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.

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


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


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 ( 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.

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.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Privacy and public photos

Privacy is an important part of our life. Maybe it hasn’t been always so for in premodern times and certainly in prehistoric times, people lived in small communities and it was difficult to keep anything secret for your environment (and I don’t mean your family, who actually belong to your private life, but the people in your hamlet, village or even little town). But societies and values change so today privacy is considered important by most people, although one can wonder whether there isn’t a difference between what people say and what they actually do. Time and again I am surprised how much of their most private and intimate facts people reveal to others and to the world on social media like Facebook and Twitter. But privacy is still an acknowledged part of the way we live. It is protected by law, although it is also often violated in secret by the same state that that makes the laws and pretends to maintain them. Violating happens openly in authoritarian and even more in totalitarian states, where it is part of the ideology that one has to live for the state and where one has to place one’s life in the service of the state. How baleful this can be is clear from cases like Nazi-Germany, Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the present North Korea. It doesn’t lead only to the end of the individual person with all his and her creativity, expression and feelings of happiness, but also to the backwardness of the state if not to its death. So there are good reasons to take care of your privacy, certainly in this time of the Internet where it has become increasingly easy to intrude into the private world of other people, both for states and organisations and for individuals.
Privacy is important for me, so I do my best to protect it. On the other hand, a part of the sense of living exists in maintaining relations with other people, known and unknown, and just for that the Internet is an excellent means. It enriches my life and enhances my possibilities, but just this is done by showing a piece of my private life to the world. Therefore preserving my privacy is a matter of keeping the balance steady: don’t tell the world too much but also not so little that I wouldn’t profit. But what is a good balance? In the end it’s pure guesswork and using your good sense. It’s a matter of feeling.
One of the things that can be abused on the Internet is a picture of yourself, especially one where your face can be recognized. For what is more private than your face? And maybe it’s just because of this that people publish their pictures on the Internet, as a wish to become a public person and to become known, belying the confessed idea that privacy is important. Possibly people don’t realize the dangers. Photos can be manipulated and so be used for discrediting people. They can be used for searching the Internet just as one can search the Internet for certain words. In this way it is possible to connect websites that have been written under different names or by different persons, if they show photos of the same person. Maybe these are yet the most innocent possibilities to misuse pictures. I am not an expert in this field, so I leave it to you to find out what can go wrong if you have your photo on the Internet. Anyway, I am distrustful so I don’t want to have my photo there, at least not one that clearly shows my face. (Keep it secret: actually there is one but I don’t tell you where; it’s difficult to find). I am a bit more careless, if you cannot recognize me as such, as the readers of these blogs may have noticed. But there are always people who want to see my face, for else they have the feeling that they don’t know me or that I am a kind of talking machine (actually it’s strange to think that my face tells more about me than all the texts I have written and photos I have published). If I trust them, I send them my picture by e-mail.
Makes this precaution sense? I always thought so but now I doubt. For what has come out? The NSA, the American intelligence agency, does not only monitor and collect photos openly published in the World Wide Web, but it steals them also from your e-mail. And it may be supposed that other secret and not so secret services do the same. Actually, it was quite naive that I hadn’t thought that before, and that I hadn’t realized that nothing is so secret or it is open to the world. Does this mean that I must not send vulnerable information by e-mail any longer? But then they have just achieved what they want: that people control themselves instead that they and the national governments do. That will be the end of creativity and of many other things we stand for in this world. However, it will not be the end of privacy, for this has already gone, by the activities of secret services and others who secretly collect information on the Internet (and by doing so in your home) and by the public behaviour of private persons themselves.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How to write my blogs

When I started to write my PhD thesis in 1988, personal computers were not yet universally used. Anyway I didn’t have one. So I wrote first a chapter of my dissertation by hand, then I typed it and I sent a physical copy to my tutor. I think it was a good system. Maybe it was not really efficient in view of the present method, but I had a good survey of what I was writing, and my manuscript was full of lines and arrows connecting parts of the manuscript that belonged together. I cannot draw such lines with a computer. On the other hand, it was difficult to move parts of the text I had written at the wrong place or adding text somewhere in the middle of the manuscript, so I used a kind of reference system. I didn’t see it as a loss of time that I had to retype the handwritten text, for it gave me an extra check. However, when I had finished my thesis the publisher wanted to have it on a floppy (do you still know what it is?), so I bought a computer and typed the whole work again.
Even with a PC available I still continued writing my manuscripts first by hand before typing it out digitally, for I didn’t like working behind a desk and writing with a computer. I preferred doing that sitting in an armchair. Later I bought also a laptop which I literally used as a laptop: in my armchair I wrote down my ideas. Since then handwritten manuscripts belonged to the past for me. So when I started my blogs in 2007, I begun writing down some notes about my approach by hand, but when I started actually writing my first blog, I used my laptop. These notes are some of my last handwritten philosophical texts. Everything is done in bits and bytes since then, even the notes.
Is it a positive change? My present way of writing is good and efficient. Nevertheless, since I have read a present newspaper article I wonder whether the old-fashioned manual work isn’t to be preferred. For what happens to be the case? Handwriting appears to be much better for your recollection than typewriting, so the article states, which makes that it is certainly not yet an outmoded manner for producing texts! Children who learn writing first by hand do not only read faster but they are also better in remembering information and developing new ideas than children who learn their first letters on the keyboard. Apparently the manual writing activity stimulates not only the “writing circuit” in the brain but also adjacent circuits. The reason might be that writing by hand is quite a messy activity in comparison with writing with a keyboard and this makes that a wider part of the brain is involved. This pays off later, when you have to call up from memory what you have done.
Research has shown that writing by hand is useful not only for children. The same effect occurs also when university students make notes by hand during their lectures instead of with the help of a keyboard: The hand writers understand their lectures better and remember them also better when they have to reproduce the matter later. And why would what is valid for young students not also be valid for this old guy? So, the upshot is that from now on I should write the manuscripts of my blogs by hand as in the days that I wrote my thesis. But then the troubadour way might even be better: everything by heart.
Source: De Volkskrant, June 4, 2014, p. 19.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Who will win the FIFA World Cup?

Now the football world championship is coming near, it’s time to speculate who will be the next winner of the FIFA World Cup. However, in view of my last blogs, we have a problem. For the championship is a competition between teams, but as we have seen it is questionable whether we can ascribe intentions to groups, so to teams, and without the presence of an intention to win in the teams, we cannot have a competition in the real sense.
One solution of the problem of group intentions is seeing it as a metaphorical way of speaking. It’s Tuomela’s approach, for instance. As he says in The Philosophy of Sociality (Oxford University Press, 2007): “[G]roups are not literally agents or persons but ... they can be regarded as persons... Within this account one can say that groups really want, intend, believe, and act, but that this amounts to the relevant group members’ respectively wanting, intending, believing, and acting in certain ways as group members”. (p. 124) “We are here somewhat metaphorically viewing groups as analogous to individual agents (persons). ... As groups have no minds and bodies, they cannot have experiential beliefs... Yet the group members can accept views for the group [etc.]”. (p. 140). I can quote Tuomela more extensively, but I think it’s clear what he means: Groups exist only in the minds of the people who make up the groups and in the minds of the bystanders.
Nevertheless, it’s a bit confusing for me. Let’s say that the Netherlands will win the World Cup. or France, or Brazil. Make your choice. But let me not be chauvinistic, so let’s suppose that Brazil will be the new world champion. Who or what is it then that will be the cup winner? Brazil? But “Brazil” stands for 8,515,767 km2 of soil and more than 200 million people and it’s clear that not a certain surface of land and 200 million of people are the winner. So “Brazil” is short for the team representing this area and these people, so for 20+ men (and in fact only eleven of them are playing at the same time in a match).
So, if we say that “Brazil” is the new world champion, then actually the Brazilian national team is the winner? So, it was the Brazilian national team that started the competition, intended to do its utmost to win and did win? Right? No ... For “the Brazilian national team” is only a metaphor and it has no mind and no body, as Tuomela explained. And when the national anthem is played and I look at the team I see ... no team but only eleven, or rather twenty+ men, and although all these men get only one cup, they get twenty+ gold medals. And it is these twenty+ men who have played and it is not a team that did, for a metaphor cannot kick a ball, but only men can do (and women, of course). So what I see are twenty+ individuals, who had each more or less the same intention to win when the competition started and who after x individual kicks against a ball got a gold medal. The team has gone and what is left are individuals. The president of the FIFA can bring the World Cup again back to his office, for whom should he give it, if there is no team? Maybe there are twenty+ men who deserve it to get a gold medal but there is no team to receive the cup. And if you don’t believe it, consider by way of exercise, the case that a player of the Brazilian is sent home during the tournament and doesn’t receive a medal: What’s then the team?
The upshot is that there cannot be a winner of the FIFA World Cup, IF we see “group” simply as a metaphorical way of speaking that refers to a number of individuals with the same intention.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Group intentions

One of the most ignored problems in the philosophy of collective intentionality and action is the question of identity. But what happens when the composition of a group changes during the action process? Can we say that it is the same group that develops an intention and performs the corresponding action, if the persons that make up the group initially are different from those who complete the action? For making the problem clear, let me take an example of the sort used by Bratman or Tuomela, two prominent philosophers in this field:
A group of four movers intends to carry a piano to an apartment on the sixth floor of an apartment building. On the staircase to the second floor, one mover gets a whiplash, so a colleague is called up in order to replace him. On the staircase to the third floor, one of the three original movers hurts his back and he is also replaced by a colleague. On the stairs to the fourth floor one of the remaining original removers slips and sprains his ankle and is replaced as well. And the last man of the original group has to be replaced on the fifth floor because he seriously hurts his knee. So in the end four different men put the piano on its place in the apartment on the sixth floor.
Some readers will recognize here the old philosophical problem called “The Ship of Theseus”: When Theseus returns from Crete to Athens, after having killed the Minotaur, he has to repair his ship at sea and he replaces the old planks of the ship one by one by new ones so that finally none of the old planks of the ship that left Crete remains. Then the question is: Is the ship that arrives in Athens the same one as the ship that sailed from Crete? Or for our example: Is the group that arrived at the sixth floor the same group as the group that started to carry the piano upstairs? If you say no, the idea of group intention has to be skipped, for the consequence is that only individual intentions and actions are possible. But this conflicts with many facts that support the view that collectivities do exist and act. For instance, parliaments vote down a motion, hockey teams become world champion and armies wage wars. However, if you say yes, you have saved the idea of group intention but then you have to explain how it is possible that a group can have an intention even if in the end no member of the original group remains. You have also to explain what it means that a group keeps having an intention, although a group mind (brain) doesn’t exist and although the original group members that have taken up the intention no longer have this intention. Or you have to explain what it means that a group acts, although it is the individual members who move their limbs (for it’s John who kicks a goal with his leg and not the “team”). Unless you give up the idea that the analysis of group actions is analogous to the analysis of individual actions (as Tuomela thinks, for instance; see his The Philosophy of Sociality, chapter 5).

Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibility of we-intentions

A part of the gang

The question of responsibility for an action, in case this action has been performed on orders from a superior (see last week) is related to the question whether someone is responsible for the actions of a group s/he belongs to. I have discussed this theme long ago in my blogs, especially in relation to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, so I’ll bypass it. However, it is generally accepted that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to a group, as is done, for instance, when a company as such – and not the individual managers – is sentenced for breaking the Environment Law. Who or what is it then that holds the responsibility? Or in my example, who or what is it then that is sentenced? For normally a sentence is passed only for something that is intentionally done or for what is the result of an action intentionally performed (even if this result hasn’t been foreseen or hasn’t been intended). Since our juridical system makes it possible to prosecute organisations and other formal groups, apparently they are ascribed actions and intentions. This is in line with common parlance, which ascribes intentions and actions to all kinds of groups, formal and informal. “The football team wanted to win in order to avoid relegation.” “The gang decided to beat up the first passer-by”. Such phrases are common use and they have nothing metaphysical and they are seen as reflecting the facts. Nevertheless, I think that it is reasonable to ask what we mean by them. For it’s not Local United that will do its utmost in order to avoid relegation but John, Pete, Charles and the others will do and kick the ball. And it is the same for the gang. For if John, Pete and Charles form a gang after the match (which they have lost) and then attack Henry, the first passer-by who happens to be also the goal keeper of the opponent, it is not a mysterious unity that hurts Henry intentionally, but there are three men of flesh and blood who do.
I think the problem is this. On the one hand a group is made up of individuals agents and it is they who act. On the other hand a group is a real social phenomenon and what a group does cannot be explained by referring to individual agents and simply put them together. For if we see groups only as an aggregate of individual agents, we get something like this: Agents have individual intentions and when they act together they have joined their intentions and have developed a joint commitment. On base of this joint commitment a group intention is formed. This is basically the approach of present-day philosophers like Raimo Tuomela or Michael E. Bratman. A typical case discussed by them is painting a house together. The approach sounds quite Thatcherian, for in the end it sees cooperating only a matter of bringing people together in the right way (and that’s why Thatcher thought that there are no societies but only individuals – and families at most). What this approach forgets, however, is that intentions and the ways they are put together do not come out of the blue. They are based on the possibilities, rules, associations etc. that an agent happens to find already present when s/he “decides” to act or develops intentions. It is this what is already there that determines and structures what an agent wants to want (and not just wishes to want) and what this agent factually can do and will do (within a certain latitude; it’s true). These “existences” or “availabilities” or how we would call them (structure, culture) are the foundations of our we-intentions or group intentions. It’s an idea that is a consequence of Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory and actually it is a concise rephrasing of this theory in a we-intentional wording. It sounds quite Marxian, indeed, but it is Marxian only for a part. For it is not without reason that I said that an agent has a certain latitude when s/he is going to act in a certain situation. For every situation where an agent has to act needs both to be interpreted (“what am I supposed to do?”; “what can I do?”; etc.) and it leaves room for choices: our elbow room. Sometimes our elbow room is limited; sometimes it is very large. And here, and especially in the latter case, the first (“Thatcherian”) approach becomes valid, namely the freedom to choose our own joint intentions and commitments. Only then and there we can say: we can leave it or we can take it. Only then and there we can jointly put our individual intentions together so that we get a we-intention, for instance for painting our house together. It’s a thing that every free rider knows.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Authority and responsibility

Execution pole, Poperinge, Belgium (West Front): Place where soldiers sentenced to death were shot.

Last week I wrote about the case of Grischa who had been condemned to death and who had been shot death, although he was not guilty of what he was accused of. But who was responsible for the execution? I think that most people would say: Schieffenzahn, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front of the German army, who had the power to reverse the verdict. But how about the responsibility of the others involved in the execution? For it wasn’t Schieffenzahn who shot Grischa but the firing squad did. Isn’t it so then that the firing squad was actually responsible for the death of Grischa? For hadn’t these soldiers fired, Grischa would have stayed alive. Nevertheless, many people would say that not the firing squad was responsible for the execution but that Schieffenzahn was. This would imply, however, that one can perform an act without being responsible for it. How can this be? Isn’t it so that in the end we all are responsible for what we do and for the consequences? Of course, I know that many answers have been given to this question but has it been solved? I would call it the problem of obedience to authority. In my last blog we have seen that authority can be blind, but as for instance Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown obedience to authority can be blind as well (see old blogs). One reason is that it needs more courage to obey than not to obey, as we can see every day around us.

Friday, May 16, 2014


La Meuse - De Maas

Photos taken with a pinhole camera showing towns on the River Meuse from its sources in the Northeast of France till Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The book contains 25 photos from my exhibition in Stenay, France, which will be held from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014 in La Capitainerie in Stenay (Meuse). The book includes texts, maps and an explanation what a pinhole camera is, both in Dutch and in French. The photos will not be published on my photo websites (with the exception of three photos).
Price 26.75 euro plus postage. For ordering the book click here or send me a message via this website or an e-mail.
My photo exhibition is part of the International Art Project VALDART 2014, which will be held in the region of Stenay (Meuse), France, from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014. For more information on Valdart click here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The case of authority

Death cell for soldiers sentenced to death in World War I; not on the East Front but in Poperinge, Belgium. Through the windows the soldiers could see the place where they would be shot dead.

In his novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa ( Aufbau Verlag, 2006; English: The Case of Sergeant Grischa), which is based on a true occurrence during the First World War, the German author Arnold Zweig describes the story of the Russian soldier Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, who had been taken into captivity by the German Army. Grischa escapes from the prison camp, since he longs to see his wife and his newborn child. When he meets the young woman Babka, a partisan, she advices him to take the identity of the Russian deserter Ilya Pavlovich Bjuscheff, so that he’ll not be sent back to the prison camp if caught. However, when caught Grischa, alias Bjuscheff, is sentenced to death as he is considered a spy. Then Grischa says that actually he is Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, which he can prove in a convincing way. Although the local authorities under general von Lychov want to have the sentence revised in view of this new evidence, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front Schieffenzahn wants to keep the sentence as it is for the sake of discipline. A dispute over areas of responsibility develops between von Lychow and his staff and Schieffenzahn and his office. A big part of the novel is about this question of competence. In the end Schieffenzahn wins and Grischa is shot dead, innocent.
Much can be said about this novel, which was one of the first German novels that described the First World War from the view point of the war veterans (Arnold Zweig has fought near Verdun and elsewhere). This book and other books by Zweig give a good impression of the cruelties and other aspects of this war. However, what I want to emphasize here is that the novel shows the danger of appealing to authority instead of being open to what is reasonable and to the interests of those subjected to this authority. Demarcations of competence and authority can have sense and often they do have sense, but a field of competence never exists as a purpose of itself. There is always a reason for it, at least originally. When one loses sight of this reason, authority loses its contents and it becomes fossilized. Then it’s only there for the bearer of the authority and as a weapon against his competitors in other fields of competence and authority, and a struggle of competence will certainly develop. When it comes that far – be it in business, politics, or where else lines of demarcation are drawn – there’ll be victims and at least a part of these victims will be innocent. Some will “only” suffer damage but in extreme cases some will have to pay with their lives, too. When it has come that far, authority has become blind.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

What to see on holiday

Soon it will be summer and so for a lot of people it’s time to think about how and where to spend their holidays. Will it be on the beach or in the mountains? Shall I stay at home or shall I travel to a country far away? Shall I stay at the same place all the time or shall I make a tour? So I took my holiday guides and started to browse on the Internet as well. But I thought that it would also be a good idea to put the things a bit into perspective, so I bought the treatise on the philosophy of tourism by Ruud Welten. Soon I forgot that actually I wanted to plan a trip, for it’s a very interesting book and I got totally absorbed in it. But then I realized that I had to write my blog and I thought that it would be nice to write about it here.
When I tell other people that I seldom go to the big objects sought by most tourists, but that I prefer to avoid the trails well-trodden by millions of travellers before me and that I follow the roads in the “boring” countryside that are almost exceptionally used by locals, then I get often reactions saying (in polite words, of course) that I am actually a kind of a fool. How stupid I am that I don’t want to enjoy the beauty of Florence; that I don’t make a stop in Paris when I pass it on the highway (yes, I can see the Eiffel Tower from there); and that I roam around the countryside of Lorraine in France or the inland of Latvia instead. But thanks to Welten’s book I know now what I do wrong: I break the Golden Rule of tourism: Don’t miss it! And the “it” is what is valuable according to tourist guides and to all who believe in their truth. For tourist guides describe what must be seen by everybody.
Tourism is a special way of looking at the world. It’s a kind of collective gaze. The gaze is not collective in the sense that the tourists belong to the same group, for they don’t. Tourists are individuals. That’s why we as tourists don’t like it when there are too many other tourists at the same place, for they hinder the individual gaze. The others don’t belong to our group. Even more: we have often the feeling that we are not like “them”. We are “different” and we have our own individual reasons to be there. Or so we think, for the goal of our visit is collective: It is what has worth in an objective sense (that’s what the tourist guides say, at least): The pyramids in Egypt, the Tapestry in Bayeux or the Taj Mahal in India. You must have been there at least once in your life according to the Golden Rule of Tourism and the idea of the collective goal. And in this why the tourist looks with a collective gaze at the world.
This means that tourism is a matter of framing. In the social sciences, a frame is a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how we perceive reality and behave accordingly. Framing is the social and perspectival construction of a social phenomenon. In the case of tourism, framing tells us what are valuable destinations and useful ways of spending our holidays. It is done by the tourist guides and by the collective culture that determines what has worth.
Tourism is also framing in another sense: The tourist is never a part of what s/he sees. It is as if s/he looks through a window and sees what is happening in the world on the other side of the glass. Welten uses the picture of someone who looks out the window down to the street that runs along her hotel. She sees people passing by and she can observe them as long as she likes. Nobody will disturb her, for she does not belong to thoese there down in the street. In other words: the tourist is an outsider. She remains so as long she is a tourist, at least mainly and most of the time. That’s why for many tourists it’s quite annoying or it even upsets their temporary life, if they suddenly become involved in a strike or a demonstration and so become an insider in the life around them.
This brings me back to my way of tourism. My way of travelling on holiday is also the tourist way, or at least usually it is. But there is a difference, for although the “main stream” tourists as characterized above hope or even expect to see the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate from their hotel window, I am happy when I see from there something like the view on the picture here above.

Source: Ruud Welten, Het ware leven is elders. Filosofie van het toerisme. Zoetermeer, Klement, 2013.