Monday, May 25, 2015

No way out

An animal runs away when the door is open, but man doesn't want to escape from his self-made cage

Somewhere in his Essays Montaigne writes about marriage: “It happens, as with cages, the birds without despair to get in, and those within despair of getting out.” (Essays III, 5) It’s true, Montaigne doesn’t write that all marriages are that way that one wants to escape, once one is in. Nevertheless he thinks that it is so most of the time.
Does this quotation apply only to marriage? I think that its meaning is wider and that it is applicable to most human institutions and habits, whatever they are. It’s true, many people feel happy in their self-built cages, but how often doesn’t it happen that once a certain stream of life, a certain habit, an institution or whatever we are doing or whatever situation we are in – alone or with others – becomes a routine, we become dissatisfied with it and we are not pleased with it any longer? Maybe this feeling is not present at the surface and not all the time, but in our hearts we feel that something has to be changed and deep down there is a hidden discontent. But does man use the freedom to go out once s/he gets it? Look at an animal in a cage and see what it does, when you open the door. After some hesitation it goes outside and once there it runs or flies away. Maybe it comes back in the evening for getting food and shelter, but after a few days it is accustomed to its freedom and you’ll never see it again. However, if the animal is a man, as a rule s/he stays where s/he is: in the cage. For human beings stick to their habits, even if there is a way out.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Caught in your mind

Some people are caught in their minds. They don’t have flexibility in the way they think. As things have done in the past, so they must be done in the future. Or once they have developed ideas how things should be arranged in the world, about what is good and what is wrong, they stick to it and they are not open to the fact that many people in the world think otherwise, about details or about the mainlines or about both. “I am right or my group is right and the others are wrong, a little bit or completely.” They cannot ignore those who have different opinions and probably they cannot change them, but “my way is better”, or at least that is what they think. Or “our way is better”, for hardly anyone stands alone in his or her views. Most people leave it at that and they manage to live with the others who are not like them. And “we”, the flexible ones – or so we see ourselves – succeed to live with them, and we leave it also as it is, most of the time. Why not? If the baker is prepared to sell me his bread, thinking that he sells the best bread in the world and that other recipes are inferior to his one, it is okay, as long I am satisfied with what he produces. And maybe the brown bread bakers fight with the black bread bakers about the best colour of bread, but most people don’t mind about the colour, or it is merely a theoretical discussion. Although, ... I remember that in the 1950s in the Netherlands, when I still was a child, the religion of bakers was really important, even when they produced the same quality of bread, brown or black. Protestants bought bread preferably from protestant bakers and roman-catholics preferred roman-catholic bakers, even in case it took more effort to go to a baker with the right religion. And you did not only do so when you wanted to buy bread, but the whole Dutch society was organized according this principle that people went around with people of the same religious and political views. It was called “pillarization”, and the main pillars were the protestants, the roman-catholics, the socialists and the liberals. This last group consisted of those who could not or did not want to be classified in one of the other groups. But people lived peaceful together and the leaders of the pillars solved problems that might arise in one of the backrooms of the parliament and other relevant institutions.
The situation becomes problematical, however, when a group becomes zealous and wants to spread ideas in an active way that’s is more than simply making propaganda. The situation becomes yet more serious when such a group starts to do so with violent means. Then it is only one step to terrorism if not civil war or outright war. In case the group succeeds – which happens too often – we have dictatorship, often cloaked in an ideology and covered with a name that pretends to show enlightenment. In order to guarantee that the ideas remain pure, the victors fence themselves off in order to prevent that evil ideas (and persons) come in and that those people who don’t want to conform go out, for who is so stupid to want to leave paradise?
I had to think about all this when I recently was in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and visited there the Border Museum at Sorge, near Wernigerode. There I saw fences with barbed wire, a watchtower, guard posts, etc. left as warnings for the future when thoughts come to a standstill and people fence themselves off, literally, in order to prevent that established ideas might change and to make that they become frozen at the moment they are considered best. And in order to make that those who are so happy to live on the inner side of the fence and who are not yet convinced of the superior ideas at the moment the gate is closed will accept the ideas that bring them heaven on earth, like the communism that was the reigning ideology when the fencing near Sorge were built. But as history has shown and will show again and again in future, maybe we can shut up a person or a group but we cannot shut up a people and we cannot confine ideas. In the GDR, people rose in revolt, the Berlin Wall fell and with it the Iron Curtain that closed off the eastern part of Europe from the western part. Only here and there parts of the curtain remained, as a warning and as a way to tell us that the mind cannot be caught and will never lose its freedom to think, even if it can happen that individual minds and – when these are put together – group minds cage themselves and others with them.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The meaning of the ordinary

At the end of my last blog I wrote that selfies are seldom taken when you feel bad. Usually it is so that photos are taken of themes with a positive meaning; themes that are more than simply neutral let alone negative. Selfies, and by and large photos taken of yourself (and of other people not being you), don’t say: “That’s me ...” but “That’s me!” This is just an instance of a common characteristic of much photography. As Pierre Bourdieu analysed so well in his famous book An art moyen (A mean art), “You don’t photograph what you have before you all days” (p. 57). Or rather, that’s what many people think. Of course, what is “normal”, and so what is not photographed, depends on your point of view. What is everyday and ordinary for me, may be a piece of beauty or an object of interest for a tourist! The old door of my barn that almost falls from its hinges and urgently needs to be repaired may be very attractive for a passer-by. As Bourdieu tells us: “The tourist or the stranger are amazed, when they photograph everyday objects or persons in the setting of their regular activities” (ibid.). Who did say that a thing of beauty is a joy forever? It depends on your standpoint.
This makes clear that what is considered mean, average, ordinary, common – or how you want to call it – is not as mean, average, ordinary or common as often is thought. Just that it is so makes a thing meaningful – or most of the time. It says that the object or activity concerned is a routine part of its setting: It is so well integrated in its surroundings or flow that it is not conspicuous any longer. You need to be an outsider in order to see it, or the object or activity need to be taken away or stopped in order to realize its significance. Holidays change your feeling for what is photographable, to express what Bourdieu says in other words. This is also the case in another sense. Poverty is seen and felt by the poor and they feel ashamed to see it on a picture – and who wouldn’t? –, but tourist make such pictures, because they think that it is so picturesque ...
Lately someone told me that I make pictures from such special positions, implying from such unusual, banal or ordinary viewpoints. I see it as the compliment it was meant to be. My view on the world is not innate but something I have learned during my education as a sociologist and philosopher, so it is something everybody can learn. Being as it may, what is important is that we learn to look and that we realize that not only the exceptional is valuable but that also the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is. For isn’t it so that the exceptional can only exist because there is something we find mean, average, ordinary, common etc.? That the exceptional is shaped by the normal? Even more, if the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. wouldn’t exist, we couldn’t live, for just these – so the routine – give what we exceptionally do and what we positively value as an exception (but also what we negatively see as exceptionable and reprehensible) its foundation. Maybe the mean, average, ordinary, common etc. is the most meaningful of what we do. In the end we need to park our car somewhere if we want to visit a restaurant.
Reference: Pier Bourdieu (ed.), Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1975.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Your selfie and your soul

The image is the reflection of the soul

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” (Part II, iv) In that context Wittgenstein gives the word “soul” a religious meaning, discussing the view that “[r]eligion teaches that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated.” (ibid.) However, I think that we can give “soul” also a wider meaning, for example we can read it as “mind” or as “inner life”. Seen that way the idea expressed in the first quotation is in agreement with recent discoveries in neuroscience, especially with the discovery of mirror neurons: It has become increasingly clear that there is a direct relation between the way I feel and the expression on my face. It’s even so that if I consciously produce a certain expression on my face, say one of sadness or one of joy, I tend to feel that way, as you’ll remember from my older blogs.
One of the consequences of this relation between inner feeling and facial expression is that I can read someone’s frame of mind on his or her face, although it can happen that the other tries to mislead me. For it is possible to suppress the “mechanism” and consciously make that the expression on the face is not in line with the inner state. However, as a rule, when I look at the face of another person, I can say something about that person’s inner feelings, about his or her inner life. Actually some people are better in it than others. Most of the time this – what I could call – “mind reading” is not a conscious activity. Often it happens that we don’t realize that we read the mind of another in front of us. This can make, for instance, that my feeling (and body!) automatically adapts itself to the feeling of the other. Who doesn’t know the phenomenon that we start to yawn, if we see someone yawning, or that we become sad (or just happy) when we see someone crying (or just see laughing)? It can even extend to a whole group: One person laughs and everybody present starts to laugh, too! Man is a social being to the core and more and more it becomes clear that the relation between inner feeling and outer expression is the basis of human sociality, or at least for a major part.
Now, I think, also the sense of making selfies becomes clear, and –this is essential – why they are shown to others. For what is more obvious than making a picture of yourself and presenting it to the world in these days where looks and appearance have become more important than ever and where showing yourself has also been better possible than ever? If direct face-to-face relations are absent, nowadays there is no better reflection of your self than a selfie, for it gives both an image of your outer self and of your inner self, since the former mirrors the latter. A selfie gives a complete image of your I, or rather of your positive I, for selfies are seldom taken when you feel bad. But as long as you feel good it is a reflection of your soul.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Self in the era of selfie


Today we live in the era of images. Originally, making images was a real craft left to professional painters. With the arrival of photography (and film, but here I’ll talk only about photography), at first not so much changed. Making images was still left to professionals – photographers who mainly worked in studios – and a few exceptional hobbyists. This changed with the production of the Brownie camera by Kodak in 1900 and the introduction of the Leica 35 mm camera 25 years later. Now everybody could become a photographer, and indeed, more and more people took a camera in their hands.
Nevertheless, photography did not yet become a mass phenomenon. It was still mainly done by professionals and – it’s true – a growing number of amateur photographers. Having a camera was still not widespread. Making photos was specialists and also many amateurs developed their own films and printed their photos. Many of them were organised in clubs. No longer photography was seen as an art but as a technique, despite famous names – to mention a few of my favourites – like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans or Ed van der Elsken. If it was seen as an art, it was considered “an art moyen” (Pierre Bourdieu – so a “middle-brow art”, or an “average art” or a “middle-class art”). This remained so till from the 1960s on photography got a new boost, when cameras became more advanced and got automatic functions. Especially the first completely electronic camera produced by Canon around 1980 has to be mentioned here. With the introduction of compact cameras and pocket cameras photography became a mass phenomenon. What also happened is that the status of photography went up again: since the 1990s good photography is again considered art.
However, all this is nothing compared with what happened by the introduction of the digital camera. The basic technology existed already since 1975. Initially the quality of digital cameras was poor. But from the 1990s on the technology became so much better that nowadays every camera sold is digital and cameras for film are difficult to get or it must be second-hand. The digital camera technology has beaten the analogue technology, although this doesn’t imply that always the artistic expression of digital cameras is to be preferred.
Digital photography has not only become a mass phenomenon. It has become more than that. Making images is so important now that we can say that present society has become an image society (what had been already foreseen in 1985 by Vilém Flusser in his Into the Universe of Technical Images). Today we don’t take photos only with special cameras, but everything which is digital can become a camera. Especially mobile telephones have this function. And, the other way round, also cameras tend to get functions that are not photographic. Sending photos directly from your camera to the Internet is only a first step.
All this has led to new ways of using photos and to new ways to present yourself. More and more photos are uploaded to special websites or to your Facebook pages, to Flickr, and so on. Also what people photograph has changed. Hobby photographers who make pictures of landscapes, townscapes and themes they find interesting still exist but most people make only two types of photos: Pictures of their holidays and places where they just have been, and pictures of themselves. With the latter I don’t mean portraits more or less in the classical sense, but pictures with the meaning “I am doing this”, “I am doing that”; “I am here; look me”, “I am there with x”. Or “Just me behind my PC”. And such photos, lots of photos, are immediately sent to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and other special photo pages. Some people show there so many hardly different photos of themselves (often taken by themselves, so “selfies”),  apparently under the motto “it’s me”), that I wonder – both as a photographer and as a philosopher – what the meaning of all this is. Actually, I know it, of course. In the era of individualism and ego-expressivism, it’s a way of ego-showing. In an era in which appearance has become so important, just because images are everywhere, your image is what you are, so you show it. Media are everywhere so everywhere you can be seen, so use it and you’ll be seen. Inside and outside your network. Appearance = to be seen = to make to be seen. Or: I can be seen, so I will be seen, for what I am as a person is my image. My selfie is who I am. This is the new development; this is the new trend. Even more, it is a step to a new era, if we can believe Vilém Flusser.

On a certain social networking website my profile photo is a picture of my books study and I have many other photos there, too, but not one of myself. On the other hand, I have a rather comprehensive verbal description of my interests and doings. In my view, it gives a good impression of who I am, and I think that it is sufficient for starting a nice conversation. Nevertheless, often I receive comments like: “Why don’t you have a photo of yourself in your profile? Now I don’t know who you are”. As if it is not so that my verbal self-description says much about me and as if it is not so that all my photos there, especially the photo of my study, say much about what kind of person I am. Today you need to present a photo of your face for showing yourself, for only such a photo shows who you are, even if the head on the picture might be empty.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The body and the self (2)

It's me

When I saw someone yesterday and today I think that I see her again over there but I am not sure of it, I try to remember in detail how the woman I saw yesterday looked like and I compare her with the woman I see now, and then I draw my conclusion: She is the same person or she isn’t. However, when I can ask her “Is it possible that it were you whom I saw yesterday at the bus stop?”, I do not expect that she tries to bring up from her mind a physical description of a person at the bus stop yesterday and compares it with her appearance and then says: “Yes, it was me” or “No, it wasn’t me”; or otherwise that she compares my physical description of the person I saw yesterday with her own appearance. That would be weird. No, we expect that she says “yes” or “no” from what she remembers about what she did yesterday. So there seems to be a difference between a person’s identity from the third person’s perspective and from the first person’s perspective. Nevertheless this doesn’t imply that physical appearance isn’t important for someone’s identity from the first person’s perspective, for why else should people wear masks on certain occasions, use make-up or wear beautiful clothes? And, from the third person’s perspective, when a person has lost memory, isn’t it clear that this amnesia, even if it’s “only” partial, can have an enormous impact on that person’s personality?
Maybe that’s why so many persons find it important to publish photos showing the face on social networking websites like Facebook, supposing that such a photos show who they are.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The body and the self

The case of getting a new body is much discussed in philosophy but then in the form of a body or brain switch between two people. For the first time this has been done by John Locke (1632-1704), who analyzed the case of a prince getting the body of a cobbler. Since then the discussion has never stopped. It is mainly about the question: what determines the self? Basically there are two views. One is that it’s the body that makes up the self; the other is that the self is mental, be it in the “hard form” of the brain, be it the mind, or be it the memory. Sergio Canavero, who actually wants to perform a body transplant and whose ideas I have discussed in my last blog, apparently thinks that the self is mental (laid up in the brain or head). My standpoint is that it is mixed: the self is made up of bodily and mental characteristics. However, most philosophers think that the self is only mental.
Now I want to discuss a case that I’ll quote by heart, since I am too lazy to look up who presented it first. Maybe it was Bernard Williams, maybe it was someone else.
Let’s say that a doctor, who is an adherent of the mental self theory but who is also a famous body transplant surgeon, tells you that your body will gradually decay and that finally you’ll feel a lot of pain. You are shocked. But then he says: “I have a solution. I can give you a new body”. You become very happy. You just started to train for the marathon, and it is your great wish to run it within three hours. If your body wouldn’t decay, it would really be possible for you have the right physical constitution. So you agree, and the next week you are successfully operated.
You have a quick and complete recovery and the new body feels like your own. So you start to train for the marathon aagain. You are an experienced runner so in your mind you feel already the suppleness of your legs when running. But when you take up your training again, you are stiff. “Okay”, you think, “that’s normal after having been inactive for so long”. Your legs and body gradually improve but after a year they still do not feel fine and the way you remembered about your first body. Therefore you go to a sports doctor. She does a medical examination and the result is: With your present body you can run a marathon within five hours and four hours will be the absolute limit. You are very disappointed, for you are no longer the long distance runner you thought to be. The body transplant has been to no purpose. An illusion has been broken.
My story looks fantastic but it’s the life story of everybody who becomes older. When time goes on, the body starts to decay. It can happen after you have become thirty years old or after you have become forty or whenever, but sooner or later your body loses its youth. Your performance will go down in an absolute sense. For example, if you are a runner or cyclists, your average speed will go down. But in your mind you still feel young. Many people say so: That they feel young in their minds but that their bodies doen’t cooperate any longer. The body has become older but the mind hasn’t (or so it feels). When you have become sixty years of age, actually you have undergone a body transplant: Your supposed thirty years old mind has (gradually) got a sixty years old body. But since the self is in the mind (or at least it is mental and not physical, even not partially), you are still basically the thirty years old person you once were (of course, plus some thirty years of memories of experiences you passed through). Or rather, this is what follows from the idea that the self is mental.
Do you belief it? Being a runner, too, I still feel in my mind the suppleness of my legs from the time I run my personal bests. Really. But the days of my personal bests have gone already long ago and I know it. The feeling is real and it is an illusion. I have changed through the years and everybody will tell me if asked. And my self has changed with it, even if it tells me otherwise. For young people I am “that old man”, for they judge me from my physical appearance. And in fact my thoughts are to a large extent guided by what I can do with my body, which is reflected then in my mind. In other words, who I am – so my self – is more than what I feel, my mind, and – what I haven’t discusses here – my remembrances. It comprises also the features of my body (and actually also features of my social life). But who would have thought otherwise except a philosopher?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting a new body

Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, asserts that he can transplant a human head on the body of a donor whose brain has died but whose body is still healthy. He thinks that he will need a preparatory period of about two years and then he can do the transplantation. Or so he says. Canavero has found already a candidate who wants to give his head for the operation: A Russian man called Valery who suffers from a serious neuromuscular disease. Will it be possible? Then I am not thinking of the technical possibility of the operation. Such a transplantation will certainly not be possible within two years but sooner or later it can be done and I am convinced that it will be done. But what will we get then? Canavero and his future patient seem to think that we’ll “simply” get another Valery (or who else will be the patient) with the same head as before but only with another body, and nothing else. But is this what we’ll get?
The basic idea that it works this way goes back to the philosophy of René Descartes (1598-1650). According to him, man consists of two entities, joined together: a body and a mind. This view is called Cartesian dualism or substance dualism. It says that body and mind are two different substances, and fundamentally they can be separated. What really makes up our personality is our mind in this view. If it were true, it would imply that we could put a head (which is supposed to contain the mind) on another body, indeed. The only practical question would be whether both parts will well grow together and then form a material unity.
However, is it true? Is it possible to change the body for another one (where “body” means the part below the head) just as we can change clothes? Of course, we like one pair of trousers more than another pair, because it fits better or because of its colour, but basically they all fit. I think that getting another body is not that simple. If you get another body you’ll become another person.
In an article on personal identity I discussed the case of two runners who swapped bodies. In order to make the present case more plastic let me suppose that our Russian patient Valery gets the body of a woman. Or, making the case even more plastic, let me suppose that Valery, a white man, gets the body of a black woman (or a black man; actually it’s not important for my argument). I think that this makes clear that there are other aspects in a body change than merely the technical aspects that the head and the body must technically fit together (the “wires”, like spinal cord and blood vessels, must be connected) and that the body must not reject the head (or the other way round). There are also wider medical aspects and there are psychological and social aspects as well. As for the wider medical aspects, for instance every body has an endocrine system that has an important effect on how the body works. It is not so that we have a system for our head and another one for the body, but we have one for the whole. It regulates in an important way how the body works and how it behaves. There are individual differences between one man and the other and these have a deep influence on what kind of personality we are, for example whether we are a man or a woman, our sexual behaviour and much more. As for the psychological and social aspects, how you look like, how you behave and so on have such an influence on how you are treated and on the kind of person you are that it is hard to imagine. Ask a black man in the USA about what it is to be black in a society where the standards are white, and he (for example Barrack Obama) can fill hours with his stories.
Here in my blog I can present my arguments only superficially. I don’t have the space to discuss them in detail. However, also when Valery would get the body of someone who is more like him (so the body of a white man) problems of the kind I have just touched would still exist, albeit it maybe in a lesser degree. What I want to make clear and put forward is this: If someone gets another body, she or he does not simply get another body. It’s not like getting another coat in a different design. Of course, some “technical” problems have to be solved: the “wires” have to be connected, you have to learn to walk again etc. etc.; but Canavero seems to think that after a year or maybe two years you’ll be back on stage as before. Just this “as before” is the crux of the matter, for the change of getting a new body will not be marginal but substantial: A new person will be born. But also: another person has died. Is that what we want? That’s what a body transplant is about and not about whether we’ll be able to connect the wires.
Sources: De Volkskrant, March 21, 2015 (“Sir Edmund”); Surgical Neurology International 2013, 2015; my “Can a person break a world record?”, on:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy words

Maybe you’ll not remember it, for it’s already five years ago that I wrote it, but once in a blog I told how I ride better with a smile on my face when making a bike tour. This is exactly in line with what I newly wrote about the movements of the body and the way you feel, and especially about the relation between the expression on your face and your feelings. Of course, this has a wider application than only the practice of sports. Trainers in interpersonal communication, for instance, make use of the relation between bodily expression and feeling. They advice to adapt your physical expression to the situation you are in. Then you do not only make a better impression on the others present, but you feel yourself also better adapted to the circumstances and you feel like you are supposed to behave. But if such a relation exists, especially between facial expression and feeling, then it must also be easy to integrate this phenomenon in your daily life. For, as I see it, you can do this when you do something you have to do anyway: talking. Just choose the right words and you’ll become happy. Not by choosing words with the meaning of happiness but by choosing words that have a happy sound, or rather a sound that you can only utter by smiling. How does it work? To quote Darwall: “Subjects who are asked to pronounce phonemes involving muscle activity implicated in characteristic emotional facial expressions tend, when they comply, to feel those very feelings.” For instance, the sound o is made with another expression of your facial musculature than when you say an e and therefore they give you different feelings, when you pronounce them. Is it mere chance that saying words like “sorrow” and “gloomy” arouse corresponding feelings within you? Apparently it is not only the meanings of the words that do but also the muscles in your face. But, surely, it can also work in the opposite direction. Saying an e is done by producing a smile and smiling makes you happy. So, say “cheerful” and you’ll feel cheerful.
What does this mean for us? There are many ways to try to become happy. One of them is the way we talk: Simply use “happy words”, so words that you have to pronounce by producing a smile on your face. Say “pleased” and not “glad”; “grief” and not “sorrow”; or – something else – “street” and not “road”. If you do, you’ll feel much better, only by the way you speak. Or, as Darwall says it: “There is more to saying ‘cheese’ than we might have imagined.”

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotations on p. 265). ( )

Monday, March 16, 2015

Empathy and sympathy

Two weeks ago I published the photo above by way of illustration for my blog. I had taken it especially for this occasion and it was supposed to express the idea of empathy. But does it really do? Empathy is a complex notion that has got many different interpretations. We have seen this yet in my blog last week. Within limits it is a bit arbitrary what meaning we should give it. However, I think that one thing has become clear from my discussion: Empathy refers to a kind of reflection of another’s emotion or experience within me. After the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons this needn’t be something vague but we can give it a physical foundation, as I have done so in my blogs as well. Empathy makes that I am a bit like the other whose feeling I reflect. Empathy can reflect all kinds of feelings, from cheerfulness until sorrow and a lot in between.
In a photo I can express only one kind of empathy; I cannot express empathy in general. Even then, I think now that the blog photo two weeks ago is not to the point, for it doesn’t show a kind of reflection of the feeling of one person in another person. This doesn’t mean that the photo is a complete failure, for it does express something that is often confused with empathy (so also by me). We see a hand on a shoulder in a gloomy picture (it’s on purpose that I had made the photo rather dark and that I had made it black-and-white). But such a hand on a shoulder is generally not supposed to mean that the “hand-person” has the same feeling as the “shoulder-person” but that former is concerned about the latter and that the former cares for the latter. In other words, the photo expresses sympathy.
Although sympathy and empathy are related, they are different. For explaining this, let me quote Stephen Darwall’s definition of sympathy. According to him, sympathy “is a feeling or emotion that (a) responds to some apparent threat or obstacle to an individual’s good or well-being, (b) has that individual himself as object, and (c) involves concern for him, and thus for his well-being, for his sake.” In short, sympathy refers to feelings for another person that is in a difficult situation and needs help or support. Nothing of all this is necessary for empathy. The other doesn’t need to be in trouble or have a difficult time. I can also share the joy another experiences (for having passed an exam successfully, for instance), and I am happy because the other is happy. I can also feel empathy when I am watching a play in a theatre. I just feel, also if I don’t have a personal relation to the other. In case of sympathy I am concerned for the other but not because I reflect the feeling of the other within me but for his or her sake. I care for the other also when I don’t have the feeling of the other. For instance, the mother of a person I know has died and I am present at the funeral for expressing my sympathy, but this doesn’t imply that I am sad. I simply show care for my acquaintance because I know that my presence will be very much appreciated by him. Being worried or concern are words that best express our feelings when we have sympathy for someone. Therefore we can say, in philosophical terms, that when we have sympathy we see the other from a third-person perspective, because we know what the other feels but we do not necessarily share this feeling, unlike in the case of empathy which supposes a first-person perspective, for only by becoming the same as the other in a certain way, we can know what the other feels.

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotation on p. 261). ( )

Monday, March 09, 2015

On the meaning of “empathy”

In my blog last week, I remarked that scientists do not agree about what empathy involves. In fact, they give it many interpretations. In an article on its features and effects Amy Coplan gives a list of the most popular ways empathy is understood:
(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else’s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another’s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other’s situation
(F) Making inferences about another’s mental states
(G) Some combination of these possibilities.
As Coplan notes, this big number of conceptualizations of empathy is quite problematical for what are we talking about, when we use the word “empathy”? Even if one gives a clear definition in a treatise on empathy, it remains confusing that the concept can be understood in so many different ways. In this blog I cannot end the confusion, but I want to make some comments on the different meanings of empathy listed by Coplan, hoping that it helps to bring some order in the mesh, although my comments must be short.
Leaving out (G), which is a bit of a hotchpotch, we have six different interpretations. Originally the concept has been coined in Germany at the end of the 19th century, where it has been developed by Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps, who talked about “Einfühlung”. Einfühlung means something like feeling into. Let’s keep it in mind.
Take first interpretation (B): to care about someone else. I think that this interpretation of empathy is too wide. One can care about another for many different reasons and one doesn’t need to feel into the other for that, which minimally supposes some kind of emotionally sharing. Interpretation (B) needs to be specified, for example, by the other interpretations (or some of them), like (D): Imagining oneself in another’s situation. However, such an imagining must be more than simply intellectual. For instance, a judge has to assess why the suspect robbed the bank because he needed money. Such an assessment will be purely intellectual. Referring to what I said in my blogs about mirror neurons, in order to talk about empathy here, a certain kind of internal simulation of the suspect’s reasons by the judge is imperative if we want to talk about empathy. Even more, since mirror neurons are also motor neurons that start moving the muscles expressing the empathy, for instance on the face, one could talk about a kind of internal vibration in case of empathy. I think that one cannot expect that the “feeling into” of a judge goes that far. As for this, there is not much difference between imagining oneself in another’s situation and imagining being in his or her situation (=E). Also this interpretation supposes too much about what empathy is.
This “feeling into”, or “being emotionally affected by” as Copland says it, is explicitly mentioned in interpretation (C). However, thinking of the recent discovery of mirror neurons, (C) contains a contradiction, for in view of these neurons being emotionally affected involves at least a minimal experience of these emotions within by the observer. The latter is implied in interpretation (A), which sees empathy as a kind of – what I have called – “internal vibration”. But then we are already halfway interpretation (F) (namely making inferences about another’s mental states), assuming that we can use our own mental states then in order to explain the mental states of the other.
My comments on the six possible interpretations of empathy presented by Copland don’t bring us a final definition. However, they show some aspects that must be part of such a definition, explicitly or implicitly. If we see empathy with another as a kind of feeling into, then at least we share that person’s feelings, emotions and experiences in the sense that we are emotionally affected by them and simulate them internally in some way and have a kind of internal (muscular) vibration (if not an expression of the feeling on our face). In short, empathy is emotional resonance of the other within us.

Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its features and effects”, in: Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy (see blog last week); pp. 3-18.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Why women have more empathy than men

Empathy is a rather faint concept. Scientists do not agree what it exactly involves and they haven’t succeeded yet to define it clearly. For this blog that’s not important. Let’s say that empathy is feeling what someone else feels; that it is a kind of feeling that makes that one understands and feels the emotions of another person, because one imagines the situation he or she is in. Then one gets the same emotion as the other, although usually in a lesser degree. One sees that the other is sad or just happy, which makes that you feel sad or happy as well. It’s the same for other feelings or emotions, like pain, regret, fear, anger and so on. It can even work that way that only seeing a happy or sad person makes you becoming happy or sad. Everybody has such experiences, but how does it work?
Empathy has been studied at least since the end of the nineteenth century but the discovery of so-called mirror neurons in the brain some hundred years later has thrown a new light on it. Mirror neurons are a kind of neurons that become activated, when someone sees another person performing an action. However, they have also another function, for mirror neurons become also activated when you yourself perform an action. So mirror neurons both help recognize actions and they are motor neurons in the sense that they play a role in moving your muscles for performing the same actions. They have a double function. Even more, when you see somebody performing an action, also then they make that you start moving the related muscles. Often this happens unconsciously and you don’t notice it and you keep sitting in your chair. But who hasn’t experienced being present at a concert and seeing the drummer tapping his foot and starting to tap your own foot? Or you see persons dancing in the street and you stop to watch them and you start to move as well or even joins them? Mirror neurons make that you tend to copy and simulate the behaviour of other persons; openly or within yourself.
Mirror neurons play an important part in learning but also in recognizing emotions. When you see an emotion on the face of another person, your mirror neurons register the emotion and make that you start copying it. When you see that someone is happy, you get a feeling of being happy, and if she smiles or laughs, you start to smile or laugh, too. If you see that someone is sad you also tend to feel sad, and maybe you start to cry with him or her. Also your face expresses the emotion concerned.
It’s interesting that this process doesn’t work only in one direction. It doesn’t work only from emotion to movement but also from movement to emotion. For instance, make a smile and immediately you tend to feel better; suppress smiles where you are supposed to be serious and you’ll feel so. In other words, there is relation of interdependence between what you see being done, what you do in relation to what you see then and to what you feel.
It’s just a hypothesis but I think that all this has a consequence for the relation between empathy and sex. In most cultures women are free to express their emotions and feelings, at least to a large extent, while men are supposed to keep them in check and not to show them too much. However, suppressing showing your emotions means suppressing the movements of the muscles related to these emotions. But if you suppress the movements of the muscles that are related to certain emotions you tend to suppress the emotions as such as well. If you don’t laugh you feel less cheerful than when you do, and if you don’t cry you feel less sorrow than when you do cry. Anyway, this is so compared to persons in the same circumstances who do perform all these physical expressions of their feelings.
Above I described empathy as feeling what someone else feels. As we just have seen, it belongs to having a certain feeling that you move your muscles in the right way. Basically it is an automatic process but you can steer it and just that’s what you do when you suppress to start crying when you see someone else crying; or when you try to suppress that your face becomes sad when you see someone in sorrow; and the same for happiness and for other emotions. However, when you suppress the physical expression of an emotion you suppress the related feeling as well, like, for instance, the empathy you actually feel for someone, if something has happened to that person. And since in most cultures men are allowed not to show their emotions as much as women can, the upshot is that men feel less empathy than women do in the same circumstances.

More on empathy in Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy. Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When empathy fails

Once I talked here about some negative effects of communicating via the Internet. Especially in the on line social media, direct physical contact is usually absent. We do not see each other; we do not hear each other. The only thing we do with the other is exchanging texts and often pictures, too. However, these pictures usually present a positive image of us. We don’t show what we don’t like. Moreover pictures are static. So, we don’t show facial expressions and emotions to our conversation partners, and we don’t see theirs. Let alone that we shake hands or hug. As a result we tend to become rude. “Happy slapping” is the most extreme form of it, but there are also more subtle forms of lack of manners. We don’t say “How are you?” any longer. When we meet someone for the first time and have a question, we don’t say “Excuse me. May I ask you ...”. No, we simply ask, although we never would get the idea to behave that way when we wanted to know something from a stranger. And we don’t say “Goodbye” or “See you later”, when we finish a conversation and want to go off line. Many people in social media do so. Politeness doesn’t seem to belong to the Internet manners for them. But is it something new?
I think there is at least one type of social situation that has a bit the same characteristics as the social world of the Internet and that is older: Traffic, and then especially modern traffic with cars. I think that modern traffic is a kind of predecessor of the Internet. Or rather some aspects of it are. I’ll stress here only those aspects and I’ll ignore the differences.
It’s true that when we drive, we see each other. But do we really do? We see other persons in the cars passing by but actually we hardly experience them as such for we are boxed up in a cage and most of the time we (and “they” as well) drive with such a speed that the other drivers are hardly more than flashes. Only when the cars go very slowly or have to stop, and especially when people in the cars are gesturing, they tend to become again like persons of flesh and blood, but only for a part for we still can’t hear them, closed off as we are in the cages of our cars. As Michel de Certeau might have said: The cage divides, on the one hand, the driver’s interiority and, on the other, the external world of the passing cars as objects without discourse. The consequence is that we tend to become rude. We tend to ignore traffic rules, especially speed limits; we tend to cut on other cars; we excuse ourselves less often for our mistakes than we would do in “normal” life; and who knows what more. In short, we tend to become assholes. When we get in our car and close the cage, we close our empathy, too. Much is new in the Internet but nothing comes out of the blue.
But is all this – I mean being closed off – only negative? Retire to your study, close the door, and think about this quote from de Certeau: “Glass and iron produce speculative thinkers and gnostics. This cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories”. So, driving a car can have positive effects for the mind as well. Nevertheless, I would rather speculate and bear thoughts in my study than in the cage of my car, for there it might end with a jolt.

Quote from Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 112.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On group responsibility

Group intention

In my last blog I concluded that what we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice. In view of this we can say that a group can be responsible for what it does, while its members aren’t, or at least they are not liable for what the group does. In former blogs I have shown that Hannah Arendt talks here about a collective responsibility. I don’t want to repeat the discussion in my older blogs about it but throw some new lights on it.
The idea of group responsibility or collective responsibility is widely accepted. It has also a legal basis. It often happens that a company is fined while the managers aren’t, let alone the employees. Legally there is a difference. It also happens that a sports club is punished by the national association, while its members are free to do what they like, such as leaving the club for another one. This is generally accepted.
Nevertheless, when a group, company or other collectivity is punished, this often casts a shadow over its members. Moreover, it can happen that individual members are punished for what actually the group does. It points to the fact that a group is not independent of its individual members; that a group is not something that has emerged from the individual members and then leads a life of its own. In some way group intentions exist always in the heads of the members. “The mind is not only in the head”, as Andy Clark maintains and which I support. But this doesn’t involve that it is not also in the head. It’s the same for intentions: Groups intentions are always also in the heads of the group members, and groups without members who intend to perform the actions decided by the group will do nothing. In this sense, individual members are responsible for what the group does.
However, this is often a matter of degree. The power to influence group actions and to determine and steer its intentions varies a lot between its members, especially in larger groups, not to speak of nations. Some are not more than cogs in the machine and the machine will also work without them. Others can steer the machine or even start it up. There is a hierarchy that determines who can and will do what.
Other collectivities have more democratic structures. The members have a relatively equal power and there is a set of rules about how to decide on group intentions and actions and how to perform them. This can happen by a vote or election according to a one man one vote principle. Once a decision has been taken, every member accepts it.
Such differences in power between group members in the way they can influence group decisions make that their collective responsibilities can vary from full to (almost) none. Really not responsible can be only one who does not belong to the group concerned. But often there is no option. It is part of the human condition that one needs to belong to some groups, anyway, or one should leave life. But is that an option?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Group intentions (2)

Already several times in these blogs I have talked about group intentions. A group intention was seen as a kind of agreement of several persons about doing something together. We could call this a joint commitment, for instance as Margaret Gilbert does. In such a joint commitment we as individuals have the same intention as we have as a group. If we as a group want to walk together, usually it means that I want to walk with you and you want to walk with me (this case is often discussed by Gilbert). Or if we want to paint the house together, the normal sense is that I want to paint a part and you want to paint a part (a case discussed by Michael E. Bratman). However, does what we want to do as a group always correspond to what we want to do as individuals, or at least to what the majority of the group members wants to do? In discussing this question, again I make use of the argumentation of List and Pettit, just as I did in my last blog.
Last week we have seen that sometimes a government has to decide against what it has promised, simply because it didn’t get an unequivocal mandate from the electorate. Now I want to adapt the example I have used there and see what happens:
Tom, Dick and Harry are making a walk through the countryside and have to cross a pasture with cows. Then Tom says: “I think that we can better walk round the pasture for I see a bull over there.” Dick agrees, but then he says: “I cannot see it well, but I think that the bull is tied to a pole, so let’s cross the pasture anyway. I am tired and want to be home as soon as possible.” “You are wrong”, Tom replies, “and even if the bull is tied up, I don’t want to take the risk. What do you think, Harry?” Harry, a farmer, says: “As far as I can see, the bull runs free, but if we keep our distance, we don’t need to be afraid. Maybe the bull will look at us, but he will keep away. So, let’s take the shortest path and cross the pasture.” And so they do but is it really what they want to do? In order to find it out, let me present the conversation in a schematic way:

                        afraid for bulls                       bull is tied      wants to walk
                        wants to avoid the bull          to a pole          through the pasture

Tom                            yes                              no                    no

Dick                           yes                              yes                  yes

Harry                          no                               no                    yes

Majority                      yes                              no                    yes

In the case presented here, Tom and Dick have been reassured by Harry that nothing will happen, anyway. We can say then that they have changed their opinions and, even though they are still afraid of bulls, they see no need to avoid the bull in the pasture (as long as they don’t come too near to it). But what would Tom, Dick and Harry have decided if Tom and Dick hadn’t believed Harry that the bull would keep away from them? Of course, Harry could have said: If you are scared, we can better walk round the pasture. But suppose he hadn’t say that and he couldn’t convince the others that the bull wasn’t dangerous. In that case we see that the majority of this group of walkers thought that the bull was not tied to a pole and that the majority of the walkers wanted to avoid the bull in that case, so they did not want to walk through the pasture. Nevertheless the group as such did want to walk through the pasture, and so they would have decided if they had voted about the question or if a “common feeling” had said them that it was that what the group wanted.
The upshot is that it can happen – and I think it often happens – that “the group” intends and so decides what its individual members certainly do not want to do. What we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice.
For this blog I have made use of Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 43-47.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Government dilemmas

Many readers of these blogs will have heard about the difficult economic situation of Greece. Most inhabitants of this country want to get rid of the austere measures taken for improving the economy and imposed by the countries of the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund. Therefore most Greeks have voted for parties that want to renegotiate the conditions for getting aid from these institutions. But what measures do the Greeks want to take themselves? Actually I don’t know so the case that I discuss here is pure fiction but it might be real.
Suppose that the Greek government wants to reform the budget and in order to balance the books it sees as options either increasing taxes or reducing spending.
To get enough support from the people, it will be up to them to decide what to do. So the government organises a referendum in which the voters can say what they prefer. A blank vote counts as a rejection of both options.
There is a hard campaign in which the government explicitly says that it will do what the majority of the voters prefer, while the opposition advises to cast a blank vote, because it wants to bring the government down, for it stands for nationalizing the most important companies and levelling the incomes. Then it is this what the voters prefer to do:

                                                       increase taxes             reduce spending

first third of the voters                      preferred                    dispreferred
second third of the voters                 dispreferred                preferred
remaining third of the voters            dispreferred                dispreferred  (blank votes)
result                                              dispreferred               dispreferred

It is clear from the referendum that two-thirds of the electorate support our fictive Greek government so it has no reason to resign. Nevertheless, whatever the government will do will be against the preference of the voters: Either when it increases the taxes or when it reduces the budget, it will be a decision that is opposed by a large majority of the people. In either case, the voters will say: The government doesn’t do what it has promised.
The case discussed is not exceptional. It’s an example of what can happen if people have to take decisions without having the opportunity to decide in consultation but when they have to cast votes as individuals. It’s a situation that often happens in politics. In this fictive Greek government case the best the government can do is increasing the taxes a bit and reducing the expenses a bit; so doing a bit of this and a bit of that. This is what we often see in the political arena.
Be it as it is, the upshot is that sometimes we have to decide to do what we explicitly have rejected.

Source: I have take the example and the main lines of my thought from Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 46-47.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Old quotes

Sometimes it is good to read my old blogs again. Actually, I do it quite often. Or rather I do not really read them but I browse my blogs in order to avoid that I write two blogs with the same contents, for my memory is like a sieve and soon I have forgotten what I have written. Then I see often interesting old ideas of mine or I stumble upon interesting quotes that I have used, like this one from Hannah Arendt’s The origins of totalitarianism (Harvest Book, Harcourt, San Diego etc. 1976; p. 447):
“The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done, on the one hand, by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law and forcing at the same time, through the instrument of denationalization, the nontotalitarian world into recognition of lawlessness; it was done, on the other hand, by placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the juridical procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty”.
The idea expressed here can have many interpretations and it can be put in many contexts. For Arendt herself the context was the German Nazi regime she had escaped from and the Soviet Union of Stalin. Eight years ago in my blog dated April 23, 2007, I related the passage to Guantanamo. However, I think that it can be applied also to Europe today or rather to the present European Union, and then especially to its attitude towards terrorism and terrorists. Although it’s not a new phenomenon, since “Guantanamo” we see that more and more people are placed outside the law because of their extreme acts. For instance, there is a growing support for the idea to deprive terrorists of their nationalities, which will make them stateless. The consequence is that they will be considered a kind of non-people or non-humans, and towards what is not human you don’t need to apply human standards. Guantanamo is a good example of what this leads to. My thesis is that what is done by humans is human and has to be treated that way. Extreme acts are often less extreme as they look at first sight, although it’s not an excuse for doing them. Certainly not!
Let me give an example. Many readers of this blog will know about the cruel acts of the Japanese guards towards their prisoners who had to work on the Burma Railway during the Second World War. I think that everybody who knows about it will call these acts cruel and criminal; acts that have to be severely punished. Recently I read the story of a Dutch prisoner, a soldier, who had suffered there. After the end of WW II he was serving again in the Dutch army where he took part in the Dutch effort to suppress the struggle for independence of Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. What became clear from his story was, however, that he (and other Dutch soldiers) applied towards the Indonesian rebels taken prison the same kinds of cruel and criminal methods he himself had suffered when working on the Burma Railway. Does this show that he has always been a non-human being in disguise? Or take the war crimes done by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Before these soldiers left for Vietnam most of them were honest civilians. After their return home many were honest civilians again. Are they wolves in sheep’s clothes?
In several older blogs I discussed the phenomenon, studied by Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prisons Experiment, that fundamentally almost any person can commit any kind of evil when the situation is there. “Zimbardo concluded”, and here I quote from my blog dated March 14, 2011, “that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil way but that it is the situation that brings people that far. Only very few people are able to resist the pressure of the situation that ‘leads’ them into a certain direction and also only very few display evil behaviour because of a disposition.” Even if only half of it is true, I think that it shows that extremist behaviour is of the kind that human beings do and that most of us have a latent propensity to it, although in most of us there are also enough counter-factors that make that we don’t behave so. Nevertheless human is what humans do and there is no reason not to treat some humans that way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dangerous ideas (5)

Freely expressing ideas with the pen can be very dangerous. Recently yet we have seen it in France. This danger is not something new. However, nowadays the freedom to express ideas is bigger than ever before. This now almost absolute freedom is a very recent phenomenon and it is limited to only a few countries. Terror against those who use the right of freedom of the word is not only performed by individuals and private groups. Its most important oppressor has always been the state, while individuals had to fight for this right. Nowadays it is often the other way round: It is the state that defends the freedom of expression, so that individuals can use it, although it is still so that individuals try to stretch the limits. For certain limits remain. That’s clear. It’s not allowed to offend others or to bring damage to them. But what is offending and when can we say that someone has suffered a loss? But laws change and only recently yet the Dutch law on blasphemy has been cancelled, for example. Actually, it hadn’t been applied since many years.
Not only journalists, artists and politicians have been victims of suppression of the free word and ideas. Philosophers has been as well. The German Nazi regime and the government of the Soviet Union even tried to get a hold on the thoughts of their citizens with the consequence that many philosophers kept silent or adapted their words (at least openly). Others fled, like Adorno and Benjamin. But already in the early days of philosophy freely expressing ideas could be dangerous. Socrates was sentenced to death because he was said to corrupt the minds of the youth and not to believe in the gods of the state.
Montaigne was a courageous but also careful man who didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. I know at least one case that he practised self-censorship. When he wanted to publish his Essays in 1580 he had asked and received permission to include a little book by his late friend Étienne de La Boétie. He wanted to insert it after his essay “Of friendship”, dedicated to his friend. In this little book, On voluntary servitude, La Boétie presented his theory of power and he showed how it was possible to undermine the power of rulers by refusing to obey them. (Later the book became famous among anarchists and non-violent activists). However, when Montaigne actually wanted to publish the Essays, the political situation had worsened a lot and the ghost of civil war and revolution was reigning in France. Moreover La Boétie’s book had been published already by activist reformers. Therefore Montaigne wrote at the end of his essay “Of friendship”: “Because I have found that that work has been since brought out, and with a mischievous design, by those who aim at disturbing and changing the condition of our government, without troubling themselves to think whether they are likely to improve it: and because they have mixed up his work with some of their own performance, I have refrained from inserting it here.” And instead of On voluntary servitude Montaigne published La Boétie’s twenty-nine sonnets in his Essays.
Descartes was another famous philosopher who chose to avoid possible persecution for his ideas in his country (France) and he went to live in the Netherlands. For the same reason, later Descartes accepted an invitation by Queen Christina of Sweden to come to her court, when his philosophy had been condemned at the University of Utrecht. Not so many years thereafter, Spinoza was expelled from Amsterdam, where he lived, after having been banned from the Portuguese Jewish community there because of his “abominable heresies that he practiced and taught,” and his “monstrous deeds”. A few years later Spinoza returned to his town but finally he moved to Rijnsburg and then to The Hague.
It will not be difficult to mention many other philosophers who met with the same fate or, even more, were “simply” murdered, as happened in 2003 to Zoran Djindjic, then Prime Minister of Serbia. Djindjic had been a long time opposition politician and he was a doctor in philosophy as well. He was assassinated by criminals because of his pro-democratic ideas and especially by the way he tried to put them into practice.
A German song says: “Thoughts are free, who can guess them?” Although not even this is always true – especially the first part of the sentence, but also the “who can guess them” may become something of the past one day –, real troubles can arise when you express your thoughts and write them down and try to apply them. In his play “Richelieu” the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton lets the cardinal say: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Wasn’t it Richelieu (among many others) who secretly read La Boétie’s On voluntary servitude, which was forbidden in those days? A book that inspired many known opponents of oppressive power, including Tolstoy and Gandhi (and that still inspires many today, directly or via Gandhi)? Even those in power or with powerful arms acknowledge the value of this saying in their hearts for otherwise they could simply ignore the pen and the words that flow from it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting started

Maybe it would have been more appropriate to write my last blog about making a new start than about age. For isn’t it just the symbolic value of the New Year that mentally we start anew? Many people feel that this is the moment to change life, to throw away bad habits, to begin new projects, and so on, which is expressed in the custom of making New Year’s resolutions.
Everything has a beginning but most things do not begin from nothing. What we consider a new beginning is in many respects a continuation of what already existed. This is also true for philosophy. Nevertheless, most writers on the history of philosophy say that Western philosophy has a clear beginning, namely the Milesian school of philosophy, which has been founded in the sixth century BC. Even more, most of these sources talk about a first philosopher: Thales of Miletus, who lived about from 624-546 BC. One of them who regarded him as the first in the tradition of Greek – and we can now say “Western” – philosophy was Aristotle.
Not much is known about Thales. We do not know his exact dates, for instance. Thales was born in the city of Miletus, a Greek commercial town on the west coast of Minor Asia. He seems to have been a businessman and a politician and he has travelled to Egypt, from where he brought the science of geometry to the Greeks. Actually the only certain thing we know about his own philosophy is that he thought that water is the original substance of all matter and that the earth rests on water. These ideas would soon be pushed away by better ideas, although Thales’s ideas are not as bad as they seem on the face of it, if one considers how important water is in the world.
However, it is not these ideas that made Thales the father of philosophy but it is the way he thought about the world. For Thales did not fall back on religion when he expounded his philosophical ideas and when he explained nature, as was usual in his days, but he formulated them in philosophical terms and he explained natural phenomena by referring to other natural phenomena and by examining nature. By doing so he laid the foundations of modern philosophy and science and so he made a new start in the way we think.
Without a doubt Thales has been influenced by others. Then we think in the first place of the Babylonians and the Egyptian mathematicians. But is this a defect and does it make him less original? Of course not. If for developing every new idea we should have to start from a bare basis, we would come to nothing. Being original is often not a matter of developing completely new ideas but it is a matter of developing new perspectives and putting old things in other lights. That’s what Thales did and what makes him important in the first place. It made that philosophy became both a new way of thinking and a carrying on of what already had been done for such a long time. In the end the result was that many old ideas faded away and that they were superseded by ideas acquired by the newly developing approaches of philosophy and science as a kind of paradigm shift before this term had been developed by Thomas Kuhn. In this way going on is often getting started.