Monday, June 18, 2018

Manipulation through language

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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

The real house of Montaigne

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

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

Montaigne’s cenotaph:

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The last sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Spinoza’s ethics

Part 4 and the first half of Part 5 of Spinoza’s Ethics are about ethics in the narrow sense. The first three parts of the book can be seen as an introduction to what the core of the book describes: a moral philosophy. They constitute the frame of Spinoza’s exposition of good life. In Part 4 he describes his ethics of emotions, so what we must do in order to avoid that our emotions make us behave in the wrong way. Like Part 3, it is followed by a summary. The first part of Part 5 gives an ethics of freedom and it is about our possibilities.
Maybe you expect that Spinoza presents a range of rules about what to do and not to do, like, for instance, the Ten Commandments in the Bible: “You shall not murder”, or “Honour your father and your mother”. Not so Spinoza. Even his summary of Part 4 doesn’t contain explicit rules to follow for leading a moral life but it describes how a good life looks like. The rules of life are implicit, although not difficult to infer.
Spinoza is a rationalist and knowledge is everything for him. Therefore I think that the heart of his ethics can be found in this quotation from Part 4 (Chapters 4 and 5):
“[T]he ultimate aim or highest desire ... is that whereby [man] is brought to the adequate conception of himself and of all things within the scope of his intelligence. ... Therefore, without intelligence there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man's perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil.” For our freedom – treated in Part 5 – this means that in order to be free, we must understand (so trying to get knowledge) what freedom from being led by our emotions involves. We must not be blindly guided by them but try to understand what they do to us. This is the maximum possible, for in the end man is determined by nature. If you find this confusing and contradictory, I agree, for how can being free be compatible with being determined? But that is another discussion – a discussion that still is current – and here I want to restrict myself to clarifying Spinoza’s ethics.
How do you know whether you have knowledge of your emotions so that you will not be taken over by them? For in order to know what to do, you must know which emotions to follow. Spinoza makes this clear in proposition VIII of Part 4 and its proof:
“We call a thing good or evil, when it is of service or the reverse in preserving our being ..., when it increases or diminishes, helps or hinders, our power of activity. Thus, in so far as we perceive that a thing affects us with pleasure or pain, we call it good or evil; wherefore the knowledge of good and evil is nothing else but the idea of the pleasure or pain... Therefore the knowledge of good and evil is nothing else but the emotion, in so far as we are conscious thereof.” In other words: Good is what makes us happy and bad is what makes us sad, and to get knowledge of what makes us happy or sad is not difficult, at least not most of the time. This is the basis of Spinoza’s ethics.
Now you may say that we can fill in all this as we like. For example, sadistic behaviour might make someone happy, and so it would be good for him (but certainly not for the victim). This is not how Spinoza sees it. Spinoza’s ethics is a humane ethics. Some examples: Stand up for yourself, he says, but take care of others. Cooperate where you can. For doing so and helping each other is better for yourself and makes it is easier to become happy. “[I]n reality, Avarice, Ambition, Lust, &c., are species of madness, though they may not be reckoned among diseases.” (proof of proposition XLIV)
Moreover, don’t return hate for hate, for, “Hatred can never be good” (proposition XLV). As Spinoza explains in the proof of the next proposition: “... hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can be quenched by love ..., so that hatred may pass into love ...; therefore he who lives under the guidance of reason will endeavour to repay hatred with love, that is, with kindness.”
And a final quote in order to show how humane Spinoza’s philosophy is: “He who is moved to help others neither by reason nor by compassion, is rightly styled inhuman, for ... he seems unlike a man.” (note on proposition L)

Monday, May 07, 2018

Spinoza on emotions

After my intermezzo on Marx last week, I want to write again on Spinoza. I introduced him as a philosopher whose work is often obscure and difficult to understand. If one compares him with his mental opponent Descartes it is certainly true. When I read Descartes’s Discourse on Method for the first time many years ago, I was surprised how easy to understand his argumentation was, even though I read it in French. When you read Spinoza’s work, you need a lot of background knowledge and often you are wrestling with his style and his ideas, even when you read it (as most of us will do, including me) in translation in your native language. Nevertheless, I can advise you to give it a try. Especially Spinoza’s Ethics is a wonderful book and if you use a good introductory guide to the work – like Lord’s  Spinoza’s Ethics, which I have also used: – it will help you to enrich your life and to understand yourself and the world around you better. This is especially so for the later parts of Ethics. If you consider the ontological part of the book too difficult, you can skip Part 1 and also Part 2 and immediately jump to Part 3, where Spinoza starts to write on the emotions of man, so actually about you and me. He devotes two parts to this theme. In the last part of Ethics, Part 5, he writes on human freedom and free will. Let me concentrate here on Part 3.
In Part 3 it becomes clear that Spinoza is not only a deep thinker but also an attentive observer of man. For in 45 pages (my edition) he succeeds to distinguish even 48 emotions, all explained by a shorter or longer clarification. Remarkable is also that he succeeds to ground all these emotions in three basic emotions: desire, pleasure and pain (or as Lord calls them: desire, joy and sadness). If you find 45 pages too long to study, Spinoza lets his explanations follow by a summary of ten pages. Spinoza’s definition of the three basic emotions are probably not exactly as you expect, so I’ll give them here (quoted from the summary):
“I. ‘Desire’ is the actual essence of man, in so far as it is conceived, as determined to a particular activity by some given modification of itself. ...  By the term desire ... I here mean all man’s endeavours, impulses, appetites, and volitions, which vary according to each man's disposition, and are, therefore, not seldom opposed one to another, according as a man is drawn in different directions, and knows not where to turn.
II. ‘Pleasure’ is the transition of a man from a less to a greater perfection.
III. ‘Pain’ is the transition of a man from a greater to a less perfection.”
You may find it strange to describe pleasure and pain as transitions, but as Spinoza explains:
“I say transition: for pleasure is not perfection itself. For, if man were born with the perfection to which he passes, he would possess the same, without the emotion of pleasure. This appears more clearly from the consideration of the contrary emotion, pain. No one can deny, that pain consists in the transition to a less perfection, and not in the less perfection itself: for a man cannot be pained, in so far as he partakes of perfection of any degree. Neither can we say, that pain consists in the absence of a greater perfection. For absence is nothing, whereas the emotion of pain is an activity; wherefore this activity can only be the activity of transition from a greater to a less perfection—in other words, it is an activity whereby a man's power of action is lessened or constrained.”
I have added the latter quotation also in order to give you also an impression of the way Spinoza argues.
As always, I must restrict myself in my blogs and so I cannot summarize the other emotions here (but didn’t Spinoza do it himself in his book?). But if you are going to read the chapter, pay then special attention to the passages on passionate love (propositions XXXIII - XXXVIII): It is as if Spinoza himself has been betrayed by a lover.
Although the list of emotions is already quite long, Spinoza says that he didn’t describe them all: “I have neglected the outward modifications of the body observable in emotions, such, for instance, as trembling, pallor, sobbing, laughter, &c., for these are attributable to the body only, without any reference to the mind.” (Comments on proposition LIX)
I’ll end my notes on Spinoza’s definitions of emotions with a quotation. Desire is for Spinoza the most important emotion. It’s a kind of drive or impulse to get what we like, to attain a goal, etc. Does this mean that we desire the object because we consider it good? Not at all: “in no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it.” (Comments on proposition IX) Think about it when you want to follow your desires.

Quotations from Spinoza, Benedict de, The Ethics, on

Monday, April 30, 2018

Karl Marx 200 Years

House of Marx's birth: The first house from the left 
(photo taken when I visited it many years ago)

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”, as Karl Marx’s 11th and last Thesis on Feuerbach reads. Has there been any philosopher in this world to whom these words apply better than to Marx himself?
This week, on 5 May, it is exactly 200 years ago that Karl Marx was born in the old town of Trier in Germany to a middle-class family. He would lead a life full of contradictions. Though being of bourgeois origin, he didn’t follow the interests of a man of bourgeois origin, despite his own theory. And though he was financially supported by his friend Friedrich Engels, who was a capitalist and who owned a large textile factory at Manchester, England, his aim was to bring down the class of the capitalists. Moreover, Marx did not change the world by leading the life of a political activist, but by leading the life of a full-blood philosopher and scholar: Just by interpreting the world he changed the world. However, others, like Lenin, Stalin, Ebert, Jaurès, MacDonald, Troelstra etc., would actively change the world based on Marx’s theory, although probably not always in the way Marx had imagined.
That’s what most people think of, when they think of Karl Marx: His political impact, and then his impact on communism in the first place, but also on social-democracy. However, his influence has been much wider. Marxist ideas have influenced feminism, economic theory, sociology and philosophy and who knows what more. Marx’s approach and method for studying society could (and can) be applied to many social fields. To restrict myself to my own fields of interest and to persons who had a direct impact on my ideas, in sociology many thinkers have been affected by Marx’s ideas without becoming Marxists, like Dahrendorf, C. Wright Mills and Giddens. In philosophy Marx’s ideas led to the critical theory of the Frankfurt philosophers like Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, which brought forth one of the most prominent thinkers of today: Jürgen Habermas. I want to mention also the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, who is famous for developing Marx’s idea of class consciousness. It’s striking that thinkers and activists outside the political field have been influenced by the ideas of the”Young Marx” in particular.
But the interest in Marx gradually faded away, till we see a “Marx Revival” around 1968. It was just then that I went to the university and started to study sociology. Are you surprised that therefore I begun to read Marx’s works as well? I read Capital, of course, but in the end only a little part of it. However, I did entirely read most of his well-known smaller works, like the Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology and The Eighteenth Brumaire. I read works about Marx, and I read works influenced by Marx, like those by the sociologists and philosophers just mentioned. Especially I read the works by Habermas and there has been a time that I bought and read everything he published. Habermas (together with Apel and Popper) led me also away from Marxist philosophical ideas by showing me the importance of analytical philosophy. Actually a bit strange for there are hardly two other kinds of philosophy that are as different as Marxism and analytical philosophy. But they could be combined in the mind of Habermas, so why not in mine as well?
Since 1968 the critical social thinking of Marx but also the contents of his ideas have been on the background – and sometimes more on the foreground – of political life in this world, even though they have often been deformed or even violated. In the 1970s and 1980s revolutions were often fought in the name of Marxism, but when we look back today and see what has come of them (like in Angola and Nicaragua) must we say then that finally they had nothing to do with Marxism? Or are they just the ultimate consequence of Marxism?
Happily we still see also a positive inspiration by ideas that find their origins in Marxism, indirectly or directly: The discussion of the problems of globalization, the critique on the financial world and the banking system after the great financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Occupy movement, or – more concrete – Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 200 years after his birth Karl Marx is still alive and with his ideas we can still interpret the world in order to change it for the better, if we desire.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Reading Spinoza

Spinoza is seen as a philosopher whose work is often obscure and difficult to understand, unlike, for example, Descartes whose texts are well written with clear and distinct concepts. Especially Spinoza’s Ethics is considered opaque, not only now but also by readers in his time. Nonetheless his ideas are still important today, which becomes apparent if one gives them a somewhat anachronistic interpretation that relates them to present discussions.
Take for instance Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza had read the philosophical works by Descartes very well. He had even written a course on Descartes’s philosophy for his friends and followers. However, Spinoza did not agree with Descartes. Especially he rejected his dualistic world view. I think that many readers of this blog will know that according to Descartes the world is made up of two basic substances: matter and mind. Although these substances could interact with each other (in man this happened via the pineal gland in the brain), they were independent of each other. It was not what Spinoza thought. Let’s see what he writes in the beginning of his Ethics, where he expounds his world view. Spinoza has built up his Ethics as a mathematical theory. This involves that he starts from definitions and axioms and that with the help of them he proves his propositions. Since substances are what make up the world, he starts his works with discussing them and their characteristics. First he gives eight definitions. For us the most important are:

III. By ‘substance’ I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.
IV. By ‘attribute’ I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

Next Spinoza presents seven axioms. Then with the help of the definitions and axioms he develops his propositions. Until now I assumed that there are several substances, but in proposition V Spinoza clearly rejects Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind by concluding from his definitions and axioms:
There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.
Or as the last sentence of the proof of this proposition reads:
[T]here cannot be granted several substances, but one substance only.

All this is rather vague. However, I think that Spinoza’s view becomes clear, if we see it as a first version of what nowadays is presented as the dual aspect theory of body and mind.

One of the main current ontological discussions is on the nature of the relation between mind and matter, and especially between mind and body, in case we study the problem how man is constituted. Are mind and body one? Are they separate? If the former, what then is mind exactly, if we assume as undisputed that man has a body anyway? If the latter, how do mind and body relate? Since Spinoza rejects the dualism of mind and body as two substances, we can ignore the latter question. But what is mind then given the presence of body (matter) anyway and Spinoza’s monist view that there is only one substance? A view accepted by many philosophers today is that man is a material being and that the mind is a kind of epiphenomenal effect emerging from the human matter. Others, like me, prefer a dual aspect view on man, which says that man can be considered and studied in two different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. In other words, man has two aspects: a bodily aspect and a mental aspect, which are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. This is now what Spinoza wants to say, too, I think. We have seen already that – against Descartes – Spinoza maintains that there is one substance, which we can interpret that way that there is only one “stuff” that makes up the world. But how must we conceive such a substance? That’s why Spinoza has introduced the concept of attribute. As defined by Spinoza it’s a difficult concept. However, following Lord in his Spinoza’s Ethics – which is an explanation of and introduction to the book – we can say that “attributes are the different ways in which a substance can be perceived. ... An attribute is the substance itself, as perceived in a certain way” (p. 21; italics Lord). According to Spinoza, two attributes are relevant for man: Extension and thinking. Also for Descartes extension and thinking are relevant for man. The difference between both philosophers is, however, that for Descartes extension and thinking are separate substances, but for Spinoza they are two different attributes of the one substance that exists in this world.
Once we know this I think that the analogy between Spinoza’s view on the world and the dual-aspect theory is clear, certainly if you know that the latter is also called dual-aspect monism. Spinoza’s attributes are nothing but what we now call “aspects” and his extension and thinking are what the dual-aspect theory calls “matter” and “mind”. Even more, also Spinoza speaks often of matter and mind in this way. Seen thus, Spinoza’s view is actually quite simple.
I want to add yet one remark. According to Spinoza, the one existing substance has an infinite number of attributes. So in fact, his theory is a multi-aspect theory. But because only two attributes are relevant to man, we can ignore it.

Spinoza, Benedict de, The Ethics, on
Lord, Beth, Spinoza’s Ethics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010. Also available online:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Why we act

One of the most lively discussions in philosophy is about how to understand or explain human actions. It’s a discussion that is almost as old as Western philosophy. The problem was discussed, then faded away, then flared up again, again it faded away, and so on. It was discussed by Aristotle (the first who did), by Hume and by Kant. It was a central theme in the methodological discussions at the end of the 19th century when Dilthey presented his view on Verstehen (understanding) as an alternative method for explaining human actions. It flared up again during the 1960s and thereafter, when Davidson, von Wright and Apel presented their views on action explanation as alternatives for Hempel’s positivism and Popper’s critical rationalism. These are a few highlights in the history of action philosophy, and actually since the 1960s the discussion didn’t die down. In 1996 I published my PhD thesis as my own contribution to the field – a book that, as so many books, has largely been ignored (but that’s reality).
Probably I hadn’t written this blog, if the journal Philosophical Explorations hadn’t devoted its most recent number (Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2018) to a long period in this discussion: The philosophy of action from Suárez till Anscombe (roughly the period from 1570 till 1970). I’ll not discuss the articles here, but they made me think of two main approaches in action philosophy. These approaches may have become obsolete today (for superseded by recent views), but even so I think that its distinction gives a clear insight into relevant questions that must be answered if we want to understand or explain human actions: The distinction between the Humean approach of action explanation and the Kantian approach. Note, however, that “Humean” and “Kantian” are only labels. It is not so that these approaches as put forward by me can be literally ascribed to Hume and Kant.
If it weren’t already so before that date – since in 1963 Donald Davidson published his famous article “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”, which states that it is our beliefs and desires that determine how and why we act, and that there are actually no other factors that do, this typically Humean approach has been the mainstream in the philosophy of action for decades. Although now it has faded into the background in some sense, it still has a big influence on the thinking of many action philosophers, even if they are critical of it, like me. For basically it says that only factors internal to the mind determine our actions, and it leaves no room to what is external to the mind and happens around us. And just such factors are the fundamental and main action determining factors in what I called a Kantian approach. According to Kant it are our moral obligations and our maxims, so let’s say our guidelines, that make how and why we act, and it need not be so that these guidelines are internal. Most of the time they have been imposed upon us, if not enforced by the people around us, society and the world around us. This can go that far that some philosophers think that only such – what is usually called – external factors make us act, which have to be distinguished from the internal factors that make us act according to a Humean approach. Indeed, there is some reason to think so, when we consider the psychological view that says that is especially the situation we are in that makes how and why we act, and that it’s not our internal makeup and ideas that do. Maybe you remember my blogs on Philip Zimbardo, who stresses the influence of situational factors on our actions (if not, you can find these blogs via the search machine on this page). Also the philosopher Hannah Arendt actually says that it works that way, when she analyzes the Eichmann process and talks of the “banality of evil”. And there is much truth in it.
Nevertheless I think that it is a too polarized way of thinking to say that either a Humean approach of action is right or a Kantian approach is. Maybe in some cases a Humean approach is better and in other cases a Kantian approach is, but I don’t want to see them as mutually exclusive. Isn’t it so that often the best course is a middle course? I think that this “golden rule” applies here as well. Often, if not mostly, we act in a certain way because the situation we are in presses us to do so; because moral obligations do, etc. Briefly, external factors make us act as we act. However, this doesn’t mean that internal factors don’t play a part, for we’ll not act, if we don’t agree with the actions imposed upon us. Or rather then, what we’ll do can vary from acting unwillingly to resistance and refusal. Or we act because in advance we had already intentionally decided to do so, even in case we wouldn’t fully agree with what is asked from us. Or we act as we are asked or assumed to do since it fits our character or background ideas. In other words, internal factors are explicit or implicit filters that can control what externally is expected of us. And sometimes they can also play a part of their own, as Humeans assume. Actually we always do what we wanted to do, even if we are forced to do so. Of course, stated in this extreme way, it’s not true, but the statement can be used as a standard when we have to judge morally relevant actions.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The paradox of tolerance

Statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam

Sometimes it seems that every philosopher has his or her own paradox. Last week I discussed Condorcet’s paradox. In other blogs I have discussed paradoxes ascribed to the Greek philosophers Epimenides, Meno and Zeno. There is a Hume’s paradox; Wittgenstein discusses in his Philosophical Investigations the rule-following paradox; there is a Russell’s paradox and a Pascal’s paradox; Derek Parfit discusses a paradox; and so on. These are only a few examples, although not all paradoxes developed by philosophers or paradoxes bearing their name are philosophical paradoxes. Pascal’s paradox is one in the field of physics, for instance.
Many paradoxes are intriguing and involve brain teasing problems but are not really relevant for daily life. So, Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox says: “No course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” (PI 201) We could paraphrase it as “Does the rule determine the action or does the action determine the rule?”, which is nothing else but the well-known chicken and egg problem. However, we just act, also when we haven’t solved the paradox or haven’t thought about it, and we eat our eggs and continue breeding chicken as well.
Not all paradoxes are of this kind and some are really relevant for the way we live and how act. Take the paradox of intolerance, which Karl Popper discusses in a footnote in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (vol. One, Ch. 7, n. 4). In Popper’s words: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” It’s a question that presents itself again and again, like now in the days of the Islamic State: Should we tolerate who are intolerant towards us and want to put us in their straitjacket? Popper’s answer is “no”, and with right, I think. Nevertheless the problem is not as simple as it seems by this simple answer. For instance: What is intolerant? Which words and actions are intolerant? And then I don’t think of the extremes, which are usually clear, but of the limits between what can be tolerated and what cannot. Moreover, measures against the intolerant will backfire on the tolerant. If intolerant behaviour is a real problem, as it currently is, it need not only be suppressed but measures have to be taken in order to prevent it and to track it. In these days of the Internet and social media it involves secretly spying what everybody does there, since basically anybody can be intolerably intolerant and nobody’s face tells you whether s/he is. Briefly, in order to fight intolerance we need a Big Brother in order to help us, or at least a Little Brother (or so we think). But even if our Brother is only a Little Brother, little brothers grow up and will be big brothers in the end. It looks like that this is happening now. As is known, everybody who thinks that s/he is spied, will behave as if s/he is spied and will become his own Big Brother or her own Big Sister. Then we get the practical (or even maybe actual) consequence that Big Brother is not only intolerant against the intolerant but against the tolerant as well. Then it is no longer the rule to be tolerant that determines whether we do or don’t act in a tolerant way, but intolerance has become the standard. And then nobody wins and everybody loses. It’s the paradox of paradox.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Condorcet’s Paradox

When I made a walk through Paris, two weeks ago, with the intention to take pictures of statues of philosophers, Condorcet was not on my list. I passed his statue by chance, simply because I had turned into the wrong street. But once I saw the statue, of course, I knew that he was an important Enlightenment philosopher from the 18th century. His ideas were and are still modern. He stood for a liberal economy; he was an advocate of human rights, especially women’s rights and Black’s rights (he actively worked for the abolition of slavery); he opposed the death penalty; he stressed the importance of education and wished free public education for all citizens, including women; and he strived for a constitutional republican political system. When Condorcet criticized the new French constitution of 1793, he was considered a traitor and he had to flee. In 1794 he was caught and he died in mysterious circumstances in prison.
Marquis de Condorcet was not only an important and progressive political thinker, he was also a mathematician. Combining both interests, he developed a voting system, which came to be known as the Condorcet Method, but he also discovered that this method can sometimes lead to what is now known as Condorcet’s Paradox or the Paradox of Voting. Let me concentrate on the paradox.
In an electoral system based on the Condorcet Method the voters vote for candidates by arranging them in their order of preference. For keeping it simple, let me assume that there are three voters, namely X, Y and Z, and three candidates for a certain political function, namely A, B and C. Look how the voters vote:
X prefers    A to B and B to C
Y prefers    B to C and C to A
 Z prefers    C to A and A to B.
Let’s compare the candidates pairwise:
A > B (= A is preferred to B) by two voters, namely X and Z, against one (Y).
B > C (= B is preferred to C) by two voters, namely X and Y, against one (Z).
This would make that A > B > C, or A is preferred to B and B to C.
However, C has also received two votes, for
C > A (= C is preferred to A) by Y and Z, while only X prefers A to C.
This would make that A > B > C > A, which is not possible, of course, since nobody can be preferred to himself at the cost of himself (resp. herself). Voilà the paradox: Everybody becomes first but no one wins. Currently nowhere in the world a Condorcet Method of voting is used in government elections. However, some private organisations do. I suppose that usually these elections function well, but nevertheless the risk remains that everybody wins, although everybody is a loser.

Sources: Wikipedia and Mário Filipe Pinhal, “Condorcet’s Paradox”, on

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A sociological walk through Paris

When I was recently in Paris, I was there for going to an opera. I also wanted to take pictures of statues of philosophers for this blog and pictures of monuments of the First World War for another website. That’s what I did and that’s what I looked at. However, this is what I saw, when I walked there:

A walk throught Paris from a sociological point of view
Also on my Dutch photo website:

Monday, March 26, 2018

A walk through Paris

Condorcet (1743-1794)

When I went to Paris last week, it was because I wanted to see Händel’s opera Alcina. It was performed by a dream cast with the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who has a voice like an angel, and the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli in the leading parts. The story of Alcina has been taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso and it is about the knight Ruggiero who has fallen in love with the sorceress Alcina and who was in her clutches, just as the Greek hero Odysseus who was in Calypso’s grasp, as Homer told us.
However, I wanted to do more than just take the train to Paris, go to the theater, spend the night in a hotel and return home next day. It wasn’t the first time that I was in Paris and now I decided simply to take a walk downtown. Or rather, it would not be a simple walk but a walk with two themes: a sociological theme and a philosophical theme. I got the idea for the sociological theme when I walked from the railway station to my hotel after my arrival in Paris: To point my camera down and to photograph what I saw. I’ll upload this photograph report of Paris soon to my photo website, and I’ll tell you when I do. Here I’ll write about the philosophical theme: Taking pictures of statues of philosophers.
There are statues of gods, statues of persons and statues of animals. You find them in public and in buildings, like churches and government buildings. They tell a lot about whom and what society considers important and worth to honour. Since Paris is a big town, you find there many statues, and I had to make a choice. I could have made it myself easy and have gone to the Louvre: Hundreds of statues adorn its façades. Statues of scientists, writers, craftsmen, philosophers, and others who made France great (or so they think). However, I preferred to take a real walk and are you surprised that the first man I photographed was Montaigne? I found him somewhere on the side of a little park, sitting on a stone and friendly smiling. A statue of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, drinking milk from a she-wolf nearby. Montaigne loved Rome but even more he loved Paris. “Paris has my heart since my childhood”, as an inscription on the statue says. He came there often, although it took him a horse ride of more than a week from his castle near Bordeaux. Did you know that Montaigne spent a night in the prison of the Bastille? In one of the civil wars that raged in France then he was run in by one of the warring factions and shut up there. But as soon as Catherina de Medici, the mighty mother of the king of France, heard about it, he was released.
I find Montesquieu and Voltaire next together in another little park: The former represented by a bust, the latter full length with a coat on his shoulders and a book in his left hand. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu gave us the idea that there are three administrative powers: the executive power, the legislative power and the judicial power. These three powers must be separated and kept independent of each other, so he says; and many states do. And need I to introduce Voltaire, which is actually the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet? He was an advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of state and church, although he defended the freedom of speech more for himself than for others. His literary production was enormous with 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. Like Montaigne, he spent some time in the Bastille: Not one day but eleven months.
Then Condorcet. I find him between the Mint and the Institute of France, on the border of the Seine. The full name of this politician, mathematician and philosopher was Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet. He has been a director of the Mint and a member of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1794 he died a mysterious death in prison.
Next I walk to the Louvre and take pictures of some of the philosophers’ statues there. Not Descartes, whom I had photographed already long ago in Descartes, his town of birth – which was later named after him – but Pascal and Rousseau. Then it’s time to go to the opera, and I walk to the Théâtre de Champs Élysées in the Avenue de Montaigne.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The looking-glass of society

A clean Córdoba is a reflection of you

Some philosophers have been forgotten and can be found back only in the archives. Other philosophers are yet only known by a few catchwords, but actually nobody knows anymore what they have written about. Georg Herbert Mead is as a philosopher of the latter kind, I think. Though he is still well-known among sociologists, most contemporary philosophers don’t know more about him than that he wrote about the self, I and me; if they do. Among philosophers he has been forgotten. Anyway, I haven’t come across his name in the discussions where he is relevant, namely those on the self and personal identity.
Many people, including philosophers, think that we are subjects who finally themselves make who they are. Mead doesn’t. For him a self cannot exist without the presence of others, the views of others and communication with others, for a self is a reflection of your society, and especially the people immediately around you. Mead says it this way: “The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group as a whole to which he belongs. For he enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved.” (138; italics mine) This getting to know your self is done via your communication with others, which is here “a form of behavior in which the organism or the individual may become an object to himself”, so Mead. (138)
What is striking here is that according to Mead the self is not a subjective experience but the way others experience us and the way we reflect on it. The self is objective and socially made: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience.” (140) However, seen this way, the self is only a kind of objective image of a person, constituted by the society around him – or her, which Mead ignores –. Therefore s/he needs an I: “The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the ‘me’ is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized ‘me’, and then one reacts toward that as an ‘I’. ... ‘[I]t is due to the individual’s ability to take the attitudes of [the] others in so far as they can be organized that he gets self-consciousness. The taking of all of those organized sets of attitudes gives him his ‘me’; that is the self he is aware of. ... [However, the] response to [a] situation as it appears in [the individual’s] immediate experience is uncertain, and it is that which constitutes the ‘I’.” (175) Briefly, a person arises in interaction with the social environment and doesn’t exist without this social environment. Actually we find Mead’s view already in the idea of the looking glass self, earlier developed by Charles Cooley: The idea that our self-image arises in an interaction between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Mead has developed it into a comprehensive theory.
Mead’s view on who we are and how we develop into who we are is still interesting for philosophers for it shows important aspects of us and how they come about. We are not our brains, and we are also not the self-centred subjects who many of us think they are in this Age of the Ego: We are where we grew up and where we live. Philosophically, for instance, Mead’s approach implies a criticism on those personal identity theorists who defend the view that it is our personal continuity in time that makes up our personality. According to them a person is formed by the subjective experiences of the past. What they forget, however, is that a person is formed as much by his or her present interactions with the social environment. A person is not simply a remembered past. Look in the looking glass of society and you see a reflection of yourself.

George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974 (1934). The numbers in the text refer to the pages in this book.