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Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire

“It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…


The “Memory Palace,” a form of the method of loci, is a technique by which the user memorizes a physical space (often, a palace), then– when desiring to remember something– walks to a location and “deposits” that memory… which can be retrieved simply be “revisiting” that location.  It dates back to ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians, and, as Frances Yates explains in The Art of Memory, was in broad use all the way until the Enlightenment.

But while the technique fell out of the spotlight with the advent of wide-spread printing and the emergence of the Scientific Revolution, it didn’t disappear altogether…

This “Chronographer of Ancient History,” published by American educator Emma Willard in 1851, is one in a series of prints Willard designed to teach students about the shape of historical time. Her “Temples of Time” were (she wrote) a way to tap into the power of visual comprehension, so that the historical information conveyed would “by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.”

This Chronographer is a more specialized offshoot of Willard’s master Temple of Time, which tackled all of history. (She also produced an American version, with a map of the United States on its faraway back wall.) Willard’s Temples, writes historian Barry Joyce, were “possibly inspired by her study of ancient Greek commentaries on history and memory.” The structure’s reliance on perspective was intended to help chronology take on a physical dimension…

More at “A 19th-Century Memory Palace Containing All of Ancient History“: and see a zoomable version of the Temple here or at the Library of Congress.

* Dr. John Watson, describing a “tool” used by his friend Sherlock Holmes


As we tidy up, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, the French mathematician and physicist who is probably better known as Voltaire’s mistress; she was born on this date in 1706.  Fascinated by the work of Newton and Leibniz, she dressed as a man to frequent the cafes where the scientific discussions of the time were held. Her major work was a translation of Newton’s Principia, for which Voltaire wrote the preface; it was published a decade after her death, and was for many years the only translation of the Principia into French.

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.
– Mme du Châtelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia


Written by LW

December 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

“History is a vast early warning system”*…


… Still, the hazards we face at any point in time have altogether-contemporary characteristics.  Happily, Anders Sandberg has ridden to the rescue a new collection of warning signs…

See them all at “Warning Signs for Tomorrow.”

* Norman Cousins


As we duck and cover, 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


Written by LW

February 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Man is still the most extraordinary computer of all”*…


German artist Ralf Baecker gives technology a life of its own. His new piece Irrational Computing, which debuts June 10 at the International Triennial of New Media Art, use semiconductor crystals (quartz sand) and connects them to interlinked modules to create a primitive macroscopic signal processor. In other words, he’s using quartz (a natural resource that’s one of the basic commodities for all information technology), to create a raw mineral computer.

Baecker used quartz crystals taken directly from nature and industrial waste products and connected them to the modules, which use the electrical and mechanical specifics of the mineral to form a visual display, of sorts. Simultaneously, the crystals work as sound generators, as the electrical impulses from the modules force the quartz to vibrate. Through speakers, gallery visitors can both see and hear these quartz crystals. They even appear to have an unpredictable, life-like “conversation” with the other materials in the installation set-up, as the impulse signals and responses are organically random (thus, the “Irrational” part of the installation’s title)…

See more, and read an interview with Baecker, via The Creator’s Project (a JV of Intel and Vice), at “An Artist Has Made A Primitive Computer Out Of Earth Crystals, And Little Else.”

* John F. Kennedy


As we muse on minerals, we might spare a thought for a key intellectual ancestor of Hacking and “Making”: the Father of the Age of Reason and author (in Candide) of the immortal– and sardonically ironic– advice that each of us should “tend his own garden,” Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.



Written by LW

May 30, 2014 at 1:01 am


To Whom It May Concern:

I gave my lawyer instructions to release this message after my death. A joke I concocted when I was a kid has gone way, way too far. The most important thing you should know is this: Nothing I have ever written was meant to be taken seriously. You really don’t want to build some kind of philosophy around Atlas Shrugged, okay? I’m sorry if I caused any trouble. I owe you an explanation…

Discover the truth at “I Was Shitting You People – A Message From Ayn Rand.”

[TotH to reader CE]


As we try to remain Objective, we might send more genuinely philosophical birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born in Paris on this date in 1694.  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).  A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day.  The contrite Ms. Rand would surely have appreciated his immortal– and sardonic– advice (in Candide) that each of us should “tend his own garden.”


Written by LW

November 21, 2012 at 1:01 am

“Originality is nothing but judicious plagiarism”*…

 click here for dynamic zoom

Readers seemed to enjoy Simon Raper’s diagrammatic history of philosophy (see “Who’s Hume“), so may also appreciate Brendan Griffen‘s even more ambitious visual essay– a depiction of the connections between every important thinker, ever: “The Graph of Ideas.”

He fields it at two levels of detail; the first (pictured at the top of this post, with a link to a zoomable version) treats roughly 850 thinkers, clustering those most closely related and showing how each is connected.  For example:

The second treats his entire set of 4,200 thinkers; it is here (it’s a 50MB file, so takes a while to load– but it’s worth it).

Read the backstory– the method used and the iterative attempts to avoid a Western bias– here.

[TotH to CoDesign]

* Voltaire


As we honor our ancestors, we might send carefully-scrawled birthday greetings to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755.  While Conté was an accomplished painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered for his contribution to the later contributions to the charts above: the invention of the modern pencil.



Your correspondent is off for a period of deep and serious study of the smoked and fried foods of the Low Country.  Sticky fingers being the impediment to keyboarding that they are, regular service will resume in mid-August… Y’all have fun!

The Venn Piagram…

The pie chart one can eat… from Reddit, via the ever-illuminating Flowing Data

As we reach for our forks, we might spare a reasoned thought for the Enlightenment giant John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704. An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge. Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract. Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.


Let’s get cynical…


"Cynic: an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision" - Rick Bayan

Cynicisn was, like the Doric column and the gyro sandwich, invented by the Greeks.  As Rick Bayan explains…

The first Cynics (we capitalize the name when we’re talking about the ancient ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes, who in turn was a student of the illustrious Socrates. Like Socrates, the Cynics believed that virtue was the greatest good. But they took it a step further than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.

The Cynics were more blunt when it came to exposing foolishness. They’d hang  out in the streets like a pack of dogs (“Cynic” comes from the Greek word for  dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, “I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” He’d use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn’t escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that “you can step out of my sunlight.”

Bayan, who believes that cynicism is as important today as ever, has created The Cynic’s Sanctuary, one of whose fascinating features is the Cynic’s Hall of Fame; arranged chronologically, by date of birth, it begins with…

Aesop (c. 600 B.C. ) Was he real or legendary? We’re not absolutely sure. Aesop may have been a slave who lived on the Greek isle of Samos; it’s said that he was slain by irate priests at the Oracle of Delphi. (He probably got himself into hot water by mocking their beliefs.) His works weren’t assembled into book form until about eight centuries after his time. No doubt numerous ancient storytellers added to the collection along the way. But the reputed author of the world’s most famous fables — man or legend — has to stand as literature’s great proto-Cynic. His brief moral tales are sharp allegories of human folly — even when the characters are foxes, crows, mice, tortoises and hares. Aesop’s Fables teem with the wisdom and gentle mockery of someone who knows the human animal inside and out (especially our weaknesses). If you think Aesop is just for children, think again — and read him again.

Favorite quote:
“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

The roster continues through the expected (e.g., Rabelais, Voltaire, Mark Twain) and the not-so-expected (Jesus, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer)…

In times like these, it’s comforting to know that one can take refuge in The Cynic’s Sanctuary.


As we memorize our Mencken, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780 that General Benedict Arnold betrayed the US when he wrote British General Sir Henry Clinton, agreeing to surrender the fort at West Point to the British army.  Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor,” fled to England after the plot fell through.  The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission with an annual income of several hundred pounds, but only paid him £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 because his plot had failed.  After the Revolutionary War, Arnold settled in Canada, and turned his hand to land speculation, West Indies, trade, and privateering– none of them very successfully.  He died in 1801.



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