Monday, February 08, 2016

On the function of conflicts

People make choices and act in order to realize them. They don’t simply act, but they have to act, as we have seen in my blog last week. In their choices people follow what they consider their interests, or usually they do. Choices don’t need to be conscious and as a rule people are not aware that they make them. Most choices are made unconsciously. We follow the stream of life as, for instance, the sociologist Alfred Schütz has made clear. Only when something needs special attention we become aware of it. This doesn’t mean that we are a kind of zombies most of the time. You must see yourself as the captain of an aeroplane that is flying on the automatic pilot. Maybe you don’t know how the mechanism works but as long as the plane is moving in the right direction and everything is okay, the pilot lets the automaton go its own way and doesn’t take action. He or she only keeps control.
Our interests often clash with the interests of other people. Then there is a conflict. Usually it is innocent and we would hardly give it that name. There are social rules to regulate the matter and to solve the discord in good harmony. Sometimes we find conflicts even fun and we organize them with the purpose to solve them. Sport competition is a case in point. Then we don’t talk of conflicts, but we call them games, play, a challenge, and the like. For the word “conflict” has a negative connotation: We see it as something that must be avoided. Is it right?
It’s true that a clash of interests and then the conflict that follows is often associated with quarrel, and, when the quarrel escalates, in the end with violence and even with war. Since clashes of interests, so conflicts, cannot be avoided, one could get the idea that society is based on violence and force. And it’s true that it happens that conflicts are solved violently. Everybody knows such cases. If we look at states, we call them war. Is it necessary?
As the American political scientist and peace researcher Gene Sharp made clear, conflict and violence are two things. They are not fundamentally related, also not in the last resort. Conflicts cannot be avoided, so Sharp. Conflict in society helps creativity and brings about necessary political and social changes like making an end to oppression and dictatorship. We can express it by saying that conflict has a function (in the way Robert K. Merton used this concept). But this doesn’t imply that this function has to be fulfilled by violence. The essence of solving conflicts that threat to become violent is to look for alternatives that have the same function as the violent solutions in the sense that they substitute them by meeting the interests of the people that are in a conflict relation but that don’t lead to all the nasty effects of violence. Within societies this has already been completely accepted. Think of mediation, taking legal action, and what other means there are for non-violent conflict resolution. And if violence is used by private individuals, the police or another state authority interferes and stops it. In theory this is also accepted on the international level. The first steps have already been made. About a century ago the International Court of Justice was established in The Hague, the Netherlands, for settling legal disputes between states. In the meantime there are several other international courts of different types. It’s also a task of the Security Council of the United Nations to prevent that international conflicts end in wars and to stop wars once they have broken out. Besides there are international organisations with the task of resolving or, preferably, preventing violence between states and between major groups within states; both state organisations and private organisations. Often their efforts are successful (it’s cynical that usually you don’t hear about it). Too often their efforts fail yet. But just as once violence was an integral part of conflicts within society but stopped by the development of functional equivalents, there is no reason to assume that this can’t also happen between states. However, there is yet a long way to go before violence as a way of resolving international conflict has been banned. But the first steps have been taken already.

Reference: Gene Sharp, Social power and political freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1980. See also

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why we cannot act but have to

In my blog last week we have seen: Distinctions are often not as clear as they seem at first sight, but they are gradual. How to define “man”? Following Aristotle we might use speech or language as a criterion to distinguish men from (other) animals, but we saw that this will fail. Not only gibbons have a sort of language. Probably many animals have and maybe we can only say that man has the most developed language of all. So if we take language as an indicator, the distinction between men and animals is gradual. I think it will be the same when we use Aristotle’s definition of man as a “zoon politikon” (a political being), for it seems that also apes have a kind of political deliberations. And isn’t it so that many animals have a kind of power structure? From this respect it’s not a strange idea that “political” deliberations exist on many levels, from very primitive or instinctive till rational consultations. Also Plato came across the problem how difficult it is to develop a sound definition, when he defined man as a biped without feathers and then Diogenes took a picked chicken saying: “Look, Plato’s man!” Without a doubt also Plato’s new definition that “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails” will have its weaknesses. I leave it to my readers to find them, but as these examples illustrate: differences are often by degrees. There is no rule or there is an exception.
If this is already true when we consider facts of nature, it is even more true when we consider “facts” of thought. It’s not without reason that I write the word “fact” between quotations marks, for what could such facts be?
I became aware of this when, long ago, I studied the discussion on the foundations of knowledge and morality between the German philosophers Hans Albert and Karl-Otto Apel. Albert’s answer to the traditional epistemological questions “How do you know?” and “How do you justify?” is that in the end we don’t know and can’t justify. Every answer to these questions is groundless, for either
- we fall into an infinite regress, or
- we rotate regressively in a vicious circle, or
- we break off our reasoning at a point that might be justified for us but that is in fact arbitrary.
Albert called this trilemma the “Münchhausen-Trilemma”, referring to the story of the baron who pulled himself and the horse on which he was sitting out of a mire by his own hair. Albert was not the first who described the trilemma, but he gave it a nice name.
As such Albert is right but as Apel put forward: In each argumentation we cannot escape that we have to take positions, anyhow. To formulate it broader: we cannot do nothing and let things go for the reason that whatever we do will be arbitrary and that there might something better we could do, so let’s go on looking for it. We have to stop somewhere and act. But how to stop and act if each point to stop our deliberations and to act is arbitrary? Robert Audi sees yet a fourth lemma that can be added to this trilemma:
- “to stop with something that is known or justifiedly believed, ... but not known on the basis of any further knowledge or justified belief”.
Much can be said about this addition to the Münchhausen-Trilemma – and Audi does – but I would interpret it this way: If we cannot stop our reasoning on the basis of knowledge or a thought or idea, we must base our choices on something different. And what else can this be than that we are on this world? That we have been put here and that, if we don’t want to die, we have to act? That we cannot do nothing? We are here on this world and this makes that we must choose anyway, even if it would be the ultimate choice of not being here, i.e. to die. The world we find ourselves in is our starting point, so the place where we find ourselves at birth, the language we learn first, the food we eat, whether we are born poor or rich, etc. These are things we cannot help and make that we have to act. However, this is so for everybody and, as the Münchhausen trilemma tell us, finally nobody is right when persons meet. Maybe the only thing we can do on the basis of Audi’s lemma is to “live and let live” and do a lot of things together. Happily it is what many people do, but sometimes it goes wrong, and some will say that often it must go wrong. Then interests clash leading to all kinds of nasty conflicts.

Sources: Albert, Hans, Traktat über kritische Vernunft, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1968; Apel, Karl-Otto, Die Erklären:Verstehen-Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979; Robert Audi, The Structure of Justification, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993 (quotation on p. 119).

Monday, January 25, 2016

Are gibbons human beings?

One of the most interesting investigations I have recently come across is the decipherment of the hoo sounds produced by gibbons. Gibbons are apes that live mainly in Southeast Asia. They are known for their loud songs but they can produce also a kind of whispers known as “hoo calls”. Hoo calls are difficult to distinguish by the human ear but recently a group of researchers succeeded to record and analyse them by using modern computer technology. The gibbons investigated were groups of lar gibbons in North-eastern Thailand. They were followed during four months from the morning till the evening. The sounds were recorded and the researchers noted the event that elicited the response. Back home they managed to distinguish and analyse the “gibbonish”and to relate the hoo-calls to the events that had elicited them with advanced computer techniques, so that it was no longer gibberish for them.

The results are surprising and important. The researchers could identify more than 450 hoo sounds and connect them with the situations in which they were uttered. In this way they found that – and now I quote from an article in the Science Daily (see below) – “distinct hoo calls are made in response to specific events, such as foraging and encountering neighbours, and that subtle differences even distinguish between different predators when used as a warning.” For instance, the gibbons are able to warn their companions for tigers and leopards with a sound meaning something like “big cat”. They use different other hoos for specified other predators (like snakes and eagles). They can also mobilize other gibbons for going to look for food together. They have hoo calls for meeting together, greetings, delimiting their territory etc.
As the researchers say, this study is very relevant in the debate on the evolution of human speech, seen as an ability to produce context-specific sounds for communicating meanings to other recipients. But if gibbons have a kind of speech – and so it seems – I have a question: Is a gibbon a sort of human being? If we follow Aristotle the answer will be “yes”, for in the Politica (Book One, Part II) he says that man is the only animal whom nature has endowed with the gift of speech. In order to show that a gibbon is a man, let me formulate a syllogism in the sense of Aristotle:

All gibbons are endowed with the gift of speech
Only man is endowed with the gift of speech
So gibbons are men

I think that there are good reasons not to accept the conclusion, but then one of the premises must be false. As it looks now most likely the second premise (minor) is. But does it make a difference whether or not a gibbon is a sort of man? Look around: Sometimes we get the impression that men behave “like animals”. Actually this expression is an insult to the animals. What a mesh we, men, have made of this world. One of the best developed techniques of human behaviour is waging war. We are more and more destroying our own environment in that way that it can lead to the end of human civilization in the long run. And before this will happen probably we’ll have destroyed already the life world of the gibbons, because we’ll have irretrievably damaged their forest habitat. Then not only another precious species will have become extinct but also a unique language will have gone, and with it we’ll have lost a part of our own cultural heritage.

Sources: The original publication of the research:; an article in Science Daily:; a Dutch article in

Monday, January 18, 2016

Linguistic relativity

The flags of the Netherlands (left) and Luxemburg

Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the Dutch flag are, and he will say “Red, white and blue”. Ask a Dutchman what the colours of the flag of Luxemburg are, and he will say “Red white and blue”. Yet there is a difference, as we can see in the picture above: The blue of the Luxembourgian flag is lighter than the blue of the Dutch flag, so when we would compare the flags we would describe the blues as light blue and dark blue. Nevertheless the difference doesn’t seem really important for Dutchmen, and on days that the Dutch hang out their flags, here and there you see flags with light blue bars and everybody sees it as a Dutch national flag and nobody cares that actually it’s not right.
Now ask a Russian to name the colours of the flags of the Netherlands and Luxemburg. If he knows them, I am for 100% sure that he will say that the Dutch flag has a dark blue bar and the Luxembourgian one a light blue bar. Why? Because in Russian there is no word for “blue”, but there is a word for dark blue (siniy) and one for light blue (goluboy) and just these words describe exactly the bluish bars in these flags. By chance, the Russian flag has the same colours as the Dutch one although in a different order,  so I think that the Russians will not make the mistake of keeping a flag with a light blue bar for the present Russian national flag, for the simple reason that it has a different colour for them.
I think that this is an example of the idea that there is a relationship between language and culture and that language guides your interpretation of the world. It explains why many Dutch say that the Netherlands and Luxemburg have the same flag, and that they are not very precise in determining the shade of blue of the bluish bar of these flags.
A few days after I had written my blog last week, I read an interview with the Dutch linguistic researcher Jolien Francken. If we think an idea, we must be able to find back in the brain where we think it and one of the results of her investigations is that we arrange what we see in the world around us in the “language section” of our brain: The temporal lobe. This is an indication, so Francken, that categorizing is a semantic, linguistic operation. This is not obvious, for other researchers think that we arrange what we see in the visual cortex, so the section of the brain for visual perception. Francken’s findings are a physical sign that there is a relation between language, culture and the way the world is for us. Initially, we don’t make a copy of the world in the head, but what is in the head makes how the worlds looks like to us. But let us not see this deterministic; a failure that has been made so often in the past. There is a tendency to adapt the world to the categories in the head, but we are flexible enough to adapt our categories if they don’t fit the world. But how difficult it can be to change our categories (and ideas) once we have fixed them in the head! Prejudices are of that kind.
As Francken says in the interview: “My findings are interesting for the principle of linguistic relativity. Everybody of us sees the same, but it is our language that steers our attention and how we categorize the world. It happens very automatically and maybe you have less influence on it than you may think.” However, categorization is not only an unconscious brain proces. It is also intentionally used by others who want to influence our thoughts, like politicians. This has become known as “framing”. For instance, US president George W. Bush used the expression of “War on Terror” on purpose in order to justify a global military, political, legal and conceptual struggle against terrorism. This has been retracted by Barrack Obama, who prefers to focus his efforts on specific persons, networks and the like. Or take a certain Dutch politician who tries to make that we automatically associate the word “Islam” with the word “terrorism”. But wasn’t it already George Orwell who warned us in 1949 in his novel 1984 for this use, if not misuse, of language?

Source: Erica Renckens, “Taal beïnvloedt hoe je de wereld waarneemt” (interview with Jolien Francken) on .

Monday, January 11, 2016

Keep fit: Learn a language

Knowing languages is important. Everybody will agree, I think. That’s why governments stimulate foreign language learning. The value of language is that it’s a way of exchanging meanings with other people. Language is a passport to the world: It helps you discover meanings that other people have used for building up their social worlds and to enter into relationships with them (and they with you).
A language is not limited to a certain area or culture. Everyone can learn every language, despite his or her geographical and cultural background; and isn’t it so that some languages, like English – from England to India – or French – from France to West-Africa – are used in different cultures? Nevertheless languages express cultural attainments. It’s a well-known that Inuit languages have many words for expressing types of snow, more than any other language. And Dutch, to take my own mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, for example, English. If a language is spoken in several parts of the world, it can happen that variants or dialects develop adapted to the local cultures and habits. So there is a narrow relation between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture, although it doesn’t need to be a one-to-one relationship. However, it seems not too bold to say that a language expresses the identity of the bearers of a culture. This is one reason why it is bad policy to forbid a minority language in order to try to prevent a separatist movement. Just the official and practical recognition of a regional language can help prevent that such a region wants to become independent from the country it belongs to: If you are free to express your culture, there is less reason to separate.
All this makes clear why learning languages is important: The more languages you know, the easier it is to communicate with people belonging to other cultures but also the easier it is to understand these other cultures. Learning a language is always a kind of introduction to a culture – not counting the fact that it often leads to a growing interest in the culture of the speakers of the language you learn.
And on the individual level? Many people initially grow up in one language and only later– at school age or thereafter – they learn a second one and maybe a third one, a fourth one or even more. This makes  that there is a narrow relationship between a person’s native langue and identity. Sometimes this pops up in different ways. So a person in danger of life or in other such difficult circumstances may unintentionally begun to speak his native language or dialect when being in another language environment. And you feel yourself more at ease when speaking your native dialect or language. So why giving yourself the trouble of learning other languages in case there is hardly any reason to expect that you’ll use them? Or why keeping fresh the languages learned at school if you actually don’t need them? For instance, for native speakers of English there is no practical (communicative) reason to learn other languages, for their mother tongue has become the lingua franca in almost every corner of the world (although knowing the local language will help you understand the local culture, as said). This may be true but as it has come out knowing several languages is not only convenient: Just as physical exercise and a good physical condition supports your physical health and helps you to recover after an illness, learning and knowing several languages is good for your mental health. It trains your brain and keeps it fit. It helps you to see the world from other points of view and understand other cultures. And you see how difficult it can be for immigrants and tourists to learn and speak your language. Is that “all”? Certainly not, for just as physical exercise makes your body stronger and increases your capacity for recovery after illness, so does mental exercise for your brain. Learning, enlarges your neural network. So your network of neural connections is more extended if you have learnt more languages. Training your brain has a preventive effect (like lessening the chance to get Alzheimer’s disease), but it can also be useful if you have to recover from a brain disease. For as recent research has shown, your chance to recover from a stroke is much bigger if you have learned at least one other language. According to a new study, bilingual stroke patients were twice as likely as those who spoke one language to get back their normal cognitive functions. Why? The reason for the difference appears to be a feature of the brain called “cognitive reserve”, or, in other words, just the extra network of neural connections you have built up by your language study. Keep fit so learn a language.

If you know Russian:

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year Resolutions

For many people the end of the year is the time to look back and to see what went well and what went wrong. And they think about their bad habits and what they want to have changed. They think also about what they could do in the year to come. When this end-of-the-year evaluation has been done – it may have been long or short; deep or shallow – many people take a kind of decision in the sense that they say to themselves: “I’ll do this or that. It‘s very important to me, and I’ll really do”. So, they take one or more New Year resolutions. I must say that I never do. Why should I? For taking decisions that will influence my life the date of January 1 has no special meaning for me. I simply take decisions because they have to be taken (or I let the occasion pass to take them at the right moment, with all consequences this failure can bring with it). But many need a special date for making promises to themselves and they think that January 1 is a good one, because it’s a tradition. However, because we are humans most of us will have forgotten their resolutions or have given them up by the time you read this (which will be already on one of the first days of January for my most dedicated followers). Why? For people normally keep their promises, especially if they are more than superficial commitments, but when they make promises to themselves, they often fail to keep them.
Many websites make us clear why making New Year resolutions doesn’t work. For instance, Ramit Sethi tells us in his blog that they fail because usually they are unspecific, they are unrealistic, and they are based on willpower, not on systems (not well integrated in your daily life). I could add that there is also a lack of external pressure: “Force” by others or by the circumstances to execute them. And often, as another website says, the timing of the decision is wrong (and that is, as said already, one of the reasons that I don’t take New Year resolutions, but if I do take decisions it is at the moment they need to be taken).
Has it sense then to take New Year resolutions? Year’s end is neither an end nor is it a beginning. Life is a stream and it can be dangerous to stop a stream for it might lead to a flooding or make that the stream goes in the wrong direction. This sounds more dramatic then it may be in real life, but, for example, if we too often fail in our intentions we can get the feeling that we are unable to complete what we want. Or as Ramit Sethi says it: We tend to distrust ourselves and you don’t believe in yourself any longer. Of course, failed New Year’s resolutions are not more than small contributions to such a feeling but why to take them if it is not necessary and advisable to take them now? In addition, I just said that life – especially as it appears in our actions and decisions – is a stream, namely a stream that mainly flows unconsciously. Isn’t it so that we take many decisions just unconsciously and that it often happens that these decisions are the best; even the important ones? Take counsel of your pillow is a saying that expresses this idea, and when you wake up the right decision pops up. However, this doesn’t depend on a certain date but on the urgent need that something has to be done.
Then you must not take New Year resolutions any longer? Well, you can do but don’t take them too seriously.

Link to the blog by Ramit Sethi:

Monday, December 28, 2015

Montaigne on Christmas

Montaigne's chapel in his castle

 I know that Wittgenstein used to celebrate Christmas with his family (see my Christmas blog last year), but how did Montaigne? I have no idea. In his Essays he shares many personal experiences with us, but although Montaigne was a religious person – he had even a chapel for personal use in his castle and he came there often – he doesn’t tell us about his Christmas celebrations. Maybe he had a mass celebrated for himself and his family in his chapel or maybe he went to the church across the gate of his castle. I don’t know, but the former seems most likely to me. And how did Montaigne spend Christmas Day, when he was at home? With his wife and children? No idea.
Only once Montaigne tells what he did that day, but it was not in his Essays but in his travel journal. During his travel through France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne spent the whole winter of 1580-1581 in Rome. On Christmas Day he went to the papal mass, as he let his secretary write down in his diary, and he gave a short description of what happened. Actually, it was nothing special, with the exception that it was new to Montaigne that the pope, the cardinals and other prelates sat down most of the time with their heads covered, while chatting with each other. The lustre seemed to be more important than the devotion, so Montaigne.
And did he watch the woman, too, during the mass, as young people still do today during a religious service? Anyway, in the next indentation the secretary tells us that Montaigne wasn’t impressed by the beauty of the women and that it didn’t correspond to the reputation Rome has. Was this a general observation or one he had made during the mass?
In his Essays Montaigne mentions Christmas only twice and even then it’s only for referring to the winter season and not to the religious feast. The first time is in his essay “Of presumption” (II, 17): “An understanding person of our times says: That whoever would, in contradiction to our almanacs, write cold where they say hot, and wet where they say dry, and always put the contrary to what they foretell; if he were to lay a wager, he would not care which side he took, excepting where no uncertainty could fall out, as to promise excessive heats at Christmas, or extremity of cold at Midsummer.” The second time that Montaigne mentions Christmas is in the essay “Of physiognomy” (III, 12): “What good will this curiosity do us, to anticipate all the inconveniences of human nature, and to prepare ourselves with so much trouble against things which, peradventure, will never befall us? [Like] ... to put on your furred gown at Midsummer, because you will stand in need of it at Christmas!”
So, in fact Montaigne ignored Christmas in his writings, although it must have been important for him, since for him religion was more than just a custom in an age in which everyone was religious. But maybe this explains why Montaigne didn’t mention Christmas in his essays. Sometimes we don’t talk about what is important to us, simply because it is so obvious that it is. Not celebrating Christmas in some way was unthinkable in Montaigne’s age. We tend to ignore what we think that everybody knows, even if it isn’t so.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Conceptual analysis in a social world

Individuals or group?

Take this statement by Kit Fine: “Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: ... it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language ...” (source: see below). This is especially so in the analytical philosophy. As the name indicates already, its method comprises conceptual analysis, hoping that by doing so we can say something about reality. Analytical philosophy in its several forms is one of the main streams of Western philosophy so one must not underestimate its influence on thinking about important questions.
I am a big fan of this approach. Since I am a sociologist by education, it might be expected that I prefer to answer questions about society by going to the field with a questionnaire and ask people what they think. Or that I should observe how they behave. Then I should try to find out from the data I collected what is common in what people do. For instance, a question that intrigues me at the moment is: How do groups behave? Well, collect data about all kinds of groups and draw your conclusions. However, what I actually do is sitting behind my laptop and analyzing the concept of group.
I am certainly not alone in studying social groups this way. Outstanding analytical philosophers who do so are for instance Michael Bratman, Raimo Tuomela and Margaret Gilbert. Take for instance the latter. Gilbert argues that when we want to explain group activity, we can look at a simple model of a two-person group for seeing what is going on; for example the case of two people walking together. She says: “[G]oing for a walk with another person involves participating in an activity of a special kind, one whose goal is the goal of a plural subject, as opposed to the shared personal goal of the participants. [It] involves an ‘our goal’ as opposed to two or more ‘my goals’.” (1996, p. 187) Walking together is more than just walking next to each other in the same direction, even when both are talking with each other, for maybe at the next corner each will go his or her own way. “[I]n order to go for a walk together”, so Gilbert, “each of the parties must express willingness to constitute with the other a plural subject of the goal that they walk along in one another’s company” (id., p. 184; italics MG). The individual wills must be put together to “a pool of wills that is dedicated, as one, to that goal. ... The individual wills are bound simultaneously and interdependently” (id., p. 185; italics MG). It is not only that each individual promises to follow the group goal, but there is a mutual, or as Gilbert says it, joint commitment that I follow the group goal if you do: “[E]ach person expresses a special form of conditional commitment such that (as is understood) only when everyone has done similarly anyone is committed.” (ibid.; italics MG) Only if the others agree one is released of the obligation. So, according to Gilbert, a group is founded on some appointment between its members, and the two-person walking group is a model that basically applies to all kinds of groups. From this we can conclude that in the end all groups are based on a kind of explicit agreement between its members.
Is Gilberts right? At first sight it sounds plausible. Nevertheless I think that we come here at the limits of the analytical approach. For when I look around what is happening in the world, the practice is often different. Groups as described by Gilbert do exist, indeed. If people go for a walk together, usually they do this by agreement. But is it a model case of all kinds of groups? I have my doubts. How often doesn’t it happen that I belong to a group that I don’t have constituted with the other members, but that I simply joined and that I adapt myself to, because I have no choice and because the positive aspects of joining exceed the negative aspects. People join sports clubs but often they have no say in its rules. “The club” determines in which team you play and changes also the club rules now and then, and it often happens that you have no say in it. You are in an army unit because military service is compulsory in your country, but if possible you would quit. Or you work in a team of a department of your company, for you need the money, but if you had the choice, you would work elsewhere. However, the unemployment is high so you can’t. And your boss can dismiss you, if he doesn’t need you any longer, even if you don’t agree. Most people have so little influence on the groups they belong to, that it’s difficult to say that these groups are based on a joint commitment. Indeed, the members have committed themselves to do what the purpose of the group requires, and once having joined they must follow orders and adapt without having much say in what the group does. As said, I am a big fan of the analytical approach, but I find it also important to look at the facts. Philosophy, even analytical philosophy, and sociology need to go together and they go well together, when they talk about society.

Sources: Margaret Gilbert, Living Together. Lanham, etc: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996. Mahrad Almotahari, “The identity of a material thing and its matter”, in: The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 64, No. 256 (July 2014), pp. 387-406 (p. 387 for the quotation of Fine).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Après nous le déluge

The future of the Netherlands?

“Après nous le déluge” (After us the deluge) is a saying that has become proverbial in many languages. It is ascribed to Madam de Pompadour, mistress of the French King Louis XV. She should have said it, when France was in troublesome circumstances. It means something like: As long as we aren’t hurt ourselves in person, we don’t need to care; when the consequences will be felt, we will be gone or we will be dead. Such an attitude has everything to do with responsibility or rather with irresponsibility. It’s an attitude that says: I care only about what touches me and I am not interested in the consequences of my behaviour for other people, as long as I stay beyond their reach. It’s an attitude you find, for example, among politicians who think that they don’t need to account for their deeds, like dictators and leaders in authoritarian states. For who would call them to account, is what they seem to think. Happily practice is sometimes different, but often irresponsible politicians escape and don’t need to give account, for instance because they die.
Although, as far as I know, responsibility as such is not a theme Montaigne explicitly wrote about, the idea comes back in one form or another in many of his essays, for instance in the essay “That the intention is judge of our actions” (Essays, Book I-VII). Here Montaigne first discusses the question whether we can try to escape responsibility and account by postponing the effects of one’s actions till after one’s death. For isn’t it so that death discharges us of all our obligations? Montaigne’s examples are always a bit antique from our point of view – but also always to the point – but he mentions the case of Henri VII, King of England, who had promised to save the life of a certain duke but in his testament he ordered his son to kill the man as soon as possible when he had died. As if his death would discharge Henri VII from his obligations to save the duke’s life! Or, just the other way round, when the counts of Horn and Egmont were about to be decapitated on the 4th of June 1568 in Brussels by order of the Duke of Alva, Egmont asked to be the first to die. For wasn’t he responsible for the death of Horn by having asked him to come to Brussels, promising that nothing would happen? But Egmont had said this in good faith and it was Alva who had tricked both counts. Basing himself on these two cases, Montaigne’s conclusion is: “We cannot be bound beyond what we are able to perform, by reason that effect and performance are not at all in our power, and that, indeed, we are masters of nothing but the will, in which, by necessity, all the rules and whole duty of mankind are founded and established.” Or, as the title of the essay says: “That the intention is judge of our actions”. So, Egmont was to be excused, whether he would die first or second, but Henri VII was responsible for the death of the duke, even if it took place after his death, for he gave the order to kill the man.
Another instance of the idea that death discharges us of our obligations is that people try to correct their mistakes in their testaments, although they could have done so already in life time. This is not right, so Montaigne, for not only need mistakes be corrected as soon as possible, but also “penitency requires penalty”.
What Montaigne makes clear in this essay is that responsibility doesn’t end with death, even if the perpetrator can no longer give account of his deeds and doesn’t feel the consequences in person. I know that there are too many people who think “What happens after my death is no concern of mine”. Politicians – and not only politicians! – should think of these words of Montaigne, but who does? Some don’t even care about their reputation.
Now the Climate Change Conference in Paris has reached an agreement. That’s a first step. Is it a good step? Is it enough? Anyway, the next step must be that the responsible politicians carry out the agreement and that they’ll not think “Après nous le déluge”, for then I fear that we’ll have to take this saying literally.

Monday, December 07, 2015

On the Climate Change Conference

Just one question: How many participants of the Climate Change Conference in Paris have arrived by bike?

When I publish this blog, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris will go on yet for a few days. Some 40.000 people (not only politicians) have come together for discussing one of the most important political and social problems of the future: Global warming and its consequences. And, let it to be hoped – but I am very sceptical about it – that they’ll take relevant and effective decisions in order to tackle the problem. As everybody knows, all this is very important. That’s why the participants of the conference should set an example to the world population. Or better, each participant should be an example and be the necessary change she or he wants to see. How different reality is. The conference hasn’t yet finished and the actual decisions are always taken on the last day, but already now I know how the result has to be summarized, in view of what resulted from such conferences in the past. In good French “Après nous le déluge” (After us the deluge), as Madame de Pompadour said, when France was in troublesome circumstances. As long as we aren’t hurt ourselves in person, we don’t need to care, is often the implicit attitude on such conferences. Need to change the climate change? Get on your bike.

Monday, November 30, 2015

At the right time at the right place

Last week I talked about the phenomenon that what people do is influenced by the situation they are in in the sense that the situation determines what they do and that it is not their values and attitudes that make them act in a certain way. The latter is what we should expect and it is also what many people consider desirable. This view that actions are situation-dependent is called situationism.
I have talked about situationism in my blogs before, although I didn’t call it that way. For instance, maybe some long-time followers of these blogs remember that people with a warm cup of coffee in their hands are more positive towards strangers than people holding a cold pad. In several other blogs I discussed the view of the psychologist Phillip Zimbardo who developed the theory (based on his research) that it is the situation that makes you a devil or a hero. Not psychological dispositions make people behave in an evil way but the situation brings people that far, so Zimbardo. Actually it is also what Hannah Arendt defends in her book on the Eichmann trial, just as Stanley Milgram does in his famous study Obedience to Authority.
If situationism were true in its strict sense, the question presents itself whether people can still be considered responsible for their behaviour. For isn’t it so that they can say then “I can’t help that I acted that way; the situation made me do so and I couldn’t resist”? And indeed, that is in fact what people do when they appeal to an order given to them by someone above them. In the end strict situationism means that we cannot be held responsible for what we do and also the idea that we have a free will is at stake.
Although I don’t want to deny that a situation can have a large influence on our behaviour and that it is often difficult to resist the “pressure of the situation”, I think that there is much to say against the idea of strict situationism. (In what follows for a part I follow the argumentation by Pauline Kleingeld in her article referred to below). For isn’t it so that we can often chose the situation that fits us best? To give a banal example: Don’t be surprised that we’ll play football if we have joined a football club, for if we had preferred to skate, we would have joined a skating club. And so it often goes. Another approach is trying to manipulate a situation. Again a simple example: If you don’t want to be asked for a task but you know that you’ll not refuse, hide yourself behind the backs of the others present; if you just want to be asked, seat yourself in the first row. A third way to confront conceivable situations is to train for it. That’s what soldiers do, when they train for war, so that they don’t run away when the shootings start. All these possibilities – and there are certainly more - are forms of situation management: conscious ways to make yourself prepared to what can happen or to influence what will happen.
But if we can make the situation so that it makes us do what we do want to do – and often it is possible – we can no longer hold the view that we are not the responsible agents that we denied we are. Although situations often happen to us, we are free to prepare ourselves for the possibility that they will happen and that we will be “pressed” to take a stand we actually do not want to take. “Why do I do now what I do?” is a question we have to learn to ask as much as possible. By preparing ourselves “[our] behavior is no longer just due to ‘the power of the situation’ and ‘without intentional direction’ ”, as Kleingeld says it (p. 357; italics K.). This doesn’t mean that we can always follow our preferences, but it makes us conscious of what we do by our own volitions and what we do “because we can’t help” and what is beyond our control. By doing so, we make ourselves the responsible persons we are, but we are also ready to take the responsibility that others ascribe to us (and with right). Then we don’t need to refer to the situation as an unjustifiable excuse. If you want to be free, prepare yourself.

Reference: Pauline Kleingeld, “Consistent Egoists and Situation Managers”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 344-361.

Monday, November 23, 2015

At the wrong time at the wrong place

A few days ago I read an article about moral luck (see the reference below). The authors distinguished several kinds of moral luck, but in this blog I must ignore that because of lack of space. In order to make clear what the concept involves I’ll use an example from the article.
An effect corroborated in many studies is the so-called bystander effect. Suppose you are walking in the street and you see someone getting a heart-attack. What will you do? If you are the only person there, you’ll probably help, but the more people are around there, the smaller the chance is that you’ll come to the person’s aid: “the likelihood of intervention in emergency situations inversely correlates with the number of people present in that situation”, as the authors formulate it (p. 367). It depends on what is happening and how serious the accident is – or whatever it is –, but if you are the only bystander, the chance that you’ll help is, say, more than 80%; if there are more people present the chance that you’ll help may be as low as 10% or less. The bystander effect applies apart from your personal attitude towards helping in emergency situations in the abstract (so what you would say you would do when you are not there). In other words, even if you are morally and maybe also legally required to render assistance to a person and even if you think you should help, how you really will act generally depends on the accidental number of people present. So whether you’ll do your moral duty is dependent on whether you are in luck or whether it is just your luck, so to speak, whether or not many people are around there on the place of emergency. That’s why philosophers talk here about “moral luck”. Whether you’ll act in a moral way as you should do or whether you’ll dodge is determined by the situation you are in, at least for a big part. Does this mean that we are actually not responsible for our actions because “the situation made us do what we do”? Maybe, but I think that in the end a person is responsible for his or her own actions and that s/he is always accountable for what s/he does, certainly if there is freedom to act, as in my examples. But that’s a subject for debate for another blog.
Actually all this has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November,  but when I read this article a few days later, automatically I linked up a connection between what happened to the victims and the idea of moral luck. For isn’t moral luck a bit like being somewhere at some time by chance? I mean, someone gets an accident and you happen to see it: two unrelated events that coincidentally go together. And by chance nobody else is there, or just a few other people are there, or maybe a lot. These phenomena unrelated to your walking there happen to go together and together they make what you’ll do. But one of the factors might be different and you would behave in a different way: Things happen to you and often you cannot help. It’s a bit like when we say: he was there at the right time at the right place (so he could and did help) or just at the wrong time and at the wrong place.
So it was in Paris in the evening of Friday the 13th November 2015 as well: Many people who were where the terrorist attacks took place simply happened to be there but they could have been elsewhere as well. Coming one minute later; leaving one minute later; just a banal thing as having gone to the toilet (and whether or not it was in use); that the terrorist would have come a few minutes or even seconds later, because a car happened to cross their way; such banal things in life often make whether you are a victim or a survivor. Being at the wrong time at the wrong place can kill a life; or many. From the point of view of the victims, of course; for the perpetrators there is no excuse. What happens in your life can be a matter of good luck and back luck. Often life is on your side, but not always.

Reference: Marcela Herdova and Stephen Kearns, “Get lucky: situationism and circumstancial moral luck”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 363-377.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Are individual actions possible?

Sometimes we do things alone, sometimes we do things together with other people, tuned to what our companions do – together with us. We could call the former kind of doings individual actions and the latter one coordinated actions, or maybe joint, shared or collective actions – the term is not important. Are individual actions possible?
Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht in order to go to a concert there. So I take my coat, walk to the railway station, buy a ticket and get in the train, after it has arrived. In Utrecht I get off the train, leave the railway station and walk to the concert hall. This complicated action of going to a concert can be divided in a series of subactions with their own separate intentions that can also be considered on their own. I’ll consider the subaction “taking the train to Utrecht”.
When I want to spade my garden, I walk to the shed behind my house, take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself. How different it is when I take a train. Taking a train is not possible without the presence of a whole man-made and man-maintained infrastructure. In order to be able to take the train (in a legal way), first I must buy a ticket, for instance from a ticket machine. Even this simple action supposes many intentions and actions of other persons in order to make it possible! Someone (or several people) must have thought out this system, some must have constructed the machine, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, must maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. In selling railway tickets a whole structure of intentions and actions is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. No one could print his own train ticket, or it would be seen as forgery.
It is the same for getting in the train and going by it to your destination. This is only possible if there is an infrastructure intentionally built up by many people who cooperated together in making it, with their own individual reasons and intentions for doing their tasks and, last but not least, the personnel (engine driver, guard) on the train and others that make that the train can safely ride on the railways.
So what looks like an individual action with an individual intention at first sight, turns out to be possible only if there are other people – most of them unseen by you – who each for their own reasons help you perform your action in some way. The individual action of taking the train to Utrecht can be performed only within the presence of an intentionally built up structure intentionally run by cooperating people. And so it is for performing many other individual actions as well, if not for most of them: they are based on a structure of individual intentions and actions geared to one another in order to make their realization possible. We need coordinated intentions and actions in order to make the structure run. In the case of my example, we could call it “railway system” or “maintaining a railway system”. Moreover, it works in two directions: No train, no customs, but also no customs no train. One implies the other and every participant needs to endorse the coordinated intentions and actions in some way. Every participant makes his or her own contribution realizing his or her own individual intentions.
The upshot is that most individual actions are difficult to distinguish from what I called coordinated actions. The difference is rather gradual than absolute. Most actions that are individual on the face of it can only be realized by cooperating with others in some way, as it is the other way round.
And how about spading your garden? Is it really an individual action, as I supposed? Who made your scoop? What made it that you are allowed to spade that piece of land? Why did you want to dig your garden? (maybe for selling the vegetables you grow there or preparing the soil, because you want to compete in a flower show next year?) It is to be wondered whether really pure individual actions are possible, or you must be a Robinson on a deserted isle before you met your Friday.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Philosophical paradoxes

Paradoxes are a type of puzzle cases not mentioned on the website on action puzzles in my last blog. Nevertheless, they can be useful in clarifying concepts in the philosophy of action. I suppose that every reader of this blog will know the most famous of all paradoxes, the Liar Paradox: Epimenides said: Every man from Crete is a liar. The paradox becomes clear, if we know that Epimenides himself is a man from Crete.
I have discussed already extensively a well-known paradox in my blogs above, namely the Ship of Theseus, which is also known as Theseus’ paradox. Also one of the leading ideas in the philosophy of action actually is nothing but a kind of paradox, namely the idea that what we do – our actions – is dependent on the way we describe it. This idea has been introduced by Elizabeth Anscombe. Here I’ll use the version of E.J. Lowe: “A man is described as poisoning the inhabitants of a house by pumping contaminated water in its supply from a well, which the inhabitants drink with fatal consequences. There are various ways of describing what this man is doing: ... moving his arm, ... depressing the handle of the pump, ... pumping water from the well, contaminating the water-supply ..., ... poisoning the inhabitants of the house, ... killing the inhabitants ... [A]re these six different things he is doing, or just six different ways of describing one and the same thing?” (p. 240) In the former case, we would call him a juggler, so Lowe, but also the latter case – the one accepted in the philosophy of action – is problematical. Moving his arm is considered then to have different descriptions, but suppose that we want to know when and where the man is killing the inhabitants of the house. Depending on the way we describe what the man is doing, he kills them at different places and at different times, for the arm-moving takes place outside the house and the killing (which take place later) occurs within the house. (pp. 240-241) “So, it seems, we have to say that the man kills the inhabitants outside the house and quite some time before they die. But that is surely absurd”, so Lowe (p. 241). Lowe presents an alternative approach to resolve the paradox, but I refer those interested in it to Lowe, for here I want to talk about paradoxes.
I end this series of blogs on puzzle cases with a paradox that can be used to cast light on the idea of intention. The question is: Can we intend what we surely will not do? Generally philosophers of action support the view that intending to do a supposes minimally the absence of the belief that one will not a. However, take this paradox, which is known as the toxin paradox and which has been developed by G. Kavka (here quoted from an article by Stephanie Rennick): “You are offered a million dollars to form the intention of drinking a vile potion which, though not lethal, will make you unpleasantly ill. Once you have formed the intention the money is handed over, and you are free to change your mind. The trouble is that you know this, and it will prevent you from forming the intention, since you cannot intend to do what you know you will not do”.
This brings me back to the question whether I can try to do what I cannot do, discussed in my blog last week. Suppose now that I know that I cannot break the world record 5.000 m running, if my personal record is still three minutes slower than the world record after many years of hard training. Can I say then that nevertheless I can try to break the world record? Just as we cannot intend to do what we know we’ll not do, we cannot try to do what we know for sure we cannot do. Nevertheless I think there is much truth in the conventional wisdom saying “who doesn’t try doesn’t win”, even if you know that you have no chance.

Sources: - E.J. Lowe, An introduction to the philosophy of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 (
- Stephanie Rennick, “Things mere mortals can do, but philosophers can’t”,

Monday, November 02, 2015

On trying

In the philosophy of action puzzle cases can be used for several reasons. An already old website (I suppose it has been made by Joshua Knobe, who is now especially known for his contributions to experimental philosophy) mentions three such reasons:
– Exploring the causality of the relation between intention and action. Davidson’s case of the mountain climber in my blog last week falls under this category.
– Exploring the question whether acting intentionally implies acting with the intention to do what one intentionally does. For example, Harman discusses this case (quoted from the website): “In firing his gun, [a] sniper knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence. He does this intentionally, thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost. But he certainly does not intend to alert the enemy to his presence.”
– Exploring the relation between intending and succeeding to do what one intends to do. (see
In this blog I want to discuss a question that belongs to the last category and that I find intriguing since already a long time: Can one try to do what one cannot do? For instance, can I try to break a world record, if I am by far not good enough to break it?
According to Stuart Hampshire trying implies that “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”. If so, we speak of trying “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed” and the trying agent knows what to do and has decided to perform the trying action: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1959:107).
Suppose that I am a long distance runner. The world record on 5,000 metres track (5K) is 12'.37,35", run in 2004 by Kenenisa Bekele in Hengelo in the Netherlands. It is my big wish to break this record. However, my personal record (pr) is exactly three minutes slower: 15'.37,35". I ran it after many years of hard training. Therefore everybody body will say that it will be impossible for me to break the world record. Nevertheless, I don’t give up and I train and train and train ... and then I choose a race for the big try. As expected by the experts, I fail and because I have started by far too fast in the race I even fail to break my own pr.
According to Hampshire’s definition of trying, we can say that I tried to break the 5K world record but that I failed. Is it really so? It’s clear that I failed, but can we say that I tried? I think that we cannot, for it was 99.99999... % certain that I would fail, and I think that in order to speak reasonably of a try there must be a minimal chance of success and the chance of success was absent from any reasonable point of view. Therefore I want to add this “minimal chance of success” as a condition when we want to speak of a try. However, what is a minimal chance? Is it when my pr would have been 14'.37,35"? Or 13'.37,35"? Or 13'.07,35"? Or 12'.52,35"? Or ...? The problem is what tells a try from a not-try. A man cannot try to give birth to a baby, but a long distance runner with a pr of 12'.38,35" on the 5K track can reasonably try to break the world record on the distance, and there is a lot in between from the perspective of what we can possibly try and what we cannot. But where is the line that separates them? Often there is one, but as my case of the 5K runner shows, also often there isn’t one. In practice we know what trying is but in theory we cannot define it. The upshot is that we can’t even try to define “try” for there is no chance of success but only failure.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Philosophical puzzles

Philosophical puzzles, like the “Ship of Theseus” (see last blog), are much used in analytical philosophy and especially in the philosophy of action. Then I don’t mean logical puzzles or puzzles merely done for fun or for training your brain and, but puzzles with an ethical or practical aspect, so like Theseus’ Ship, which plays an important part in discussions on identity, or the trolley problem, which I used in my blog dated Feb. 18, 2013. They are good instruments for thinking through complicated issues. However, the reasonings involved rely on philosophical intuitions, and is it really true that such intuitions are the same for everybody, even if philosophically schooled? It’s doubtful. Therefore a new branch of philosophy has come into being, experimental philosophy, which investigates philosophical problems by presenting them to different groups of laymen, while using an experimental format (for instance using test groups with different cultural backgrounds).
Since my specialty is the philosophy of action, I am especially interested in puzzle cases in that field. Some are about what an action is, what intentionality is, and the like. Other ones try to distinguish actions “as such” and its side effects. Again other puzzle cases focus on the relation between action and causality. And maybe there are other categories as well. Donald Davidson, who left his mark on the development of modern action theory, uses several puzzle cases for examining the question if and under which conditions there is a causal relation between an agent’s beliefs and the result of an action by him or her. Such cases are of the type that someone wants to perform an action with an important consequence and the idea of doing so makes the agent so nervous that he loses the control of his body and just this makes that he does what he intended to do but not in the way or at the moment he wanted to do it. Here is an example by Davidson: “A climber might want to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man on a rope, and he might know that by loosening his hold on the rope he could rid himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want might so unnerve him as to cause him to loosen his hold, and yet it might be the case that he never chose to loosen his hold, nor did he do it intentionally.” (Davidson, 1980: 79). According to Davidson we can say only that the climber caused the fall of the co-climber if what the climber believed and wanted to do on the one hand and the fall of the co-climber on the other hand were causally related “in the right way”, and that is apparently not the case in this instance. Is he right? For one can also say that one needs to keep his nerves under control in such a situation, anyhow, since being unnerved can make that a climber loses control of what he does and he has to know that, and wrong beliefs can make a climber nervous. Maybe one must say that just because the climber’s belief and want were related in the wrong way to the fall of the co-climber they caused it. Isn’t it so that we are often held responsible for what we do, not as side effects but just as the thing we do, because what we intended to do is related in the wrong way to the consequences? Just this “being related in the wrong way” makes that we are often held responsible for what we didn’t believe and wanted to do and nevertheless actually did (in causing a traffic accident, for example).
These are only a few initial remarks about Davidson’s puzzle case. Much more space is necessary to flesh it out, and maybe finally I would draw another conclusion, if I did. But what all this shows is that a good puzzle case doesn’t only make you think (using your brain) but also gives you a lot to think about.

Reference: Donald Davidson¸ Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Truth and the Ship of Theseus

Last week I mentioned the famous puzzle case of the Ship of Theseus. It was first put forward by the Ancient Greeks. Nowadays it is especially used in the debate on personal identity in the analytical philosophy. And indeed, the problem I discussed in my last blog has much to do with the question of group identity; in this case the identity of a group over time. But if a group like a sports team has a continuity over time despite changes in membership, just as the Ship of Theseus remains to exist when its planks are replaced one by one, does this mean that a group exists independent of the members who make up the group? The more I think about the case of the Ship of Theseus, the more intriguing questions come to my mind. It casts even doubt on one of the basic assumptions of classical logic, namely the law of excluded middle and double negation. The first part of this law says that for any proposition either it is true or its negation is true. The second part says that a statement cannot be true and not true at the same time.
To repeat, the case of the Ship of Theseus involves that the vessel is repaired by gradually taking out the old planks one by one and putting in new. Do we then still have the same ship at the end? Of course, Theseus, the owner of the ship who has commissioned the repair, will say “yes, we have”, and we’ll certainly agree if the old planks are destroyed. But suppose that someone has stolen the planks before they could be destroyed, builds a new ship with these planks (and only with these planks) and paints the name “Ship of Theseus” on it, just as on the original ship and on the one repaired by order of Theseus. Which ship is then the real Ship of Theseus? Say that just after the reparation has been finished, a fire completely destroys the ship with the new planks. Then the plank-hoarder appears and says: No problem, I have saved the ship for I have reconstructed the Ship of Theseus with the old planks. I think that it would be absurd to deny the truth of this claim. For if the Ship of Theseus would have been taken apart by taking away the planks one by one, storing the planks for a year, and then rebuilding the ship with the old planks, we would say the same. However, if we had replaced all old planks by new planks and would have destroyed the old planks, we would say that the ship with the new planks was the real Ship of Theseus. So whether the ship made of the old planks is the Ship of Theseus or whether the new ship is depends on the history of the building of the Ship of Theseus and on what has happened with the planks.
Suppose now that the repaired ship hasn’t caught fire and that the old planks haven’t been destroyed but used by an antique dealer to rebuild the Ship of Theseus. Theseus would say then, with right, that the old planks have been stolen and that the repaired ships is the real Ship of Theseus. But the antique dealer maintains that he wanted to save the original Ship of Theseus. Then he can also say with right that his ship is the real Ship of Theseus. As Noonan says about this case: “The identity statement in question is at worst indeterminate in truth-value” (p. 132). The problem can be solved by letting the truth of a proposition depend on who utters it (either Theseus or the antique dealer in my case), but classical logic does not allow this possibility: Either Theseus’ ship or the antique dealer’s ship is the real Ship of Theseus.
But suppose now that Theseus didn’t know that the old planks have not been destroyed and that they were used for rebuilding his original ship. Theseus puts out to sea with his repaired ship and he runs across the antique dealer with his ship. Theseus falls into a rage, when he sees another ship with the name “Ship of Theseus”, and he attacks it with his boat. We get a sea battle and one ship is destroyed and sinks. Then there are good reasons to call the winning ship the real Ship of Theseus, at least from then on. So the result of the battle determines which ship is the real Ship of Theseus. In other words, the truth of the proposition “The Ship of Theseus is identical with the ship constructed of the new planks” depends on the result of the battle. If Theseus wins it is true. However, this doesn’t involve that if the antique dealer wins this proposition is false. Moreover we have then the intriguing question, whether Theseus changes his opinion, in case he loses the battle. Maybe he considers from then on the ship rebuilt with the old planks again the real Ship of Theseus.

Source: Harold W. Noonan, Personal Identity. Second Edition. London: Routledge, 2003

Monday, October 05, 2015

A philosophical enigma

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

The strings that bind people together

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

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

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

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

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

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