Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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.


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.


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!

Happy Birthday, Derrida!

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Today is the birthday of the great French philosopher, thinker, and author Jacques Derrida.

The dashing Jacques Derrida in his prime. French Philosophers are stylish.

The dashing Derrida in his prime.

Here are some facts you may or may not know about him:

Derrida was often a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Derrida was a French Jew born in Algeria.

Derrida wasn’t awarded a doctorate until 1980.

Derrida was uncomfortable with the term “deconstructionism” and tried to distance himself from it.

Derrida had two documentaries made about him, but he also was involved in the making of the feature film “Ghost Dance,” in which he played himself and contributed to the script.

Derrida was often accused of nihilism, but this was far from true. He was preoccupied with ethical issues and constant questioned the type of binary oppositions which nihilism is based on.

Analytic philosophers were highly critical of Derrida. Philosopher and logician Willard Van Orman Quine went as far as to lead a petition to stop Cambridge University from granting Derrida an honorary degree. Quine accused Derrida of practicing pseudophilosophy. Derrida responded that the criticisms of him were “no doubt because deconstructions query or put into question a good many divisions and distinctions, for example the distinction between the pretended neutrality of philosophical discourse, on the one hand, and existential passions and drives on the other, between what is public and what is private, and so on.” He received the degree.

Derrida’s launch to fame began by deliberately misspelling a word.


Smartass Response to a Philosopher #3

Monday, November 12th, 2012

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Note to self: syphilis does not make me stronger.

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #2

Monday, November 5th, 2012

“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” – G.W.F. Hegel  

So the secret agent handed him the documents after that, right?

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #1

Friday, October 26th, 2012

“We live in the best of all possible worlds.” – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz 

Except for the one where bacon is kosher and rice doesn’t stick together. Man. That is one sweet possible world.

Facts about Schopenhauer

Friday, June 8th, 2012

We all love German philosopher and pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, but how much do we really know him?

Here are some helpful facts about Schopenhauer and his life.

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in February 1788 and died in September 1860.

Schopenhauer had no real friends.  He never married.

Schopenhauer’s mother was an accomplished writer and ran her own glamorous salon.  She was friends with Goethe.  Schopenhauer had a hard time living under her shadow and didn’t get along well with the world of the salon with its vain writers and intellectuals.  As a result he had a strained relationship with his mother, fraught with professional jealousy.

His father was a Dutch businessman who committed suicide when Schopenhauer was 17.  His father’s travels brought Schopenhauer to England and France, where he learned the local languages.  Schopenhauer had fond memories of France.  He did not feel the same way about England.

Schopenhauer really hated Hegel.  He hated his work and he resented his popularity and he despised his followers. Schopenhauer scheduled the class he taught at a time that was simultaneous with Hegel’s lectures in order to pull followers to his side away from Hegel.  The result was that few students decided to show up to Schopenhauer’s class.

The first part of Schopenhauer’s greatest work, The World as Will and Representation, was completed before he turned 30.

Various stages of Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer was unlucky in love.  In 1819, Schopenhauer fathered, with a servant, a daughter who died that year.  At age 33, he fell in love with nineteen-year old opera singer.  When he was 43, a 17-year old recorded rejecting him in her diary.

Schopenhauer lived alone with a succession of French poodles.  Like Kant, who he considered himself the true successor of (although Schopenhauer had a unique interpretation of Kant’s work), his life was defined by a strict routine.  He would read and study in the morning, play his flute, lunch at the same inn, take an afternoon walk, read the paper, and sometimes attend concerts in the evening. He would read inspirational texts such as the Upanishads before going to sleep.

Schopenhauer donated his estate to help disabled Prussian soldiers and the families of soldiers killed in the suppression of the 1848 revolution.  Guess he wasn’t a revolutionary.

Schopenhauer had a run-in with the law.  He was named as a defendant in a lawsuit by Caroline Marquet.  According to Schopenhauer’s testimony, Marquet deliberately annoyed him by raising her voice while standing right outside his door.  Marquet alleged that he assaulted and battered her after she refused to leave his doorway.  Marquet won the lawsuit, and Schopenhauer was forced to make payments to her until her death 20 years later.

(And for those of you who aren’t already Schopenhauer fans, here’s a brief rundown on his philosophy: Schopenhauer believed that intellect and consciousness exist as instruments to serve the will. Conflict between wills (and the inability to fulfill them) is the cause of constant strife and frustration. The world, therefore, is a world of unsatisfied wants, which leads to suffering.  Pleasure is simply the absence of pain; unable to endure, it brings only ennui.  The only possible escape is the renunciation of desire, a negation of the will.  Temporary relief can be found in art, especially through music since it expresses will directly.  Schopenhauer’s ethics are based on empathy, in which the moral will, feeling another’s hurt as its own, makes an effort to relieve the pain.  Schopenhauer’s emphasis on denial, or releasing the mind from the tyranny of the will, has its roots in Buddhism.  You could say that Schopenhauer was someone who was personally miserable who focused on creating a philosophy to bring consolation to others who are also miserable.  If you don’t love him now, then there’s no helping you.)

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild Schopenhauer Finger Puppet

It is the courage to make a clean breast of it in the face of every question that makes the philosopher. He must be like Sophocles’ Oedipus, who, seeking enlightenment concerning his terrible fate, pursues his indefatigable inquiry even though he divines that appalling horror awaits him in the answer. But most of us carry with us the Jocasta in our hearts, who begs Oedipus, for God’s sake, not to inquire further.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Discontinued Product Memory Lane: The Disappearing Descartes Mug

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

One of our earliest heat-changing mugs was the Disappearing Descartes mug.

It started with one of our favorite jokes: “Renee Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am.’ When asked if he wanted a cup of coffee, he replied ‘I think not.’  He then promptly disappeared.”

Our disappearing Descartes mug featured an image of Descartes along with the statement “I think, therefore I am” on one side of the mug, and again in the original Latin (“Cogito ergo sum”) on the other side.  When hot liquid was added to the mug, Descartes would disappear, and the text would change to “I think not” (or “non cogito” in Latin).

A must for all philosophers, we stopped selling this mug once every philosopher in the world bought one (there aren’t that many of them out there).