Here’s a series of excerpts and links to just some of the great thinkers, doers, and ideas in the history of ideas featured here at Ordinary Philosophy. For more, please visit the archive links on the right…
Muir… revealed the true sacredness of the natural world to the consciousness of his (now) fellow Americans, which in turn gave rise to the political will to care for it. An accident in the factory he worked at in 1867 damaged his eyes temporarily and he began to wander. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, a thousand miles, and fell in love with the natural world and the transformative power of walking in nature. Muir heard that there were spectacular natural wonders in California, vast, and in many places still unexplored and unspoiled, and sailed to San Francisco in 1868. He walked to Yosemite and throughout the Sierras, writing a journal as he went. He emerged as a prophet, fearless, tireless, and rendered poetic by his baptism of the wind, trees, stones, wildlife, and water….
Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess……
Let us remember and salute the visionary Nicolaus Copernicus on the occasion of his birthday.
Born on February 19th, 1473, Copernicus gave our modern world the heliocentric theory of the solar system. He credited the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos with originally describing how Earth and her sister planets orbit around the sun and took it upon himself to make the observations and work out the mathematics to prove it. Copernicus reintroduced the heliocentric theory so convincingly that it overcame the dominant earth-centered model preferred by the powerful Christian Church for theological reasons….
Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance. Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’…
The exact date of Frederick Douglass’s birth is unknown. We know the likely year, 1818, from the slave census of his master Aaron Anthony, who may also have been his father. His likely birth month, February, is an estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.
Douglass is one of my favorite people that ever inhabited the world. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history…
Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of our nation reborn in liberty, on his birthday.
Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking…
Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday.
Born on January 29th, 1737, his great pamphlets made the case for American independence from Britain, outlined his Lockean conception of human rights, and argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. He’s a primary influence in my own concept of America as a bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that property rights entail the obligation to share our wealth with those who lack what they need….
There’s been a widespread and concerted effort to vilify Margaret Sanger and remove her name from the public roll of great contributors to human rights history. In my research for the Sanger project I’m working on, I find scores of examples of this effort every single time I do an internet search using her name….
So let’s first consider Margaret Sanger’s beliefs and whether they justify her inclusion among the great freedom leaders. Then, let’s consider her beliefs in the light of her own time and whether they deserve admiration today, on the whole, or are at least understandable given the circumstances of her time….
There are very few if any non-Americans, outside of our mother country of Britain, who have had a greater impact on the history of the United States and our attitudes towards human rights than the incomparable Mahatma Gandhi. For someone who preached simplicity, often wearing nothing but a loincloth, weaving his own fabric, and living a severely rustic lifestyle to exemplify his own teachings, Gandhi was a very complicated person.
He was a human rights activist, politician, journalist, social and religious reformer, and to many, a sort of messiah. Originally a British loyalist, Gandhi’s studies and personal observations led him to change his own views, often radically, many times over the course of his long life. His beliefs in the revolutionary and morally suasive power of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were and continue to be particularly influential in the United States…
I’m now reading Book Seven of Herodotus’ Histories which tells the story of Xerxes I of Persia and the second invasion of Greece, which he led to avenge the defeat of his father Darius, who led the first. Darius was defeated at the battle of Marathon when the Athenians and their allies the Plataeans, badly outnumbered, managed to drive away the Persians. In this story, I came across another interesting exchange I’d like to share with you.
After reviewing his massive forces, Xerxes calls for Demaratus, a former king of Lacedaemon (city-state of Sparta) who had defected to Persia after being deposed by a rival. He asks Demaratus if he believes that his fellow Greeks will dare oppose his invasion considering the size and wealth of the new Persian army. After all, Xerxes asks, ‘How could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand come to that, possibly stand up to an army the size of mine, when all of them enjoy a similar degree of liberty, and have no one man in command?…
I’m honored to present my second interview guest, Peter Adamson, creator and host of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast and Professor of Philosophy at the Munich School of Ancient Philosophy and at King’s College London. I’ve listened to his History of Philosophy podcast series for many years: it’s now almost 5 ½ years running, and if you are interested in philosophy, I’m hard pressed to think of a source that’s more comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched than Adamson’s.
In this interview, we focus on non-Western philosophy, specifically Indian and Islamic philosophy, since that’s his focus right now at his History of Philosophy series. We touch on Western philosophy as well, especially regarding the ways that Islamic and Indian philosophy influence and intersect with Western philosophy….
Margaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large Catholic family with 11 surviving children. Her mother died at age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her mother was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies and their own fertility.
She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw poor women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression…
In my recent journey following the life of Frederick Douglass, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells would change all that. …
‘A lie that serves a vital purpose, after all, is a lie that should be told. Whether we tell falsehoods or nothing but the truth, we all of us have the same objective: liars are always on the alert for the chance to profit by convincing others of their lies, just as those who tell the truth do so with the aim of ending up more trusted by everyone else, and thereby acquiring profit in their own manner. Different though our means may be, yet we have identical ends.’ (Histories, p 224)
In this passage from Herodotus’ Histories, Darius, a member of the royal guard and son of a Persian governor in Egypt, is justifying his plan to use trickery to enter the royal palace. He and six other Persians are planning the overthrow of Smerdis, a Magian who had taken the throne by deception after the death of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, king of Persia. Evidently, Darius takes the trouble to justify his plan of lying to the guards to gain entry because he knows his compatriots believe lying is wrong….
Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, Walden and Civil Disobedience. The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government….
I found this article I really enjoyed, called Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education, by Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith, and thought I’d share it with you in honor of his birthday. I regret I ran out of time to write an original one, but Doyle and Smith’s is excellent and I’m so glad to have discovered it! You’ll also find links below to more great resources to introduce you to the life and ideas of this strange and interesting man….
“The Power And Importance Of Ideas:” Grace Lee Boggs’s Revolutionary Vision”
In the opening lines of her autobiography, Living for Change, Grace Lee Boggs remarked: “Had I not been born female and Chinese American, I would not have realized from early on that fundamental changes were necessary in our society.” A daughter of Chinese immigrants born in 1915, who, by her account, became a philosopher in her 20s and an activist in her 30s, Boggs remains one of the greatest radical theorists of the twentieth century….
Aimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!
In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’…
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? …
‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American….
So there’s been all this buzz the last couple of days about the possible discovery of Aristotle’s tomb. Here’s the New York Times on the story:
‘A Greek archaeologist who has been leading a 20-year excavation in northern Greece said on Thursday that he believed he had unearthed the tomb of Aristotle.
In an address at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth, the archaeologist, Konstantinos Sismanidis, said he had “no proof but strong indications, as certain as one can be,” to support his claim…
One of my very favorite ideas in political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ (though he didn’t phrase it this way himself): that the free, open, and vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square does more to further human knowledge than anything else. But not only has his comprehensive and to my mind, absolutely correct defense of free speech in his great work On Liberty had an immense and beneficial influence on the history and theory of human rights, he was admirable in myriad other ways as well:
‘Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind… ’ ~ Adam Gopnik, from his article and book review ‘Right Again‘, 2008…
Bertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.
Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honored and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’
Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám 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….
I just discovered this fascinating woman this morning on the occasion of her birthday.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a ‘prolific letter writer in almost every epistolary style; she was also a distinguished minor poet, always competent, sometimes glittering and genuinely eloquent. She is further remembered as an essayist, feminist, traveler, and eccentric.’
Born on May 5 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, especially by those who claimed to act in his name.
In honor of his birthday, here is a series of pieces about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend just introduced me to, and a song that I love….
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 CE), the great Danish philosopher and forerunner of existentialism, was born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, and throughout his life he enjoyed walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his equal regardless of their station in life. As a young boy, Kierkegaard’s father drilled him with difficult lessons so he would be the top student in his class, but to prevent his son from developing selfish pride, the father demanded that his son get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to prevent the boy from being recognized as first or second student.
For Kierkegaard, genuine truth is human subjectivity and perspective, and it is only the individual who accepts subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth insofar as it is achievable by individuals. For Kierkegaard, truth is not objective, but subjective, not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured…
The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.
Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.
Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death….
Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.
Fell’s life was lived as passionately as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist sometimes imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.
An early adherent and eloquent promoter of the faith, Fell is now considered one of Quakerism’s founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched in to her lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner, since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage….
890 years ago today, on April 14th, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist and scientist Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198) was born, or as he is known via Latin in Europe, Averroes. Among his many achievements, he is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics. Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought. Included here is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus….
Every year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”
In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”
The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”
Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished….
Hypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but clear original sources this 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 tradition here and remember Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.
She’s a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher, who writes commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia is 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 is a scholar and teacher in a field and in a world that’s male-dominated, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement….
Rosa Luxemburg, Mar 5 1871 – Jan 15 1919, is the great Marxist theorist, writer, economist, revolutionist, anti-war and anti-capital-punishment activist, and philosopher who was murdered during the German Revolution of 1918–1919.
Though she’s an anti-war activist, Luxemburg is also critical of the idea that a just society can be brought about by incremental reforms through established political systems. If she were to be involved in the 2016 Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she would very likely back Bernie, with his more revolutionary style and rhetoric: she’s sharply critical of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to which she belongs (in its left wing) for favoring a Hillary-style reformist approach. However, her internationalism takes Marxist thinking beyond the point where leading Marxists of her day had progressed, with their focus on unique formulations of Marxist political theory tailored to their own particular national identities and histories. She would likely find fault, then, with Bernie’s protectionism….
John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, is the great moral theorist who thinks of justice as fairness.
Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called ‘the veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple method for helping to design a just society: imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on.
Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? …
I’m pleased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.
I’m a long-time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson….
Early on his career as an abolitionist speaker and activist, Frederick Douglass is a dedicated Garrisonian: anti-violence, anti-voting, anti-Union, and anti-Constitution… Since the early 1930’s, Garrison espouses a particular set of moral and political beliefs, radical for his time, which he promotes in his influential anti-slavery paper The Liberator. He believes in total non-violence, …[that] true abolitionists must abstain from politics… [and] that the continued Union of the States, Abraham Lincoln’s sacred cause, was not only impossible, but undesirable… And all of these are tied to Garrison’s view of the Constitution: it’s an ultimately pro-slavery, anti-human rights document, and therefore not worthy of obedience or respect.
For many years, Douglass fully agrees with Garrison. But over time…, Douglass changes his mind. By the early 1850’s, the abolitionist par excellence had come to disagree with Garrison, father of American radical abolitionism, and to agree with Lincoln, proponent of preserving the Union at all costs and of the gradual phasing out of slavery….
Throughout my history of ideas travel series following Thomas Jefferson, slavery was on my mind a lot: the institution as a whole, and Jefferson’s relationship to it. I was reminded of it constantly: by an original book from his own collection titled ‘The Horrors of Slavery’ now in the Library of Congress, which also displays a slave sale contract between himself and James Madison from 1809; the slave quarters and artifacts at Monticello; museum displays and plaques in D.C., Williamsburg, and Philly; and signs telling the story of his brief but telling correspondence with Benjamin Banneker.
As every student of American history learns early on, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and his stated beliefs contrast sharply with his life as a slaveowner. And nearly every place I find something written about Jefferson, this contradiction is addressed but never really resolved….
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!