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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose”*…

 

existentialism

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, June 1977

 

Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spent a lot of time partying: talking, drinking, dancing, laughing, loving and listening to music with friends, and this was an aspect of their philosophical stance on life. They weren’t just philosophers who happened to enjoy parties, either – the parties were an expression of their philosophy of seizing life, and for them there were authentic and inauthentic ways to do this…

Skye C. Cleary celebrates “Being and drunkenness: how to party like an existentialist.”

* Jean-Paul Sartre

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As we raise a glass, we might send provocative birthday greetings to Jean Baudrillard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, he is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Roland, Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist philosophical school… which offered a response to nihilism complementary to that offered by the existentialists.

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“We must believe in free will — we have no choice”*…

 

CHidi

 

In March, a group of neuroscientists and philosophers announced that they’ve received $7 million to study the nature of free will and whether humans have it. Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University, is leading the project. “As a scientist, I don’t know what it entails to have free will,” he said in an interview with Science. That’s a philosophical puzzle. But once Maoz’s philosopher colleagues agree on a definition, he can get to work to see if it occurs in humans. “This is an empirical question. It may be that I don’t have the technology to measure it, but that is at least an empirical question that I could get at.”…

Or can he?  An update on neuroscientific efforts to answer a philosophical question– and an appreciation of your correspondent’s favorite television series, The Good Place: “Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?

* Isaac Bashevis Singer

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As we muse on motivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that George Herriman‘s signature characters, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, made their first appearance in the bottom of the frames in Herriman’s The Dingbat Family daily comic strip.  They got their own strip three years later, scored a Sunday panel in 1916– and delighted readers with the surreal philosophical questions they raised until 1944.

krazy-kat-first-daily1058_page2_large-2 source

 

 

Written by LW

July 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“X marks the spot”*…

 

xerxes

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.”

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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).

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“To sleep, perchance to dream”*…

 

sleep

 

On a typical workday morning, if you’re like most people, you don’t wake up naturally. Instead, the ring of an alarm clock probably jerks you out of sleep. Depending on when you went to bed, what day of the week it is, and how deeply you were sleeping, you may not understand where you are, or why there’s an infernal chiming sound. Then you throw out your arm and hit the snooze button, silencing the noise for at least a few moments. Just another couple of minutes, you think. Then maybe a few minutes more.

It may seem like you’re giving yourself a few extra minutes to collect your thoughts. But what you’re actually doing is making the wake-up process more difficult and drawn out…

Journalist (and professional poker player) Maria Konnikova on why “Snoozers are, in fact, losers.”

* Shakespeare, Hamlet

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As we ruminate on rest, we might spare a thought for a man who seems barely to have slept at all, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

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Written by LW

May 30, 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”*…

 

philo_sci

 

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

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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.

nobel_will_p1

The first page of Nobel’s will [source]

 

“In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity”*…

 

Hay

David Ramsay Hay’s mapping of color onto musical notes, a diagram from his The Laws of Harmonious Colouring (1838)

 

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” So wrote the Victorian art critic Walter Pater in 1888. Earlier in the century, Scottish artist David Ramsay Hay composed a series of fifteen books published between 1828 and 1856 that attempted to develop a theory of visual beauty from the basic elements of music theory. Anticipating Pater but also fin-de-siècle attempts to unite the arts via spiritual or synesthetic affinities, Hay’s writings mapped colors, shapes, and angles onto familiar musical constructs such as pitches, scales, and chords. While these ideas might appear highly eccentric today, an understanding of them offers a glimpse of the remarkable importance of music to the Victorian Zeitgeist…

Hay’s approach to visual aesthetics was equally applicable to architecture, color theory, the ornamental arts, and the human face and figure. It can be understood as a psychological account of beauty, as opposed to other contemporary theories that anchored beauty in notions of the picturesque, the mimetic, or the sublime. Though analogies between music and the fine arts certainly do not originate with Hay, his application of music theory to an extensive array of visual experiences including color, shapes, figures, and architecture broke new ground. Rather than locating musical properties in the objects themselves, as earlier thinkers ranging from Plato to Newton had done, Hay worked in the post-Kantian tradition, regarding these features as immanent to our own minds, where they create our experience of beauty by determining the very structure of our perceptions…

Throughout his writings, Hay consistently links the claim that a single fundamental law of nature determines aesthetic perception to the work of the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras…

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyze such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies: “Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics.”

* Baruch de Spinoza

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As we excavate the essential, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Mary Cassatt; she was born on this date in 1844.  An American printmaker and painter, she moved to Paris as an adult, where she developed a friendship with Edgar Degas and became, as  Gustave Geffroy wrote in 1894, one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism (with Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot).

Self-portrait, c. 1878

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Written by LW

May 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It’s not an effective protest if it’s not pissing people off”*…

 

extinctionrevolution

 

In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.

In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

Chenoweth’s influence can be seen in the recent Extinction Rebellion protests, whose founders say they have been directly inspired by her findings

… despite being twice as successful as the violent conflicts, peaceful resistance still failed 47% of the time. As Chenoweth and Stephan pointed out in their book, that’s sometimes because they never really gained enough support or momentum to “erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of repression”. But some relatively large nonviolent protests also failed, such as the protests against the communist party in East Germany in the 1950s, which attracted 400,000 members (around 2% of the population) at their peak, but still failed to bring about change.

In Chenoweth’s data set, it was only once the nonviolent protests had achieved that 3.5% threshold of active engagement that success seemed to be guaranteed – and raising even that level of support is no mean feat. In the UK it would amount to 2.3 million people actively engaging in a movement (roughly twice the size of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city); in the US, it would involve 11 million citizens – more than the total population of New York City.

The fact remains, however, that nonviolent campaigns are the only reliable way of maintaining that kind of engagement…

Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change: “The ‘3.5% Rule’: How a small minority can change the world.”

* John Scalzi, Lock In

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As we take it to the streets, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to John Stuart Mill; he was born on this date in 1806.  A philosopher, political economist, civil servant, and reformer, he was a founder of what we now call “Classical Liberalism” and a major contributor to the development of Utilitarianism.  Mill reputedly learned Greek at the age of three, Latin and arithmetic at eight, and logic at twelve. He studied with Jeremy Bentham, and followed Bentham’s Utilitarian lead, though Mill both extended and deviated from his mentor’s thinking.  His conception of liberty was– and remains– an oft-cited justification of individual freedom in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

220px-John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870 source

 

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