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Posts Tagged ‘history of philosophy

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”*…

Clockwise from top: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe

How four women defended ethical thought from the legacy of positivism…

By Michaelmas Term 1939, mere weeks after the United Kingdom had declared war on Nazi Germany, Oxford University had begun a change that would wholly transform it by the academic year’s end. Men ages twenty and twenty-one, save conscientious objectors and those deemed physically unfit, were being called up, and many others just a bit older volunteered to serve. Women had been able to matriculate and take degrees at the university since 1920, but members of the then all-male Congregation had voted to restrict the number of women to fewer than a quarter of the overall student population. Things changed rapidly after the onset of war. The proportion of women shot up, and, in many classes, there were newly as many women as men.

Among the women who experienced these novel conditions were several who did courses in philosophy and went on to strikingly successful intellectual careers. Elizabeth Anscombe, noted philosopher and Catholic moral thinker who would go on occupy the chair in philosophy that Ludwig Wittgenstein had held at Cambridge, started a course in Greats—roughly, classics and philosophy—in 1937, as did Jean Austin (neé Coutts), who would marry philosopher J. L. Austin and later have a long teaching career at Oxford. Iris Murdoch, admired and beloved philosopher and novelist, began to read Greats in 1938 at the same time as Mary Midgley (neé Scrutton), who became a prominent public philosopher and animal ethicist. A year later Philippa Foot (neé Bosanquet), distinguished moral philosopher, started to read the then relatively new course PPE—philosophy, politics and economics—and three years after that Mary Warnock (neé Wilson), subsequently a high-profile educator and public intellectual, went up to read Greats.

Several of these women would go on to make groundbreaking contributions to ethics…

Oxford philosophy in the early to mid 1930s had been in upheaval. The strains of Hegel-inspired idealism that had remained influential in Britain through the first decade of the twentieth century had been definitively displaced, in the years before World War I, by realist doctrines which claimed that knowledge must be of what is independent of the knower, and which were elaborated within ethics into forms of intuitionism. By the ’30s, these schools of thought were themselves threatened by new waves of enthusiasm for the themes of logical positivism developed by a group of philosophers and scientists, led by Moritz Schlick, familiarly known as the Vienna Circle. Cambridge University’s Susan Stebbing, the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship in philosophy in the UK, had already interacted professionally with Schlick in England and had championed tenets of logical positivism in essays and public lectures when, in 1933, Oxford don Gilbert Ryle recommended that his promising tutee Freddie Ayer make a trip to Vienna. Ayer obliged, and upon his return he wrote a brief manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), in defense of some of the Vienna Circle’s views. The book became a sensation, attracting attention and debate far beyond the halls of academic philosophy. Its bombshell contention was that only two kinds statements are meaningful: those that are true solely in virtue of the meanings of their constituent terms (such as “all bachelors are unmarried”), and those that can be verified through physical observation. The gesture seemed to consign to nonsense, at one fell swoop, the statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics.

This turn to “verification” struck some as a fitting response to strains of European metaphysics that many people, rightly or wrongly, associated with fascist irrationalism and the gathering threat of war. But not everyone at Oxford was sympathetic. Although Ayer’s ideas weren’t universally admired, they were widely discussed, including by a group of philosophers led by Isaiah Berlin, who met regularly at All Souls College—among them, J. L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, Donald MacNabb, Anthony Woozley, and Ayer himself. Oxford philosophy’s encounter with logical positivism would have a lasting impact and would substantially set the terms for subsequent research in many areas of philosophy—including, it would turn out, ethics and political theory…

A fascinating intellectual history of British moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century: “Metaphysics and Morals,” Alice Crary in @BostonReview.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we ponder precepts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that the seat of the action described above, The University of Oxford, received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated and/or employed many notables, including 72 Nobel laureates, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world. 



“My work consists of two parts; that presented here plus all I have not written. It is this second part that is important.”*…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wooden cabin in Skjolden, Norway

On the occasion of it centenary, Peter Salmon considers the history, context, and lasting significance of Wittgenstein‘s revolutionary first work…

One hundred years ago, a slim volume of philosophy was published by the then unknown Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The book was as curious as its title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Running to only 75 pages, it was in the form of a series of propositions, the gnomic quality of the first as baffling to the newcomer today as it was then.

1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is a totality of facts not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, through six propositions, 526 numbered statements, equally emphatic and enigmatic, until the seventh and final proposition, which stands alone at the end of the text: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

The book’s influence was to be dramatic and far-reaching. Wittgenstein believed he had found a “solution” to how language and the world relate, that they shared a logical form. This also set a limit as to what questions could be meaningfully asked. Any question which could not be verified was, in philosophical terms, nonsense.

Written in the First World War trenches, Tractatus is, in many ways, a work of mysticism…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is as brilliant and baffling today as it was on its publication a century ago: “The logical mystic,” from @petesalmon in @NewHumanist.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we wrestle with reason and reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon— likely a favorite of Wittgenstein’s— was published. In 1990 the novel ranked 10th in Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the Crime Writer’s Association. Five years later, in a similar list by Mystery Writers of America, the novel was ranked third.


“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.”*…

Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins…

Unlike ideas of air, food and water that allow us to think about the everyday resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth or justice don’t obviously cater to practical needs. On the contrary, these exalted ideals draw our gaze away from practical pursuits. They are imbued with grandeur precisely because of their superb indifference to mundane human concerns. Having knowledge is practically useful, but why would we also need the concept of knowledge? The dog who knows where his food is seems fine without the concept of knowledge, so long as he’s not called upon to give a commencement address. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth or justice appear to have been important enough to emerge across different cultures and endure over the ages. Why, then, did we ever come to think in these terms?

Friedrich Nietzsche grumbled that, when it came to identifying the origins of lofty ideas, philosophers had a tendency to be led astray by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they felt were the ‘highest concepts’, the ‘last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality’, they had reverently placed them ‘at the beginning as the beginning’, convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato’s eternal Forms, the mind of God, Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world – they had all served as cradles to higher concepts, offering them a suitably distinguished pedigree.

But to insist that higher concepts were bound to have higher origins, Nietzsche thought, was to let one’s respect for those ideas get in the way of a truthful understanding of them. If, after the ‘Death of God’ and the advent of Darwinism, we were successfully to ‘translate humanity back into nature’, as Nietzsche’s felicitous rallying cry had it, we needed to trace seemingly transcendent ideas such as knowledge, truth or justice to their roots in human concerns. Their origins weren’t empyrean (to be sought in the highest spheres) but distinctly sublunary (found in lowly practical needs). Nietzsche encouraged us to ask: what necessities might have been the mothers of those inventions? And what, if anything, do they still do for us?…

Matthieu Queloz (@matthieu_queloz) takes up Nietzsche‘s challenge: “Ideas that work.”

[image above: source]

* Epictetus


As we root out first principles, we might spare a thought for Sir Alfred Jules “Freddie” Ayer (usually cited as A.J. Ayer); he died on this date in 1989. A philosopher associated with the the British humanist movement, he is best remembered as the champion of of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956). While he had a number of material disagreements with Nietzsche, Ayer shared his rejection of objective ethical values.


“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).




Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 23, 2019 at 1:01 am

“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]



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