Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive – the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints. The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

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Apr 172010

benjamin_peirce_1857Benjamin Peirce, the father of Charles Sanders Peirce, taught mathe­matics and astronomy at Harvard from 1831 until his death in 1880. He was probably the leading American mathe­ma­ti­cian of his time. He is best known in the annals of mathe­ma­tics for his pioneering Linear Asso­ci­a­tive Alge­bra in 1870, and for his proof, as a young man, that there is no odd perfect num­ber with fewer than four distinct prime factors. [1] Benjamin pub­lished over a dozen other mathe­matical works, in­clu­ding his well-known System of Ana­lytical Mechanics in 1855. He helped to cre­ate a modern science curri­culum at Harvard, and was an important force behind the profes­sion­al­iza­tion of mathe­matics and sci­ence educa­tion in America. [2]

Benjamin’s personality made a powerful impression on those who encountered him. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, described him as follows:

Looking back over the space of fifty years since I entered Harvard College, Benjamin Peirce still impresses me as having the most massive intellect with which I have ever come into close contact, and as being the most profoundly inspiring teacher that I ever had. His personal appearance, his powerful frame, and his majestic head seemed in harmony with his brain. [3]

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Mar 252010

Lawrence Lessig earned an MA in philosophy from Cambridge, and a law degree from Yale. He is a founder of Creative Commons. Formerly a professor of law at Stanford, he is currently the director of the Safra Foun­dation Center for Ethics at Harvard. Here is his TEDTalk on Openness. There is an ad before the talk begins, but in this instance you might just think of it as part of the message.

Feb 082010

‘Theodore Dalrymple’ is the pen-name of Dr. Anthony Daniels, retired British doctor, contributing editor for the City Journal, author, and eloquent conservative obser­ver of contem­po­rary culture. Recently, Daniels was invited to give the annual John Kenneth Galbraith Lecture at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The Galbraith Revival is a reflection on that experience.

Other articles to try include: They dance, I take the dog for a walk, What is Poverty?, What the New Atheists Don’t See, False Apology Syndrome, and All Sex, All the Time. There is a directory of Dalrymple’s City Journal work here.


Feb 052010

by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Cantata “Actus Tragicus”, BWV 106, is one of Bach’s greatest cantatas. Here is Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Part II), from a wonderful performance on period instruments by Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble.


Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.
In ihm leben, weben und sind wir,
so lange er will.
In ihm sterben wir zu rechter Zeit,
wenn er will.

Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken,
daß wir sterben müssen,
auf daß wir klug werden.

Bestelle dein Haus,
denn du wirst sterben
und nicht lebendig bleiben.

Es ist der alte Bund,
Mensch, du mußt sterben.
Ja, komm, Herr Jesu.

God’s time is the very best time.
In him we live, move, and have our being,
as long as he wills.
In him we die at the appointed time,
when he wills.

Ah Lord, teach us to remember
that we must die.
that we might gain wisdom.

Set thy house in order,
for thou shalt die
and not remain alive.

It is the ancient law:
man, thou must die.
Yea, come, Lord Jesus.

Recorded in 1985, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, with Ann Monoyios, Steven Rickards, Edmund Brownless, Jan Opalach. Decca

Jan 242010

turkle2Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and is the director of the MIT Initiative on Tech­nology and Self. She earned her doctorate in sociology and per­son­ality psychology from Harvard University, and is a licensed clinical psycho­logist. She writes about the “subjective side” of the relationship between people and technology.

I first read The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit nearly twenty years ago and have often assigned it to students. Turkle describes how children use com­puters as evocative objects — “things to think with” — which assist them in understanding their own capa­ci­ties and limi­tations. Thus, the sense of self that emerges in children who have grown up with computers can differ from that in children who have grown up with, say, animals and pets — the experience of the former suggesting the spe­ci­fic difference and genus feeling machine, rather than the traditional Aristotelian rational animal. This kind of revision in our understanding of who we are, it seems to me, marks a profound cultural transition — and it is important that we con­sider the pos­si­bility that our technology can induce deep changes.

I found equally provocative Turkle’s next book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. It is a perceptive look at how the roles that we assume on-line affect us in real life. Dr. Turkle is also the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution, and MIT Press has recently published four sets of essays edited by Turkle:

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With
Falling for Science: Objects in Mind
The Inner History of Devices
Simulation and Its Discontents.

Every year Edge poses its annual question. For 2010 it is this: How has the internet changed the way you think? In her response, Turkle talks about our need to protect a zone of private action and reflection. “To me,” she says, “opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia or Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.”


Jan 102010

Verdi’s Otello is a work very much of its time, and this is true nowhere more than in its treatment of love and the erotic.  The simplest illustration of this may be found in the stark contrasts between the opera and its source.

Shakespeare’s Othello, more than any other play, is haunted by the theme of sexual disgust.  A.C. Bradley writes of the way in which “the matter of a play seems to go on working in Shakespeare’s mind and reappears, generally in a weaker form, in his next play.” [1] But the reverse process may also obtain, wherein a theme appears in one play in nascent form, only to be revisited on a far vaster scale in the next.  Thus the appalled fascination with sexuality in Hamlet, which lies behind both the title character’s ambivalent treatment of Ophelia and his famous castigation of his mother,

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! [2]

is echoed on a far vaster scale in Othello, taking root in the very first scene, in Iago’s mockery of Desdemona’s father, and growing until it all but dominates Othello’s mind.

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Jan 052010

Stephen Toulmin died last month. He studied with Wittgenstein and was a reader, with Kolakowski, of Phil’s dissertation. Toulmin was probably best known for his 1958 book, The Uses of Argument, and for his seminal work on the philosophy of science. In a long and distinguished career, he taught at Oxford, Melbourne, Leeds, Brandeis, Columbia, Michigan State, Chicago, Northwestern, and USC. Here is the NYT obituary.

All three of us have been greatly influenced by a book that Toulmin wrote with Allan Janik in 1973 called Wittgenstein’s Vienna. A fasci­nating account of Viennese culture at the turn of the century, it is an indispensable book that everyone should read.

In 1997 Toulmin was honored by the NEH with the Jefferson Lecture.

Jan 032010

In an article for Wired, Uranium is So Last Century, Richard Martin touts the promise of thorium fueled nuclear fission. Unlike uranium, thorium is plentiful in nature and produces a “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste. It is also an effective breeder and lacks the weaponization potential of uranium. The tech­nology is called LFTR — for Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor — and seems to be fairly well understood. There is a blog called Energy from Thorium, by Kirk Sorensen, which keeps up with the latest news and has useful links and discussion.

LFTR in 16 minutes

Like Polywell fusion, the development of thorium reactors could be funded at a small fraction of the anticipated cost of cap and trade. If we are serious about the threat of carbon-induced warming, then we ought to explore serious energy alter­natives.


Dec 142009

by William Wordsworth (1807)


Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

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Dec 132009

by Mary Oliver


I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk
But it’s spring,

and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass.

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

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Dec 052009


Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a composer and virtuoso pianist who lived in Paris and knew both Chopin and Lizst. He was an orthodox Jew, and the legend is that he died when one of his bookcases fell on him (also a hazard in academic life).

This is Alkan’s transcription of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3, in c minor. The piano plays both the orchestra and piano parts. I like how pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the master of this ferociously difficult repertoire, delineates the orchestral and solo voices. But the remarkable thing about this piece is clearly the extraordinary cadenza that Alkan wrote — it is bizarre and breathtaking.

The piano enters at 3:06, the cadenza begins at 11:34.


Live performance by Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall, London, June 1994


Nov 262009

Last week an unknown hacker — or inside whistleblower — distributed on the internet emails and documents apparently taken from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. The CRU and its director, Phil Jones, have been central players in promoting the theory of anthro­pocentric global warming that is endorsed by the IPCC. In conjunction with the Hadley Centre of the U.K. Met Office, they maintain HadCRUTv3, one of the main datasets of global temperature.

By now the purloined files have been disseminated throughout the internet, and have created quite a stir. The original zip file (62 MB) is here; when unzipped it contains about 160 MB of information, with over 1000 emails and 2000 other documents. The blogosphere has primarily focused on the emails, which include exchanges between Phil Jones and many leading climate scientists. There is now a searchable database of the emails and Bishop Hill provides a synopsis of some of the more interesting cases. The other documents — with data, code, and financial records — will probably have a greater impact over the long run. There are questions, for instance, about coding practice — see here. Evidence so far seems to indicate that all of this material is genuine; many recipients have confirmed the accuracy of emails, and as yet nothing has been disputed.

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Nov 122009

Golf Dreams is John Updike’s brilliant collection of stories and essays about the game of golf. In the title story, Updike describes a golf dream — a dream in which targets mysteriously recede, hazards materialize out of thin air, balls change into cylinders, and clubs develop an odd flabby appen­dage which prevents them from contacting the ball crisply. Nonetheless, he observes, the dreamer “surrenders not a particle of hope of making the shot.”

After all, are these nightmares any worse than the “real” drive that skips off the toe of the club, strikes the prism-shaped tee marker, and is swallowed by weeds some twenty yards behind the horrified driver? Or the magical impotence of an utter whiff? Or the bizarre physical comedy of a soaring slice that strikes the one telephone wire strung across three hundred acres? The golfer is so habituated to humiliation that his dreaming mind never offers any protest of implausibility. Whereas dream life, we are told, is a therapeutic cari­cature, seamy side out, of real life, dream golf is simply golf played on another course.

Updike himself had an 18-handicap — which probably meant more to him than being lauded by the NYT as “the most gifted writer of his generation.” He loved the game. In an essay called “The Bliss of Golf,”  Updike recounts:

I never touched a club until I was twenty-five. Then, on a shady lawn in Wellesley, a kind of aunt-in-law showed me how to hold her driver and told me, after one swoop at a phantom ball, that I had a wonderful natural swing. Since that fatal encouragement, in many weathers inner and outer, amid many a green and winding landscape, I have asked myself what the peculiar bliss of this demanding game is, a bliss that at times threatens to relegate all the rest of life, including those sexual concerns that Freud claims are paramount and those even more basic needs that Marx insists must be met, to the shadows.

The immensities of space, beside which even polo and baseball are constricted pastimes, must be part of it. To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, con­templated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small. As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity — huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of the other players. From this relativity is struck a silent music that rings to the treetops and runs through a Wagnerian array of changes as each hole evokes its set of shots, dwindling down to the final putt. The clubs in their nice gradations suggest organ pipes. . .

And the bliss of the swing. The one that feels effortless and produces a shot of miraculous straightness and soar. “I’ll take it,” we say modestly, searching about with a demure blush for the spun-away tee. Just a few shots a round keep us coming back; what other sport offers such sudden splendor in exchange for so few calories of expended energy? In those instants of whizz, ascent, hover, and fall, an ideal self seems mirrored. If we have that one shot in us, we must have thousands more — the problem is to get them out, to let them out. To concentrate, to take one’s time, to move the weight across, to keep the elbow in, to save the wrist-cock for the hitting area, to keep one’s head still, down, and as full of serenity as a Zen monk’s: an ambitious program, but a basically spiritual one. . .

The high point of Updike’s collection, in my view, is the short story “Farrell’s Caddie,” which, fortunately, is available on-line here. It is indeed short — so take a minute.

If you are wanting to learn how to play golf, this is probably the wrong book. Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book might be what you need. But if you are wanting something more substantial, Updike is matchless. “Golf’s ultimate moral instruction,” he says, “directs us to find within ourselves a pivotal center of enjoyment: relax into a rhythm that fits the hills and swales, and play the shot at hand — not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it.”


Nov 082009

by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Oct 292009

During May and June I listened to the live webcasts of most of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. I am not sure what to think about competitions in general — perhaps they are a necessary evil — but it was a good opportunity to hear wonderful young musicians and some remarkable performances. Early on, I was captivated by the music of 19 year-old Haochen Zhang of China, who eventually shared the gold medal. Here is his performance of the Beethoven Sonata in A flat, Op. 110:


In the semi-finals, Zhang programmed the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28. Here is the “Raindrop” Prelude:


and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit from the finals:


Finally, so that you can see him ‘in action’ — although the sound is not as good — here is a video from his performance of Lizst’s Spanish Rhapsody:

For video and good sound both, it is probably better to use the Silverlight streaming webcast from the Van Cliburn site, which also gives access to the complete archives.

Zhang is currently touring the U.S., and is scheduled to perform at the University of Vermont on March 5.


Oct 232009

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked rhetorically, Do we bring up our children because we have found it pays? [1] This sounds absurd, yet in many ways our expressed thinking about children is utilitarian and fails to take them seriously as ends in themselves. Perhaps we are no longer driven to produce family heirs, but when we want to draw attention to the importance of educating children we still speak of them as “the leaders of tomorrow.” If we argue that the importance of children derives from the fact that they are future adults, we neglect to recognize any inherent value to child­hood itself. We look back with horror at Puritans who expected children to behave like little adults and viewed play as sin, but many developmental theories are still prone to analyze childhood as a series of stages leading to adulthood. In this case the mature adult remains the measure and the end of analysis, and childhood is just a means. Play is acceptable in children because we have recognized that through play various capacities are developed that we value in the mature adult. Does such thinking respect childhood, or have we raised the reductionism of our Puritan fore­bears to a new level of sophistication and subtlety? This is not to suggest that developmental models are not important and illuminating, but only that taken alone such models are inherently reductive and that perhaps we have not yet earned the right to look down on Puritans.

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