Monday, October 05, 2015

A philosophical enigma

If we want to explain group behaviour, we are faced with the question: “What is a group?” Many answers have been given in philosophy, sociology and other disciplines. I’ll not try to evaluate them here. I want to consider a question that is relevant when we explain group actions from the perspective of analytical philosophy. Some examples of groups I am thinking of are people painting a house together, going for a walk together, a sports team, a task group, or a small company.
Although a group doesn’t have a shared intention, as we have seen in my last blog, usually it has a goal, which can be seen as the reason that brings the group members together, although it doesn’t need to be the intention that makes the group members act. It can make that people join the group.
Groups can be organised for only one task and once it has been executed, that’s it. Usually such groups are stable. Membership doesn’t change during the activity and once the task has been finished the group is dissolved. However, many groups have a longer duration: Its activity is permanent or at least it lasts quite a long time. Instances of such more or less permanent groups are sport teams and business companies. Then it often happens that members of the group have to be replaced now and then, temporarily or once and for all. Someone can become ill. Another member decides not to go on with the group. A member is replaced by someone who is more competent. And so on.
Let me take the case of the first team of a football club that wins the national cup. I call this team First Team (FT for short). Sometimes a team keeps the same core of players for years, but there are always changes from match to match and from year to year. Suppose that after fifteen years all players that once won the cup have left the team. Nevertheless it is normal to say “Finally, after fifteen years, the First Team has won the cup again”. One can say, of course, that in fact another team has won the cup and that it is not right to say that after fifteen years it was the First Team that has won the cup again, but then we have the problem to decide when the old guard (FTold) is no longer the new guard (FTnew) that wins the cup fifteen years later. Let’s say for simplicity that every year a player of FTold leaves the team and is replaced. So after eleven years FTold has become the FTnew that wins the cup again at last (I ignore the substitutes from match to match or even during a match). Then two views are possible. One is that FTnew is the same team as FTold, because it belongs to the same club, has a continuity in time with FTold, etc. The alternative view is that FTold and FTnew are different teams. But, as supposed, the change from FTold to FTnew is gradual, so when do we no longer have FTold and can we say that we have got FTnew instead? If one of the players of FTold leaves the team and is replaced, do we have then still the same team? If we say no, we have a problem, for everybody treats FTold still as the same First Team of our club. Moreover, say that the leaving player is injured and comes back after a few months, but after again a few months he leaves the team once and for all. Is it so then that we have two different teams during this period? Or is there a difference when a player leaves a team temporarily because of an injury and when he leaves it definitively? However, if we say that FTold remains the same after only one player has been replaced, then we can ask the same question, when a second player is replaced. If we say “yes” again, etc., then we have eleven new players that wins the cup after fifteen years and still we have the same team, although our view was that FTold and FTnew were different. Or must we say that we have a new team if at least half of the FTold players has been substituted? And why then just when six players have been substituted and not five or seven?
I can go on discussing this case and I can consider all kinds of variations. However, I think that the problem whether FTnew is or isn’t the same team as FTold has no solution. It is the same so for any other group in case members are replaced. I think that from one respect we can say that it’s still the same group and from another respect that a group with subsitutes is a new group, but the problem cannot be solved in a satisfactory way.
My case looks like the famous case of the Ship of Theseus – already discussed by the Ancient Greeks – which is repaired continuously by taking out old planks and putting in new. Do we still have at the end the same ship or do we have a new one? This problem of gradual substitution is one of the great enigmas of philosophy that until now nobody could solve and that maybe never will be solved. A group changes and nevertheless stays the same during the years. That’s all we can say about it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The strings that bind people together

Many years ago I have written my PhD thesis about the question how to explain human actions. At the end of my thesis I thought: this is all about individuals but how about groups? Can we explain what groups do from a kind of group intentions just as we can understand individual actions with the help of the agent’s individual intentions (plus his or her beliefs)? In my thesis I wanted to dedicate a chapter to the problem but I dropped it. Nevertheless it stayed in my mind. Actually, I was not the only philosopher who found the issue intriguing. Twenty years ago the theme was rather new, but since then more and more philosophers in the field of analytical philosophy have got their teeth into it, like Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert, Michael E. Bratman, John R. Searle and Seumas Miller, to mention a few names. One of the most important contributors to this subject is Bratman.
According to Bratman, just as an individual agent has intentions that guides his or her actions, also group behaviour is led by a kind of common intentionality – at least if we talk about small groups. He calls this common intentionality “shared intention”. Say, so Bratman, you and I are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of us is painting on his own, but we coordinate our painting in some way. You scrape the old paint and I paint what you have scraped. You buy the brushes and I buy the paint. We check what the other has promised to do; etc. If this is the case, we have a shared intention, namely in the sense that each of us has the appropriate attitude and that these attitudes and the way they are put into practice are interrelated. We can compare this with the way an individual coordinates what she does over time, for instance when she would paint her house alone: “Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (Bratman, 1999: 110-111; quotation on p. 111). Elsewhere Bratman says it this way: “... shared intention ... involves intentions of the individuals whose contents appeal to the group activity” (2014, p. 12). We can compare this sharing an intention with the case that my neighbour and I are painting our houses – we have two semi-detached houses –, but we haven’t consulted on the matter. Then, in my words, my neighbour and I have the same intention but we do not have a shared intention.
However, do we really need a shared intention in order to explain what two people do that are painting a house together in the way described by Bratman? The problem is that Bratman doesn’t say who you and I in his sample are, which suggests that his analysis applies to every two (or maybe three or four) people who form a painting group or another task group doing a job together.
So, let’s say that I want to paint my house, but it is too much work for me. Therefore I hire a hand in order to help me. Together we paint the house, exactly in the way described by Bratman. Then we have a painting group in the sense of Bratman, but does this group and do the people making up the group have a shared intention? On the face of it the shared intention is “painting the house”, and indeed, what I do can be understood in this way:

(1) I have the intention to paint the house.
(2) I think that I can paint the house only, if I hire a hand to help me.
(3) Therefore I hire a hand who helps me painting the house.
(4) Together we paint the house.

Does the hand share my intention to paint the house? I think that what he does can be better understood in this way:

(1) The hand has the intention to earn money [since to hire himself out as a hand is his work].
(2) The hand thinks that he can earn money by helping me painting the house.
(3) Therefore the hand hires himself out to me for this reason.
(4) Together we paint the house.

What this example shows is that for me – the owner of the house – the supposed shared intention is what I want to bring about but for the hand it is a means for another intention, namely earning money. In a certain sense we can call a means also an intention (at least often we can), and then we could say that hiring himself out contains the intention to paint the house, but even if we accept this, we must admit that for the hand this intention is on another explanatory level than it is for me. Therefore I think that my counter-example contains the case of a group of two people who cooperate and act together but who don’t share an intention in the way conceived by Bratman. The upshot is that it is not a shared intention that explains what a group does. The problem here is not finding a common goal that binds the members of a group together but to unravel why these members let themselves bind.

References: Bratman, Michael E., “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999: 109-129; Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On refugees (2)

“... and suddenly I discovered Descartes among a group of refugees and quickly I took a snap shot ....”

I finished my last blog remarking that there might be a Descartes among the refugees who look for a better life in Europe. I didn’t mention the name of Descartes without reason, for 22 years old Descartes left his native country France, afraid that he could be arrested because of his ideas. He went to the Netherlands, where he stayed twenty years, till he left for Sweden, where he died.
It’s not exceptional that philosophers and others have to leave the places where they live because of their ideas. Also in the Netherlands in the days of Descartes it could be dangerous to have unusual ideas, although the country had the reputation to be tolerant. Especially it could be dangerous to have ideas that conflicted with the reigning religion. Spinoza, excluded because of his atheistic views by the Jewish community of his home town Amsterdam, first felt forced to leave for the nearby Ouderkerk. Although he returned to Amsterdam after some time, soon he preferred to leave the town permanently and finally he established himself in The Hague.
I’ll walk with seven-league strides through history till I arrive in the twentieth century. So, for instance, I’ll not talk about Rousseau, who fled France in 1762 persecuted because of his ideas, or about Voltaire who had taken up his residence in Switzerland just a few years before Rousseau went to live there, also for avoiding arrest by the French authorities.
In the twentieth century it was especially for political reasons that philosophers had to flee. They were victims of the reigning ideology, be it communism or nazism. In the latter case philosophers (and many others) didn’t only have to flee because of their ideas, but also if they belonged to the “wrong race”: They were Jews or of Jewish descent. Most members of the Vienna Circle – a kind of philosophical debating club – fled from the Nazis to the USA (like Carnap, Feigl and Gödel), or sometimes to Britain (Neurath) or New Zealand (Popper). Wittgenstein, who was already in England, did not return to Austria. The members of the Frankfurt School – a sociological current centred around the Institute for Sociology in Frankfurt, Germany – fled via Geneva and Paris also to the USA, although most of them returned to Europe after the fall of Nazism. This was, for instance what the philosophers-sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer did. Their colleague Walter Benjamin found himself forced to commit suicide during his flight (in 1940 from France, occupied by the Nazis). An outstanding philosopher who fled communism was Kolakowski from Poland. Kolakowski had developed a kind of revisionist Marxism, which was rejected by the communist leaders, who deprived him of his academic functions. In the end Kolakowski went to the West.
Most philosophers mentioned here were welcomed in their new fatherlands, or at least they were treated in a decent way. That needed not always be so. Montaigne was not a political refugee, but once he had to leave his castle because the plague reigned in the region where he lived. Travelling around with his family (and some servants, I suppose) he could not find a refuge, although he was already a well-known man. In his Essays (Book III-12) Montaigne tells us that
“I myself, who am so hospitable, was in very great distress for a retreat for my family; a distracted family, frightful both to its friends and itself, and filling every place with horror where it attempted to settle, having to shift its abode so soon as any one's finger began but to ache; all diseases are then concluded to be the plague, and people do not stay to examine whether they are so or no.”
In need and no longer being the lord of his castle when he was on the run, Montaigne was considered as vermin and bringer of the plague, and not as a man respected by his environment. His social network collapsed as soon as he had to flee and no longer counted who he was, despite his past.
Actually this is the situation many refugees are in. Most are not welcomed but feared because they might bring misery, even if a few weeks ago they lived yet in their own country as well respected citizens. In this case the misery is not a contagious disease but the fear of social unrest and instability and the fear that the refugees “pick our houses and jobs”. So you don’t handover to them the food parcels they need – containing only bread and water –, but you throw them in the mob, as I have recently seen on TV in a report about a reception camp for refugees in Hungary (as if they are animals in a zoo).
This is how Montaigne continued his story:
“And the mischief on’t is that, according to the rules of art, in every danger that a man comes near, he must undergo a quarantine in fear of the evil, your imagination all the while tormenting you at pleasure, and turning even your health itself into a fever.”
A parallel with a refugee camp is easily drawn. The Latin proverb “Homo homine lupus est” (Man is a wolf to another man) has got man interpretations, but there seems to be a kernel of truth in all of them.

Monday, September 14, 2015

On refugees


Now streams of refugees from the Middle East are arriving in Europe – and many migrants from Africa as well, but in this blog I’ll ignore this, although the question is the same in many respects –. The first problem is, of course, how to receive them and how to take care of them. This logistic problem is immense and must not be underrated, also because some countries in Eastern Europe would like to get rid of the refugees rather yesterday than tomorrow. Have they forgotten that before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 many people from there has fled to the West and that they were always most welcome? They should remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: “The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.”
Once the refugees have arrived in their country of destination and have become settled a bit, another problem arises: integration. This seems to be the more difficult since many of the newly arrived have a different religion and social and cultural background than most of the inhabitants of their new fatherlands. On purpose I speak of “new fatherlands”, for in view of the present situation in the Middle East it is not likely that the refugees can soon go back home again; at least not in the years to come.
Integration is often difficult to realize, especially if it doesn’t regard just a few individuals or families but such quantities of people that come to Europe today, moreover almost within a short period. Integration is not an automatic process. One has to work on it. Many people think that it cannot and will not be successful. Is it true? It’s a never ending discussion, also in Germany, a country with many refugees and migrants, which was recently yet in the news because of protests against the arrival of new refugees. Happily, many Germans think differently about it and recently refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East were welcomed with applause and presents in Munich when they left the train. Will they succeed to integrate? As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas underlined in an article a few years ago, problems of integration must not be denied but generally integration is successful. The problem is not so much the integration as such but those who  are afraid that traditional values will be undermined by the arrival of newcomers (see for the article). I don’t want to play down the problem of integrating people from other cultural backgrounds (and that’s much more than only different religious backgrounds). However, I just finished reading a book about the “fin de siècle” – the period around the year 1900 – in the Netherlands. In those days the towns had been overflowed with migrants from the countryside, like all countries in Europe then. Many people saw their traditional ideas undermined because of that. Also the introduction of many technological innovations at that time had this effect. People were on the move; ideas and values were changing. Later, during the famous 1960s we see a movement towards democratization and against the authoritarian structure of society. Many new ideas developed then are still practiced and honoured today. In the 1960s they were seen as an attack on everything “we” stood for. Now, fifty years later we live through new social changes caused by the introduction of the computer, the Internet, the smart phone, and so on, as a consequence of the digitalization of society. The way we get along with each other has changed, too, and also, for instance, the concept of friendship must be given an new interpretation (for many people today a “friend” has become someone who is on your friendship list on Facebook, even if it is no more than that and even if you never talk with him or her). Be it as it may, the best solution of the present problem of refugees would be, of course, an end to the wars in Syria and the Middle East. But how to do that?
What most people do not realize is that many states have been built on migration. Go back into history and see how people always have been looking for new places to live. Also during the past hundred years many people in Europe have moved and migrated and they settled elsewhere as a consequence of two world wars or simply looking for work.
I want to finish by quoting a few words by Max Frisch and then change them. Somewhere he said: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.” I want to make it this way: “We expected refugees. We got people instead”. Fugitives are seen as people in miserable circumstances that need help, but they bring also a lot with them. There are also philosophers among them; maybe a Descartes.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Can we measure the value of life?

Two years ago I have read The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer and I have written a few blogs about it, too. Then I put the book in my bookcase and I never read it again, for actually it is not my type of philosophy. Therefore, what I remember from this book is not much and it can actually be summed up in a few words: To live is to suffer. This seems to be Schopenhauer’s idea of life. Leafing through the book today, I saw a passage that I had underlined and that expresses this idea, too: “... so the view forces itself on us that life is a business and that the gains of this business are by far not enough to cover its costs”: In other words, life is an unhappy affair, if we could make a cost-benefit analysis. But would this really be possible? For how should we calculate the value of happy and unhappy episodes in life? How much happiness balances how much suffering? I suspect that it is an impossible task.
I think that there is at least one philosopher who would disagree with Schopenhauer, if he could – if he could: for he lived before Schopenhauer – : Michel de Montaigne. Despite his own sufferings – he lost his best friend Étienne de La Boétie, which determined the course of the rest of his life; he had kidney stones for many years and he died of it – Montaigne had a positive outlook on life. He knew how to live. And although he knew that a life could be happy or unhappy in its totality, he didn’t want to pass a judgement before it had ended.
In his essay “That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death” (Essays, Book I, Ch. XVIII) Montaigne defends the thesis that an event at the end of someone’s life can push the final verdict in the opposite direction. Someone’s life looked happy, but he has been murdered in a cruel way. Therefore, we must judge his life as a whole as unhappy, Montaigne seems to defend in this essay. Or, to take an example by him, “I have seen many by their death give a good or an ill repute to their whole life. Scipio, the father-in-law of Pompey, in dying, well removed the ill opinion that till then every one had conceived of him.” Montaigne says in this essay that the last act a person does in his life, especially if he died during this act, can shape a reputation of this person that comprises his whole life and give it a positive or negative turn: “Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be tried and sifted: ‘tis the master-day, ‘tis the day that is judge of all the rest, " ‘tis the day," says one of the ancients,—[Seneca ...]— "that must be judge of all my foregoing years." ”
Well, I have my doubts. It’s not that I think that someone’s last act cannot influence the judgment on this person’s life, or that it cannot have even a strong influence, but a life lasts many years. Some people are criminals during their younger years and become saints during their last years. Do then only the last years count? I think that it would be better to say that we have here, for instance, the case of a person who has seen the light, or, if a life develops in the opposite direction, the case of a person who got into low water. Summarizing a life in this way gives a better look on the phases a person lived through than just saying that someone’s life was good or bad as a whole – or happy or unhappy. But what remains is: How to measure happiness or goodness? Or how to balance one phase of life against another phase, like a happy event at the end of your life against a very unhappy youth fifty years ago (or the other way round)? Actually it implies the question what the influence of the time perspective must be on your judgment and also the question whether one can compare time as a moment (the final act of your life) against time as a process (the flow of actions that made up your life). I think that seen this way we compare incomparable variables, if we ignore the ups and downs and want to press a whole life in one word.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Wittgenstein and the First World War

View on the Italian Front, where Wittgenstein has fought during the First World War

Once I wrote in a blog (dated March 10, 2014) that I was surprised that Wittgenstein said nothing about his war experiences in his Notebooks 1914-1916, although he wrote them during his service as a soldier in the First World War. It was not true: he did write about it. As so many soldiers Wittgenstein kept a diary, which is now known as the Secret Notebooks. What is strange, however, is that in volume one of the collected works of Wittgenstein published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany, so in the volume that contains the Notebooks 1914-1916, there is not any mention at all of the existence of these Secret Notebooks. This is also strange since these personal notes have been written in the same notebooks that Wittgenstein used for his philosophical notes, namely on the pages opposite to these philosophical notes. Moreover, the personal notes clearly help understanding the development and explanation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Therefore it is a “must-read” not only for those interested in Wittgenstein’s war experiences but also for those interested in his Tractatus.
I “discovered” these secret notebooks on a website with new publications in philosophy. They have been published (in German) by Wilhelm Baum in a book on Wittgenstein in the First World War (see the reference at the end of this blog). Baum presents there not only the Secret Notebooks but he gives also much information about the history of the notebooks, about Wittgenstein’s participation in World War One, his relations with other people in this period of his life, the philosophical meaning of the notebooks, and so on. It’s a pity that Baum could publish only a part of Wittgenstein’s notes, for most of them have been lost.
For an interpretation of the Secret Notebooks I refer to the work by Baum. I want to make only two comments. The first is that religion and a religious view on the world were for Wittgenstein more important than many people know. Wittgenstein was a religious person, as it turns out. My second comment is that this allows a religious interpretation of a famous statement by Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus 6.52). This is especially so, if one relates this statement to a remark by Wittgenstein in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker: “The meaning of this book [the Tractatus] is an ethical one. ... [It] exists of two parts: the one that you see here and everything that I haven’t written. And just this second part is the most important part. For the ethical is so to speak bounded from the inner side by the book...” (Baum, 120). It is possible to give this passage a religious interpretation, as Baum does, in the sense that in fact most important in the world are not the facts but our view on the facts, and for Wittgenstein this view was religious. This reading by Baum is possible and at first sight his argumentation is convincing, but a more general ethical interpretation of this passage remains possible.
Since I am very interested in the First World War I was curious to know Wittgenstein’s war experiences. As for that the value of the notebooks is limited. They tell us a bit about what Wittgenstein did during the war, his relations to other soldiers, how much he worked on the Tractatus, when he was under fire, and so on, but the notes are short – often too short– and it is difficult to relive Wittgenstein’s war on the basis of these notes. Many other war diaries and novels written by soldiers give so much more insight in the personal experiences and feelings of the authors (cf. the diaries by Maurice Genevoix and Charles Delvert, to mention only two of them). The notebooks have hardly any value for military history, but the more important they are for understanding Wittgenstein as a person and for understanding the Tractatus. Therefore I wonder why it took so long before they have been published and why they haven’t been published in Wittgenstein’s Collected Works. They are essential for understanding a great work in philosophy and a great philosopher.
I want to end with a quotation from the Secret Notebooks:
“When one feels that one gets bogged down in a problem, one must not think about it any longer, for otherwise one stays stuck to it” (November 26, 1914). It’s a lesson a lot of us should take to heart.

Reference: Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Space and time in society

Actually the intrusion of the private into the public, but also of the public into the private, is remarkable. Not the fact that it happens but it points to some interesting aspects of social life. As a sociologist I am used to think about society in terms of social relationships, so in terms of the way we connect with others and what these connections mean to us. However, actually society is not only a matter of relations but the way social life takes place has also something to do with where relationships are entered into. Moreover, social relationships are also temporal in some way. Now I am the first to deny that this idea is something new. There are other sociologists and philosophers who have written about it before. Nevertheless, the aspects of place and time are often ignored when society and social relations are studied and that’s why I want to talk about it here.
Take for instance the separation of the private and the public discussed in my blog last week. It is not without reason that Žižek and others don’t talk simply of the separation of both spheres of life as such but that they talk of the separation public space and private space. In other words, the private and the public are spheres that are not only characterized by distinctive manners but also by the geographical areas where they take place. The private is typically the sphere of life at home where the walls of your house protect you against the look of others, while the public is typically the sphere of life in the street, where everybody can see what you do. Therefore it’s not weird to say that the private intrudes the public or the other way round, for it is a bit the same as if a burglar breaks into your house: boundaries are exceeded (in fact, that is what happens when someone talks too loud when calling in a train and others feel disturbed).
Usually it takes some time to go from the private to the public space: You have to open the front door of your house and maybe walk through your front garden, before you are really in the public space. In the front garden you are still on your private property but nevertheless you cannot do there everything you like (by law, you are not allowed to go naked there, though you are allowed to do so in your back garden, especially when there is a wall around it).
The separation in space and time is not only characteristic of the spheres of the private and the public. For example, we meet some friends only in the sports field and maybe we would never get the idea to invite them for a birthday party, even if we feel very close to them when we go along with them as team mates. As soon as we leave the stadium, each of us goes his own way. And it is the same for the people we meet at the work place: Our colleagues are usually not our friends and, even if they are, during the working hours at the workplace we treat our friends not as such (which may be a reason for conflicts between us, however).
In his An ethnologist in the metro Marc Augé says about the same: “In order to go from one activity to another one needs time and space.” This is what we use the underground for and “when we change our activities at certain hours, we change also our locations. These changes of activity are not simply technical changes; they can go together with real role changes, for example when they go together with a passage from the life that we call professional to the life that we call private. The contrast private life / professional life as such does not comprise all kinds of changes of activity: there are forms of life that are more or less public that are not professional – it happens that one goes, alone or with friends, to public places in order to relax; that one goes to the stadium; to a parade; to a display of fireworks; to the theater; or to the cinema – and multiple forms of private life, official or secret, with family or alone, juridical or religious ...” (2013, 95-96; translated from the French edition)
Many of our activities based on social relationships are place bound and time bound, or at least in modern contemporaneous society they are, which can make our life rather compartmentalized.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Public and private

Recently I have read Event. Philosophy in Transit by Slavoj Žižek (Penguin Books, London etc. , 2014). I have some doubts about the book, but I’ll not write a review. Here I want to limit myself to discussing a passage that casts an interesting light on modern society. In this passage Žižek points to the changing status of public space: “ ‘[The] street is an intensively private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense.’ ... [B]eing in a public space does not entail only being together with other unknown people – in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.” (p. 176; the first sentence is a quotation from the Chinese People’s Daily)
According to Žižek the public space is becoming smaller while the private space is growing: Actions performed only at home in the past, or in places where they couldn’t be observed by others now often take place also “in the street” without the feeling of any shame that everybody can see them. Indeed, I can remember that when I was a child, kissing in public between lovers “was not done”. Now nobody cares. Today, it even happens sometimes, so Žižek, that fully erotic games take place in “heavily public places” like beaches, trains, railway stations, shopping malls, and the like, and most people passing by do as if they don’t see it. In other words, the private intrudes the public. People check themselves only when surveillance cameras are present, and this is not so, I think – Žižek doesn’t explain it – because people can be seen, for in public spaces people can always be seen, but it is because they can be punished for what they do. Only Big Brother can make that people behave themselves, or so it seems.
How about the private space? Does it become larger, because it simply absorbs parts of the public space? This would fit into the modern trend of increasing individualism. Žižek seems to think it does: “It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others” (pp. 178-9; italics Žižek).
Although this is true as such, I doubt whether it is only the private space that extends at the cost of the public space. It’s not a development only in one direction. For why else, for instance, are we advised to cover the webcam of our laptops or PCs? Just because otherwise our private actions can become public we are said to do so. Or take the activities of the secret services that try to find out what government leaders do, but also the laws that prescribe that data once considered private, like e-mail data, calling behaviour and data on other activities you do via the  modern media are collected and stored. I can see this only as an intrusion of the public into the private, and so do national committees that have been established by governments (!) for protecting the private. And once people become aware that their private behaviour can be seen by public agencies, albeit secret public agencies, it’s quite well possible that they are going to behave accordingly, so that they restrain themselves in what they say and do on line (like people in a dictatorship do).
What we see here then is both an extension of the private at the cost of the public and an extension of the public at the cost of the private. The development is not one-sided, as Žižek seems to suggest. Even more, I think that the idea that there is a distinction between the public and the private is at stake. Rather than that one sphere of society intrudes the other, or that one (the private) expands itself at the cost of the other, maybe it will be so that the separation of the private and the public will fade away and that both will mingle so that we’ll gradually get one single common sphere with more public and more private corners at most. Will it be worrying? Given our present way of life it will. Nevertheless, such a mixture of spheres is not new. It’s what you find in small isolated societies and, I guess, what you found in “primitive” prehistoric societies, so in societies where more or less direct relations prevailed. But just that is a reason to be worried, for nowadays we do not live any longer in such small-scale societies but in mass societies. Just in mass societies, in which direct relations are mainly absent, keeping the two spheres apart is important for protecting us against the arbitrariness of Big Brother and our fellow man.

Monday, August 10, 2015

On commemorating

Monument for the victims of the terror attack in Bodø, Norway

The day I arrived in Trondheim Norway commemorated the terror attacks of July 22, 2011, when 77 people were murdered. Exactly four years ago I was travelling somewhere north of Oslo. Since I avoid the news during my holidays, and also because my knowledge of Norwegian is only basic, it took some time before I knew what had happened. It came as a shock. Now I had been travelling around in the country again and one of the things I noticed were the local monuments remembering the calamity.
Commemorating impressive events of life with monuments, especially when there have been many victims or when these events have changed history in a significant way, is a normal aspect of life. Maybe some readers know that I make pictures of monuments and sites related to the First World War, which I publish on my main website (see A century after its end commemorations are still held. The more so this happens for more recent events like the Second World War, 9/11, or the shot down of the Malaysian airliner of flight MH 17 last year in the Eastern Ukraine. Remembering seems to be a basic act of life, not only for individuals but also for whole societies. Has it always been so?
My answer to this question can only be a try and please correct me if you know more about it. Anyway, I have a strong impression that it has to do something with our view on history and the way we place facts and events in life – as individuals and as society. And so I think that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t want to say that remembering the victims of a war, a violent event or a tragic incident did not happen long ago but then it had always been private or limited to small circles of people. Through the years, I have seen many monuments for the First World War – of course – and for the Second World War as well. You find them everywhere in this part of Europe and a lot of them outside this region, too. I have also seen monuments for other wars and human catastrophes like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), or for victims of traffic accidents along roads, and so on. What strikes me is that they date from the middle of the 19th century or thereafter. Of course, there are many older monuments, like the Roman triumphal arches, but these monuments do not remember victims but victories in war. Or you find religious crosses on crossroads or chapels that have been built on memorable sites – and I think that it is the same so in non-Christian countries and regions – but they are anonymous in the sense that a casual passer-by does not know what happened there. They remember only for those who know what happened and they don’t tell you about it and just that monuments invite the passer-by to stop and to read what occurred and that they remember who died – indeed, “modern” war monuments are often full of names – is a phenomenon of relatively modern history, I think.
Why just now? As I see it, it has to do with a new idea of history called “historicism”, which developed in the 19th century and stressed the significance of the context in which things happen, and also with the rise of psychology at the same time, which stresses the importance of remembering and contending with traumas for a balanced inner life. It is not that such scholarly ideas explicitly made us build monuments but they stand for a new view on society and the way we deal with what happened to us. Once I thought that many monuments – especially monuments remembering wars – were only an expression of nationalism, so just the kind of feeling that also caused the wars that such monuments were erected for. Later I learned that nationalism is only one aspect of such monuments and often it is only a minor aspect. For monuments, like so many symbols, express especially an inner emotion and they try to summarize what many people feel and want to share with others.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Keep it simple

Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind (see my blog dated June 22, 2015) gives not only the basic rules for a methodic approach of scientific problems. It contains also a number of statements that have a wider meaning; statements that have sense in the daily contact of men with each other. Some seem obvious. Nevertheless we often forget to apply them. For example, in Rule IX Descartes tells us that people are often more impressed by difficult high-flown far-fetched reasonings that they don’t completely understand than by simple transparent arguments. Knowledge, so Descartes, must not be deduced from what looks important and obscure but from what is easy and common. Isn’t it so that – my instance – a politician that uses bombastic language without content and not founded on the facts tends to have more followers than one who says the truth in a clear way?
Descartes’ words made me think of what is called Occam’s razor. Occam (or Ockham) himself didn’t use the word “razor” for his principle and he formulated it also in different words than we do today. He was a Franciscan friar who lived from about 1287-1347. The maxim that made him famous was in his words “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”. Today this is read as “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity”. For example, take the reasoning (1) “All men are mortal”- (2) “Philosophers are men” - (3) “Socrates is a philosopher” - (4) “So Socrates is mortal”. This reasoning contains the entity “philosopher”, which is superfluous here, for if we would define “philosopher”, we would get something like “a man who studies fundamental problems”. Fill in the definition in our syllogism and you’ll see that the entity “philosopher” is superfluous in this explanation why Socrates is mortal.
Sometimes Occam’s razor is considered meaning “Say it as simple as possible”. This interpretation is not correct, for arguing from several entities can be more brain breaking than a single statement with one or two entities that comprises a lot. Aristotle thought that bodies like stones fall on the ground because it’s there that their “natural place” is. However, reality appeared to be more complex and now we use complicated Newtonian suppositions and formulas for explaning gravity or, even better, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, even though Aristotle’s view was simpler.
Occam’s razor has a long history. Actually Occam was not the first one who formulated the principle. Once clearly formulated by him it had a big influence. Many scientists applied it and many philosophers referred to it. Wittgenstein, one of my favourite philosophers, said it this way: “If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus: 3.328). Or later “Occam’s Razor ... says that unnecessary elements in a symbolism mean nothing.” (5.47321).
Things that we first thought to be simple can be quite complicated but Occam’s razor helps us avoid unnecessary complications. It’s not completely harmless, as we have seen, and take care of the pitfall of oversimplification of Occam’s razor, but nevertheless as a rule of thumb you can start with the idea to keep it as simple as you can and then look what it brings. It helps prevent that you’ll be deceived by people who want to impress with an air of erudition and scholarship. For as Descartes warned us in Rule XII: Learned people are often so ingenious that they find a way to be blind even in matters that are clear as such and that every simple mind understands.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why it is good to make a bad plan.

I finished my last blog saying that with his definition of “person” Locke gave a lead of departure for future discussions on the concept. We call such a lead also a “handle”. Famous critics of Locke were Joseph Butler (1736) and Thomas Reid (1785), but the discussion still goes on today. It shows how important a good handle is for starting a discussion and making progress, for what should we talk about if we have nothing to talk about? We should first have to invent a theme and next we should have to give it contents, too. For instance, we can decide to talk about “man” as the ancient Greek philosophers did. But then? We have only something to discuss if we fill in the idea of man, so if we define it. That’s what Plato did when he described man as a featherless biped. Now Diogenes of Sinope had a handle to criticize Plato’s definition, which he did by bringing Plato a plucked chicken: Plato’s “man”. As a result Plato changed his definition to “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails”. And so the discussion on man begun.
Although this is a funny anecdote, it shows in a nutshell what science is: making theories, testing theories in an experimental way, improving theories. Although many people think that science starts with the second, so with experimental research or at least with observing, this is not true. The idea is the first of these three steps in science, for without ideas there is nothing to start with and there is nothing to investigate. People who think that they just look and then start to develop ideas conceive themselves. Their ideas are simply implicit and not explicitly worded.
In a scheme it goes this way:
P1 > T1 > E > T2 > P2
P(1) is a question or theme we want to discuss, or something like that, also called the problem. For example: “What is man?”. Then we form an idea how things might be arranged, a kind of theory, like “Man is a featherless biped” (T1). Is it true? We can try to find it out by discussing about it and doing tests and experiments (E). If we are successful, we can formulate a better theory (T2). But often we are not fully satisfied with our solution or improved theory. Then we get new questions, new themes to talk about, etc. (P2). And so our knowledge evolves.
A scheme for the evolution of knowledge has also been developed by Karl R. Popper:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
Again, P1 is the problem we start with. TT means “tentative theory”, so the way we guess that the things we are interested in might be arranged. EE refers to the tests and investigations of our tentative ideas. Actually Popper calls this phase “error elimination”. When we have finished the EE phase, however, we are never completely contented with our result, so we get a new problem situation, which Popper calls P2.
Is Poppers scheme for the evolution of knowledge right? In a certain sense it is, if we suppose that my T2 is the conclusion of Poppers EE and that it is included in it: From a philosophical or scientific point of view a solution of a problem is never completely satisfactory, for we can always ask new questions. Therefore no solution is free of problems. Nevertheless I think that it is better to formulate T2 explicitly like in my scheme, for in practice it is often so that we stop once we have formulated T2, even in case we are not completely satisfied. There is nothing against doing so, for how should it be different in many cases? In practice we need to act! We cannot continuously go on evaluating, discussing, thinking about the best solution, as if we live in an ivory tower. We simply have to do something.
This makes me think of something I learned already as a child. I liked playing chess and in order to improve my level I studied chess books. Then I learned from the great chess player and chess theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch that a bad plan is better than no plan. I never forgot it and I still apply it. For if we have no plan, we don’t know where to start and we keep erring, but also a bad plan gives us a point of departure. Even if our first steps lead to nothing, we have a frame for evaluating our mistakes and improving our design. How this works tells us a scheme for the evolution of knowledge, like mine or like Popper’s.

Source: Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; p. 164.
op website 13 juli 2015

Monday, July 06, 2015

Making up for an omission

John Locke made the idea of consciousness the heart of his theory of man. He was the first who developed a thorough theory of consciousness. That’s why I called him the father of consciousness theories in my last blog, although he didn’t invent the concept. Many theories of consciousness followed since then. Some such theories, which often refer explicitly to Locke, discuss the question what a person is, since Locke was also the first philosopher who defined the concept of person. I, too, have written about this subject, in blogs and in articles. What I never did, however, was quoting Locke’s definition of “person”. I don’t know why not. Maybe it was because in my writings I referred mainly to the present discussion on the theme and I referred to Locke only by way of background information. However, in view of my present blogs I think that it is a good idea to make up for my omission here, just because Locke’s definition shows so well how important the idea of consciousness is in his approach. So here he goes: A person is, so Locke,
a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. ... since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done.” (from ch. XXVII “Of Identity and Diversity” in John Locke An Essay concerning Human Understanding:
I have quoted a bit more than only the definition of “person” for showing how important “consciousness” for Locke is. Since it is an inner perception, as we have seen in my last blog, consciousness in Locke’s sense is especially self-consciousness.
Here I shall not examine how progressive the centrality of the idea of consciousness in Locke’s philosophy was in his days. I think that it led to many steps forward in philosophy and science. But viewed from the present, it made also that some actually important aspects of what a person is were considered irrelevant. In making the mind the core of the idea of a person the importance of the body is refuted. Elsewhere (also in my blogs) I have shown why this is not correct. Moreover, by stressing that the span of identity of a certain person is related to what this person is aware of back from the present to the past the importance of unconscious processes for what makes up a person is taken no attention of. But also what happens unconsciously within a person makes up his or her personality for a part. It is even so that we often consciously push some of our possible reactions to the unconscious inner space, where it is then present as if it were in a storage room: We call such an activity learning or training. And isn’t it so that we often keep a person responsible for what s/he unconsciously did or, which are marginal cases, what s/he did in an automatic reaction or in an inattentive way? One can be held responsible for a deed just because one let run what one in an unconscious – so “automatic” – reaction did.
Be it as it is, with his definition of “person” Locke put on a discussion that lasted for centuries and that still hasn’t ended. That’s the merit of his definition: Without a lead of departure, there is nothing to discuss about and nothing to investigate. Locke gives us such a lead, in an intelligent way, that still inspires a lot of people to think.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Locke's tremendous idea

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, John Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” I suppose that it is true that Locke said so, although I cannot check it, for there is no reference added to the quotation, which actually is to be expected in a work of that standing. Anyway, the passage is not from the famous chapter XXVII “Of Identity and Diversity” in Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1689, but this chapter was added in 1694). Here Locke develops the idea of personal identity and links it to the idea of consciousness. For instance, in §19 Locke says that “personal Identity consists, not in the Identity of Substance, but ... in the Identity of consciousness ...” The idea of consciousness was not an invention of Locke. Already Plato and Aristotle formulated theories on consciousness and the English word “consciousness” existed already more than a century before Locke wrote his Essay. However, just as we can call Descartes the father of epistemology because he first systematized scientific methodology (see my blog last week), we can call Locke the father of consciousness theories because he first gave the concept a full place in philosophy and science.
As my quotation from the chapter on identity and diversity in the Essay illustrates, for Locke consciousness and substance – so mind and body, as we would say now – were two different things. In this respect Locke’s approach of consciousness was Cartesian. So for Locke it was basically possible that “the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s past life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler” (§15 in chapter XXVII of the Essay), for the bodily characteristics of the prince were not part of his personality. We still find this separation between mind (or consciousness) and body in the modern discussion on personal identity, from Bernard Williams in “The self and the future” (Philosophical Review 79/2: 161-180) till Derek Parsons in Reasons and Persons (1984) and thereafter, and the so-called psychological-continuity theories of personal identity still form the mainstream view on personal identity, despite alternative views of, for instance, John Olson (The human animal (1997)) and myself (see Only now it becomes more and more accepted that substance and consciousness in man, so mind and body, are fully integrated. For some this means that man is nothing but a body or that man is a kind of biological machine, or how they see it; anyway that man is a completely material being and that the mind is a kind of epiphenomenal effect emerging from the human matter. Others, like me, prefer a dual aspect view on man, which says that man can be considered in different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. I think that this view makes it also easier to understand how in a certain sense man can survive his or her material dead. With this remark I do not mean that man can survive in any religious sense, for example as a soul, but the idea that mind as one of the two aspects of man makes it possible to understand how culture can survive the bearers of a certain culture; how ideas can remain to exist and have influence long after the thinker of these same ideas who has written them down in books or on the Internet has passed away. But maybe this is not as anti-Lockean as it seems on the face of it, for didn’t Locke say in the §15 just quoted that “The body, as well as the soul, goes to the making of a man” and that the cobbler who would receive the soul of a prince still “would be the same cobbler to every one besides himself”?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Descartes' tremendous idea

Science is a modern idea. In my last blog I wrote that Montaigne was an essayist and a writer. He was also a keen observer. By writing down his observations, Montaigne broadened our view on ourselves and environment and our self-insight. But Montaigne was not a scientist; he was not an investigator. In his time the idea of science was yet developing and by his view that everything can be doubted Montaigne contributed to its development. His adage was “What do I know?”, which would later find expression in the doubt that Descartes used for laying the foundations of the ideas of knowledge and consciousness with his famous words “I think so I am”. The idea of consciousness was fully developed by John Locke, but we can see René Descartes as the father of epistemology.
Descartes blamed many researchers of his time for not working systematically. He reproached them that there was no line in the way they worked. But then, so Descartes, it is impossible to get at the truth. What we need is a method: certain and easy rules that lead us to true knowledge. Moreover, Descartes was not satisfied with the old syllogistic logic of Aristotle and the medieval scholastic logic. It’s so that they help systemize existing knowledge and that they are useful in helping explain arguments to other people, but they are not useful in getting new knowledge. For getting new knowledge we need something else: A research methodology. Therefore Descartes wrote his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. However, this work, written in 1628 or just thereafter, was not published before 1684, so after his death. And the first publication was not in the original Latin but it was a Dutch translation. The first Latin edition came out in 1701. This work and other ideas on methodology made Descartes the founder of epistemology.
These Rules and generally Descartes’ approach of science gave us not only a new way of investigating nature, including man, but it gave us also a new view on knowledge. Or rather, it lead not only to a new view on knowledge but it changed the whole idea of knowledge, because we got a new way to experience what is around us. Before Descartes, from Aristotle till the Middle Ages, those experiences were considered knowledge that could be fit in a coherent way in what we already knew. New experiences had to be fitted in frames accepted by tradition. But from Descartes on only those experiences were considered knowledge that could be justified by the right method. Knowledge became what stands the tests of science. Four centuries later Karl R. Popper would sharpen the question what knowledge is: what we think to know has always to be formulated that way that we can test it. Montaigne and Descartes introduced the relation between doubt and knowledge. Popper made doubt a part of knowledge.
Descartes did not go that far. He believed yet that absolute certain knowledge is possible. It was only a matter of time to get it. But what he did do was founding knowledge no longer on experiences, so on what we think to see and hear as such, but on method, so on the way we see and think. Already this was a tremendous idea. It was a new idea, an idea that would lead to a new world: the world we live in today.

This blog is based on an unpublished manuscript by me, titled Science as Method (1988).

Monday, June 15, 2015

What everybody knows

In his essay “Of virtue” (Essays II-29) Montaigne writes about the case of a Turkish lord who in vain tried to shoot a hare. Also his dogs didn’t succeed to catch the animal. Therefore the lord concluded that the hare had been protected by his fate. This made Montaigne remark: “This story may serve ... to let us see how flexible our reason is to all sorts of images.”
A few years ago I wrote a blog about Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which says that when there is a gap between what we believe and what actually is the case we try to adapt the facts to our believes (see my blog dated Dec. 31, 2012). In Montaigne’s example the Turkish lord was so convinced of his own qualities and the qualities of his dogs that he couldn’t imagine that he failed. Something different must have been the case so that he could maintain his belief in himself and his dogs: There was a higher power that protected the hare. The much simpler explanation that he wasn’t a good hunter couldn’t be true in his eyes. It’s a clear instance of the reduction of cognitive dissonance in the sense of the theory of Festinger.
So far, so good. However, I wrote – which is generally accepted – that it was Festinger with his team who first formulated the theory of cognitive dissonance, but now we see that four centuries before Montaigne expressed already the same idea. Must we say now that Festinger and his co-workers didn’t invent this theory but that it was Montaigne who did, even though he didn’t call it that way? I think that there are arguments to say so, but that we can better stick to the opinion that Festinger & Co. are the inventors.
When I studied sociology long ago, many people said to me: A sociologist investigates what everybody already knows. It is a common opinion but it is easy to show that it’s nonsense. Nonetheless, there is some truth in it. Often, sociologists do investigate what “everybody” already knows, but it is not so that everybody knows that “everybody” knows (see note). Or some facts are only known to certain groups but the policy makers don’t know it or, if they do, they don’t believe them. Then it’s useful that social scientists investigate the matter. Do teachers really make such long hours as they say? Well, let’s investigate it and compare it with the work load of other of other employees. Or, what is often heard: “All foreigners are criminals – with the exception of my neighbour” (forgetting that once you have passed the border of your country you yourself are also a foreigner). So let’s investigate it and show that this prejudice simply isn’t true. By the way, it can happen that prejudices are true, for – as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained – a prejudice actually is nothing but an opinion that is not well established by the facts; but it can exist because we don’t know the facts or don’t have them at hand. It’s true, in practice prejudices are often unreasonable, biased opinions, dislikes and so on, but then it’s just the challenge for investigators to demonstrate that – or to topple their own prejudices.
Be it is it may, Montaigne was not a systematic investigator. Even more, in his days systematic research in the modern sense did not yet insist but the idea was yet under construction so to speak, to which he in fact also contributed, for example by his view on “doubt”. Montaigne was an essayist and writer. He was a keen observer who wrote down what he saw and thought. Investigating opinions, views, ideas etc, – called “hypotheses” in the scientific jargon – in a systematic and methodological way and testing the truth of them is what investigators do and what Montaigne did not do in his Essays. Therefore maybe we can say that Montaigne was the inventor of the idea of cognitive dissonance – if he was – but not the inventor of the theory. It was Festinger with his team who was the latter. Generally it is so that there are many good and useful ideas in society but often it’s uncertain what the truth in them is, even if they appear to be useful. That’s what we science need for. But perhaps the present blog is only a case of cognitive dissonance reduction that I wrote for confirming my own prejudice.

Note: If I remember well, Anthony Giddens once discussed this point already but for this blog I’ll not try to find out where he did.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Art as a daily practice

In his “Afterword” to Michel de Certeau’s Culture in the Plural, Tom Conley writes: “[For de Certeau] ‘culture’ needs to be understood not as a monument celebrating human mastery of nature but, to the contrary, and more modestly, as collective ways or manners of thinking and doing. ... [Culture] is marked by heterogeneity of practices, styles, modes or fashions of selectively and affectively producing (but not arrogating) habitable space.” (Conley, p. 151). In other words, according to de Certeau culture is not something highbrow, as it is often seen, but it is the way we do what we do, and it can even refer to the most banal actions and kinds of behaviour. In this view, culture consists of modes of doings characteristic for certain groups or even societies.
When I read de Certeau’s Culture in the Plural (and other books by him) and Conley’s “Afterword” for the first time several years ago, this view was not new to me. I subscribed to it already long before I had ever heard of Michel de Certeau, let alone that I had read his articles and books. I had borrowed the idea from authors in the field of cultural anthropology. But are both views – the “highbrow view” and the view of culture as the mode of daily practice – really so different today? Take the picture at the top of this blog. I have taken it on the yearly art market in my town, one week ago. What you see there is my stall with some of my photos and books and on the background a super market. Before or after having done their shopping, many people made a walk along the stalls of the art market. Some bought a piece of art; most didn’t. Is there a better example of the growing contemporary integration of culture as the mode of daily practice and highbrow culture, which is often supposed to be at a distance from the hectic of daily routine? Art is no longer something we need to watch in the serene atmosphere of a separate temple-like building, be it a theatre or a museum, and that we take in full of awe. Art is no longer something performed by demigods and explained by expert interpreters. No, art has become for everybody and by everybody. You can enjoy it everywhere and do it everywhere, as a part of your normal activities; also when you are in a supermarket or before and after shopping. It has become a part of the daily practice and it is consumed as easy as a cup of tea or a bag of chips. Isn’t it what we have aimed for, when we talked about the democratization of culture? Oh, and don’t forget the milk or the mayonnaise.
Source: Michel de Certeau’s, Culture in the Plural. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Tom Conley, “Afterword: A Creative Swarm”, in id., pp. 149-175.

Monday, June 01, 2015

A bird in a cage

Last week, I stated that man is a prisoner of his or her own habits and routine. Even if the door of the prison is open, s/he doesn’t use the opportunity to escape, as any animal would do. Is it true? Maybe man is more rational than animals. Why should s/he escape when the door is open? Once you are free, you have to decide for yourself; not only now and then but always. You can do anything you like, indeed. However, if everything is possible in the end nothing is possible. For how to choose? Moreover, once you take a step, it limits the number of the next steps you can take. When, for instance, on your own walk through life you reach the bank of a river, your choice where to go seems almost without limit, but once you choose to spring in the river, your number of choices will be reduced to four: Going back, swimming to the other bank, giving in by following the stream, or becoming recalcitrant by going against the current. And do you know where it will bring you, whichever decision you take? Most men are not adventurous and don’t have enough insight in order to be able the take the right choices in all unexpected circumstances – or at least in most – so that it is wiser to stay where you are: In your cage. And because you know that the door is open, you keep the freedom to leave when you get an idea what to do outside, with the possibility to go back when you like. Seen that way it is not unreasonable to stay where you are and limit your space of freedom in practice to your cage.
Or is this freedom an illusion? For whether the door of the prison is open or closed makes for most people no difference at all! Even if it is open, they don’t see that it is open. They see no cage. They simply think that they are free and can go where they like. Why this is so has been made clear by the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye. Although her metaphor has been developed for explaining the idea of oppression, I think it can also be used for making clear why many people have the illusion that they are free. Let me first give a long quote from Frye’s article “Oppression”, where she puts forward her picture of the bird cage:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

This picture used by Frye for grasping why it is so difficult to see why and when oppression exists can also be used for grasping why many people think that they are free, even when they actually live in a cage. For most people just stand too near to the wires and see only the wire that is right in front of their eyes. This gives them the idea that they are free: Isn’t it so that it is easy to go out by walking around the bar? However, if they would do a few steps back they would see that they are caged in ... and maybe they would see also that there is a door that is open.

Quotation from Marilyn Frye, “Oppression” on

Monday, May 25, 2015

No way out

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Caught in your mind

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