Monday, December 11, 2017

A lost library

Montaigne's study in his castle. On the wall the points 
where his book cases had been attached can still be seen.

Montaigne loved books. He had a large collection of books. About thousand books. Maybe it’s not impressive in view of what many people have today, but he lived in a different age, and not many people could afford to buy such a collection. Moreover, many people were illiterate in those days. Also Montaigne hadn’t bought a big part of his collection himself. He inherited the library of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, who had bequeathed his books to him on his deathbed. It’s a pity that nothing remains of Montaigne’s book collection, for after his death his daughter sold his books or gave them away. How nice then that at the moment a project is going on to reconstruct Montaigne’s library: . Nevertheless, it would be interesting not only to know which books Montaigne had, but to really have them as well, for he had the habit to make notes in his books. They could tell us much about his ideas and intellectual development. Until now only a few of his books have been found back. Anyway, we know that Montaigne had dedicated his bookcase to La Boétie by having put a board with such a text on the top of it. Till about 1820 it still must have been there in Montaigne’s study and some have described the text. Since then it is lost. Also the bookcase is no longer there.
Happily, we know a lot of what Montaigne read from his Essays. He even wrote an essay about it, titled “Of Books” (Book II, 10). Montaigne writes there that he read for amusing himself in the first place. In case he wanted to gather knowledge from a book, it was in order to know himself better and to learn to die and live in the right way. Montaigne wrote about the latter also in his Essays and it made that this book is still so popular. It’s one of the classics one has to read if one wants to know what philosophers see a good life.
Montaigne preferred classical literature to modern literature. The former is better, he thinks. Since he also preferred to read books in the original language, he read mainly Latin books, for his schoolboy knowledge of Old Greek, as he calls it, was not good enough for understanding the Greek literature well. Besides, in his days not yet much classical literature had been translated into French. Note that it was the time of the Renaissance, when many old books just were rediscovered. In view of this it’s striking that the first book after his remark that he prefers the classics is Boccaccio’s Decamerone, which he read for his amusement, so he says, just like for instance, Rabelais. As for the classics, Montaigne first mentions in his essay “Of Books” the poetry of Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus and Horace. From Virgil he especially names his Aeneid, which is an epic poetic work; not what most of us would consider poetry today. He says that in his days Virgil’s work was often compared with the work by Ariosto, an Italian writer who lived some fifty years before Montaigne and who was quite popular then. For many people today Ariosto will be unknown, unless you are an opera lover, for composers like Vivaldi and Händel used his texts for their operas. Montaigne didn’t think much of Ariosto, certainly when compared with Virgil. In addition to the classical authors just mentioned, Montaigne loved the playwrights Terence and Plautus.
These are the authors Montaigne loved most. As for other writers he likes and who “mix business with pleasure”, he mentions the philosophers Plutarch and Seneca first of all. Plutarch was a Greek, indeed, but La Boétie had translated some work by him, so he could read it in French. Montaigne read also Seneca’s Letters, which are still popular today. And he read Cicero, of course. He found his moral philosophy especially useful, but he disliked his style of writing.
The last category of books Montaigne mentions is historiography. These books are pleasant and easy to read and they show how man is. This is especially the case for bibliographies, which are his favourite books. Here he names Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of Greek philosophers. However, most of all Montaigne recommends to read Caesar, not only in order to know the historical facts, but especially because of himself, since he outstrips all others in perfection – or at least this is what Montaigne thinks. But Montaigne read also work by his contemporary Jean Bodin, who was not so much a historian as well a political philosopher.
Montaigne read these authors not only for his amusement and self-improvement, but we find many quotes from their works in his essays, especially from the classical authors. So although his books have been lost, from the Essays we know what Montaigne read and what he thought about what he read. There is a saying “Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are”. But shouldn’t we simply read the Essays in order to know who Montaigne was?

Monday, December 04, 2017

Berent Enç on free will

I have something to put right, for I made a mistake. Yes, such things happen sometimes, and probably I make even more mistakes than I realize. Anyway, it’s a mistake I discovered myself. In my last blog I wrote that Berent Enç ignores the problem of the free will. It’s not true. He does give it some attention, though not much. The reason why I didn’t see it is that I wrote the blog with the help of old notes and I didn’t check them in Enç’s book. Usually I check what I write as much as I can. But who doesn’t trust his own notes? I did, and immediately I was punished. It was not Enç who ignored the problem of the free will, but it was I who did ... in these notes. But at the time I wrote them, I wasn’t yet interested in it.
Although Enç uses the words “free will” here and there, actually he speaks of “voluntary acts”. Voluntary acts, so Enç, are “movements ... caused by intentions [and] ... under the agent’s control.” (p. 221) So they are based on the idea that we act in view of our intentions. Now it is so that intentional acting need not imply voluntarily acting. A man has had four drinks at a bar intentionally. Then we can say that it was his free will to take a fifth drink only, if he was not too drunk to take a deliberative decision that he wanted to have this fifth one, too. Or, as Enç puts it, “he must have gone through a deliberation in which he considered the pros and cons of downing that fifth drink or walking out.” (221) If he was too drunk for a deliberation, “then I am committed to saying that he did not form the intention to have that fifth drink.” (221) How is this possible “in the causal network that defines the deliberation process”?, Enç asks (221). There, almost at the end of his book, he doesn’t give the answer but he confines himself to saying that the answer must be found “in a compatibilist account of voluntary acts, of autonomy, or of acts done of one’s own free will” (221), and he discusses only briefly some authors he agrees with. Discussing an essay by Stampe and Gibson, Enç refers to an example of theirs of a compulsive hand-washer who decides to wash his hands because he just has handled fish. “Rational as [the hand-washer’s] action may be in the actual situation,” so Enç, “his will may not be free if he is so constituted that he would be washing his hands even at the expense of missing a vitally important phone call. So a necessary condition for acting of one’s free will is that the agent’s decision be rational in the actual and relevantly counterfactual situations.” (222) At the risk of again saying something about Enç that is not entirely correct, I must bypass here the remaining of Enç’s short but preliminary discussion of the idea of the free will in relation to his causal theory of action. But the essence is that – and then I quote him again – “for an act to be voluntary [so free], it is necessary, but not sufficient, that it be the causal consequence of an intention that has been formed as the result of a deliberative process. An additional necessary condition would be that the deliberation involve beliefs and desires that dispose the agent to act rationally.” (227) The latter means that the action must not only be rational under the actual circumstances but also be flexible enough to adapt it to changing situations. And, I would like to add, once this free deliberation process has been finished at the macro-level, it can set to start the micro-units that execute the relevant behaviour. Seen that way, my view last week of what might be the importance of Enç’s causal theory of action for the idea of the free will is actually not too different from what Enç himself thought of it, if it is different at all.

Enç, B. (2003). How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Berent Enç and free will

One of the most interesting philosophical discussions today is the free will debate. When I was rethinking the free will problem again, Berent Enç’s book How we act came to my mind. Although it is in the field of action theory, it contains insights that might help to solve it. So, a good reason to present here a few of its main points.

Enç sees his book as a naturalistic approach to action. However, he explicitly wants to show that there is room for agency in a world of causally connected events. It is here, I think, that the idea of a free will has a place. Enç makes a distinction between what one does deliberatively and what one does automatically. In order to substantiate this, he discusses examples from biology. For instance, a cricket has a built in mechanism for singing. If the weather conditions, the time of the day etc. are correct, its brain cells fire and the cricket sings. But this mechanism will also cause it to sing, when stimulated in the appropriate way by a researcher. Of course, automatic behaviour needs not be innate. It can also be learned, like the behaviour of a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck a key when a light flashes in a Skinnerian paradigm. Likewise a human agent either can do something automatically because she has been born to behave that way, or she can learn to do something automatically, e.g. tying her shoelaces: As a child the agent had to learn it and each time she initially tied her shoelaces, she had to think about the right movements; as an adult, the agent simply does, probably without even being able to tell any longer what she exactly does. However, an agent does not tie the shoelaces involuntarily, like when she sneezes, but she has a reason for it. By arguing this way, Enç substantiates that an agent has macro-units of behaviour controlled by higher centres that determine the reasons why the agent does what she does and micro-units of innate or learned behaviour that are subsystems that control the limb trajectories. The macro-units determine the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions, and what the agent thinks on the macro-level triggers the behaviour of the micro-units that produce the specific limb movements needed to fulfil the agent’s specific goals. It’s here that deliberation plays a part. Essential in rational action is that deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do. However, for Enç deliberation is not a process that finally is independent of the world around the agent. It is to be explained by reference only to events, states, and the causal relations among them in the world around the person and by the way they are represented within the person. Once the process of deliberation has been finished it will set to start the actual behaviour, which, at least for a part on a basic level, will be executed automatically without further thinking.
Enç has embedded his analysis in a discussion of current problems of action theory. For example he discusses the question whether it is possible to take volitions as a starting point of action. But how is it then possible to avoid an infinite regress: For what determines the volitions and what determines this and so on? Enç accepts the idea of basic action, but if so, what is then a basic action, he asks. These are problems that Enç discusses, and for which he tries to find an intelligent solution in developing a complicated causal model of deliberation. It is not, as he shows, that the deliberation-action process is simply unidirectional, going from events in the world to representations of these events in the agent to deliberation to the triggering of a preferred kind of behaviour to fulfilment of the purpose. There is ample room in the model for feedback loops. Moreover, at each level the agent can choose what to do, according to her preferences, beliefs, desires, action possibilities and intentions, depending on the circumstances in which the action takes place. Once the decision has been taken and the final intention has been determined, it is the intention that triggers the agent’s basic acts at the right time, and that guides the agent in the execution of the action chosen.
Enç’s book is an important contribution to the naturalistic approach, but it has also much value for the interpretive approach and with that for the idea that there is a free will (which Enç ignores, however). An interpretive approach does not explain what people do by analyzing objective causes, as the naturalistic approach does, but understands the subjective meanings that the acting people themselves give to their actions. Enç analysis potentially brings the two approaches closer together.
This becomes clear, when one looks at the action theory of Alfred Schütz, one of the founders of the interpretive approach. Schütz sees behaviour as a more or less automatic thoughtless activity, while action is performed according to a plan. Naturalists explain what an agent does in terms of the way it is determined by her beliefs and desires in an objective causal way. Interpretationists, however, emphasize that an agent’s reasons are subjective interpretations that make certain actions the thing to do. Enç’s analysis makes is possible to put these approaches together. When analyzing what naturalists do, one can say that they have in mind a Schützean notion of behaviour. In terms of Enç, it is the behaviour done by the micro-units. Beliefs, desires, reasons and intentions are then formulated as ways of explaining what the agent does on the level of the micro-units that execute the actual behaviour. On the other hand, interpretationists see action as a way of thinking what to do according to a Schützean action plan. In terms of Enç, this is the process of deliberation executed by the macro-units of behaviour. Seen in the light of Enç’s causal deliberation model, naturalism and the interpretive approach are partial approaches to the problem of how to explain what an agent does. With the help of Enç’s model these approaches can be integrated. It is in this integration that there is room for a free will, not as an epiphenomenon of the bodily process but as an autonomous phenomenon.

Enç, B. (2003). How We Act: Causes, Reasons, and Intentions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This blog is an abbreviated and adapted version of my review of Enç’s book in Philosophical Psychology, 2005/6: 797-800.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Principles of Philosophy

Last week I discussed the Principle of Charity, especially the version developed by Donald Davidson. It says – to put it in another way – that “in seeking to understand a point of view ... we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.” (1) Such a principle is a methodological rule. It is a rule for cogent philosophy in order to get the best philosophical results. A methodological rule like this “represents a guideline to be followed if error is to be avoided.” “It is not a philosophical thesis or doctrine that purports to answer to some substantive philosophical question, [but] a rule of procedure that specifies a modus operandi, a way of proceeding in the course of philosophizing.” (2) Such a philosophical thesis says for example, “Ought implies can” (Kant), or “that it is fine for the rich to get richer only if the poor always become richer than they would have done had the wealthy been held back.” (the difference principle, formulated by John Rawls) (3)
Nicholas Rescher distinguishes several kinds of methodological principles of philosophy (4), which I’ll ignore here. Instead I want to put forward a few principles by way of illustration. The selection is arbitrary, and reflects more what I consider interesting than philosophical significance.

- Occam’s Razor. This principle has different formulations, but basically it says that you must remove everything that is superfluous in your argumentation. The principle has been named after William of Ockham, a medieval philosopher who lived from 1288-1348. However, the principle was already known before Ockham, and it has also been worded by philosophers after him. Strangely enough, the principle cannot be found in Ockham’s writings, although the idea is present, so it is to be wondered why the principle has been named just after him.
- Nothing is without a reason, better known as the principle of sufficient reason. This principle has been formulated by G.W. Leibniz (1646-1716) and says that nothing must be maintained without a substantive reason. Don’t state what hasn’t a sound basis. There is also an ontological version of this principle, saying that everything in the world has a reason why it is. (5)
- The falsification principle, brought forward by Karl R. Popper. It says that you must look for arguments that undermine your views and the views developed by others and not for arguments that sustain them. The latter can always be found and will not make a view better, but the former lead to scientific and philosophical progress. If your theory is that all swans are white and you have seen already ten white swans, then the eleventh white swan that you observe will not make your theory better, but a black swan will do.
- Never explain what is obscure by something yet more so. If you replace in this principle the word “explain” by its synonym “make clear”, it becomes a tautology. It’s the purpose of philosophy to elucidate, not to obfuscate. (6) David Hume (1711-1776) formulated a related principle, the principle of evidence. This says that a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger.

Voilà some methodological principles of philosophy. Principles like these help solve philosophical problems and they provide powerful rules of thought. What remains, however, is how to choose our problems. There can be many reasons to consider a topic relevant for philosophical discussion, but at least one principle must guide your choice: Never flog a dead horse, that is don’t argue against that which nobody maintains. (7)

(2) Nicholas Rescher, Philosophical Dialects. An Essay on Metaphilosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Quoted from , p. 2
(4) p. 3 (see note 1). – (5) id. p.5. – (6) id. p.8. – (7) id. p.15.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Principle of Charity

Look at the pictures above and answer the following question: Which of these three birds is not an owl?

Once I was in an educational park somewhere in Germany and in a corner of the park there were bird pictures hanging in the trees; pictures like those above. I got the same question as I just asked you. The answer? The bird at the right is not an owl. I didn’t understand, for the picture on the left shows a long-eared owl, the one in the middle a barn owl, and on the right you see a tawny owl. Why shouldn’t a tawny owl not be an owl? The name says already that it is! And everything I know about birds says that a tawny owl is an owl. It is simply irrational to say that an owl is not an owl. It’s incomprehensible for me to do so.
Then I read the explanation of the answer. The birds are called – in German – from left to right:
Waldohreule - Schleiereule - Waldkauz,
and a “Kauz“ is not an “Eule”.
Now I understood: In German a special word is used for some owls. They don’t call them “Eule” (owl) but “Kauz”. So it was a matter of naming, that the bird on the right was not an “owl” (“Eule”). Nevertheless, I still found it irrational and weird, for there is no ornithological reason for calling a tawny owl a “Kauz” and not an “Eule”. Ornithologically, all the three birds are owls.

Problems like the one just discussed often happen inside and outside philosophy. We see someone doing or saying something weird or we read a text that we don’t understand. We can react by saying: What that person is doing or saying, or what I read here is stupid. It’s not in agreement with what I do, so it’s not rational. Indeed, we can react that way, but it is more practical and reasonable to think: Maybe that person is not really irrational, for most of the time, what people do, say or write has sense for them. Let’s try to find out what this sense is. And usually we do find a meaning of what we first considered irrational: A meaning for that “irrationally” acting, talking, writing person. Although we don’t need to agree with it, the “irrationality” makes sense.
As the American philosopher Donald Davidson made clear to us, we make this kind of reinterpretations of what others do, say and write not only now and then, but we make it “all the time”. We make the actions by others understandable by “deciding in favour of reinterpretation of [those actions] in order to preserve a reasonable theory of belief” (1984, p. 196). And, no surprise, philosophy has a name for this reinterpretation: It’s called the Principle of Charity. The term has been coined in 1959 by Neil L. Wilson, but better known is the development of the idea by William Van Orman Quine and especially the development by Davidson. As Davidson – who thinks of what a person says in the first place – tells us: “if all we know is what sentences a person holds true, and we cannot assume that his language is our own, then we cannot take even a first step towards interpretation without knowing or assuming a great deal about the speaker’s beliefs. Since knowledge of beliefs comes only with the ability to interpret words, the only possibility at the start is to assume general agreement on beliefs. We get a first approximation to a finished theory by assigning to sentences of a speaker conditions of truth that actually obtain (in our own opinion) just when the speaker holds those sentences true. The guiding policy is to do this as far as possible, subject to considerations of simplicity, hunches about the effects of social conditioning, and of course our common-sense, or scientific knowledge of explicable error” (1984, p. 196) A charitable interpretation of the other is not an option but a condition to make communication possible, so Davidson (1984, p. 197). Moreover, a charitable interpretation is not simply a matter of benevolence or politeness. We need it also or just when we don’t agree with the other “Crediting people with a large degree of consistency cannot be counted mere charity: it is unavoidable if we are to be in a position to accuse them meaningfully of error and some degree of irrationality.” (1980, p. 221).
In plain words: We have first to find out what someone stands for from his or her point of view and how his or her ideas fit together. Only then we know to what extent we agree and disagree and only then we can meaningfully criticize him or her if we feel the need. Only after we have interpreted what someone says in a charitable way, we can say why his or her words are irrational, for instance why it’s weird to call a “Kauz” not an owl.

- Davidson, Donald, “Mental Events”, in Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 207-227.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Averroes and Western Philosophy

Recently I was in Andalusia, the most southern region of Spain, and there were two towns that I wanted to visit anyway: Sevilla and Córdoba. There are many reasons for visiting them, but as a lover of opera and of philosophy both towns were a must for me. For isn’t Sevilla the stage of three famous operas, namely Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”, and Bizet’s “Carmen”? And, indeed, when being there it was impossible not to be reminded of them. So I passed a Restaurant Doña Elvira (one of the characters in “Don Giovanni”), I walked around the tobacco factory where the opera “Carmen” begins, and I could also have had a haircut in the hairdresser’s salon of the “Barbero de Sevilla”, if it hadn’t been closed on the moment I was there. However, I was most interested in going to Córdoba. This town is not only known for the mosque that later has been converted into a Christian church, but it is also the native town of three great philosophers: Seneca, Averroes and Maimonides.
Who doesn’t know Lucius Annaeus Seneca Jr., the Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist and also son of an orator? The man who was the tutor and advisor of Nero, the Roman emperor, but who had also to commit suicide by order of Nero? Most remarkable is that Seneca’s works are still widely read after two thousand years.
And then Maimonides, whose real name was Rabbi Mosjé ben Maimon in Hebrew or Moesa ibn Maimon in Arab. Maimonides lived from 1138 till 1204 and he would become one of the most authoritative rabbis of the Jewish religion. He adapted Aristotelian thought to Biblical faith and his “Thirteen articles of faith” formulate the central ideas of Jewish orthodox thinking.
But most important for Western philosophy has been, I think, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, known in the Western countries as Averroes for short. Averroes (1126-1198) held several important positions in the service of the ruling Almohaden dynasty. He has been exiled from Córdoba for some time because of his too liberal thoughts. He died in Marrakesh in the present Morocco. During his exile Averroes’s writings were banned and burned, which made that some have been lost forever. After his death the Muslims in Spain were forced back by the Christian Spanish armies and so Averroes is considered the last Muslim philosopher from Spain.
Averroes wrote on a wide range of subjects, including medicine and law, and many of his works have been influential. In law he wrote on themes as diverse as cleanliness, marriage, jihad and the government’s role with non-Muslims. He published a medical encyclopedia and commented on the work by the Roman physician Galen (Claudius Galenus; 129 - after 200 AD). However, what affected Western thought most was his philosophical and theological work. Averroes devoted three decades to writing commentaries on thinkers in these fields. He commented on Plato, Alexander, Nicolaus of Damascus, Porphyry and Ptolemy, but especially important are his commentaries on Aristotle. Averroes wrote commentaries on all Aristotle’s works with the exception of the latter’s Politics. In this blog I cannot do justice to his thoughts; far from that. But most of Aristotle’s works had been lost in the western world since the sixth century or they had been ignored. Many were still available in the Arab world, often only in an Arab translation, but in the West they were unknown. If I was allowed to mention only one contribution by Averroes to Western thinking, it would be that his commentaries on Aristotle came to renew Western intellectual interest in this outstanding Greek philosopher. On the other hand, in the Arab world, the influence of Averroes faded into the background after his death. As Bertrand Russell says it: “In [Mohammedan philosophy] he was a dead end; in [Christian philosophy] a beginning” (p. 419). From the end of the twelfth century on Averroes influenced the scholastics, but he got also a philosophical school of his own. Its adherents were called the Averroists and they were a group of unprofessional freethinkers who denied immortality. Under the professional thinkers Averroes’s influence was big among the Franciscans, like Roger Bacon (ca.1214-ca.1294) and at the newly founded University of Paris. How would Western philosophy have developed if this Muslim thinker hadn’t revealed the thoughts of one of the founders of just this Western philosophy?

- H. Chad Hillier, “Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198)”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on
- Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy and its connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. London: George Allen & Unwin; 1974 (1946)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The surprise test

Who doesn’t know it, the so-called “surprise test”? Here is a version that I found on the website of the Encyclopaedia Britannica ( A teacher announces to her class that there will be a surprise test sometime during the following week. The students begin to speculate about when it might occur, until one of them announces that there is no reason to worry, because a surprise test is impossible. The test cannot be given on Friday, she says, because by the end of the day on Thursday we would know that the test must be given the next day. Nor can the test be given on Thursday, she continues, because, given that we know that the test cannot be given on Friday, by the end of the day on Wednesday we would know that the test must be given the next day. And likewise for Wednesday, Tuesday, and Monday. The students spend a restful weekend not studying for the test, and they are all surprised when it is given on Wednesday. How could this happen?
There are various versions of this paradox, like the unexpected hanging paradox, and the versions are also known under different names (like “the surprise examination paradox” in my case). Until now there hasn’t been found a solution to this paradox. Here I’ll ignore the proposed solutions but life is full of surprises, and often our reasoning that certain things cannot happen hold no water. The reasoning of the student that a surprise test is impossible can simply be made invalid by drawing lots. And if the teacher draws a lot that the test will be on Wednesday, it’s a surprise despite any rational argumentation, if he doesn’t tell it the students.
One of the problematical aspects of this paradox is the time perspective involved – in two ways:
1) When the student argues that a surprise test is impossible, she reasons from the past to the present: She starts her reasoning as if it is already Friday and argues back to the moment that she talks with her fellow students. From this backward perspective what happens is fixed. The teacher, however, looks from the now to the future. From this forward perspective the date of the test is yet open and can yet be changed, even if the teacher has already decided to take the test on Wednesday. Surprises exist for what hasn’t yet happened.
2) Let’s assume now that the teacher said that the test will be either tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Would we call it a surprise test, because we don’t know the exact date? Hardly, I think, and it is to be expected that the students will study hard for the test. Now assume that the test will be taken within three days. Would we call it a surprise test? Maybe. Now let’s say that the test will be taken within two weeks. Even if we can theoretically argue that this surprise test will not be possible according to the same reasoning as in the original one-week-case, I think that most of us will think that the argument cannot be correct. And I guess that everybody will think so if the teacher had said that the surprise test will be within one month let alone if he had said in January that the surprise test will be sometime before the end of the term in June. Seen this way, everybody feels that it cannot be right that a surprise test is impossible.
So, as I see it, something is wrong with the time perspective in the surprise paradox. Be rational, just when rationality fails.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Spinoza's ass

After I had written my blog on Buridan’s ass, I discovered by chance that soon his important comments on Aristotle’s Physics, in which he discusses the case, will be reissued by the Dutch publishing house Brill (see link below). It’s remarkable, however, that Jean Buridan himself didn’t talk about an ass or donkey but that his case is about a dog:
“Suppose that a dog is very hungry and very thirsty. He is placed between a bowl with food and a bowl with water, which are at exactly the same distance left and right of him and everything else is also the same. Then the dog will die of hunger and thirst, for he will look to the one and to the other and has no reason to choose the one or the other. And since the dog cannot go to both sides at the same time, he will stay where he is and he will die of inertia.”
This example is a comment on Aristotle’s reasoning that the earth doesn’t move but is in balance among the celestial bodies, since the earth has no reason to move into one direction or another. But Buridan doesn’t agree with this reasoning at all! For he adds: “This reasoning [in the dog’s case] seems to be false and the same so for what people say about the earth.” (source: see below).
As we see, the contents Buridan’s example is basically the same as the example of the alleged “Buridan’s ass”, but it’s not about a hungry donkey but about a dog. Why then this donkey? Nobody knows who talked first about a donkey. Anyway, many philosophers have commented on the case of “Buridan’s ass”. One of them was Baruch Spinoza. I don’t know whether Spinoza thought that the example had been thought up by Buridan and whether he had read Buridan, but actually his comment is about the same as Buridan’s. Spinoza mentioned the example of “Buridan’s” ass twice in his works: In his Cogitata Metaphysica and in his Ethics. This is what he said about it in his Ethics:
“... I readily grant that a man placed in such a state of equilibrium (namely, where he feels nothing else but hunger and thirst and perceives nothing but such-and-such food and drink at equal distances from him) will die of hunger and thirst. If they ask me whether such a man is not to be reckoned an ass rather than a man, I reply that I do not know, just as I do not know how one should reckon a man who hangs himself, or how one should reckon babies, fools, and madmen.” (Ethics, Proposition 49)
In other words, Spinoza scoffed at “Buridan’s” ass, but didn’t also Buridan scoff at “his” dog, as we just have seen? Man is not an ass. That’s what Spinoza and Buridan agree about.

- Buridan’s text can be found on

Monday, October 09, 2017

Buridan's ass

Paradoxes have always fascinated me, not only since I have become interested in philosophy but already when I was a child. I remember that once I got a book titled To Measure Is to Know. Somewhere it discussed Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, which I treated already shortly in my blog dated 12 December 2016. I found the paradox very intriguing and I asked my mathematics teacher about it. He said that it was nonsense and that he had never heard about it. I was surprised and I still am, for how could a teacher that had studied at the university and taught at a Dutch gymnasium not have heard about it?
I also remember that even before I had read about Zeno’s paradox I came across the problem of Buridan’s ass. Here is a description of this paradox:
“A rational hungry donkey is placed between two equidistant and identical haystacks. The surrounding environments on both sides are also identical. The donkey cannot choose between the two haystacks and so dies of hunger, which is simply irrational.”
Actually, it’s not correct to name this paradox after the French philosopher Jean Buridan (1295-1363), for philosophers before him – including Aristotle – had already examined it, although often in another version. Also after Buridan, the paradox has been discussed again and again, for instance by Leibniz.
What would you do, if you were in the same situation as the ass? So, if you were in a situation that you inescapably had to choose between A and B without having criteria to choose between A and B? Will you do like the ass, so you’ll do nothing even if it leads to your destruction?
On the face of it it looks like a perfect case of free will: You can exactly do what you like, for there is nothing that forces you to perform one action or another; to choose the left hay stack or the right haystack or to abstain from choosing. Which choice you’ll make, it will be your choice, anyhow. However, I think that the case shows that free will cannot involve that you can make any choice you like. If there are no criteria you cannot choose, with the consequence that you’ll do nothing, and you’ll die like the ass between two haystacks. The case of Buridan’s ass illustrates that freedom is only possible within limits and these limits determine your criteria.
Happily, we are not asses. Even more, according to Michael Hauskeller also Buridan’s ass will survive, as he explains on . If you have no criteria, you’ll simply choose, with a reason (even if you don’t know it) or without a reason. Doesn’t this happen so often to us, for example in a restaurant? “Imagine”, so Hauskeller, “you go to a restaurant. Looking at the menu, you discover that they serve your two favourite meals – say asparagus and spinach tart. What will you do? You may hesitate for a while, but then you will make your choice. You have to make a choice, don’t you? Even if you’re hungry or greedy enough to order both, you have to decide which to eat first.” Has it ever happened to you that you don’t choose and that they chuck you out, because the restaurant closes and you have still to make your choice? Of course not. You ask your partner for advice; you wonder what you have eaten last week; you follow your gut feelings... And when the waiter comes to note down your choice, you say “I take the asparagus” or “I take the spinach tart”. And so it happens always in life. There is always a reason, even if there’s none. That’s the way we are constituted and be happy that we are.

Monday, October 02, 2017

All things have their season. Or don’t they?

My power machine (Tacx bike trainer and Batavus race bike)

I should write yet a bit about Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. However, I would deviate then too much from philosophy and the leading themes of these blogs: Who am I and what do I do? Even if I should interpret theses themes very broad, as I often do. So, I dropped the idea.
But who am I and what do I do? And how does this develop in the course of life? One doesn’t remain always the same. For most people it is so that – to say it shortly – first they grow and after having reached the summit decay sets gradually in and actually there is no return from that. True?
Once I was asked to write an essay on “graceful ageing” (and much of what follows now is from that essay). Then someone said to me “Becoming older is not for sissies. You fall apart physically and mentally and you get lots of wrinkles. I don’t see any grace in that.” Now I am the last to deny that becoming old is often difficult, but has it only negative aspects?
In this blog I want to talk about the physical side of ageing and indeed, when you grow older, often this side of life becomes problematical or even unbearable. For many people the defects of the body become so dominant that there seems to remain only decay. It cannot and must not be denied, but is it the only thing there is? One can say: such a decay is ungraceful, anyhow. But even then, in Orwellian words: All decay is ungraceful, but some decay is less ungraceful than other decay. Often we are left some elbow room. For some people it is wide, for others it is limited, but I think that just this elbow room is the space where ageing can be less unpleasant despite its difficulties.
Although I am a philosopher and a sociologist, being active with my body has always been important for me. I started to do sports when I was a student, and since then sport has stayed a significant part of what I do. I know that sooner or later I’ll be forced to give it up, for it seldom happens that people stay sporty till a high age. Only some keep practising it even then, as my readers know from my blogs on Robert Marchand, who even succeeded to set up a world record in one-hour track cycling in the over-105 age group that was especially created for him. But Marchand is exceptional in view of the human fate. Anyway, I hope that I can postpone the date that I have to stop cycling and running till late in life, for I think that sport has two aspects that help making life pleasant. It is enabling in the sense that it contributes to feeling better and fitter and in this way it makes that other activities can be done better. Moreover, doing sport till an advanced age is also a way of good living as such. Sport enhances the quality of life. But in the end there is only a way down in life, or so people think, and that was why I was asked to write an essay on how to go the way down gracefully, if possible. However, must I accept the decay as a natural process, and that’s all that can be done?
In a certain sense it is and by and large the physical decay is predictable, although there are big individual differences. When earlier this year a cycling club was established in my town, I had the courage at my age of 67 to join this club, even though it was only for cyclists with a race bike – which I have, though – and even though the other boys and girls are younger, if not much younger. Moreover, in a reckless mood, I joined the group of the fastest riders (for happily so many enthusiasts had joined the club that several groups of riders could be formed). Well, I should have known better, but with some effort I always succeeded to follow the shadows of my fellow riders, although when it goes hill up some see my back, for I have always been a good climber. All this is very nice, of course, and wouldn’t be worth to write a blog about, but last week I had a fitness test and although I knew that my physical condition was already very good for my age, the unexpected happened: the result was better than three years ago, despite the fact that I had become older and despite the fact that it is more or less a natural law at my age that people go physically down.
Somewhere in his Essays Montaigne writes that all things have their seasons, also good ones. He devoted even an essay to the theme. In other words, if you become older if not old, you must stop doing things that were normal when you were younger, even if you are still able to do them. It has no sense to learn a new language after a certain age; it has no sense to try to acquire new knowledge. “When will you be wise, if you are yet learning?”, to paraphrase a quote from the Greek philosopher Xenocrates (396-314 BC) cited by Montaigne. I think that he would say the same of me and others who do like me and continue doing physical exercise till a later age. But, I think that my case illustrates that Montaigne is wrong. Human decay cannot be stopped but it is not a straight line. Not all things have their seasons.  Profit by it. Even well on in years you can become better, for in many respects you are what you do, even if it doesn’t look the natural way. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

There are books that everybody knows, that everybody talks about, and that hardly nobody has read. Such a book is Capital by Karl Marx, or, as the full title is, Capital: Critique of Political Economy. This month it is 150 years ago that the book was published. To be exactly, it was on 24 September 1867 in Berlin. Since then it has been reprinted many times, till the day of today, Also two volumes have been added, which came out after Marx’s death and have been prepared by Friedrich Engels from notes left by Marx. Here, in my study, I have these three volumes in the original German version. I have bought the books on 22 November 1969, and, indeed, I haven’t read them. Or hardly, for I started to read volume 1, but about at page 250 I stopped. Why? I don’t remember, but maybe I found it too boring or the book was simply too thick. It didn’t have priority and as a student in sociology I had many other books to read, too. But I found Marx’s work as such interesting. That was not the problem and I have read many other works by him (and Engels) as well, which I read till the end, as I usually do when I buy a book.
Since I didn’t read most of the three volumes of Capital, I can’t write about it from first-hand knowledge, so I’ll keep silent about it. Anyway, for long it has been considered a revolutionary and also dangerous work that undermined the existing capitalist society. Much of Marx’s Capital relies on the work by the British capitalist economist David Ricardo (1772-1823), but Marx used Ricardo’s tools for a revolutionary interpretation of society. However, wasn’t it Marx himself who said “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”? (Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach) But Marx was more an interpreter than an organizer, although just his interpretations show how relevant theory can be for social change.
What was it that Marx wanted to have changed? Let’s look at the also famous Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels in 1848 in London. I have read this little book several times. Somewhere halfway we find a list of ten measures for the advancement of the position of the “proletariat”. Maybe these measures were revolutionary in Marx’s time, but now most of them have been realized, although some are still not acceptable.
Here are some measures proposed in the Manifesto. Measure 2 wants to introduce a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”. When Marx and Engels wrote this, no country had an income tax, but during the First World War (1914-1918) many European countries introduced such a tax and since then it is seen as just and correct. About 1980 in the Netherlands the highest tax bracket was as high as 72%! (now it is 52%, still a figure Marx wouldn’t have dreamed of) Measure 3 says “Abolition of all rights of inheritance”. In my country inheritance rights are undisputed, but inheritances in the second degree and further are heavily taxed. Measure 6 says “Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State” and nowadays we see a big influence of the state on both. A last example: Measure 10 wants “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.”. Also this demand has already been realized to a great extent if not fully in Europe and most countries elsewhere in the world (the abolition of child labour already in 1874 in the Netherlands).
More such measures have been proposed in other works by Marx and on meetings inspired by Marx’s ideas and ideas prevailing in the socialist movement of his days. Then they were revolutionary, now most people think that it is a shame if they haven’t been realized.
Al this happened under the influence of one of the most important books ever written: Capital by Karl Marx. But times change and ideas become practice or simply fade away because better or other ideas pop up. And that’s also why we can now put Capital in the library of history. However, this doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth being read any longer. Books that are no longer relevant in the current situation, still can be stimulating. Therefore I should yet have to read it, if it had enough priority for me (but, alas, it hasn’t). However, a book that has become history and has made history can have so much prestige that other authors decide to use its title. It’s what the French economist Thomas Piketty did. Almost 150 years after Marx’s critique on the capitalist society Piketty wrote another revolutionary though not dangerous book on the same theme and borrowed the title: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Will it be as influential?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Moral dilemmas in real life

Cases like the trolley problem are much discussed in philosophy. The idea behind studying cases is that it helps gain insight into complex problems, especially when experimentally testing can’t be done for practical or ethical reasons. So the trolley problem helps us gain insight into moral dilemmas. Instead of having professional philosophers discuss such cases, we can also put them to test persons or to the man in the street. For instance, a philosophical experiment on the trolley case showed that 10% of the testees were prepared to push the fat man onto the track in order to save the five people.
However, the value of such theoretical discussions for real life situations is a bit dubious. Of course, it helps to be prepared for what happens in practice and it is useful that judges and others who have to judge what people did in real life situations have a moral schooling. Nonetheless, the study of theoretical cases is not more than a help. Will you really think about the moral rules you learned, if you have a only a moment to decide what to do when confronted with a dilemma of the trolley problem type? Moreover, situations are seldom as black and white as suggested in the trolley case. You see a driverless, runaway trolley heading for a group of five people on the track, but if you turn a switch and redirect the trolley, it will head for a workman on the other track. But probably you’ll not be sure that the five or the single workman will die when hit by the trolley. Often, people are “only” seriously hurt when touched by a train but not killed. Furthermore, you can try to warn the five or the single workman. So, it’s not unlikely that you’ll turn the switch in order to save lives and that you’ll shout at the workman: “Look out! A trolley is heading for you!” You hope that the workman can jump aside or let himself fall between the rails, so that the trolley literally will run over the workman but without touching him. As we see here, philosophical problems are often not the copy of real life problems. That’s what Camus knew when he preferred his mother to the movement for the independence of Algeria (see last week). Besides that, what you’ll say when asked what to do in the trolley case may also depend on the wording used like whether the man you have to push onto the track is described as “a fat man” or “a big, heavy stranger”; whether he or the others involved are persons you know, whether or not they belong to a despised minority, and so on. There are also all kinds of other reasons that may determine what you’ll do, like your emotional resistance that you yourself have to act in order to kill an innocent single workman even if it will save five other persons.
Many moral dilemmas as they are discussed in philosophy leave out such practical circumstances and in the end they never lose the feeling of being ivory tower problems, how realistic they may be. Emotionally and otherwise it is different whether it is your mother that might be hit by a bomb in a real civil war or whether you discuss it in a philosophy class when no civil war is waging. Philosophical problems often get a different taste in real life and certainly they don’t have the drama of real life as this occurrence shows:

“On 7 January 2015 Corrine Rey, a cartoonist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ... returned from picking up her daughter from kindergarten. She was confronted by two French Jihadist gunmen, who threatened to shoot her daughter unless she keyed in the entry code at the door for the magazine. She did; and the gunmen entered to murder twelve people, including two policemen, as well as shooting eleven others. ..
Should Corrine Rey have been willing to sacrifice her daughter”, so the quote continues, “and herself rather than allow obvious murderers to enter the magazine and possibly kill everyone? Can a mother be blamed for only thinking of protecting her child?”

Kelly L. Ross, who made the website that I just quoted, says that the mother should not have been put in that position and that the safety measures should have been better, but I think that that’s not the problem. Life is such that not everything can be foreseen. In retrospection everything could have been done better, but for good or bad reasons the right measures are often not taken. That’s life and that’s the situation in which we have to take our decisions. Life is not an armchair.

Source: Kelly L. Ross, Some Moral Dilemmas”, on

Monday, September 11, 2017

The trolley problem (2)

The trolley problem is one of the most discussed cases in analytical philosophy. Readers who find its description in my last blog too vague or are not good in visualizing written texts can watch this only 97 seconds lasting video that explains what it is about:
There are several versions of the case and last week I discussed the “tunnel version” in which the five cannot escape because they are in a tunnel. Your only choice is either turning the switch and lead the trolley to another track where a man is walking or doing nothing. However, there are alternative versions in which you perform another action instead of turning a switch in order to save the five people. All involve different, though related, ethical problems. The most treated version is one in which you can push a fat man onto the track, so that the trolley will be stopped, but the fat man will be killed. People may think: Be a hero and jump yourself onto the track. However, because you are as meagre as I am, you will simply be knocked down by the trolley or it will push you aside. Therefore the only options are pushing the fat man onto the track or doing nothing.
Most people judge that it is allowed to turn the switch to save the five but not to push the fat man onto the track, even though in both versions one person is killed and five persons are saved. Philosophers have written a lot about why this is so (and also most philosophers think that it is not allowed to push the fat man), but here I have to bypass their reasons pro and con. The essence is that sacrificing the fat man is a means to save the five, while sacrificing the single walker on the track is a side-effect of turning the switch (while the latter action is the means). In terms of my last blog we can also say that killing the fat man is done, while killing the single walker is enabled (actually I should say: that the single walker is killed is enabled).
For a non-philosopher cases like the trolley problem (if not its more complicated versions) may look weird. You might think that cases are the playthings of philosophers. This can be so, indeed, but these toys have often serious meanings. By analyzing the trolley problem it becomes clear that it is important to distinguish between means and side effects. But the case also exemplifies the question whether we are allowed to do the lesser evil in order to get the bigger good. To answer such questions is not always easy. Therefore it makes sense to rack your brains on simple cases, which in the end appear to be not simple at all. Here are some practical examples that are actually trolley-like problems:
- Many will say that in a war it is allowed to bomb a munitions factory of the enemy. But what if the factory is situated near a residential quarter? For the factory will explode and it will kill many civilians. What if only a few civilians are likely to be killed by the explosion? What if we need to drop hundred bombs for destroying the factory and it is sure that about ten bombs will not fall on the factory but will directly kill civilians living near the factory?
- Stalin and his co-communists thought that it was allowed to kill the “kulaks” for the bigger good of communism. It’s an extreme case of what often happens.
- Is it allowed to demolish the house of an old woman if we destroy her happiness – because she has lived there her whole life – since we want to build a road there, even if this woman is compensated in all ways possible?
- Sartre tells somewhere that an ex-student of his asked him for advice: He wants to join the Free French forces in order to fight against the Nazis. However, then he must leave his mother alone in difficult circumstances, while it might also get her into trouble with the Germans.
Big and small problems are often kinds of trolley problems. The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus dealt with trolley-like problems in his work. His standpoints in such questions made him controversial, so Sarah Bakewell, also because it made that he didn’t support the rebels in the fight for independence of Algeria in the 1950s (Camus was from Algeria). But when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he explained in an interview: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Philosophy is as practical as philosophy can be.

- Bakewell, Sarah, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; pp. 7-8, 246.
- Kamm, F.M., The trolley problem mysteries. With commentaries by Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, Shelly Kagan. Edited and introduced by Eric Rakowski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.