Monday, May 30, 2016

The ghost in the machine

Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology.” That’s what I wrote last week. Psychology influences not only the way we calculate but – as we have seen already many times in these blogs – many other things we do as well. We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by. Holding a warm cup of coffee in your hands makes you having more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of iced coffee. It’s surprising for it seems so irrational, especially the latter example: What has the temperature of coffee to do with my feelings towards somebody? But, alas, so it works. The mind is an odd instrument.
The consequences of such psychological effects can be far-reaching. They needn’t be limited to our individual behaviour towards others. Moreover, they can be annoying, for it’s weird that how we treat someone else depends on whether we take a café americano or an iced latte. In a job interview it can influence the career of an applicant and whom I’ll get as my new colleague. Our psychology can have wide social effects and affect important aspects of the structure of society.
That’s what I realized when I read in a newspaper about another such a surprising effect: French secondary school students had to draw a complicated figure according to a model. Some students were told that it was a drawing assignment and others that it was a mathematical assignment. In the former case the girls scored better than the boys but in the latter the boys surpassed the girls. However, in either case the assignment was exactly the same. Apparently the reason for this difference is that maths is felt to be for men, and maybe also – but I haven’t heard of this prejudice – that drawing is more for girls. Phenomena like these make that men are on the top in some social fields and women in other domains, even if they have the same relevant qualities. Actually it’s nothing new. It’s said so often, but when confronted again with it, it remains surprising. In this case the drawing assignment illustrates what I would call a combined Beauvoir-Thomas effect. It was Simone de Beauvoir who made clear to us that women are not born as such but that they are made as they are; and once they have been ascribed certain qualities this has consequences for the way they behave and are treated. W.I. Tomas has formulated the latter in his famous theorem saying that if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Voilà the social outcome of a simple psychological phenomenon.
Without psychological characteristics maybe man would be rational, but s/he would not be more than a machine. Our feelings – if we had them – would not be more than a kind of epiphenomena unrelated to the way we behave. Then man as a machine runs as it runs and our alleged psychology would not be more than the smoke that escapes from the locomotive. Maybe it would be an interesting object for study, but it doesn’t influence how the locomotive moves on. If man would be made up that way, s/he would be really rational. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if man would be like this? Some will say “yes”: We would be rid of a lot of misery in this world – human misery like fear, pain, injustice, inequality, etc. Maybe all this would still exist but it functions just as Descartes thought about animals: Animals are a kind of machines; perhaps they have feelings but they don’t give attention it. However, I think that man is not that rational kind of being. Happily, I would say, for if psychology is not a substantial part of what man is, we would also lose a lot. We would have our feelings but yet haven’t them. We would exist without all kinds of misery, but also without everything we value like joy, creativity, relationship, love, wonder, discovery, meaning, ideas ... – just all those things that makes man human and that makes that s/he is not simply a ghostless machine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The donkey and the money

You are participating in a TV quiz and you have reached the final round. You have to choose between three doors: A, B and C. Behind one door there is a cheque of 5 million euro. It will be yours if you choose that door. If you choose one of the other doors you’ll win a donkey. You love donkeys, but you prefer the money, also because you can buy then many monkeys plus you’ll have enough money for taking care of the donkey. So you want to win the 5 mln euro but you have no idea behind which door the cheque might be. The quizmaster doesn’t give you a hint. At last you choose Door A. “Okay”, the quizmaster says, “are you sure?” “Yes, I am”, you reply. “Then I’ll open one of the other doors. I know behind which door the money cheque is and I’ll open a door with a donkey”, so the quizmaster. He opens Door C. You see a donkey. “Dear Harry”, the quizmaster then says. “You have chosen Door A. However, the money might also be behind Door B. As I told you, I know behind which door the cheque is. Do you want to change your choice or do you still stick to Door A?” You are a rational man, or so you think: “There are two doors. The cheque is behind one door and behind the other one there is a donkey. So, the chances are even that the cheque is either behind Door A or behind Door B. It makes no difference which door I’ll choose. So why change? It has no sense”. You stick to A. You are lucky: The quizmaster opens Door A and you see the cheque.

Now you are a rich man, a millionaire, for you have won 5 mln euro. You are a donkey lover, so you’ll buy a donkey for the money you got. But was it rational to stick to your choice of A, because the chances that the cheque was either behind Door A or behind B were even? Most people will say it was. If they would have been in your shoes in the quiz, they would have thought the same and there is a good chance that they had stuck to their choice, too; for psychological reasons (but that’s another story). However, they and you are not right. It would have been rational to change your choice to B. Let me explain.

There are six possibilities how the money cheque and the donkeys are divided over the doors. I have written them out in a table:

Door A
Door B
Door C
5 mln
donkey A
donkey B
5 mln
donkey B
donkey A
donkey A
5 mln
donkey B
donkey B
5 mln
donkey A
donkey A
donkey B
5 mln
donkey B
donkey A
5 mln

Let’s suppose that you have chosen A and the quizmaster opens a door with a donkey behind it. Then you change your choice to B or to C, as the case may be. The last column of the table shows what happens. If division 1 is the case, you are out of luck: The cheque is behind Door A and you have changed to a door with a donkey. Therefore I have written a minus sign in the last column. Also in situation 2 you are out of luck and will get a donkey. But in the situations 3, 4, 5  and 6 you’ll change to the door with the cheque, since the quizmaster has opened already the only door with the monkey. So the odds are two to one that you’ll win the cheque, on condition that the quizmaster knows behind which door the cheque is (and so opens the other one with a donkey).
But how about if you had stuck to your choice of Door A? Then you had won the money in situations 1 and 2 but you had got a donkey in all other situations (the minus signs become plus signs in the last column of the table and the other way round). Now the odds are one to two to get the cheque.

Was it rational to switch? Now you’ll say “yes”: It does sense to change your choice because the quizmaster knows what he does, when he opens one of the doors you hadn’t chosen. But most likely you’ll not be the only person who makes this mistake, unless he or she has read the explanation. Even more, after it had been published (in the American Statistician and elsewhere), still many readers thought that the chances were even. Among them there were highly educated and knowledgeable people. Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology. Know who you are and what rationality means.

Source: Herman de Regt & Hans Dooremalen, Het snapgevoel. Amsterdam: Boom, 2015; chapter 5. If you want to know more about it, google then “Monty Hall problem”.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The end of the universe

In these blogs I talked already several times about thought experiments. Thought experiments are used in all kinds of philosophy but especially when discussing questions concerning man’s personal identity and analyzing ethical problems. The reason is that it is often impossible to do real experiments in these fields, for practical or for moral reasons. For example in the debate on personal identity it often happens that brains are switched between two persons. Should we take the risk that a man wouldn’t survive such an operation just for the sake of testing or developing a philosophical theory? So we use our imagination for answering our questions.
The first philosopher who used a brain switching thought experiment was John Locke in 1694 in his An Essay concerning Human Understanding. (Actually, Locke didn’t switch the brains but the bodies of a prince and a cobbler in his case). Before Locke Descartes used already thought experiments, for example when he developed the theory that led to his statement “Cogito ergo sum” – I think so I am. However, thought experiments are much older and also Greek philosophers employed them, although they didn’t call them by that name. Some of their cases are still used by modern philosophers, like “The Ship of Theseus”. One version of it is that gradually the planks of Theseus’ ship are replaced by new planks but that the old planks are again used for constructing a new ship. Which ship is the real ship of Theseus?
Although “Theseus’ Ship” is the best known thought experiment from classical philosophy, it is not the oldest one. That’s one ascribed to Archytas of Tarentum (428-347 BC), so Katerina Ierodiakonou in a Dutch philosophy magazine. His thought experiment is the first one that has been recorded. Archytas worked in the tradition of Pythagoras’ School and he is an interesting person. He is said to be the founder of mathematical mechanics and to have developed a kind of airplane that has even flown over a short distance. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I think that for historical reasons, but also for philosophical reasons, this oldest thought experiment is interesting, also because it’s one that can be used in present-day philosophical debates. When discussing the problem whether the universe is finite or infinite, Archytas says: Suppose that you arrive at the end of the universe and extend a staff. Then you touch either a body or it is possible to extend the staff in empty space. In both cases you will not have reached yet the end of the universe and you can go on and repeat the same action when you have arrived at what you think now as the end of the universe, which will lead to the same result. The upshot is that the universe is infinite. What Archytas did not and could not consider is that the universe might be curved, so that nevertheless it could be finite. Is it important? As Karl Popper told us, every answer is significant for it gives us a starting point to discuss about and to improve it. But despite that, Archytas’s thought experiment is not only a contribution to the cosmological theory, but it has also a psychological meaning, for instance – “for instance”, for I guess that it can be given very different interpretations –: Even if you think that you have come at the end of your mental possibilities (for example in a conflict), stretch your mind and you’ll see that there still is some space to move and to solve your problem and to solve your inflexibility. Thinking is infinite, as are our ideas.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Of cannibalism

When travelling abroad, one of the most interesting things to do is to look what the local people eat and to enjoy their dishes. However, in this era of globalization – and I must admit that just by travelling I contribute to it – taking traditional local dishes has become increasingly difficult. As so many other things, also what people eat tends to become international or “global”, which are other words for “everywhere the same”, in this case. Is this “everywhere the same” the price of globalization? It seems so. Nevertheless, there still are local differences and there still is local food to enjoy. In terms of my blog two weeks ago, where I distinguished three kinds of eating: It’s still possible to take a traditional meal, although more and more eating on holiday gets the feature of getting food, so to speak. At last one has to eat.
It’s weird – and I am the first to admit it – but in this context of talking about food, meals and travelling I had to think of cannibalism: eating your fellow man. It sounds as if men are bred for that purpose, like pigs and poultry. As if it is one of the dishes you can enjoy when you travel in an “uncivilized country” and make your choice from the local specialties in a restaurant. Happily, it’s not as simple as that. Man is not seen as a delicacy. Although sometimes men are eaten for satisfying one’s hunger, especially in times of a serious famine, it seems to be rather exceptional and generally cannibalism has a ritual or spiritual or sometimes a medical reason. Modern man calls this practice barbarous, and with right. However, one has to put the practice into perspective, for what is barbarous? Look around and see what people do to each other.
Montaigne describes the custom of cannibalism practiced by a people in South America that he doesn’t mention by name. Apparently he had borrowed the story from a book by the French geographer André Thevet who travelled in 1555 in Brazil. Thevet told that people there ate prisoners they had taken during their wars with surrounding people. The prisoners were held captive for some time but they were well treated. In the end they were slaughtered and consumed in a public ceremony. Montaigne agrees with those who call this practice cruel and a barbarous horror. However, he says, isn’t it so that “every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.” (in “Of Cannibals”) But then, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.” Montaigne had seen a lot of cruelty and barbarism in his life. Also today we still have a lot of cruelty around us. How then can we condemn other acts that are in fact less barbarous? Shouldn’t we first look at ourselves before we point a finger at others? Apparently the so-called “barbarians” often live in closer accord to our belied morality than we often do ourselves, is what Montaigne wants to tell us; a lesson that needs to be told again and again – also today.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Some quotes

Once I had a list of quotations on a social network website. I used to publish there my weekly blog, too. However, the number of members and visitors of that website diminished gradually and the webmaster decided to discontinue it. How pity, for I met a lot of nice people there and I got also many comments on my blogs. My blogs can still be read here on, but the list of quotations had gone. I am a bit sorry for it, so I decided to publish them here as my blog for this week. Some quotations are not completely new for the readers of this blog in the sense that I have used them here before. Do you mind? Good thoughts cannot be repeated too often, so here they are, without comments:

"No man shall be interfered with on account of his religion, and any one is to be allowed to go over to any religion he pleases" (Akbar, Indian Moghul Emperor, Muslim,1542-1605)
"Se battre pour le prestige, pour le honneur, c'est se battre littéralement pour rien" (Fighting for prestige, for honour, is litteraly fighting for nothing) (René Girard)
“We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
“We should not take the absence of the word to be equivalent to the absence of thought” (Martha C. Nussbaum)
“Every society as a whole learns that happiness cannot be equated with development” (Michel de Certeau)
"C'est une dangereuse invention que celle des gehenes, et semble que ce soit plustost un essay de patience que de vérité."
“The putting men to the rack is a dangerous invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth."
Montaigne on torture.
“War is always more popular with those who don’t experience it” (Mark Kurlansky)
“If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine” (Guy Chapman)
"The more violence, the less revolution" (Bart de Ligt, 1883-1938)
“Tuer un homme, ce n’est pas défendre une doctrine, c’est tuer un homme” (Castellio, 1515-1563)
"Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man".
“Does it never strikes you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?” (L.F. Richardson)
Instead of "Cogito ergo sum" - "I think, therefore I am" (Descartes) I would rather say "Sum ergo cogito" - "I am, therefore I think". (myself- HbdW)
"Parce que c'etait lui, parce que c'etait moi" (Because it was he, because it was I)
Montaigne's definition of friendship

Friday, April 22, 2016

On eating

It’s strange: Philosophers don’t give attention to one of the basic phenomena of life, or hardly: eating. Aren’t they aware of it, just as we usually aren’t aware that we breath? So Socrates does discuss the question “What is good?” but not the question “What is tasty?” Nevertheless, unlike breathing, eating is surrounded with rules, habits and customs.
In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt distinguished three forms of human activity: Labour, work and action. Labour is, so Arendt, “the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body”. Her definition of work is a bit too vague for my purpose here. I want to describe it as a treating, processing, tooling etc. of the natural. As Arendt explains her definition: “Work provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, different from the natural surroundings.” Here we must take “artificial” in the literal sense of “instrumental”: working with instruments. Action refers to the social aspect of human activity. It “...goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter[. It] corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” (p. 7)
I think that the distinction labour-work-action is very useful to gain an insight into the varieties of eating and what they mean for human beings. When an animal eats, it has literally an im-mediate relation to what it eats. The relation is without means. An animal eats what it finds in nature as it is. It doesn’t have a kitchen garden, it doesn’t prepare what it eats. For an animal what it eats is just “fodder”.
There must have been a time that eating for man was also simply looking for fodder. And this way of eating has never fully disappeared. Sometimes we go to pick mushrooms or blackberries. But already long ago, and I think at last when making fire had been invented, man learned not only to gather what it needs to eat but also to make it. Fodder became, as I would call it – a bit arbitrary – “food”. Products of nature were collected and processed by cooking, drying, processing and treating them in other ways. Things that originally were inedible could be made edible by treating them. Food or products of nature were also treated that way that they could be stored. Even more, man learned to adapt nature so that no longer the raw material for food needed to be searched for but was provided in an artificial way by “nature”: agriculture had been invented. Using Arendt’s terms, we could say that men got no longer what they eat by labour (fodder) but by work (food). That’s still so today, although food production has become very advanced.
Again I don’t know when it happened but during the development from primitive ape to modern man also something else changed in the relationship to eating: It became a social practice surrounded with rules, habits and customs that had nothing to do with the physical production and consumption of the fodder and food. Eating became a kind of action in Arendt’s sense. What was consumed was no longer fodder or food but a “meal”. Nowadays, generally eating is not simply taking fodder or food but having a meal. It has become more than simply a matter of satisfying your hunger, but, for instance, a way of structuring your day, socializing with family and friends, and so on. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner at fixed times. We do something before or after lunch. We have a business diner in a restaurant or a meal is used for maintaining social relationships. Some pray before and after diner. We prepare our food not only for making it tastier but also for showing to others that we are good cooks. Also when you eat alone rituals are important. If you work alone at home, dinner can be the point that your working day has ended. Lunch is the time for a walk. You prepare your meal well also for yourself in order to feel better, although a simple meal would satisfy your hunger as well. In other words, eating as a physical activity becomes subordinate to its practical, ritualized, social, or whatever aspects by becoming a meal.
Much more can be said about eating, taking food or having a meal. My classification of fodder, food and meal is only a first move towards a more comprehensive philosophy of eating as a a significant aspect of daily life and not as a kind of ethics or seen as just an idea behind the way food is produced (which are the philosophical approaches of eating already practiced in a corner of the philosophical field – but isn’t it striking that the most important book on the philosophy of eating has been published 150 years ago? –). Who will deny that eating has many philosophical aspects and that it is a meaningful activity that we need to philosophize about? Bon appétit!
Reference: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958/1998.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Food for thought

In my blog last week I discussed an example used by Searle about how to make a hollandaise sauce. The essence of the case was not, of course, giving a recipe of the sauce or some practical tips how to make it, but to explain a philosophical question, namely whether there is something like a collective intention. It was just a case for analysis. Nevertheless, it is striking how little philosophers (including me) talk about one of the basic phenomena of life: food and eating. Of course, there is some kind of philosophy of food but it is a very little branch of philosophy and I think that most philosophers have never heard of it, let alone that they can tell something about it or mention the names of a few exponents. Moreover, since philosophers often use examples from daily life, it was to be expected, that at least sometimes they use cases related to food and eating. They don’t. The example of Searle is the exception that proves the rule. It seems strange, indeed, but it happens more often that philosophers ignore “trivial” events in life that are in fact very important. Also waiting is a case in point. Although we spend a lot of time on it, it’s ignored by philosophy.
Nevertheless, human as philosophers are, eating is also for them important. Somewhere in the journal of his voyage to Germany and then to Italy Montaigne wrote that he regretted that he hadn’t taken his cook with him in order to write down local recipes of the regions he passed, so that the cook could prepare these dishes, when he was home again. Wittgenstein explicitly preferred simple meals. Somewhere on the Internet I found this story, which was typical for him:

“Wittgenstein went to stay with his friend Maurice Drury in Ireland. Drury described the visit:
Thinking my guests would be hungry after their long journey and night crossing, I had prepared a rather elaborate meal: roast chicken followed by suet pudding and treacle. Wittgenstein rather silent during the meal. When we had finished [Wittgenstein said], ‘Now let it be quite clear that while we are here we are not going to live in this style. We will have a plate of porridge for breakfast, vegetables from the garden for lunch, and a boiled egg in the evening.’ This was then our routine for the rest of his visit.” (

For other philosophers it is the same, or for most of them: Food and eating are important, also for philosophers, but they don’t talk about it in a philosophical way, even not if they need an example to flesh out an interesting problem. As for this, Searle is an exception. Generally reference to the theme remains restricted to some oblique remarks, as if a philosopher can survive without eating and drinking.

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to make a hollandaise sauce

As my readers certainly will have noticed, one of my main fields of interest is the philosophy of action, so the field of philosophy that thinks about the possibility of intentional action and about what happens if we say that we act for a reason. Aristotle was the first who thought about such questions and since then the discussion has never ended. Or rather, sometimes the problem seemed forgotten but then it flared up again. However, this all is about what persons individually do. But how about groups? Do groups have intentions more or less in the way as individuals have them? Some philosophers like Tuomela, Bratman and Gilbert answer this question in a positive way in one way or another and they say that groups certainly have if we talk about small groups. Is this right? In order to examine this question let me start with a case that John Searle treats in a contribution to the debate. I have changed the case a lot, however. Here I cannot refer to individual contributors to the discussion. I simply present my view.
Smith and Jones, who work in a restaurant, are preparing a hollandaise sauce together. Jones is stirring while Smith slowly pours in the ingredients. Some philosophers would say now that Smith and Jones have a kind of collective intention to prepare the sauce. While they are busy, Baker calls Jones and tells him that he is wanted on the telephone. Since the sauce will be ruined if Jones stops stirring, Baker takes his place. Does it make any difference if the sauce will be ready before Jones returns or that he is called away for an urgent case and doesn’t return? I think that in both cases it is not simply so that there is a collective intention that makes that Baker and Smith do what they do. For I think that what Baker does is not preparing the hollandaise sauce as such but helping Smith and Jones. Baker, who is the switchboard operator in the restaurant, doesn’t know what a hollandaise sauce is. Therefore Smith tells Baker what he has to do and in this way the sauce is prepared. However, actually Baker doesn’t know what he is doing but he simply follows Smith’s instructions. He is just making physical moves and his intention is only helping Smith and Jones. By means of making the moves that Smith says he has to perform, Baker helps Smith and Jones. Helping is Baker’s intention. His intention is different from the intentions of Smith and Jones each, who wanted to make a hollandaise sauce. Therefore, even if we might have had first a group with the collective intention of making a hollandaise sauce, namely the group consisting of Smith and Jones, after that Jones has been replaced by Baker we don’t have a group with such an intention any longer, for Baker doesn’t know well what he is doing and that the result of his stirring is that a hollandaise sauce is prepared (in cooperation with Smith). Smith’s intention is pouring in the ingredients so that is hollandaise sauce is prepared, while Baker’s intention is helping Smith and Jones, or replacing Jones, if you like. Nevertheless, we get a hollandaise sauce in the end by the joint activities of Smith and Baker (and Jones, of course, who did his part, too, and maybe comes back before Smith and Baker have finished).
Now we can talk yet a lot about the identity of the group Smith-Jones-Baker, but I think that anyway we cannot deny that here we have a group of people who fulfil a task successfully together, but nevertheless not all of them know what the purpose of the group is. They simply do the prescribed tasks. The upshot is that people can work successfully together in a group and as group, but nevertheless there doesn’t need to be a collective intention for this.

For Searle’s version of the example discussed by me see his “Collective Intentions and Actions”,,d.bGg

Monday, April 04, 2016

A picture on the wall

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “we regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so on) depicted there.” (Part II, xi) Note that Wittgenstein italicized the word “regard” (“betrachten” in German). However, when you look for this quotation on the Internet you’ll see that often the italicization has been omitted. This is not correct, for there is a difference in meaning. Without the italicization the quotation seems to say: For us the photo on the wall is the same as the actual object, while in Wittgenstein’s version the quotation says: We often do as if the photo on the wall is the object represented, although we know that it’s a representation of the object. The latter interpretation is in keeping with my idea that a picture is an interpretation of the object. It makes also possible such questions as whether the picture really depicts the object as it is or whether it is an imagination of the photographer (a modern photographer might have photoshopped it; a photographer in Wittgenstein’s days might have used certain chemicals for getting a certain effect). We couldn’t call a photo surrealistic in case we didn’t italicize “regard” for then we suppose that the picture is as the landscape is and not maybe a distortion of the reality of the original landscape.
Anyhow, in practice we often behave as if the image is the same as the object represented in the image, for example because it is the most direct relation we have to the object represented. We have a photo of our dear on our desk. We place a picture of the deceased next to the book of condolence. We cry when we see a picture because it evokes memories. Could we do otherwise? Although we know that the picture is not really what it represents, it helps concretize and direct our thoughts.
That’s also why we use symbols. A symbol is actually nothing but a thing or a picture that stands for another thing, person, idea or whatever it may be. The shape or appearance of the symbol needs not to have any relation with what it is a symbol for. A road sign that tells you to stop and to give priority to the traffic on the road that crosses yours is just a sign, but every road user knows its meaning.
Symbols have an important function in life. I mentioned already traffic signs. Flags are used for symbolizing a nation, national unity or national proud. It’s so even in that way that flags are also used for arousing the idea of a nation, national unity or national proud.
Attacking or destroying symbols can hit people in their hearts. It can make people react and feel that they have to do something against the attack on the symbol. Gandhi was a master in using nonviolent symbolic actions for undermining the British rule over India. His action of breaking the British salt laws in India might not have been a factual threat for the British government, but he knew that any breaking of the law would be a challenge to the British authority and he judged also with right that many Indians would follow him in breaking just this law. This made the action, which was “only” symbolic, a great success. What is important in my context is that it shows that symbols are not simply signs but that they have sense.
A symbol is more than thousand words. It stands for something real. Even more, it is real. That’s why people react to symbols, especially when they are damaged on purpose. For we regard the symbol as the object itself that it represents, even if we know that actually it is not more than a few lines of paint, a piece of cloth or a mere handful of crystals; just as a photo is nothing more than some ink on a sheet of cardboard.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A philosophy of photos

In my blog last week we have seen that photos can capture philosophical thoughts and stimulate philosophical thinking. But captured in a photo, we see always an abstraction of reality; not reality as such. Such an abstraction can be done in different ways. Last week’s photo brings several aspects of life together, like a medieval painting that combines related scenes in one picture. Besides that we live through these phases of life one after another and in fact cannot put them together as if they were coexistent, they are also represented in a metaphorical way. The road stands for the course of life, for example. It is also possible to single out one philosophical aspect and take a photo of it. Each aspect of the ferry photo can be photographed apart as a metaphor of an aspect of life. The problem is then – and that is also true for the ferry photo as a whole – that the metaphorical sense of such a photo of an aspect usually needs a verbal explanation: The metaphorical sense is often not obvious, for why would it be so that a road represents the path of life?
A photo can also depict a philosophical theory. So at the moment I am working on a series of photos that tries to express the idea that people don’t look in an objective way to the world around but that they have to interpret what they see, by fitting it in the mental frames they have developed through the years. Such frames are also known as cognitive schemas: schemas that help organize what you see and that let out what is unimportant and bring to the foreground what is relevant for you. However, frames can also distort reality and leave out what might be relevant but that isn’t recognized by you as such, just because your prejudiced or biased cognitive schema blocks it. I still have a long way to go before I’ll have taken a convincing series of photos.
Often I have taken photos of objects, sites or sceneries simply because I liked them, although I couldn’t say why, and only afterwards I saw their possible philosophical relevance. I think that most readers of this blog will know Plato’s allegory of the cave: A group of people is imprisoned from childhood in a cave. Behind their backs a fire is burning and between the fire and the prisoners people are continuously passing by. The prisoners are chained that way that they cannot see what occurs behind them. They see only the shadows of the passers-by on a wall in front of them. Therefore the prisoners know only how these people look like and what they transport in an indirect way and for the prisoners the projections on the wall constitute the real world, since they don’t know the world in another way. Now it is so that I often take photos of reflections in water, like the one on the top of this blog. Once I realized that such a photo does not only show a special image but that in fact it is a photo of a “Plato World”: The picture indirectly shows what was outside the range of the camera just as the shadows in Plato’s cave reflect what is going on behind the backs of the prisoners. But what is seen is actually a distorted reality, for – for instance – houses and threes don’t thrill.
Would the image present reality if I hadn’t taken a picture of the reflection of the houses and trees but had photographed them directly? I think the answer is also “no”. The image of the photo on the top of this blog is actually a second degree image: It’s a picture of a reflection in water and the reflection is a picture of the real houses and trees along the waterside. However, also the image in the camera is a kind of representation of reality and not reality itself, for it is a construction: The image in the camera and the photo based on it are not a capture of the reality as it is (although many people think so) but made as the maker of the camera think we can best transform the world as it is into a manageable picture that can be shown on a computer and, if you like, e-mailed to other people or printed on paper. If the camera construction had been different, the photo would have been different as well (in case you don’t grasp this, think of the way photos looked like, say, 50 years ago). Once we realize this, we must come to the conclusion that the photo on the top of this blog is not a second degree but a third degree representation, for what I failed to add yet is its interpretation by the observer in his or her mind. The upshot is that there is no photo or it is philosophical in some way, even if it’s plain. However, some photos are more philosophical than other ones.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

March 22, 2016

Could the blog I published a few days ago be more relevant? Never kill a phoenix. It will come back stronger.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Life as a passage

Ferry near Wijk bij Duurstede, Netherlands

“A picture is worth a thousand words”, they say, and there is much truth in it. But can a single photo capture a whole life? I had to think of it when I had taken the photo on the top of this blog. It is for a series of passages I am working on. Maybe some readers remember that I have written also four blogs on this theme in November 2014. Passages are places we have to go through because we are moving from one place to another; from A to B. In a sense, most such places have no meaning for us. We are there only because we cannot avoid them, like the waiting room on an airfield, or the platform on the railway station where we have to change trains. Once we have boarded the airplane or got in the next train, we have forgotten how it looked like, unless we have been there already more often. Also the ferry on the picture is such a passage: A place with hardly any meaning for the casual passer-by, for he or she is only there in order to cross the river, not because it’s such an interesting place. It is a good photo, I think, for everything that has to be on it is on it and nothing more: The row of new arrivals waiting for the ferry; the café where you can take a drink or a simple meal; the river, of course; the ferryboat just crossing the river; the other bank; and the old ferry house on the other side of the river. Therefore, the photo gives a meaningful picture of a meaningless place; or at least meaningless for most of us (not for the ferryman, of course, since for him it’s not a passage but the basis of his living).
However, the longer I look at this photo, the more I become convinced that the image is not as meaningless as it might appear at first glance. Indeed, for the passer-by the ferry is a non-place, as Augé would call it. But aren’t we all passers-by during our whole life? From a certain perspective, life is nothing but a passage or a transit or a thoroughfare, or how you want to call it. We come, stay somewhere for a short time, go, stay elsewhere, go again and so on until we definitively leave. Every stay somewhere, shorter or longer, can be seen as a preparation for the next phase of our transit through life. Some call it an eternal journey, but it is an eternal journal with stops and passages. And the longer I look at the photo, the more I realize that it is this what the photo expresses: The transit of life. Must I explain it? Look at the road, which symbolizes the thread of life. It enters the picture as we enter life at birth (but we don’t see where it starts, just as we cannot see the beginning of the past; and aren’t we the continuation of the past?). We see our fellow travellers (the cars); a place where we can stop for a longer time (the café or the ferry house; maybe we let a ferry pass if we haven’t yet finished our meal). We see the problems we have to overcome (the river) and that we don’t need to overcome the problems alone (the ferryboat; our fellow travellers). And we see the future (the other bank). Or is the river the stream of death like the Styx in Greek mythology that kept the world of the living and the underworld apart? But then the ferryboat must be the boat of Charon, the mythological ferryman.
Without a doubt there is much more in this photo. Look and discover and give it your own interpretation. I am sure that everybody will understand the photo in a different way and will see aspects that I haven’t seen: A picture paints a thousand words, if not ten thousand. It is like life, which can be also be considered in many different ways, even in case we talk about one and the same life.

More passages on

Monday, March 14, 2016

On collective behaviour

The question whether there is some kind of collective intentionality that is shared by several people in – for instance – groups is one of the current themes in the philosophy of action. If there is, it will be a kind of we-intention that cannot be reduced to individual intentions put together in some way. In order to show that collective intentionality is a genuine phenomenon, John Searle discusses the case of a class of business school graduates. There is a difference, so Searle, between the way a group of business school graduates acts, if they simply try to behave as selfishly as possible according to the theory of Adam Smith after having left school, and a group of such graduates who have made a common pledge on the graduation day that they’ll help humanity by being as selfish as possible. Only in the latter case, so Searle, there is cooperation and a genuine collective intentionality – even though it is a cooperation not to cooperate on a lower level – for the latter class is bound by a common pact while the former class isn’t. But do we have here really a case of collective intentionality? Is the business class that made a pledge really different from the class that didn’t?
In order to answer this question, I want examine the relation between the supposed collective intentionality and the actions performed by those who made the pledge. Let me first take an example by Michael Bratman. Two people are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of them is painting on his own, but they coordinate the work in some way. One scrapes the old paint and the other paints what the first one has scraped. One buys the brushes and the other buys the paint. Both check what the other person has promised to do; etc. How different is it what the newly graduated businessmen – businessmen for short – who follow a common pledge do. Their actions are based on the common pledge, indeed, but nevertheless the individual actions have no relation with what the other businessmen do. Therefore, as such these actions are not different from the actions by the selfish businessmen who haven’t made a pledge. On the other hand, the two members of Bratman’s painting group, after having made the appointment to paint the house, act together in the sense that the individual actions are related in some way: they spread their tasks. Searle’s businessmen do not do such a common activity as a result of their pledge. On the contrary, a consequence of the pledge is that they do not cooperate, as Searle explicitly says. The actions based on the pledge are not related to each other. They follow purely individual intentions like selling certain products with a maximum gain for the seller. The collective intentionality of the pledge is not a reason for these actions; at most it is a reason for the way the actions are performed, so for the choice of the means. Therefore we can say that the two painters perform the action of painting-the-house-together but we cannot say that the businessmen perform the action of fulfilling-the-common-pledge. If there is a kind of collective intentionality in what the businessmen do (and I doubt if there is), it doesn’t follow from their common pledge.
Why this is so becomes clear when we look at Max Weber’s well-known definition of social action: An action is social if the agent’s behaviour is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we look with this definition in mind at what the businessmen who made the pledge do, we see that there is no orientation towards the actions of the other businessmen in the individual actions of each of the businessmen taken apart. The pledge is merely a background factor of these actions. If we compare the actions of the businessmen, we see that the actions with and without the background of the pledge cannot be distinguished with respect to their content, such as intention and means. As regards content they are copies of each other. The upshot is that if collective intentionality exists, it is not for the reason produced by Searle with his businessmen example.

Sources: Searle, John, “Collective Intentions and Actions”, in: P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M.E. Pollack, (eds.), Intentions in Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1990 (also on,d.bGg ; Bratman, Michael E., “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. 109-129.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Montaigne Fallacy and the Wittgenstein Fallacy

Fallacies are fallacious argumentations. Many people commit them, usually inadvertently but also as a trick to manipulate other people. However, it should be so that philosophers as experts in sound reasoning don’t commit fallacies. Nevertheless, since also experts make mistakes or have their unthinking moments, it can be supposed that they sometimes do. Let me look at two philosophers often discussed in these blogs: Montaigne and Wittgenstein.

Ludwig von Mises, the famous economist (1881-1973), draws attention to a fallacy committed by Montaigne. In his short essay “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another” (Essays I-22), Montaigne writes “no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another”. Of course, as such this doesn’t need to be true, for profits don’t need to be extracted from what other people do, but can, for instance, come from cooperation with others or from a better use of the means, like a farmer who succeeds to get a higher yield from his land. Therefore, von Mises observes: “The Leitmotiv [i.e., an often repeated theme] of social philosophy up to the emergence of economics was: The profit of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others. This is not a philosophy of social cooperation, but of dissociation and social disintegration. For the sake of expediency, we call this doctrine after its proponent, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). In the light of this Montaigne Fallacy, human intercourse cannot consist in anything but the spoliation of the weaker by the stronger.” (; italics added) However, Casto Martín Montero Kuscevic and Marco Antonio del Río Rivera called this comment by von Mises unfair. (see Montaigne lived in a time of a very closed economic system that was full of rules of what was allowed and not allowed to do. Many activities were charged and the profits went to the king, the lords and the tax collector. In that light Montaigne’s remark was not unreasonable and it was probably based on facts. It is “the essence of mercantilist theory”, as another website says ( As we see: Nothing is true, or it is false from another perspective. It depends on the context.

I found also a so-called Wittgenstein Fallacy on the Internet. Michael Dummett wrote in his “Preface” to his Frege. Philosophy of Mathematics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991) that Wittgenstein wouldn’t have survived the present academic system in philosophy in view of his reluctance to publish (during his life, Wittgenstein published only his Tractatus and then yet only one short article) (p. ix). Jason Stanley calls it the “Wittgenstein Fallacy”: “the claim that the profession of philosophy as currently practiced is somehow flawed, because a modern day Wittgenstein would not receive recognition or employment.” ( Or, as I found it formulated elsewhere: The Wittgenstein Fallacy is “the idea that the [philosophical] profession is in such dire straits nowadays – e.g., in demanding mountains of publications for tenure and even tenure-track positions – that even Wittgenstein would not succeed if he were alive today.” ( Now it is so that I was looking for fallacies committed by Wittgenstein and this is only one named after him. But is it a fallacy? In my blog last week, I discussed several definitions of “fallacy”. But according to all definitions a fallacy is a kind of argumentation, albeit a fallacious one. Only the last definition in that blog is wider: “A fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” So, if we see a fallacy as a kind of argumentation, the Wittgenstein Fallacy is not a fallacy. Only if we accept the last definition it might be so, supposing that there is not enough evidence present yet to found Dummett’s idea. However, I would rather call it an opinion or a point of view than a fallacy. It would stretch the concept too much. Not every idea that is wrong is a fallacy. An idea can also be simply right or wrong.

I should have to read the works by Wittgenstein myself with the eye of looking for mistakes in his reasoning in order to find out whether he committed fallacies. I wonder whether I would find any, although it might happen that I find statements I don’t agree with. Certainly it will be the same for many other philosophical works. But even if I would find a mistake in a philosophical theory, it doesn’t automatically imply that it’s a fallacy. It might be nothing more than that: A mistake or otherwise just a difference in view or in interpretation.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The fallacy fallacy


Black-and-white thinking, which I discussed in my blog last week, is not only a psychological and a sociological phenomenon, but it happens also in philosophy. There it is usually called “false dilemma”, but it goes also by other names, like bifurcation and the fallacy of false choice.
A false dilemma is just one member of the big family of fallacies you can commit in your reasoning. There are at least two questions: what is exactly a fallacy and which fallacies do exist? Since the subject of fallacy is new to me – and that’s just why it made me curious to know more about it – I did some research on the Internet and soon I came to the conclusion that both questions don’t have an answer. A fallacy is a false argumentation, indeed, but is it enough to define this type of mistakes? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( makes clear that it is almost impossible to give a comprehensive definition. As usually, the philosophers disagree. Let me follow what this website (IEP for short) says.
Some researchers define a fallacy, so IEP in section 4, “as an argument that is deductively invalid or that has very little inductive strength.” But if this were true, a false dilemma would not be a fallacy, for it is a correct reasoning in this sense. A second definition says that “a fallacy is a mistake in an argument that arises from something other than merely false premises.” However, a false dilemma does start from false premises, so it wouldn’t be a fallacy according to this definition. What definition would we take then? “Still other researchers”, so IEP, “define a fallacy as an argument that is not good. Good arguments are ... deductively valid or inductively strong, and ... contain only true, well-established premises, but are not question-begging.” But if a scientist rejects an old theory and replaces it by a new one, scientists who developed the old theory would then be fallacious argumentators, which is a rather dubious supposition; not everybody will accept it. So, we should try again another definition: “A fallacious argument [is] ... one that either is deductively invalid or is inductively very weak or contains an unjustified premise or that ignores relevant evidence that is available and that should be known by the arguer.” However, this makes almost every error in argumentation a fallacy. A last try given by the IEP is that “a fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” Maybe this is yet the best one, but I think that also this definition is not flawless.
I’ll stop quoting possible definitions of fallacy. I think that we can endorse the conclusion of the IEP in section 4: “Researchers in the field are deeply divided ...” Or should we conclude that there are no fallacies for the simple reason that it’s impossible to define what a fallacy is? But this looks like a fallacy fallacy: The reasoning that a conclusion is false (as a fact), because the reasoning that leads to that conclusion is false.
Maybe we should look at the practice: Which “recognized” fallacies do we know? Also here we have a problem. The IEP lists 213 fallacies. However, the list is only a partial list. It’s not exhaustive. In view of that, it is to be wondered whether the word “fallacy” is more than a label past at will on an error in reasoning. Only one item in the list actually bears the name of fallacy: the prosecutor’s fallacy (“the mistake of over-emphasizing the strength of a piece of evidence while paying insufficient attention to the context”, so the IEP).
What other fallacies does the list contain? I’ll mention only a few:
- Appeal to emotions: A claim is to be accepted merely because it arouses emotional feelings like anger, fear, grief, love, outrage, sympathy, etc.
- Begging the question: A conclusion is derived from premises that presuppose the conclusion. 
- Digression: The answer doesn’t really respond to the question asked.
- Hedging: You refine your claim simply to avoid counterevidence and then act as if your revised claim is the same as the original.
- Scapegoating: Unfairly blaming an unpopular person or group of people for a problem.
But does it matter whether a wrong argumentation is a fallacy? What is important is that we see that some argumentations are false and that such a list of so-called fallacies will certainly help us to avoid them. But maybe this is only wishful thinking and maybe such a list functions only as a smokescreen, although I must admit that what I say now looks like a false analogy.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Shades of grey

A widespread phenomenon in human thinking is what psychologists call “splitting”: Something is this or it is that. It’s never a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s a table or it’s a chair. I like something or I don’t. It’s a planet or it isn’t. And so on. Or rather, so we think it is. However, in reality most is a bit of this and a bit of that. We can sit on a table, and sometimes we do, although it’s an exception. We can put things on a chair, which we do more often. And we even have table chairs for children. On Facebook we can say that we lake a thing but we cannot say that we like it only a little bit or like it very much, although it’s actually the way we feel. And compare the discussion about the question whether Pluto is or isn’t a planet and the emotions it aroused. As if it cannot be so that this satellite of the earth has many characteristics of what we consider a planet, but not all of them. Psychologists have coined the concept of “splitting” for this mode of thought, as said. In plain English we call it black and white thinking.
Black and white thinking is often not as innocent as the discussion on the status of a celestial body like Pluto is. If people tend to think in black and white terms about themselves and see themselves more black than white, they can become depressive. If they think in extremes about others, it can disturb personal relations or even make good relations with others impossible. Therefore the problem of black and white thinking is closely connected with questions of mental health.
Thinking in black and white is not only a psychological but also a sociological phenomenon. In sociology it is ingroup-outgroup thinking or ethnocentrism: the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group. Also the opposite belief exists, namely that one’s own group is inferior to other groups (cf class and caste societies). The belief that one’s own group is different can have also a more neutral expression: The “We are not like them” doesn’t need to say that the own group is superior or inferior, but simply that it is different and that’s it.
If we look around, we find these phenomena in all kinds of discussions, also in one of the most important current discussions in Europe, namely whether Europe has to receive refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Many participants in this discussion ascribe refugees and other immigrants characteristics as a group; not as the individuals they are. “They” are such or “they” are so, many people tell us; and these “such” or “so” are often negative terms (I’ll spare you what these terms are; they make me often sad. I’m sure you know what I mean). Let me be clear, there are bad persons among the refugees, but good persons as well. Look around and watch: Isn’t it so that most people around us are middle-of-the-road? Some are a bit above it, some are a lot above it; others are a bit below it and yet others a lot more. Such is society and such are refugees and immigrants as well, even if they may not be completely representative of the societies  they come from.
Being a photographer, all this makes me think of the way you make a picture. I used to make only colour photos but more and more I tend to photograph in black-and-white. But why do we talk about black-and-white photography? Take a random black-and-white picture and look at it: Though we call it black-and-white what you actually see is many shades of greys with, indeed, here and there deep black and bright white. And what is most important in the so-called black-and-white photography is not getting the right deep blacks and bright whites but getting the right shades of grey. A certain photo can have more blacks than an average photo or just more bright whites, and if the blacks or whites prevail we call such a photo “low key” or “high key” respectively, but in the end it exists of shades of grey.
What has all this to do with society and with refugees and immigrants? When people think about society and special aspects of it, at first they tend to think in black and white: “People are this”, “people are that”, “this group is such and that group is so”. Is it true? Look around, come closer and watch. What do you see? Maybe a deep black spot here and a bright white one there but on the whole you’ll see a picture with all shades of grey, even in case it is low key or high key.