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Posts Tagged ‘history of ideas

“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”*…




Denis Diderot and the encyclopedists had a plan to catalog knowledge that seemed harmless enough; but what they intended was far more subversive– to restructure knowledge itself:

Far more influential and prominent than the short single-authored works that Diderot had produced up to this point in his life, the Encyclopédie was expressly designed to pass on the temptation and method of intellectual freedom to a huge audience in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in faraway lands like Saint Petersburg and Philadelphia. Ultimately carried to term through ruse, obfuscation, and sometimes cooperation with the authorities, the Encyclopédie (and its various translations, republications, and pirated excerpts and editions) is now considered the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment: a triumph of secularism, freedom of thought, and eighteenth-century commerce…

At first glance, [Diderot’s] large map of topics, which ranged from comets to epic poetry, seems quite inoffensive. Indeed, the Encyclopédie’s earliest critic, the Jesuit priest Guillaume-François Berthier, did not quibble with how Diderot had organized the “System”; he simply accused Diderot of stealing this aspect of Bacon’s work without proper acknowledgment. Diderot’s real transgression, however, was not following the English philosopher more closely. For, while it was true that Diderot freely borrowed the overall structure of his tree of knowledge from Bacon, he had actually made two significant changes to the Englishman’s conception of human understanding. First, he had broken down and subverted the traditional hierarchical relationship between liberal arts (painting, architecture, and sculpture) and “mechanical arts” or trades (i.e., manual labor). Second, and more subversively, he had shifted the category of religion squarely under humankind’s ability to reason. Whereas Bacon had carefully and sagely preserved a second and separate level of knowledge for theology outside the purview of the three human faculties, Diderot made religion subservient to philosophy, essentially giving his readers the authority to critique the divine…

The only other subject more problematic than religion was politics. In a country without political parties, where sedition was punished by sentencing to a galley ship or death, d’Alembert and Diderot never overtly questioned the spiritual and political authority of the monarchy. Yet the Encyclopédie nonetheless succeeded in advancing liberal principles, including freedom of thought and a more rational exercise of political power. As tepid as some of these writings may seem when compared with the political discourse of the Revolutionary era, the Encyclopédie played a significant role in destabilizing the key assumptions of Absolutism.

Diderot’s most direct and dangerous entry in this vein was his unsigned article on “Political Authority” (“Autorité politique”), which also appeared in the first volume of the Encyclopédie. Readers who chanced upon this article immediately noticed that it does not begin with a definition of political authority itself; instead, it opens powerfully with an unblemished assertion that neither God nor nature has given any one person the indisputable authority to reign…

From a fascinating excerpt of Andrew S. Curran’s  Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely.  Read the piece in full at “How Diderot’s Encyclopedia Challenged the King.”

* Frank Herbert


As we note that knowledge is power, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the League of Women Voters was founded.  Created to support women’s suffrage, it remains nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or parties, and advocating for (now more broadly understood) voting rights and for campaign finance reform.  The League sponsored the Presidential debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984, but withdrew in 1988, when the demands of the two parties became untenable. Then-LWV President Nancy Neuman said that the debate format on which the parties were insisting would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter” and that her organization did not intend to “become an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

200px-LWV_Logo.svg source


Written by LW

February 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Economic theory is the art of pulling a rabbit out of a hat right after you’ve stuffed it into the hat in full view of the audience”*…



Many critics were disappointed the 2008 crisis did not lead to an intellectual revolution on the scale of the 1930s. But the image of stasis you’d get from looking at the top journals and textbooks isn’t the whole picture — the most interesting conversations are happening somewhere else. For a generation, leftists in economics have struggled to change the profession, some by launching attacks (often well aimed, but ignored) from the outside, others by trying to make radical ideas parseable in the orthodox language. One lesson of the past decade is that both groups got it backward. Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” But in recent years the relationship seems to have been more the other way round. If we want to change the economics profession, we need to start changing the world. Economics will follow.

From J.W. Mason‘s helpful survey of economic thought since the Crash of 2008: “How a Decade of Crisis Changed Economics.”

* Joan Robinson


As we contemplate counting, we might send revolutionary birthday greetings to Alexander Hamilton; he was born on this date in 1755 (or 1757, there is some scholarly debate about the year, but not the date).  A Founding Father of the United States, Hamilton created the Federalist Party (proponent of stronger national government than provided by the Articles of Confederation), the United States Coast Guard, and the New York Post newspaper.  But he was probably most notably the creator of the new nation’s financial system.  The main author of the economic policies of George Washington’s administration, he took the lead in the Federal government’s funding of states’ debts, and established a national bank, a system of tariffs, and friendly trade relations with Britain.  His vision included a strong central government led by a vigorous executive branch, a strong commercial economy, a national bank supporting manufacturing, and a strong military…. in all of which he stood most frequently opposed to Thomas Jefferson, who favored agrarian and small government policies.

220px-alexander_hamilton_portrait_by_john_trumbull_1806 source


“It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!”*…




This is my summary of the history of (Western) philosophy showing the positive/negative connections between some of the key ideas/arguments of the philosophers. It’s a never-ending work-in-progress and the current version is mainly based on Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy and Thomas Baldwin’s Contemporary Philosophy, with many other references for specific philosophers/arguments. (The source is noted with the book icon that appears when you click on an argument.)…

From Deniz Cem Önduygu, a fascinating interactive tool for exploring the development of Western philosophy: “The history of philosophy, summarized and visualized.”  [TotH to friend MK]

For a different (but also engaging) visualization of some of this same history, see “The Structure of Recent Philosophy.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche


As we investigate influence, we might send deeply-thoughtful birthday greetings to Hannah Arendt; she was born on this date in 1906.  Though often categorized as a philosopher, she self-identified as a political theorist, arguing that philosophy deals with “man in the singular,” while her work centers on the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”  One of the seminal political thinkers of the twentieth century, the power and originality of her thinking was evident in works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, On Revolution and The Life of the Mind.  Her famous New Yorker essay and later book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil— in which she raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction– was controversial as it was widely misunderstood as defending Eichmann and blaming Jewish leaders for the Holocaust.  That book ended:

Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.



Written by LW

October 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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”*…



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


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



“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


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.



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.


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


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


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.



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!

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