stoutfellow: (Winter)
If memory serves, Andre Gide (I'm almost certain it was him) wrote a piece - poem, essay, short story, I don't recall - in which a (dying?) man reflects on the good things of life. I have heard of it, but have not read it, and would like to. Does what I've said, skimpy though it is, ring a bell with anyone?
stoutfellow: (Winter)
For those who are tempted to despair by the events of the last month - and the prospect of worse to come in the next couple of years - here is A Brief for the Defense.

Hat-tip to Abi Sutherland at Making Light.
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
In my course on the history of modern mathematics, we just covered the emergence of calculus. After devoting most of two class sessions to Newton, I briefly discussed Leibniz' contributions, mainly by contrasting his foundational ideas and notation with Newton's. Then I asked for questions. One of the students raised a hand. "Why did Leibniz develop calculus? Newton needed it for his work on motion and gravitation. What was Leibniz' motivation?"

I paused. Blinked. Said, "That's a good question, and I don't know the answer. I'll look into it."

I'm still not sure. I've poked around a little and have some general ideas, but... I'm not sure. I'm also not sure why the question never occurred to me.

On an unrelated but thematically similar note, a former student of mine dropped by and asked me if I'd ever heard of "inconsistent mathematics", a mathematical metatheory that avoids Russell's Paradox and its kin by allowing, under certain circumstances, statements which are both true and false. I was ready to dismiss this as obvious crankitude, but I looked it up and... there's something there. I'm going to have to take a closer look. I thanked the student for bringing it to my attention, and he hurried off to class happily. (If you're curious, one reference is Inconsistent Mathematics.)

Sometimes they surprise you.
stoutfellow: (Three)
It is a good thing to prepare a casserole, using multiple ingredients with different flavors and textures, to be eaten over the course of a week.

It is also a good thing to put peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers and wash them down with milk.

Certainly Buster and Gracie are more in favor of the latter.
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
Ursula Vernon (whom I adore) attributes the following quote to Nesbit. (She doesn't source it, so I can't verify, and Google is useless.)
”There are two great powers on our side, the power of love and the power of mathematics. Those two are stronger than anything in the world.”
stoutfellow: (Winter)
Quite a few years ago, I bought The Intentional Stance, by Daniel Dennett. I don't remember what prompted the purchase. I've had it shelved with the books on linguistics, but, as I discovered when I took it down a week or so ago, it's actually a philosophy text, on the theory of mind and the nature of belief. Not what I expected.

I'm finding it a tough read, but an interesting one. The oddest connections keep popping up: to the disputes in philosophy of mathematics since Cantor's time, to the work of Csányi and de Waal on the minds of animals, to works of fiction like Bear's Queen of Angels and Bujold's Memory....

I realize that I'm probably missing a lot; the book is confessedly a contribution to a long dispute, and - not having read any other parts of that dispute - I can't really assess how strong the book's arguments are, or even, in full, what they mean. I recognize names - Hilary Putnam, W. V. O. Quine, Saul Kripke, Jerry Fodor - but little more than that. (Kripke and Quine, in particular, I ought to investigate. I've got at least one book by each of them, sitting unread on my shelves.)

Interesting or no, I probably won't be reviewing it. It's too dense and, frankly, too far from my main areas of interest. Still, I think I'm glad I picked it up, even if I don't remember why.
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
I recently read One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World's Greatest Thinkers, by Peter J. King. It's what it sounds like; King selects one hundred noteworthy philosophers, from antiquity to the present, and gives each a page or two1, briefly outlining their lives, the questions they consider(ed), and the answers they arrive(d) at. The hundred include all of the usual Western heavy hitters, but also a fair sampling of Chinese, Indian, and Muslim thinkers and a number of lesser-known figures.

I came to this with the knowledge of an educated layman; I did not take any philosophy courses in college (not even GenEd), but have tried to read a scattering of classic works. At that level, then, it's an interesting and perhaps useful book.

In some respects I was dissatisfied with it. Some of the lesser-known thinkers get rather short shrift; in some cases, especially contemporary third-world philosophers such as Allameh Iqbal and Kwasi Wiredu, King says almost nothing about their actual ideas. If they're important enough to include in a list of the top one hundred, then they deserve a bit better treatment. (The choice of the one hundred is, as King admits, somewhat arbitrary; he gives a long list of other candidates. The allocation of one page or two seems somewhat less arbitrary, but still occasionally odd.) There were also more than a few typos or outright errors that I caught (and if I caught that many, there are likely to be yet more that I missed).

Nonetheless, such information as it does contain is often interesting enough. There are no surprises in the material on the best-known philosophers, but King does a decent job of putting them in context. (Each segment includes a list of philosophers who influenced the one under discussion, and a list of those who were influenced by him/her.)  There are a number of lesser-known (to me) philosophers on the roster - Peter Strawson, David Lewis, Gottlob Frege - whose ideas sound interesting. (I'm a bit embarrassed by how little I know about Frege, since he played a major role in the development of the philosophy of mathematics around the turn of the twentieth century.) Perhaps I should look into their works.

It's not a great work, I think. I suspect that a trained philosopher, or even a dilettante, wouldn't find it very informative. For someone at my level of knowledge, though, it seems useful.

1. That means "either one page or two pages", not "somewhere between one and two pages".

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