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Posts Tagged ‘history of ideas

“We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies”*…

 

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00267

Methodist Camp Meeting, early 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

The contrast between the cold logic of science and the emotionality of religion is a seemingly unshakable binary today. But back in the early nineteenth century, people saw things very differently. Historian Jeffrey A. Mullins examines the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s.

At that time, Mullins writes, Americans did not see science and religion as opposites. Instead, they were “two aspects of the same universal truth.” And that truth was not based in pure logic. Emotions were a key to human behavior, and controlling and channeling emotions was a job for scientifically- and morally-grounded experts.

This perspective led to a wealth of reformist interventions, from Sunday schools to penitentiaries to graham crackers. Preachers who led religious revivals around the country in the 1830s saw the need for a highly engineered emotional experience…

During the Second Great Awakening of 1830, science and religion were seen as “two aspects of the same universal truth”: “When Science and Religion Were Connected.”

* “We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation” — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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As we puzzle over perspective, we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”*…

 

It is often observed that the French Revolution was a revolution of scientists. Nourished by airy abstractions and heartfelt cries to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, its leaders sought a society grounded, not in God or tradition, but in what Edmund Burke decried as “the conquering empire of light and reason”. To be sure, if we tallied the professional affiliations of the members of the first National Assembly, we would find it overwhelmingly populated by lawyers. But the revolution’s symbols and motifs were not derived from legal practices and traditions, and it was not as men of law that Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat called for the death of their king and the creation of a democratic republic. Rather, they did so as scientists—middle class intellectuals who saw in government a field ripe for experimentation, innovation, and improvement.

Nowhere was this as clear as their approach to “the will of the people”. Of the many puzzles to which revolutionaries applied themselves as scientists, few seemed so pressing and so intractable. It is obvious what a king’s will looks like, or so we like to think. Kings are individuals, they have bodies, and they can tell us what to do. However they choose to communicate their will — through voice, a gesture, a written pronouncement — it is relatively clear when such acts belong to them. But “the people” enjoy no such obvious body and no evident means of self-expression. What does the will of the people actually look like? And how do we hear their voice if they don’t have a mouth with which to speak? As French revolutionaries enthroned the will of the people, they stepped into uncharted terrain. Democratic revolution, it turned out, required men capable of visualizing the invisible and making appear what escaped our immediate senses. Indeed, it seemed to require the labor of scientific inquiry applied to the people themselves. Like the invisible composition of air, the secret patterns of a magnetic field, or the stratifications of the earth’s soil, democratic politics was governed by a hidden law which the scientist-statesman had to uncover…

Kevin Duong explores how leading French revolutionaries, in need of an image to represent the all important “will of the people”, turned to the thunderbolt — a natural symbol of power and illumination that also signaled the scientific ideals so key to their project: “Flash Mob: Revolution, Lightning, and the People’s Will.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we agree with Ursula LeGuin that “You cannot buy the revolution; you cannot make the revolution; you can only be the revolution,” we might send provocative birthday greetings to poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor, and environmental activist  Margaret Eleanor Atwood; she was born on this date in 1939.  Currently enjoying wide celebrity via the television adaptations of her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, her wide body of work has earned her the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Prince of Asturias Award for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Canadian Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice.  In addition to her fourteen novels, she has published she has also published fifteen books of poetry, ten non-fiction books, seven children’s books, four collections of stories, three collections of unclassifiable short prose works, three opera libretti, and a graphic novel.

Atwood is also the inventor and developer of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents, for which she holds several patents.

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Written by LW

November 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”*…

… or so it must seem to Patrick Andrews, who has, since 2006, been creating and posting (with a rhythm close to your correspondent’s heart, that’s to say, roughly daily) an “Invention of the Day.”

His website…

… is intended as an outlet for the force-four brainstorm which rages in the background of my mind, much of the time. It seems to result, most days, in some kind of invention. Many of these ideas are naive, impractical or just unoriginal. Occasionally, a good one appears (eg www.scenereader.com). In any case, disclosure here of anything clever or original will make patenting it impossible**; which is probably a healthy situation…

The obvious thing to do is to forget patents and move straight to manufacturing and selling your own products. With desktop manufacture and online marketing, this is becoming a real possibility in some cases. I recognise, however, that I won’t have enough time and money to develop and launch the majority of the ideas here in the marketplace.

Please therefore feel free to read, mock and/or exploit commercially any which take your fancy. If they make you rich, do let me know (Donating to Unicef is a good idea, even if you haven’t yet made a mint)…

Consider, for example, #2302- “the Collareel”:

Today’s invention is a dog lead with the added benefit that when your animal is off-lead, it carries the whole thing itself.

A small, spring-loaded reel of strong cord is clipped to the ordinary lead. It is shaped to fit closely to the collar and thus be impossible for the dog to remove or for it to tear off while crashing about the undergrowth.

When you want to reign in your canine, first catch it and then pull the lead out to normal length.

Browse the bounty of his brainstorms at “Invention of the Day.” 

* Mary Shelly

** Sadly, as of March 16, no longer true in the U.S.

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As we await the illumination of the bulbs above our heads, we might tip the plumed birthday bonnet to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was.  He was born on this date in 1596.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649

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Your correspondent is headed again behind The Great Firewall, where the undependability of connectivity (even, these days, via VPNs) means a hiatus in these missives.  Regular service should resume by April 10 or so. 

Written by LW

March 31, 2013 at 1:01 am

“Originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism”*…

 click here for dynamic zoom

Readers seemed to enjoy Simon Raper’s diagrammatic history of philosophy (see “Who’s Hume“), so may also appreciate Brendan Griffen‘s even more ambitious visual essay– a depiction of the connections between every important thinker, ever: “The Graph of Ideas.”

He fields it at two levels of detail; the first (pictured at the top of this post, with a link to a zoomable version) treats roughly 850 thinkers, clustering those most closely related and showing how each is connected.  For example:

The second treats his entire set of 4,200 thinkers; it is here (it’s a 50MB file, so takes a while to load– but it’s worth it).

Read the backstory– the method used and the iterative attempts to avoid a Western bias– here.

[TotH to CoDesign]

* Voltaire

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As we honor our ancestors, we might send carefully-scrawled birthday greetings to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755.  While Conté was an accomplished painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered for his contribution to the later contributions to the charts above: the invention of the modern pencil.

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Your correspondent is off for a period of deep and serious study of the smoked and fried foods of the Low Country.  Sticky fingers being the impediment to keyboarding that they are, regular service will resume in mid-August… Y’all have fun!

Who’s Hume…

Simon Raper at Drunks & Lampposts extracted the information in the influenced by section for every philosopher on Wikipedia and used it to construct a network– a picture of whose thought formed whose.

See the full map– and read how one can easily construct one’s own network diagrams– here.

[TotH to The Stone]

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As we parse our precedents, we might recall that it was on this date in 1951 that Mrs. Mary Reeser, of St Petersburg, Florida, was the victim of “spontaneous human combustion.”  Her landlady took her a telegram, found the doorknob too hot to handle, and phoned for help. Firemen discovered a blackened circle on the floors, a few coiled springs, a charred liver, a backbone fragment, a skull shrunk to size of a fist, and a black slipper enclosing a left foot burnt off at the ankle. Despite the temperature necessary to cremate a body, the rest of the apartment was virtually untouched.

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The Ages of Data…

It’s said that there’s a kind of hierarchy of knowing:  data can be assembled into knowledge, which (with experience and empathy) can become understanding, then with grace, wisdom… but it all starts with data.

Happily for us, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of the indispensable Mathematica and more recently of Wolfram|Alpha, takes data very seriously…

The precursors of what we’re trying to do with computable data in Wolfram|Alpha in many ways stretch back to the very dawn of human history—and in fact their development has been fascinatingly tied to the whole progress of civilization.

Last year we invited the leaders of today’s great data repositories to our Wolfram Data Summit—and as a conversation piece we assembled a timeline of the historical development of systematic data and computable knowledge.

This year, as we approach the Wolfram Data Summit 2011, we’ve taken the comments and suggestions we got, and we’re making available a five-feet-long (1.5 meters) printed poster of the timeline—as well as having the basic content on the web.

Wolfram’s explanatory blog post, “Advance of the Data Civilization: A Timeline,” is fascinating– both an unpacking of the events collected and an analysis of the patterns they form…

The story the timeline tells is a fascinating one: of how, in a multitude of steps, our civilization has systematized more and more areas of knowledge—collected the data associated with them, and gradually made them amenable to automation.

The usual telling of history makes scant mention of most of these developments—though so many of them are so obvious in our lives today. Weights and measures. The calendar. Alphabetical lists. Plots of data. Dictionaries. Maps. Music notation. Stock charts. Timetables. Public records. ZIP codes. Weather reports. All the things that help us describe and organize our world…  the timeline is not about technology or science, it’s about data and knowledge. When you look at the timeline, you might ask: ”Where’s Einstein? Where’s Darwin? Where’s the space program?” Well, they’re not there. Because despite their importance in the history of science and technology, they’re not really part of the particular story the timeline is telling: of how systematic data and knowledge came to be the way it is in our world. And as I said above, much of this is “back room history”, not really told in today’s history books.

…when I first looked at the completed timeline, the first thing that struck me was how much two entities stood out in their contributions: ancient Babylon, and the United States government. For Babylon—as the first great civilization—brought us such things as the first known census, standardized measures, the calendar, land registration, codes of laws and the first known mathematical tables. In the United States, perhaps it was the spirit of building a country from scratch, or perhaps the notion of “government for the people”, but starting as early as 1785 (with the formation of the US Land Ordinance), the US government began an impressive series of firsts in systematic data collection.

Read the full post— it’s an eminently-worthy guided walk from data to understanding.

[Thanks to Curiosity Counts for the pointer]

As we fondly recall counting on our fingers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that Howard Stern became a national radio personality when WYSP in Philadelphia first simulcast his show.  By the time that he moved to satellite radio in 2004, Stern had won Billboard‘s Nationally Syndicated Air Personality of the Year award eight times; his show had the distinction of being the most-fined radio program (the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] issued fines of $2.5 million to station licensees for broadcasting allegedly indecent material on Stern’s show).

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Interestingly, it was also on that same date– August 18, 1986– that the Anti-Howard, John Tesh, became a national broadcast personality with his first appearance on Entertainment Tonight.

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