Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy words


Maybe you’ll not remember it, for it’s already five years ago that I wrote it, but once in a blog I told how I ride better with a smile on my face when making a bike tour. This is exactly in line with what I newly wrote about the movements of the body and the way you feel, and especially about the relation between the expression on your face and your feelings. Of course, this has a wider application than only the practice of sports. Trainers in interpersonal communication, for instance, make use of the relation between bodily expression and feeling. They advice to adapt your physical expression to the situation you are in. Then you do not only make a better impression on the others present, but you feel yourself also better adapted to the circumstances and you feel like you are supposed to behave. But if such a relation exists, especially between facial expression and feeling, then it must also be easy to integrate this phenomenon in your daily life. For, as I see it, you can do this when you do something you have to do anyway: talking. Just choose the right words and you’ll become happy. Not by choosing words with the meaning of happiness but by choosing words that have a happy sound, or rather a sound that you can only utter by smiling. How does it work? To quote Darwall: “Subjects who are asked to pronounce phonemes involving muscle activity implicated in characteristic emotional facial expressions tend, when they comply, to feel those very feelings.” For instance, the sound o is made with another expression of your facial musculature than when you say an e and therefore they give you different feelings, when you pronounce them. Is it mere chance that saying words like “sorrow” and “gloomy” arouse corresponding feelings within you? Apparently it is not only the meanings of the words that do but also the muscles in your face. But, surely, it can also work in the opposite direction. Saying an e is done by producing a smile and smiling makes you happy. So, say “cheerful” and you’ll feel cheerful.
What does this mean for us? There are many ways to try to become happy. One of them is the way we talk: Simply use “happy words”, so words that you have to pronounce by producing a smile on your face. Say “pleased” and not “glad”; “grief” and not “sorrow”; or – something else – “street” and not “road”. If you do, you’ll feel much better, only by the way you speak. Or, as Darwall says it: “There is more to saying ‘cheese’ than we might have imagined.”

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotations on p. 265). (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/43412/1109?sequence=1 )

Monday, March 16, 2015

Empathy and sympathy


Two weeks ago I published the photo above by way of illustration for my blog. I had taken it especially for this occasion and it was supposed to express the idea of empathy. But does it really do? Empathy is a complex notion that has got many different interpretations. We have seen this yet in my blog last week. Within limits it is a bit arbitrary what meaning we should give it. However, I think that one thing has become clear from my discussion: Empathy refers to a kind of reflection of another’s emotion or experience within me. After the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons this needn’t be something vague but we can give it a physical foundation, as I have done so in my blogs as well. Empathy makes that I am a bit like the other whose feeling I reflect. Empathy can reflect all kinds of feelings, from cheerfulness until sorrow and a lot in between.
In a photo I can express only one kind of empathy; I cannot express empathy in general. Even then, I think now that the blog photo two weeks ago is not to the point, for it doesn’t show a kind of reflection of the feeling of one person in another person. This doesn’t mean that the photo is a complete failure, for it does express something that is often confused with empathy (so also by me). We see a hand on a shoulder in a gloomy picture (it’s on purpose that I had made the photo rather dark and that I had made it black-and-white). But such a hand on a shoulder is generally not supposed to mean that the “hand-person” has the same feeling as the “shoulder-person” but that former is concerned about the latter and that the former cares for the latter. In other words, the photo expresses sympathy.
Although sympathy and empathy are related, they are different. For explaining this, let me quote Stephen Darwall’s definition of sympathy. According to him, sympathy “is a feeling or emotion that (a) responds to some apparent threat or obstacle to an individual’s good or well-being, (b) has that individual himself as object, and (c) involves concern for him, and thus for his well-being, for his sake.” In short, sympathy refers to feelings for another person that is in a difficult situation and needs help or support. Nothing of all this is necessary for empathy. The other doesn’t need to be in trouble or have a difficult time. I can also share the joy another experiences (for having passed an exam successfully, for instance), and I am happy because the other is happy. I can also feel empathy when I am watching a play in a theatre. I just feel, also if I don’t have a personal relation to the other. In case of sympathy I am concerned for the other but not because I reflect the feeling of the other within me but for his or her sake. I care for the other also when I don’t have the feeling of the other. For instance, the mother of a person I know has died and I am present at the funeral for expressing my sympathy, but this doesn’t imply that I am sad. I simply show care for my acquaintance because I know that my presence will be very much appreciated by him. Being worried or concern are words that best express our feelings when we have sympathy for someone. Therefore we can say, in philosophical terms, that when we have sympathy we see the other from a third-person perspective, because we know what the other feels but we do not necessarily share this feeling, unlike in the case of empathy which supposes a first-person perspective, for only by becoming the same as the other in a certain way, we can know what the other feels.

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotation on p. 261). (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/43412/1109?sequence=1 )

Monday, March 09, 2015

On the meaning of “empathy”



In my blog last week, I remarked that scientists do not agree about what empathy involves. In fact, they give it many interpretations. In an article on its features and effects Amy Coplan gives a list of the most popular ways empathy is understood:
(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else’s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another’s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other’s situation
(F) Making inferences about another’s mental states
(G) Some combination of these possibilities.
As Coplan notes, this big number of conceptualizations of empathy is quite problematical for what are we talking about, when we use the word “empathy”? Even if one gives a clear definition in a treatise on empathy, it remains confusing that the concept can be understood in so many different ways. In this blog I cannot end the confusion, but I want to make some comments on the different meanings of empathy listed by Coplan, hoping that it helps to bring some order in the mesh, although my comments must be short.
Leaving out (G), which is a bit of a hotchpotch, we have six different interpretations. Originally the concept has been coined in Germany at the end of the 19th century, where it has been developed by Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps, who talked about “Einfühlung”. Einfühlung means something like feeling into. Let’s keep it in mind.
Take first interpretation (B): to care about someone else. I think that this interpretation of empathy is too wide. One can care about another for many different reasons and one doesn’t need to feel into the other for that, which minimally supposes some kind of emotionally sharing. Interpretation (B) needs to be specified, for example, by the other interpretations (or some of them), like (D): Imagining oneself in another’s situation. However, such an imagining must be more than simply intellectual. For instance, a judge has to assess why the suspect robbed the bank because he needed money. Such an assessment will be purely intellectual. Referring to what I said in my blogs about mirror neurons, in order to talk about empathy here, a certain kind of internal simulation of the suspect’s reasons by the judge is imperative if we want to talk about empathy. Even more, since mirror neurons are also motor neurons that start moving the muscles expressing the empathy, for instance on the face, one could talk about a kind of internal vibration in case of empathy. I think that one cannot expect that the “feeling into” of a judge goes that far. As for this, there is not much difference between imagining oneself in another’s situation and imagining being in his or her situation (=E). Also this interpretation supposes too much about what empathy is.
This “feeling into”, or “being emotionally affected by” as Copland says it, is explicitly mentioned in interpretation (C). However, thinking of the recent discovery of mirror neurons, (C) contains a contradiction, for in view of these neurons being emotionally affected involves at least a minimal experience of these emotions within by the observer. The latter is implied in interpretation (A), which sees empathy as a kind of – what I have called – “internal vibration”. But then we are already halfway interpretation (F) (namely making inferences about another’s mental states), assuming that we can use our own mental states then in order to explain the mental states of the other.
My comments on the six possible interpretations of empathy presented by Copland don’t bring us a final definition. However, they show some aspects that must be part of such a definition, explicitly or implicitly. If we see empathy with another as a kind of feeling into, then at least we share that person’s feelings, emotions and experiences in the sense that we are emotionally affected by them and simulate them internally in some way and have a kind of internal (muscular) vibration (if not an expression of the feeling on our face). In short, empathy is emotional resonance of the other within us.

Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its features and effects”, in: Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy (see blog last week); pp. 3-18.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Why women have more empathy than men


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

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

When empathy fails


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

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

On group responsibility

Group intention

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

Monday, February 09, 2015

Group intentions (2)


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

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

Tom                            yes                              no                    no

Dick                           yes                              yes                  yes

Harry                          no                               no                    yes

Majority                      yes                              no                    yes

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

Monday, February 02, 2015

Government dilemmas


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

                                                       increase taxes             reduce spending

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

Old quotes


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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dangerous ideas (5)


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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Getting started


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

Monday, January 05, 2015

Of age


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

Monday, December 29, 2014

How to celebrate Christmas

German and British soldiers meeting each other, Christmas 1914

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

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


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

Monday, December 15, 2014

When prophecy fails (2)


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

Monday, December 08, 2014

Reality behind words

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

Passages (4)


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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Passages (3)

Self-made passage

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Passages (2)


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