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Next in our spring speakers’ series, a talk on how we know we’re right when we argue with smart people who disagree with us in interesting ways. Does it affect our ability to justify our beliefs? How do we reckon with the irreconcilable?

Like all CHSC talks, it’s free and open to the public; please come. It’s a categorical imperative.

Below the historians debate which American Presidents count as intellectual. Here I sing of math and the man, Gottfried Leibniz, German polymath, the smartest man that ever lived. I could sing out long and loud, but today I sing only one verse to make the case:*

In 1672, the Elector of Mainz sent the young diplomat Leibniz to Paris. The young diplomat Leibniz did little in the service of diplomacy, but instead met all of the intellectuals that he could find, including the Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens, and to his chagrin, the young Leibniz learned that his mathematical knowledge was quite deficient. So he decided to rectify the situation.

Three years later, on this day in 1675, he invented the calculus.


Of course, the claim that he invented the calculus was not (is not?) uncontroversial. Newton claimed to have developed his method of fluxions in 1666 or so, and thus Leibniz’s contribution, at most, was developing a better notation system for someone else’s discovery.

Historians of science sometimes speak of the calculus as ready to be discovered, and so, like the question of who discovered the New World, it’s simply a matter of who did it, when, and whether he did it on his own.** And the evidence at best is mixed. It’s clear that Newton did not publish his method of fluxions until 1693; Leibniz first publishes his differentials in 1684. But the intellectual currency of the day was manuscripts and letters, mostly undated, and it is not clear whether Leibniz saw Newton’s manuscripts prior to 1677, when he sent a note to Newton detailing some of the principles of his system.

Complicating the issue further is rabid partisanship. In 1687, Newton claims that he invented the calculus independently some twenty years earlier, but acknowledged Leibniz as a skilled geometer who had shared his own independently developed method ten years earlier. It was not until the early 1700s when charges of plagiarism began to appear on both sides. Neither man acquitted himself well:

All-out war began in 1710, when an English writer published an article bluntly accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Understandably outraged, Leibniz demanded an independent inquiry from the Royal Society. In 1712, the Society duly organized a commission, which delivered its verdict: the accusation of plagiarism stands. The de facto chairman of the inquiry and author of its report on Leibniz was Isaac Newton.

An anonymous article appeared in the German press defending Leibniz and reversing the charge: Newton, the unnamed author declaims, plagiarized Leibniz. Leibniz was forced to disown the article, claiming it had been put out by a “zealous friend.” But it soon became clear to all parties that the “zealous friend” in question was Leibniz himself. In England, meanwhile, appeared an anonymous review of the dispute, according to which Newton was the innocent victim of Leibniz’s chicanery. The “anonymous” author, it turns out, was Newton himself.

The dispute resolved solomonically: We say they both independently invented the calculus. Newton invented it first. Leibniz invented it…. better.

*Diderot sings it shorter: “When one compares the talents one has with those of a Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner.”

** I heart the locution “discovered.” As if the calculus were behind the sofa all along!

On this night in 1619, after a night in which he swears he was not carousing, René Descartes went to bed in an overheated, stuffy room in Ulm, and had three vivid dreams to which he later attributed the eventual course of his life.

In the first dream, a strong wind battered Descartes, and he sought shelter in the church of a college, only to be pushed back by the winds. After the winds abated he found himself surrounded by upright people, while he himself tottered along, leaning to the left. In the second dream, he perceived a loud thunderclap and saw the room filled with sparks of light. This apparently was a recurring dream for Descartes, so he meditated on logic until he fell asleep. (It’s like counting sheep, but for intellectuals.)

In the third dream, Descartes felt no terror, but instead came upon a book of verse, the first line of which read “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” and another poem, presented to him by an unknown man, with the first line “Est et non.” Which way of life shall I choose? It is and it is not.

It’s no tolle lege, but it’s surely proof that the universe has a sense of humor, having a man who would be identified with rationalism and whose books and teachings would be periodically banned, get his inspiration from a dream about a church. Descartes grew into a philosopher (and mathematician) whose method, more than his beliefs, distinguished him from the Scholastics, a method of metaphysical doubt: proceeding by extreme skepticism, he would discern those true principles which struck him as clear and distinct. And from there, he hoped, one could construct science upon firm foundations:

Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable. (Meditations II.)

Descartes presents this new method of doubt in the aptly titled Discourse on the Method (1637), but nowhere so vividly as in the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), in which he presents himself as a restless thinker, sitting by the fire in his pajamas (lit. toga),who over the course of six days meditates on what he can know with certainty, doubting his experiences (for has he not had similar experiences in dreams?) His first intermediate conclusion, a barbaric yawp: I am, I exist, I am a thinking thing. The famous formulation cogito ergo sum is not in the Meditations; some philosophers argue that this is omitted because Descartes did not think of the conclusion as an inference, but as a truth of unshakeable immediacy.

Descartes circulated the manuscript of the Meditations to the leading theological and philosophical thinkers of his day, and in an act that earned him the love of historians of philosophy, published the objections and replies as an addendum to the first edition. The critics press Descartes on a number of points, but they can be summarized by noting that while Archimedes needed a solid place to stand in order to move the world, he also needed a lever. Arguing from I am a thinking thing to the reality of God, logic, and the external world did not prove to be an easy task, and whether Descartes’ argument succeeds or falls to circularity is still the subject of scholarly debate.

I once was fortunate enough to hold in my hand an early (first or second edition) copy of the Meditations. It was fat, and fit easily in the palm of my hand, about the size of a book of prayers. It would have fit snugly in the pocket of a jacket. While it would be irresponsible to conclude anything about Descartes’ intentions or hopes from the small size of the book (many factors determine the size of a book), speculating is irresistible: the book of dreams from a dreamer, a book of meditations for the modern scientist from a man whose aspirations were much more modest:

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for so many ages by the most distinguished men; and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is still not in dispute and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others.

Leni Riefenstahl was born on August 22nd, 1902.

Her artistic career began in dance, but, after a knee injury, she turned to film, starring in a number of silent pictures before her directorial debut, Das Blaue Licht. Her real artistic breakthrough, of course, was Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg. (Though “documentary” is perhaps inapt–the rally itself was planned with the film in mind, so the two seemed to have a symbiotic relationship.)

But, hey, you can read the wiki page yourself.

What interests me about “Triumph of the Will”– a film I’ve never seen– is that, at least on the surface, it looks like a case of a work of art that has aesthetic value while being morally bad. So it comes up a lot in conversations about the relationship between those sorts of values.

You might endorse that evaluation: you might say it’s aesthetically but not morally valuable. If so, there are incompatible values here. Presumably being a morally ideal person will involve reacting with horror and revulsion at a celebration of the Nazi party.* Being an ideal aesthetic judge means being a less-than-ideal moral judge, because fully appreciating the aesthetic value means not reacting with horror.

(Balthus is another artist who comes up in these debates. Here‘s something you don’t want to be caught looking at– Guitar Lesson.)

The same issue comes up with questions about offensive-but-funny jokes. Want to generate examples? Think of a kind of value, then imagine a case where it might be morally wrong to enjoy it.

Aristotle has this cute argument early in the NE where he says, more or less, that the virtuous person would judge things a certain way, therefore that’s the truth of the matter, because the ideally virtuous agents are the best judges. I like this because of two interrelated thoughts. First, the ambiguity of “best” in this context– do the virtuous agents have the morally best responses, the comedically best responses, or…? (Aristotle of course thinks there’s no conflict, but we should be skeptical of this claim.) Second, the argument draws our attention to the danger of conflating different sorts of reasons. There might be moral reasons to feel horror, aesthetic reasons to feel awe, in response to “Triumph.” (An analogy I’m tired of making: this is like pragmatic vs. epistemic reasons to believe in Pascal’s Wager, or pragmatic vs. something-like-epistemic reasons to intend in the toxin puzzle.)

Anyway, I have no ax to grind in the area, but I think it’s a neat issue. Two good things to read: Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” and Dan Jacobson’s long but rewarding paper on immoral art. (PDF.)

Leni Riefenstahl, one of the few things not younger than John McCain, passed away on September 8, 2003.

*Don’t be dumb, be a smartie.

Even McCain is unsure. The “McCain Portrait” was right to remain agnostic on the precise number of McCain’s houses, and Yglesias is right to say this is partly a question of mereology. (I know a guy who knows more than pretty much everyone in the world about what Abelard thought about mereology. Hot. The jokes about Abelard and parts and wholes, they fly fast and furious.)

Two thoughts. First, in the “I can’t believe we might lose to this guy” category, seriously, think about what it would be like to wake up in the morning unsure of how many houses you own. I own one, for example. I know some people who live in one house and have some rental properties. Two, maybe three houses. Ok, that’s cool. It can be a good financial move. But they know.

Remember when people thought it mattered that a candidate didn’t know the price of a gallon of milk?

Second, it would be great if Obama’s new ad were slightly wrong about the number, so that he had to correct it publicly. “Oops, my bad– it’s really six not seven. So sorry. Let’s talk at length about how I made this mistake. About McCain’s many, many houses.”

I remember being at a talk where the speaker (I think it was Timothy Williamson) was discussing examples where the antecedent of a conditional provided evidence for the consequent, and he pointed out that in these cases there’s often a way in which the antecedent can be false that provides even more evidence for the consequent. E.g., “if a touchdown was scored, they’re playing football”– suppose the touchdown didn’t count because of a holding penalty. Ah, now there are refs and flags and this is definitely a game of football. Apparently GE Moore once gave his “here is one hand, here is another, thus there’s an external world” talk but improvised by replacing holding up his hands with pointing to a skylight while saying “that’s a skylight, thus…” only it wasn’t really a skylight but a trompe l’oeil thingie. Anyway. So too with “if McCain owns seven houses, he is one rich dude.” Oh, wait, it’s really eight? Or five? Please, let’s get into that conversation.

I’ve put some video of my recent conference session on youtube. I make no apologies for my passion. Philosophy is a full-contact form of life, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the APA. (Not entirely work-safe for reasons of profanity. Lower your volume.)

(Via RYS, a site that would be better if meaner. More detail here. Anyone been part of a happening like that? I’ve heard stories, but haven’t been present at the trainwreck.)

In other video news, check out this discussion of moral realism between Peter Railton (Michigan) and his former student Don Loeb (Vermont). (I post this partly to make myself watch it. This is a good demonstration of why bloggingheads is so annoying: I would have read the transcript by now.) Anyway, both of these guys are hot. Back when I wanted to be a moral realist, I wanted to be a Railton-style stark raving moral realist. Now that I’m not convinced, I read some of Loeb’s stuff and wonder at his ability to steal my ideas then travel back in time to publish them.

That’s an empirical question.

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