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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”*…

 

A New Orleans levee, lit from above [source]

400,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals discovered fire. This ignited a relationship between people and photons that changed the course of mankind—and continues to evolve to this day…

* Martin Luther King, Jr.

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As we remove our sunglasses, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum

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Written by LW

June 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort”*…

 

From campground to crab shack to suburban backyard, the picnic table is so ubiquitous that it is nearly invisible as a designed object. Yet this ingenious form — a structurally bolted frame that unites bench seats and table into a sturdy package — has remained largely unchanged since the 1930s. Having transcended the picnic, it is now the ideal setting for any outdoor event that compels us to face one another squarely across a shared surface…

These qualities of familiarity and abundance have made the picnic table an American icon. On the website of The Home Depot, buyers can choose from among 102 models, priced between $109 and $2,260. That seems an impossible variety, and we should be grateful that we typically don’t make the purchasing decisions. For most of the past hundred years, we have occupied picnic tables chosen by others, by the operators of car washes and rest stops and fairgrounds, and it is never uncomfortable…

Dig in at: “An Illustrated History of the Picnic Table.”

* W. Somerset Maugham

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As we parse the pastoral prandium, we might spare a utilitarian thought for Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer died on this date in 1832.  Bentham is considered a founder of modern Utilitarianism (via his own work, and that of students including James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill); he actively advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

Bentham was involved in the founding of University College (then, the University of London), the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief.  On his death, he was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture– as he specified in his will.  Afterward– again, as Bentham’s will specified– the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.  Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, preserved to resemble its appearance in life.  But experimental efforts at mummification, though technically successful, left the head looking alarmingly macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull.  So the Auto-icon was given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College.  The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, so is now locked away.

 see a virtual, 360-degree rotatable version here

Written by LW

June 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I suffer from everyday life”*…

 

Philosopher, essayist, and poet Fred Moten

“I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime,” [Moten] said. “And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.”

“It’s liminal also,” I offered.

“It’s liminal, and it connects to the body in a certain way.”

“You have to shake it up,” I said. “You have to put the energy into it to get it into that state.”

“Anyway,” Moten said, “mostly I just don’t fucking like it.”…

The New Yorker‘s David Wallace on “Fred Moten’s radical critique of the present.”

* Italo Calvino

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As we contemplate the quotidian, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924 that the Marx Brother’s took Broadway by storm.  Already vaudeville stars, they’d wrangled a spot on the Great White Way, a last-minute opening for which they threw together a review based nominally on an unsuccessful musical comedy by Will and Tom Johnstone, originally written for British actress Kitty Gordon as Love For Sale.  The Marx Brothers substituted in some of their most trustworthy material and called it I’ll Say She Is.

In one of show business’ great strokes of luck, the opening night of a major dramatic play, slated for this same date, was canceled, leading all of New York’s leading critics instead to the premiere of the relatively-unknown Marx Brothers’ show.  Their extraordinary banter and slapstick astounded the critics, and put the Brothers on the road to Broadway, then Hollywood fame.

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Written by LW

May 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”*…

 

America, they say, is a melting pot. This map, put together by Redditor delugetheory, ​lets us see where the melting begins and ends. Turns out it’s a melting pot of white Catholics and Protestants, mostly.

The map gives us a lot of insight into concentrations of religious groups around the country. The mainline Protestant population is mostly contained in the upper Midwest, while evangelical Protestants spread into the Pacific Northwest and the South. The Mormon states are pretty predictable, but the split between Mormonism and Catholicism in the Native American population in Arizona is an interesting quirk…

For more background– and a larger version of the map– visit “The Dominant Ethnic And Religious Groups In The United States, Mapped By County.”

* John Milton, Paradise Lost

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As we say our prayers, we might send self-abnegating birthday greetings to Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus); he was born on this date in 121. Roman emperor from 161 to 180, he was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.

He is perhaps as well remembered as a practitioner of Stoicism.  His untitled writing, commonly known as the Meditations, is a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy and is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of philosophy.

A detail from the Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Musei Capitolini in Rome

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Written by LW

April 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Fear cuts deeper than swords”*…

 

GtIzEok

 

The reality distortion field at work:  Cause of Death – Reality vs. Google vs. Media

* George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

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As we get a grip, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Immanuel Kant; he was born on this date in 1724.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals

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Written by LW

April 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The heart of science is measurement”*…

 

In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot (future Chairman of the American National Standards Institute) repeatedly laid down on the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that some of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers could measure the entire length of the bridge in relation to his height. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, the bridge was found to be 364.4 “Smoots” long (plus or minus an εar). The prank quickly became the stuff of legend (to this day, graffiti on the bridge still divides it up into Smoot-based sections) until finally, in 2011, the word smoot was added to the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”…

More exceedingly-specific units of measurement, and the stories behind them: “10 Ridiculously Precise Units of Measurement.”

* Erik Brynjolfsson

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As we quantify quantity, we might spare a thought for Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he died on this date in 1990.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

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“Secret codes resound. Doubts and intentions come to light.”*…

 

Music cryptography is a method in which the musical notes A through G are used to spell out words, abbreviations, or codes…

Early 17th- and 18th-century mathematicians and cryptologists such as John Wilkins and Philip Thicknesse argued that music cryptography was one of the most inscrutable ways of transporting secret messages. They claimed that music was perfect camouflage, because spies would never suspect music. When played, the music would sound so much like any other composition that musically trained listeners would be easily fooled, too. Thicknesse wrote in his 1772 book A Treatise on the Art of Deciphering, and of Writing in Cypher: With an Harmonic Alphabet, “for who that examined a suspected messenger would think an old song, without words, in which perhaps the messenger’s tobacco or snuff might be put, contained a secret he was to convey?” Written letters don’t have this advantage…

This music cipher was supposedly proposed by Michael Haydn (brother of Franz Josef Haydn). It appears in an appendix to a biography about Haydn by Werigand Rettensteiner published in 1808.

More musical mischief at “With Musical Cryptography, Composers Can Hide Messages in Their Melodies.”

* Wislawa Szymborska

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As we bury the lede, we might tip the plumed birthday bonnet to Rene Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was.  He was born on this date in 1596.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649

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Written by LW

March 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

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