How Aristotle Invented Computer Science

In popular conceptions, we take the computer to be the natural outcome of empirical science, an inheritance of the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, modern computers have their ancient precursors, like the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,200-year-old bronze and wood machine capable of predicting the positions of the planets, eclipses, and phases of the moon. But even this fascinating artifact fits into the narrative of computer science as “a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II.” Much less do we invoke the names of “philosopher-mathematicians,” writes Chris Dixon at The Atlantic, like George Boole and Gottlob Frege, “who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal ‘concept language,’ and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.” But these thinkers are as essential, if not more so, to computer science, especially, Dixon argues, Aristotle.

The ancient Greek thinker did not invent a calculating machine, though they may have existed in his lifetime. Instead, as Dixon writes in his recent piece, “How Aristotle Created the Computer,” Aristotle laid the foundations of mathematical logic, “a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.”

The claim may strike historians of philosophy as somewhat ironic, given that Enlightenment philosophers like Francis Bacon and John Locke announced their modern projects by thoroughly repudiating the medieval scholastics, whom they alleged were guilty of a slavish devotion to Aristotle. Their criticisms of medieval thought were varied and greatly warranted in many ways, and yet, like many an empiricist since, they often overlooked the critical importance of Aristotelian logic to scientific thought.

At the turn of the 20th century, almost three hundred years after Bacon sought to transcend Aristotle’s Organon with his form of natural philosophy, the formal logic of Aristotle could still be “considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications.” But Dixon traces the “evolution of computer science from mathematical logic” and Aristotelian thought, beginning in the 1930s with Claude Shannon, author of the groundbreaking essay "A Symbolic Analysis of Switching and Relay Circuits.” Shannon drew on the work of George Boole, whose name is now known to every computer scientist and engineer but who, in 1938, “was rarely read outside of philosophy departments.” And Boole owed his principle intellectual debt, as he acknowledged in his 1854 The Laws of Thought, to Aristotle’s syllogistic reasoning.

Boole derived his operations by replacing the terms in a syllogism with variables, “and the logical words ‘all’ and ‘are’ with arithmetical operators.” Shannon discovered that “Boole’s system could be mapped directly onto electrical circuits,” which hitherto “had no systematic theory governing their design.” The insight “allowed computer scientists to import decades of work in logic and mathematics by Boole and subsequent logicians.” Shannon, Dixon writes, “was the first to distinguish between the logical and the physical layer of computers,” a distinction now “so fundamental to computer science that it might seem surprising to modern readers how insightful it was at the time.” And yet, the field could not move forward without it—without, that is, a return to ancient categories of thought.

Since the 1940s, computer programming has become significantly more sophisticated. One thing that hasn’t changed is that it still primarily consists of programmers specifying rules for computers to follow. In philosophical terms, we’d say that computer programming has followed in the tradition of deductive logic, the branch of logic discussed above, which deals with the manipulation of symbols according to formal rules.

Dixon’s argument for the centrality of Aristotle to modern computer science takes many turns—through the quasi-mystical thought of 13th-century Ramon Llull and, later, his admirer Gottfried Leibniz. Through Descartes, and later Frege and Bertrand Russell. Through Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. Nowhere do we see Aristotle, wrapped in a toga, building a circuit board in his garage, but his modes of reasoning are everywhere in evidence as the scaffolding upon which all modern computer science has been built. Aristotle’s attempts to understand the laws of the human mind “helped create machines that could reason according to the rules of deductive logic.” The application of ancient philosophical principles may, Dixon concludes, “result in the creation of new minds—artificial minds—that might someday match or even exceed our own.” Read Dixon’s essay at The Atlantic, or hear it read in its entirety in the audio above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


New Archive Is Digitizing the Entirety of Phenomenology: Browse Works by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and More

Chances are, if you can define the word phenomenology, you’re already a student of the 20th century philosophical school, field, movement, or—as its earliest expositor, Edmund Husserl wrote in a preface to the English edition of his 1913 Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, “new science—though, indeed, the whole course of philosophical development since Descartes has been preparing the way for it."

Husserl’s messianic claim for phenomenological thinking–that which, broadly, deals with the contents of consciousness and the objects of experience–presages the discipline’s enormity, well represented by the totalizing thought of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher who intended with his 1927 Being and Time to accomplish the “destruction” of philosophy. In a way, writes Simon Critchley, he succeeded. “There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time.”

Another prominent phenomenologist, French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty, asserts a no less mind-bogglingly huge mandate for the method: “phenomenology is the study of essences,” he writes in his 1947 Phenomenology of Perception. “It is the search for a philosophy which shall be a ‘rigorous science,’ but it also offers an account of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ them.” Again, if this makes sense to you, you may already be a student of phenomenology, and you've probably read a lot of it.

Philosophy students and professors must have ready access to a huge number of texts by a wide range of authors, most of whom are having multiple conversations with each other at once. It is, of course, ideal to have at hand the kinds of resources one might find at the Stadtbibliothek in Berlin, one of the largest libraries in the world, or even at most large university libraries. But if you don’t have such access, you can still gather a fair number of full texts by Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and their many famous students and colleagues on the web.

Soon, you will be able to do so all in one place, in multiple languages and formats, at the Open Commons of Phenomenology, a “non-profit, international scholarly association” aiming to “provide free access to the full corpus of phenomenology” by 2020. A suitably ambitious task for a very ambitious school of thought. Currently, project founders Patrick Flack (whom you’ll see in the promo video at the top), Rodney ParkerNicolas de Warren, and the Husserl Archives have compiled “about 12000 bibliographic entries,” close to a quarter of which link to open access pdfs.

The project still needs to iron out a number kinks, and broken links, but it plans in the coming years to collect not only previously online essays and books, but also newly digitized texts and translations, “enhanced with a number of powerful tools, such as interactive timelines and genealogies of phenomenologists and psychologists, .xml versions of texts,” and much more. Read more about the project at Daily Nous, at the now-closed Indiegogo page from its funding campaign last year, and at the Open Commons site itself, where you'll also find reviews, calls for papers, lists of events, and more. The dense outline on the site's About page promises great things for this new "digital infrastructure" of phenomenology research. Enter the Open Commons of Phenomenology here.

via Daily Nous

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Stoicism, the Ancient Greek Philosophy That Lets You Lead a Happy, Fulfilling Life

Forever known, it seems, as keeping a “stiff upper lip,” Stoicism—like its predecessor, Cynicism—is an ancient school of Greek philosophy that has been reduced into an attitude, a pose rather than a way of life. “We do this to our philosophies,” writes Lary Wallace at Aeon, “We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasizing all the wrong features.” We do this especially to schools as obscure to most people as Stoicism and Cynicism.

“In reality,” however, writes Massimo Pigliucci at The Stone, “practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity): it is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like.” Would the ancient Stoics have agreed with this assessment? In the short TED-Ed lesson above, written by Pigliucci and animated by Compote Collective, we learn about Zeno of Cyprus, “stranded miles from home, with no money or possessions.”

Destitute and “shipwrecked in Athens around 300 BCE,” the once-wealthy merchant discovered Socrates, and decided to “seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.” Zeno then taught his own students the principles of “virtue, tolerance, and self-control” that underlie Stoic philosophy (called so for “the porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens” where the group congregated). Although the ability to remain calm and composed in a crisis—the quality most associated with Stoicism—occupies a prominent place in Stoic thought, it is centrally concerned with two questions.

As the site 99u puts it, Stoics ask: “1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?” and “2. How can we become better human beings?” In brief, we do so not by obeying or submitting to some kind of capricious divine will, but by attending to the rational structure of the universe, the Logos, an intricate web of cause and effect that determines the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The Stoic cultivates four virtues—Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage—and the character recommended by Stoic philosophy makes it plain why Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, as Pigliucci notes, was “actually modeled after [Gene Roddenberry’s]—mistaken—understanding of Stoicism.”

Given Stoicism’s concern with happiness and virtue, we might expect Alain de Botton’s School of Life to be an advocate, and we would be right. In the animated introduction to Stoicism above, de Botton assures viewers “you need more of it in your life.” Why? Because “life is difficult,” and Stoicism is “helpful,” for commoners and aristocrats alike. Indeed the most famous of Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. Considered one of the greatest works of ancient thought, Aurelius’ Meditations is also perhaps one of the most accessible of philosophical texts.

In plain, straightforward language, the emperor-philosopher recommends a series of Greco-Roman virtues, and gives credit to his many teachers. In book two, he writes, “Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.” In other words, rather than suffering in courageous silence—the caricature of Stoicism—Aurelius distills much of its essence to this: “Don’t worry about what you can't control, find good work to do, and do it well and wisely.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that philosophy is an ivory tower discipline that has little effect on the unlovely operations of government, driven as they are by the concerns of middle class wallets, upper class stock portfolios, and the ever-present problem of poverty. But we would be wrong. In times when presidents, cabinet members, or senators have been thoughtful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the previous president—have exercised considerable sway. Few philosophers have been as historically influential as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thoroughly destructive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle… even Socrates, who made himself a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But when it comes to the mostly French school of thinkers we associate with postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Derrida, and many others—such influence is far less direct. The work of these writers has been often dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential, speaking a language no one understands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spectrum. Perhaps this is so in the United States, where power is often theorized but rarely radically critiqued in mainstream publications. But it has not been so in France. At least not according to the CIA, who closely monitored the effects of French philosophy on the country's domestic and foreign policy during their long-running culture war against Communism and “anti-Americanism,” and who, in 1985, compiled a research paper to document their investigations. (See a sample page above.)

Recently made available to the public in a "sanitized copy" through a Freedom of Information Act request, the document, titled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,” shows itself surprisingly approving of the political direction post-structuralist thinkers had taken. Villanova University professor of philosophy and author of Radical History and the Politics of Art Gabriel Rockhill summarizes the tenor of the agency’s assessment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon:

…the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

The “spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to US policies.” The influence of “New Left intellectuals” over French culture and government was such, they surmised, that “President [Francois] Mitterrand’s notable coolness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this pervasive attitude.”

These observations stand in contrast to the previous generation of “left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar period,” writes Rockhill, who “had been openly critical of US imperialism” and actively worked against the machinations of American operatives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives,” and as a result was “closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.” By the mid-eighties, the Agency stated, triumphantly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Communist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their former proteges, but none had any stomach for fighting a rearguard defense of Marxism.” As such, the late Cold War period saw a “broader retreat from ideology among intellectuals of all political colors.”

A certain weariness had taken hold, brought about by the indefensible totalitarian abuses of the “cult of Stalinism” and the seeming inescapability of the Washington Consensus and the multinational corporatism engendered by it. By the time of Communism’s collapse, U.S. philosophers waxed apocalyptic, even as they celebrated the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama called “liberal democracy” over socialism. Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man made its startling thesis plain in the title. There would be no more revolutions. Harvard thinker Samuel Huntington declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyperbolic arguments about “the end of art," the “end of nature," and so on. And, in France, in the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, the previously vigorous philosophical left, the CIA believed, had “succumbed to a kind of listlessness.”

While the agency credited the diffidence of post-structuralist philosophers with swaying popular opinion away from socialism and “hardening public attitudes toward Marxism and the Soviet Union,” it also wrote that “their influence appears to be waning, and they are unlikely to have much direct impact on political affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seriously critics of so-called “Identity Politics,” the answer is a resounding No. As those who closely identify postmodern philosophy with several recent waves of leftist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was shortsighted in its conclusions. Perhaps, bound to a Manichean view fostered by decades of Cold War maneuvering, they could not conceive of a politics that opposed both American and Soviet empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ideology was hardly a retreat from politics. We might say, over thirty years since this curious research essay circulated among intelligence gatherers, that concepts like Foucault’s biopower or Derrida’s skeptical interrogations of identity have more currency and relevance than ever, even if we don’t always understand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have foreseen the pervasive impact of postmodern thought, they never dismissed it as obscurantist or inconsequential sophistry. Their newly-released report, writes Rockhill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Take Free Philosophy Courses from The Institute of Art and Ideas: From “The Meaning of Life” to “Heidegger Meets Van Gogh”

Back in 2014, we told you about how The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) launched IAI Academy -- an online educational platform that features free courses from world-leading scholars "on the ideas that matter." They have since put online a number of philosophy courses, many striving to address questions that affect our lives today. We've listed a number of them below, and added them to our list of 150+ Free Online Philosophy courses. For a complete list of IAI Academy courses, visit this page.

  • Heidegger Meets Van Gogh: Art, Freedom and Technology - Web video - Simon Glendinning, London School of Economics
  • Dark Matter of the Mind - Web video - Daniel Everett, Bentley University
  • Fear and Trembling in the 21st Century - Web video - Clare Carlisle, King’s College London
  • Knowledge and Rationality - Web Video - Corine Besson, University of Sussex
  • Life, Meaning and Morality - Web video - Christopher Hamilton, King’s College, London
  • Minds, Morality and Agency - Web video - Mark Rowlands, University of Miami
  • On Romantic Love - Web video - Berit Brogaard, University of Miami
  • The Human Compass - Web video - Janne Teller
  • The Meaning of Life - Web video - Steve Fuller, University of Warwick
  • The Universe As We Find It - Web video - John Heil, Washington University in St Louis
  • Unveiling Reality - Web video - Bryan Roberts, London School of Economics
  • Why the World Does Not Exist - Web video - Markus Gabriel, Freiburg Institute of Advanced Study.

Note: The courses are all free. However, to take a course you will need to create a user account.

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A Short, Animated Introduction to Emil Cioran, the “Philosopher of Despair”

It is admittedly a gross oversimplification, but if asked to summarize a critical difference between analytical Anglo-American philosophers and so-called “Continentals," one might broadly say that the former approach philosophy as thinking, the latter as writing. Contrast, for example, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Bertrand Russell—none of whom are especially known as prose stylists—with Michel de Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Albert Camus. While the Englishmen struck out into heady intellectual waters indeed, the Europeans brought the full weight of their personalities to bear on their investigations. They invented personae, wrote literary aphorisms, and often wrote fiction, drama, and dialogue in addition to philosophy.

Surely there are many exceptions to this scheme, but on the whole, Continental thinkers have been looser with the laws of logic and more intimate with the rules of rhetoric, as well as with their own emotional lives. But perhaps one of the greatest examples of such a philosophical writer is someone most of us have never heard of. After watching this short School of Life video introduction on Romanian-French philosopher Emil Cioran, we may be persuaded to get to know his work. Cioran, says Alain de Botton above, “is very much worthy of inclusion in the line of the greatest French and European moral philosophers and writers of maxims stretching back to Montaigne, Chamfort, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld.”

Costica Bradatan describes Cioran as a “20th-century Nietzsche, only darker and with a better sense of humor.” Called a “philosopher of despair” by the New York Times upon his death in 1995, Cioran’s “hair-shirted world view resonated in the titles” of books like On the Heights of Despair, Syllogisms of Bitterness, and The Trouble with Being Born. Though his deeply pessimistic outlook was consistent throughout his career, he was not a systematic thinker. “Cioran often contradicts himself,” writes Bradatan, “but that’s the least of his worries. With him, self-contradiction is not even a weakness, but the sign a mind is alive.”

Like Nietzsche, Cioran possessed a “brooding, romantic, fatalistic temperament” combined with an obsession with religious themes, inherited from his father, a Greek Orthodox priest. The two also share a penchant for pithy aphorisms both shocking and darkly funny in their brutal candor. De Botton quotes one example: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” For Cioran, Bradatan remarks, writing philosophy was “not about being consistent, nor about persuasion or keeping a readership entertained.” It was a personal act of survival. “You write not to produce some body of text, but to act upon yourself; to bring yourself together after a personal disaster or to pull yourself out of a bad depression.”

Cioran put it this way: “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” In his thematic obsessions, literary elegance, and personal investment in his work, Cioran resembles a number of writers we admire because philosophy for them was not a matter of rational abstraction; it was an active engagement with the most personal, yet universal, questions of life and death.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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