(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘John Locke

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler”*…

A New Chart of History. English: A color version of Joseph Priestly’s A New Chart of History. To Benjamin Franklin LLD. FRS. This Chart In Testimony of Esteem & Friendship. Inscribed By his most obliged Humble Serv. Joseph Priestley. . 1769.

Timelines are now a commonplace. But as Emily Thomas explains, Joseph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” revolutionized how we view history…

… Priestley (1733-1804) is best known for his scientific work, especially the co-discovery of oxygen. Yet he was also a teacher and a philosopher. As a teacher, Priestley sought to better communicate history to his students. He was fascinated by chronologies, texts ordering events. Since ancient Greece and Rome, chronologers used ‘time tables’ or grids to depict the order of events in time. An obvious problem with these chronologies, though, is that only so many events can fit on each page.

The mid-18th century saw many experiments in representing history, including Thomas Jefferys’ 1753 A Chart of Universal History. Jefferys was a mapmaker and his chart depicts empires almost as though they are countries on a map, allowing you to scan them all at once. Impressed, Priestley determined to create a chart of his own that readers could scan ‘at one view’. He made several innovations but one proved key: lines, inspired by his philosophy of time.

For this, Priestley drew on a seemingly unconnected topic: John Locke’s 1690 account of abstract ideas. For Locke, abstract ideas include ‘redness’, ‘triangle’, or ‘animal’. They are general ideas, produced when our minds consider particular things. Take a pint of milk, a stick of chalk and a lump of snow. I can consider these things while leaving out their particular features, ‘abstracting’ what is common to them: their whiteness. Many philosophers accepted some version of Locke’s account of abstraction, but puzzled over how to mentally visualise them. Locke writes that our abstract idea of a triangle ‘must be neither Oblique, nor Rectangle, neither Equilateral, Equicrural, nor Scalenon; but all and none of these at once’. Clearly we cannot picture such a thing. Priestley makes an alternative suggestion: represent abstract ideas using a variable particular. A child, he writes, has an idea of ‘what a triangle in general is’, even though all the ideas of triangles he ‘contemplates’ are ‘particular’. In other words, our picture of the abstract idea of a triangle can change: from equilateral to, say, scalene. In the same essay, Priestley argued that time is an abstract idea. And this view feeds into his timeline…

How Joesph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” used the ideas of John Locke to revolutionize our undertstanding of history: “The Invention of Time,” from @emilytwrites in @HistoryToday.

Pair with “Putting Time in Perspective,” from @waitbutwhy.

Henry Glassie


As we ponder the past, we might send evocative birthday greetings to Jules Michelet; he was born on this date in 1798. Considered one of the founders of modern historiography, he is best known for his multivolume work Histoire de France (History of France).

Influenced by Giambattista Vico, Michelet emphasized on the role of people and their customs in shaping history, a major departure from the then-current emphasis on political and military leaders.  He coined the term “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth” in French) as a period in Europe’s cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. (The term “rebirth” and its association with the Renaissance can be traced to a work published in 1550 by the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the term to describe the advent of a new manner of painting that began with the work of Giotto, as the “rebirth (rinascita) of the arts.”)


“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman


As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.


“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!”*…

Electricity grids, the internet, and interstate highways are enormous in scale, yet we take them for granted

In 1603, a Jesuit priest invented a machine for lifting the entire planet with only ropes and gears.

Christoph Grienberger oversaw all mathematical works written by Jesuit authors, a role akin to an editor at a modern scientific journal. He was modest and productive, and could not resist solving problems. He reasoned that since a 1:10 gear could allow one person to lift 10 times as much as one unassisted, if one had 24 gears linked to a treadmill then one could lift the Earth… very slowly.

Like any modern academic who prizes theory above practice, he left out the pesky details: “I will not weave those ropes, or prescribe the material for the wheels or the place from which the machine shall be suspended: as these are other matters I leave them for others to find.”

You can see what Grienberger’s theoretical device looked like here.

For as long as we have had mathematics, forward-thinking scholars like Grienberger have tried to imagine the far limits of engineering, even if the technology of the time was lacking. Over the centuries, they have dreamt of machines to lift the world, transform the surface of the Earth, or even reorganise the Universe. Such “megascale engineering”  – sometimes called macro-engineering – deals with ambitious projects that would reshape the planet or construct objects the size of worlds. What can these megascale dreams of the future tell us about human ingenuity and imagination?

What are the biggest, boldest things that humanity could engineer? From planet lifters to space cannons, Anders Sandberg (@anderssandberg) explores some of history’s most ambitious visions – and why they’re not as ‘impossible’ as they seem: “The ‘megascale’ structures that humans could one day build.”

* Jules Verne (imagineer of many megascale projects)


As we think big, we might send very carefully measured birthday greetings to (the other noteworthy) John Locke; he was born on this date in 1792. A geologist, surveyor, and scientist, he invented tools for surveyors, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks. The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, in Washington, in 1848. It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second. When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by the pressing a telegraph key. Congress awarded him $10,000 for his inventions in 1849.


“One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical”*…



The Building of the Argo, by Antoon Derkinderen, c. 1901. Rijksmuseum.


The thought problem known as the ship of Theseus first appears in Plutarch’s Lives, a series of biographies written in the first century. In one vignette, Theseus, founder-hero of Athens, returns victorious from Crete on a ship that the Athenians went on to preserve.

They took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Of course, the conundrum of how things change and stay the same has been with us a lot longer than Plutarch. Plato, and even pre-Socratics like Heraclitus, dealt in similar questions. “You can’t step in the same river twice,” a sentiment found on inspirational Instagram accounts, is often attributed to Heraclitus. His actual words—“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow”—might not be the best Instagram fodder but, figuratively at least, provided the waters that the ship of Theseus later sailed.

Two thousand years later the ship is still bobbing along, though some of its parts have been replaced. Now known colloquially as Theseus’ paradox, in the U.S. the idea sometimes appears as “Washington’s ax.” While not as ancient as the six-thousand-year-old stone ax discovered last year at George Washington’s estate, the age-old question remains: If Washington’s ax were to have its handle and blade replaced, would it still be the same ax? The same has been asked of a motley assortment of items around the world. In Hungary, for example, there is a similar fable involving the statesman Kossuth Lajos’ knife, while in France it’s called Jeannot’s knife.

This knife, that knife, Washington’s ax—there’s even a “Lincoln’s ax.” We don’t know where these stories originated. They likely arose spontaneously and had nothing to do with the ancient Greeks and their philosophical conundrums. The only thing uniting these bits of folklore is that the same question was asked: Does a thing remain the same after all its parts are replaced? In the millennia since the ship of Theseus set sail, some notions that bear its name have less in common with the original than do the fables of random axes and knives, while other frames for this same question threaten to replace the original entirely.

One such version of this idea is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, proffering his sock as an example. An exhibit called Locke’s Socks at Pace University’s now-defunct Museum of Philosophy serves to demonstrate. On one wall, six socks were hung: the first a cotton sports sock, the last made only of patches. A museum guide, according to a New York Times write-up, asked a room full of schoolchildren, “Assume the six socks represent a person’s sock over time. Can we say that a sock which is finally all patches, with none of the original material, is the same sock?”

The question could be asked of Theseus’ paradox itself. Can it be said that a paradox about a ship remains the same if the ship is replaced with a knife or a sock? Have we lost anything from Theseus’ paradox if instead we start calling it “the Locke’s Sock paradox”?…

Is a paradox still the same after its parts have been replaced?  A consideration: “Restoring the Ship of Theseus.”

* Soren Kierkegaard


As we contemplate change, we might spare a reasoned thought for the Enlightenment giant (and sock darner) John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704.  An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge.  Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract.  Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

220px-John_Locke source



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god”*…



A practice exam in the navigation workbook of C. J. Boombaar (1727–32)


In 1673, in a North Sea skirmish that killed nearly 150 men, the French privateer Jean-François Doublet took a bullet that tossed him from the forecastle and broke his arm in two places. How did the precocious young second lieutenant choose to spend his convalescence? Doublet repaired to the French port city of Dieppe, where he signed up for three months of navigation lessons…

During the 16th to 18th centuries, Europeans embarked on thousands of long-distance sea voyages around the world. These expeditions in the name of trade and colonisation had irreversible, often deadly, impacts on peoples around the globe. Heedless of those consequences, Europeans focused primarily on devising new techniques to make their voyages safer and faster. They could no longer sail along the coasts, taking their directional cues from prominent landmarks (as had been common in the preceding centuries). Nor did they have sophisticated knowledge of waves and currents, as did their counterparts in the Pacific. They had no choice but to figure out new methods of navigating across the open water. Instead of memorising the shoreline, they looked to the heavens, calculating time and position from the sun and the stars.

Celestial navigation was certainly feasible, but it required real technical skills as well as fairly advanced mathematics. Sailors needed to calculate the angle of a star’s elevation using a cross-staff or quadrant. They needed to track the direction of their ship’s course relative to magnetic north. Trigonometry and logarithms offered the best way to make these essential measurements: for these, a sailor needed to be adept at using dense numerical tables. All of a sudden, a navigator’s main skill wasn’t his memory – it was his mathematical ability.

To help the average sailor with these technical computations, maritime administrators and entrepreneurs opened schools in capital cities and port towns across Europe. Some were less formal arrangements, where small groups of men gathered in the teacher’s home, paying for a series of classes over the course of a winter when they were on shore…

How did the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas? By going to school and doing maths problems: “When pirates studied Euclid.”

* “With the sextant he made obeisance to the sun-god, he consulted ancient tomes and tables of magic characters, muttered prayers in a strange tongue that sounded like Indexerrorparallaxrefraction, made cabalistic signs on paper, added and carried one, and then, on a piece of holy script called the Grail – I mean, the Chart – he placed his finger on a certain space conspicuous for its blankness and said, ‘Here we are.’ When we looked at the blank space and asked, “And where is that?” he answered in the cipher-code of the higher priesthood, “31 -15 – 47 north, 133 – 5 – 30 west.” And we said, ‘Oh,’ and felt mighty small.”                           – Jack London, The Cruise of the Snark


As we find our way, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Locke; he died on this date in 1856.  A namesake of the famous philosopher, Locke trained as a doctor, but turned to geology– and to the invention of scientific, surveying, and navigational instruments, including a surveyor’s compass, a collimating level (Locke’s Hand Level), and a gravity escapement for regulator clocks.  The electro-chronograph he constructed (1844-48) for the United States Coast Survey was installed in the Naval Observatory, Washington, in 1848.  It improved determination of longitudes, as it was able to make a printed record on a time scale of an event to within one one-hundredth of a second.  When connected via the nation’s telegraph system, astronomers could record the time of events they observed from elsewhere in the country, by pressing a telegraph key.

Locke,_John source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: