio transmitters and receivers in 1894 using Righi’s four ball spark oscillator (from Righi’s microwave work) in his transmitters.


“One word brings another”*…

The Choice of Hercules by Carracci, 1596. Depicts Hercules deciding between Vice (right) and Virtue, or Arete (left)

Recovering the wisdom of ancient Greece…

… while actually dedicating years to learning this beautiful and complicated ancient language might not be the most practical use of your time, I do think you should at least learn a few of the most important concepts.

In fact, I reckon these 12 terms should definitely make a comeback in our current society… and that we might be a lot better for it…

From Aidos (Greek: Αἰδώς) and Arete (Greek: ἀρετή) to Phronesis (Greek: φρόνησῐς) and Xenia (Greek: ξενία): “12 Ancient Greek Terms that Should Totally Make a Comeback,” from @ClassicalWisdom.

* Euripides, Trojan Women


As we learn from our elders, we might recall that it was on this date (as nearly as one can tell) in 327 BCE that Alexander the Great (heir of Philip II of Macedon and tutee of Aristotle) launched his Indian Campaign. Within two years, Alexander expanded the Macedonian Empire to include present-day Punjab and Sindh in what is Modern-day Pakistan, surpassing the earlier frontiers that had been established by the Persian conquest of the Indus Valley.

Alexander in the Alexander Mosaic (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…

Objective reality has properties outside the range of our senses (and for that matter, our instruments); and studies suggest that our brains warp sensory data as soon as we collect it. So we’d do well to remember that we don’t have– and likely won’t ever have– perfect information…

Many philosophers believe objective reality exists, if “objective” means “existing as it is independently of any perception of it.” However, ideas on what that reality actually is and how much of it we can interact with vary dramatically.

Aristotle argued, in contrast to his teacher Plato, that the world we interact with is as real as it gets and that we can have knowledge of it, but he thought that the knowledge we could have about it was not quite perfect. Bishop Berkeley thought everything existed as ideas in minds — he argued against the notion of physical matter — but that there was an objective reality since everything also existed in the mind of God. Immanuel Kant, a particularly influential Enlightenment philosopher, argued that while “the thing in itself” — an object as it exists independently of being subjectively observed — is real and exists, you cannot know anything about it directly.

Today, a number of metaphysical realists maintain that external reality exists, but they also suggest that our understanding of it is an approximation that we can improve upon. There are also direct realists who argue that we can interact with the world as it is, directly. They hold that many of the things we see when we interact with objects can be objectively known, though some things, like color, are subjective traits.

While it might be granted that our knowledge of the world is not perfect and is at least sometimes subjective, that doesn’t have to mean that the physical world doesn’t exist. The trouble is how we can go about knowing anything that isn’t subjective about it if we admit that our sensory information is not perfect.

As it turns out, that is a pretty big question.

Science both points toward a reality that exists independently of how any subjective observer interacts with it and shows us how much our viewpoints can get in the way of understanding the world as it is. The question of how objective science is in the first place is also a problem — what if all we are getting is a very refined list of how things work within our subjective view of the world?

Physical experiments like the Wigner’s Friend test show that our understanding of objective reality breaks down whenever quantum mechanics gets involved, even when it is possible to run a test. On the other hand, a lot of science seems to imply that there is an objective reality about which the scientific method is pretty good at capturing information.

Evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins argues:

“Science’s belief in objective truth works. Engineering technology based upon the science of objective truth, achieves results. It manages to build planes that get off the ground. It manages to send people to the moon and explore Mars with robotic vehicles on comets. Science works, science produces antibiotics, vaccines that work. So anybody who chooses to say, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as objective truth. It’s all subjective, it’s all socially constructed.’ Tell that to a doctor, tell that to a space scientist, manifestly science works, and the view that there is no such thing as objective truth doesn’t.”

While this leans a bit into being an argument from the consequences, he has a point: Large complex systems which suppose the existence of an objective reality work very well. Any attempt to throw out the idea of objective reality still has to explain why these things work.

A middle route might be to view science as the systematic collection of subjective information in a way that allows for intersubjective agreement between people. Under this understanding, even if we cannot see the world as it is, we could get universal or near-universal intersubjective agreement about something like how fast light travels in a vacuum. This might be as good as it gets, or it could be a way to narrow down what we can know objectively. Or maybe it is something else entirely.

While objective reality likely exists, our senses might not be able to access it well at all. We are limited beings with limited viewpoints and brains that begin to process sensory data the moment we acquire it. We must always be aware of our perspective, how that impacts what data we have access to, and that other perspectives may have a grain of truth to them…

Objective reality exists, but what can you know about it that isn’t subjective? Maybe not much: “You don’t see objective reality objectively: neuroscience catches up to philosophy.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder perspective, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Confucius; he was born on this date in 551 BCE. A a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period, he has been traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages and is widely considered one of the most important and influential individuals in human history, as his teachings and philosophy formed the basis of East Asian culture and society, and continue to remain influential across China and East Asia today.

His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. Confucianism was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. It was he who espoused the well-known principle “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” the Golden Rule.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 28, 2021 at 1:00 am

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”*…

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function.

Aristotle’s idea was so unusual that, for more than two millennia, his account of literary inventions existed as an intellectual one-off, too intriguing to be forgotten but also too idiosyncratic to be developed further. In the mid-20th century, R. S. Crane and the renegade professors of the Chicago School revived the Poetics’ techno-scientific method, using it to excavate literary inventions from Shakespearean tragedies, 18th-century novels, and other works that Aristotle never knew. Later, in the early 2000s, one of the Chicago School’s students, James Phelan, co-founded Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where I now work as a professor of story science. Project Narrative is the world’s leading academic think tank for the study of stories, and in our research labs, with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists from across the globe, we’ve uncovered dozens more literary inventions in Zhou Dynasty lyrics, Italian operas, West African epics, classic children’s books, great American novels, Agatha Christie crime fictions, Mesoamerican myths, and even Hollywood television scripts.

These literary inventions can alleviate grief, improve your problem-solving skills, dispense the anti-depressant effects of LSD, boost your creativity, provide therapy for trauma (including both kinds of PTSD), spark joy, dole out a better energy kick than caffeine, lower your odds of dying alone, and (as impossible as it sounds) increase the chance that your dreams will come true. They can even make you a more loving spouse and generous friend

Recurring story elements that have proven effects on our imagination and our psyche: “Eight of Literature’s Most Powerful Inventions—and the Neuroscience Behind How They Work.” (Excerpted from Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.)

* Philip Pullman


As we noodle narratives, we might send a combo birthday and St Patrick’s Day greeting to Catherine “Kate” Greenaway; she was born on this date in 1846.  Creator of books for children such as Mother Goose (1881), Little Ann (1883), and The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1889), she was one of the most the most accomplished illustrators of her time– and the inspiration for The Kate Greenaway Medal, awarded annually by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the U.K. to an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway’s illustration of the Pied Piper leading the children out of Hamelin; for Robert Browning’s version of the tale.



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