Posts Tagged ‘philosophers’

Some Women of Early Modern Philosophy

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, so let’s go back in history and give it up for all the women in philosophy… if you can find them.

There are fewer places where women’s voices have been more conspicuously silent than in Western Philosophy. It’s chiefly male philosophers we remember and study when it comes to the ancient, early modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic eras. Here or there a woman might be recognized, but unlike other cultural movements to credit women’s work (for instance, in STEM and the arts), the result is that we just don’t hear much about women’s legacies in philosophy.

This has begun to change.

We are big fans of Duke University’s Project Vox. On their website you’ll find texts, syllabi, and other teaching resources about these women whose contributions to the development of modern philosophy demand that their work be welcomed to the canon.

Meet a few of these lesser-known, lost, and neglected early modern philosophers:

Margaret Cavendish

This 17th century English aristocrat was a poet, playwright, and fiction-writer who proudly published under her own name (quite rare for women of that period). She was also a natural philosopher of the materialist bent, hobnobbing and corresponding with respected and influential thinkers – Descartes, Hobbes, and Henry More, Platonist and foremost authority on philosophy in Britain. Although Cavendish was not included in the era’s intellectual pantheon, More took her seriously enough to disagree with her in print.

Cavendish was the first woman to be invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, though “Mad Madge” was not overly impressed with the company. And owing to the willful dimness of that august body (that excluded women for nearly 300 years), women’s cultural contributions continued to be hidden and dismissed, even as disingenuous gatekeepers demanded: “Where are all the women?”

Anne Conway

A contemporary of Margaret Cavendish, Lady Anne Conway began a correspondence with Henry More that developed into a tutorship and became a conversation among equals. More claimed he had “scarce ever met with any Person, Man or Woman, of better Natural parts than Lady Conway.”

Influenced by the Cambridge Platonists, Conway developed the idea of the monad that Leibniz drew upon, acknowledging her work in correspondence. Conway’s work was translated into Latin and known to the prominent philosophers of her day; however, she (and most women of her time) published anonymously, which helped her to slide into obscurity. In fact, Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was attributed to another philosopher who had merely translated it!

Émilie du Châtelet

This Parisian noblewoman was a translator, author, mathematician, and scientist, as well as a philosopher. Her legacy includes her powerful influence on the thought and writings of Voltaire, with whom she lived and had a 15-year romantic relationship.

Châtelet’s 1749 translation (with commentary) of Newton’s “Principia” remains the standard French translation, and because of her work as a translator and commentator, until recently her contributions to Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” were uncredited, misappropriated, or attributed to others.

Damaris Masham

The daughter of a Cambridge Platonist, Lady Masham was a close friend and philosophical sparring partner of John Locke. They were so close that her two anonymously-published books were sometimes attributed to Locke.

Masham also corresponded with Leibniz, and advocated for access to higher education for women.


We can learn many things from these formidable intellectual women of the past. Societal approval be damned. Take credit for your work before someone else does.


Blog of Terror – The Body of Jeremy Bentham

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

A wooden cabinet in the main building of University College London contains a grisly item. At first glance, you might think it is a mannequin. But in fact, it is the earthly remains of philosopher Jeremy Bentham.


Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, was a practical man, interested in logic and science. He left instructions in his will for his friends to gather round as his body was dissected. Afterwards, he was to be preserved as an “auto-icon” with skeleton dressed in one of his black suits, and his mummified head placed on top.

Everything went according to plan until they got to his head. Then something went horribly wrong during the mummification process.

He did not look good.


The head of Jeremy Bentham (with glass eyes)

So instead, a wax head was created and placed on top of the body.

Oddly, although his real head was deemed too disturbing to place on top of Bentham’s body, it was displayed in a box for several years before being removed to storage.

Contrary to myths, the body is not regularly wheeled out to attend board meetings, but it’s still creepy.

Behold the virtual auto-icon… if you should think doing so is a morally good action.

Happy Birthday, Moses Mendelssohn!

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time before there was such a thing as a “German-Jewish” intellectual.

From the 19th century to the Nazi era, Jews were ingrained in German life and culture. And we owe a lot of that to the remarkable Moses Mendelssohn.


Mendelssohn was born into a poor Jewish family in Germany when Jews were kept out of government, education, and everyday life. Jews were rarely allowed out of the ghettos and they were not allowed to travel.

Jews weren’t necessarily looking to mingle with Christians either. For the most part they very religious (there was no reform movement yet) and shunned secular education. In fact, reading secular literature could get a Jewish boy thrown out of the Yeshiva. (As for Jewish girls, that’s a whole different megillah.)

Moses Mendelssohn was somehow able to bridge both worlds. Though he was on the way to the rabbinate, he secretly taught himself Greek, Latin, German, French, and English. Then a series of lucky circumstances brought this brilliant student into the mainstream. Not since Spinoza had a Jew become a prominent intellectual in a Christian society. But unlike Spinoza, Mendelssohn was able to do it without getting excommunicated by the Jewish community.

Mendelssohn’s rise to fame coincided with the height of the Enlightenment, and he is considered the father of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment). Mendelssohn valued reason above all, and saw Judaism as a divine revelation of a code of law. He translated the Hebrew Bible into German and became a celebrity regardless of the novelty of his Jewishness. Known as the “Socrates of Berlin,” even Catholic monks wrote to him for advice.

That’s not to say the Jewish issue went away. Mendelssohn evaded a public battle over religious faith as much as possible but was forced to devote energy and time debating his Jewish identity nonetheless. Missionaries saw him as a prime candidate for conversion. A Swiss theologian challenged Mendelssohn to refute the logical “proof” of Christianity or convert. Mendelssohn countered that “revealed” dogmas work against reason and proudly declared that he would remain a Jew.

Frederick the Great gave Mendelssohn the status of “Jew under extraordinary protection,” but Mendelssohn didn’t want an exemption as a Jew – he wanted equal rights and tolerance towards all Jews in Germany. and argued for the assimilation of Jews into German culture.

On that last point, Mendelssohn was too successful. His descendants, including his grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, all abandoned Judaism for Christianity as a condition of full acceptance into German society.

Søren Kierkegaard: A Signature Libation

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

We’ve been celebrating Søren Kierkegaard all month, so we decided to round out the festivities with a signature drink.

Last weekend, we assembled a crack team of drink tasters and gathered once again at Miriam’s apartment, this time to toast the great Danish philosopher.

Miriam knew she wanted to make something involving the Scandinavian spirit aquavit, so we procured two kinds: Krogstad, a clear aquavit from Portland, Oregon, and a cask-aged Norwegian aquavit called Linie. It gets its name because it is aged at sea, and crosses the equator twice! We would have gone for a Danish aquavit, but it was hard to find one. For those of you who are new to aquavit, it’s a herbal vodka-type liquor, usually flavored with caraway seeds.

Miriam had an idea about what she wanted to try, but it was a sweltering hot evening, so we decided to make something frosty and refreshing first.

We started with the clear Krogstad aquavit. Then we rummaged through Miriam’s cabinet and found some bottles left over from previous UPG drink sessions.

For those of you who have been making the drink recipes on the PhLog, you probably have 3/4 of a bottle of Bonal quinine liqueur left over from making a round of Death in Paris. We did, too.

We mixed two parts Krogstad with one part Bonal, poured over ice, and added a splash of grapefruit soda and two drops of celery bitters (left over from our inaugural drink, Anglo-Saxon the Beach).

We garnished this with a slice of lime. It was a tasty drink, not too sweet because of the vegetable-y celery bitters and the anise-heavy Krogstad. Since it was light and refreshing, we decided to name it the “Regine,” after Kierkegaard’s great love.


The Regine, with ingredients.

Next it was on to the main event: a drink, which is actually two drinks, called “Either/Or.”

Miriam was inspired by this quote from Kierkegaard: “Life for me has become a bitter drink, and yet it must be taken in drops, slowly, counting.”

The name for the drink comes from Kierkegaard’s book “Either/Or.” In the book, Kierkegaard is tormented by the specter of human choice, which troubled him as philosopher, and in his personal life (spoiler: it didn’t work out with Regine).

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. Whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. Whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way. Trust a girl, and you will regret it. Do not trust her, and you will also regret it. … Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life.

 Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Part I

So, without further ado, here is our Kierkegaard-inspired signature libation.

2 parts aquavit
1 part amaro

2 parts aquavit
1 part amaro
2 parts strong coffee or espresso

We used the Linie aquavit for this one. We shook the ingredients over ice, and poured the drink into cordial glasses. This drink should be served straight up, because it is intended to be, as Kierkegaard lived his life, “taken in drops, slowly, counting.”


Making the “Either”


Making the “Or”

We thought these drinks worked particularly well, because we couldn’t choose which one we wanted to drink. Naturally, that meant we had to drink both. The aquavit / amaro combo was bittersweet, and the coffee added an optional bitterness and richness to the “or” option.


The “Either” and the “Or.”



Then we ordered pizza and read aloud from Kierkegaard’s diaries. (Warning to you future philosophers: if you keep a diary, someday people may read it aloud over drinks and pizza.)


The best way to enjoy your Kierkegaard.

For dessert, we had a chocolate / coffee “writer’s cake,” baked from a recipe found in the Kierkegaard Cookbook.


Kierkegaard Made E-Z

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

In honor of Søren Kierkegaard’s 203rd birthday, this May we’re writing about him on the PhLog. Today’s entry will reduce Kierkegaard’s life of complex thinking to an internet-friendly blog post.

Warning: this is not sufficient research for your term paper. Read his books instead.

Søren Kierkegaard was a freelance philosopher. He wasn’t part of academia, nor was he part of a school or movement. Like, say, Batman, he took elaborate pains to remain an outsider, and, also like Batman, used pseudonyms to conceal his identity.

This outsider-ness is essential to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. He felt the only way to be sure of the truth was to think purely as an individual and to eliminate every possible ulterior motive for one’s thoughts and actions. In Kierkegaard’s view, the crowd was always wrong. Which explains why he also distrusted institutions. Because philosophy must be free from illusions, the philosopher must have the courage to undertake thorough self-examination, and to defy society’s accepted practices whenever necessary.

The self-reliance Kierkegaard preached was frightening. Human freedom leads to extreme anxiety (“angst” in the philosophical term first used by Kierkegaard). The knowledge that we can shape our own world leads to deep fear about what we should think and what we should do. The burden of our freedom is that no choice or act will lead to happiness or fulfillment: “Whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret both.” Kierkegaard’s quotes make for unpopular bumper stickers.

There you have it: life is filled with impossible choices, and terrifying because it lacks meaning or purpose. Thanks to works like The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard is considered to be the founder of existentialism. But it took nearly a century for that movement to be born – you just can’t rush dread – and all his life, Kierkegaard remained an outsider.

As one might expect given all this angst, Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, and with reason. All his siblings save one were dead by the time he was 22. To Kierkegaard, the terror of the knowledge of one’s own death was a constant. When the terror and dread let up a little, he saw boredom, anxiety and despair as humanity’s greatest problems. (This is where he really resonated with those existentialists.)

Kierkegaard diagnosed humanity’s crisis as a “sickness unto death” (the title of one of his works). You can imagine why he wasn’t invited to many picnics.

But Kierkegaard saw a way out, and this is where he diverges from most modern philosophers. In addition to being a proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard was a deeply religious Christian. He didn’t respect or trust the institution of the church, but he saw faith in Jesus as the only solution to mankind’s ills. Kierkegaard coined the term “leap of faith” to explain how this kind of belief could be possible in the modern world. A person must be ruled by total faith in God. This faith does not lead to freedom, but to a giving up of any idea of freedom, thus relieving the traumas of human existence. This faith is beyond logic, proof, or reason. “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God,” he wrote in The Sickness Unto Death. Again with the bumper stickers.

It’s doubtful that his leap of faith brought Kierkegaard much happiness given what we know about his life. And how happy can you be if you won’t be satisfied whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself? Regardless of his solution to the despair and anxiety of living, Kierkegaard expertly diagnosed the psychological trauma of the human experience, and that diagnosis has been his legacy.


Søren Loved Regine

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

This May, in honor of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s 203rd birthday, we’re posting about him here on the PhLog. Today’s post is about his relationship with Regine Olsen.


Søren Kierkegaard had one great love, and since Kierkegaard was Kierkegaard, that meant it was a tormented relationship.

One Spring day of his 24th year, Kierkegaard met the 15-year-old Regine Olsen, and a mutual infatuation was born. Søren and Regine became close friends, and three years later, on September 8, 1840, Kierkegaard confessed his full feelings for her. (He kept a diary, which is why we know the date.)

According to Kierkegaard’s diary, Regine responded to his declaration with silence. Soon thereafter the two were engaged.

Kierkegaard immediately began to have doubts. He buried himself in his work to such a degree that Regine came to believe he was avoiding her. Yet they wrote to each other constantly, and seemingly remained passionately in love.

But Kierkegaard was Kierkegaard. In August 1841, he broke off the engagement via letter. Regine was heartbroken, and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t take her back. In an attempt to help her fall out of love with him, Kierkegaard played it cool so that Regine would think he didn’t care about her.

Kierkegaard remained a bachelor (and presumably celibate) for the rest of his life. He never stopped loving Regine, describing nights crying in bed without her. He later begged Regine for forgiveness for his treatment of her. However, his actions were unforgiveable, especially since there was no real (known) reason why they couldn’t be together.

Kierkegaard was a man who thrived on anxiety and the Regine Olsen affair provided loads of it. He later dedicated his work to her, and we can consider the torment of this relationship as the source of much of his writing.

Regine married, and outlived Kierkegaard by nearly 50 years. But her relationship with Søren Kierkegaard remained at the center of her life, and in later years she was the subject of numerous interviews about Kierkegaard, who had become trendy.

The story of Regine and Søren lives on. Here’s a song about them! Why not play it for the person you’re tormenting?

Happy Birthday to Søren Kierkegaard

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813. Kierkegaard was unique among 19th century philosophers for his fusing of theological thought with Romantic-era philosophy.

Christian ethics were essential to Kierkegaard’s work, and he became highly critical of the Church of Denmark. Kierkegaard was a tormented individual who wrestled with issues of sin and forgiveness, and his personal torment was reflected in his work. It’s thanks to Kierkegaard that we use the word angst in English.

Kierkegaard’s relatively young death made him even more romantic, and by the end of the 19th century his work had been translated into many languages.

Søren Kierkegaard’s influence reached deep into the 20th century. Ludwig Wittgenstein was greatly influenced by him, and wrote that “Kierkegaard is far too deep for me.” Kierkegaard’s wrestling with his faith through philosophical work was an influence to humanistic psychologists such as Erich Fromm and Viktor Frankl. And he is widely considered to the father of existentialism, so Sartre and Camus and a generation of beret-wearing smokers owe a lot to him. The term “leap of faith” can be traced directly to Kierkegaard’s work, although he never used that exact term. So we also owe the title of at least one Steve Martin movie to Kierkegaard.

In honor of Søren Kierkegaard, express your angst, take a walk through the cobbled streets of Copenhagen (if you happen to be in Copenhagen), and have a religious awakening and/or crisis of faith. And pick up one of his books if you’re not familiar with them. We recommend Either/Or.

The Søren Kierkegaard Finger Puppet

We’ll be posting more about Kierkegaard over the course of this month. Stay tuned!

Homes of Philosophers

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Ask Philosophers – let them do the thinking for you!

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Which is morally superior: ponies or kitties?

We patiently await the answers to these and other important philosophical queries:

(Note that there have been more responses than questions.  We’re not sure what that tells us about philosophers.)

David Hume: Limburger

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Ah, the pungent notes of limburger cheese!
Be there finer song ‘pon morning’s breeze?
– Alfred, Lord Pizzle-Thorne

While reading the remarkable verse of Lord Pizzle-Thorne, we can’t help but wonder if his contemporary, David Hume, enjoyed cheese.

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”

These are the words of a philosopher who indulged more than once in a heady wedge of limburger and wasn’t above a scandalous flirtation with a naughty morsel of Gorgonzola.  Did he enjoy it?  No doubt!