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

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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

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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.

What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. The Museum is open about one day a month to visitors who are not medical students. I’m excited to finally discover it today!

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Anatomy Lecture Hall, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from above, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. It’s full of interesting skeletons, plaster casts, art, and so on, in a lovely vaulted chamber below the the main museum hall.

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A striking portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis... by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis… by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, in the hallway to the main display hall. Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Image of Benjamin Rush, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Image of Benjamin Rush hung in the stairwell to the main display hall, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School. Rush attended the University of Edinburgh from 1766 to 1768.

Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School University of Edinburgh, photo credit Scots Magazine. Photography is not allowed without prior arrangement, since there are human specimens and pieces from private collections that do not have permissions granted for general photography scattered among the collection. Among the many, many fascinating objects here, there is a large phrenology display, a discipline now considered pseudoscience but once a cutting edge field of research. In this display, I gaze upon the faces, through their life / death masks, of: Robert Owen, John James Audubon, composers Ernst von Weber and Liszt, Robert the Bruce (skull cast), Sir Walter Scott, Johnathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, William Pitt, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean-Paul Marat, William Herschel, Voltaire, John Ross, George Combe, George Washington, and many others.

Life mask of George Combe, Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

I was naughty only once, and snuck a picture of the life mask of George Combe. Frederick Douglass was a fan of George Combe and wrote glowingly of their meeting. This episode is particularly poignant because phrenology would come to be used to reveal the supposed inferiority of black, Semitic, and other peoples. Evidently, there was no such association to Douglass in 1846. He would have been confident, I think, that Combe’s research would align with what Douglass knew to be true: the rationality and set of capabilities that all humans share.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!