Monday, March 02, 2015

Why women have more empathy than men


Empathy is a rather faint concept. Scientists do not agree what it exactly involves and they haven’t succeeded yet to define it clearly. For this blog that’s not important. Let’s say that empathy is feeling what someone else feels; that it is a kind of feeling that makes that one understands and feels the emotions of another person, because one imagines the situation he or she is in. Then one gets the same emotion as the other, although usually in a lesser degree. One sees that the other is sad or just happy, which makes that you feel sad or happy as well. It’s the same for other feelings or emotions, like pain, regret, fear, anger and so on. It can even work that way that only seeing a happy or sad person makes you becoming happy or sad. Everybody has such experiences, but how does it work?
Empathy has been studied at least since the end of the nineteenth century but the discovery of so-called mirror neurons in the brain some hundred years later has thrown a new light on it. Mirror neurons are a kind of neurons that become activated, when someone sees another person performing an action. However, they have also another function, for mirror neurons become also activated when you yourself perform an action. So mirror neurons both help recognize actions and they are motor neurons in the sense that they play a role in moving your muscles for performing the same actions. They have a double function. Even more, when you see somebody performing an action, also then they make that you start moving the related muscles. Often this happens unconsciously and you don’t notice it and you keep sitting in your chair. But who hasn’t experienced being present at a concert and seeing the drummer tapping his foot and starting to tap your own foot? Or you see persons dancing in the street and you stop to watch them and you start to move as well or even joins them? Mirror neurons make that you tend to copy and simulate the behaviour of other persons; openly or within yourself.
Mirror neurons play an important part in learning but also in recognizing emotions. When you see an emotion on the face of another person, your mirror neurons register the emotion and make that you start copying it. When you see that someone is happy, you get a feeling of being happy, and if she smiles or laughs, you start to smile or laugh, too. If you see that someone is sad you also tend to feel sad, and maybe you start to cry with him or her. Also your face expresses the emotion concerned.
It’s interesting that this process doesn’t work only in one direction. It doesn’t work only from emotion to movement but also from movement to emotion. For instance, make a smile and immediately you tend to feel better; suppress smiles where you are supposed to be serious and you’ll feel so. In other words, there is relation of interdependence between what you see being done, what you do in relation to what you see then and to what you feel.
It’s just a hypothesis but I think that all this has a consequence for the relation between empathy and sex. In most cultures women are free to express their emotions and feelings, at least to a large extent, while men are supposed to keep them in check and not to show them too much. However, suppressing showing your emotions means suppressing the movements of the muscles related to these emotions. But if you suppress the movements of the muscles that are related to certain emotions you tend to suppress the emotions as such as well. If you don’t laugh you feel less cheerful than when you do, and if you don’t cry you feel less sorrow than when you do cry. Anyway, this is so compared to persons in the same circumstances who do perform all these physical expressions of their feelings.
Above I described empathy as feeling what someone else feels. As we just have seen, it belongs to having a certain feeling that you move your muscles in the right way. Basically it is an automatic process but you can steer it and just that’s what you do when you suppress to start crying when you see someone else crying; or when you try to suppress that your face becomes sad when you see someone in sorrow; and the same for happiness and for other emotions. However, when you suppress the physical expression of an emotion you suppress the related feeling as well, like, for instance, the empathy you actually feel for someone, if something has happened to that person. And since in most cultures men are allowed not to show their emotions as much as women can, the upshot is that men feel less empathy than women do in the same circumstances.

More on empathy in Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy. Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When empathy fails


Once I talked here about some negative effects of communicating via the Internet. Especially in the on line social media, direct physical contact is usually absent. We do not see each other; we do not hear each other. The only thing we do with the other is exchanging texts and often pictures, too. However, these pictures usually present a positive image of us. We don’t show what we don’t like. Moreover pictures are static. So, we don’t show facial expressions and emotions to our conversation partners, and we don’t see theirs. Let alone that we shake hands or hug. As a result we tend to become rude. “Happy slapping” is the most extreme form of it, but there are also more subtle forms of lack of manners. We don’t say “How are you?” any longer. When we meet someone for the first time and have a question, we don’t say “Excuse me. May I ask you ...”. No, we simply ask, although we never would get the idea to behave that way when we wanted to know something from a stranger. And we don’t say “Goodbye” or “See you later”, when we finish a conversation and want to go off line. Many people in social media do so. Politeness doesn’t seem to belong to the Internet manners for them. But is it something new?
I think there is at least one type of social situation that has a bit the same characteristics as the social world of the Internet and that is older: Traffic, and then especially modern traffic with cars. I think that modern traffic is a kind of predecessor of the Internet. Or rather some aspects of it are. I’ll stress here only those aspects and I’ll ignore the differences.
It’s true that when we drive, we see each other. But do we really do? We see other persons in the cars passing by but actually we hardly experience them as such for we are boxed up in a cage and most of the time we (and “they” as well) drive with such a speed that the other drivers are hardly more than flashes. Only when the cars go very slowly or have to stop, and especially when people in the cars are gesturing, they tend to become again like persons of flesh and blood, but only for a part for we still can’t hear them, closed off as we are in the cages of our cars. As Michel de Certeau might have said: The cage divides, on the one hand, the driver’s interiority and, on the other, the external world of the passing cars as objects without discourse. The consequence is that we tend to become rude. We tend to ignore traffic rules, especially speed limits; we tend to cut on other cars; we excuse ourselves less often for our mistakes than we would do in “normal” life; and who knows what more. In short, we tend to become assholes. When we get in our car and close the cage, we close our empathy, too. Much is new in the Internet but nothing comes out of the blue.
But is all this – I mean being closed off – only negative? Retire to your study, close the door, and think about this quote from de Certeau: “Glass and iron produce speculative thinkers and gnostics. This cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories”. So, driving a car can have positive effects for the mind as well. Nevertheless, I would rather speculate and bear thoughts in my study than in the cage of my car, for there it might end with a jolt.

Quote from Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 112.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On group responsibility

Group intention

In my last blog I concluded that what we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice. In view of this we can say that a group can be responsible for what it does, while its members aren’t, or at least they are not liable for what the group does. In former blogs I have shown that Hannah Arendt talks here about a collective responsibility. I don’t want to repeat the discussion in my older blogs about it but throw some new lights on it.
The idea of group responsibility or collective responsibility is widely accepted. It has also a legal basis. It often happens that a company is fined while the managers aren’t, let alone the employees. Legally there is a difference. It also happens that a sports club is punished by the national association, while its members are free to do what they like, such as leaving the club for another one. This is generally accepted.
Nevertheless, when a group, company or other collectivity is punished, this often casts a shadow over its members. Moreover, it can happen that individual members are punished for what actually the group does. It points to the fact that a group is not independent of its individual members; that a group is not something that has emerged from the individual members and then leads a life of its own. In some way group intentions exist always in the heads of the members. “The mind is not only in the head”, as Andy Clark maintains and which I support. But this doesn’t involve that it is not also in the head. It’s the same for intentions: Groups intentions are always also in the heads of the group members, and groups without members who intend to perform the actions decided by the group will do nothing. In this sense, individual members are responsible for what the group does.
However, this is often a matter of degree. The power to influence group actions and to determine and steer its intentions varies a lot between its members, especially in larger groups, not to speak of nations. Some are not more than cogs in the machine and the machine will also work without them. Others can steer the machine or even start it up. There is a hierarchy that determines who can and will do what.
Other collectivities have more democratic structures. The members have a relatively equal power and there is a set of rules about how to decide on group intentions and actions and how to perform them. This can happen by a vote or election according to a one man one vote principle. Once a decision has been taken, every member accepts it.
Such differences in power between group members in the way they can influence group decisions make that their collective responsibilities can vary from full to (almost) none. Really not responsible can be only one who does not belong to the group concerned. But often there is no option. It is part of the human condition that one needs to belong to some groups, anyway, or one should leave life. But is that an option?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Group intentions (2)


Already several times in these blogs I have talked about group intentions. A group intention was seen as a kind of agreement of several persons about doing something together. We could call this a joint commitment, for instance as Margaret Gilbert does. In such a joint commitment we as individuals have the same intention as we have as a group. If we as a group want to walk together, usually it means that I want to walk with you and you want to walk with me (this case is often discussed by Gilbert). Or if we want to paint the house together, the normal sense is that I want to paint a part and you want to paint a part (a case discussed by Michael E. Bratman). However, does what we want to do as a group always correspond to what we want to do as individuals, or at least to what the majority of the group members wants to do? In discussing this question, again I make use of the argumentation of List and Pettit, just as I did in my last blog.
Last week we have seen that sometimes a government has to decide against what it has promised, simply because it didn’t get an unequivocal mandate from the electorate. Now I want to adapt the example I have used there and see what happens:
Tom, Dick and Harry are making a walk through the countryside and have to cross a pasture with cows. Then Tom says: “I think that we can better walk round the pasture for I see a bull over there.” Dick agrees, but then he says: “I cannot see it well, but I think that the bull is tied to a pole, so let’s cross the pasture anyway. I am tired and want to be home as soon as possible.” “You are wrong”, Tom replies, “and even if the bull is tied up, I don’t want to take the risk. What do you think, Harry?” Harry, a farmer, says: “As far as I can see, the bull runs free, but if we keep our distance, we don’t need to be afraid. Maybe the bull will look at us, but he will keep away. So, let’s take the shortest path and cross the pasture.” And so they do but is it really what they want to do? In order to find it out, let me present the conversation in a schematic way:

                        afraid for bulls                       bull is tied      wants to walk
                        wants to avoid the bull          to a pole          through the pasture

Tom                            yes                              no                    no

Dick                           yes                              yes                  yes

Harry                          no                               no                    yes

Majority                      yes                              no                    yes

In the case presented here, Tom and Dick have been reassured by Harry that nothing will happen, anyway. We can say then that they have changed their opinions and, even though they are still afraid of bulls, they see no need to avoid the bull in the pasture (as long as they don’t come too near to it). But what would Tom, Dick and Harry have decided if Tom and Dick hadn’t believed Harry that the bull would keep away from them? Of course, Harry could have said: If you are scared, we can better walk round the pasture. But suppose he hadn’t say that and he couldn’t convince the others that the bull wasn’t dangerous. In that case we see that the majority of this group of walkers thought that the bull was not tied to a pole and that the majority of the walkers wanted to avoid the bull in that case, so they did not want to walk through the pasture. Nevertheless the group as such did want to walk through the pasture, and so they would have decided if they had voted about the question or if a “common feeling” had said them that it was that what the group wanted.
The upshot is that it can happen – and I think it often happens – that “the group” intends and so decides what its individual members certainly do not want to do. What we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice.
For this blog I have made use of Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 43-47.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Government dilemmas


Many readers of these blogs will have heard about the difficult economic situation of Greece. Most inhabitants of this country want to get rid of the austere measures taken for improving the economy and imposed by the countries of the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund. Therefore most Greeks have voted for parties that want to renegotiate the conditions for getting aid from these institutions. But what measures do the Greeks want to take themselves? Actually I don’t know so the case that I discuss here is pure fiction but it might be real.
Suppose that the Greek government wants to reform the budget and in order to balance the books it sees as options either increasing taxes or reducing spending.
To get enough support from the people, it will be up to them to decide what to do. So the government organises a referendum in which the voters can say what they prefer. A blank vote counts as a rejection of both options.
There is a hard campaign in which the government explicitly says that it will do what the majority of the voters prefer, while the opposition advises to cast a blank vote, because it wants to bring the government down, for it stands for nationalizing the most important companies and levelling the incomes. Then it is this what the voters prefer to do:

                                                       increase taxes             reduce spending

first third of the voters                      preferred                    dispreferred
second third of the voters                 dispreferred                preferred
remaining third of the voters            dispreferred                dispreferred  (blank votes)
result                                              dispreferred               dispreferred

It is clear from the referendum that two-thirds of the electorate support our fictive Greek government so it has no reason to resign. Nevertheless, whatever the government will do will be against the preference of the voters: Either when it increases the taxes or when it reduces the budget, it will be a decision that is opposed by a large majority of the people. In either case, the voters will say: The government doesn’t do what it has promised.
The case discussed is not exceptional. It’s an example of what can happen if people have to take decisions without having the opportunity to decide in consultation but when they have to cast votes as individuals. It’s a situation that often happens in politics. In this fictive Greek government case the best the government can do is increasing the taxes a bit and reducing the expenses a bit; so doing a bit of this and a bit of that. This is what we often see in the political arena.
Be it as it is, the upshot is that sometimes we have to decide to do what we explicitly have rejected.

Source: I have take the example and the main lines of my thought from Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 46-47.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Old quotes


Sometimes it is good to read my old blogs again. Actually, I do it quite often. Or rather I do not really read them but I browse my blogs in order to avoid that I write two blogs with the same contents, for my memory is like a sieve and soon I have forgotten what I have written. Then I see often interesting old ideas of mine or I stumble upon interesting quotes that I have used, like this one from Hannah Arendt’s The origins of totalitarianism (Harvest Book, Harcourt, San Diego etc. 1976; p. 447):
“The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done, on the one hand, by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law and forcing at the same time, through the instrument of denationalization, the nontotalitarian world into recognition of lawlessness; it was done, on the other hand, by placing the concentration camp outside the normal penal system, and by selecting its inmates outside the juridical procedure in which a definite crime entails a predictable penalty”.
The idea expressed here can have many interpretations and it can be put in many contexts. For Arendt herself the context was the German Nazi regime she had escaped from and the Soviet Union of Stalin. Eight years ago in my blog dated April 23, 2007, I related the passage to Guantanamo. However, I think that it can be applied also to Europe today or rather to the present European Union, and then especially to its attitude towards terrorism and terrorists. Although it’s not a new phenomenon, since “Guantanamo” we see that more and more people are placed outside the law because of their extreme acts. For instance, there is a growing support for the idea to deprive terrorists of their nationalities, which will make them stateless. The consequence is that they will be considered a kind of non-people or non-humans, and towards what is not human you don’t need to apply human standards. Guantanamo is a good example of what this leads to. My thesis is that what is done by humans is human and has to be treated that way. Extreme acts are often less extreme as they look at first sight, although it’s not an excuse for doing them. Certainly not!
Let me give an example. Many readers of this blog will know about the cruel acts of the Japanese guards towards their prisoners who had to work on the Burma Railway during the Second World War. I think that everybody who knows about it will call these acts cruel and criminal; acts that have to be severely punished. Recently I read the story of a Dutch prisoner, a soldier, who had suffered there. After the end of WW II he was serving again in the Dutch army where he took part in the Dutch effort to suppress the struggle for independence of Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. What became clear from his story was, however, that he (and other Dutch soldiers) applied towards the Indonesian rebels taken prison the same kinds of cruel and criminal methods he himself had suffered when working on the Burma Railway. Does this show that he has always been a non-human being in disguise? Or take the war crimes done by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Before these soldiers left for Vietnam most of them were honest civilians. After their return home many were honest civilians again. Are they wolves in sheep’s clothes?
In several older blogs I discussed the phenomenon, studied by Zimbardo in his famous Stanford Prisons Experiment, that fundamentally almost any person can commit any kind of evil when the situation is there. “Zimbardo concluded”, and here I quote from my blog dated March 14, 2011, “that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil way but that it is the situation that brings people that far. Only very few people are able to resist the pressure of the situation that ‘leads’ them into a certain direction and also only very few display evil behaviour because of a disposition.” Even if only half of it is true, I think that it shows that extremist behaviour is of the kind that human beings do and that most of us have a latent propensity to it, although in most of us there are also enough counter-factors that make that we don’t behave so. Nevertheless human is what humans do and there is no reason not to treat some humans that way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dangerous ideas (5)


Freely expressing ideas with the pen can be very dangerous. Recently yet we have seen it in France. This danger is not something new. However, nowadays the freedom to express ideas is bigger than ever before. This now almost absolute freedom is a very recent phenomenon and it is limited to only a few countries. Terror against those who use the right of freedom of the word is not only performed by individuals and private groups. Its most important oppressor has always been the state, while individuals had to fight for this right. Nowadays it is often the other way round: It is the state that defends the freedom of expression, so that individuals can use it, although it is still so that individuals try to stretch the limits. For certain limits remain. That’s clear. It’s not allowed to offend others or to bring damage to them. But what is offending and when can we say that someone has suffered a loss? But laws change and only recently yet the Dutch law on blasphemy has been cancelled, for example. Actually, it hadn’t been applied since many years.
Not only journalists, artists and politicians have been victims of suppression of the free word and ideas. Philosophers has been as well. The German Nazi regime and the government of the Soviet Union even tried to get a hold on the thoughts of their citizens with the consequence that many philosophers kept silent or adapted their words (at least openly). Others fled, like Adorno and Benjamin. But already in the early days of philosophy freely expressing ideas could be dangerous. Socrates was sentenced to death because he was said to corrupt the minds of the youth and not to believe in the gods of the state.
Montaigne was a courageous but also careful man who didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. I know at least one case that he practised self-censorship. When he wanted to publish his Essays in 1580 he had asked and received permission to include a little book by his late friend Étienne de La Boétie. He wanted to insert it after his essay “Of friendship”, dedicated to his friend. In this little book, On voluntary servitude, La Boétie presented his theory of power and he showed how it was possible to undermine the power of rulers by refusing to obey them. (Later the book became famous among anarchists and non-violent activists). However, when Montaigne actually wanted to publish the Essays, the political situation had worsened a lot and the ghost of civil war and revolution was reigning in France. Moreover La Boétie’s book had been published already by activist reformers. Therefore Montaigne wrote at the end of his essay “Of friendship”: “Because I have found that that work has been since brought out, and with a mischievous design, by those who aim at disturbing and changing the condition of our government, without troubling themselves to think whether they are likely to improve it: and because they have mixed up his work with some of their own performance, I have refrained from inserting it here.” And instead of On voluntary servitude Montaigne published La Boétie’s twenty-nine sonnets in his Essays.
Descartes was another famous philosopher who chose to avoid possible persecution for his ideas in his country (France) and he went to live in the Netherlands. For the same reason, later Descartes accepted an invitation by Queen Christina of Sweden to come to her court, when his philosophy had been condemned at the University of Utrecht. Not so many years thereafter, Spinoza was expelled from Amsterdam, where he lived, after having been banned from the Portuguese Jewish community there because of his “abominable heresies that he practiced and taught,” and his “monstrous deeds”. A few years later Spinoza returned to his town but finally he moved to Rijnsburg and then to The Hague.
It will not be difficult to mention many other philosophers who met with the same fate or, even more, were “simply” murdered, as happened in 2003 to Zoran Djindjic, then Prime Minister of Serbia. Djindjic had been a long time opposition politician and he was a doctor in philosophy as well. He was assassinated by criminals because of his pro-democratic ideas and especially by the way he tried to put them into practice.
A German song says: “Thoughts are free, who can guess them?” Although not even this is always true – especially the first part of the sentence, but also the “who can guess them” may become something of the past one day –, real troubles can arise when you express your thoughts and write them down and try to apply them. In his play “Richelieu” the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton lets the cardinal say: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Wasn’t it Richelieu (among many others) who secretly read La Boétie’s On voluntary servitude, which was forbidden in those days? A book that inspired many known opponents of oppressive power, including Tolstoy and Gandhi (and that still inspires many today, directly or via Gandhi)? Even those in power or with powerful arms acknowledge the value of this saying in their hearts for otherwise they could simply ignore the pen and the words that flow from it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting started


Maybe it would have been more appropriate to write my last blog about making a new start than about age. For isn’t it just the symbolic value of the New Year that mentally we start anew? Many people feel that this is the moment to change life, to throw away bad habits, to begin new projects, and so on, which is expressed in the custom of making New Year’s resolutions.
Everything has a beginning but most things do not begin from nothing. What we consider a new beginning is in many respects a continuation of what already existed. This is also true for philosophy. Nevertheless, most writers on the history of philosophy say that Western philosophy has a clear beginning, namely the Milesian school of philosophy, which has been founded in the sixth century BC. Even more, most of these sources talk about a first philosopher: Thales of Miletus, who lived about from 624-546 BC. One of them who regarded him as the first in the tradition of Greek – and we can now say “Western” – philosophy was Aristotle.
Not much is known about Thales. We do not know his exact dates, for instance. Thales was born in the city of Miletus, a Greek commercial town on the west coast of Minor Asia. He seems to have been a businessman and a politician and he has travelled to Egypt, from where he brought the science of geometry to the Greeks. Actually the only certain thing we know about his own philosophy is that he thought that water is the original substance of all matter and that the earth rests on water. These ideas would soon be pushed away by better ideas, although Thales’s ideas are not as bad as they seem on the face of it, if one considers how important water is in the world.
However, it is not these ideas that made Thales the father of philosophy but it is the way he thought about the world. For Thales did not fall back on religion when he expounded his philosophical ideas and when he explained nature, as was usual in his days, but he formulated them in philosophical terms and he explained natural phenomena by referring to other natural phenomena and by examining nature. By doing so he laid the foundations of modern philosophy and science and so he made a new start in the way we think.
Without a doubt Thales has been influenced by others. Then we think in the first place of the Babylonians and the Egyptian mathematicians. But is this a defect and does it make him less original? Of course not. If for developing every new idea we should have to start from a bare basis, we would come to nothing. Being original is often not a matter of developing completely new ideas but it is a matter of developing new perspectives and putting old things in other lights. That’s what Thales did and what makes him important in the first place. It made that philosophy became both a new way of thinking and a carrying on of what already had been done for such a long time. In the end the result was that many old ideas faded away and that they were superseded by ideas acquired by the newly developing approaches of philosophy and science as a kind of paradigm shift before this term had been developed by Thomas Kuhn. In this way going on is often getting started.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Of age


Once I read a book with essays, in which the authors had been asked to write pieces with the same titles as the chapters in Montaigne’s famous Essays. However, they were free to develop the themes as they liked. I could do the same here in my blogs and it would solve my weekly problem what to write about. I would have stuff for more than two years. I’ll not do that systematically but now in my first blog of a new year I think it will not be inappropriate to write about age, which is the theme of Montaigne’s last essay in his first book, titled “Of age”. For isn’t it so that in some cultures people say that they have become one year older at New Year’s Day, and not on their birthday, as is customary in western countries, for instance?
Some people say that age is just a number. Although I think that there is much truth in it, I think also that it is not true. Age develops always and continuously in one direction. It is not possible to move backwards and become younger, despite what all advertisements on beauty products tell. Biologically there is a maximum length of life, which is about 115 years, and from the time perspective life is a steady count-down with the possibility that the count-down will come to an end already before this maximum has been reached. Actually, that’s what usually happens and nobody knows beforehand exactly when the end will be.
On the other hand, already the just mentioned fact that age is not counted everywhere in the world in the same way puts its absolute value into perspective. Even more, sometimes it appears to run in the wrong direction. At a certain age a person’s physical capacities gradually go down as every older sportsman knows. The process becomes clear when you are about 35-40 years old. And it is so that my average speed of my enduance runs has decreased with a third since then. Nevertheless, when I am riding on my race bike my speed has stayed quite stable through the years, and, to my surprise, it has a bit increased again during the past two-three years, despite my advanced age, and these years are “bikewise” among my best years ever. Does it mean that I am becoming younger again? But how then does this relate to my decreasing speed when I am running? This unequal development can certainly be explained, but it shows that there is also a grain of truth in the saying that age is just a number. Apparently age is not a one-dimensional phenomenon.
We see also a kind of uneven development when we compare our physical and mental capacities. Despite my personal experiences, generally our physical capacities follow a certain pattern of growth during the first 30 years or so and then a gradual decay sets in when you have become 35 years old. Individually there are big differences, also depending on a person’s physical history, but this is the common physical pattern of a human life. I don’t know whether there is such a pattern of our mental development, but what is clear is that a person’s physical and mental development seldom go together. Often you hear people of, say, 60 years old express the feeling that mentally they feel as if they were 20 years old. Even if it is not true that they are mentally that young – and I think that it isn’t true, although I have the same feeling –it shows that our mental age is not the same as our physical age. Have you ever heard a sexagenarian saying that he or she feels physically the same as when s/he was 20 years old? A person of that age knows that every substantially younger person will beat him by a mile, or what way we compare them. And many people who can hardly walk anymore and are physically afflicted with age are still young in spirit.
The upshot is that the assertion that age is just a number is not true. The higher the age the older a person is. Nevertheless it is also not true that age is merely a number. There are too many phenomena that refute it. And Montaigne? He wrote most of his essay on the question that in his days most people didn’t die of old age but by accidents and illnesses and that mental and social life had not been adapted to this fact. Much has changed since then. What Montaigne didn’t foresee and couldn’t foresee so what he didn’t discuss is that being young and staying young has become a cult. Keeping fit and looking well have become big business these days. Does it make sense from the perspective of aging?
Happy New Year! And how much have you become older (or younger) today?

Monday, December 29, 2014

How to celebrate Christmas

German and British soldiers meeting each other, Christmas 1914

For most who read this blog Christmas will already be past, in case they celebrate it; for some others it has yet to come. How did or do you celebrate it?
Wittgenstein didn’t like to celebrate Christmas with his family in Vienna. It made him depressive and often it wasn’t a really enjoyable affair. But as it happens in such cases, it was difficult not to go to the yearly family reunion. In order to make the meeting more pleasant, he wrote in November 1929 to his brothers and sisters:
“It is impossible not to see that we are able to do that just on this evening what we couldn’t do and didn’t want to do during the whole year, namely the five of us being together without the company of friends,”.
I do not know how Wittgenstein celebrated Christmas that year. I suppose it was with his brothers and sisters and without friends. But this passage has a clear message that is wider than just the private question for the Wittgenstein family how to pass Christmas in 1929. It says: Sometimes we need mediators to solve our problems or at least a little help from a friend, also for small problems and also for celebrating a merry Christmas or maybe just then, since Christmas is a call for peace.
However, for many people “peace” just only day is nothing else but another word for “truce”: a temporary stop of quarrels or hostilities. That’s what we often see in war. An agreed Christmas truce has a clear beginning and a clear end. When Christmas Day has passed the acts of war will start again. It’s better than nothing, but has it anything to do with the idea of Christmas? I think it hasn’t. When during Christmas 1914 – so exactly hundred years ago – Allied and German soldiers fraternized for some days on the Western Front during the First World War, they were serious and really wanted that this would mean the end of this war, I think. But they were forced to fight again after some days (but at some places this unofficial truce lasted even two weeks) and the worst of this war was yet to come. During Christmas 1915 and later measures were taken by the higher authorities to prevent new fraternizations. Nevertheless, although it doesn’t look like that at the moment, the world has become less violent since the days of World War One (see my blog dated May 27 and June 3, 2013).
And how will you celebrate the turn of the year and what will be your New Year’s resolutions? Anyway, Happy New Year first of all, and then we’ll see.

Monday, December 22, 2014

“He that injures one threatens many” (Francis Bacon)


Once I wrote in a blog: “Trust is relying on the reliability of another, for example that she or he will do what s/he says, without having any explicit guarantee that the other will really carry out what s/he is expected to do.” Of course, there are many rules and regulations in society that prescribe what to do or not to do in certain situations and that can and will be enforced when they are broken. Nevertheless we need trust, for in practice not all rules and regulations are enforced or the enforcement is so complicated that it is better to avoid it. Moreover, not everything can be regulated. So, in order to make that social and individual relations go smoothly we need trust. From that perspective trust is the lubricant for society.
The basis of trust is often quite vague. Usually it is not more than trustworthy behaviour in the past by the person you trust; his or her “trustworthy” appearance; sweet-talk or a good story that someone tells you in order to convince you of his trustworthiness; and so on. In fact, trust rests on trust till the opposite has become clear. In old films it is so simple: scoundrels look like scoundrels and good guys or girls look like good guys or girls and they behave that way. But, alas, reality is not that simple, although many people (unconsciously) think so as psychological tests show: Being a good-looking person is an asset in order to get things done, for being good-looking and being considered trustworthy are things that tend to go together.
Several factors can undermine trust. So the more rules and regulations there are in social life the less trust there is. The reason is that they subvert intrinsic motivation and make people calculating, often at the cost of others. Another trust undermining factor is – it’s clear – known untrustworthy behaviour in the past, like not keeping one’s appointments. A third factor is not correcting mistakes when others are involved especially if the person who made the mistake acknowledges having made the mistake. A fourth trust undermining factor I want to mention is money: Also when money is involved in executing an agreement or a promise, people tend to become more calculating. Money put relations on a business footing and then people behave accordingly.
And there is corruption. Not only is it so that corruption makes that relations become a matter of tit-for-tat or that it can lead to clientelism. It leads also to exclusion of individuals and groups from social favours or things they need in case they do not have the money for paying bribes or do not have the relations needed for getting things done. Corruption leads to social inequality and in the worst case to violence as well. That’s why already Montaigne protested against the corruption he saw around him. But since corruption cannot be practised openly, corrupt people try to prevent that they are exposed as corrupt, often by corrupt means, or, if they are politicians, by moulding the law to their will and by limiting the freedom of the press or the freedom of demonstration. Just these days again, we see this in Turkey by the arrest of journalists or in Spain, where the government wants to make stricter laws for demonstrations (just now that the governing Partido Popular – “People’s Party”– is involved in so many corruption affairs).
These are only some factors that undermine trust, for there are many more. Trust looks often like a concept escaped from a fairy tale. Isn’t it so that in the end nobody can be trusted and that, in the end, we have to behave as if it doesn’t exist? That human relationships are actually not more than a kind of business? Maybe they are, but when thinking of trust and untrustworthiness, the words of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) certainly apply that “Multis minatur, qui uni facit injuriam”, or in English: “He that injures one threatens many”. Untrustworthiness destabilizes society. Judge yourself and take a look at this website, for instance, where the 2014 Corruption Perception Index is presented: http://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results .

Monday, December 15, 2014

When prophecy fails (2)


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

Monday, December 08, 2014

Reality behind words

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

Passages (4)


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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Passages (3)

Self-made passage

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Passages (2)


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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Passages


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

Monday, November 03, 2014

“Do like the others and become yourself”


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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“All things have their season” (2)


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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joint commitment


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