Monday, August 13, 2018

Internet in the 17th century

Today we have the Internet. We use it for exchanging messages and information, not only privately but also, for instance, in science and in philosophy. However, how kept scientists and scholars in touch during the age of the rise of modern science and philosophy, so in the time of Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Boerhaave, Newton, Huygens, and others, when the Internet did not yet exist? For it’s clear that science and philosophy were not lonely activities then, but that workers in these fields knew about each other and built relationships. They had extended networks and they had also a name for it: The Republic of Letters.
The term “Republic of Letters” dates from the 15th century, but its main period was from about 1500 till 1775, the time of the rise of modern science and philosophy. What has been meant with “Republic of Letters” has always been a bit vague, but here I refer to a system of human relationships. As Hans Bots describes it in his book that I have used for writing this blog: The lettered persons were part of an ideal state or republic that was above the existing political units in Europe. It had its own rules and laws. The lettered people felt themselves “citizens” of this community and behaved publicly like that and they saw themselves as equals. Ideally reason and truth were their highest authorities. These characteristics were important in view of the fact that the political states were continuously at war with each other. Therefore the scholars needed a way of cooperation that kept aloof of these conflicts and that allowed them to go along with each other without being divided by politics. The Republic of Letters was for them a kind of state above the political state. Its citizens were the intellectual and scientific elite of those days. Not social rank or position was important for its citizenship but nobility of the mind.
How did the participants exchange ideas and information? Basically there were four ways for this. Most important was personal contact with other members of the intellectual elite. This was easy when you lived in or near a town that was a centre of intellectual culture or even had a university. But also in those days already people travelled a lot; especially the elite did, including the intellectual elite. Erasmus travelled through many parts of Western Europe; the Dutchman Huygens went regularly to Paris and has also lived there for some time; Descartes moved from France to the Netherlands and later to Sweden, and he has also visited other countries. Many others did so. However, if you hadn’t the opportunity, time or money to travel, there was an alternative: writing letters. Letter writing tends to become a forgotten activity, but in those days this means of communication was very important. The postal services had gradually improved and it lasted only a few days to send a letter from, say, Amsterdam to Paris. But sending letters was expensive and risky. They could easily be lost because of wars, raids or other circumstances, so the best way to send a letter was to give it to a traveller you knew.
And there were books. Since the invention of the art of printing, it had become easy to duplicate books. However, books were censored everywhere. Usually the author or publisher needed consent from the authorities before they were published. The Netherlands were an exception and here censorship was less strict than in other countries. Moreover, if books were censored there, it was always after the publication. As a consequence the Netherlands became a centre for printing “dangerous ideas” and spreading them all over Europe.
All these methods of exchange existed already before the rise of the Republic of Letters, but the Republic invented also a new method: journals. Because of the growing number of books and scientific discoveries and inventions, people lost an overview of what was happening in the intellectual world. It became impossible to read every interesting publication, so there came a need to summarize what was happening in the learned world. Already about 1620 the first periodicals with political and commercial news had been published in Amsterdam. It had yet to wait until 1665 before the first scientific journal came out. It was in Paris. This Journal des Savants contained summaries of books and reports of new research. It was soon followed by other such journals, especially in the Netherlands, but also, in London and elsewhere. In Rotterdam the Frenchman Pierre Bayle made himself useful by developing this new medium. Also in 1665 the Philosophical Transactions was published in London. It contained only reports of scientific experiments and in this sense it is the first modern scientific journal.
Journals were especially useful for those who didn’t live near a library or intellectual centre. Actually any town or court of a noble man or woman with an intellectual interest could be such a centre, but two centres stood out. Most important was Paris, but the Netherlands was almost as important. It was a new state where, as we have seen, censorship was almost absent and printing houses flourished, especially in Amsterdam and Leyden. Moreover the new University of Leyden, established in 1575, attracted by its modern structure the best professors and students of the time.
Life today is unthinkable without the Internet, but the Internet as a modern way of communication in the scientific world is not much older than about 25 years. Therefore, in the period of the rise of modern science and philosophy they needed a communication system of their own. They called it the Republic of Letters.

This blog is based on Hans Bots, De Republiek der Letteren. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2018.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Embodied cognition

Knowledge is not only in the brain. With this statement I don’t mean in this blog the “extended mind thesis”, which says that a part of the mind is outside the brain in the agent’s world. For instance, you have stored a mailing list in your computer and you know in which file it is, so you don’t need to have the addresses in your mind. No, in this blog I mean with my statement that your knowledge is in your whole body. This thesis is called “embodied cognition”. Last week I discussed already an instance of it.
Actually the thesis doesn’t represent one view. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says in its introduction to the theme: “Embodied cognitive science encompasses a loose-knit family of research programs in the cognitive sciences”. The family shares its critique against traditional approaches but each member tries to find her own solutions. Here I cannot even try to give a full treatment of the theme, but I’ll give some illustrations so that you get an idea what it is about.
My description of embodied cognition last week was rather vague. This one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyis much clearer: “Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.” The definition says that there is more knowledge in the body than we find in the grey matter in the head. One of my favourite examples to show how this can be is the case of a runner. Broadly it is so that there are two types of runners: sprinters and long-distance runners. Of course, everybody can choose to become a sprinter and train as hard as s/he can and so become better and better. Nevertheless whether s/he’ll become a good sprinter depends not only on the training but also on the features of his or her muscles. Just as we have an inborn capacity for language learning, we have an inborn capacity for becoming a good sprinter. A person with the type of muscles for a long-distance runner will never become a good sprinter. And the same story for the athlete who wants to train for a 5K or a marathon. In other words: Your legs have a kind of knowledge about running a sprint or running a long distance. However, this is not the whole story, for talented or not, everybody will become better in the chosen speciality by training. The muscles become stronger, the blood transport in the legs improves etc. And the next time you are going to train this increased capacity is still there. So your legs have “learned” to adapt to the training (just as you’ll become better by practicing a language you are learning). You have got more knowledge but this knowledge is not in your head but in your muscles.
I want to add another example, which I have taken from the website of Psychology Today (see Sources below). The web post there explains that there are two very different kinds of robots, here exemplified bij Honda’s ASIMO and the Boston Dynamics Big Dog. Let me quote:
“Honda’s ASIMO literally implements a traditional cognitive, computational approach. Everything it does is the output of complex internal programmes which control everything he does. Honda are fond of trotting him out to dance, run, and climb stairs; he can do all this, but it’s very fragile. Minor disruptions throw him entirely (e.g. a minor error in foot placement and he falls ...; hide his pre-set landmarks with a little clutter and he completely fails to navigate his way across a room). He’s slow, and inefficient; if you knock him, he needs time to recompute his behaviour or else he falls, and he often doesn’t have the time. [The] Boston Dynamics Big Dog[, on the other hand, can] walk over rough, uncertain terrain while carrying heavy loads[. The designers] knew that the computational strategy was too slow and cumbersome. So they instead built a robot with springy legs and joints that mimic the kind of dynamical systems seen in animal quadrupeds. Big Dog has very little brain; the specific movements he produces ... emerge from the interaction between his moving legs, the surface he’s on and any other forces acting on him. If you knock Big Dog, he doesn't need to recompute his behaviour; he simply responds to the new force and the details are left up to his anatomy (his leg moves where it goes because that’s the way it’s built).” (italics mine) This is not only the way Big Dog moves. As stressed by me in the quotation Big Dog’s walking is copied from the way animals walk and, I assume, man walks as well.
The embodied cognition thesis says that knowledge is not only in the brain but in the whole body. I presented here two cases that illustrate the thesis, but there is a growing number of studies that substantiate the view. I’ll mention only a study by Shaun Gallagher, one of my favourite authors in the field (see Sources below). But if it works this way, it has consequences for our self-understanding and, for instance, for our idea of free will (a theme also discussed by Gallagher). It looks as if your body can behave against “your” will. But do we also say so when you drive a self-driving car? Of course not.

- For the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
- Gallagher, Shaun, How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005

Monday, July 30, 2018

A wave of the hand

I want to say something, but I cannot find the words. I get the feeling that I must make a gesture. Then, suddenly as it seems, I know what I mean. The thought pops up. Many of us have had this experience, maybe you too: A gesture stimulates your thinking.
We make gestures for many reasons. I want to draw your attention to something, so I point to it. I want to call a waiter, so I raise my hand. A gesture can be a greeting. I want to show you how a thing looks like and I indicate its shape with my hands. Some gestures have even clear, predetermined meanings. As these examples show, we make gestures or wave our hands with the purpose of communication. But not everybody makes the same gestures in the same situations. Gestures cannot only be different from person to person but also from culture to culture. When a Greek makes the gesture meaning “come here”, a Dutchman will think that the person wants to express that you must go away. People also adapt their gestures to the audience.
Communication is not the only function of gestures. We make them also when talking on the telephone. Blind people make also gestures and the non-blind do when talking with a blind person. One of the non-communicative functions is that they help us learn. It’s obvious that we cannot learn how to drive a car by simply reading a book “how to drive a car”: we have to practice it in order to be able to do it. But in education there is a method called “total physical response” that is based on the idea that you learn a language better by doing what you say. For instance, when you want to learn what the Latin sentence “aperite fenestram” means, it helps that you actually opens a window, since fenestra=window and aperite=open! In other words, doing what you say helps your memory.
But did you know that gestures also help you think? For example – and now I quote from source 1) below – “consider a math problem like 3+2 +8 =___+8. A student might make a ‘v’ shape under the 2 and 3 with their pointer finger and middle finger, as they try to understand the concept of ‘grouping’ – adding adjacent numbers together, a technique that can be used to solve the problem. ... Students who are coached to make the ‘v’ gesture when solving a math problem like 3+2+8 = ___+8 learn how to solve the problem better [than those who aren’t].” This is a simple case of how gesturing helps you think, but generally it is so that gesturing helps to think “in any situation where the person who is speaking and gesturing is also trying to understand – be it remembering details of a past event, or figuring out how to put together an Ikea shelf.” (ibid.) Generally it’s so that waving your hand helps you think, whatever it is about. It’s a new challenge of the idea that body and mind are different substances, so the old idea of Cartesian dualism. Cognitive psychologists call this challenge “embodied cognition”, which “views concepts as bodily representations with bases in perception, action and emotion” (ibid.).
In the Netherlands and many other countries it is so that the accused in a trial is free to move in the sense that he doesn’t have handcuffs and the like that can limit his gestures. This is obvious for, as long as the judgement hasn’t yet been pronounced, he is still legally innocent. In other countries, however, the accused cannot make the gestures and waves he likes, because his hands have been tied. This a psychological disadvantage, because it is humiliating and it makes that other people (including the judges or jury) tend to look down on the accused – consciously or unconsciously –, which may impede a fair trial (in the end the accused may be innocent). Now we see, however, that being chained is also detrimental for the accused in another way. For the simple fact that his hands are chained makes that the accused cannot freely think in the way he would if his hands were free. In other words, in handcuffs (or with his hands tied in another way) the accused cannot freely defend himself. Seen that way, being cuffed in a trial is a violation of human rights. Thoughts are free, but you must be able to have them.

Some websites
or just google “gesture and thinking”.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The origin of language

Paraphrasing Plato, one could say that man is a language speaking biped. But then Diogenes could take a gibbon and say: “Look, by the Way’s man!”, since, unlike other apes, gibbons walk bipedly when they are on the ground. Therefore I should add “without a fur” (see my blogs dated 7 December 2009 and 25 January 2016). Be it as it may, speaking is an essential part of man’s identity. So, when we want to understand man, we should know how language developed, but until now the origin of language is cloaked in mystery. Maybe it always will. Speech organs quickly decompose after death and even more so the brain, where language development takes place; unlike human bones, which can be conserved for millions of years. Therefore, the origin of language is subject to much speculation, even to that extent that already in 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris didn’t want to receive communications on the theme any longer, since it was only open to serious scientific discussions.
Recently the question has got more attention and nowadays there are several serious hypotheses about the origin of language. Some have such funny names like ding-dong or bow-bow hypothesis. Nevertheless, most are still speculative, so let me look at the facts. The supposed dates of the origin of languages are as diverse as three millions ago, when man begun to make stone tools, till the making of the first cave paintings some 50,000 years ago. There is something to say for the view that a kind of language existed already millions of years ago. If we accept that the Australopithecus could not communicate on a level that deserves the label “language”, already the first Homo might have been that smart. It is known that then stone tools were often not produced where the flints were found but somewhere else. Say a Homo, 2.5 million years ago, wants to say to a friend: “Hey man, this afternoon I found a heap of flints over there 5 km from here. Let’s collect them tomorrow and bring them here.” Does he need a language in the modern sense for this question? Bees use a kind of language for this. But maybe our Homo can express his thought by means of gestures and some grunts. Or say that this Homo wants to teach his son how to make stones tools. Making stone tools is not as difficult as many people think today, but nonetheless it requires some learning. Does this stone age man tells his son then: “First do this, than do that, etc. Look!” and he shows his son how to make a celt? However, men are wonderful imitators and maybe the son will learn the skill by copying his father’s movements guided by some positive or negative grunts by the latter.
Later Homo managed also to control fire and, moreover, the celts had become a little bit more complicated. Being able to use fire, man could cook his food and as a consequence man’s intestines became shorter through the ages. In other words, surviving and probably also social life had become more complicated. Man was no longer the animal that could live by simply following instincts and intuitions. The first steps on the road to the development of a complicated culture had been taken. Without language modern man cannot transfer the cultural achievements to the next generation. But maybe culture was then still on such a low level that imitation and a few grunts would suffice to pass it on.
Then the modern Homo Sapiens, so “we”, appeared on earth. It was some 200,000 or even 350,000 years ago. Everything changed. It was the start of a rocket evolution – so revolution –. Man’s brain was strikingly bigger than ever before and it continued growing. For what else would we use this extra capacity than for storing a huge quantity of words and a complicated grammar? Anyway, on statistical grounds, a researcher like Johanna Nichols argues that present-day languages must have begun to develop at least 100,000 years ago, otherwise they couldn’t have been as diversified as they are now. It’s a strong argument, I think, supported by other theories that ascribe the origin of modern language to the appearance of the Homo Sapiens. Although I am not an expert, I think that the thesis that places the origin of language as late as 50,000 years ago is not tenable. Making the cave paintings of that time supposes already a high level of culture and communicative abilities and before “we” could have reached that level we probably needed a long way to go.
All this is reasoned guessing. Most likely is that modern language originated with modern man. But previously? My feeling plus my lay understanding of archaeology, palaeontology and linguistics tell me that language in some form – but more advanced than simply grunting – must be older. But what is my opinion worth? What is sure is that now there are some 6-7000 languages in the world. However, probably soon two thirds of these languages will be extinct. What does this mean for man? Culture and language developed hand in hand with each other. What will the consequences be if so many languages will be lost forever? If a language expresses a world view, as I think, the loss of each language is an impoverishment for man. Can and will the existing languages take over what threatens to be lost? Maybe I should change my definition: Man is a cultural biped, as long as s/he speaks. But then maybe Diogenes would take a gibbon and say: “Look, a biped that speaks and has no culture.” Future man?

Monday, July 16, 2018

How to learn twelve languages ... and forget some

People ask me often how I managed to learn so many languages. Here is the story.
Many people think that it’s an effort to learn a new language, and indeed, you need to do something for it. Nonetheless, it’s much easier, if it becomes a part of your daily life. So it’s for a child, so it’s for many living abroad, and so it’s for me: I prefer to read a book in the original language. I watch foreign TV channels, since I want to hear the news at first hand. I like penpalling with people in other countries. I travel often abroad. And I am simply interested in languages. Moreover, if your mother tongue is Dutch, as it is for me, you simply must use foreign languages if you want to learn about the world, and if you want to study. For who knows Dutch?
Already when I went to the primary school, I knew a second language. My parents came from a region, where many people speak Frisian (a language related to English). Although I didn’t live there, my parents had many Frisian speaking friends and acquaintances. So I learned to understand the language fluently. However, I never learned to speak it, for at home we spoke Dutch.
Now it is different, but when I went to the secondary school, you had to learn three foreign languages: English, French, and German. Moreover, after a psychological test, I got the advice to go to a “gymnasium”, a type of school in which languages are important, especially then. Here I learned also Latin and classical Greek. So I knew seven languages when I had finished the gymnasium. This didn’t mean that I spoke them fluently. Not at all! Because the gymnasium prepared for the university, I had learned only to read these languages, for then they thought that this was enough for studying. This was obvious for Latin and Greek, but I hardly knew practical words like potato in the modern languages, which you need, when travelling abroad. Moreover, during my school years I started to correspond with people abroad – which I still do –. This was my first real experience with foreign languages, for my parents didn’t go abroad on holiday.
At the university, where I studied sociology, it was supposed that I could read English etc. However, this was mere theory. My speed in reading sociological texts was at first very low. Gradually it improved and after a year I could fluently read English, and soon also German texts. However, we didn’t get French texts, or it was in translation. Also most professors found this language difficult!
At school languages were not my favourite subjects, for I didn’t like learning words. Moreover, we had to translate boring texts. At the university I learned that a language is more than just an instrument for expressing thoughts: It tells also much about the culture of its native speakers. I found this very interesting! However, my choice for my next language was still practical. I became interested in Latin America and I decided to learn Spanish. I didn’t go to Latin America later, but I have always had pen friends there since then. Now I come often in Spain as well.
Also after the university my interest in languages remained, so when there was a Russian language course on TV, I enrolled immediately. One reason was that I was curious what its special characteristics are. The course lasted two years and it included oral classes with a teacher. Also a pen friend in Latvia helped me by sending textbooks and other books. Of course, I wanted to visit Russia then, and so I made a trip to Moscow. I returned with many Russian books. I looked also for Russian pen friends. I still use Russian. However, reading and writing is one thing; speaking is something else. So when I met a Russian pen friend, we spoke German.
Now I had acquired a taste for language learning. I began to see structures in languages and relations between them. But all languages I had learned were Indo-European languages, which are the same to some extent, despite their differences. So I could understand a bit of other such languages I never learned, like Swedish or Czech. But how would really diferent languages look like? So, I enrolled for a course in Japanese. After two years I had reached such a level that I could continue by self-study. Moreover, I had got a Japanese pen friend. She sent me Japanese newspaper cuttings, magazines for learners of Japanese, books, etc. Later she also wrote her letters in Japanese. However, I never succeeded to write more than a few paragraphs of my letters in Japanese, and till today I can’t read it without a dictionnary. And when I met my pen friend in Japan, we spoke English. Even so, knowing some Japanese was useful, and the holiday was a wonderful experience.
But my lust for languages hadn’t yet been appeased. In the time that I was learning Japanese, the Dutch TV started to broadcast a Chinese course. I enrolled, and I spent many hours on it. I even read the famous tale of King Monkey in Chinese, but in the end I stopped with it. Learning both Japanese and Chinese simultaneously was too much, especially learning the characters, which are different in both languages. Since then I have forgotten gradually what I had learned of Chinese.
However, I kept the desire to learn yet two languages: an easy one, like Danish, and one not belonging to the Indo-European language group. The first desire is still a wish, but again the TV helped me, for it started a new language course: Turkish. The course was not good, but I worked through it. When I had finished it, I had a problem: How to continue? The Netherlands has a big Turkish population, but to my surprise I could not find a higher level course for self study nor other books simple enough for my basic knowledge of Turkish. Because there live no Turkish people in my neighbourhood, I found another solution: watching the Turkish TV, but I just had started or the Turkish TV channel was dropped from my cable TV package. Because my motivation was not very big for Turkish, this meant the end of this study.
Through the years I have learned twelve languages. Some have become rusty, but every day I apply at least six. In the meantime I switched from sociology to philosophy. For philosophy it is so that the more languages you know the better. Then there are my pen friends, foreign TV, and now also the Internet. Language learning has given me also a hobby, for I started to collect reference grammars. Learning languages is not difficult. You must simply like it to use them.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Why it happens

One of the most confusing questions is “why did it happen?” For what do we mean by it? It looks so simple: When we ask why something happened, we ask for its reason. But this begs the question, for when we ask what we mean by a reason, we are back where we started, since a reason is an explanation why something happened. The circle is round.
In his seminal article “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” Donald Davidson states that a reason for an action is made up of an agent’s desire and belief, a view for a long time hold by many action philosophers since then. For instance, I come home and it’s dark. So I flip the switch and turn on the light. In this simple example, my desire is to turn on the light, and my belief is that I can do this by flipping the switch.
At first sight this case seems to illustrate clearly what we mean when we talk about a reason for an action. But does it? Assume that I am making a walk and I have an umbrella with me. Suddenly it starts to rain and I put up my umbrella. Now it’s normal to say that the reason why I put up the umbrella is that it rained. However, what are then the belief and the desire that make that I put up the umbrella? For according to Davidson, we speak of a reason when we have a belief and a desire in mind that explain my action, but the only event in the umbrella case that refers to a reason that made me act is the rain. That it rains is neither a belief nor a desire, for beliefs and desires are mental events and raining is a natural event that takes place outside me. Nevertheless, it’s normal to see rain as a reason to put up an umbrella. The upshot is that the way Davidson fills in the concept of reason cannot be correct. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t have beliefs and desires in the umbrella example. Here my desire is to stay dry and my belief is that I have to put up my umbrella for that (for why else would I have taken it with me?)
In my PhD thesis I argued on grounds I just put forward that the simple idea that a reason for an action are a desire plus a belief cannot be maintained. Instead I presented an alternative view. But my solution applied only to the explanation of human actions (which was the main theme of my thesis). In his recent book From Bacteria to Bach and Back Dennett asks also what “reason” means, but unlike me he uses examples from the natural sciences, which gives it a wider interest, I think (in the sense that it broadens the field of application). So let me follow him now.
(1) “ ‘Why are you handing me your camera?’ asks”, so Dennett, “what are you doing this for?”, while (2) “ ‘Why does ice float?’ asks how come: what is it about the way ice forms that makes it lower density than liquid water?” (p. 38,; italics D.)
According to Dennett “[t]he how come question asks for a process narrative that explains the phenomenon without saying that it is for anything.” (ibid.) An answer to the “for”-question in (2) might be “in order to make ice skating possible”, but such an answer assumes that there would be a being that had designed the laws of nature, which is neither Dennett’s view nor is it mine.
Once we know this the confusion can be easily solved: When we ask why something happened we don’t ask one but two questions. Asking why, can either be asking how something comes about or what it is for – which doesn’t imply, though, that both questions are always relevant in the same situation –. The two questions are not simply different, but they have different temporal directions as well. When we ask how come we look back and ask what happened before the phenomenon to be explained took place. On the other hand, when we ask what the phenomenon to be explained happened for, we ask what came about after the phenomenon occurred. The questions are about the past or about the future. So I put up my umbrella after it had started to rain and next I hope to stay dry.

- Donald Davidson, Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 3-4
- Dennett, Daniel C., From Bacteria to Bach and Back. London: Penguin Books, 2018.
- Weg, Henk bij de, De betekenis van zin voor het begrijpen van handelingen. Kampen: Kok Agora, 1996.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Black swans

When I made a bike ride last Sunday, by chance I passed a garden with two black swans behind a low fence. I felt pity for the swans, for I think that their wings had been clipped in order to prevent that they would escape, but maybe I am wrong. However, here I don’t want to talk about the harm we distress to each other and to animals. For every time I see a black swan I have to think of the great late philosopher Karl R. Popper. He used the example of black swans for showing why you cannot get true scientific theories via inductive reasoning – so by generalizing from data that support your thesis – and for substantiating his falsification principle. This principle says that you must look for data that refute theories and not for data that confirm them. Confirming data can always be found and will not make a theory better. It’s just refutations that lead to scientific progress. So if a theory says that all swans are white and you have seen already ten white swans, then the eleventh white swan you observe will not make your theory better, but a black swan will do.
Actually the black swans example wasn’t Popper’s. Already the Roman poet Juvenal used it, when he characterized something as “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”. By this he did not mean that the thing was a “white raven”, so a rarity, but that it was an impossibility, for the Romans assumed that there were only white swans. Till far in the 17th the expression “a black swan” remained equivalent to an impossibility. However, in 1697 the Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh and his co-explorers were the first Europeans to see black swans in Australia. The theory that all swans are white had been refuted.
All this is basic knowledge for epistemologists. What I didn’t know, but what I discovered when I was searching the Internet about this theme, is that there is also a black swan theory, developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Wikipedia says that it “describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.” I let this theory pass, for then I would only copy what I read in the Wikipedia and on other websites. For I had to think of a general phenomenon: What is seen as a discovery is often quite a provincial affair. I have no idea whether there were white swans in Australia in 1697, but let’s assume that they lived there and that the Australian aboriginals knew that there are white swans and that there are black swans. Even then there would be a theory – namely in Europe – that says that there are only white swans and those who adhere to this theory thought that it was true. Maybe it was even thought that is was the Truth. But what was the case is that it was not the Truth, but that it was the truth for them, for there were other people in the world who knew better, but the adherents of the white swan theory hadn’t yet seen them, and for those who knew that there are black swans in this world it was not a problem.
Do you see the point? We (including scientists) consider a statement as true, not because it is true, but because we have the best data that makes it true for us (or because we consider our data as the best). But it is quite well possible that there are other people in the world who have facts at their disposal that would falsify our theory (also for us), but “we” simply don’t know it. That’s why scientists and others (often including “we”) are looking for such facts (according to Popper’s falsification principle). But this shows that truth, including scientific truth, is often a local or provincial view that is adhered to only in an odd corner of humanity, although it’s often a corner with a high status for some (like science). Then a discovery is only what’s known elsewhere but just not in this odd corner.
Does this mean that there are no “real” discoveries? Of course, there are. Often phenomena and facts are discovered that were not known before. By nobody. Nevertheless, even if we take this in account, I would say that truth is a lack of knowledge that things are different (and even can be different, for some). And maybe this is so for Truth as well.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Losing your reflection

When in Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann”, Hoffmann falls in love with Giuletta, the latter asks for his reflection so that “He will always be with her”. Not knowing that on her turn Giuletta is under the influence of the sinister Capitaine Dapertutto, Hoffmann naively gives her what she asked for, but when he looks in a mirror and sees that his reflection has gone, he realizes that he has not only lost his soul and self image, but that he lost his identity. Since Giuletta has hand over Hoffmann’s reflection to her master, Hoffmann’s identity and so his life is now in Departutto’s hands.
For Hoffmann it’s a dream and when he wakes up he realizes that his relationship with Giuletta is symbolic for his relationship with his real love Stella, and that he must break with her. But is this tale of Hoffmann not more than a story that is good by way of entertainment in a book or the libretto of an opera?
Take a mirror and look in it. What do you see? You think you see yourself as you are, that you see an objective image of yourself. However, on a Dutch website I found that less than half of the Dutch women are not satisfied with their reflections. They have too many wrinkles, or so they think. They are too thick, or so they think. Etc. You know what I mean. The same website says that 60% of all women in the world feel unhappy, insecure or anxious when they look in the mirror. How can it happen? The example illustrates that apparently it is not because you see an objective image in the mirror. You don’t see simply yourself in the mirror but you see there your Self. The reflection has a meaning for you: It shows who you Are.
A century ago the American sociologist Charles Cooley developed the concept of looking glass self. It involves the idea that your self-image arises in an interaction between how you see yourself and how others see you. First, so Cooley, you develop an image of how you think that others see you. Then you interpret how you think that others judge you (positively, negatively or otherwise). Third, on the basis of these processes you judge yourself: You feel pride, embarrassment, chagrin, or whatever it maybe. So your self-image develops. The judgments on which it is based need not be correct, but if you don’t know that it is false, you behave according to your self-image. For instance, when looking in a mirror, you see only that you have wrinkles, if they are judged important in society (otherwise you wouldn’t give attention to them) and you think that others see them on your face and that they think that you look old because of them. You feel insecure because of that, because present (Western) society says that being young is better. So you want to do something about it. Wrinkles apparently belong to your image and to your identity (in your view), and you want to change that. But by doing so, in fact you do what Hoffmann did. The case of wrinkles is just a little example, but in order “to belong to it” (to society, to the group of people around you that you consider relevant to you) people increasingly adapt their self images to what they see as how these images “must” be. Acting that way, you deliver your identity to others and let them make and manipulate your identity. (Another option would be to follow your own principles and have the relevant others take you as you are; see my blog
But your reflection, and with that your Self, is not only in a mirror. It is everywhere, certainly nowadays, and it is caught everywhere. Take the social media. Look around in a train, in a restaurant, even during a break in the opera: People are so longing for contact, that at every dull moment they take their smartphones and check their apps and social media. Messaging, liking, chatting with our “friends” have become part of us. And just for fear of losing our identity we give it away. We are prepared to give any information – sometimes the most intimate information – to our preferred social media in order to avoid that the contact is broken off, including such personal information as private telephone numbers. “Give it to us, it’s safe with us”, the social media say. But behind your back – or openly – they use your private data for their malicious or sometimes a bit less malicious aims, and influence your behaviour. The recent abuse of telephone numbers given to Facebook is a case in point. We do like Hoffmann in his dream who gave his reflection to Giuletta but in fact gave his identity to Dapertutto, if not to Faust.

- John F. Cuber, Sociology. A Synopsis of Principles. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963; pp. 253-254.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Manipulation through language

Let’s assume that you got the flu. Now you have two options: Either you consult your doctor. She’ll prescribe you medicines and you know that probably after a week you’ll be better. Or you take to your bed and you let the flu run itself out. Then you know that it is likely to happen that it will last seven days. What will you do?
This case made me think of the “Asian disease problem” described and investigated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It runs as follows (I quote from Kahneman, see below):
(Case I) Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
- If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.
When asked most people prefer program A, so they prefer the certain option over the gamble.
Take now this case:
(Case II) Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- If program C is adopted, 400 people will die.
- If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.
When asked which program they prefer now most people prefer program D, so they prefer the gamble over the certain option. However, Case I and Case II are exactly the same! What is different is the wording of the problem, but the consequences of programs A/C and B/D are identical (see source 2 below). Or as Kahneman says it, the cases are framed in different ways.
Now you might think that only laymen are so “irrational” and that experts will know better. Not true. Once Tversky presented a version of the Asian disease problem to a group of public-health professionals. “Like other people”, so Kahneman, “these professionals were susceptible to the framing effects”. So they, too, chose like the laymen in the test above. And he continues: “It is somewhat worrying that the officials who make decisions that affect everyone’s health can be swayed by such a superficial manipulation”, as is corroborated by other investigations.
Cynically, one might say that in program A in Case I the glass is half full, while in program B the glass is half empty. In Case II this is just so for program D and program C respectively. But in the end, we get the same amount of water for quenching our thirst, whichever option you choose. Marketing professionals know that sometimes you can best say that the glass is half full, while on other occasions you can best say that it is half empty. They choose their words according to their intentions. Politicians often do the same. The word “ragheads” for Arabs or Muslims is a case in point. But didn’t already George Orwell tell us how they use language to manipulate our view on the world? Nevertheless, in the end, framing can be used to the good and to the bad.
But back to the start of this blog: Do you know already whether you’ll consult a doctor when you have got the flu?

1) Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books, 2012; pp. 368-369

Monday, June 11, 2018

The real house of Montaigne

12 Rue du Maréchal Joffre, Bordeaux, France: The real house of Montaigne?

When I was in Bordeaux, France, recently, of course, I wanted to see the places where the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne had lived and worked. It’s true that his actual house was his castle, 70 km east of Bordeaux, and his main income came from managing his lands. But before he inherited the estate, when his father died, he had been a councillor in the Parliament (court) of Bordeaux. Later he was mayor of the town for a few years. Also outside these periods he came there often. Therefore, as so many lords in the region around Bordeaux, he had also a house in the city. Happily I found a walk on the Internet along the mayor places in Montaigne’s life in Bordeaux.
My walk starts on the Quinconces Square. The square is from the 19th century, but on one side there is a big statue of Montaigne as mayor with his ceremonial cloak. On the opposite side of the square there is a statue of Montesquieu, another great inhabitant of Bordeaux. Then I walk along the River Garonne, till I reach the Cailhau Gate. I pass through it, as Montaigne must often have done in his days as a councillor, and I reach the Palace Square. Once it was in the front of the Ombrière Palace. This palace had been built in the tenth century. In the 16th century it was used by the parliament, but in the 19th century it had been demolished. Not any trace has been left of it. Montaigne worked there for about ten years, till he had enough of it and retired to his castle. He met there his friend Étienne de La Boétie, to whom he devoted his essay on friendship.
From the square I walk to the Mirail Street and then to the Rousselle Street. Now it becomes really interesting, for I wanted to see not only in what kind of environment Montaigne had lived but exactly in which house he had done. And it is in 28 Mirail Street or otherwise in 23-25 Rousselle Street that many Montaigne investigators think that he had his house. It’s true that he had several properties in Bordeaux, but we know also that there was only one house in the town that was his “real house”. But alas, though the Montaigne specialists still disagree, most of them now think that 28 Mirail Street was owned by one of his brothers. However, it is sure that our philosopher must have lived in the Rousselle Street. The premises there were owned by his father. Where else would Montaigne have lived when he went to school in Bordeaux? Also later as an adult he must have come there often. But again, most Montaigne specialists agree that it was not his real house.
I continue my walk and pass the oldest house of Bordeaux. Nearby is a house once owned by the in-laws of La Boétie. I pass the Big Bell Tower and to the right of it I see the former town hall where Montaigne worked as mayor for four years. And in front of me I see the lycée, the grammar school that he visited as a young student. It was one of the best lycées in France and there he came into touch with the classical authors, which had such a big influence on his thinking. But do I really see the lycée? Yes, but only in my imagination, for nowadays the site is occupied by a modern multi-storey car park. Then again I come at a place where Montaigne certainly his lived for some time, next to the St Paul St. François-Xavier church: the official residence of the mayor. Also very interesting, indeed, and Montaigne must have stayed there often. However, it’s not his real house, for the official residence of a mayor is only his house as long as he is in office.
My walk ends in the Aquitaine Museum of history. I can advise you to visit it, for it describes and shows the regional history till far back in the past, when Neanderthals were still roaming around on the banks of the Garonne. But I am not there for learning about the region’s past but for seeing Montaigne’s cenotaph. After his death, Montaigne was interred in the Les Feuillants Convent and his wife had had made a beautifully decorated stone coffin for him. The monastery was demolished in 1880 and now you find there the Aquitaine Museum with a special room for Montaigne’s now empty tomb. It’s a worthy end of a walk devoted to Montaigne, and I stay quite long in the room, thinking about the man and his work.
Nevertheless, I leave the museum with a little feeling of dissatisfaction, for where was Montaigne’s residence? None of the houses on my walk where Montaigne had lived apparently was his real house. So I take my smartphone and google for “the real house of Montaigne”. Indeed, I find a website with this name, and it tells me that if there is one house that deserves the title House of Montaigne more than any other one, it is 12 Maréchal-Joffre Street. Why? Because it agrees with some descriptions made about 1800 by some who consider it as the “vraie maison de Montaigne”, as Montaigne’s real house. So I walk to the Maréchal-Joffre Street and stop in front of number 12. The house is in bad condition. Some parts of the original house have been demolished, like the gate and a little tower. Vaguely I can see a few interesting details like a griffin and a blazon. Was this the real house of Montaigne?

Montaigne’s cenotaph:

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The last sentence

“... a separate spot in Hell ... for tyrants ...”  (La Boétie)

Well begun is half done. So authors give often special attention to the first sentence of their work. In particular novelists do. But also the end of a piece of writing gets much attention and some last sentences have become famous. “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” It’s the end of Hemingway’s A farewell to arms. It’s simple and effective, after you have finished reading the novel. It makes you think of what has happened.
Philosophical works sometimes have last sentences that rather open a new discussion than that they close one. Some last sentences have become famous. Indeed, the last sentence of Spinoza’s Ethics is such a one:
“Sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia, quam rara sunt.”
“But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”
The idea, incidentally, behind this sentence is not Spinoza’s but goes back to Cicero. But makes it this last sentence less valuable?
Even more famous is how Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And just what we cannot say, is the most important in life, as Wittgenstein suggests in the passage before this quote: Philosophy begins just now when we had thought that we had wound up our argument. And we cannot even say it in words! Many readers will get here the feeling “??????”.
I simply want to present some examples of last sentences of philosophical works, without much comment. The selection is rather arbitrary. It says more about which books I have in my library and what popped up in my mind about what might be interesting than that I have selected the quotes in a specific way. But there is an idea behind it: Last sentences are often as important or more important than the text they conclude: Just a last sentence can make you think and be a new start for new thoughts.

- “And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.” Plato, The Republic (ca. 380 BC).

- “But because the exigencies of action often oblige us to make up our minds before having leisure to examine matters carefully, we must confess that the life of man is very frequently subject to error in respect to individual objects, and we must in the end acknowledge the infirmity of our nature.” – René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

- “...I believe God has reserved, in a separate spot in Hell, some very special punishment for tyrants and their accomplices.” – Étienne de La Boétie, The discourse of voluntary servitude (ca. 1548).
I think that both for religious and for non-religious readers the meaning is clear: How many tyrants haven’t been overthrown during the past years?

In this quotation I have added the last sentence but one in order to make the last sentence easier to understand. As you can see here, German philosophers of Kant’s time were famous for their long sentences.
- “The critical path alone is still open. If my reader has been kind and patient enough to accompany me on this hitherto untravelled route, he can now judge whether, if he and others will contribute their exertions towards making this narrow footpath a high road of thought, that which many centuries have failed to accomplish may not be executed before the close of the present—namely, to bring Reason to perfect contentment in regard to that which has always, but without permanent results, occupied her powers and engaged her ardent desire for knowledge.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

- “Philosophy must always continue to be the guardian of this science; and although the public does not take any interest in its subtle investigations, it must take an interest in the resulting doctrines, which such an examination first puts in a clear light.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

Spinoza is not the only one who (actually) ends his work with a quotation. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty finished his Philosophy of Perception (1945) with a sentence borrowed from A. de Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de Guerre:
- “Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him.”

- “... [After] so many centuries of folly orchestrated by the retributive spirit, it finally does seem time ‘to give peace a chance.’ ” Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness (2016).

My last quotation in this little list is actually not the last sentence but one of the last sentences of the work. It’s from Montaigne’s Essays (1595) and philosophically it closes the work but also the author’s life:
- “Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech.”

Exceptionally, I don’t give detailed references of the quotations. They are all easy to find on the Internet (for instance on (or send me a message).