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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“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.

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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

 

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”*…

 

Jan_Havicksz._Steen_-_Het_vrolijke_huisgezin_-_Google_Art_Project

Jan Steen, “The Merry Family,” 1668

 

The governing elites of ancient and medieval Europe were not greatly hospitable to humor. From the earliest times, laughter seems to have been a class affair, with a firm distinction enforced between civilized amusement and vulgar cackling. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of well-bred and low-bred types in the Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns an exalted place to wit, ranking it alongside friendship and truthfulness as one of the three social virtues, but the style of wit in question demands refinement and education, as does the deployment of irony. Plato’s Republic sets its face sternly against holding citizens up to ridicule and is content to abandon comedy largely to slaves and aliens. Mockery can be socially disruptive, and abuse dangerously divisive. The cultivation of laughter among the Guardian class is sternly discouraged, along with images of laughing gods or heroes. St. Paul forbids jesting, or what he terms eutrapelia, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely, however, that Paul has scurrilous buffoonery in mind, rather than the vein of urbane wit of which Aristotle would have approved…

The churlish suspicion of humor sprang from more than a fear of frivolity. More fundamentally, it reflected a terror of the prospect of a loss of control, not least on a collective scale. It is this that in Plato’s view can be the upshot of excessive laughter, a natural bodily function on a level with such equally distasteful discharges as vomiting and excreting. Cicero lays out elaborate rules for jesting and is wary of any spontaneous outburst of the stuff. The plebeian body is perpetually in danger of falling apart, in contrast to the disciplined, suavely groomed, efficiently regulated body of the hygienic patrician. There is also a dangerously democratic quality to laughter, since unlike playing the tuba or performing brain surgery, anybody can do it. One requires no specialized expertise, privileged bloodline, or scrupulously nurtured skill.

Comedy poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its anarchic bent, but because it makes light of such momentous matters as suffering and death, hence diminishing the force of some of the judicial sanctions that governing classes tend to keep up their sleeve. It can foster a devil-may-care insouciance that loosens the grip of authority. Even Erasmus, author of the celebrated In Praise of Folly, also penned a treatise on the education of schoolchildren that warns of the perils of laughter. The work admonishes pupils to press their buttocks together when farting to avoid excessive noise, or to mask the unseemly sound with a well-timed cough…

Whose laughter? Which comedy?  The formidable Terry Eagleton unpacks “The Politics of Humor.”

* Peter Ustinov

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As we LOL, we might recall that it was on this date in 1717 that Voltaire (François Marie Arouet), the “Father of the Age of Reason.” was imprisoned for the first time in the Bastille for writing “subversive literature”– satire.  He would subsequently be imprisoned again, and forced in exile.

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Written by LW

May 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliche before it has even been understood”*…

 

iceage

 

Once upon a time in Europe, the winters got very very cold and the summers got unbearably hot. “The spring of this year was like winter, cold and wet, the wine blossom terrible, and the harvest bad,” wrote the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger in 1570.

Initially, this seemed like a temporary problem, just one bad year. So across the continent, cultivators shrugged off their poor harvests, and vintners sold wine made of sour grapes which consumers drank angrily as they contemplated rising grain prices.

But the extreme weather continued, season after season after season, until abnormal became the new normal. As William Shakespeare put it in the 1593 play Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

In his book Nature’s Mutiny, German journalist Philipp Blom posits that Shakespeare wrote those words as a literal description of the string of difficult winters he’d just endured. This period of extreme weather, which would continue for more than 100 years, is now known as the “Little Ice Age,” and Blom argues that if we look back at its effects in Europe—where they were best documented—we’ll better understand how we got to where we are today and anticipate what’s ahead as climate change increasingly affects our lives…

Lots of cautions– with an optimistic kicker– at: “What the 17th century’s “Little Ice Age” teaches us about climate change.”

* Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

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As we bundle up, we might send absolutist birthday greetings to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; he was born on this date in 1588.  A father of political philosophy and political science, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid– all this, though Hobbes was, on rational grounds, a champion of absolutism for the sovereign.  It was that, Hobbes reasoned, or the bloody chaos of a “war of all against all.”  His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.

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“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP”*…

 

GDP

 

Is the world becoming increasingly prosperous? It would be hard to answer “yes” right now, at least so far as the leading high-income economies are concerned. Yet the longstanding bellwether of economic progress – inflation-adjusted GDP – has been growing across most of the OECD since 2010, suggesting that everything is fine.

Some 80 years after GDP was introduced, nearly everyone (apart from the indicator’s stewards) has concluded that it is  of economic progress. But there is no consensus yet on a possible replacement. Reaching agreement on an alternative will require a new concept of prosperity and a new way to measure whether living standards are improving…

Over eight decades after its introduction, there is a widespread consensus that GDP is no longer a useful measure of economic progress.  Its successor will need to be compelling and tell a persuasive story, consistent with experience, of what is happening in our economies.  Diane Coyle offers some leads on possible successors: “What Will Succeed GDP?

* Simon Kuznets

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As we grope for good gauges, we might recall that it was on this date in 1848 that a political pamphlet by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, was published.  Commissioned by the Communist League and written in German, it appeared as the Revolutions of 1848 began to erupt.  Subsequently, of course, Marx elaborated on his argument (with Engel’s help, after Marx’s death) in Das Kapital.

150px-Communist-manifesto

Cover of the first edition

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Written by LW

February 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

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