(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘intellectual history

“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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“The only thing I know is that I know nothing”*…

 

Heraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s <i>The School of Athens</i>, circa 1509

Heraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens, circa 1509

 

Poor Diogenes Laertius. He gets no respect. A “perfect ass”—“asinus germanus”—one nineteenth-century scholar called him. “Dim-witted,” said Nietzsche. An “ignoramus,” declared the twentieth-century classicist Werner Jaeger. In his lyric moods he wrote “perhaps the worst verses ever published,” an anthologist pronounced. And he had “no talent for philosophical exposition,” declares The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

Then why waste time on him? For this excellent reason: Diogenes Laertius compiled the sole extant work from antiquity that gives anything like a comprehensive picture of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. He may have been a flaming mediocrity. He may have been credulous and intellectually shallow. He may have produced a scissors-and-paste job cribbed from other ancient sources. But those other sources are lost, which makes what Diogenes Laertius left behind, to quote the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “truly priceless.” Eighty percent of success is showing up, Woody Allen supposedly said. Well, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers showed up. And by dint of that, its author has become what Nietzsche called “the night watchman of the history of Greek philosophy: no one can enter into it unless he has given him the key.”…

Jim Holt on on one of the more curious accidents of intellectual history: “Lovers of Wisdom.”

* Socrates

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As we ponder provenance, we might spare a thought for Hans Christian Andersen; he died on this date in 1875.  A prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, he is best remembered for his (often curiously-titled) fairy tales.  Those tales– which include “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”– have inspired plays, ballets, and of course both live-action and animated films.

In Andersen’s honor his birthday– August 2 (1805)– is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

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“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them”*…

 

People think of reading as the introvert’s hobby: A quiet activity for a person who likes quiet, save for the voices in their head. But in the 5,000 or so years humans have been writing, reading as we conceive it, an asocial solo activity with a book, is a relatively new form of leisure.

For centuries, Europeans who could read did so aloud. The ancient Greeks read their texts aloud. So did the monks of Europe’s dark ages. But by the 17th century, reading society in Europe had changed drastically. Text technologies, like moveable type, and the rise of vernacular writing helped usher in the practice we cherish today: taking in words without saying them aloud, letting them build a world in our heads…

Read the full story of how “The beginning of silent reading changed Westerners’ interior life.”

* Lemony Snicket [Daniel Handler], Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

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As we try not to move our lips, we might gratefully recall that it was on this date in 1971 that Michael Hart, now known as the father of e-books, inaugurated Project Gutenberg, issuing the Declaration of Independence.  The service now offers over 54,000 free eBooks– epub books, free kindle books, and plain text, available to download or to read online.  Mostly classics (that are out of copyright), the collection contains much of the world’s great literature, all digitized and diligently proofread with the help of thousands of volunteers.

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Written by LW

December 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day”*…

 

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, as the saying goes.

Lumberjack beards, old typewriters, old-timey drinks, thick rimmed glasses, your grandmother’s knitting, fixed gear bicycles, mason jars for every occasionworkaday heritage brands, you name it – if it’s oldish, it’s in. All things vintage have now become eagerly sought after status symbols by modern-day consumers of a particular stripe, albeit with an ironic twist, under the insidious guise of counterculture coolness.

These are some of the hallmarks of today’s so-called hipster, the caricatured figure of a subculture much mocked in the media and on the internet, yet who somehow persists in having a widespread impact on popular culture and counterculture as it moves, sometimes unwillingly, into mainstream consciousness…

So if all sorts of retro symbols from the past are being revived, consumed, and regurgitated by a fast-moving hipster culture, it’s a fair question for us language obsessives to ask: is vintage language, perchance, also making a comeback?

In this decidedly unscientific investigation, the answer seems to be a resounding: mayhaps?…

Do the linguistic lambada at “More Hipster than Thou: Is Vintage Language Back in Vogue?

* Proverbial

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As we twist our tongues, we might send improving birthday greetings to Samuel Smiles; he was born on this date in 1812.  A Scottish Chartist writer of many personal improvement books, his “masterpiece,” Self-Help (1859), promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits, even as it attacked materialism and laissez-faire government.  It has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism”, and turned Smiles into a celebrity overnight.

George Bernard Shaw called Smiles “the modern Plutarch”; but, as F. A. Hayek wrote, “It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles…have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the future of the market order that this seems to have become the only defense of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular.”

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Your correspondent is headed, as he hopes readers are, into the warm embrace of family and friends for the Holidays; thus (Roughly) Daily is going into its customary Holiday hiatus.  Regular service will resume just after the New Year.  Many thanks for checking in throughout 2015.  Have the Happiest Holidays!

 

Written by LW

December 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (SDFB) is a digital reconstruction of the early modern social network that scholars and students from all over the world will be able to collaboratively expand, revise, curate, and critique. Historians and literary critics have long studied the way that early modern people associated with each other and participated in various kinds of formal and informal groups. By data-mining existing scholarship that describes relationships between early modern persons, documents, and institutions, we have created a unified, systematized representation of the way people in early modern England were connected…

Follow the connections at Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.

* Confucius

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As we marvel at the interconnectedness of it all, we might recall that it was on this date in The Virginia Company loaded three ships with settlers, who set sail to establish Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.  As this was the UK’s first colony, today can be considered the birthday of the British Empire.

A rendering of the initial settlement/fort at Jamestown, c. 1607

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Written by LW

December 20, 2015 at 1:01 am

“When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”*…

 

Genius follows its own law of gravity. It migrates in ever greater numbers to where it thrives. Hence places like Silicon Valley – and attempts to replicate it elsewhere, like London’s Silicon Roundabout. The phenomenon is older than the microchip, of course…

Watch the centers of creative gravity migrate through Europe, from 1400 to 1950, at “The Geography of Genius.”

* Jonathan Swift (the inspiration for John Kennedy Toole)

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As we put on our sailin’ shoes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1853 that Steinway & Sons sold its first piano in the United States.  The company had been founded in March of that year by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, who’d started making pianos in his native Germany in 1935 (and who didn’t officially change his name to “Steinway” until 1864).  Working in a loft on Varrick Street in Manhattan, he called his first U.S. piano “Number 483” as he’d built 482 pianos before immigrating.  It was sold to a New York family for $500.  Over the next thirty years, Henry and his sons, C. F. Theodore, Charles, Henry Jr., William, and Albert, developed the modern piano; almost half of the company’s 127 patented inventions were developed during this period.

An “Original Style” Steinway piano like #483

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* Jonathan Swift

Written by LW

September 16, 2014 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!

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