The Unfinished Project of Enlightenment

Brandon Bloch in the Boston Review:

“No one in the world feels the weakness of general characterizing more than I.” So lamented Johann Gottfried von Herder, towering figure of the German Enlightenment, in his 1774 treatise This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity. “One draws together peoples and periods of time that follow one another in an eternal succession like waves of the sea,” Herder wrote. “Whom has one painted? Whom has the depicting word captured?” For Herder, the Enlightenment dream of grasping human history as a seamless whole came up against the irreducible particularity of individuals and cultures.

The German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, among the most influential thinkers of our time, grapples with much the same problem in his new work, the title of which reverses the order of Herder’s terms: This Too a History of Philosophy. Published in German last September, Habermas’s History spans over 3,000 years and 1,700 pages. It marks the apogee of a singular career. Like his eighteenth-century precursor, Habermas seeks a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of the sweep of human history. “Philosophical problems,” he writes, are distinctive from merely “scientific” ones in their “synthetic force.” For Habermas, the fragmentation of modern life has hardly exhausted philosophy’s capacity for bold questions and architectonic structure.

More here.

Scientific practice is much older than we think

Chad Orzel at the IAI:

In September 1991, a pair of German hikers in the Ötztal Alps, near the border between Austria and Italy, spotted something brown and human-shaped sticking out of a glacier. They immediately reported this to the authorities, thinking they had discovered the body of someone who had died while hiking. While they were correct about it being a dead body, they were a little off on the timing: what they found turned out to be the mummified corpse of a man who had died sometime before 3100 BCE.

The mummy, quickly nicknamed “Ötzi” after the mountains where he was found, was a middle-aged man from the Copper Age, who had been killed by an arrow in the back. His body was quickly frozen into the glacier, along with his clothes and other possessions, leaving it incredibly well preserved. Over the last 29 years, he has been the subject of intense scientific investigation by a wide range of techniques, down to DNA sequencing to determine the species of the hides used to make his clothing, and isotopic analysis to determine the source of the copper ore for his axe. From all these studies, scientists have been able to reconstruct his final days in considerable detail: he was killed in early summer, having been wounded in a fight a few days earlier. His last two meals consisted of ibex meat and grains, one eaten at a much lower altitude than where he was found, suggesting a vivid narrative of battle and pursuit.

More here.

If you want to let freedom ring, hammer on economic injustice

Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times:

Since it emerged seven years ago in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement has produced a sea change in attitudes, politics and policy.

In 2016, 43 percent of Americans supported Black Lives Matter and its claims about the criminal justice system; now, it’s up to 67 percent, with 60 percent support among white Americans, compared with 40 percent four years ago. Whereas Democratic politicians once stumbled over the issue, now even Republicans are falling over themselves to say that “black lives matter.” And where the policy conversation was formerly focused on body cameras and chokehold bans, now mainstream outlets are debating and taking seriously calls to demilitarize and defund police departments or to abolish them outright.

But the Black Lives Matter platform isn’t just about criminal justice. From the start, activists have articulated a broad, inclusive vision for the entire country. This, in fact, has been true of each of the nation’s major movements for racial equality. Among black Americans and their Radical Republican allies, Reconstruction — which was still ongoing as of 150 years ago — was as much a fight to fundamentally reorder Southern economic life as it was a struggle for political inclusion. The struggle against Jim Crow, likewise, was also a struggle for economic equality and the transformation of society.

More here.

The Racist Roots of New Technology

Stephen Kearse at The Nation:

The modern study of the intersection of race and technology has its roots in the 1990s, when tech utopianism clashed with the racism of tech culture. As the Internet grew into a massive nexus for commerce and leisure and became the heart of modern industry, the ills of tech workplaces manifested themselves online in chat rooms, message boards, and multiplayer video games that were rife with harassment and hate speech. Documenting these instances, a range of scholars, activists, and politicians attempted to combat these ills, but with little success. When the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent letters to Internet providers in 1996 protesting the rise of neo-Nazi websites, for example, the reply it received from a representative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent tech lobby, channeled a now commonplace mantra: “The best response is always to answer bad speech with more speech.” Similarly, media studies researcher Lisa Nakamura documented a dismissive comment in a study of the online game LambdaMOO. In response to a failed community petition to curb racial harassment, a detractor countered, “Well, who knows my race unless I tell them? If race isn’t important [then] why mention it? If you want to get in somebody’s face with your race then perhaps you deserve a bit of flak.”

more here.

The Unruly Genius of Joyce Carol Oates

Leo Robson at The New Yorker:

Oates’s friend the novelist John Gardner once suggested that she try writing a story “in which things go well, for a change.” That hasn’t happened yet. Her latest book, the enormous and frequently brilliant “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” (Ecco)—the forty-ninth novel she has published, if you exclude the ones she has written under pseudonyms—is a characteristic work. It begins with an act of police brutality, and proceeds to document the multifarious consequences for the victim’s wife and children: alcoholism, low-level criminality, marital breakdown, incipient nervous collapse. In a 1977 journal entry, Oates acknowledged that her work turns instinctively toward what she called “the central, centralizing act of violence that seems to symbolize something beyond itself.” Perhaps the most heavily ironic statement in her œuvre comes in her second novel, “A Garden of Earthly Delights” (1967), when a woman says, “Nobody killed nobody, this is the United States,” while the most characteristic piece of exposition may be found in “Little Bird of Heaven” (2009): “Daddy was bringing me home on that November evening not long before his death-by-firing-squad to a house from which he’d been banished by my mother.”

more here.

The History of Zero

Nils-Bertin Wallin in YaleGlobal Online:

The Sumerians were the first to develop a counting system to keep an account of their stock of goods – cattle, horses, and donkeys, for example. The Sumerian system was positional; that is, the placement of a particular symbol relative to others denoted its value. The Sumerian system was handed down to the Akkadians around 2500 BC and then to the Babylonians in 2000 BC. It was the Babylonians who first conceived of a mark to signify that a number was absent from a column; just as 0 in 1025 signifies that there are no hundreds in that number. Although zero’s Babylonian ancestor was a good start, it would still be centuries before the symbol as we know it appeared.

The renowned mathematicians among the Ancient Greeks, who learned the fundamentals of their math from the Egyptians, did not have a name for zero, nor did their system feature a placeholder as did the Babylonian. They may have pondered it, but there is no conclusive evidence to say the symbol even existed in their language. It was the Indians who began to understand zero both as a symbol and as an idea.

Brahmagupta, around 650 AD, was the first to formalize arithmetic operations using zero. He used dots underneath numbers to indicate a zero. These dots were alternately referred to as ‘sunya’, which means empty, or ‘kha’, which means place. Brahmagupta wrote standard rules for reaching zero through addition and subtraction as well as the results of operations with zero. The only error in his rules was division by zero, which would have to wait for Isaac Newton and G.W. Leibniz to tackle.

But it would still be a few centuries before zero reached Europe. First, the great Arabian voyagers would bring the texts of Brahmagupta and his colleagues back from India along with spices and other exotic items. Zero reached Baghdad by 773 AD and would be developed in the Middle East by Arabian mathematicians who would base their numbers on the Indian system. In the ninth century, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi was the first to work on equations that equaled zero, or algebra as it has come to be known. He also developed quick methods for multiplying and dividing numbers known as algorithms (a corruption of his name). Al-Khowarizmi called zero ‘sifr’, from which our cipher is derived. By 879 AD, zero was written almost as we now know it, an oval – but in this case smaller than the other numbers. And thanks to the conquest of Spain by the Moors, zero finally reached Europe; by the middle of the twelfth century, translations of Al-Khowarizmi’s work had weaved their way to England.

More here.

Contribution of Al-Khwarizmi to Mathematics and Geography

N. Akmal Ayyubi in Muslim Heritage:

One of the greatest minds of the early mathematical production in Arabic was Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (b. before 800, d. after 847 in Baghdad) who was a mathematician and astronomer as well as a geographer and a historian. It is said that he is the author in Arabic of one of the oldest astronomical tables, of one the oldest works on arithmetic and the oldest work on algebra; some of his scientific contributions were translated into Latin and were used until the 16th century as the principal mathematical textbooks in European universities. Originally he belonged to Khwârazm (modern Khiwa) situated in Turkistan but he carried on his scientific career in Baghdad and all his works are in Arabic.

He was summoned to Baghdad by Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun (213-833), who was a patron of knowledge and learning. Al-Ma’mun established the famous Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) which worked on the model of a library and a research academy. It had a large and rich library (Khizânat Kutub al-Hikma) and distinguished scholars of various faiths were assembled to produce scientific masterpieces as well as to translate faithfully nearly all the great and important ancient works of Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi and of other languages into Arabic. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, according to Ibn al-Nadîm [1] and Ibn al-Qiftî [2] (and as it is quoted by the late Aydin Sayili) [3], was attached to (or devoted himself entirely to) Khizânat al-Hikma. It is also said that he was appointed court astronomer of Caliph Al-Ma’mun who also commissioned him to prepare abstracts from one of the Indian books entitled Surya Siddhanta which was called al-Sindhind [4] in Arabic [5]. Al-Khwarizmi’s name is linked to the translation into Arabic of certain Greek works [6] and he also produced his own scholarly works not only on astronomy and mathematics but also in geography and history. It was for Caliph al-Ma’mun that Al-Khwarizmi composed his astronomical treatise and dedicated his book on Algebra.

…It is worth remarking that the term al-jabr, in the Latinized form of algebra, has found its way into the modern languages, whilst the old mathematical term algorism is a distortion of al-Khwarizmi’s name.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


I Lost My Medicine Bag
from back when I believed
in magic. It’s made from a doe’s stomach
and holds grizzly teeth and claw,
stones from Tibet and the moon
the garden and the beach
where the baby’s ashes are buried.
Now I expect this bag to cure my illnesses—
I can’t walk and the skin on my back
pulses and moans without a mouth.
The gods exiled me to this loneliness
of pain for their own good reasons.

by Jim Harrison
Dead Man’s Float
Copper Canyon Press, 2015

The Statues Were Always A Grab For Power

by Thomas R. Wells

Some people claim that the prominent display of statues to controversial events or people, such as confederate generals in the southern United States, merely memorialises historical facts that unfortunately make some people uncomfortable. This is false. Firstly, such statues have nothing to do with history or facts and everything to do with projecting an illiberal political domination into the future. Secondly, upsetting a certain group of people is not an accident but exactly what they are supposed to do.

I start with the point that erecting statues is a political action and therefore subject to a political logic. Statues are political insofar as erecting them has a cost – not merely the direct costs of building it, but also the opportunity cost of using scarce public space this way rather than another – that only successful political mobilisation can meet. In particular, the more controversial the statue, the more political capital is required to overcome the opposition to its public display, and the more distinctly political must be its logic (in contrast to merely decorative public sculptures that no one much minds). So what is the political pay-off that can justify the political expense of erecting controversial statues? I believe controversial statues are a kind of political communication, a signal to supporters and opponents of the values and people in charge, in which the offensiveness of the message is key to its effectiveness.

Such statues communicate to those on the losing political team. They say, ‘Fuck you. We’re in charge’. To black people in America, the wave of monuments in the 1950s to confederate generals who defended slavery sent two clear messages. Firstly, it sent a message about domination: that the civil rights movement had not and would not change who ruled and in whose interests. Secondly, it sent a message about political values: that this domination was justified by nothing but power and would not be constrained by considerations of justice or the rule of law. Deliberately erecting statues that celebrate odious values shows to the oppressed that moral appeals are hopeless and will not even be heard; that – whatever the new voting laws say – they will never recognised as equals. Read more »

Monday Poem

Gull on a Spar

I’m a gull on a spar —so much sea,
so little far

this perch is so unsteady
I wonder what my bearings are

the roll and sway and pitch,
the other gull-calls I am hearing

as ship slides into ditch of trough,
this captain must be drunk the way he’s steering

or the helmsman is asleep, his compass eye is off,
the sluggish rudder’s answer is as drawn-out as a stutter

and I’m clinging to this spar like a baby to its mother
as the sun is going down wind screams or it is singing

the ship’s eighth bell is ringing,  the moon is coming up—
the image in that mirror, is that me or is that other?

Jim Culleny

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world

by Paul Braterman

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020, pp 208, sale price $8.84/£7.00 through publisher

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently). The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre.[1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but not about the timescale of the events that have shaped the Earth, as if what happened before we were born and what will happen after we die did not really exist. We have an economic system that (at least in normal times) depends on the expectation of continued growth, although if maintained over a very brief interval of geological or even historical time, such growth is clearly unsustainable.[2] Consumerism, rather than conservation, is regarded as good citizenship. Read more »

John Lewis Documentary Portrays a Civil-Rights Icon Afraid for His Country

by Alexander C. Kafka

John Lewis: Good Trouble couldn’t be more timely. 

The new documentary, which will be available Friday on demand, arrives amid Black Lives Matter protests and renewed and deepening threats to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It shows one of the architects and key drivers of that legislation, the longtime civil-rights activist and congressman from Georgia, in both his soft-spoken private sphere and in his amiable but passionate public life. As he despairs over a democracy in peril, both his sadness and his hope resonate profoundly, even as the 80-year-old widower battles stage-four pancreatic cancer. 

The film avoids his illness, as it does health details around his wife Lilian’s death in 2012. I wish it dealt more forthrightly with Lewis’s cancer, because a reminder of his mortality would underline how fragile is the progress he has helped bring about. It is too tempting to take this icon and his life’s work for granted.

What shines through in the film, directed with unobtrusive clarity and empathy by Dawn Porter, is Lewis’s fundamental kindness and gentleness. There is one key exception: a low-blow tactic he used against his close friend Julian Bond when they were pitted against each other in Lewis’s first congressional race in the 80s.  Read more »


by Raji Jayaraman

Audio version:

The English Garden in Fall

Tourists visit Germany for four main reasons: to drink beer, taste sausages, and see Schloss Neuschwanstein. Germans are understandably annoyed by this. They point to the country’s remarkable contributions to the arts and the sciences and bemoan the image of Germans as corpulent, Lederhosen-clad Bavarians, with a beer mug in one hand and a sausage in another. But there is more to tourists’ mental image of Germany than that. If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that I said that tourists come to Germany for four reasons but proceeded to list only three. The fourth is naked people. Germans are so comfortable with nudity, I sometimes wonder whether they would bother getting dressed at all if it weren’t for the weather.

A professor of mine from university – we’ll call him Adam – spent a week visiting me in my department at the University of Munich shortly after I moved to Germany. I was delighted that he had accepted my invitation. Adam is a reticent Englishman with anxiety issues. He hates travelling, but agreed to come to Germany because he had some notion that Germans are an orderly bunch, so he would not have to deal with any unpleasant surprises.

My office at the time was in a lovely Jugendstil villa belonging to the university, just off the English Garden. On a warm summer’s day during his visit, I suggested to Adam that we take a little walk and lunch in the Garden. We left the office, grabbed some sandwiches at the nearby Italian shop, and found ourselves a shady corner at the edge of the park. We had an unfettered view of a lawn sloping down to the Isar river, which twinkled as it meandered lazily through the trees. It was idyllic. Adam and I had been having a rather serious discussion on our walk, about the meaning of life and what not. We settled down on the bench and unwrapped our sandwiches, took our first bites, and then looked up as one is wont to do when chewing a sandwich. Read more »

Titia Brongersma on the Beach

by Eric Miller


Tell me, what could be more pleasant than to play, in the summertime, a Stone Age re-enactor? A couple of them sat in the flowery grass near a hunebed—a Giant’s Grave or cromlech, some five thousand years old—in the town of Borger, in Drenthe, the Netherlands. The shadow in which this ersatz ancestral couple sat was of the mitigated, oscillatory sort that broadleaf trees in August cast. The year was 2014. Yellowhammers and wagtails called; bulky wood doves reminded me of their Canadian cousins, the passenger pigeons extinct exactly a century before. A puffy dog rested, tufted tail bent round nose, beside the pair who practised some craft proper to their era, I believe it was weaving. The life of a re-enactor at a hunebed cannot be called “pastoral”; it aspires to precede the idea of the pastoral. This idyll took place by the enormous side- and capstones of the megalithic monument I had come to visit. The hunebed, a sort of junior Stonehenge, had the look of a great reptile skeleton; it appeared, though it was inanimate, to enjoy mere basking. Imagine if our bones alone could relish the felicity of life! This is the rude sweetness of nude sunbathing, taken to the posthumous degree: mineral, sparkling.

Near the museum attached to the hunebed is a field of stones, boulders really. Glaciers deposited them in this neighbourhood, and the ancient engineers who built the hunebed—archaeologists have named them the Funnel Beaker People—used such granite erratics to build their tombs or temples. In 1685, a poet named Titia Brongersma came to Borger and she directed the first dig at the site. She found articles of funerary pottery; they crumbled at the crisis of their extraction. So much the eloquent guidebook informed me. At that moment, I felt Brongersma call me: in the elusive instant when, having extracted a buried urn, Titia saw it fall to bits in her palms. The act of translation is similarly precarious. Later, I looked for her only book, De bron-swaan, The Swan of the Well. No one had ever rendered more than a few verses from it into English. To write is manual labour, and a kind of re-enacting. Titia used a feather, I am pretty sure. I could sense this quill scraping while I puzzled over her words. I translated them all. Her Swan of the Well makes its reappearance this year. Read more »

“When a Man is a Concept … He Will Tell You the Distance Between Heartbreak and Rage”

by Joseph Shieber

One frustrating aspect of the problem of police-enforced repression of Black people in the United States is how timeless it can seem.

Consider this real-life example:

An up-and-coming musician, only days away from releasing his breakthrough album, was finishing a two-week engagement at a famous club in Midtown Manhattan. He was on a break; he had just escorted a young white woman to her cab and was smoking a cigarette before returning to the club for his next set.

A white police officer was walking by, saw the musician, and told him to “move on”. The musician replied that he was playing at the club, and was only outside smoking a cigarette on his break.

The officer wasn’t happy with that response, saying “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” As the officer reached for his handcuffs, three police detectives joined in and began beating the musician bloody.

The story made national news, but the account in the local papers — one that contradicted the testimonies of literally scores of eyewitnesses as well as of photographs taken on the night of the incident — seemed to suggest that the musician himself had been violent, perhaps even grabbing for the policeman’s nightstick.

Care to guess the name of the musician, or when the incident occurred?

Before you hazard a guess, consider the fact that many municipalities still have statutes potentially making it a crime to walk on a public street outside of a designated crosswalk or even just to spend time in a public place without an apparent reason.

Walking on a public street — even on a street that lacks sidewalks! — constitutes “jaywalking”. But of course, not all instances of jaywalking are criminalized by the police. For example, just in the first three months of 2020 alone, 99% of the jaywalking tickets issued by the NYPD went to Blacks or Latinos/Latinas. Read more »