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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”*…




The motivation for using video review in sports is obvious: to get more calls right. This seems like an easy enough mission to fulfill, but anyone who has spent even a little time watching sports on TV can attest to the fact that the application of video review is not so simple. In most sports where it is applied, video review has actually created more confusion and less clarity. Why is this the case? Follow me into an examination of thousands of years of philosophical discourse, and we will find the answer together, my friends.

The root problem with video review is that it is so often used to make decisions based on rules that contain an inherent level of vagueness. For example, according to the NFL’s current catch rule (Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3a) an inbounds player must secure “control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground” in order to complete a catch. The term “control” in that rule is vague. There are borderline cases of controlling a football, which means boundaries for when the term “control” can and can’t be applied are fuzzy ones.

Philosophers have been dealing with the problems posed by vagueness since at least the 4th Century BC, because the problems that vagueness causes aren’t limited to the NFL’s struggle with the catch rule. Vagueness also has important implications for metaphysics, the philosophy of language, and our understanding of the nature of truth and the foundations of logic…

Into the rabbit hole of certainty at “A Philosopher’s Definitive (And Slightly Maddening) Case Against Replay Review.”

* Francis Bacon, The Oxford Francis Bacon IV: The Advancement of Learning


As we correct our concept of correctness, we might send antiseptic birthday greetings to Earle Dickson; he was born on this date in 1892.  Dickson, concerned that his wife, Josephine Knight, often cut herself while doing housework and cooking, devised a way that she could easily apply her own dressings.  He prepared ready-made bandages by placing squares of cotton gauze at intervals along an adhesive strip and covering them with crinoline.  In the event, all his wife had to do was cut off a length of the strip and wrap it over her cut.  Dickson, who worked as a cotton buyer at Johnson & Johnson, took his idea to his employer… and the Band-Aid was born.




Written by LW

October 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“But enough about me, let’s talk about you…. what do you think of me?”*…




The 21st century is the most important century in human history.

At least that’s what a number of thinkers say. Their argument is pretty simple: Mostly, it’s that there are huge challenges that we have to surmount this century to get any future at all, making this the most consequential of all centuries so far. Furthermore, a solution to those challenges would likely mean a future farther from the brink of destruction — which makes this century more pivotal than future centuries, too…

[The case for this century as most important, unpacked]

Sure, we have some pretty good arguments for the importance of our era. But … doesn’t everybody? Are the arguments for the 21st century really that much stronger than the arguments for the 1st century, or for centuries yet to come?

Under this view, sure, we have some serious challenges ahead of us. But it’s a mistake to think we’re in a unique moment in history. There’s every reason to think that the challenges faced in future centuries will be as significant…

[The cases for other periods as most important, explored]

But it’s not just an abstract philosophy argument… If this is the crucial moment in human history, foundations that’ll be around for centuries aren’t a top priority. If humanity’s biggest problems are best left to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, then it doesn’t seem so strange to try to set up enduring human institutions with the power to influence successive generations. If this is the critical moment, the balance of our efforts should probably be spent less on long-term priorities questions and more on action — like political efforts to reverse course on dangerous human activities, and research on how to mitigate the immediate dangers of present threats…

A philosophic argument over the relative importance of our present era (and why it matters): “Is this the most important century in human history?

(Your correspondent would note that, even if this is the most important century in human history so far, it doesn’t follow that there won’t centuries that are at least as important to come…  so it’s surely prudent to invest energy and resources in assuring that foundational institutions and infrastructure, options, and resources are available to our successors…)

* variously attributed to “CC Bloom” (Bette Midler in Beaches) and NYC Mayor Ed Koch, among others


As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1520 that Suleiman I (AKA Suleiman the Magnificent) was proclaimed Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  The tenth and longest-reigning Sultan, he ruled over at least 25 million people at the apex of Ottoman economic, military, and political power, and at the broadest range of its geographical reach.  A distinguished poet and goldsmith, he also became a great patron of culture, overseeing the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary and architectural development.

220px-EmperorSuleiman source



Written by LW

September 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Baseball is the only thing beside the paper clip that hasn’t changed”*…


paper clip


The paper clip is something of a fetish object in design circles. Its spare, machined aesthetic and its inexpensive ubiquity landed it a spot in MoMA’s 2004 show Humble Masterpieces. This was a pedestal too high for design critic Michael Bierut, who responded with an essay called “To Hell with the Simple Paper Clip.” He argued that designers praise supposedly unauthored objects like the paper clip because they’re loath to choose between giving publicity to a competitor and egotistically touting their own designs. Bierut might be right about his colleagues’ motives, but he’s wrong about the paper clip: It’s not all that simple.

Most everyday objects—like the key, or the book, or the phone—evolve over time in incremental ways, and the 20th century in particular revolutionized, streamlined, or technologized the vast majority of the things you hold in your hand over the course of an average day. But if you could step into an office in 1895—walking past horse-drawn buses and rows of wooden telephone switchboard cabinets—you might find a perfectly recognizable, shiny silver paper clip sitting on a desk. What was then a brand-new technology is now, well over a century later, likely to be in the same place, ready to perform the same tasks. Why did the paper clip find its form so quickly, and why has it stuck with us for so long?…

It was invented in the 1890s; it hasn’t been improved upon since: “The perfection of the paper clip.”

* Bill Veeck


As we find fasteners fascinating, we might spare a thought for Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he died on this date in 1994.  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 (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).




Written by LW

September 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Artifacts of our oldest cultures give evidence that the human race has always made things in miniature”*…



1/12th scale model of CBGB, 315 Bowery


Drawn to the often-overlooked beauty of aging structures, [artist Randy] Hage began photographing the cast iron facades in the SoHo area of New York.  He has photographed over 450 storefronts over the past 14 years, 60% of which have since closed or been torn down. Hage’s models are not only acts of preservation but a way of calling attention to what has been lost as urban renewal and gentrification displace the storeowners and residents of these communities…

Hage then works from his photos to create exquisitely-detailed miniatures…


scale model

See more of Hage’s marvelous work at “NYC Storefronts in Miniature,” and visit his website.

* Dorothy B. Thompson, Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora


As we get small, we might spare a thought for miniaturist of a different sort, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne; he died on this date in 1592.  Best known during his lifetime as a statesman, Montaigne is remembered for popularizing the essay as a literary form.  His effortless merger of serious intellectual exercises with casual anecdotes and autobiography– and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts” or “Trials”)– contain what are, to this day, some of the most widely-influential essays ever written.  Montaigne had a powerful impact on writers ever after, from Descartes, Pascal, and Rousseau, through Hazlitt, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to Zweig, Hoffer, and Asimov.  Indeed, he’s believed to have been an influence on the later works of Shakespeare.



Written by LW

September 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose”*…



Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, June 1977


Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spent a lot of time partying: talking, drinking, dancing, laughing, loving and listening to music with friends, and this was an aspect of their philosophical stance on life. They weren’t just philosophers who happened to enjoy parties, either – the parties were an expression of their philosophy of seizing life, and for them there were authentic and inauthentic ways to do this…

Skye C. Cleary celebrates “Being and drunkenness: how to party like an existentialist.”

* Jean-Paul Sartre


As we raise a glass, 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 Roland, Barthes, 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… which offered a response to nihilism complementary to that offered by the existentialists.



“We must believe in free will — we have no choice”*…




In March, a group of neuroscientists and philosophers announced that they’ve received $7 million to study the nature of free will and whether humans have it. Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University, is leading the project. “As a scientist, I don’t know what it entails to have free will,” he said in an interview with Science. That’s a philosophical puzzle. But once Maoz’s philosopher colleagues agree on a definition, he can get to work to see if it occurs in humans. “This is an empirical question. It may be that I don’t have the technology to measure it, but that is at least an empirical question that I could get at.”…

Or can he?  An update on neuroscientific efforts to answer a philosophical question– and an appreciation of your correspondent’s favorite television series, The Good Place: “Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?

* Isaac Bashevis Singer


As we muse on motivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that George Herriman‘s signature characters, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, made their first appearance in the bottom of the frames in Herriman’s The Dingbat Family daily comic strip.  They got their own strip three years later, scored a Sunday panel in 1916– and delighted readers with the surreal philosophical questions they raised until 1944.

krazy-kat-first-daily1058_page2_large-2 source



Written by LW

July 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“X marks the spot”*…



The Lu Lu Alphabet (1867) by Pamela Atkins Colman [source]

In 1895, the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays, a groundbreaking moment in medical history that would lead to myriad improvements to people’s health. Perhaps one overlooked benefit though was in relation to mental health, specifically of those tasked with making alphabet books. What did they do before X-rays? Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?…

A collection of historical figures, plants, animals, and more: “X is for…

* an old saying of manifold derivation.  One origin story references pirate maps, where “x” marked the location of buried treasure (and of other maps, where “x” marked less dramatic locations); another cites the British army practice of marking a piece of paper with a black “x” and pinning it on the heart of someone sentenced to death-by-firing-squad.  The presiding officer would say “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would aim for the “x.”


As we examine exemplary examples, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  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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