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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: The Course of French Philosophy and the Primitive Mind November 17, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in 1857 in Paris.  In 1876, he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, specializing in philosophy.  Lévy-Bruhl taught at secondary schools until 1895.  Obtaining his doctorate in 1884, from 1886 onwards he lectured at Ecole Libre des Sciences, and from 1895 onwards, at Ecole Normale and the Sorbonne.  At the Sorbonne, in 1904, Lévy-Bruhl became professor of philosophy.  In 1917, Lévy-Bruhl became the editor of Revue Philosophique and in 1925 founded the Institut d’Ethnologie, together with Paul Rivet and Marcel Mauss.  In 1927, he retired from the Institute as well as the Sorbonne.  He was a visiting professor at Harvard from 1919 to 1920.  Levy-Bruhl died in Paris in 1939.

Lévy-Bruhl considered the history of French philosophy, from Descartes to the 1890s, to demonstrate specific features connected to the French national character and intellectual life.  For Lévy-Bruhl, it was of utmost significance that many French philosophers began their studies in either mathematics or the natural sciences.  Voltaire “became the herald of Newton” in France, while Condillac wrote on the language of the calculus.  “It seems allowable to infer,” Lévy-Bruhl concluded, “not that French philosophy was based upon mathematics, but that there has been in France a close affinity between the mathematical and the philosophical spirit” (History of modern philosophy in France, 470.)

Due to the legacy of Descartes as well as mathematics,  philosophers “took it for granted that among the various ways of representing reality, there is one which is adequate and recognizable on account of its clearness and sufficient evidence” (ibid.)  The connection of French philosophy to mathematics explained why French philosophers “have nearly always taken care to show that their doctrines were in perfect accord with common sense” and that method “was a mere application of the rules of common sense”  (474,475.)  

Consistent with Lévy-Bruhl’s coupling of French philosophy with the rational and the scientific was his privileging of the Cartesian tradition over that exemplified by de Maistre.  Lévy-Bruhl’s association of French philosophy with a particular kind of system and a particular kind of intellectual work forced him to gloss over some of the more extravagant features of the French socialists and Utopians, such as Saint-Simon and Fourier, as well as the more extreme ideologues of the French Revolution.  For Lévy-Bruhl, the history of “philosophy” was the steady growth of reason itself.  Any derivation from such a growth was explicable by either a falling away from tradition or to a concern for justice which obviated reason.  (more…)

Primer: Patrick Geddes September 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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About a month ago, we spotlighted University of Leeds history research student Chris Renwick’s recent Isis article on the Spencerian influence on Patrick Geddes as a piece of writing that both nicely situates itself in the literature and in historical context, and highlights the importance of the history of ideas in science history.  Word got back to Chris, and he has graciously agreed to do a couple of guest posts for us.  The first kicks off the return of our “Primer” (formerly “hump-day history”) series.

Guest post by Chris Renwick

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932)

Encompassing natural and social sciences, as well as social reform projects that left their mark on cities including Edinburgh and Bombay, Patrick Geddes’ career was wide-ranging, long, and—some might say—characterised by a failure to make the most of his ability to unify seemingly disparate fields with evolutionary theorising.

After leaving Scotland to train as a biologist under “Darwin’s Bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, in the mid-1870s, Geddes first made his name with a series of experiments, conducted in France, Italy, and England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many biologists of his generation, Geddes was unconvinced by the case Darwin had made for natural selection as the prime mover in evolution.  Instead, Geddes—inspired by a range of thinkers, including the much-maligned Herbert Spencer—emphasised the importance of cooperation and mutually dependent relationships in evolutionary development.  To support these views, Geddes examined relationships in the natural world that biologists  often called parasitic. On separating “parasites” from their hosts—in particular, algae that lived in the tissue of flatworms—Geddes found that neither was able to live as effectively as they could together. He therefore (more…)

Hump-Day Hiatus August 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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We’re almost a year into our hump-day history project here at Ether Wave Propaganda.  We’ve farmed a few out (and are still hoping to farm more out), and Chris has been a big help in putting together some posts in the course of his own diverse researches.  Personally, I’ve learned an awful lot, and I’m happy to note that the series has been our most popular, and it keeps our archived posts in healthy exercise.  However, it’s also a hell of a lot of work getting up to speed on topics, especially when one reaches outside one’s specialty, and to try and be at least somewhat fair to a topic and its literature.  We’ve left a lot of areas ill-covered.  Biology has, for the most part, proven too intimidating and foreign a literature for me to venture into.

Anyway, getting the posts in on time has been a spotty affair lately, and I’m moving from my current apartment down to Capitol Hill next week—sadly, the historian of physics will no longer live on Newton Street!  That’s going to take up time.  Plus I’m frankly a bit fatigued with research and need to keep my eye closely on the ball with some projects at work that are coming to a boil at the moment, so cushy postdoc intellectual detours will have to take a back seat.  Long story short, it’s a good time to take a little break.  Like James Bond, Hump-Day History will return, possibly under a less taxing name, in a few weeks.  In the meantime, we’ll keep posting in other series at regular intervals, Chris might have a primer or two to post, and, if you’re hankering for some mathematics and astronomy primers, particularly in the Renaissance and early modern periods—another area where we’re a bit sparse—frequent commenter Thony C has been issuing some nice posts at his blog The Renaissance Mathematicus.  Do check it out if you haven’t already.

Hump-Day History: Karl Alfred von Zittel and his History of Geology and Paleontology June 27, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Karl Alfred von Zittel ( September 25, 1839January 5, 1904) was a German paleontologist.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, the geologist, zoologist, and eugenicist, who authored, in 1936 the two volume, The Proboscidea: A Monograph of the Discovery, Evolution, Migration and Extinction of the Mastodonts and Elephants of the World, as well as Man Rises to Parnassus, eulogized von Zittel as one of the most “distinguished advocates of paleontology.” It was no exaggeration, according to Osborn, to say that “he did more for the promotion and diffusion of paleontology than any other single man who lived during the nineteenth century.”

Von Zittel, “while not a genius”, nonetheless possessed “untiring industry” as well as “critical capacity” ( Science, N. S., Vol. XIX. ) What then were von Zittel’s achievements?  First among them was the multi-volume Handbuch der Palaeontologie, issued between 1876 and 1890.  While the progress of paleontology in the nineteenth century was “prodigious,” according to Osborn, it was nonetheless, “scattered through thousands of monographs and special papers,” a “hopeless labyrinth to the student.” Such was the state of knowledge, detail without system, that it was impossible for even the expert “to gain a perspective view of the whole subject.”  Von Zittel’s Handbuch der Palaeontologie was a feat of organization and collection.  Added to this textual achievement was von Zittel’s apparently fantastic collection of natural historical specimens which he assembled at Alte Akademie of Munich.  This collection, assembled from all over the world, illustrated the course of the  ” evolution of plants and of invertebrate and vertebrate animals.”

It was small wonder that Munich accordingly became “the Mecca of paleontologists, young and old.”  Such community was fostered by von  Zittel due in large part to his “exceptionally charming and magnetic personality.”  He  was also exceptionally generous with both his time and his natural historical specimens.  Von Zittel’s legacy and fame were secure as he could count among his students “all the younger American, most of the German, and many of the younger French and Austrian paleontologists.” (more…)

Primer: Michael Faraday June 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Michael Faraday (1791-1867) came from a London artisan family and as a youth became an apprentice at a bookbinding shop.  There he took the opportunity to read the books passing through, including such scientific titles as Conversations on Chemistry (1805) by Jane Marcet and Antoine Lavoisier’s landmark Elements of Chemistry (translated into English in 1790).  Supported in his explorations by his master and others, he attended popular scientific lectures, including some given by the celebrated chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) at the new Royal Institution (est. 1799).  In 1813 Faraday finagled a job as Davy’s assistant, and would remain at the Royal Institution for the rest of his life.

Faraday undertook his work throughout a period when the sciences were changing rapidly, as they were yoked into distinct specialties, and as his own area, the  experimental physical sciences, became dramatically more sophisticated.  Under Davy’s and other Royal Institution figures’ supervision, he learned the techniques of chemistry, and undertook all his early work in that field (and is credited with the discovery of benzene).  When Faraday initiated his interest in electricity and magnetism early in the 19th century, the harnessing of galvanic currents by means of voltaic piles was a recent innovation that had sparked extensive investigation into electrochemical effects (an alternative explanation is here).  Davy was a leader in this new field of study, and Faraday would likewise become an expert.  Faraday would eventually fall out with Davy—who would oppose his election to the Royal Society—and he came into his own at the Royal (more…)

Primer: Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Color December 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post is written by frequent visitor Thony Christie, a dedicated amateur historian who “once had a semi-professional background”.  He has approved a few editorial truncations and rephrasings.

Update: Not long after this blog post, Thony started his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.

In 1672 the still relatively young and unknown Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, published his first piece of experimental philosophy: “A Serie’s of Quere’s Propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be Determin’d by Experiments, Positively and Directly Concluding His New Theory of Light and Colours; and Here Recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they Were Generously Imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the Said Mr. Newtons of July 8.1672”  in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  The work became a touchstone in the establishment of the short report of experimental results in a serialized publication as a major means of scientific communication.  The Philosophical Transactions had existed for seven years prior to Newton’s contribution, but had been dedicated primarily to reporting the Royal Society’s regular piecemeal correspondence rather than the systematic presentation of experiments and observations, which was at that time accomplished mainly in the book format.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

As to the content of Newton’s first publication, it reported a series of simple but elegant experiments with a beam of sunlight and a couple of glass prisms, in which Newton demonstrated that light is not homogeneous and white, but heterogeneous, and made up of different colours each of which (more…)

Primer: Deutsche Physik August 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Our inaugural post in the Hump-Day History series is a subject that is a touchstone to those who have studied the history of physics, but that does not feature in the top tier of popular knowledge of the history of science. This is a short-lived but stinging moment in the history of physics in Germany from the 1930s known in English as “Aryan physics” but in German as deutsche Physik, or “German physics”. The reason “Aryan” tends to be used is because “deutsche” had a very ethnic connotation that served to distinguish this style of physics from what the proponents of deutsche Physik considered to be “Jewish” physics, by which they meant relativity and quantum mechanics, the subjects that had over the prior two decades catapulted German physics to a clear position at the forefront of the profession.

Philipp Lenard receives an honorary degree from Heidelberg University

Philipp Lenard receives an honorary degree from Heidelberg University. Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Deutsche Physik proponents were generally physicists who sought to benefit from the takeover of the Nazi Party in 1933. They were led by Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard (Nobel, 1905) and Johannes Stark (1919). After the Nazis took power, new civil service laws banned most Jews from government service, which included research posts in universities and important institutions like the Kaiser Wilhelm (now Max Planck) Institutes. By painting the highly abstract and philosophically unintuitive nature of recent physical theory as characteristically Jewish, Lenard et al attempted to tar non-Jewish physicists who had been a part of the new wave (more…)

Announcing: Hump-Day History August 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Here at Ether Wave Propaganda, we usually tackle obscure topics, which will primarily interest those people familiar with the history of science profession and its literature. Because the role of pop history has become a topic in the blogosphere, and because we’ve now been kindly linked to from some science blogs, starting next Wednesday we’re going to be posting weekly “Hump-Day History Lessons”: accessible vignettes from the history of science to help get regular non-historian visitors through the thick part of the week.

Historians tend to hear simple statements that have great interest to scientists and science enthusiasts, say “Joseph Fourier discovered global warming”, and suddenly, for unclear reasons, we get all excited and start dancing around, chanting bizarre things like “whig! whig! teleological claim!” (On Fourier and his link to climate science, click here).  But we’re also interested in refreshing ourselves on the basics, and communicating what we view as “good history” to larger audiences. So, be sure and check in next Wednesday when we’ll start our new experiment with a discussion of “Aryan physics”, a concept pushed by antisemitic Nobel-Prize-winners during the Nazi era.