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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“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

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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

“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution”*…

 

What can a 19th-century rebellion against automation can teach us about the coming war– the robots are coming!– in the job market?

Clive Thompson, an author and journalist at the New York Times Magazine and Wired, revisited Luddite’s history in an article for The Smithsonian to see what it could teach us. As machine learning and robotics consume manufacturing and white-collar jobs alike, the 200-year-old rebellion’s implications for automation are more relevant than ever, says Thompson:

“The lesson you get from the end of the Luddites is: Do the people that are profiting off automation today want to participate in distributing their profits more widely around the population, or are they going to fight just as hard as they did back then?”

That economic and political question is hanging over western democracies coping with a wave of populism seemingly tracking a widening gap between stagnant wages and ballooning wealth at the top. While automation eventually tends to create new jobs even after it destroys old ones, that’s little consolation for millions of workers whose skills and experience are obsolete…

More on this all-too-relevant history in a interview with Thompson: “Luddites have been getting a bad rap for 200 years. But, turns out, they were right.”

And do read Thompson’s original article: “When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites.”

Then, check out “Robots don’t have to take over jobs in order to be a problem for workers.”

* Stephen Hawking

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As we heft our hammers, we might we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to José Ortega y Gasset; he was born on this date in 1883.  A philosopher and essayist, he is perhaps best known for The Revolt of the Masses, which characterized 20th-century society as dominated by masses of mediocre & indistinguishable individuals– a conception tha converged with other “mass society” theorists like Karl Mannheim, Erich Fromm, and Hannah Arendt.  (Lest his view be seen as too grim and judgmental, he is memorialized in what has become known as “the Ortega hypothesis,” based on a quote in The Revolt of the Masses, that states that average or mediocre scientists contribute substantially to the advancement of science.)

In exile during the Spanish Revolution, he refused to support either side or to hold academic office under Franco.

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Written by LW

May 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”*…

 

As the Getty Museum reports

Andy Warhol enjoyed dressing for parties in drag, sometimes in dresses of his own design. He admired “the boys who spend their lives trying to be complete girls,” so in 1981 he and a photographic assistant, Christopher Makos, agreed to collaborate on a session portraying Warhol in drag. In many ways, they modeled the series on Man Ray’s 1920s work with the French artist Marcel Duchamp, in which the two artists created a female alter ego name Rrose Sélavy for Duchamp.

Warhol and Makos made a number of pictures, both black-and-white prints and color Polaroids, of their first attempt. For the second round of pictures, they hired a theater makeup person. This stage professional better understood the challenge of transforming a man’s face into that of a woman. After the makeup, Warhol tried on curled, straight, long, short, dark, and blonde wigs…

More on Warhols collection of polaroid self-portraits– and more selections from it– at “Oh, You Pretty Thing! Polaroid Portraits of Andy Warhol in Drag.”

* Andy Warhol

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As we add “Jean Genie” to our playlists, we might note the irony that today is the birthday of both Soren Kierkegaard (1813), the Danish philosopher who was a fierce critic of Hegelianism, and of Karl Marx (1818), the Prussian philosopher (and “father of Communism”), who was one of Hegel’s strongest– and most concretely active– supporters. Thesis… anithesis…

Kierkegaard and Marx

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Written by LW

May 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”*…

 

It was the summer of 1941 and a British astrologer named Louis de Wohl was becoming wildly popular among Americans with his increasingly accurate predictions in his stargazer column, “Stars Foretell.” As de Wohl’s reader numbers escalated to meteoric heights, real world consequences ensued. In August 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted its long-standing ban against astrologers and aired an exclusive interview with the man being heralded as “The Modern Nostradamus.” Just a few weeks later, for the first time in U.S. history, an astrologer was filmed for a U.S. newsreel, the TV news of the day. “Pathé News released the newsreels’ seminal plunge into prophecy with a nation-wide audience of 39,000,000 sitting as judge jury and witness,” declared a press release issued by de Wohl’s manager. Except it was a facade; it was all fake news.

De Wohl’s newspaper column was part of an elaborate black propaganda campaign to organize American public opinion in favor of Britain, and to ultimately get the U.S. to enter the war. In reality, de Wohl worked for British Intelligence (MI5). His so-called manager was none other than the legendary spymaster Sir William Stephenson, a man whom Winston Churchill famously called Intrepid. The average American had no idea…

The story of a man, born in Berlin, who went on, after the war, to become a fabulously-successful Catholic novelist (16 of his books were made into films): “Louis de Wohl: The Astrologer Who Helped Foil Hitler.”

[Image above, from here]

* Winston Churchill, who practiced what he preached

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As we look to the stars, we might send a cheery greeting to David Hume, the Scottish Positivist philosopher; he was born on this date in 1711.  Bishop Berkeley may have wondered if, when a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, it makes a sound.  For Hume, the question was whether the tree was beautiful (“Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them. “)

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But then, it’s also the birthday of the (somewhat more “practical”) Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius, born on this date in 121.  “Why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements?”  Why indeed?

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Written by LW

April 26, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The first problem of living is to minimize friction with the crowds that surround you on all sides”*…

 

China, the country with the largest population in the world, has just found another 14 million people, equal to about one percent of its population of 1.37 billion

Note that 14 million people is a group larger than the populations of 124 of the world’s 197 countries– then read the full story at: “China keeps finding millions of people who never officially existed.)

* Isaac Asimov

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As we emphasize enrollment, 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, 2017 at 1:01 am

“As a rule of thumb I say, if Socrates, Jesus and Tolstoy wouldn’t do it, don’t”*…

 

This is the age of big data. We are constantly in quest of more numbers and more complex algorithms to crunch them. We seem to believe that this will solve most of the world’s problems – in economy, society and even our personal lives. As a corollary, rules of thumb and gut instincts are getting a short shrift. We think they often violate the principles of logic and lead us into making bad decisions. We might have had to depend on heuristics and our gut feelings in agricultural and manufacturing era. But this is digital age. We can optimise everything.

Can we?

Gerd Gigerenzer [above], a sixty nine year German psychologist who has been studying how humans make decisions for most of his career, doesn’t think so. In the real world, rules of thumb not only work well, they also perform better than complex models, he says. We shouldn’t turn our noses up on heuristics, we should embrace them…

Why simple rules of thumb often outperform complex models: “Gigerenzer’s simple rules.”

* John Gardner

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As we extrapolate, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet; he died on this date in 1794.  A philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist, he was a rationalist (and biographer of Voltaire) who advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.  He was a formulator of the Enlightenment ideas of progress and of the indefinite perfectibility of humankind.  And with his wife (and intellectual partner) Sophie de Grouchy, he hosted a salon that attracted foreign dignitaries and intellectuals including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Cesare Beccaria.  But he may be best remembered for the Condorcet method of voting, in which the tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election.

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“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”*…

 

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:

But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

– Richard Wilbur

Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo.’

It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself…

The closer you look, the more the materialist explanation of consciousness (and physics) appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground: “Minding matter.”

Pair with the two parts of Tim Park‘s conversation with Riccardo Manzotti: “Am I the Apple?” and  “The Mind in the Whirlwind.”

For dessert, “Atom, Archetype, and the Invention of Synchronicity: How Iconic Psychiatrist Carl Jung and Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli Bridged Mind and Matter.”

* Albert Einstein, riffing on his friend Kurt Gödel

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As we think about thinking, we might spare a thought for Frederick Winslow Taylor; he died on this date in 1915.  An engineer and inventor (42 patents), he’s best remembered as the father of “Scientific Management,” the discipline rooted in efficiency studies and standardization.  Quoth Peter Drucker:

Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of sixty years.

Taylor’s work encouraged many followers (including Frank “Cheaper by the Dozen” Gilbreth) and effectively spawned the field of management consulting.  But Taylor practiced what he preached, and found time to become a champion tennis player as well:  he won the first doubles tournament (1881) in U.S. National Championships, the precursor of the U.S. Open (with partner Clarence Clark).

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