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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“The ghost in the machine”*…

 

Pity (detail), by William Blake, c. 1795

How is it that mind and body manage to interact and affect each other if they are such different things? This question was pressed on Descartes in the spring of 1643 by a young woman of twenty-four, Elisabeth von der Pfalz, also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. When others raised such difficulties, Descartes tended to brush them aside. But he listened to the princess…

Anthony Gottlieb tells the remarkable story of the correspondence between René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality: “The Ghost and the Princess.”

* Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, in part a critique of Descartes’ mind-body dualism)

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As we try to get it together, we might that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed into law the Act Against Multiplication– which forbade alchemists to use their knowledge to create precious metals… and effectively, thus, outlawed chemistry in England.  Since the time of Roger Bacon, alchemy had fascinated many in England.  The Act of Multipliers was passed by the Parliament, declaring the use of transmutation to “multiply” gold and silver to be felony, as a result of concern that an alchemist might succeed in his project– and thus bring ruin upon the state by debasing the national currency and/or furnishing boundless wealth to a designing tyrant, who would use it to enslave the country.  The Act was in force until 1689, when Robert Boyle and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by LW

January 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Whatever is my right… is also the right of another”*…

 

After Charlottesville, it is clear once again that one of the most fundamental American tenets—that all human beings are created equal—is nowhere near universally accepted. When white men on the march are nostalgic for a time when blacks and women were subordinate by nature, it rightly stokes our anger.

For the most implacable opponents of equality, differences in abilities or appearance or affiliation count for most. It seems doubtful that a philosophical argument that humans are equal will do the trick on its own. In fact, it has been strikingly hard to win over opponents of the proposition that all people are of equivalent worth in some morally pivotal sense. That doesn’t mean the argument is not worth making. Yet as Jeremy Waldron ends up showing in his new book, it is not simple to establish it…

Equality is a modern idea.  Its detractors have included Plato and Aristotle; indeed, for most Western thinkers, humanity was marked by discriminatory divisions and distinctions.  Samuel Moyn considers Waldron’s new book, One Another’s Equals, and its fascinating– and challenging– project: “What is the Basis for Human Equality?

* Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

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As we join in the pursuit of his project, we might be relived to remember that today is the traditionally-accepted start of the Halcyon Days.  Ovid recounts, in The Metamorphoses, the story of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, his daughter Alcyone, and her husband Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. When Ceyx was drowned at sea, Alcyone threw herself into the waves in a fit of grief– whereupon the gods transformed them both into halcyon birds (kingfishers).  When Alcyone made her nest on the beach, waves threatened to destroy it; so Aeolus restrained his winds and kept them calm during seven days (some believe fourteen) in each year, so she could lay her eggs.  These became known as the “halcyon days,” when storms do not occur.

While in modern usage the phrase has taken on a nostalgic cast (folks pine for the “Halcyon Days of Youth”), we can hope that they spell a safe and calm Holiday season in 2017…

The Kingfisher

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Written by LW

December 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

 

You are on an asteroid careening through the cosmos. Aboard the asteroid with you are nine hundred highly-skilled physicians, who have been working on developing a revolutionary medication that will cure every disease in the known universe. The asteroid’s current trajectory is taking it straight toward the Planet of Orphans, where all intergalactic civilizations have dumped their unwanted offspring, of which there are now 100 trillion, all living, breathing, and mewling. If you detonate the asteroid, all of the doctors will die, along with the hope for curing every disease in the universe. If you do not detonate the asteroid, the doctors will have time to develop the cure and send it hurtling toward the Healing Planet before you crash into and destroy the Planet of Orphans. Thus you face the crucial question: how useful is this hypothetical for illuminating moral truths?

The “Trolley Problem” is a staple of undergraduate moral philosophy. It is a gruesome hypothetical supposedly designed to test our moral intuitions and introduce the differences between Kantian and consequentialist reasoning. For the lucky few who have thus far managed to avoid exposure to the Trolley Problem, here it is: a runaway trolley is hurtling down the track. In the trolley’s path are five workers, who will inevitably be smushed to a gory paste if it continues along its present course. But you, you have the power to change things: you happen to be standing by a switch. If you give the switch a yank, the trolley will veer onto a different track. On this track, there is only one worker. Do you pull the switch and doom the unsuspecting proletarian, or do you refrain from acting and allow five others to die?…

How a staple of moral education “turns us into horrible people, and discourages us from examining the structural factors that determine our choices”: “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily]

* Aristotle

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As we carefully consider the questions that deserve our response, we might spare a thought for German Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; he died on this date in 1831.  While his ideas have been divisive, they have been hugely influential (e.g., here).  Karl Barth described Hegel as a “Protestant Aquinas,” while Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that “all the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis—had their beginnings in Hegel.”

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Written by LW

November 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know”*…

 

A small section of the interactive Philosopher’s Web

When data scientist Grant Louis Oliveira decided he wanted to undertake a self-guided course of study to “more rigorously explore my ideas,” he began with the honest admission, “I find the world of philosophy a bit impenetrable.”

Where some of us might make an outline, a spreadsheet, or a humble reading list, Oliveira created a complex “social network visualization” of “a history of philosophy” to act as his guide.

“What I imagined,” he writes, “is something like a tree arranged down a timeline. More influential philosophers would be bigger nodes, and the size of the lines between the nodes would perhaps be variable by strength of influence.”

The project, called “Philosopher’s Web,” shows us an impressively dense collection of names—hundreds of names—held together by what look like the bendy filaments in a fiber-optic cable. Each blue dot represents a philosopher, the thin gray lines between the dots represent lines of influence…

More on Oliveira’s opus at “‘The Philosopher’s Web,’ an Interactive Data Visualization Shows the Web of Influences Connecting Ancient & Modern Philosophers“; poke around in it here.

See also:

The Entire Discipline of Philosophy Visualized with Mapping Software: See All of the Complex Networks

The History of Philosophy, from 600 B.C.E. to 1935, Visualized in Two Massive, 44-Foot High Diagrams

The History of Philosophy Visualized

* Bertrand Russell

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As we realize that it’s all about the questions, we might send sensuously-written birthday greetings to Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry; he was born on this date in 1871.  An educator, essayist, and philosopher, he is best remembered as a poet– the last of the great French Symbolists.  His best-known work is probably la Jeune Parque.

A member of the Académie Française, Valéry was stripped of his academic positions and distinctions because of his quiet refusal to collaborate with Vichy and the German occupation during World War II.  He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 12 different years.

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Written by LW

October 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I’ve not never heard of that”*…

 

This website [is] devoted to the speech of one of the country’s most interesting but most often misunderstood regions—southern and central Appalachia, which stretches from north Georgia to West Virginia.  Some have romanticized the English spoken there as the language of Shakespeare and admired its authenticity and inventiveness.  Others have scorned or dismissed it as uneducated, bad grammar, or worse.  Too rarely has it been appreciated for what it is—the native speech of millions of Americans that has a distinguished history and that makes Appalachia what it is just as the region’s extraordinary music does.

Appalachian English is an umbrella term referring to the social and geographical varieties found in a large mountain and valley region encompassing all or parts of eight southern states: West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, and northwestern South Carolina.  Historically and structurally it is closely related to Ozark English, and it shares many features with varieties of English spoken in the Deep South.

At this site you’ll find a wealth of information and resources.  There’s enjoyment to be had in exploring, but if you’re looking for a site that’s just for entertainment or one with funny spellings, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Too many of them are around already.  As two natives of East Tennessee who have heard hill speech for a long time and have written about it, we have designed this site to present not only how Aplapachian people talk, but also some of the history and the flavor of that talk.  It focuses especially on the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, but the speech of the Smokies is typical of much of what you’ll hear elsewhere in the region, though not as strongly as a couple of generations back.

At a professional conference some years ago, one of us on our bus tour happened to sit next to a linguist from the University of California (who is now at an Ivy League school).  He asked me what my special interest was, and I said, “Appalachian English.”  He responded, “Oh, Appalachian English is one of my favorite dialects. Does anyone still speak it?”  The question sort of took me aback, but I looked at him for a moment and replied, “Yes, I’d say about twenty million people do.”  He seemed a bit confused, so I explained that plenty of people from the region actually choose to talk the way they do and that their distinctive English is probably here to stay.  Their speech helps define who they are, whether they live in Kentucky or have moved to Detroit to work in a plant.  He looked out the window…

Explore Appalachian English— and be sure to take the vocabulary quiz.

* an exemplary Appalachian English sentence

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As we head for the hills, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Henri Bergson; he was born on this date in 1859.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding reality…. many, but not the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, and Santayana, who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic.

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Written by LW

October 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“All that is solid melts into air”*…

 

The end of ‘The End of History’ arrived together with the end of belief in reality. The Cold War world was a world of warring ideologies; in the twenty-first century, both American capitalism and post-Soviet oligarchy employ the same public relations specialists catering to gangsters with political ambitions. As Peter Pomerantsev described in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, in the Russia of the 2000s, distinguishing between truth and lies became passé. In this world of enlightened, postmodern people, ‘everything is PR’.

Reality television has rendered obsolete the boundary between the fictional and the real. Truth is a constraint that has been overcome; ‘post-truth’ has been declared ‘word of the year.’ In Washington, the White House shamelessly defends its ‘alternative facts.’ At the beginning, American journalists were taken off-guard: they had been trained to confirm individual pieces of information, not to confront a brazen untethering from empirical reality. The New Yorker captured the desperation with a satire about the fact-checker who passed out from exhaustion after the Republican debate. He had to be hospitalized; apparently no one replaced him…

Postmodernism was conceived largely by the Left as a safeguard against totalizing ideologies. Yet today, it has been appropriated on behalf of an encroaching neo-totalitarianism of the Right. Is French literary theory to blame? And can a philosophy of dissent developed in communist eastern Europe offer an antidote?…

(Some of) the ironic roots of the situation that we’re in: “A pre-history of post-truth, East and West.”

* Karl Marx

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As we consult the Wayback Machine, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955, at J & M Studio in New Orleans, that Richard Wayne Penniman– better known as Little Richard– recorded the song (that he co-wrote with Dorothy LaBostrie) that became his first hit: “Tutti Frutti.”

A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!

 

Written by LW

September 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Religion is like a pair of shoes… Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes”*…

 

Procession of the Catholic Holy League on the Place de Grève, Paris, 1590-3 (oil on canvas). Such displays of intolerance became increasingly rare with the advent of the modern European state. [source]

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions…

Ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient…

The first change was the transformation in the scale of European states. In the late Middle Ages, medieval rulers began to invest in building administrative capacity and to raise taxes more regularly. The most dramatic developments, however, occurred after 1500, as a result of developments in military technology that historians label the Military Revolution. This continent-wide arms race, brought on by the development of gunpowder, forced rulers to invest in greater fiscal and administrative capacity.

To pay for larger armies, new taxes had to be raised and a permanent system of government borrowing established. Moreover, there was a shift away from ad hoc, feudal and decentralised tax systems, and a move towards standardisation and centralisation. Rather than relying upon tax farmers, the church or merchant companies to raise taxes on their behalf, rulers invested in vast bureaucracies to do it directly. It was the only way they could pay for their ever-growing armies…

Economic changes complemented the rise of religious freedom, most notably the onset of modern economic growth. As in the Jewish example, greater freedom allowed religious minorities to flourish. French Protestants expelled by Louis XIV brought with them advanced skills and industrial expertise to England, the Netherlands and Prussia. In Industrial Revolution Britain, Quakers and other religious dissenters were overrepresented among businessmen, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The indirect consequences of moving from identity rules to general rules were even more important. Identity rules had limited the scope of trade and the division of labour. As these identity rules were removed – as guilds lost authority, and cities and lords lost their ability to charge internal tariffs – trade and commerce expanded.

The growth of trade, in turn, reinforced the trend towards liberalism. Trade, as Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu argued, encouraged individuals to see the world through the positive-sum lens of mutual beneficial interaction rather than through the zero-sum lens of conflict. Religious freedom began to seem less like a recipe for social disorder and civil war, and more like a win-win proposition…

The history of how religious freedom came to be is a reminder that commitment to liberal values alone is not enough for liberalism to flourish. It requires a suitable political and economic foundation. As the experience of 1930s Germany suggests, religious persecution can quickly re-emerge. We cannot rely on liberal ideas alone to be effective. If we value religious freedom, and other achievements of liberalism, we must look to the vitality of their institutional foundations.

This fascinating essay in its entirety at: “Ideas were not enough.” (Note earlier examples of of religious freedom as both a tool and a result of statecraft, e.g., Genghis Khan’s building of the Mongol Empire.)

* George Carlin

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As we celebrate tolerance, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Tommaso Campanella; he was born on this date in 1568.  A Dominican friar, philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet, he was an early empiricist and a vocal critic of the Aristotelian orthodoxy (indeed, he wrote and published a defense of Galileo during the great astronomer’s ecclesiastical trial).  For his heterodoxy, he was denounced to the Inquisition and imprisoned.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

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