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Posts Tagged ‘history of philosophy

“X marks the spot”*…



The Lu Lu Alphabet (1867) by Pamela Atkins Colman [source]

In 1895, the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays, a groundbreaking moment in medical history that would lead to myriad improvements to people’s health. Perhaps one overlooked benefit though was in relation to mental health, specifically of those tasked with making alphabet books. What did they do before X-rays? Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?…

A collection of historical figures, plants, animals, and more: “X is for…

* an old saying of manifold derivation.  One origin story references pirate maps, where “x” marked the location of buried treasure (and of other maps, where “x” marked less dramatic locations); another cites the British army practice of marking a piece of paper with a black “x” and pinning it on the heart of someone sentenced to death-by-firing-squad.  The presiding officer would say “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would aim for the “x.”


As we examine exemplary examples, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).




“The average scientist unequipped with the powerful lenses of philosophy, is a nearsighted creature, and cheerfully attacks each difficulty in the hope that it may prove to be the last”*…




There are decisive grounds for holding that we need to bring about a revolution in philosophy, a revolution in science, and then put the two together again to create a modern version of natural philosophy.

Once upon a time, it was not just that philosophy was a part of science; rather, science was a branch of philosophy. We need to remember that modern science began as natural philosophy – a development of philosophy, an admixture of philosophy and science. Today, we think of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley and, of course, Isaac Newton as trailblazing scientists, while we think of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz as philosophers. That division is, however, something we impose on the past. It is profoundly anachronistic…

Science broke away from metaphysics, from philosophy, as a result of natural philosophers adopting a profound misconception about the nature of science. As a result, natural philosophy died, the great divide between science and philosophy was born, and the decline of philosophy began.

It was Newton who inadvertently killed off natural philosophy with his claim, in the third edition of his Principia, to have derived his law of gravitation from the phenomena by induction…

Nicholas Maxwell argues that science and philosophy need to be re-joined, lest humanity seek knowledge at the expense of wisdom; only then, he suggests, can we hope to solve the urgent, fundamental problems that we face: “Natural philosophy redux.”

[Image above: source]

* Gilbert N. Lewis


As we seek ever-higher ground, we might that it was on this date in 1898 that the heirs of Alfred Nobel signed a “reconciliation agreement,” allowing his lawyers and accountants to execute his will.  The lion’s share of his estate was clearly marked for the establishment of the eponymous Prizes that are awarded each year.  But the residue, which was to be divided among descendants was the subject of much contention.


The first page of Nobel’s will [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

“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!

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]


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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