Philosopher of the Week

Quotes from philosophers. Not necessarily endorsed. Food for thought. Queries, comments or suggestions to: Timm Triplett (tat@unh.edu)


The Marquis d'Argens (1704-1771):

Letter from d'Argens to Frederick the Great, requesting "protected Jew" status for the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, so that he could live as a free citizen, not confined to the Berlin ghetto where Jews were otherwise required to live:

"A philosopher who is a bad Catholic, hereby begs a philosopher who is a bad Protestant, to grant a favor to a philosopher who is a bad Jew. There is too much philosophy in all this for reason not to side with my request."

(d'Argens' request was granted)


Previous Quotes

Thomas Jefferson on Plato:

No writer, ancient or modern, has bewildered the world with more ignes fatui [misleading influence], than this renowned philosopher, in Ethics, in Politics and Physics. In the latter, to specify a single example, compare his views of the animal economy, in his Timaeus, with those of Mrs. [Margaret] Bryan in her Conversations on Chemistry, and weigh the science of the canonized philosopher against the good sense of the unassuming lady. But Plato's visions have furnished a basis for endless systems of mystical theology, and he is therefore all but adopted as a Christian saint. It is surely time for men to think for themselves, and to throw off the authority of names so artificially magnified.

Comparing Socrates and Plato:

The superlative wisdom of Socrates is testified by all antiquity, and placed virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you. [Plato's representations of Socrates in the later dialogues are] whimsies of Plato's own foggy brain.

Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915):

Life has unfathomable secrets. Human knowledge will be erased from the world's archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.

David Deutsch (2011):

The existence of an unsolved problem in physics is no more evidence for a supernatural explanation than the existence of an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost committed it.

Oscar Wilde:

In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873):

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.

Peace and the Objective Perspective, Two Views:

HP Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Wendell Berry:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

George Spencer-Brown (1971):

Wittgenstein used to say, What can be said, can be said clearly. I'm saying, What must be said, must be said wrong. Whenever we say anything in a way, we do so at the expense of other ways.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971):

As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Two Views:

William James, "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy": Leibnitz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind. What he gives us is a cold literary exercise, whose cheerful substance even hell-fire does not warm.

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, 1994: The most famous of all optimists, Leibnitz, who is quoted derisively as saying that all is well and that this is the best of all possible worlds, was very far from being unaware of the cruelties of life, for he spent much effort urging the kings of Europe to mend their ways and investigating how the different religions could stop fighting each other. The reason he was hopeful was not just that he believed a good God must have allowed evil into the world for good purposes, but that he himself saw the world in the way that scientists see it today, as composed of an infinite number of particles; for him, there were no limits to the wonders of nature and the ingenuity of reason; all that was needed was not to allow the readiness to make new discoveries go numb, as it does in most adults. Leibnitz's ambition, as he himself said, was "to awaken in us all the sleeping child within us," to see in every person somebody different, as complex as a garden full of plants and a lake full of fishes, and in each plant and each fish, yet another garden and another lake. He believed liberty was possible because he saw beyond the present into the infinite distance. Harlequin was his hero, multiple, crafty, always in search of something else. Leibnitz invented differential calculus, but also an Academy of Pleasures. He was more than he appeared to be, which is how intelligent optimism should be understood, discarding its absurd exaggerations: it is not a belief that everything is perfect, but a willingness to admit that there is more than the eye can see, good or bad; there is always a glimmer of light, however dark it may seem, because life is inconceivable without hope. Optimism is awareness that despite nastiness and stupidity, there is something else too. Pessimism is resignation, an inability to find a way out.

Morrison Swift, 1905:

After trudging through the snow from one end of the city to the other in the vain hope of securing employment, and with his wife and six children without food and ordered to leave their home because of nonpayment of rent, John Corcoran, a clerk, to-day ended his life by drinking carbolic acid. Corcoran lost his position three weeks ago through illness, and during the period of idleness his scanty savings disappeared. Yesterday he obtained work with a gang of city snow-shovelers, but was too weak from illness, and was forced to quit after an hour's trial with the shovel. Thoroughly discouraged, Corcoran returned to his home last night to find his wife and children without food and the notice of dispossession on the door. On the following morning he drank the poison.

The records of many more such cases lie before me. These few I cite as an interpretation of the Universe. "We are aware of the presence of God in this world," says a writer in a recent English review. "The very presence of ill in the temporal order is the condition of the perfection of the eternal order," writes Professor Royce. "The Absolute is the richer for every discord and for all the diversity which it embraces," says F.H. Bradley. He means that these slain men make the universe richer, and that is philosophy. But while Professors Royce and Bradley and a whole host of guileless thoroughfed thinkers are unveiling Reality and the Absolute and explaining away evil and pain, this is the condition of the only beings known to us anywhere in the universe with a developed consciousness of what the universe is. What these people experience is Reality. Now what does thinking about the experience of these persons come to, compared to directly and personally feeling it as they feel it? The philosophers are dealing in shades, while those who live and feel know truth. And what it blazons to man is the imposture of all philosophy which does not see in such events [as John Corcoran's suicide] the consummate factor of all conscious experience. These facts invincibly prove religion a nullity. Man will not give religion two thousand centuries or twenty centuries more to try itself and waste human time. Its time is up; its probation is ended; its own record ends it. Mankind has no aeons and eternities to spare for trying out discredited systems.

Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu), 4th c BC:

People all understand the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not understand the usefulness of what is useless.

Fred Green:

Reality is an illusion that occurs due to lack of caffeine.

Johann Sebastian Bach:

As [Bach] understood the basic materials of music to be directly related to the physical design of the universe, he also grasped the metaphysical dimension of music, as we can deduce from another marginal comment in his Calov Bible. A section of 2 Chronicles 5, titled by Calov "As the glory of the Lord appeared upon the beautiful music," deals with the presence of the invisible God at the divine service in the Temple. Verse 13 ends with the words "when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and praised the Lord, then the house was filled with a cloud." At this very point, Bach added his own comment: "NB. With devotional music, God is always present in his grace." Music prompted the appearance of the glory of God in the cloud, and the cloud demonstrated God's presence. For the Lutheran theologian Bach, the metaphysical presence of God's grace replaced the visible proof of the physical cloud. Yet the presence of God's grace was to him no less manifest than the actual sound of music that would bring it about, if it were only devotional and attentive, directed toward one subject.

Bach's concentrated approach to his work, to reach what was possible in art, pertained to all aspects of music, from theory to composition and from performance to physiology and the technology of instruments. In the final analysis, this approach provides the key to understanding his never-ending musical empiricism, which deliberately tied theoretical knowledge to practical experience. Most notably, Bach's compositions, as the exceedingly careful musical elaborations that they are, may epitomize nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God - perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science.

-- from Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff

John Stuart Mill, as described by L. T. Hobhouse:

Like most philosophers, he made mistakes; but, unlike most philosophers, he wrote clearly enough to be found out.

Our Place in the Universe, Two Views:

Philip Pullman: The world is the most precious place, and we shouldn't hurry to get out of it. We should cherish every moment we have here. We should write stories as if they make a difference. We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding. We should act as if life were going to win.

John L. Wood: Re "Gauging a Collider's Odds of Creating a Black Hole" (Essay, April 15): If the Large Hadron Collider were to destroy the earth nearly instantly, whether by black hole or by strangelets, or by something else, so what? It would not be a catastrophe unless someone survived to realize it was. As the Danish scientist Piet Hein wrote, "The universe may be as large as they say, but it wouldn't be missed if it didn't exist."

Wendell Berry:

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

John Locke (1632-1704):

It would, I think, be enough to destroy any positive idea of the infinite to ask him that has it, whether he could add to it or no.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1921):

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Frank Ramsey (1903-1930):

What can't be said, can't be said. And it can't be whistled, either.

Otto Neurath (1882-1945):

We must indeed be silent. But not about anything.

Simplicius (6th century AD):

Archytas, according to Euthydemus, put the question in this way: if I came to be at the edge, for example at the heaven of the fixed stars, could I stretch my hand or my stick outside, or not? That I should not stretch it out would be absurd, but if I do stretch it out, what is outside will be either body or place - (it will make no difference as we shall discover). Thus, Archytas will always go on in the same way to the fresh chosen limit, and will ask the same question. If it is always something different into which the stick is stretched, it will clearly be something infinite.

Sheila Heti (2012):

The cheater breaks her own heart.

Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894), Mary Peabody (1806-1887), Sophia Peabody (1809-1871):

Once I mastered [the Peabody sisters'] handwriting, I began to feel that I was reading an entirely new language that spoke of an almost alien sensibility. I noticed, for example, that "disinterested," a word virtually always misused today when it is used at all, appeared again and again in the sisters' letters and journals as a term of highest approbation. This nearly archaic word opened up the Peabody sisters' world to me: one in which acting without self-interest was a supreme goal, where a premium was placed on friendship, on benevolent acts large and small, and where the sisters truly did have standing. As Horace Mann wrote admiringly of Mary, after noting her lack of wealth and property: "whenever within her circle, there as been good to do or evil to remove," she was there to do it, with an unwavering sense of "the true dignity & the true objects of life." This was foreign territory to me. Imagine a time when teenage girls described their best friends not as "cool" or "awesome," but as "disinterested." I felt privileged to inhabit this world, even vicariously - and I wanted today's readers to know about it too.

- Megan Marshal, Preface to The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

Emerson M. Pugh:

If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't.

Wendell Berry:

Battle with unconditioned breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensional life; stay away from screens.

Galileo (1564-1642):

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011):

[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been--she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself--and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

Primo Levi (1919-1987):

Whoever writes, writes in his own code, which others do not know.

Julian Baggini (2011):

If life seems too short, don't to try to stretch it. Get closer - that'll make it look bigger.

John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873):

A doctrine is not judged at all until it is judged in its best form.

Simon Critchley (2011):

Philosophy is a shared activity, it is dialogue. And dialogue is not the simple exchange of opinions, where I have my faith, my politics and my God and you have yours. That is parallel monologue. One of the goals of dialogue is to have our opinions rationally challenged in such a way that we might change our minds. True dialogue is changing one's mind.

David Hill (2011):

Philosophy is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.

Freeman Dyson (1985):

Nature's laws make the universe as interesting as possible.

Seneca (circa 1 AD - 65 AD):

In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time. But all the days of the past will come to your call: you can detain and inspect them at your will-something which the preoccupied have no time to do. It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss, and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

Charles Darwin (1809-82):

I verily believe free will & chance are synonymous. - Shake ten thousand grains of sand together & one will be uppermost, - so in thoughts, one will rise according to law.

David Kline and Carl Matheson, "The Impossibility of Collision" (1987):

(1) If two bodies are touching, then they either occupy adjacent points in space or they overlap spatially.

(2) Space is continuous.

(3) No two bodies can ever occupy adjacent points in space. (Since space is continuous, no spatial point is ever adjacent to another spatial point.)

(4) It is impossible for two material bodies to overlap spatially.

(5) Therefore, no two bodies ever touch.

T.H. White (1906-1964):

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust and never dream of regretting.

St. Augustine (354-430 AD):

When it is said to the mind: "Know thyself," it knows itself at the very instant in which it understands the word "thyself"; and it knows itself for no other reason than that it is present to itself.

Marvin Minsky, from "Why Intelligent Aliens Will Be Intelligible" (1984):

Once, when still a child in school, I heard that "minus times minus is plus." How strange it seemed that negatives could "cancel out" - as though two wrongs might make a right. I wondered if there could be something else, still like arithmetic, except for having yet another "sign." Why not make up some number-things, I thought, which go not just two ways, but three? I searched for days, making up new little multiplication tables. Alas, each system ended either with impossible arithmetic (e.g. with One and Two the same), or something with no signs at all, or something with an extra sign. I gave up, eventually. No one ever finds a three-signed imitation of arithmetic because, it seems, they simply do not exist.

I conclude that any entity who searches through the simplest processes will soon find fragments which do not merely resemble arithmetic, but are arithmetic. It is not a matter of inventiveness, or imagination, only a fact about the geography of the universe of computation, a world far more constrained than that of real things.

Thesis: All processes or formalisms which resemble arithmetic are either identical to it, or else unthinkably complicated. This is why we can communicate perfectly about numbers.

What has this to do with extraterrestrials? Only that they too must have evolved by searching through some universe of possible processes - and any evolutionary process must first consider relatively simple systems, and thus discover the same, isolated, islands of efficiency.

Horace Mann (1796-1859):

When any being less than omniscient binds himself to verbal article or dogma, he thereby turns language, which should be his instrument, into an iron incasement for imprisoning his soul.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967):

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong, And I am Marie of Roumania.