Friday, April 22, 2016

On eating

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Food for thought

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to make a hollandaise sauce

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

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

Monday, April 04, 2016

A picture on the wall

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

A philosophy of photos

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

March 22, 2016

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

Life as a passage

Ferry near Wijk bij Duurstede, Netherlands

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

More passages on

Monday, March 14, 2016

On collective behaviour

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

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

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Montaigne Fallacy and the Wittgenstein Fallacy

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

The fallacy fallacy


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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Shades of grey

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

On the move

Today the refugee problem is in the centre of attention. At least in Europe, for, what many people in this part of the world don’t realize is that, say, in Tanzania, Vietnam or Chile the European refugee question is maybe only a little newspaper report among many others or a news item on TV at most. And I must say that even though the Netherlands receives the biggest stream of refugees since tens of years, in my little town you notice nothing of it. Moreover, the Netherlands has become a multicultural country through the years, so that it’s normal to see people of foreign origin and to hear foreign languages everywhere.
Although everyone here knows that there are refugee camps all over the country since already many years and that it is the same so in other countries, most people think that such big migrations are exceptional. Therefore, I think that it is good to put the phenomenon into perspective, not for playing it down and for saying that actually there is no need to help but for showing that being on the move and looking for a better place to live is not as uncommon as many people think. Even more, I dare to say that migrating is a human property. It’s in our genes, so to speak. Being on the run for violence and war is only the most extreme instance of it.
Take a look at history and you’ll see that migration is not only a phenomenon related to war and violence, but that it is almost related to daily life. Even if we consider the groups of people arriving in Europe via Turkey and Greece searching for a better life, we see that about half of them are not fleeing the wars in the Middle East but that they have blended into the crowds of war victims in order to enter Europe in pursuit of jobs. But actually most migration happens in a completely legal way. Take the Netherlands: through the years many people have migrated to Canada and Australia and to a lot of other countries in this world, inside and outside Europe. The USA wouldn’t have been the powerful nation it is today if not so many people from Europe and elsewhere had settled there. The Argentinean population is mainly of Italian and Spanish origin. Many people in Malagasy and Mauritius have their roots on the other side of the Indian Ocean. These are only a few examples but if we should study the problem in detail our conclusion would be that hardly any people has lived “eternally” on the site where it lives today. Since man started to go out of Africa in prehistory, he (and she) has always been on the move and stayed never longer than a number of generations on the same site. As Jean-Michel Delacomptée writes in a book on Montaigne: “Since the dawn of time it is the fate of humanity to leave its villages and see what exists elsewhere” (p. 122) Delacomptée refers here to tourism, but this quotation describes also very well man’s destiny to move for other reasons, often not freely and without necessity but pushed by war or a miserable life or pulled by the prospect of a better future.
During his conquest of Gaul in the first century BC, now and then Julius Caesar run across people who wanted to settle in the territory conquered by him or wanted to pass through it. Nowadays we should call them migrants or refugees. How did Caesar deal with them? I know of two cases, and I am afraid that they are typical of the way refugees and migrants were treated in those days. The Helvetians were moving from the present Switzerland and wanted to establish themselves in what is now South-western France. Caesar stopped them with his army and the result was a battle in which two third of the migrants (about 200,000 people, including women and children) were killed. The battle of Oss in the Netherlands was even more dramatic. The Tencteri en Usipetes were on the move and wanted to enter Northern Gaul, which was against Caesar’s will. Caesar sought a pretext for a battle and easily beat the unprepared opponents. Two tribes – several hundred thousand people all together, again including women and children – were completely extirpated. It’s a difficult question whether there has been any progress in history, but I think that’s not the way we want to treat migrants and refugees today, or at least most of us don’t want it...

Reference: Jean-Michel Delacomptée, Adieu Montaigne. Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2015.

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: