Monday, December 15, 2014

My main website temporarily off line

By a serious mistake of my Internet provider KPN my main website is temporarily inaccessible. My website went off line on November 25 and it is incomprehensible for me why KPN hasn't yet restored it. When trying to get it back, I am sent from pillar to post and back. It's Kafka in due form. Anyway, my other websites and webpages are on line as usual. See the right colomn on this page. Enjoy them!
As a consequence, also my Montaigne bibliography (1600 entries!) is off line. If you want to use it, please send me a message (post a comment; by Twitter; etc.)

When prophecy fails (2)


If you are a bit interested in psychology and especially in social psychology, I think that the first thing you will think of when hearing the name of Leon Festinger is “cognitive dissonance”. It is the central concept in a theory that he developed with his team. In a nutshell, the theory says that we try to adapt our interpretation of the facts to our beliefs if the facts don’t fit the beliefs, while to an outsider the other way round would seem more rational. Of course, adapting your beliefs (and the actions that follow from them) to the facts is also a kind of dissonance reduction, but adapting the interpretation of the facts to the beliefs happens so often and is so remarkable since it seems so illogical, that the theory of cognitive dissonance has become almost synonymous with a theory that explains this irrationality. To give an example, when a smoker reads a research report on the bad effects of smoking, of course, he can say “I’ll quit”, but there is a big chance that he’ll think that the research is not right or that there are also positive effects of smoking, for instance because his grandfather, who was a fervent smoker, has become hundred years old, or which other positive reasons for smoking may come to his mind. For this blog I’ll understand cognitive dissonance in this limited way.
Festinger is not only known for the theory of cognitive dissonance but also for having promoted the use of laboratory experiments in social psychology and for his methodological contributions to this approach. However, one experiment that brings to light a certain phenomenon is only one experiment, and since an experimenter can make mistakes, in many handbooks on methodology it is recommended to repeat experiments in one way or another. This can be done by replicating the original research as exactly as possible or by trying to get the same results by using a different design or otherwise. If the new research confirms the original results, it has become more likely that the theory tested is true. If it doesn’t, we have a problem, and we have to find an explanation for the difference (the cognitive dissonance has to be reduced, so to speak, if we use the concept in its broad sense, so including the idea that the original theory may be revised as well). Of course, it is possible that the repetition of the original research in one form or another was not correct, but this is only one of the options that may explain the difference with the original results.
Be it as it is, as Ruud Abma notes in an article on replication in psychology, just the latter, namely seeing a replicatory study as imperfect in case of non-confirming results, has become tradition in social psychology. So what did Festinger write in his article “Laboratory experiments” (published a few years before the famous When Prophecy Fails by Festinger et al., in which the theory of cognitive dissonance was expounded)? Indeed, that negative results not conforming to the expectations probably mean that the experiment had not been done in a careful way and that the manipulation of the research variables by the project leader had not been effective. In other words: Adapt the facts to the theory. Is there a better proof of the theory of cognitive dissonance?
L. Festinger, “Laboratory Experiments”, in: L. Festinger and D. Katz (eds.), Research methods in the behavioral sciences New York: Dryden, 1953; pp. 137-172.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Reality behind words

Tranchée de la Soif (Trench of Thirst) near St. Mihiel, France

When we read about what happened, reality is often screened off by a factual description and by figures. What has happened looks often so simple as if there is not much emotion and misery behind it or, otherwise, as if not much joy is involved. In history books war is usually reduced to political conflicts and negotiations, to military movements, strategy and tactics, and to dates. As if not many soldiers were involved with their daily pains and sorrows, not to speak of the inhabitants of the invaded countries and their destroyed possessions. Or a reform of the social care system in a country is seen as nothing but a parliamentary debate and the reduction of costs and seems to have nothing to do with people who need help to have a wash or go to the toilet or, a bit less dramatically, to get the house cleaned. Or, a third example, as if there are no tears of the winner and the loser and much effort as well behind the sports results in a newspaper. Therefore I like to read diaries and autobiographies written by persons who went through the events and facts, preferably if they are a kind of live report; written from the first-person-perspective, as philosophers say. They give me so much better a feeling of what actually took place. They tell me the personal experiences of the human beings that lived the moments behind the dry descriptions. I think it makes me better understand what occurred, even though I do not shun traditional history books, for example, for getting a grip on the main lines.
In his Notebooks of an Infantryman, describing his experiences as a soldier during the First World War, the French captain Charles Delvert writes:
“Yesterday captain Seigneur has fallen. No longer I’ll see his good big eyes. He was cool-headed, elegant, and polite in an excellent way. Now we are only six in the regiment that has seen Ethe. Out of fifty-two combating officers. The others have been killed, were injured or have been evacuated. One sees how terrible losses there were in the first two months of the war ...
But as Voltaire said already, it’s all about understanding what the sense of the words is. It is because one sees nothing behind the words that the history of wars looks so little tragic to us.
For example, you read: ‘The regiment has held the position during the whole day’. This looks very simple to you. However, the point is what the word ‘hold’ involves. I have just ‘hold’ the Haussu Farm during a whole day and I know what this dull word means. It means to stay in the trenches without moving, be prepared to receive, with gunfire, the whole attacking infantry, and that under a deluge of iron and fire.
Since eleven o’clock till the night percussion bombs, shrapnel shells, machine-gun bullets rained on our heads. The two companies that were in the farm ... have withdrawn – read ‘have taken to their heels’ –. I have received them in my line and I have gone on to ‘hold’ the position. Soon the farm has burst into flames, producing enormous clouds of smoke.
In the evening we lay down in the wet meadows, still in our positions, in a night lighted by the shine of the fire burning behind the triangle of the roof silhouetted against this shine.” (Charles Delvert, Carnets d’un fantassin, Les Éditions des Riaux, 2003, pp. 113-114)
As Delvert shows here, the holding of a military position is not simply a series of words in a report or a remark in a history book, but it is full of danger, emotion and personal experiences. I think that what Delvert points out here is true for any report or story written from a third-person-perspective, i.e. from the perspective of the outsider or data gatherer. We tend to forget it but stories in any form whatever always refer to what agents and their witnesses actually lived through, and behind the so-called facts and events there is often blood, flesh and tears or a smile or a whoop of delight.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Passages (4)


Passages, as I can summarize the past three blogs, are a kind of non-places where you have to spend some time when being between a past destination (the place you left) and a future destination (the place of your planned arrival); that are ahistoric; and that make you into an isolated no-one (someone with no identity without any relations with the others around unless they are your “co-passengers”, i.e. the people you are travelling with or what else you are doing there in the passage-space). Moreover, passages are constructed non-places: they have been made as passages as ways for directing and guiding people. The most conspicuous examples are roads for through traffic, like highways, and waiting rooms. I’ll not try to give an enumeration or classification of kinds of passages but what strikes me is that the phenomenon of passages looks like a modern version of the Panopticon that has been designed by Jeremy Bentham around 1790. Some readers may remember that long ago I have talked already about the panopticon, namely in my blog dated Dec. 21, 2009. For those who don’t I’ll repeat what I said there (the quotation is from Elisheva Sadan, Empowerment and Community Planning, e-book version, 2004: www.mpow.org/elisheva_sadan_empowerment_intro.pdf ; p. 62): “ ‘The Panopticon is an eight-sided building surrounded by a wall, with a tower at the center. The … occupants of the structure sit in cells located on floors around the wall. The cells have two apertures – one for light, facing outwards through the wall, and one facing the inner courtyard and the tower. The cells are completely separated from one another by means of walls. … Overseers sit in the tower and observe what happens in every cell. The [occupants] are isolated from one another, and exposed to constant observation. Since they cannot know when they are being observed, they supervise their behavior themselves.’ As Foucault in Discipline and punish (Peregrine Books, 1979: p. 200) explains, the structure can be used ‘to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy’ ”, or, as I had added there, any other person that you want to observe in this way. Essential for my comparison is that a panopticon is based on the idea of secretly observing and controlling what people do. What I also added there, but what I want to repeat here only as something to think about: From that perspective, a panopticon is nothing else but Big Brother before the expression existed.
Why are passages as defined here like a modern version of Bentham’s Panopticon? It’s true that you are not forced to travel from A to B or what kind of activity you do so that you need to use a passage. (But was a prisoner forced to steal or murder?) But once you have left A – and in what follows I’ll substantiate my point with the traffic case, but I think that it is easy to extend it analogously to other cases – you are almost coerced to do what the road planner (so actually the State) wants you to do on pain of traffic jams, long driving times, being lost and other unpleasantnesses, including fines sometimes. Road signs and route signs, traffic signs, roundabouts, feeder roads, highways and what more discipline the traffic to follow the prescribed roads. And like prisoners in a prison, most drivers voluntary obey the orders given by the signs and signals for, as said, not doing so is punished somehow. The comparison with the Panopticon (and Big Brother!) is even more real: Everywhere surveillance cameras keep an eye on what you and the other drivers do so that it is possible to intervene if considered necessary, for instance by adjusting the speed of the drivers with road signs or traffic lights or by sending police or road workers where problems have been seen or are to be expected. Everyone is visible with the exception of the Regulator. Every driver is the object of information and discipline but not a subject of communication (you are just said or pushed what to do; never asked). This is the guarantee of order among this collection of isolated individuals in no-one’s land like in Bentham’s Panopticon (cf. Foucault id. pp. 200-1).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Passages (3)

Self-made passage

Passages in the sense of non-places as I have discussed them in my last blogs are a modern phenomenon. In pre-modern times they hardly existed, if they existed at all. The reason is that they do not come into being in a natural way as a consequence of the daily contacts of men with each other but they are planned. Passages are consciously made in order to deal with the growing number of people that want to do the same thing and in order to steer people gently where the planners want to have them and in the way the planners have determined. That’s why passages are a typical phenomenon of mass society. To give an example, in the past roads led from town to town, from village to village and from village to town. Even if they were planned – which they often weren’t – they were built because you had to be there. Because you wanted to be there for going to the market. Because you wanted to be there for it was the administrative centre of your region. These roads went also through little villages, for every village was a kind of centre of its environs. However, in modern times habits of people have changed. They go to destinations far away and don’t stop in intermediate regional centres any longer, or at least most people don’t. Most want to go elsewhere: to their work, to holiday places far away, to business centres. These are often no longer in the towns and villages in the actual sense but in the suburbs and outskirts. Therefore most travellers want to pass the towns and villages and so the planners have created passages, which they call “highways”. But highways don’t connect places as such. They often begin and end somewhere near an important town or otherwise on the town’s edge. In order to direct the drivers to and from these mainroads the planners have provided highways with approach roads and exits and they have created feeder roads that connect the towns and village with them. In this way towns and villages have become nothing but names on road signs for most drivers on the highways, even in case a highway happens to pass through a certain town. I have often been geographically in Paris for the Autoroute from the Netherlands to the south passes through this town. Nevertheless I have seldom really been there, for usually I don’t turned off.
Passages are a manner of directing people. Planners don’t want to have drivers unnecessarily through the towns, so they lead them past them, as we have seen. This is only one example of how planning is used for directing people in the way wished by planners and how passages are instruments of planning used that way. Nevertheless, it often happens that people don’t obey. Drivers try to go to their destinations by short cuts. Pedestrians don’t follow the footpaths but make their own paths through the fields. You take a book or laptop with you so that you can put your time in a waiting room or train to good use. Generally passages cannot be avoided, but people are often more creative than planners are.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Passages (2)


In my last blog I talked about passages. Marc Augé, who has written an analysis of such places, calls them “non-lieux” – non-places, which expresses even better what they are: places that are nothing for you. You are just there because you cannot avoid them. You simply have to pass through them for one reason or another. And if you could avoid them, like the shops on an airfield, you are there because you have to fill your time anyway, be it by shopping or be it by waiting in the room near the gate till your airplane departs.
According to Augé, non-places have three characteristics. First, when you are there, you have no identity. Nobody cares who you are. It’s true, on an airfield you have to show your passport when you enter the space for flight passengers. But once you are there, you are anonymous. Nobody will miss you when you disappear. Nobody will take notice of you. For the others you are a non-person. Compare this with an opposite case, like a family party in a hotel or restaurant. If you would suddenly leave without saying goodbye, people will miss you. If you don’t come without notice, people will miss you, too.
The second characteristic of a non-place is that the people present have no relations with each other. They just are there. You don’t talk with the others. Usually you also don’t greet them when you enter or take a seat. Actually you try to ignore the others. Think here again of the case of a family party, where those present are just there for meeting each other. They are there for entering and maintaining relations.
Third, a non-place or passage has no history. A church where a wedding ceremony takes place may have been used for that already since centuries and that may be a reason having your wedding in this church. But if the waiting room in front of the gate on the airfield or the parking place along the highway would be closed tomorrow, nobody would give it any attention with the exception of those who work there and there is a good chance that even they would not shed tears.
In short, we can say that passages or “non-lieux” are meaningless places, or rather they do not have a meaning as such but they get their meaning from what they connect. However, as Augé stresses, non-places, and also its opposite, namely “places”, hardly exist in a pure form. They are the extremes of a sliding scale.
I think that the existence of non-places, pure or less pure, says a lot of the kind of persons we are, the more so, if ones realizes that non-places or passages are a rather new phenomenon. Maybe there has always been a kind of non-places as long as man exists, although I doubt it, but in its omnipresence it is a modern phenomenon. It is a characteristic of mass society and a characteristic of mass man. In order to survive in this mass society man must be able to ignore a lot of what is happening around him or her and of what is present there, including other men. When we want to do some typical things of this mass society, like travelling, we must be able to disregard much of what is around us. We must be able to go a substantial part of the paths we follow in an insensitive way – insensitive to what others are and do. If we shouldn’t, we should never reach the end of any path we had chosen to follow; we shouldn’t reach any goal or destination or only a few at most; and we should become overburdened with the occupations and sorrows of others. In modern mass society we have no choice but screening ourselves off mentally and becoming indifferent. And society has no choice but making non-places in order to cope with the mass. That’s how we have become and how we now are.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Passages


It’s a kind of places that every traveller knows. Also when you are not travelling, you’ll certainly often have gone through them: passages. You cannot avoid them, although you would rather stay there as short as possible for passages are usually annoying and boring and sometimes even lugubrious. It does not need to be so, however, and some are even pleasant in a way.
Passages connect places that are meaningful for you. You leave home and go to your work. Then you have to travel before you are there, so you spend some time in the bus or tram or train and at a bus stop or tram stop or in a railway station. Most of what you do there is waiting and being moved, which is also a kind of waiting, namely a waiting till you are “there”. You try to kill your time – by reading or with your smartphone. You don’t know the other travellers around you, although maybe you have seen them already many times. And they don’t know you. You don’t talk to them. Often you even don’t greet them. You are also not interested in the type of vehicle you are travelling with, as long as it brings you quickly where you want to be.
It’s basically the same when you travel with your own car, although some people can tell a lot about its properties. Then you are even physically separated from your fellow-travellers by the structure of your car, which is a cage you have put yourself in. The public transport has been replaced by your private transport moving on the road or highway. For air travellers the story is also more or less the same.
When thinking of passages some typical sites you pass on your trips and travels come first to the mind: Railway stations; a parking place on the highway where you take a rest before driving on; the place where you have to wait on the airport before being allowed to pass the gate to the plane. They include also the spaces with restaurants and shops on airfields, for usually you are there only because you are on the way and not because you want to buy something or want to eat outdoors. These are some striking examples of passages, indeed, but if you think a bit about it, you’ll find many more, often of different types. They are certainly not limited to travelling. To mention a few: The waiting room of a doctor, tunnels, corridors in all their meanings, shops, warehouses, hotels. Passages are everywhere. Some sites usually function as passages but need not always be so. For instance: A hotel is often a place where you stay in function of going somewhere else. But maybe you celebrate your wedding there. Then it is rather a destination then a passage. Generally a passage does not have a meaning of its own, but derives it from being a kind of connection.

Monday, November 03, 2014

“Do like the others and become yourself”


Everybody is unique or so he or she thinks. In view of this it is a bit strange that we want to be like the others who are in our reference groups, or at least that we don’t want to be too different from them. A recent study has shown again that just the marginal members of a group stress that they belong to it while the more central group members – who are known as such –  don’t feel the need to do so. This is especially the case if the group one wants to belong to has a higher status or cultural value, for then it enhances your self-esteem and your prestige.
The case just indicated is an instance of trying to make yourself unique by presenting yourself as being the same as others. Just because you are like your significant others you are something special and, for example, if you are a businessperson it’s worth to use just your services. In a reverse way it is this idea that is employed as a trick in advertisements promoting the use or sale of the services or products of this or that company: “Buy our ... and be different/unique” is a kind of slogan everybody knows. And because most of us want to be different (although not too much, but anyway just a little bit) and want to have or show a bit of his or her own (but again not too much), we follow the slogan and buy the unique .... (fill in: clothes, smart phone or what you like), not realizing that millions of people think so and do so. The result is that we become unique with the millions. “Do like the others and become yourself” as Marc Augé expresses this idea in a different context. And isn’t just this what we want? For actually most of us feel themselves most at ease in the herd and feel themselves uncomfortable when leaving it.
But really unique is one who does like herself and invents her own way, or at least a little bit and as long as it goes, of course.
Sources: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/group-identity-emphasized-more-by-those-who-just-make-the-cut.html and Marc Augé, Non-Lieux, Paris: Seuil, 1992; p. 133.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“All things have their season” (2)


Once I decided to grow apples. So I read about how to cultivate them, about what is important when choosing apple varieties and a few things more. When I knew everything about growing apples and had chosen the varieties I wanted to have, I went to a fruit tree nursery and bought three young trees and planted them in my garden. It was a feast for the eye to see them growing and I liked it very much to look after them and to prune them. Since my garden is small, I trained the trees as espaliers. So I was very happy that after a few years I could eat fruit from my own garden. I had chosen the varieties with care so I didn’t get all apples at the same time in autumn, but I could harvest one variety after another. Some had to be eaten within a few weeks, others could be kept for months. However, since my trees were little, I got not enough apples for the whole year round, even though for such little trees the harvest was very good. For sharing my pleasure of apple growing with others, I gave also many apples away. Therefore, despite growing my own, I still had to buy apples during a large part of the year. Nevertheless, it was very nice that during some months I could now eat my own fruit. Moreover, I had learned a lot about apple growing, which I find very interesting. I had learned also something else. Although actually I knew it already but I had forgotten it.

Already as a child I loved to eat apples every day, the whole year round. My mother bought them in a supermarket or in a greengrocer’s shop and often she brought different varieties at home. This happened especially in autumn when one variety after another was sold in the shops although each during only several weeks. Fresh apples right from the tree. However, in winter the choice was limited and then I had to ate the same variety for several months. No problem, for also these apples were tasty but at the end of the summer I begun looking forward to autumn with its succession of apple varieties. For I, this little boy of ten years old, had discovered something very intriguing: There is a rhythm in apple varieties that follows the seasons. Discovery, Alkmene, Benoni and so on, one after another, till the long season of Elstar apples begun. One year later the cycle started anew. So I discovered as a young starting philosopher what the Montaigne had written already many centuries ago: All things have their seasons.

After a few years I learned also a second lesson: Times change. For it happened that the apple producing industry discovered that this rhythm of the seasons was not good for us, the buyers of apples. Or rather maybe it was good for us but not for them from a commercial point of view. So gradually apples that were not good enough – or so they thought – disappeared from the shops and were replaced by modern varieties, often imported from countries far away like New Zealand or Argentina and not from Europe and not from my own Netherlands. Only here and there some old varieties were still for sale in the right season in specialized shops although not in the supermarkets. Of course, there was an advantage for the apple consumers as well: They could always buy their preferred taste the whole year round. But the seasonal rhythm had gone and I forgot my first lesson, namely that all things have their seasons, for there were no seasons any longer, at least not for apples.

However, times changed again and so it happened that I started to grow my own apple trees and soon I remembered the old lesson again that time has a rhythm or rather that there are seasons for everything. And I am glad to know it again.
Is it important? Well, some will say “no”, others will say “yes”. Anyway, I think that this apple story is symptomatic for much of what is happening around us in the world. In the modern world man becomes less and less dependent on the whims of nature and life. Things can be better foreseen and planned. It makes life for us safer and less risky and much misery of the past has disappeared. This is done by equalizing the ups and downs that made life and all what belongs to it often unreliable in the past. It is good in many ways and I think that this equalizing has made life often more pleasant, but like many positive changes it has its price, too. When you now ask children, and many adults as well, “Where do apples come from?”, probably they’ll say: “From the supermarket” and not “From the tree”, let alone that they know that apples have their seasons. What becomes lost by this modernization is the idea that there is a cyclical rhythm of time, anyway for apples, but also in general: That things come and go, and maybe come again and go again, and so on. For despite all new developments, life is still not completely leveled. There are still ups and downs, there are still seasons (youth, adulthood, old age; the periods of education, work and retirement, to mention a few) and life still has a beginning and an end. But people tend to forget it because everything goes often so smooth and if something unpleasant happens there is always a solution. Or so it seems. For when real calamities occur, do we know then what to do? Of course, there are many people and regulations that help you to cope with the physical damage but mentally? Less and less we lack the preparation for that. And with the disappearance of the seasonal succession of apple varieties in the shops a little mental preparation for this, integrated in the practice of daily life, has gone. Because despite all change it’s still a truth: Transience in life still exists, so all things have their seasons.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joint commitment


A central concept in the philosophy of Margaret Gilbert is “joint commitment”. It refers to the obligations people have towards others when they agree to do something together. Then each is bound to do what s/he said to do, unless the other or others relieve this person of the obligations agreed on. Gilbert uses the concept of joint commitment for understanding group action. Studying group action is about what small groups do and about what the individual members of small groups do as group members. Group action has to be distinguished from the behaviour (or actions, if you like) of organisations and within organisations and from individual action as such. It presupposes that such a thing as acting in the capacity of group member exists and that groups act because the members of a group have obliged themselves to do certain things together. An example often used by Gilbert is an agreement made by two persons to go for a walk together, for instance to a nearby park. Much can be said about the usefulness of the idea of joint commitment as a central concept for the analysis of groups, but that it helps us explaining significant aspects of what we do in groups is clear, as this quote from Gilberts book Living Together illustrates:
“Insofar as a personal decision locks you into a course of action, you yourself have the sole key needed to turn the lock. In order to unlock yourself all you need to do is to change your mind: to rescind your decision. In contrast, insofar as a joint commitment locks you into a course of action, at least two keys are required to turn the lock. You have only one of these keys. Each of the other parties has another. Changing your own mind is not enough; all must concur.” (p.295).
Man is a social being. Man cannot live on her or his own but needs other persons in order to survive or simply to do things; things that need to be done or things that are a pleasure to be done. Therefore man has to enter into agreements with others, which creates obligations. Since this is the same for all other persons, everybody is tied to others by joint commitments. Just these joint commitments and the necessity to make and to meet them makes life often so complicated, but it makes it also interesting.
Source, Margaret Gilbert, “Agreements, Coercion and Obligation”, in: Living Together. Lanham, etc.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996; pp. 281-311.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Free will and the two levels of reality


In my last blog I showed that Prinz distinguishes two levels of representing reality. The direct representation of the world is done on a non-conscious level and the indirect representation or the perceiving of the direct representation is done on a conscious level. Prinz uses this “dual representation model” for explaining what free will is. However, for making this clear, I prefer not to follow Prinz, but to turn to the view of Shaun Gallagher. Both views are basically the same, albeit not in detail.
Gallagher distinguishes also two levels, but he doesn’t talk of levels of representation but of subpersonal motor processes on the one hand and intentional action on the other. Now it is so that in the present discussion on free will an argument against its existence is that our bodily processes go as they go. The whole chain of our movements develops automatically and if there is something that can be seen as an expression of a free will or decision taking, it appears only after the chain has started and it can be seen only as an epiphenomenon that gives us the feeling that we act freely without this being actually the case. Gallagher doesn’t want to deny that such a mechanic process really takes place and that it happens and maybe often happens that we just do something and that our thinking about what we did comes later, but, so Gallagher, that’s not what free will is about. Free will is not about what we do here and now, but it is a longer-term phenomenon. So if I see a snake and jump away, it looks as if this jumping away is simply a mechanical reaction. But then we forget that it is not only a consequence of me now seeing a snake but also of my past experiences with snakes and of what I heard about them and that it is this that made me decide to flee rather than to catch the animal for my terrarium.
So, free will is not about bodily movements but about intentional action. Hadn’t I jumped away but caught the snake with my hand, I shouldn’t have thought about how to move my muscles and fire my neurons in order to get the animal and to avoid that it would bite me. No, I should have thought how well it would fit in my collection and this catching would have been nothing else but an adding to it done by me. In other words, the choice to catch the snake is embedded or situated in a particular context, which is in this case that I am a reptile collector. Only in this context we say that I am free to choose what to do, namely to jump away because I had already a snake like this one in my terrarium or to grasp it. But even when I grasp it consciously the mechanical process in my body does take place and my neurons do fire and I cannot influence how they fire (and without a doubt – for those who know the details of Libet’s research on taking decisions – I’ll develop a wanting only after the beginning of a readiness potential). Nevertheless, my grasping will be incomprehensible without the contextual embedding and the choices I have (and I am still free not to catch the snake, even in case it is not yet in my collection).
All this does not make that the free will is disembodied in a Cartesian sense. What our automatic bodily movements are is often determined by our free will (maybe already long ago), and that’s for instance the essence of what sportsmen do when they train (especially in sports that require many technical skills): consciously producing future automatic reactions. In this way, the embodied mechanisms are expressions of the free will. Moreover we are only free to do what is possible within the limitations of the body and what the body enables us to do.
I sit in a train and I cannot change its direction. The train determines where I ago and how long it lasts when I am there. But it was up to me to get in it or not and I can leave the train at every station where it stops. And that’s what free will is about.
Source: Shaun Gallagher, “Where’s the action? Epiphenomalism and the problem of the free will”, in Susan Pockett et al. Does consciousness cause behavior?, MIT Press, 2006; pp. 109-124 (esp. pp. 117-121).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Two levels of reality



In his article “Free will as a social institution”, Wolfgang Prinz defends the thesis of dual representation of reality. On the one hand, the thesis says, we have a direct representation of what is going on and what is present around us in the world (we can say that we have an “image” of it, if we take this notion not too literally). This representation exists on an unconscious level, which I want to call “level 1”. This level-1-representation is the basis of our doings. On a conscious level we can experience this level-1-representation and have a conscious representation of it. I’ll call this conscious representation a representation on level 0. The function of this level-0-representation is, in terms of Prinz, to “decouple the individual from the current actual situation” and to develop thoughts about what is going on and on what one is doing. However, as Prinz says it, “the decoupling cannot be complete, since the normal perception of the current surrounding situation has to continue to function”, and, as I want to add, one is also in a constant need to act. Despite this constant need to act and the ongoing current of experiences a person is confronted with, the “decoupled” conscious level-0-representation has an important function: It allows us to evaluate what is happening around us and what we are doing in reaction to it on level 1. It allows us to interpret the “world” and our actions and, most important, to reflect on what we are doing, to stop what we are doing mechanically, to decide what to do instead, and so on. In short, our conscious part functions as a pilot on a plane that as a rule flies automatically.
Prinz uses this dual representation model (based on theories by Dennett, Metzinger, Edelman and others) for explaining what actually the free will is. I want to link it to two other issues.
For one thing, when I read the article for the first time, I linked the dual representation conception to Descartes’ mind-body dualism, but not in the sense that it substantiates his idea but just that it makes clear what Descartes did wrong. For Descartes distinguished two substances, namely matter – which shapes the machine that the body is in his view – and mind  – which shapes the self –. According to him both are fundamentally independent of each other, although the mind – “self” – can steer the body via the pineal gland. Also Prinz says that the level 0 functions of man can be seen as man’s self. However, his dual representation model shows that this self – “mind” – and body are functional parts of the same physical machine that we call “man”.
Secondly, when I reread Prinz’s article and started to write this blog, I suddenly realized that the dual representation model is nothing but a neuropsychological foundation of my version of the dual aspect theory of knowledge, which now appears to be nothing but an epistemological explanation of the mind-body problem, as developed by me in my PhD thesis twenty years ago (and summarized in an article; see the sources below). I have referred to this theory also in older blogs and now readers of these blogs will understand why I preferred to call this conscious level “level 0” instead of “level 2”. In the present blog I cannot discuss this theory, but the essence is this: Following Habermas, I distinguished two levels in the way we interpret reality: level 1 and level 0. Level 1 is the level all sciences are faced with when they theoretically interpret their objects of research. Level 0 is typical of those sciences, like the social sciences, that deal with objects that have been given meaning by the investigated people themselves. Accordingly we can distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0. The former is the kind of meaning used on level 1. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character, and it is the scientist’s theoretical interpretation of reality. Meaning 0 is the concept of meaning for the underlying level 0. It is the meaning people who make up social reality give to this social reality or to parts of it themselves; it is their interpretation of their own lived reality.
And now, twenty years later, we see that my version of the dual aspect theory is not just a methodological idea, but that it can be also sustained with the help of recent developments in neuropsychology.
Sources: Wolfgang Prinz, “Free will as a social institution”, in Susan Pockett et al. Does consciousness cause behavior?, MIT Press, 2006; pp. 257-276 (esp. pp. 272-3).
Henk bij de Weg, “The commonsense conception and its relation to philosophy”, Philosophical Explorations, 2001/1, pp. 17-30.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How to write my blogs (2)

Creative walk

When I write these weekly blogs, I am always sitting in the armchair in my study and I write them with my laptop. I told you that several times before, if I remember well. Is it the right method? I always thought so, until I discovered that it would be better to write my blogs by hand, at least the draft. Not so long ago I explained to you why (see my blog dated June 16, 2014). But like most human beings here on earth, I stick to my habits and I still write my blogs with a computer. In view of the positive comments I sometimes receive, they are not that bad, although – you never know – maybe they would be much better, if I would write them by hand. Anyway, I’ll not do that. I see it as something of the past, whatever other people will tell me to do.
Be it as it is, now I wonder also whether the habit of writing my blogs sitting in my armchair is the most effective approach. At least, a study by Andrew P. Knight and Markus Baer of the Olin Business School at Washington University, St. Louis, MO, USA, showed that standing meetings improve creativity for people working together in groups. In this situation people become more open to the ideas of others and it reduces their tendencies to defend their turf, so to speak. Therefore it is better to remove the chairs from the room and conferring with your colleagues or discussion partners in standing meetings. And so Knight and Baer titled their article “Get up, Stand up”. Okay, their research was on group dynamics, but why wouldn’t what works for a group work for an individual thinker as well? At least, as I feel it, when I am sitting here in my armchair and thinking about what to write in the blog or article I am working on I have never the idea that I am philosophizing alone but always that I am in discussion with other philosophers, scholars and scientists, although they are only virtually present. Moreover, it is a known fact that some people think better when they pace up and down the room. I,too, feel sometimes the need to do so, when I am under stress because I cannot find the solution for a problem in my mind or when a reasoning in my head leads to nothing. Then I need physical movement and I start to pace to and fro or I walk to my garden. Whatever the reason is usually it works and the mental blockade has been lifted. In the light of the paper by Knight and Baer, it’s maybe better to use this standing philosophizing not only for such cases that I suffer from a mental block but apply it as a basic approach for “normal” philosophizing as well. At least, I could give it a try, for everything can be improved, even the old habits I stick to. So get up, leave your armchair, and become a stand-up philosopher, at least for a time by way of experiment.
Source: http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/27031.aspx

Monday, September 15, 2014

The uneven development of technology and man

Driverless car

In a short interview a Dutch technology professor, Marieke Martens, said that within ten years we’ll have automatic driving cars on our roads, so cars that do not have a driver behind the wheel. This will not happen all at once, she says, but it will happen in five steps. In the interview prof. Martens didn’t say what steps these are, but the last step would be taken within ten years. Will it? Prof. Martens admitted that there are not only technical challenges for completing the project but also juridical ones, like questions of liability in case of accidents and how other road users will react. Well, I do not want to deny that we’ll see an automatic driving car here and there on the roads within ten years, but I seriously doubt that it will be more than that. Even more, I doubt whether the non-technical questions will be solved within ten years in the sense that we can have automatic driving cars on our roads, used by everybody who likes to have one, so in a non-experimental way or in a test project.
I think that the belief that we can have automatic driving cars on the roads within the short time of ten years – for ten years really is short in social life – is a typical instance of technological reasoning that ignores the human factor. Technological thinkers often forget that technological development and human development have their own dynamics and these do not need to go together. I will not go as far as Karl Mannheim does in his Man and society in an age of reconstruction – quoted in my last blog – that the social order must collapse if technological and social development are not in line with one another (p. 43), but I think that there is much truth in the view that human capacities often develop disproportionally and that new technological inventions can be applied only if they fit the human conditions of the application.
For example, Martens talks about five steps to the final introduction of automatic driving cars, so on the average two years for each step. What does this mean in practice? Take step one: A car must be produced according to this phase, the juridical rules must be adapted, drivers must be prepared that experimental cars can be met, and so on. Then, at the end of step one, the process must be evaluated. Only next we can go on to step two. Etc. till step five, in which finally automatic driving cars can move on the roads just as normally accepted means of transport like old-fashioned cars. I think that it is difficult to find social scientists who will say that all this can be done in five consecutive steps of only two years. Society is simply too complicated but also too “viscous” so to speak to function that way. Each person, each group, each sector of society has influence on the social phenomena they happen upon and has the potency to push them a bit in the direction preferred, to try to stop them (or just to let them ago), to give them another interpretation and meaning... And even if all these influences as such are minor, the total effect can be big and can cause often unforeseen effects. The introduction of automatic driving cars will be even more contemplated, if we realize that they’ll ride not only in the Netherlands but worldwide. In short: Human behaviour and even more social behaviour cannot be planned and manipulated like a machine. Just this is what technological thinkers often ignore.
Sources: De Volkskrant, Sept 6, 2014, Sir Edmund Supplement, p. 5. Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Why policy fails

Cattle dealers

A few days ago I was browsing through some books in my book cases and my eye was caught by the next quote, which I had underlined, in a already rather old book by Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian-born sociologist (1893-1947):
“Every specialist is acting in good faith when he believes that his own method is the right one, for he unconsciously confuses the section of reality on which he is working with reality itself ...” (Karl Mannheim, Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949; p. 29).
Everyone looks at the world from his or her perspective and everyone thinks that this perspective is right if not the best, for why else would s/he have it? As for this, specialists in who knows what are not different than other people. The problem is, however, that specialists, unlike the men in the street, can have a decisive influence on what other people do, or at least on what those people do that are touched by their specialisms. As long as a specialist is open to the world and particularly to critical remarks from people touched by his doings, his methods tend to become the best he can have. But often this is not the case and often the specialist considers the problem to be solved only from the perspective of his specialism. Then his method has become a one-way approach. This can be fatal in cases that the problem involved is not purely technical in the sense that it concerns mere things, but if men are involved in it, so if the problem concerned actually is a human problem. For people tend to interpret what a specialist does in their own ways, and these ways are often different from what the specialist had thought out. Then it can happen, and it often does happen, that what was thought out by the specialist takes another turn than expected. Look around and you’ll see how often this occurs. You simply need to have an open eye for it. However, many policy makers keep their eyes closed and that’s why their policies so often fail.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Confusing mind and brain

The Meuse near Charny, Meuse, France

A single water molecule doesn’t stream but a river does. Nevertheless a river consists of a countless number of water molecules. Also the countless number of water molecules as such don’t stream. So if we want to study fluvial processes like erosion, the velocity of the flow, the friction between the current and the riverbed and so on, we do not study the movements of the water molecules but we study the river. We don’t say that the molecules erode the landscape but that the river does. Or, a different example, we do not say that the water molecules reflect the sky but that the river does. Confusing river and water molecule is what Gilbert Ryle called a category mistake. In the same way it is a category mistake to confuse mind and brain. Just as a river cannot exist apart from the the water molecules that produce it, so also the mind cannot exist apart from the neurons and what else makes up the brain. In this sense the mind is the brain. Nevertheless it is a category mistake to reduce a typical phenomenon of the mind like thinking to a phenomenon of the brain and its neurons. It is not our brain that thinks but our mind does, i.e. “we” do. Seeing it in a different way is making a category mistake.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Of custom


“And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self-love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them, and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs, and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of one's own country.” Montaigne, Essays, Book I, chapter 23.

Montaigne lived in a time of civil war. One religious war after another followed in France since the first one broke out in 1562. Nine wars of religion were fought and only a few years after Montaigne’s death this period of devastation and turmoil came to an end. These wars were about power, as always, but the main reason was trying to establish the right religion: Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. Wars on ideology and religion are always among the most devastating. This was also the case in Montaigne’s times, which brought him to the phrase that I quoted. And with right, for what makes that just you are on the right side when your opponent claims exactly the same but then from his perspective?
When this series of wars had ended at last with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, it was to be expected that people would have learned from the past and would find ways of peacefully living together in spite of differences in religion, ideology or world view. Nothing is farther from the truth. Soon we got the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618-1648), new religious revolts in France and so on, till the present religious wars in the Middle East. We only need to see the ruins in that part of the world for understanding what Montaigne wrote immediately after the quotation above:

“Can there be worse husbandry than to set up so many certain and knowing vices against errors that are only contested and disputable? And are there any worse sorts of vices than those committed against a man’s own conscience, and the natural light of his own reason?”

But alas, the perpetrators always seem to have different views on what they are doing and think to have good reasons for it. Anyway, Montaigne knew what he was talking about, for the religious wars in France were waged also around his castle. Moreover, Montaigne had relations with all parties. He often acted as a mediator between them.
Montaigne discussed the theme when he talked about custom. Customs can be quite treacherous, so Montaigne, because they can come to dominate us. Moreover they can numb us and make that we are no longer able to see that things can also take place in a different way. Once it has come that far, it has become difficult to avoid acting according our customs. They have become unconscious automatisms. Then it has become almost impossible to think about our customs in a rational way and not to think that what is not according a certain custom need not to be unreasonable. The problem is that everybody thinks so about his or her own customs against the customs of the other, even in the degree that one detests actions that are not in keeping with one’s own. Only once one realizes this mechanism and sees one’s own prejudices, one sees that many customs are based on nothing, are unintelligible and are unreasonable, so Montaigne. Nevertheless he didn’t like changes in his life (at least he says so), but I think that there is a difference between not liking changes in one’s own life and being attached to one’s customs and thinking that everything needs to be the same for everybody and that everybody basically needs to behave that way. That wasn’t what Montaigne thought and wanted to defend. And even if everything would be basically the same, there still are different views on it, as the picture above shows.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What are we fighting for? A cynical comment on war

The daily ceremony at the Menin Gate for the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed near
Ypres during World War I and whose graves are unknown attracts always many spectators

These days it is hundred years ago that the First World War broke out. Especially the countries involved in this war, like France, Belgium, Britain and Germany, will commemorate it and all the events that followed till the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended this war. Recently I was in France for my photo exhibition there and for my summer holiday and everywhere I saw preparations for the coming commemorations and the first have already been held. For instance, on August 2 the church bells were rung, remembering that this was also done when the French army was mobilized 100 years ago. Especially two things were striking when I was there: the big number of articles on World War I in the local newspapers and that all war monuments in the region where I was (Lorraine) had been cleaned and restored. France is well prepared for the four (or actually five) years lasting commemoration.
Commemorating is only one aspect of an afterwar period. Another one is war tourism: visiting places where battles have taken place. Especially sites known from the Second World War and even more so from the First World War attract an increasing number of tourists. But also battlefields of other wars are popular: Waterloo, Gettysburg, and so on. I must say that I am also guilty of war tourism, for not only have I visited nearly the whole Western Front of World War One during the years, but recently I have also been to the battle field of Lake Trasimene in Italy (Hannibal versus the Roman) and to Alesia (Caesar versus the Gauls) again in France.
War tourism is probably of all ages and it “belongs” to war. The First World War had hardly ended or relatives of the British soldiers came to Ypres in Belgium in order to see where their sons had died. I cannot prove it, but I think that it was the same for other battle fields, at least for some. Moreover, on such places there is always something to find for collectors and robbers: souvenirs and valuables. What is different today, however, is the commercialization of war tourism. Already in the 19th century Thomas Cook organised comparable trips but today such trips are organised not only for people with a specific interest in war and history but they have become part of the tourism industry. I have nothing against it but some battle fields are gradually becoming a kind of amusement park, which is quite a nasty idea, since the “amusement” is there because thousands of people have died on the site.
It is also nasty for another reason. Many wars and battles belong not only factually to the past but also emotionally. Unlike still the Vietnam War, the Second World War and also often yet the First World War, wars further away in history have become neutral facts. Who is yet emotionally aroused by the battle between Caesar and Vercingetorix in 52 BC or let’s say the Battle of Nicaea in 193 AD between two Roman armies, led by two would-be Roman emperors? Often people hardly know anymore what the battle was about or from the perspective of today we find the reason for the battle stupid or unreal. Let’s take a present example. During the ages France and Germany have fought many wars, but today even the idea that these countries would send out armies against each other sounds absurd. History has changed once real possibilities. Motives that once could lead to war between these countries have disappeared, anyhow, and conflicts between these countries are solved peacefully. In view of this, one can wonder what the soldiers on the battle fields of the past have been fighting for and why they had to die. Did it ever had sense in view of the present world situation that the Franco-German wars were fought? I know that it’s a very ahistoric idea, but why can France and Germany now stand hand in hand together while in 1914 (and in 1939) they extended their hands against each other? It’s a very cynical remark, indeed, and I do not want to deny the heroism and patriotism of the soldiers (these concepts being taken in a positive way in the sense of being prepared to do what is valuable; not in the sense of a plain machismo or nationalism), but in the light of present-day views one would tend to say that these wars were waged for the pleasure of the modern tourist. I think that if one could learn a lesson from all those battles fought in the course of history it is the adage that originated on the battle fields of Vietnam, so to speak: Make love, not war. But looking around at what is happening in the world today, I am afraid that mankind will never learn and that the battle fields of Gaza, Iraq, the Ukraine etc. will be the tourist resorts of the future.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Escalation


I think you know the situation: Two children are playing around as children often do. Let’s say that they are a bit boxing or something like that. One gives a blow to the other. “Don’t beat me that hard”, the other says and strikes back. Then the first one says: “I dont beat hard. You do!” And before you know it, they are really fighting. We call this escalation. Why did this happen?
In an article by Suparna Choudhury and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore I found an interesting explanation of this phenomenon, which they derived from a study by S.S. Shergill et al.: “... just as happens when we try to tickle ourselves, the brain predicts the sensory consequences of the self-generated force and then reduces the sensory feedback. Since the forward model can only predict the outcome of our own actions and not of those of someone else, sensations that are externally caused are enhanced relative to self-produced sensations. As a result, if you were to deliver a vengeful punch to match the force of your opponent’s blow, it is likely that you would overestimate the strength of the opponent’s punch and strike back harder”. (source: see below) In short: We tend to underestimate the force of our own actions (blows), because the sensations related to them are attenuated, while we don’t correctly judge the force when dealing a blow to another person. Even if the other person wants to strike back with the same force, his blow will be harder than the one received. The result is escalation.
I think that this is a general phenomenon: We often underestimate the effects of what we do. We underestimate the way we talk negatively about other people or even hurt them purposively, while we overestimate it when other people talk bad about us or hurt us with their words. When we feel guilty if other people accuse us of having done something bad, we think that what we did is not as bad as when we see a third person doing the same.
However, the phenomenon is wider. You see it everywhere where people maintain relations to others, especially in politics and in war. In war, the victims on your side count more than the same number of victims on the side of your enemy. “Our revenge will be thousandfold”. “One victim on our side means ten on theirs”. Who doesn’t know words like these? The harm done to your side looks bigger than the harm on the other side done by you, so by way of revenge the harm is increased when hitting back. Again: The result is escalation. Within societies the restraints that escalation really will take place are much bigger than in international affairs, although happily even there the restraints on conflicts are growing. The essence of the problem is, of course, a kind of ego-centration, together with your physical setup. The upshot is: Behave yourself and put yourself in the shoes of the other.
Source: Suparna Choudhury and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, “Intentions, Actions, and the Self”, in: Susan Pockett, et al., Does consciousness cause behavior? Cambridge, Mass. etc.: MIT Press, 2006; pp. 41-42.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Criticism

Pyrrho van Elis

Last week I bought a book by Antoine Compagnon on Montaigne and I immediately started to read it. Compagnon is an authority on Montaigne and he has published several books and articles on this philosopher. The book I bought is titled “Un été avec Montaigne” (A summer with Montaigne). It contains mini-essays like my present blogs are. Originally the pieces had been broadcast on the radio for a broad public. I can recommend everybody to read the book, also if you have read already a lot on and by Montaigne. Montaigne’s Essays are so rich in content that any book on Montaigne reveals new aspects.
In one of the first mini-essays Compagnon shows that Montaigne was a man who was open to critical remarks. He even liked them, as long as they were to the point and didn’t come from a superficial attitude, from snobbery or something like that. This doesn’t mean that he always agreed with the criticism he received but he liked a critical stand as such and he liked discussions. Often he changed his writings under influence of the comments he received. Sometimes it was because he agreed with the criticism, often it was rather a matter of politeness, for showing that he took criticism seriously and for stimulating people to make comments.
The basis of criticism is doubt: the idea that everything need not be so as it appears to be. For Montaigne, who relied on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (about 360-270 BC), doubt was a method for getting better knowledge. No wonder that his motto was: “What do I know?”. In this Montaigne was well ahead of Descartes, who is seen as the founder of modern philosophy and who is known for what we call now “Cartesian doubt” as a method for making progress in science. Nowadays critique is considered fundamental in order to come nearer to the truth. It was especially advocated by the Austrian British philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902-1994).
Everyone who advances ideas that are at odds with what other people think exposes oneself to comments and critical remarks, which may be appropriate or not appropriate. Be they of the former or of the latter kind, I think that one must take all criticisms seriously, anyhow. Critique doesn’t need to come only from other persons. Also self-criticism is an important way to improve your texts and ideas (and yourself!). Therefore I have developed a double strategy for coping with comments on my texts. My first rule is: Every comment is right, even when it isn’t. So every comment needs to lead to a change of my text. I think that some explanation is necessary. That a text must be changed when a comment is to the point is obvious, but what when it isn’t? Of course, it is possible that you and your commentator disagree. Nevertheless, I think that there is always a bit of truth in any opposite remark. What you can do then is trying to present your view clearer and better and maybe it is also good to skip some nuances of your stand that are questionable or not to the point, or just to add other ones. I guess that even inappropriate comments make that I change my texts in 90% of the cases.
And how about the second rule of my strategy to cope with comments? This is self-criticism. Often it happens that I reread a text and that I stumble over a word or a passage. I read it again and think: This word or passage is exactly correct. Nevertheless, I always change it, for how can I expect that another reader understands it if I, the author, needs to think twice before I know what I mean?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Killing in war: Does it happen?

Caterpillar Cemetery, Longueval, France

Only yet a few weeks to go and the commemorations of the centennial of the First World War will begin. When one thinks of war, one thinks of at least two opposing parties and one thinks of killing. Both are essential for what one calls war: There is no reason for fighting, if two parties do not disagree, and killing is the ultimate and often not so ultimate means for getting the other on his knees if he doesn’t give way. It is not difficult to find both elements in World War One. The immediate cause was a conflict between two countries (Austria and Serbia) and since both countries had their allies, already at the start the conflict was a war between opposing alliances: the Allies or Entente (France, the UK, Russia etc.) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and others). Finally more than forty countries were involved. When it ended 8.5 million soldiers had been killed if not more and if one adds the civilian victims, about 15-17 million people died in this war. In several countries almost a whole generation of young people was lost. Who else must have practiced these killings than the fighting soldiers themselves?
I think that it was some fifteen years ago that my interest in the First World War developed. I had heard about the war, of course, but when I travelled in the north of France, the big number of war cemeteries struck me and I wanted to know more about this war. So it started. Since then I have read many books on the World War One and I have visited many war sites, both along the Western Front and elsewhere. I have devoted even a big part of my website to photos made during these travels (http://home.kpn.nl/wegweeda/WO1-Inleiding.htm). I still photograph every monument and site related to WW I that I see and I still read as many books on this war as is reasonably possible. I have a preference for biographies, novels (many of them have been written by war veterans or are based on reports by war veterans) and other personal documents. So not so long ago in a second hand book shop I came across a publication of First World War letters of the British writer Vera Brittain and four friends who fought (and died) in the war and I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Immediately I started to read it and I can say that it is very interesting. It tells a lot about life in Britain in those days and about life at the front. It says a lot about what people thought about the war and about their feelings (especially when a friend at the front had died). And probably it says a lot more. What I miss, however, is that the letters tell us nothing about the enemy and even more nothing about the killing as such. It’s true, some letters talk about the Germans and that they shoot. Sometimes they tell that a soldier dies. However, if one considers how these events are described, I think that it is possible to defend the thesis that there is no enemy and that there is no killing in the letters, certainly no killing by you or your party. In this sense war is an impersonal affaire that passes like a river that washes your feet when you ford it. And even more, the absence of the enemy and the absence of killing by yourself and your side (especially in a personal sense of a personally doing) is striking in most ego-documents I have read on WW I. Of course, if you want to, here and there you can find passages in these works that seem to refute my thesis. Nevertheless, as a general tendency it is true, I think.
Is this tendency strange? I think it isn’t for despite all rhetoric that says that killing in war is allowed, in fact hardly anybody agrees. So most soldiers (who are people like you and I and not a special human race) do not want to confess they did. They would feel themselves ashamed, or unhappy or how you want to call it. Therefore I think that these war novels, biographies and other personal documents tell us not only much about World War I but also much about who we are as human beings. This gives these documents a wider meaning than being merely a report on a certain passage in history. These writings are not on war and war experiences, but they are on man.

Monday, July 07, 2014

How to make perfect photos

My exhibition in the Capitainerie in Stenay, Meuse, France

“Nobody is perfect”. It’s a well-known saying. Implicitly it says that perfection is the norm. It’s something we have to strive for. And so we do, at least often, or at least many of us. In our work. When we educate our children. Advertisements tell us what the best products are for looking great, ... and we buy them. Some writers tend to work infinitely on a book, for as long as it is not perfect they do not want to publish it. Look around and you’ll see plenty of instances in which perfection is the goal or where it is important.
As such there is nothing against perfection, but I have two remarks. What does it mean? Perfection is not something objective but it is a norm and as such it is only a view on what is important; it’s a standpoint and nothing else. Moreover, hidden in the idea of perfection is the view that it makes you happier. But does it?
I do not want to substantiate these remarks here, but I want to say something about a case of the pursuit of perfection: The pixel race in photography: the striving to make cameras with more and more pixels. No sooner has a camera come on the market with a sensor with x thousand pixels than another camera producer brings out one with an even larger number of pixels. And so the race goes on. The idea is that the more pixels a sensor has the better it is. For a sensor with more pixels produces sharper photos, and the sharper a photo is the better it is. Is it true?
Until not so long ago photo sensors produced images that were a bit blurred, certainly in comparison with analogue photos. Since sharp photos are considered better, camera producers developed sensors with more pixels in order to solve this problem. The result is that today photos taken with digital cameras are better, so sharper, than old-fashioned analogue photos. As a consequence analogue cameras were pushed off the market. However, the pixel race still goes on. Camera producers continue to make cameras with sensors with more and more pixels making digital images increasingly sharper through the years.
Is this a good development? In a certain sense it is, but what I find annoying is that nobody seems to ask the question what making more perfect and better cameras means. If new cameras really make better images, why are there then still people who prefer old or simple cameras? Even more, why are there still people who make paintings, for example painted portraits? For isn’t then a photographed portrait simply better than a painted portrait and so to be preferred? Apparently for many people the answer is “no”, so there is something else that makes a photo good. But commercially it is not interesting.
When I am on an art market with my photos, many people spontaneously tell me that they like my photos or even that they find them beautiful. When I am talking to them, I often say that most of my photos are analogue (on my last art market, I had some twenty analogue photos and one or two digital ones). I think that it’s an indication that beauty and perfection do not go together; or maybe they do but then it means that perfection is as subjective as beauty is. And indeed, I like it to take photos “off road”, in a way that deviates from the main stream approach. So I still use my old analogue camera and I use also a so-called pinhole camera, which is a camera without a lens, (the readers of these blogs will have noticed, however, that I do not shun the digital way: most of my blog photos here are “modern”). A pinhole camera produces pictures that are far from perfect, for they are blurred. And a blurred picture is one of the cardinal sins in photography. Is it? Apparently not all people think so, for just these blurred, vague and coarse-grained pinhole pictures catch always more attention than any other photos in my presentations. And many people find them better. Even more: My first big exhibition will show just such pinhole photos: 25 imperfect blurred coarse-grained photos showing the River Meuse from its source east of Dijon till Rotterdam. Where can you see it? In Stenay in Lorraine in France. So if you are going to visit the battle fields of Verdun this summer, or if you’ll be there for another reason, go to Stenay as well, for “il vaut le détour” (It’s worth the trip): The photos are like paintings.

The photos can be seen in the Capitainerie, Rue du Port, Stenay (Meuse, France; just north of Verdun) from July 5 till September 13. www.valdart.info

Monday, June 30, 2014

Trust (2)


Actually I thought it had become old-fashioned, like privacy has in the days of the Internet since it has become increasingly easier to intrude into another person’s life. Even in cases that it is explicitly illegal, privacy is violated, as we all know from recent publications in the media. For what is possible is done, in spite of any laws prohibiting it. I thought that trust had gone as well.
Trust is relying on the reliability of another, for example that she or he will do what s/he says, without having any explicit guarantee that the other will really carry out what s/he is expected to do. S/he is believed on the strength of her or his honest appearance and maybe because of good experiences when dealing with her or him in the past, but actually without any warranty or other more or less material evidence that the person really is going to do what s/he is supposed to do. Till not so long ago trust was normal, also in financial transactions, for how could you check the trustworthiness of your partner? Moreover, making payments was complicated in comparison with the way we do it today. But in these days of digitalization and the Internet trust has become more and more limited to the inner circle of relations of your family and friends. It has been pushed back to the back garden of society, so it seems. Payments can be done with one click now, so you have to do your payments in advance, also large purchases. You have to show your identity card everywhere, while in the past many people didn’t have one (at least not in the Netherlands) and it was seldom asked for. Or before you get into touch with a person or company you don’t know, you do an extensive search on the Internet. Maybe this is an improvement in many respects and maybe it relaxes business connections, but it makes that trust has gone in many ways. It has become limited to really personal relations and to relations with people you have narrow connections with.
Therefore I was happily surprised, when after having ordered a book on the Internet, I received an e-mail with the message: We’ll send you the book and we trust that you’ll pay it within thirty days after receipt. Such a thing is not yet exceptional, but I didn’t know the shop and the shop didn’t know me and nowadays it’s then “normal” to pay in advance. So trust does still exist, even in business relationships and even when they can’t judge the honesty of your appearance.
Has trust really been pushed back to the back garden of society, as I just stated? It has become more limited, indeed. In many fields, like when doing purchases, it has almost gone. But can we do without it outside the personal sphere? I think that we can’t. Look around. Consider relations everywhere in society. In business, politics, etc. Then you’ll see that the importance of trust has been driven back but that is still the backbone of society. We simply cannot do without it.