No, Aristotle Did Not ‘Create’ The Computer

For the past few days, an essay titled “How Aristotle Created The Computer” (The Atlantic, March 20, 2017, by Chris Dixon) has been making the rounds. It begins with the following claim:

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.

Dixon then goes on to trace this ‘history of ideas,’ showing how the development–and increasing formalization and rigor–of logic contributed to the development of computer science and the first computing devices. Along the way, Dixon makes note of the contributions-direct and indirect–of: Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, George Boole, Euclid, Rene Descartes, Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Gottfried Leibniz, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead, Alonzo Church, and John Von Neumann. This potted history is exceedingly familiar to students of the foundations of computer science–a demographic that includes computer scientists, philosophers, and mathematical logicians–but presumably that is not the audience that Dixon is writing for; those students might wonder why Augustus De Morgan and Charles Peirce do not feature in it. Given this temporally extended history, with its many contributors and their diverse contributions, why does the article carry the headline “How Aristotle Created the Computer”? Aristotle did not create the computer or anything like it; he did make important contributions to a fledgling field, which took several more centuries to develop into maturity. (The contributions to this field by logicians and systems of logic of alternative philosophical traditions like the Indian one are, as per usual, studiously ignored in Dixon’s history.) And as a philosopher, I cannot resist asking, “what do you mean by ‘created'”? What counts as ‘creating’?

The easy answer is that it is clickbait. Fair enough. We are by now used to the idiocy of the misleading clickbait headline, one designed to ‘attract’ more readers by making it more ‘interesting;’ authors very often have little choice in this matter, and very often have to watch helplessly as hit-hungry editors mangle the impact of the actual content of their work. (As in this case?) But it is worth noting this headline’s contribution to the pernicious notion of the ‘creation’ of the computer and to the idea that it is possible to isolate a singular figure as its creator–a clear hangover of a religious sentiment that things that exist must have creation points, ‘beginnings,’ and creators. It is yet another contribution to the continued mistaken recounting of the history of science as a story of ‘towering figures.’ (Incidentally, I do not agree with Dixon that the history of computers is “better understood as a history of ideas”; that history is instead, an integral component of the history of computing in general, which also includes a social history and an economic one; telling a history of computing as a history of objects is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when we remember that actual, functioning computers are physical instantiations of abstract notions of computation.)

To end on a positive note, here are some alternative headlines: “Philosophy and Mathematics’ Contributions To The Development of Computing”; “How Philosophers and Mathematicians Helped Bring Us Computers”; or “How Philosophical Thinking Makes The Computer Possible.” None of these are as ‘sexy’ as the original headline, but they are far more informative and accurate.

Note: What do you think of my clickbaity headline for this post?

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Margaret Cavendish, Epicureanism, and Philosophy as Confession

In her erudite and enjoyable Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity Catherine Wilson makes note of Margaret Cavendish‘s participation in the so-called “Cavendish Salon” in Paris, which served as “the center of a revival of Epicureanism led by Hobbes and Gassendi.” Cavendish, who might have obtained her knowledge of that school of thought either through her own translations of the originals or from Hobbes, went on to write Philosophicall Fancies, which would serve as one of the “earliest print references to the reviving doctrine.”

Interestingly, Wilson suggests Cavendish’s philosophical inclinations were grounded in her biography:

Echoing Lucretius‘s unforgettable opening passage on the murder of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, Cavendish went on to say in The World’s Olio of 1655 that it was better to be an atheist than superstitious; atheism fostered humanity and civility, whereas superstition only bred cruelty. Unlike More and Descartes, Cavendish recognized no spirits or incorporeal substances in her metaphysical system. Consciousness depended in her view on a material substrate: Nature makes a brain out of matter so that there can be perception and appreciation of the material world.

Cavendish’s religious skepticism and her initial attraction to the atomic philosophy reflected the somewhat rebellious and resentful attitudes of one excluded from participation in the learned world and essentially powerless. Accustomed to being ruled and ordered about by fathers, husbands, and even sons, early modern women might have been drawn to a philosophy in which nature was depicted as accomplishing everything by herself [note Wilson’s use of the feminine pronoun here] without taking direction from an autocratic and psychologically impenetrable divinity. Lucretius insisted that ‘nature is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods’, and Cavendish proposed that:

Small Atomes of themselves a World may make,
For being subtile, every shape they take;
And as they dance about, they places find,
Of Forms, that best agree, make every Kind.
[Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London:1664),6]


As this marvelous collection of quotations–put together by Peter Suber–shows, the idea that philosophy works as a kind of confession has a long and storied history. Among the most famous proponents of this metaphilosophical thesis was, of course, Nietzsche.

First, in Human, All Too Human, trans. Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann, University of Nebraska Press, 1984 (original 1878):

[§513] However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.

And then most memorably, in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, 1966 (original 1886).

[§6] Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a “drive to knowledge” is the father of philosophy; but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument….

Links added throughout; Nietzsche quotations from Suber’s page

Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.

Teaching Descartes: It Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

In ‘Five Parables’ (from Historical Ontology, Harvard University Press, 2002), Ian Hacking writes,

I had been giving a course introducing undergraduates to the philosophers who were contemporaries of the green family and August der Stark. My hero had been Leibniz, and as usual my audience gave me pained looks. But after the last meeting, some students gathered around and began with the conventional, ‘Gee, what a great course.’ The subsequent remarks were more instructive: ‘But you could not help it…what with all those great books, I mean like Descartes…’ They loved Descartes and his Meditations.

I happen to give terrible lectures on Descartes, for I mumble along saying that I do not understand him much. It does not matter. Descartes speaks directly to these young people, who know as little about Descartes and his times as I know about the green family and its time. But just as the green family showed itself to me, so Descartes shows himself to them….The value of Descartes to these students is completely anachronistic, out of time. Half will have begun with the idea that Descartes and Sartre were contemporaries, both being French. Descartes, even more than Sartre, can speak directly to them….I do find it very hard to make sense of Descartes, even after reading commentaries, predecessors, and more arcane texts of the same period. The more I make consistent sense of him, the more he seems to me to inhabit an alien universe.

A few brief responses:

1. ‘Conventional’? This makes me think Hacking inhabits ‘an alien universe.’ Students gathering around me at the end of the semester and telling me they thought they had just finished a ‘great course’? Be still my beating heart.

2. I suspect I too give ‘terrible lectures on Descartes.’ I’ve now taught Descartes four times–twice in introductory core classes, and twice in Modern Philosophy–and I remain unconvinced that I’ve been competent in making Descartes understandable on any of those occasions. In part, this is because, like Hacking, I  ‘find it very hard to make sense of Descartes.’ Perhaps it’s because of the apparatus that Descartes employs, perhaps because I don’t find foundationalism a coherent doctrine, or perhaps it’s the scholastic language in the Meditations. Whatever the reason, I feel defeated by Descartes.

3. What I find most surprising about Hacking’s comments is his recounting of his students’ reactions. For  I am not alone in this relationship with Descartes: I sense a general skepticism directed at him from my students as well. This might be because of my incompetent teaching of Descartes, but I’ve come to think that many students find the Meditations a let down after the Discourse on Method (and the opening of the Meditations). There is an austerity, a novelty, promised there that the subsequent sections simply do not deliver on; students, in particular, feel cheated by Descartes’ reliance on a benevolent, non-deceiving God to make his arguments work. (Of course, this is merely an impressionistic take on students’ reactions whenever these portions make their appearance: ‘All that talk about the Enlightenment, a new method, rejection of authority, an intellectual hygiene and discipline, and then we get this?’)

My second time teaching Modern Philosophy, I geared up, determined to finally lay the Descartes bugbear to rest, reading the Meditations carefully, determined to make sense of them to myself and to my students, to give good ‘ol Rene the best chance possible. Three weeks later, I surrendered.