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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“Sameness is the mother of disgust”*…

 

Let’s imagine we’re on a beach that’s a mile long, and on that beach there are a couple of ice cream carts…

cart1

Let’s also imagine that the ice cream sold at each cart is identical in quality and cost, so the only reason customers choose one cart over the other is when one cart is closer. Given all of that, the best location of the carts is with each cart halfway between the middle of the beach and one of the ends. In this arrangement each cart gets 50% of the customers, and no one has to walk more than 1/4 mile to get some ice cream.

cart2

But what if one of the ice cream vendors decides to move their cart a bit closer to the middle of the beach…

cart3

They are now the ice cream cart of choice for a bigger segment of the beach, and will get more business. The other ice cream cart has no choice but to retaliate…

cart4

Now once again they each serve the same percentage of the beach-going public. Since any further movement by either cart would mean a loss of business for that cart, they end up permanently side by side, in the middle of the beach, even though this is a less optimal location for their customers.

That is a simple example of something called Hotelling’s law; the tendency of competing products to end up as similar as possible…

“Producers of products and services tend to make their products and services as similar as possible to those of their competitors.”  From The Laws of the Universe, the story of Hotelling’s Law.

* Petrarch

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As we nose around for niches, we might send ambitious birthday greetings to Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; he was born on this date in 1463.  An Italian philosopher, he undertook, in 1486, at the age of 23, to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic against all comers, in the process of which he wrote his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”; a revitalization of Neo-Platonism, it was a seminal text of Renaissance humanism and of what has been called the “Hermetic Reformation.”

Pico’s portrait, from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

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Written by LW

February 24, 2017 at 1:01 am

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate”*…

 

From electricity, giant telescopes, escalators, diesel turbines, and talking movies, the 1900 World’s Fair promised dazzling technology for the 50 million visitors who flocked to Paris. But among the expo’s 80,000 exhibitions, one comparatively low-tech production from the American contingent demonstrated perhaps the most consequential achievement of that time.

The Exhibit of American Negroes” enshrined the contributions of African Americans to the US economy, just 35 years after slavery was abolished in the US. The showcase within the fair’s Palace of Social Economy featured a gallery of photographs, 350 patents awarded to black inventors, a small statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, 200 books and periodicals by black scholars including an illustrated study by the noted sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois…

The extraordinary works that Du Bois had his students (at [Clark] Atlanta University) create are riveting both for their account of Africa-American life at the turn of the last century and for their remarkable power as infographics.  See them at “Hand-drawn infographics commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois illuminate how Black Americans lived in the 1900s.”

* Toni Morrison

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As we agree with Ali,** we might send utilitarian birthday greetings to Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer was born on this date in 1748.  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

** “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”  – Muhammad Ali

“Plato intended to write a long fable about legendary Atlantis; like Solon, he never did write it. Yet there existed beyond the Atlantic an unvisited land, after all”*…

 

The lost continent of Mauritia likely spanned a great swathe of the Indian Ocean before it was torn apart by indomitable geologic forces and plunged into the sea. Now, a good chunk of it may have been found.

In 2015, researchers visited the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar, to study volcanic rocks. While there, they unearthed something unexpected. Embedded in the rocks were ancient crystals, dated up to three billion years old—300 times older than the island’s young volcanic surface. Rocks this old come from Earth’s continents, but there aren’t any continents around Mauritius. It’s surrounded by boundless sea in all directions. There was just one place left for the researchers to look—down. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that the curious crystals came from a long-forgotten place buried well beneath the island…

Plumb the depths of Earth’s history at “Scientists may actually have found a lost continent.”  See also here (from whence, the illustration above)

* Russell Kirk

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As we take tectonics into account, we might spare a thought for René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was; he died on this date in 1650.

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

February 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Astonishment is the root of philosophy”*…

 

When we speak of a “presidential philosophy,” we do not ordinarily have in mind the intellectual debt a president may have had to Renaissance natural philosophy. But Herbert Hoover’s intellectual development seems to require that we widen our ordinary scope. Hooverism may in fact be the last echo of a sort of statesmanly engagement with philosophy that probes somewhat deeper into the order of things, and into humanity’s place in that order, than does the recent genre of campaign-minded, policy-focused, ghostwritten memoirs…

Herbert Hoover, the last “philosopher President”?  Justin E. H. Smith makes the case in “Between the Mine and the Stream.”

* Paul Tillich

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As we contemplate contemplation, we might send the best of all possible birthday greetings to lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, Renaissance humanist, and councillor to Henry VIII of England, Sir Thomas More; he was born on this date in 1478.  While he is probably most widely remembered as the author of author of Utopia, More was beheaded by Henry for refusing to accept the king as Supreme Head of the newly-established Church of England (More was acting in accordance with his opposition to Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and the Protestant Reformation)…  for which he was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.  (He is remembered by the Church of England as a “Reformation martyr.”)

Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of More

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Written by LW

February 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Only laughter can blow [a colossal humbug] to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”*…

 

P.T. Barnum, impresario behind the “Greatest Show on Earth,” could not abide a humbug: a man who tricked and swindled others for naught but his own gain. In Humbugs of the World (1865), he outlined the various types, with none being singled out for such ire as the humbug who believes nothing at all…

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true…

More of the pot commenting on the kettle at “Pronouncing a fool.”

Resonate with today’s headline, David Byrne weighs in: “A Resistance With Laughs Is Irresistible.”

* Mark Twain

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As we melancholize, we might spare a thought for Robert Burton; he died on this date in 1640.  An Oxford scholar, he is best known for his classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, an odd mix of wide=ranging scholarship, humor, linguistic skill, and creative (if highly approximate) insights– a favorite of scholars and authors from Samuel Johnson’s to Anthony Burgess.

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Written by LW

January 25, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence”*…

 

For the past few decades, humans have ceded thrones to artificial intelligence in games of all kinds. In 1995, a program called Chinook won a man vs. machine world checkers championship. In 1997, Garry Kasparov, probably the best (human) chess player of all time, lost a match to an IBM computer called Deep Blue. In 2007, checkers was “solved,” mathematically ensuring that no human would ever again beat the best machine. In 2011, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter were routed on “Jeopardy!” by another IBM creation, Watson. And last March, a human champion of Go, Lee Sedol, fell to a Google program in devastating and bewildering fashion.

Poker may be close to all we have left…

But not, perhaps, for long: “The Machines Are Coming For Poker.”

* Jean Baudrillard

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As we cut ’em thin to win, we might spare a thought for Giambattista Vico; he died on this date in 1744. A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

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Written by LW

January 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?”*…

 

“The teaching of Logic or Dialetics” from a collection of scientific, philosophical and poetic writings, French, 13th century; Bibliotheque Sainte-Genevieve, Paris, France. Photo by Bridgeman

Is logical thinking a way to discover or to debate? The answers from philosophy and mathematics define human knowledge..

The history of logic should be of interest to anyone with aspirations to thinking that is correct, or at least reasonable. This story illustrates different approaches to intellectual enquiry and human cognition more generally. Reflecting on the history of logic forces us to reflect on what it means to be a reasonable cognitive agent, to think properly. Is it to engage in discussions with others? Is it to think for ourselves? Is it to perform calculations?…

The rise and fall and rise of logic: “What is logic?

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we ruminate on reason, we might send enlightened birthday greetings to Benjamin Franklin; he was born on this date in 1706.  One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was a renowned polymath: a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other innovations.  And as a social entrepreneur (who grasped the fact that by united effort a community could have amenities which only the wealthy few can afford for themselves), he helped establish several institutions people now take for granted: a fire company (1736), a library (1731), an insurance company (1752), an academy (the University of Pennsylvania, 1751), a hospital (1751), and the U.S. Postal Service (starting as postmaster of the Colonies in 1753, then becoming U.S. Postmaster during the Revolution).  In most cases these foundations were the first of their kind in North America.

In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.

– Henry Steele Commager

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Written by LW

January 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

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