Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, James Hutton!

James Hutton by Sir Henry Raeburn ca. 1776, at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As I hike the hills and crags of Holyrood Park, I often pass a site associated with an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, where I now attend. It’s not a spectacular site; in fact, it’s just a little stony outcropping that anyone other than a geologist might just pass by or clamber down without a thought. The more observant might notice that there are some nice colors and stripes in the rocks. If not for the fading white printed sign attached to a nearby stone, low enough to step right over it without noticing, no one might know that something important happened here.

Well, two somethings. One took a long time, one much less so. First, over millions of years, minerals were laid down and pressed into sandstone, a band of which pressed and warped against a dolerite sill, a remnant of the ancient volcano that created Arthur’s Seat. In fact, all manner of different processes created Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, and the other formations of Holyrood Park.

Holyrood Park in spring, viewing Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat thru a flowering shrub, Edinburgh, Scotland

So the second important thing that happened to which I refer is that a sharp-eyed person of particular curiosity and intelligence noticed. In the mid-to-late 1700’s, James Hutton, a native of Edinburgh born on June 3, 1726, and who died here March 26, 1797, closely explored this area. He was a trained chemist and medical doctor, farmer and entrepreneur turned scientist. Hutton spent a great deal of time touring farms and open lands in Scotland, observing farming practices with a professional eye and rock and land formations with a scientific one.

Hutton’s careful observations led him to formulate the theory of uniformitarianism. This theory holds that the earth and its formations were generally not created quickly, in cataclysmic or miraculous events, but very slowly, over vast expanses of time, in slow but regular processes such as sedimentation, erosion, volcanism, and uplift. Hutton published his ideas in his two-volume magnum opus Theory of the Earth in 1795. His demonstration that the Earth was very old indeed made later scientific theories whose justifications required vast expanses of time, notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, possible.

Scroll down to see my photos of Hutton’s Section in Holyrood Park and its explanatory sign, and learn more about the great James Hutton through the links below:

James Hutton (1726 – 1797) ~ from ‘Alumni in History’ at the University of Edinburgh’s website

James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology ~ excerpt from Earth: Inside and Out, at the American Museum of Natural History website

James Hutton: Scottish Geologist ~ by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Hutton’s Section, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland

Hutton’s Section historical sign, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland

Another view of Hutton’s Section, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland

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O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Williams in 2011 by David Shankbone, free to use under Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time: how memory actually works and how that understanding relates to our relationship with the truth.

A few years ago, I wrote a short opinion piece that was, in part, about news anchorman Brian Williams’ disproven claims to be on a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003. In that piece, I favorably compared how Williams behaved in the wake of that scandal to the behavior of other media personalities who made similarly false or distorted claims. Unlike the other figures I criticized in that piece, I believe that Williams’ ready admission of his mistakes and his willingness to heap recriminations on himself reveal that he is, in fact, a person of integrity with a real respect for the truth.

While listening to the podcast yesterday, I found that Gladwell agrees with my assessment and for many good reasons. In ‘Free Brian Williams’, Gladwell summarizes what we now know about the fungibility and therefore unreliability of memory, and applies this to a very good discussion of how we all should be careful about the claims we make, especially when we’re in a position to inform and influence the public. A very interesting listen…

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

Umar Khayyam –  by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Santiago Ramón y Cajal!

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, estudiante de medicina en Zaragoza 1876: self portrait, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I discovered the fascinating scientist and thinker Santiago Ramón y Cajal (May 1, 1852 – Oct. 17, 1934) not long ago among the always excellent writings of Maria Popova:

Diseases of the Will: Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the Six Psychological Flaws That Keep the Talented from Achieving Greatness – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

I don’t think I could improve upon her excellent article at all, so I recommend that to you first. Her article summarizes Cajal’s observations about the ways in which we can so easily defeat ourselves in the pursuit of excellence. I, for one, find that his observations and advice offer very wise guidance, a series of signposts marking pitfalls that can entrap our egos all too easily. Cajal clearly lived by his own advice, and his achievements were marked by hard work and dogged perseverance as well as brilliant insight.

Learn more about Cajal’s life and scientific achievements:

Life and Discoveries of Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Marina Bentivoglio for Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – by Abdellatif Nemri for Scholarpedia

Santiago Ramón y Cajal – Biographical – from Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, at Nobelprize.org

Santiago Ramón y Cajal: Spanish Histologist – by the editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

The world lost Morton White (April 29, 1917 – May 27, 2016) less than two years ago, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the history of ideas more broadly, informally for the past several years, formally now at the University of Edinburgh. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary by William Grimes for The New York Times, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Hypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but original sources that old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our birthday remembrance tradition here and celebrate the memory of Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She was a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher who wrote commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She was a scholar and teacher in a field and in a male-dominated world, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.

So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.

And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia met her death at the hands of a mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day, an at least partly political religious hysteria shared by Christians, Jews, and pagans alike; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between political and religious factions. The mob of extremists who dragged Hypatia from her carriage, stripped and then tortured and killed her by tearing off her skin with broken roof tiles, and then defiled her body were inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher also admired by many Christians, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. According to Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin, “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”*

Learn more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:

Hypatia: Mathematician and Astronomer – by Michael Deakin for Encyclopædia Britannica

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Michael Deakin for Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by J J O’Connor and E F Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics of thr University of St Andrews in  Scotland website.

“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again – by Tim O’Neill for Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar – Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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* Versions of this piece were originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one and two years ago. As you can see from past comments, some took issue with my characterization of Hypatia’s murder as, at least in part, inspired by anti-pagan and anti-science religious extremism which in turn, could make her appear as an ideological martyr. One of the most impassioned critics of this piece accused me of perpetuating a partisan and ideologically-motivated distortion created by the anti-clerical John Toland in 1753. This critic insisted that Hypatia’s death was entirely the result of politics, not religion, and therefore any retelling of her death that even hints at religious persecution is likewise just more myth-making. I respond, in brief, that one: the circumstances surrounding her death are still the subject of much scholarly debate given the paucity of contemporary sources and two: that it seems ahistorical to separate out the political from the religious. In Hypatia’s time and indeed, throughout much of history, the religious and political were intertwined and thus, impossible to consider as fully separate issues. I do agree, however, that modern accounts of Hypatia’s murder tend to emphasize the religious and anti-science persecution elements without enough consideration of the political aspects, which is why I include a variety of resources and articles for the reader to consider. I’ve also edited it lightly for clarity, and removed a section in which I drew a parallel between the circumstances which led to Hypatia’s violent death and a timely political news story.