Monday, February 19, 2018

The passion of anger

The Angry Boy  in the Vigiland Park in Oslo, Norway

When Martha Nussbaum writes about anger, it’s striking that she refers to classical authors like Aristotle and Seneca and not to early modern philosophers like Montaigne and Hume, who wrote on anger as well. Montaigne devoted an essay to this subject, while Hume wrote on anger in two sections of his A Treatise on Human Nature. Since I am not very acquainted with most of Hume’s philosophy, I’ll ignore him in this blog, but if Nussbaum had given some attention to Montaigne, her view on anger might have been different. It is so that both for Montaigne and for Nussbaum people become angry because they have reasons for it. Moreover, for both of them the reasons why one gets angry are usually good reasons in the sense that someone did something to you that this person shouldn’t have done. But then their approaches separate.
When Nussbaum starts to discuss anger she says “that the idea of payback or retribution ... is a conceptual part of anger. ... Either anger focuses on some significant injury, such as murder or a rape or it focuses only on the significance of the wrongful act for the victim’s relative status” (p. 15). Montaigne’s view on anger is very different. For him other aspects are important. As he says in his essay Of Anger: “There is no passion that so much transports men from their right judgment as anger. ... We ourselves, to do well, should never lay a hand upon our servants whilst our anger lasts. When the pulse beats, and we feel emotion in ourselves, let us defer the business; things will indeed appear otherwise to us when we are calm and cool. ‘Tis passion that then commands, ‘tis passion that speaks, and not we. Faults seen through passion appear much greater to us than they really are ...”
When we put these quotations next to each other, the differences between the two authors become clear. For Nussbaum anger is an emotion that leads to a wish for revenge. Moreover, anger happens always because you are seriously hurt, not because of an act that is actually not very significant. She talks explicitly about murder and rape – in the quotation and elsewhere in her book –. Nussbaum argues then that revenge makes no sense for reasons she explains, even though – which is implicit in her argumentation – the eye you wish for an eye or the tooth you wish for the tooth taken from you might have equal values. For Montaigne, on the other hand, it’s no problem to punish a person who has done something to you but for him punishment is not a kind of revenge but it is what it is, namely punishment in the actual sense. It’s a way to correct the perpetrator, or a penalty for what has been done, and not a kind of compensation; or it is a warning for other possible perpetrators. The problem is, however, that your judgment is disturbed just because you are angry: Anger leads to a false judgment. Therefore Montaigne’s advice is: Don’t judge before you have cooled down. Only then your judgment can be reasonable and right. Moreover, as the cases discussed in his essay make clear, usually anger is aroused by minor things, for instance because a servant didn’t do what you had ordered him to do or because someone was rude or disrespectful.
If we compare then how Nussbaum analyses anger and its consequences and how Montaigne looks at it, we can conclude that Nussbaum has an interesting view, but that she actually considers only a part of the idea. For isn’t it so that at most times that we are angry it is not for very significant reasons but for the daily annoyances, rude acts, mistakes and stupidities done to us (or so we think)? Often we explode with fury because of only little affairs, even when we don’t want to, for, as Montaigne says, it’s not we that hold it, but anger holds us.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Michel de Montaigne, “Of Anger”, in Essays, Book II-31.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Anger and forgiveness (2)

Better filled half-full than not at all.

Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia” – mentioned in my last blog – is full of anger but it ends with forgiveness. Also Martha Nussbaum’s book that I discussed there is not only about anger but also about forgiveness, as the title of the book, Anger and Forgiveness, already shows. Nussbaum distinguishes three kinds of forgiveness. First she considers “transactional forgiveness”. It involves that the offender of the act to be forgiven “must approach the other person directly, confess the fault publicly, express regret and commitment not to do this sort of thing again – to change the course of one’s life in regard to that whole area of sin. And then the victim must accept the apology.” There is “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition.” (p. 63) Transactional forgiveness seems to restore the cosmic balance, as some people think, but actually, so Nussbaum, it involves the errors of anger discussed in my blog last week, since it contains the idea of payback: “the victim’s pain somehow atones for pain inflicted.” (p. 74). In my words, it’s a sort of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Transactional forgiveness does not involve transition to the future in the sense of restoring what went wrong. It looks only back on what happened.
Although transactional forgiveness has been widely accepted, there is also another model, so Nussbaum, which she calls “unconditional forgiveness”: “forgiveness that rains down freely on the penitent, without requiring an antecedent confession and act of contrition.” (p. 75) According to this model “we should ... forgive those who wrong us even when they do not make any gesture of contrition.” (p. 76) Although unconditional forgiveness is to be preferred to transactional forgiveness, it “is rarely free from some type of pay back wish, at least at first. [Moreover,] it remains backward-looking and not Transitional. It says nothing about constructing a productive future. It may remove an impediment to the future, but it does not point there in and of itself. ... [S]ometimes the forgiveness process channels the wish for payback.” (ibid.) This can make that the person who forgives feels him or herself morally higher than the offender. Then unconditionally forgiving “is itself a punishment of the offender”. (p. 77) Moreover, it “is still about the past, and it gives us nothing concrete with which to go forward.” (ibid.)
Nussbaum prefers to call her third kind of forgiveness not forgiveness but “an ethic of unconditional love”. “[I]t departs altogether from judgment, confession, contrition, and consequent waiving of anger.” (p. 78) This love is unconditional and needs no apology by the offender. It “is a first response, not a substitute for a prior payback wish.” (ibid.) The model case for Nussbaum is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 in the Bible, where the father accepts his son in unconditional love despite what the son has done to him. In the case of unconditional love, so Nussbaum, “there is no allusion to a past of anger. Not only is there no structured ... penance process, with its multiple conditionalities, there is also no forgiveness in any recognizable form at all, even unconditional. There is just love, silencing anger.” (p. 85)
Nussbaum sees this unconditional love as an ideal of forgiving, but is it realistic? Could it be put into practice, not incidentally but in some institutionalized way? Just then where the discussion should have to start, Nussbaum says: “This theme cannot be fully developed at this stage.” (ibid.) How disappointing, for now she avoids the fundamental problem: how to deal with unconditional love in practical cases. Recently in the village where I live a young woman has been violated and murdered. The murderer has been caught and then he has cooperated with the police in solving the case. He has also shown regret. So far, so good. But then? Even if the family of the murdered woman would give the murderer unconditional love – which I seriously doubt, but Nussbaum mentions such a case – what practical consequences will this have for him? No sentence? Not in prison? Note also that this man was already in a psychiatric institute for another crime but that he was on leave when he committed his act.
Nussbaum’s ethic of unconditional love assumes that we behave like saints, but there are only a few people among us who can. Saints do as saints are but humans do as humans are. Look around and ask yourself: Can we ever succeed to build a society on an ethic of unconditional forgiveness? I am afraid that the answer is “No”, if it were only because there’ll always be free riders – people who consciously will commit crimes with the thought in mind that if caught unconditional love will be the punishment. I have ideals but not illusions. Let’s keep the ethic of unconditional love as an ideal to be strived for. Try to practice it where it may work, and the more often it will work so the better. But remain practical. Practice comes often not farther than halfway our ideals, but it’s already ideal when it comes that far.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Anger and forgiveness

The cast receiving the applause after Hasse's opera "Siroe, Re di Persia"
Wilmink Theatre, Enschede, Netherlands, 26 January 2018

When in Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia”, the Persian King Cosroe appoints his younger son Medarse as his successor to the throne, and not his older son Siroe, a range of intrigues develop. One of the leading emotions in these intrigues is anger: Anger that the characters in the play don’t get what they want; that their victims don’t do what they should do. Siroe, the main victim, is driven to despair and cannot choose when he should have to. This makes his father Cosroe – who doesn’t understand Siroe’s doubts and feels himself betrayed by him – so angry that finally he orders to kill his son. This qua music and expression beautiful opera is more like a soap opera than a play in which characters develop. But here we see anger performed as one of the most important emotions of man. And we see its pernicious consequences: revenge and destruction, which in the end backfire on the protagonists. For which father wants to kill his son, the more so when it turns out to have been done on false grounds?
Anger has been analyzed by such outstanding philosophers as Aristotle, Seneca and Montaigne, and recently by Martha Nussbaum in her book Anger and Forgiveness. They all see a relationship between anger and revenge, or at least “payback and retribution”, as Nussbaum calls it. But as she says “the payback idea is normatively problematic, and anger, therefore, with it.” (p. 15) Before I’ll expound Nussbaum’s reasons why this is so, let’s look how she defines anger. Actually she doesn’t develop a definition of her own but she takes Aristotle’s description, which she then discusses and corrects. Here it is: Anger is “a desire accompanied by pain for an imagined retribution on account of an imagined slighting inflicted on by people who have no legitimate reason to slight oneself or one’s own” (p. 17). Essential is, I think, not only the slighting that hurts but the feeling that we are hurt. The slighting is subjective: We become angry only when we believe (rightly or wrongly) that the damage was inflicted illegitimately or wrongfully. (p. 18) And then and therefore we want to payback.
Now it can happen, so Nussbaum, that you become angry because your social status has been hurt by someone and then it may have sense to payback in order to uprank your perceived downranking. But apart from this special case, does revenge make sense? According to Nussbaum there are several objections to it. Often paying back is considered as assuaging the pain inflicted on the victim and the revenge should arouse a feeling of pleasure (cf. p. 21). However, this view is not correct, so Nussbaum, and she thinks here of cases like rape and murder in the first place, but I think that it applies to many kinds of “little” cases as well, from small crimes like theft to big crimes, from little damages in the private circle to big ones there. We don’t get our damage restored by tit-for-tat actions. By doing so we only bring damage to others, without getting compensation for the damage done to us. But let’s see what Nussbaum says. The problem is, she says, that simply hurting others doesn’t reverse what has been done to you, and from that point of view payback, revenge and retribution make no sense. “Doing something to the offender does not bring dead people back to life, heal a broken limb, or undo a sexual violation. So why do people somehow believe that it does? Or what, exactly, do they believe that makes even a little sense of their retaliatory project?” “[W]hy would someone who has been gravely wounded look forward with hope to doing something unwelcome to the offender?” (pp. 21-22) Pain done to yourself cannot be undone by doing pain to others.
However, anger is not pointless. It can have three functions. It may serve as a signal that something is amiss; it can be a motivation to do something about what is amiss; and it may be a deterrent. (pp. 37-40) But all this doesn’t imply that anger must lead to a kind of revenge. It means only that anger must be a reason to do something about what is amiss. And this is what Nussbaum sees as a very important function of anger. She has also a special name for it: Transition-Anger. Anger must not lead to revenge, but it must be a reason to restore what has gone wrong. “There are many cases in which one gets standardly angry first ... and then, in a cooler moment, [thinks] ... ‘How outrageous! Something must be done about this.’ ” (p. 35). Elsewhere in her book Nussbaum discusses the “extreme” cases of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but  cannot we each of us be a little Mandela or King?
But, alas, “[t]here are many ways in which anger can go wrong”, so Nussbaum. (p. 35) In Hasse’s opera, out of anger the Persian King Cosroe orders Arasse, Siroe’s friend, to kill his son. Then, when Cosroe hears that Siroe is innocent, he is full of remorse. But as it goes in operas, Siroe comes back on the stage, alive and well. For it was a trick of Arasse to accept the order and he didn’t kill Siroe. And Siroe himself? He was happy that the intrigues had come to an end and that at last he got the throne of Persia. Instead of seeking revenge in anger and rage, he forgives all, despite the slighting and trouble inflicted on him.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Dretske and the causality of reasons

How can it be that a thing has a meaning and that the fact that it has this meaning can explain certain effects or is at least relevant for the explanation of these effects? This question is the central theme in Fred Dretske’s book Explaining Behavior. Here, I don’t want to discuss this interesting philosophical work, but only one of its theses, namely that talking about reasons makes only sense, if reasons are causally relevant for the actions they are reasons for. Is it true?
When asking the leading question of his book, Dretske had two things in mind. First, the meaning concerned as such must be relevant for the explanation of the effects. “A soprano’s upper-register supplications may shatter glass, but their meaning is irrelevant to their having this effect” (1988:79). Even if the sounds had no meaning, the effect would be the same. However, there are cases where the meaning of a thing is explanatorily relevant, and it is these cases that Dretske’s theory of the causal role of meaning refers to (1988:77-80). Second, explanatory relevance is for Dretske causal relevance. As he puts it in his “Reasons and Causes”: “Any theory of meaning that doesn’t make a thing’s having meaning into a causally relevant property of the thing (and hence the fact that it has meaning into an explanatorily important fact about the thing) is a theory of meaning that can be rejected at the outset.” (1989:5).
When Dretske talks about the causal relevance of reasons, apparently he implied: 1) If reasons are not causally relevant for behaviour, they are also not relevant in a different way. For if reasons are not causally relevant, although they are otherwise relevant, we might suppose that Dretske would at least attach some value to having them in that case, and he would not reject a theory that ignores or rejects their causal relevance at the outset. 2) If we talk about the reasons why we do something, this “why” has a causal meaning.
For Dretske, reasons are “those content-possessing mental states (belief, desire, fear, regret) we invoke to explain one another’s behavior” (1988:79). Particularly, the agent’s reasons are the cognitive factors and conative conditions that steer his behaviour. The function of the cognitive factors C or “beliefs” is “.… to indicate the presence of those conditions that, if the right motivational state is present, will lead, other things being equal, to M” (1988:105) with M being what is done by the agent. However, having a belief is not sufficient for M taking place. There must also be a conative condition or “desire”, i.e. a certain motivational state (D). Basically, the cognitive factors and the conative conditions determine together the agent’s behaviour, and so they are the reasons for this behaviour (1988:105-107).
Take now this case: A friend of mine calls me asking whether I can come to help him. So, I take my coat, walk to the shed, and take my bike. Seeing that I want to go, my wife asks me to post a letter.
What I do now can be described as 1) posting my wife’s letter; 2) going to my friend. Take 1). If we apply Dretske’s theory, the cognitive factor is my belief that my wife wants me to post a letter. I want to do her a favour, and so I have a desire (conative condition) for really doing it. This analysis seems to explain my action “posting the letter” (M). However, we must also consider my “second” action: going to my friend. It can be explained in the same way as the “first” one, but that is not what matters here. I want to examine the relation between both actions. If I had not gone to my friend, my wife would not have asked her question, and I would not have posted the letter, but she would have done it herself. So I post the letter because I go to my friend. My going to my friend is therefore a relevant explanatory factor of my action “posting my wife’s letter”. Accordingly, it is a reason as described by Dretske, namely a “belief”. But is it also a causal relevant explanatory, namely a cognitive, factor for my action “posting the letter”? Dretske correctly says that cognitive factors can be causally effective only if there is an accompanying conative condition, or “the right motivational state” (see above). As just said, the conative condition (desire) in my example is that I want to do my wife a favour. However, the consideration that I am to go to my friend does neither refer to a circumstance that can fulfil my wanting to do my wife a favour, nor is it a cognitive factor that is or can be fulfilled by this conative condition. As Dretske puts it, it is not an “internal indication of the appropriate stimulus conditions” (1988:113n). In order to fulfil this conative condition, we need another cognitive factor that does indicate the appropriate circumstances, in this case that my wife asks me to post the letter. I go to my friend because he called me and because I want to do him a favour. It is not my going to my friend but my wife’s request that is the causally effective reason for my action of posting the letter; at least in the sense of “reason” given by Dretske. However, in the presence of another cognitive factor, my going to my friend becomes a relevant reason for doing my wife a favour and this is what happens in my example. So, in this case there is a (cognitive) factor that is a relevant reason for an action but not a causally relevant reason in Dretske’s sense.
The upshot is that reasons can be relevant for explaining of what I do without being causally relevant for it. Nevertheless, reasons give an answer to the question why I act that way.

Dretske, Fred, Explaining Behavior. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: MIT; 1988
Dretske, Fred, “Reasons and Causes”, in Philosophy Perspectives, vol.3 (1989), pp. 1-15

Monday, January 22, 2018

What matters

At the end of the last volume of his three-volume On What Matters, Derek Parfit says that he had written so little about what matters. It is not true. Maybe the trilogy says hardly what matters but it says a lot about what matters. Parfit added that he hoped to say more about what matters in a fourth volume (p. 436), but, alas, it will not happen, for he died yet before the third volume had been published.
An author has often another view on his work than his readers and I think that this is here also the case. In order to show that the trilogy discusses really what matters – and not only about what matters –, I cannot give an extensive analysis, but here are some examples (I quote from Volume Three):
“When we ask”, so Parfit, “whether some act’s effect would make [an] act right or wrong, many of us [believe] that we can ignore very small benefits or harms.” For instance: “[W]e ought to save one person from a year of pain rather than saving each of many people from only one minute of similar pain”, so many believe. Parfit doesn’t agree: “Suppose that another million people would, without our help, have two years of pain. When applied to this case, [the thesis] is clearly false. If we million people saved each of these other people from one minute of pain, we together would save these people from two years of pain” (p. 422)
Although it is true, nevertheless we could prefer to spread the pain among one million people, since we find one year of pain for one person terrible, and one minute of pain for each of one million people tolerable. Parfit admits that this case is quite unlikely to occur, but that as such the argumentation is not unreal:
“We can often act in ways that would be better for us, or for a few other people, but would also be worse for many other people. The bad effects on each of these other people may be slight, so that we assume that they don’t matter, but when very many of us do what has such slight effects on very many people, the harm we do may be much greater than the benefit we give ourselves. For a clear though trivial example, if we drive ourselves to work rather than taking a bus, we may shorten our time spent traveling by thirty minutes, but by increasing congestion we may lengthen a thousand other people’s journeys by one minute, so that these people together lose a thousand minutes a day. Similar claims apply when there is overfishing or overgrazing. If many fishermen use larger nets, each may cause himself to catch a few more fish, but each may also cause others to catch many fewer fish.” (p. 423). So individually few win much but altogether many lose through this selfish behaviour. In other words, also an action with individually unnoticeable effects for others may be wrong, despite what many people think. “[Such an] act is wrong ... because this act imposes on others a significant amount of pain, even though the amount imposed on each of these other people would be very small.” (pp.431-2)
Indeed, each of us enjoys the gadgets and conveniences of modern life and if I buy a barbecue or drive to the supermarket, because I am too lazy to take my bike, the contribution of this single purchase or this idle act to the air pollution is imperceptible. But I am not alone on this world. “When each of us contributes to global warming, none of our acts will be significantly worse for anyone, but we together make things go much worse for many people. ... [I]t would be clearly better if many fewer people acted in these ways. Many fewer people would then be killed or harmed” (p. 432)
Who says that On What Matters does not says what matters?

Parfit, Derek, On What Matters. Volume Three. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Isaac Beeckman: From wonder to no wonder

The house on the corner is Beeckman’s birthplace in Middelburg.

When I recently wanted to visit Middelburg, an old and beautiful town in the southwest of the Netherlands, I wondered whether there might be a well-known philosopher who came from there. So I searched on the Internet and, indeed, I found one: Isaac Beeckman, who was born there in 1588. I hear you say: “Isaac who?” You needn’t to be ashamed if you have never heard of him, for Beeckman did not publish his ideas and outside a little circle of philosophical experts hardly anybody knows his name. Nevertheless he had an important impact on philosophy because of his relations with many outstanding philosophers of his time. He had such a big influence on the development of science and philosophy that Gassendi called him even the greatest philosopher he ever met. If you have heard of Beeckman, it is probably because of his friendship with Descartes. Some call him even his teacher. Anyway, he stimulated Descartes’s enthusiasm for science and designed mathematical puzzles for him.
Beeckman’s contributions would have remained rather unknown, if in 1905 his journal hadn’t been found again by Cornelis de Waard. Since this journal – which Beeckman kept from 1604 till 1634 – is very detailed, we know much about his discoveries, ideas and relations. So we know that Beeckman first met Descartes in Breda, a town in the south of the Netherlands, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that both men met when they were looking at a mathematical problem on a poster on the marketplace and Descartes asked Beeckman to translate it for him from Dutch into Latin. They got talking and the next day Descartes brought Beeckman the solution. They stayed friends till Beeckman died in 1637 (in Dordrecht), although their friendship was difficult and sometimes broken off (especially in 1630).
Beeckman studied theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden, and later also medicine in Middelburg and then in Caen in France, where he graduated in 1618. Since he couldn’t get a vicarage because of a theological conflict with the church, he first became a candle maker and begun to repair water pipes. Returned from Caen he became a teacher at the Latin School in Utrecht. However, more important is that he was a very curious man (and maybe this was one of the reasons that he found no time to publish his ideas) and he did much research and study in all kinds of fields. So he was active with experiments and the theory of physics, music, medicine and philosophy, but he tried also to find a proof that God existed. In Leiden Simon Stevin and Rudolph Snel (Snellius) were among his teachers and later he corresponded with, for example, the mathematician Marin Mersenne, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the philosophers Pierre Gassendi and Francis Bacon and the physicians William Harvey and William Gilbert.
In this blog I cannot do more than drawing attention to this philosopher who was so important for the development of philosophy. Therefore, I have to limit myself to mentioning only some of his most important contributions and ideas:
- Beeckman’s idea that matter is composed of atoms.
- His mechanistic world view.
- Beeckman gave a new and correct description of inertia, namely that every moving object follows a straight line, unless other forces work on it. However, he accepted the false idea that also a circular movement is a basic movement (not seeing that it is caused by a centripetal force).
- His analysis how a pump works. Beeckman rejected the prevailing view that water avoids a vacuum but explains the working with the help of the idea of air pressure.
- His explanation of the relation between the sound of a string and the length of the string.
- Beeckman made the first weather station in the world, yet before Torricelli invented the barometer.
It’s no wonder that such ideas brought Beeckman into conflict with the Calvinistic church in the Netherlands, which had completely opposite ideas on how the world was constituted and had to be explained. In his diary on 19 November 1626 he succinctly wrote down what the heart of the problem was:
“In philosophy you have always to go from wonder to no wonder. I mean, you must examine so long till what appears strange to you no longer appears strange to you. However, in theology you have to go from no wonder to wonder.

It’s difficult to find information on Beeckman on the Internet, so I gathered it by taking here and there some relevant facts from Dutch websites on Beeckman, from the Wikipedia on Beeckman (Dutch and English versions), from several books in my library (mainly on Descartes) and from Beeckman’s journal (on

Monday, January 08, 2018

A marshmallow test for ravens

You’ll certainly have heard of it, for the research is nearly fifty years old: The marshmallow test, done by Walter Mischel and his colleagues of Stanford University. You can find it on the Internet and here I’ll simply quote one of the descriptions there, in this case one by Stewart Brand: “A researcher whom the child knew and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a ‘waiting game.’ The researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing (marshmallows, cookies, pretzels) – depending on how long the child waited for them after the researcher left the room. The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. To practice, the researcher left the room, the child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, ‘You see, you brought me back. Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!’ The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes. [The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell, and about one third waited till the researcher came back by himself.]” (
After the experiment Mischel followed the children for many years and it became clear that it said much about what kinds of persons the children would become later in life. However, that’s not what I want to talk about. Here it’s relevant that we can delay gratification in order to be better off in future. A part of us can do it already at a young age and most people can do it better when they grow older.
I think that you consider this ability to think ahead and to control yourself typically human. Look around: Isn’t it so that animals always immediately take what they can get? Okay, maybe there are some apes and monkeys who can refuse to take now what they like, expecting that later they’ll get something what they like more. And maybe there are other mammals that can do it as well. But birds?
Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath of Lund University decided to test the ability of flexible planning in birds and took five captive ravens. They had to do tasks they do not do in the wild. Let me quote how The Guardian describes it:
“The birds were shown a box that had a tube sticking out of the top, plus three stones. They learned that they could use a stone as a tool. If they dropped it down the tube, the box would release a doggie treat. They also learned that other familiar objects, such as a small wooden wheel or a ball, would not work. In one experiment, the ravens were shown the box without any stones available. Then the box was taken away. An hour later, in another location, they were presented with a tray containing a stone plus three objects the birds knew would be useless. They were allowed to choose one thing from the tray. Fifteen minutes later, the box would show up again. In 14 cases of encountering the tray and later seeing the box reappear, the birds usually chose the stone and proceeded to use it correctly. The same thing happened in another experiment, when the box did not show up again until the next day, a delay of 17 hours. Further work showed the ravens would pass up an immediate reward if they could get a better one by waiting.” ( To be exactly, in 80-90 % of the cases the ravens selected the correct tool! The result is the more impressive since “Monkeys have not been able to solve tasks like this,” so Osvath (on the same website) Moreover, the ravens were also better than toddlers in such experiments.
As it happens, experiments like these are always difficult to interpret and alternative interpretations are always possible. It’s likely that the test shows that ravens (and possibly other birds as well) have a planning capacity that is more than stashing food away for later (like squirrels do, for example). However, as Alex Taylor, an animal cognition expert of the University of Auckland, says to National Geographic: “The ravens may not be thinking about the future at all, they may instead just be choosing the object that has been associated the most with food.” What’s true must yet have to be found out. Nevertheless, the result is remarkable. Until now scientists thought that flexible planning for unexpected future events was limited to humans and great apes. In the test, the ravens – so birds – were as good in such pre-planning tasks for novel behaviour. If so, this pre-planning ability must have been evolved more than once.
It even seems that ravens are more patient than humans, since they go somewhat less for immediate rewards than humans! Indeed, it might have happened that ravens would not have shown the same behaviour, if they had been given marshmallows. Simply, because they don’t like them so much as children do, they might postpone picking at them. Be it as it may, we think that nothing is as unique as how humans think, but apparently we are not as unique as we think. There are white ravens in nature but they are not human.

- see text

Monday, January 01, 2018

A farewell to hope

Double-faced Caspar de Robles as Janus on the dike near Harlingen, Fryslân, Netherlands

On 31 December at 12.00 p.m. at midnight the old year ends and at the same time it is 0.00 a.m. of the 1st of January and a new year begins. At least this is so in the Western countries and most of the rest of the world. This has not always been so. In the Roman Republic, till Gaius Julius Caesar seized power, the Roman calendar was quite complicated and begun at the vernal equinox, so in March. That is why December – now the twelfth month – actually means “tenth month”. The old Roman calendar was not only complicated but it fell also out of sync with the sun. Therefore in 48 B.C. Caesar decided to reform it and moreover he made the first of January the first day of the year. The year remained to begin at this date until in 567 A.D. the Council of Tours decided to replace it by a date with more religious significance, although 1 January could be observed as the day that Jesus had been circumcised. The new first day became 25 March, the Feast of Annunciation. However, also the Julian calendar fell out of sync with the sun after many centuries, and when in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar again, he re-established also 1 January as the first day of the year.
Julius Caesar did not only introduce a new calendar, he gave also a new name to the first month of the year: January. He did this in honour of Janus, the Roman god of change and, what is especially relevant in this case, the god of beginnings. Janus has two faces: one face looks back to the past and one face looks forward to the future. Which god could better symbolize the new year and give his name to the first month of the year?
Although Janus stand for a new beginning, the Romans have well seen that each beginning is double by giving Janus two faces. For where there is a beginning there is also an end. Even in the case of the Big Bang, one can wonder what was there before it took place. And when a new year begins, we take leave of the old year. We can look back to what happened at every arbitrary moment, but we do it especially at the end of the year. We think back full of nostalgia to the good moments, and we are glad that a new year starts when we think of the bad moments, hoping that the new year will be better. Therefore we can say that Janus, seen as the turn of the year, stands for farewell and for hope. But the hope of the first of January is the farewell of the last day of the year twelve months later. Although this sounds rather cynical, I don’t mean it that way, for we need hope! And when we are at the end of the year, we hope to be able to say farewell to a good year. It’s true that Nietzsche said that “hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” (in Human, All-Too-Human) But he said also something else, namely that “strong hope is a much greater stimulant to life than any single realized joy could be.” (in The Antichrist) Without hope we cannot make a good year of the year to come. Without hope we cannot overcome the setbacks, which certainly will happen – hoping that they will not be as worse as torments, physically or psychologically –. And when then this year has ended after 365 days, we can say “so farewell hope”, hoping that the year was a good one, and that we don’t need to say with John Milton “farewell fear, farewell remorse: all good to me is lost.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas in the 21th century?

The day that I publish this blog it is Christmas. It is a special day for many people in the world, in the Western world in the first place, but absolutely not only there. Therefore, I wanted to make a special blog for this special occasion. Usually it is so that I first write a blog and then make an illustration (usually a photo) that fits the blog. This time I decided to do it the other way round: The blog is the photo and the text is the illustration. Can’t you see the picture well, then click on it and it will become larger.
The photo contains Christian elements, but it isn’t only meant for Christians. The sense of it is for all of us. Christmas is traditionally not only the day that Christians remember the birth of Christ, but it is also a day of contemplation: We think about who we are, where we come from and what our future will be. We don’t need to do it especially on Christmas. We can do it each day, according to our religion, persuasion or way of life. But do we do? Therefore this photo is not a call for a revival of a certain religious view; it expresses a philosophical idea, like all my blogs. As Wittgenstein said at the end of his Tractatus (6.52): “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Meno's paradox

Ask a philosopher, especially an epistemologist, what knowledge is, and she’ll probably answer that it is justified belief. Of course, she knows that the problem here just starts, for what does “justified” mean and when is a belief justified, and moreover, what is a belief? But I think that in order to get an idea of what I am talking about here this preliminary definition will do. Even then the definition is questionable. For example, once in a blog I discussed the Gettier problem, which says that we can have a true belief that is not justified. Here I want to consider another question. It was raised by Meno in his dialogue with Socrates. They are talking about what virtue is, but Meno wonders whether we can ever know it. Here is what he says and what Socrates replies:
“MENO: ... How will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?
SOCRATES: I know, Meno, what you mean ... You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.” (1)
In other words: We cannot look for what we already know, for we know it already, so what to look for? However, when we don’t know what a thing is, we don’t know what to look for. So trying to acquire knowledge is an impossible task. This problematic situation is called Meno’s problem or Meno’s paradox. Of course, it cannot be right. Much has already been written about it and here I cannot go into that, but I want to explain how I see the solution, which is quite simple to my mind.
Let’s first look at Socrates’s solution. Socrates thinks that all our knowledge is inborn but that we are unconscious of most of it. The trick is then to make this hidden knowledge conscious. In order to substantiate his view Socrates takes one of Meno’s slaves and asks him some difficult mathematical questions, which the slave successfully answers. Since the questions were about a new subject and since therefore the slave couldn’t have found the answers by himself – so Meno and Socrates suppose –, it must have been so, so Socrates states, that he, Socrates, brought the inborn knowledge that the slave actually already had to the surface. However, what actually happens is that Socrates steers the slave’s thinking. In fact he reveals what Socrates already knew. By the way the questions are asked the slave acquires new knowledge. It is as if the slave studies a textbook on mathematics and when he has finished it, passes the examination and is then a learned mathematician.
Nevertheless, Socrates’s method is not pointless. Actually it is the right method applied in the wrong way. The difference between us and the slave is, that the slave is questioned by another person and doesn’t need to think out the problem he is questioned about and doesn’t need to think up the questions. That’s why it is as if he reads a textbook. However, our situation is different, for the problem is ours. Once we have a problem we are already halfway to new knowledge, for usually we want a solution, for practical reasons or for scientific reasons or who knows why. John is at a railway station in an unknown town and wants to go home. When does the next train leave and from which platform? An astronomer has discovered an irregularity in the trajectory of a planet. How come? In other words, when you have a problem and want to solve it, you do like Socrates: You ask questions. But you don’t ask them to another person but you ask them to yourself. Once having asked your question(s), you devise intelligent solutions and you test them. If a solution applies or works, you have new knowledge. You have read on a table where and when your train leaves, and the next time you are there, you don’t need to look it up anymore. The astronomer thinks that the trajectory of the planet is disturbed by an unknown planet, which is later discovered by him. So we acquire new knowledge. Some knowledge is new for you, but not new as such (for someone had made the train table). Other knowledge is really new, for before the astronomer had discovered the new planet nobody knew about its existence.
Actually Meno’s problem as formulated by him is a false problem. He formulated as a static problem what in fact is a dynamic problem. You cannot know how the opposite bank of the river looks like, when you are on this side. However, you can ask yourself how to come over there and look for solutions: build a bridge, rent a boat, learn to swim. That’s how science works and that’s how we get knowledge. Science and knowledge is not about the right answers but about the right questions. That’s what Meno learned from Socrates and what we can learn from Socrates. As for this, Socrates’s question asking is okay. What Socrates didn’t see is that he had not to ask his questions to another person but to himself. But is it not what he actually does in his dialogues all the time, even if he asks them sometimes to others?

 (1) Quoted from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Meno on

Monday, December 11, 2017

A lost library

Montaigne's study in his castle. On the wall the points 
where his book cases had been attached can still be seen.

Montaigne loved books. He had a large collection of books. About thousand books. Maybe it’s not impressive in view of what many people have today, but he lived in a different age, and not many people could afford to buy such a collection. Moreover, many people were illiterate in those days. Also Montaigne hadn’t bought a big part of his collection himself. He inherited the library of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, who had bequeathed his books to him on his deathbed. It’s a pity that nothing remains of Montaigne’s book collection, for after his death his daughter sold his books or gave them away. How nice then that at the moment a project is going on to reconstruct Montaigne’s library: . Nevertheless, it would be interesting not only to know which books Montaigne had, but to really have them as well, for he had the habit to make notes in his books. They could tell us much about his ideas and intellectual development. Until now only a few of his books have been found back. Anyway, we know that Montaigne had dedicated his bookcase to La Boétie by having put a board with such a text on the top of it. Till about 1820 it still must have been there in Montaigne’s study and some have described the text. Since then it is lost. Also the bookcase is no longer there.
Happily, we know a lot of what Montaigne read from his Essays. He even wrote an essay about it, titled “Of Books” (Book II, 10). Montaigne writes there that he read for amusing himself in the first place. In case he wanted to gather knowledge from a book, it was in order to know himself better and to learn to die and live in the right way. Montaigne wrote about the latter also in his Essays and it made that this book is still so popular. It’s one of the classics one has to read if one wants to know what philosophers see a good life.
Montaigne preferred classical literature to modern literature. The former is better, he thinks. Since he also preferred to read books in the original language, he read mainly Latin books, for his schoolboy knowledge of Old Greek, as he calls it, was not good enough for understanding the Greek literature well. Besides, in his days not yet much classical literature had been translated into French. Note that it was the time of the Renaissance, when many old books just were rediscovered. In view of this it’s striking that the first book after his remark that he prefers the classics is Boccaccio’s Decamerone, which he read for his amusement, so he says, just like for instance, Rabelais. As for the classics, Montaigne first mentions in his essay “Of Books” the poetry of Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus and Horace. From Virgil he especially names his Aeneid, which is an epic poetic work; not what most of us would consider poetry today. He says that in his days Virgil’s work was often compared with the work by Ariosto, an Italian writer who lived some fifty years before Montaigne and who was quite popular then. For many people today Ariosto will be unknown, unless you are an opera lover, for composers like Vivaldi and Händel used his texts for their operas. Montaigne didn’t think much of Ariosto, certainly when compared with Virgil. In addition to the classical authors just mentioned, Montaigne loved the playwrights Terence and Plautus.
These are the authors Montaigne loved most. As for other writers he likes and who “mix business with pleasure”, he mentions the philosophers Plutarch and Seneca first of all. Plutarch was a Greek, indeed, but La Boétie had translated some work by him, so he could read it in French. Montaigne read also Seneca’s Letters, which are still popular today. And he read Cicero, of course. He found his moral philosophy especially useful, but he disliked his style of writing.
The last category of books Montaigne mentions is historiography. These books are pleasant and easy to read and they show how man is. This is especially the case for bibliographies, which are his favourite books. Here he names Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers. However, most of all Montaigne recommends to read Caesar, not only in order to know the historical facts, but especially because of himself, since he outstrips all others in perfection – or at least this is what Montaigne thinks. But Montaigne read also work by his contemporary Jean Bodin, who was not so much a historian as well a political philosopher.
Montaigne read these authors not only for his amusement and self-improvement, but we find many quotes from their works in his essays, especially from the classical authors. So although his books have been lost, from the Essays we know what Montaigne read and what he thought about what he read. There is a saying “Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”. But shouldn’t we simply read the Essays in order to know who Montaigne was?

Monday, December 04, 2017

Berent Enç on free will

I have something to put right, for I made a mistake. Yes, such things happen sometimes, and probably I make even more mistakes than I realize. Anyway, it’s a mistake I discovered myself. In my last blog I wrote that Berent Enç ignores the problem of the free will. It’s not true. He does give it some attention, though not much. The reason why I didn’t see it is that I wrote the blog with the help of old notes and I didn’t check them in Enç’s book. Usually I check what I write as much as I can. But who doesn’t trust his own notes? I did, and immediately I was punished. It was not Enç who ignored the problem of the free will, but it was I who did ... in these notes. But at the time I wrote them, I wasn’t yet interested in it.
Although Enç uses the words “free will” here and there, actually he speaks of “voluntary acts”. Voluntary acts, so Enç, are “movements ... caused by intentions [and] ... under the agent’s control.” (p. 221) So they are based on the idea that we act in view of our intentions. Now it is so that intentional acting need not imply voluntarily acting. A man has had four drinks at a bar intentionally. Then we can say that it was his free will to take a fifth drink only, if he was not too drunk to take a deliberative decision that he wanted to have this fifth one, too. Or, as Enç puts it, “he must have gone through a deliberation in which he considered the pros and cons of downing that fifth drink or walking out.” (221) If he was too drunk for a deliberation, “then I am committed to saying that he did not form the intention to have that fifth drink.” (221) How is this possible “in the causal network that defines the deliberation process”?, Enç asks (221). There, almost at the end of his book, he doesn’t give the answer but he confines himself to saying that the answer must be found “in a compatibilist account of voluntary acts, of autonomy, or of acts done of one’s own free will” (221), and he discusses only briefly some authors he agrees with. Discussing an essay by Stampe and Gibson, Enç refers to an example of theirs of a compulsive hand-washer who decides to wash his hands because he just has handled fish. “Rational as [the hand-washer’s] action may be in the actual situation,” so Enç, “his will may not be free if he is so constituted that he would be washing his hands even at the expense of missing a vitally important phone call. So a necessary condition for acting of one’s free will is that the agent’s decision be rational in the actual and relevantly counterfactual situations.” (222) At the risk of again saying something about Enç that is not entirely correct, I must bypass here the remaining of Enç’s short but preliminary discussion of the idea of the free will in relation to his causal theory of action. But the essence is that – and then I quote him again – “for an act to be voluntary [so free], it is necessary, but not sufficient, that it be the causal consequence of an intention that has been formed as the result of a deliberative process. An additional necessary condition would be that the deliberation involve beliefs and desires that dispose the agent to act rationally.” (227) The latter means that the action must not only be rational under the actual circumstances but also be flexible enough to adapt it to changing situations. And, I would like to add, once this free deliberation process has been finished at the macro-level, it can set to start the micro-units that execute the relevant behaviour. Seen that way, my view last week of what might be the importance of Enç’s causal theory of action for the idea of the free will is actually not too different from what Enç himself thought of it, if it is different at all.

Enç, B. (2003). How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Berent Enç and free will

One of the most interesting philosophical discussions today is the free will debate. When I was rethinking the free will problem again, Berent Enç’s book How we act came to my mind. Although it is in the field of action theory, it contains insights that might help to solve it. So, a good reason to present here a few of its main points.

Enç sees his book as a naturalistic approach to action. However, he explicitly wants to show that there is room for agency in a world of causally connected events. It is here, I think, that the idea of a free will has a place. Enç makes a distinction between what one does deliberatively and what one does automatically. In order to substantiate this, he discusses examples from biology. For instance, a cricket has a built in mechanism for singing. If the weather conditions, the time of the day etc. are correct, its brain cells fire and the cricket sings. But this mechanism will also cause it to sing, when stimulated in the appropriate way by a researcher. Of course, automatic behaviour needs not be innate. It can also be learned, like the behaviour of a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck a key when a light flashes in a Skinnerian paradigm. Likewise a human agent either can do something automatically because she has been born to behave that way, or she can learn to do something automatically, e.g. tying her shoelaces: As a child the agent had to learn it and each time she initially tied her shoelaces, she had to think about the right movements; as an adult, the agent simply does, probably without even being able to tell any longer what she exactly does. However, an agent does not tie the shoelaces involuntarily, like when she sneezes, but she has a reason for it. By arguing this way, Enç substantiates that an agent has macro-units of behaviour controlled by higher centres that determine the reasons why the agent does what she does and micro-units of innate or learned behaviour that are subsystems that control the limb trajectories. The macro-units determine the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions, and what the agent thinks on the macro-level triggers the behaviour of the micro-units that produce the specific limb movements needed to fulfil the agent’s specific goals. It’s here that deliberation plays a part. Essential in rational action is that deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do. However, for Enç deliberation is not a process that finally is independent of the world around the agent. It is to be explained by reference only to events, states, and the causal relations among them in the world around the person and by the way they are represented within the person. Once the process of deliberation has been finished it will set to start the actual behaviour, which, at least for a part on a basic level, will be executed automatically without further thinking.
Enç has embedded his analysis in a discussion of current problems of action theory. For example he discusses the question whether it is possible to take volitions as a starting point of action. But how is it then possible to avoid an infinite regress: For what determines the volitions and what determines this and so on? Enç accepts the idea of basic action, but if so, what is then a basic action, he asks. These are problems that Enç discusses, and for which he tries to find an intelligent solution in developing a complicated causal model of deliberation. It is not, as he shows, that the deliberation-action process is simply unidirectional, going from events in the world to representations of these events in the agent to deliberation to the triggering of a preferred kind of behaviour to fulfilment of the purpose. There is ample room in the model for feedback loops. Moreover, at each level the agent can choose what to do, according to her preferences, beliefs, desires, action possibilities and intentions, depending on the circumstances in which the action takes place. Once the decision has been taken and the final intention has been determined, it is the intention that triggers the agent’s basic acts at the right time, and that guides the agent in the execution of the action chosen.
Enç’s book is an important contribution to the naturalistic approach, but it has also much value for the interpretive approach and with that for the idea that there is a free will (which Enç ignores, however). An interpretive approach does not explain what people do by analyzing objective causes, as the naturalistic approach does, but understands the subjective meanings that the acting people themselves give to their actions. Enç analysis potentially brings the two approaches closer together.
This becomes clear, when one looks at the action theory of Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretive approach. Schütz sees behaviour as a more or less automatic thoughtless activity, while action is performed according to a plan. Naturalists explain what an agent does in terms of the way it is determined by her beliefs and desires in an objective causal way. Interpretationists, however, emphasize that an agent’s reasons are subjective interpretations that make certain actions the thing to do. Enç’s analysis makes is possible to put these approaches together. When analyzing what naturalists do, one can say that they have in mind a Schützean notion of behaviour. In terms of Enç, it is the behaviour done by the micro-units. Beliefs, desires, reasons and intentions are then formulated as ways of explaining what the agent does on the level of the micro-units that execute the actual behaviour. On the other hand, interpretationists see action as a way of thinking what to do according to a Schützean action plan. In terms of Enç, this is the process of deliberation executed by the macro-units of behaviour. Seen in the light of Enç’s causal deliberation model, naturalism and the interpretive approach are partial approaches to the problem of how to explain what an agent does. With the help of Enç’s model these approaches can be integrated. It is in this integration that there is room for a free will, not as an epiphenomenon of the bodily process but as an autonomous phenomenon.

Enç, B. (2003). How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This blog is an abbreviated and adapted version of my review of Enç’s book in Philosophical Psychology, 2005/6: 797-800.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Principles of Philosophy

Last week I discussed the Principle of Charity, especially the version developed by Donald Davidson. It says – to put it in another way – that “in seeking to understand a point of view ... we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.” (1) Such a principle is a methodological rule. It is a rule for cogent philosophy in order to get the best philosophical results. A methodological rule like this “represents a guideline to be followed if error is to be avoided.” “It is not a philosophical thesis or doctrine that purports to answer to some substantive philosophical question, [but] a rule of procedure that specifies a modus operandi, a way of proceeding in the course of philosophizing.” (2) Such a philosophical thesis says for example, “Ought implies can” (Kant), or “that it is fine for the rich to get richer only if the poor always become richer than they would have done had the wealthy been held back.” (the difference principle, formulated by John Rawls) (3)
Nicholas Rescher distinguishes several kinds of methodological principles of philosophy (4), which I’ll ignore here. Instead I want to put forward a few principles by way of illustration. The selection is arbitrary, and reflects more what I consider interesting than philosophical significance.

- Occam’s Razor. This principle has different formulations, but basically it says that you must remove everything that is superfluous in your argumentation. The principle has been named after William of Ockham, a medieval philosopher who lived from 1288-1348. However, the principle was already known before Ockham, and it has also been worded by philosophers after him. Strangely enough, the principle cannot be found in Ockham’s writings, although the idea is present, so it is to be wondered why the principle has been named just after him.
- Nothing is without a reason, better known as the principle of sufficient reason. This principle has been formulated by G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and says that nothing must be maintained without a substantive reason. Don’t state what hasn’t a sound basis. There is also an ontological version of this principle, saying that everything in the world has a reason why it is. (5)
- The falsification principle, brought forward by Karl R. Popper. It says that you must look for arguments that undermine your views and the views developed by others and not for arguments that sustain them. The latter can always be found and will not make a view better, but the former lead to scientific and philosophical progress. If your theory is that all swans are white and you have seen already ten white swans, then the eleventh white swan that you observe will not make your theory better, but a black swan will do.
- Never explain what is obscure by something yet more so. If you replace in this principle the word “explain” by its synonym “make clear”, it becomes a tautology. It’s the purpose of philosophy to elucidate, not to obfuscate. (6) David Hume (1711-1776) formulated a related principle, the principle of evidence. This says that a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger.

Voilà some methodological principles of philosophy. Principles like these help solve philosophical problems and they provide powerful rules of thought. What remains, however, is how to choose our problems. There can be many reasons to consider a topic relevant for philosophical discussion, but at least one principle must guide your choice: Never flog a dead horse, that is don’t argue against that which nobody maintains. (7)

(2) Nicholas Rescher, Philosophical Dialects. An Essay on Metaphilosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Quoted from , p. 2
(4) p. 3 (see note 1). – (5) id. p.5. – (6) id. p.8. – (7) id. p.15.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Principle of Charity

Look at the pictures above and answer the following question: Which of these three birds is not an owl?

Once I was in an educational park somewhere in Germany and in a corner of the park there were bird pictures hanging in the trees; pictures like those above. I got the same question as I just asked you. The answer? The bird at the right is not an owl. I didn’t understand, for the picture on the left shows a long-eared owl, the one in the middle a barn owl, and on the right you see a tawny owl. Why shouldn’t a tawny owl not be an owl? The name says already that it is! And everything I know about birds says that a tawny owl is an owl. It is simply irrational to say that an owl is not an owl. It’s incomprehensible for me to do so.
Then I read the explanation of the answer. The birds are called – in German – from left to right:
Waldohreule - Schleiereule - Waldkauz,
and a “Kauz“ is not an “Eule”.
Now I understood: In German a special word is used for some owls. They don’t call them “Eule” (owl) but “Kauz”. So it was a matter of naming, that the bird on the right was not an “owl” (“Eule”). Nevertheless, I still found it irrational and weird, for there is no ornithological reason for calling a tawny owl a “Kauz” and not an “Eule”. Ornithologically, all the three birds are owls.

Problems like the one just discussed often happen inside and outside philosophy. We see someone doing or saying something weird or we read a text that we don’t understand. We can react by saying: What that person is doing or saying, or what I read here is stupid. It’s not in agreement with what I do, so it’s not rational. Indeed, we can react that way, but it is more practical and reasonable to think: Maybe that person is not really irrational, for most of the time, what people do, say or write has sense for them. Let’s try to find out what this sense is. And usually we do find a meaning of what we first considered irrational: A meaning for that “irrationally” acting, talking, writing person. Although we don’t need to agree with it, the “irrationality” makes sense.
As the American philosopher Donald Davidson made clear to us, we make this kind of reinterpretations of what others do, say and write not only now and then, but we make it “all the time”. We make the actions by others understandable by “deciding in favour of reinterpretation of [those actions] in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief” (1984, p. 196). And, no surprise, philosophy has a name for this reinterpretation: It’s called the Principle of Charity. The term has been coined in 1959 by Neil L. Wilson, but better known is the development of the idea by William Van Orman Quine and especially the development by Davidson. As Davidson – who thinks of what a person says in the first place – tells us: “if all we know is what sentences a person holds true, and we cannot assume that his language is our own, then we cannot take even a first step towards interpretation without knowing or assuming a great deal about the speaker’s beliefs. Since knowledge of beliefs comes only with the ability to interpret words, the only possibility at the start is to assume general agreement on beliefs. We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common-sense, or scientific knowledge of explicable error” (1984, p. 196) A charitable interpretation of the other is not an option but a condition to make communication possible, so Davidson (1984, p. 197). Moreover, a charitable interpretation is not simply a matter of benevolence or politeness. We need it also or just when we don’t agree with the other “Crediting people with a large degree of consistency cannot be counted mere charity: it is unavoidable if we are to be in a position to accuse them meaningfully of error and some degree of irrationality.” (1980, p. 221).
In plain words: We have first to find out what someone stands for from his or her point of view and how his or her ideas fit together. Only then we know to what extent we agree and disagree and only then we can meaningfully criticize him or her if we feel the need. Only after we have interpreted what someone says in a charitable way, we can say why his or her words are irrational, for instance why it’s weird to call a “Kauz” not an owl.

- Davidson, Donald, “Mental Events”, in Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 207-227.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Averroes and Western Philosophy

Recently I was in Andalusia, the most southern region of Spain, and there were two towns that I wanted to visit anyway: Sevilla and Córdoba. There are many reasons for visiting them, but as a lover of opera and of philosophy both towns were a must for me. For isn’t Sevilla the stage of three famous operas, namely Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”, and Bizet’s “Carmen”? And, indeed, when being there it was impossible not to be reminded of them. So I passed a Restaurant Doña Elvira (one of the characters in “Don Giovanni”), I walked around the tobacco factory where the opera “Carmen” begins, and I could also have had a haircut in the hairdresser’s salon of the “Barbero de Sevilla”, if it hadn’t been closed on the moment I was there. However, I was most interested in going to Córdoba. This town is not only known for the mosque that later has been converted into a Christian church, but it is also the native town of three great philosophers: Seneca, Averroes and Maimonides.
Who doesn’t know Lucius Annaeus Seneca Jr., the Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist and also son of an orator? The man who was the tutor and advisor of Nero, the Roman emperor, but who had also to commit suicide by order of Nero? Most remarkable is that Seneca’s works are still widely read after two thousand years.
And then Maimonides, whose real name was Rabbi Mosjé ben Maimon in Hebrew or Moesa ibn Maimon in Arab. Maimonides lived from 1138 till 1204 and he would become one of the most authoritative rabbis of the Jewish religion. He adapted Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith and his “Thirteen articles of faith” formulate the central ideas of Jewish orthodox thinking.
But most important for Western philosophy has been, I think, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, known in the Western countries as Averroes for short. Averroes (1126-1198) held several important positions in the service of the ruling Almohaden dynasty. He has been exiled from Córdoba for some time because of his too liberal thoughts. He died in Marrakesh in the present Morocco. During his exile Averroes’s writings were banned and burned, which made that some have been lost forever. After his death the Muslims in Spain were forced back by the Christian Spanish armies and so Averroes is considered the last Muslim philosopher from Spain.
Averroes wrote on a wide range of subjects, including medicine and law, and many of his works have been influential. In law he wrote on themes as diverse as cleanliness, marriage, jihad and the government’s role with non-Muslims. He published a medical encyclopedia and commented on the work by the Roman physician Galen (Claudius Galenus; 129 - after 200 AD). However, what affected Western thought most was his philosophical and theological work. Averroes devoted three decades to writing commentaries on thinkers in these fields. He commented on Plato, Alexander, Nicolaus of Damascus, Porphyry and Ptolemy, but especially important are his commentaries on Aristotle. Averroes wrote commentaries on all Aristotle’s works with the exception of the latter’s Politics. In this blog I cannot do justice to his thoughts; far from that. But most of Aristotle’s works had been lost in the western world since the sixth century or they had been ignored. Many were still available in the Arab world, often only in an Arab translation, but in the West they were unknown. If I was allowed to mention only one contribution by Averroes to Western thinking, it would be that his commentaries on Aristotle came to renew Western intellectual interest in this outstanding Greek philosopher. On the other hand, in the Arab world, the influence of Averroes faded into the background after his death. As Bertrand Russell says it: “In [Mohammedan philosophy] he was a dead end; in [Christian philosophy] a beginning” (p. 419). From the end of the twelfth century on Averroes influenced the scholastics, but he got also a philosophical school of his own. Its adherents were called the Averroists and they were a group of unprofessional freethinkers who denied immortality. Under the professional thinkers Averroes’s influence was big among the Franciscans, like Roger Bacon (ca.1214-ca.1294) and at the newly founded University of Paris. How would Western philosophy have developed if this Muslim thinker hadn’t revealed the thoughts of one of the founders of just this Western philosophy?

- H. Chad Hillier, “Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198)”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on
- Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy and its connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. London: George Allen & Unwin; 1974 (1946)