(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves”*…


… or at least that’s the idea.  Here, another of our occasional looks at the intellectual history of the cultural moment that we’re in:  how a concern with Commies in California’s universities led to “Cold War philosophy”– the yoking of rational choice theory to the scientific method– and how it embedded the free-market mindset in US society:

Cold War philosophy also influences US society through its ethics. Its main ethical implication is somewhat hidden, because Cold War philosophy inherits from rational choice theory a proclamation of ethical neutrality: a person’s preferences and goals are not subjected to moral evaluation. As far as rational choice theory is concerned, it doesn’t matter if I want to end world hunger, pass the bar, or buy myself a nice private jet; I make my choices the same way. Similarly for Cold War philosophy – but it also has an ethical imperative that concerns not ends but means. However laudable or nefarious my goals might be, I will be better able to achieve them if I have two things: wealth and power. We therefore derive an ‘ethical’ imperative: whatever else you want to do, increase your wealth and power!

Results of this are easily seen in today’s universities. Academic units that enable individuals to become wealthy and powerful (business schools, law schools) or stay that way (medical schools) are extravagantly funded; units that do not (humanities departments) are on tight rations. Also on tight rations nationwide are facilities that help individuals become wealthy and powerful but do not convey competitive advantage on them because they are open to all or most: highways, bridges, dams, airports, and so on.

Seventy years after the Cold War began, and almost 30 after it ended, Cold War philosophy also continues to affect US politics. The Right holds that if reason itself is rooted in market choice, then business skills must transfer smoothly into all other domains, including governance – an explicit principle of the Trump administration. On the Left, meritocracy rules: all three of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees attended law school at either Harvard (as Obama himself did) or Yale (as Hillary Clinton did). The view that choice solves all problems is evident in the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s presentation of the Republican vision for US health care, at his press briefing last March 23: “We’ve lost consumer choice … The idea is to instill choice back into the market.”…

How this happened and what it wrought– the remarkable (but true) tale in its entirety: “America’s hidden philosophy.”

* Richard Feynman


As we question authority, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that Congress authorized “In God We Trust” as the U.S. national motto.

The phrase had appeared occasionally (as had variations on the theme) on coinage since Civil War times; regularly– despite Theodore Roosevelt’s conviction that it was sacrilegious– from 1908.   But it didn’t appear on bills until 1957…



Written by LW

July 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Acedia est tristitia vocem amputans”*…


The Seven Deadly Sins may seem familiar and, with that familiarity, less a matter of life and death and damnation. Sure, greed and envy aren’t great, but who hasn’t overindulged in this or that without grievous consequences? But when the list of Christian cardinal sins was first created, they were a big deal: eight of the biggest threats to a devout life as a monk in the desert. Eight? One among those that isn’t included among the sins today, called acedia, was perhaps the greatest threat of all to those monks.

Acedia comes from Greek, and means “a lack of care.” It sounds a little like today’s sloth, and acedia is indeed considered a precursor to today’s sin of laziness. To Christian monks in the fourth century, however, acedia was more than just laziness or apathy. It was more like dejection that made it difficult to be spiritual, avoiding ascetic practices, boredom that led to falling asleep while reading, and frustration with life in a monastery—but the meaning is nuanced and has changed over time. The evolution of the word’s use shows just how much the concept of cardinal sin has shifted through the centuries…

Don’t worry, be happy at: “Before Sloth Meant Laziness, It Was the Spiritual Sin of Acedia.”

* “Acedia is a sadness that silences the voice”  a saying of Gregory of Nyssa, quoted by Aquinas


As we work on our attitudes, 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 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.



“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”*…


Jeremy England is concerned about words—about what they mean, about the universes they contain. He avoids ones like “consciousness” and “information”; too loaded, he says. Too treacherous. When he’s searching for the right thing to say, his voice breaks a little, scattering across an octave or two before resuming a fluid sonority.

His caution is understandable. The 34-year-old assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the architect of a new theory called “dissipative adaptation,” which has helped to explain how complex, life-like function can self-organize and emerge from simpler things, including inanimate matter. This proposition has earned England a somewhat unwelcome nickname: the next Charles Darwin. But England’s story is just as much about language as it is about biology…

A new theory on the emergence of life’s complexity: “How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we resist the urge to simplify, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.





Written by LW

July 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”*…


Let us say we were interested in describing all phenomena in our universe. What type of mathematics would we need? How many axioms would be needed for mathematical structure to describe all the phenomena? Of course, it is hard to predict, but it is even harder not to speculate. One possible conclusion would be that if we look at the universe in totality and not bracket any subset of phenomena, the mathematics we would need would have no axioms at all. That is, the universe in totality is devoid of structure and needs no axioms to describe it. Total lawlessness! The mathematics are just plain sets without structure. This would finally eliminate all metaphysics when dealing with the laws of nature and mathematical structure. It is only the way we look at the universe that gives us the illusion of structure…

Science predicts only the predictable, ignoring most of our universe.  What if neither Platonism nor the multiverse are the accurate approaches to understanding the reality we inhabit?  “Chaos Makes the Multiverse Unnecessary.”

[image above: source]

* José SaramagoThe Double


As we impose order, we might spare a thought for Philipp Frank; he died on this date in 1966. A physicist, mathematician, and philosopher of science, he was Einstein’s successor as professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague– a job he got on Einstein’s recommendation– until 1938, when he fled the rise of Nazism and relocated to Harvard.  Frank’s theoretical work covered variational calculus, Hamiltonian geometrical optics, Schrödinger wave mechanics, and relativity; his philosophical work strove to reconcile science and philosophy and “bring about the closest rapprochement between” them.



Written by LW

July 22, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life”*…


Portrait of Edmund Burke– who figures formatively in this tale– by the studio of Joshua Reynolds

While the 18th century is commonly perceived as the quintessential age of rationalist modernity, it was also the cradle of a second and strikingly different movement. In fact, at the very moment when rationalist thought seemed to have reached its peak, a comprehensive revolt against the Enlightenment’s fundamental views erupted in European intellectual life. From the second half of the 18th century to the age of the Cold War and today, the confrontation between these two modernities has formed one of the most prominent and enduring features of our world.

The Enlightenment wished to liberate the individual from the constraints of history, from the yoke of traditional unproven beliefs. This was the motivation of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Kant’s Reply to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: three extraordinary pamphlets that proclaimed the liberation of man. It was against the liberation of the individual by reason that this new “Anti-Enlightenment” movement launched its attack, and its campaign was infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than that of the classical, undisguisedly authoritarian enemies of the Enlightenment. This anti-Enlightenment movement constituted not a counterrevolution but a different revolution. It revolted against rationalism, the autonomy of the individual, and all that unites people: their condition as rational beings with natural rights…

The anti-democratic political tradition that opposed Enlightenment thinking advanced the catastrophic campaigns of Nazi Germany and haunts us still: “The Origins of Anti-Intellectualism.”

* Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge‘”*…   – Isaac Asimov


As we opine on opinion, we might send understanding birthday greetings to Herbert Marshall McLuhan; he was born on this date in 1911.  A professor, philosopher, and public intellectual, he was a foundational thinker in media theory, coining the expression “the medium is the message” and the term “global village,” and predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.

McLuhan was a– arguably, the– central figure at the center of the discussion of media in the 1960s and 70s; his views were controversial and his influence began to wane in the 1980s.  But with the advent of the web, there has been a resurgence of interest in his thinking.

“Only puny secrets need protection. Big secrets are protected by public incredulity…”

– Marshall Mcluhan



Written by LW

July 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in”*…


In European societies, knowledge is often pictured as a tree: a single trunk – the core – with branches splaying outwards towards distant peripheries. The imagery of this tree is so deeply embedded in European thought-patterns that every form of institution has been marshalled into a ‘centre-periphery’ pattern. In philosophy, for example, there are certain ‘core’ subjects and other more marginal, peripheral, and implicitly expendable, ones. Likewise, a persistent, and demonstrably false, picture of science has it as consisting of a ‘stem’ of pure science (namely fundamental physics) with secondary domains of special sciences at varying degrees of remove: branches growing from, and dependent upon, the foundational trunk.

Knowledge should indeed be thought of as a tree – just not this kind of tree. Rather than the European fruiter with its single trunk, knowledge should be pictured as a banyan tree, in which a multiplicity of aerial roots sustains a centreless organic system. The tree of knowledge has a plurality of roots, and structures of knowledge are multiply grounded in the earth: the body of knowledge is a single organic whole, no part of which is more or less dispensable than any other…

As Krishna observed in the in the Bhagavad-Gītā, “stands an undying banyan tree.”  Explore it at “The tree of knowledge is not an apple or an oak but a banyan.”

* Isaac Asimov


As we celebrate diversity, we might spare a thought for Douglas Carl Engelbart; he died on this date in 2013.  An engineer and inventor who was a computing and internet pioneer, Doug is best remembered for his seminal work on human-computer interface issues, and for “the Mother of All Demos” in 1968, at which he demonstrated for the first time the computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and the earliest versions of graphical user interfaces… that’s to say, computing as we know it.



Written by LW

July 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art”*…


Bento (Baruch) Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656, when he was still a young man. He would go on to become the most radical and controversial thinker of his time. In his treatise Ethics (written in the 1660s), he rejected the providential God of Judaism and Christianity as a figment of the imagination. God, he claimed, is just Nature, and everything that happens follows with absolute necessity from Nature’s laws. In his Theological-Political Treatise (published anonymously in 1670), Spinoza claims that miracles are impossible, that the major organized religions are nothing but organized superstitions, and that the Bible is just a “corrupt and mutilated” work of human literature. One overwrought critic called it “a book forged in hell […] by the devil himself.”

Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy is a graphic history about Spinoza and the other thinkers of the 17th century who refashioned the way we think about the cosmos, the world around us, and ourselves…

More (and larger) excerpts from Heretics! at the LARB.

* “Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?”- Paul Gaugin


As we emulate the Enlightenment, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 that the short film Pull My Daisy was completed. Co-directed by painter Alfred Leslie, and photographer Robert Frank, it was adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his play, Beat Generation.  It features poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, artists Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, musician David Amram, art dealer Richard Bellamy, actress Delphine Seyrig, dancer Sally Gross, and Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s son.  Kerouac provided improvised narration.

It premiered the following November at the San Francisco International Film Festival; then, in 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress (which choses films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”).


Written by LW

June 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: