Monday, June 27, 2016

On the fringes of society

Some time ago I wrote a few blogs about what I called “passages”, which I described as 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 (where you want to go). They are non-places since you don’t do there a special activity, with the exception of passing, of course. You come to a passage with the intention to leave it as soon as possible. For society as a whole passages may be important, if they are ways to move on people as a smooth as possible. Therefore they are often large and wide (highways), provided with time tables (railway stations) or with signs that lead you into the right direction. In other words, passages are often constructed as passages. But for the users they are places they want to ignore, forget and pass through as quickly as they can. Seen that way they are pointless and that’s why the French anthropologist Marc Augé called them non-places.
Passages did not always exist. They belong especially to the modern age. Of course, also in the past people had to go from one place to another, but the roads and places a person had to go through usually had a different meaning for the passer-by, also because pre-modern man had a different time perspective, a different pace of life and different kinds of relationship towards other people, including strangers. Passages are a modern phenomenon, albeit one that gradually developed. It’s not so that we can say that in the 19th century they suddenly were there and that before that time they didn’t exist.
Passages are a kind of marginal phenomena in the sense that they don’t belong to what life stands for. We don’t long for them; we don’t strive for being there. They just came to exist and only when the unorderly way of their existence became a problem, they were constructed, for nobody likes to drive a car on a sandy road – unless as a sport –  or to get into a traffic-jam. Although being marginal, passages had a function and in that sense we can call them functional marginal phenomena or even, with a contradiction in terms, essential marginal phenomena.
Such marginal phenomena that developed into functional marginal phenomena or even became important are not exceptional in modern society. Especially since the 19th century – and maybe somewhat earlier – modernization brought into being a lot of them, as the Dutch historian Auke van der Woud has shown so well in his book on the New Man. To mention a few (I have added also examples of my own): Shop windows; coffee houses and street cafés; souvenir shops; monuments that were more than just for the glorification of emperors, generals and battle victories; lampposts and kilometer markers  – and some kilometer markers are used as little monuments, like those along the Voie Sacrée, the Holy Road that played such an important role in the Battle of Verdun for transporting troops and materiel –. These are only a few of those “marginal” phenomena. Look around and you’ll see more of them than you had ever thought. Most people don’t see them as such, as special modern phenomena, for they think that they are eternal, and they are only on the fringe of their attention or even outside their attention. Nevertheless, some are hardly marginal any longer, and that’s why I just used inverted commas when writing the word. Man and society are changing, as ever, and certainly in this age in which leisure but also public emotions have become increasingly important people have developed another view on what is meaningful in life. Even so, many such phenomena seem to be on the outer edge of life. They are what everybody knows to exist but nobody sees since nobody looks. However, they would miss them, if they weren’t any longer there.

Source: Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens. De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900. Amsterdam: Prometheus-Bert Bakker, 2015.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collective Intentionality and Individual Action

Collective intentionality by individual action

I have written a new article on collective intentionality, a theme that gets increasing attention in the philosophy of action. Below you find a summary of the text. Interested to read it? Then you find the full text here on my website:
The article can alos be found on the website of

Abstract of “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”
People often do things together and form groups in order to get things done that they cannot do alone. In short they form a collectivity of some kind or a group, for short. But if we consider a group on the one hand and the persons that constitute the group on the other hand, how does it happen that these persons work together and finish a common task with a common goal? In the philosophy of action this problem is often solved by saying that there is a kind of collective intention that the group members have in mind and that guides their actions. Does such a collective intention really exist? In this article I’ll show that the answer is “no”. In order to substantiate my view I’ll discuss the approaches of Bratman, Gilbert and Searle on collective intention. I’ll put forward four kinds of criticism that undermine the idea of collective intention. They apply mainly to Bratman and Gilbert. First, it is basically difficult to mark off smaller groups from bigger unities. Second, most groups change in membership composition over time. Third, as a rule, on the one hand groups are internally structured and on the other hand they belong to a larger structure. It makes that generally it cannot be a collective intention that moves the actions of the members of a group. Fourth, conversely, most individual actions cannot be performed without the existence of a wider context of agents who support these actions and make them possible.
My critique on Searle mainly involves that in his approach his idea of collective intention is superfluous and that he is not radical enough in his idea that collective action is based on coordinated individual intentions and actions. However, it is a good starting point for showing how collective action actually functions, especially when combined with Giddens’s structuration theory. Every agent in a group executes his or her own individual intentions, relying on what the group offers to this agent and asks from him or her. In this way individual actions of the members of a group are coordinated and it makes that the group can function and that its goals can be performed. And in this way the group is produced and reproduced by fitting individual actions together. An individual agent who belongs to a group only needs to know what s/he wants and what s/he has to do in the group, even if s/he has no knowledge of the intentions and commitments of the other members. Then he or she can do things together with others in a group without supposing that there is something like a collective intention.

collective intention, collective intentionality, collective action, we-intention, shared agency, shared action, joint action, joint commitment, joint intention, group intention, individual action, action, structuration, structuration theory, Bratman, Gilbert, Searle, Giddens.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Responsibility for what someone else does

The readers of my blog last week may think that it’s a strange view that there are actually no pure individual intentions and actions. How can this be so if most of the time it’s the agent who decides to act here and now? However, just after I had finished the draft of that blog I read in Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained (London: Granta, 2015) a passage that clearly illustrates what I mean. Therefore, let me quote a big part of it. But first a remark: I had thought out the mainline of this blog already before the Orlando club shooting took place, so it’s mere chance that in the quotation such a shooting is used as an example.
Here is the quote from Baggini, pp. 201-2:

“[In] the shootings ... at Virginia Tech in April 2007[,] Seung-Hui [Cho] killed thirty-two people and injured seventeen others before committing suicide, in [what was then] the worst massacre by a lone gunman in US history. The reaction of Hong Sung Pyo, a sixty-five-year-old textile executive in Seoul, was typical of many Koreans. ‘We don’t expect Koreans to shoot people, so we feel very ashamed and also worried.’ It was this sense of shame that led the South Korean ambassador to the US to fast for thirty-two days, one for each of the murdered victims.
Many Americans were baffled by this, but every expert on South Korea ... had the same explanation. ‘It’s a notion of collective responsibility’, said Mike Breen, author of The Koreans. “I can smell a collective sense of guilt,’ said Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. ‘There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility.’ As [Tamler] Sommers concludes, ‘Koreans did not merely feel shame for the act of the Virginia Tech killer, they felt responsible. They wished to apologise and atone for the act.’
The psychologist Richard Nisbett has assembled an impressive array of evidence which suggests that deep cultural differences like these do actually change the way people think. In particular, the very idea of who performs an action differs across cultures. ‘For Westerners,’ writes Nisbett, ‘it is the self that does the acting; for Easterners, action is something that is undertaken in concert with others or that is the consequence of the self operating in a field of forces.’ This means that easterners have a sense of ‘collective agency’ largely absent in the West.”

So far my quotation from Baggini. I think that especially what Richard Nisbett says about the self clarifies my idea that there are no pure individual intentions and actions. No individual grows up by his or her own. A new child is born is educated by the parents and explicitly or implicitly also by others in his or her environment, like teachers, family, neighbours and actually everybody in his/her field of life. When the baby has grown to maturity, the once little child has developed a self. This self has a lone side and a collective side. The lone side is what the now grown-up person makes an independent agent, a person who makes his/her own choices from what s/he has learned – consciously or unconsciously; I am aware that much happens unconsciously within us –. The collective side is what someone has borrowed from other people and makes this person connected to the “field” around him/her. It makes that person Dutch or American; a father or a mother; a man or a woman in the sense of Simone de Beauvoir; an expert in a profession; and so on. It makes that someone at the same time is not only an individual agent but also a social agent in the sense explained in my last blog. Westerners tend to see an agent as a self, so to see the lone, individual side of the agent. “Tend”, for not always they do, for why else should parents feel ashamed for the evil their adult children do? Easterners tend to look at the collectivity an agent belongs to, so the collective side of the agent. Therefore they often feel ashamed for what a group member does. Every acting person has both sides. That’s why there are no pure intentions and actions and why it needs not be bizarre to feel guilt and shame sometimes for what others have done. Even more, sometimes it can be strange not to do so, for – ending with a quotation from Baggini (p. 203) –: “Given what we know about the importance of nature and nurture, for example, isn’t it actually unreasonable to hold the individual and the individual alone responsible for all the bad things they do?”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Digging your garden alone or Do pure individual intentions and actions exist?

A hot issue in the philosophy of action today is whether there is such a thing as collective intentionality and if so how it works. Collective intentionality is the idea that in some way we can ascribe intentions to groups and other collectivities, just as we do to individual agents. The phenomenon is discussed under different names like shared intention (Bratman), joint commitment (Gilbert) or we-intention (Tuomela). The main problem in ascribing intentions to groups is that the actual performers of what groups do are the individuals they are composed of and that only these individuals can be the bearers of intentions, for where else should a collective intention be stored than in the brains and minds of the group members? Recently I have written an extensive article on the matter that I’ll publish soon on my website and on (you find the abstract already here: I’ll tell you not yet my conclusions, although you can guess what they are from what I have written in my blogs. Here I want to discuss the opposite problem: In the analytical philosophy of action it is generally supposed that individuals have intentions but whether groups have is controversial. But do individual intentions really exist, at least in their pure form, or are they actually more or less collective? That’s what I want to examine now. By doing so, I want to go one step further than the view – discussed in former blogs – that many individual intentions are not as individual as they seem on the face of it and that they suppose the actions of others. I’ll state here that there are simply no pure individual actions.
Say, I have a garden behind my house, where I want to grow vegetables. However, it’s overgrown with weeds and before I am going to sow the lettuce, beets, beans and carrots, I want to dig it and change the little field into a nice piece of black soil with seed-beds. So I walk to the shed behind my house, take a spade, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over and make the seed-beds. Then I sow the vegetables. I do it all alone. Anyway, that’s what most people think, but is it so? Leaving aside that I had to buy or rent the piece of land where I make the garden, how did I get my spade and other garden tools I need? How did I get the seed? How did I get the knowledge how to make a garden and grow my own food? I think you have already guessed what I am going to say: I bought the garden tools in a shop, I ordered the seed on the Internet, and I learned gardening from a book. Even if I intended to make the garden alone, I couldn’t avoid that others were involved in it. Everything I planned to do in my garden supposed already that there were others who had done some groundwork for me like making a spade and producing seed. Or did you do all this yourself? Did you go to the wood, took a piece of wood and turned it into a spade by using a sharp stone you had found there? And did you collect the seed from wild plants? But how did you get the idea that you can make a garden? Did you invent it yourself like neolithic man some 20.000 years ago (but even this prehistoric man must have developed the idea of gardening in cooperation with his fellow men). Unless you are a Robinson Crusoe on an island and haven’t met yet your Friday (and maybe I must add: haven’t had a father and a mother) everything you want to do supposes a kind of – maybe hidden or under-the-surface –relationship to others and what others have planned and performed. Nobody can live and survive alone. Of course, not all allegedly individual intentions and the actions based on them include the intentions and actions of others in the same degree. In some the individual contribution is bigger, while others suppose more preparatory work by other agents. However, the upshot is that in the end there are no pure individual intentions. Max Weber famously defined “social action” as an agent’s behaviour that is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we extend the agent’s intentions to the actions he or she performs we can say that in this way all individual actions are social but some actions are more social than other actions.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mind and Brain

The Ghost in the Machine

My blog last week might suggest that I think that man is a kind of machine with a ghost in it. I certainly don’t want to say that. That man is not a ghostless machine doesn’t need to involve that there is a ghost inside the machine. Since Gilbert Ryle in his The concept of mind disproved what he calls “Descartes’ Myth” that there might be something like that and coined the expression “ghost in the machine”, it can be clear to everybody that man is not constituted that way. Problems that arise from this ghost-machine dualism are, for example, how the ghost is constituted. Where does it live? Is there a kind of little man (homunculus) in the machine? Can we catch it in some way? What moves the ghost? Maybe another kind of ghost? But if so we get an infinite regress. That cannot happen. Therefore I think that ghost and machine are one in some way.
But let me speak of mind and body instead of ghost and machine, as is usual. Then we see that the mainstream view tends to become the one that reduces the mind to the body. As the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab has put it: “We are our brains”, and that’s it. If this were so, the mind is an illusion. It’s like the smoke that escapes from the locomotive, to repeat a metaphor that I used last week. Although more and more this becomes the main stream view, there are alternative ideas, as it always happens. Here it’s not the place to present these views, let alone to discuss them, but I think that none of them is true. I mean, neither the mind-is-an illusion view nor the alternatives are true. What has been presented by now as solutions to the problem cannot be more than useful suggestions that can lead to further research but that are far from being the solution, even not an embryonic one. To paraphrase Mark Balaguer in his introduction to the problem of the free will (a related theme): The question whether we have a mind is so hard that, given our current knowledge of the brain, we are nowhere near ready to answer it. It is not without reason that David Chalmers talked here about the hard problem.
I think that the whole neuroscientific approach is too one-sided: If you look for causes and suppose a material structure, you’ll find causes and you’ll confirm the idea that the structure of the brain/mind is merely material. Let me give an example that even in the physical world things are not simple as that. I got it from Julian Baggini: Striking a match will only start a flame if oxygen is present, and the presence of oxygen is not an a cause of the ignition but a reason for it. Baggini adds: “In a similar way, most of what we do is for a reason, but those reasons are not the actions or events that trigger what we do”.
I think that this simple instance points to a possible solution of the body-mind problem, namely that at least for a part the mind-body relation is a matter of different aspects. It’s the idea that the mental and the physical are two aspects of the same substance: When we talk about the mind, we mean something different than when we talk about the brain (and the same so, when we talk about free will and see what happens in the brain; or when we talk about action and behaviour). When I say that I liked the concert, I don’t mean that some neurotransmitters have been released in my brain that caused a sensation of happiness in me. I liked the concert in its commonsense meaning, but I don’t deny that some liking-arousing processes happened in my brain. Here, we don’t have only a different kind of description, we have also a different kind of event and accordingly a different kind of explanation.
However, we are yet very far away from a solution of the body-mind problem and my example and the dual-aspect theory that explains it might seem mysterious in view of the present state of knowledge of the brain. Therefore, I see this theory only as a useful suggestion that might guide a range of investigations. Since the mind-body problem is so hard, I don’t dare to stake my head on it that it is true. Maybe we find it later back on the dumping ground of scientific waste or in a brain museum in a display case with funny philosophical theories.

The quasi-quotation from Balaguer is from his Free Will. Cambridge, etc.: The MIT Press, 2014; p. 122. The reference to Baggini is from his Freedom Regained. The Possibility of Free Will. London: Granta, 2015; p. 42.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The ghost in the machine

Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology.” That’s what I wrote last week. Psychology influences not only the way we calculate but – as we have seen already many times in these blogs – many other things we do as well. We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by. Holding a warm cup of coffee in your hands makes you having more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of iced coffee. It’s surprising for it seems so irrational, especially the latter example: What has the temperature of coffee to do with my feelings towards somebody? But, alas, so it works. The mind is an odd instrument.
The consequences of such psychological effects can be far-reaching. They needn’t be limited to our individual behaviour towards others. Moreover, they can be annoying, for it’s weird that how we treat someone else depends on whether we take a café americano or an iced latte. In a job interview it can influence the career of an applicant and whom I’ll get as my new colleague. Our psychology can have wide social effects and affect important aspects of the structure of society.
That’s what I realized when I read in a newspaper about another such a surprising effect: French secondary school students had to draw a complicated figure according to a model. Some students were told that it was a drawing assignment and others that it was a mathematical assignment. In the former case the girls scored better than the boys but in the latter the boys surpassed the girls. However, in either case the assignment was exactly the same. Apparently the reason for this difference is that maths is felt to be for men, and maybe also – but I haven’t heard of this prejudice – that drawing is more for girls. Phenomena like these make that men are on the top in some social fields and women in other domains, even if they have the same relevant qualities. Actually it’s nothing new. It’s said so often, but when confronted again with it, it remains surprising. In this case the drawing assignment illustrates what I would call a combined Beauvoir-Thomas effect. It was Simone de Beauvoir who made clear to us that women are not born as such but that they are made as they are; and once they have been ascribed certain qualities this has consequences for the way they behave and are treated. W.I. Tomas has formulated the latter in his famous theorem saying that if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Voilà the social outcome of a simple psychological phenomenon.
Without psychological characteristics maybe man would be rational, but s/he would not be more than a machine. Our feelings – if we had them – would not be more than a kind of epiphenomena unrelated to the way we behave. Then man as a machine runs as it runs and our alleged psychology would not be more than the smoke that escapes from the locomotive. Maybe it would be an interesting object for study, but it doesn’t influence how the locomotive moves on. If man would be made up that way, s/he would be really rational. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if man would be like this? Some will say “yes”: We would be rid of a lot of misery in this world – human misery like fear, pain, injustice, inequality, etc. Maybe all this would still exist but it functions just as Descartes thought about animals: Animals are a kind of machines; perhaps they have feelings but they don’t give attention it. However, I think that man is not that rational kind of being. Happily, I would say, for if psychology is not a substantial part of what man is, we would also lose a lot. We would have our feelings but yet haven’t them. We would exist without all kinds of misery, but also without everything we value like joy, creativity, relationship, love, wonder, discovery, meaning, ideas ... – just all those things that makes man human and that makes that s/he is not simply a ghostless machine.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The donkey and the money

You are participating in a TV quiz and you have reached the final round. You have to choose between three doors: A, B and C. Behind one door there is a cheque of 5 million euro. It will be yours if you choose that door. If you choose one of the other doors you’ll win a donkey. You love donkeys, but you prefer the money, also because you can buy then many monkeys plus you’ll have enough money for taking care of the donkey. So you want to win the 5 mln euro but you have no idea behind which door the cheque might be. The quizmaster doesn’t give you a hint. At last you choose Door A. “Okay”, the quizmaster says, “are you sure?” “Yes, I am”, you reply. “Then I’ll open one of the other doors. I know behind which door the money cheque is and I’ll open a door with a donkey”, so the quizmaster. He opens Door C. You see a donkey. “Dear Harry”, the quizmaster then says. “You have chosen Door A. However, the money might also be behind Door B. As I told you, I know behind which door the cheque is. Do you want to change your choice or do you still stick to Door A?” You are a rational man, or so you think: “There are two doors. The cheque is behind one door and behind the other one there is a donkey. So, the chances are even that the cheque is either behind Door A or behind Door B. It makes no difference which door I’ll choose. So why change? It has no sense”. You stick to A. You are lucky: The quizmaster opens Door A and you see the cheque.

Now you are a rich man, a millionaire, for you have won 5 mln euro. You are a donkey lover, so you’ll buy a donkey for the money you got. But was it rational to stick to your choice of A, because the chances that the cheque was either behind Door A or behind B were even? Most people will say it was. If they would have been in your shoes in the quiz, they would have thought the same and there is a good chance that they had stuck to their choice, too; for psychological reasons (but that’s another story). However, they and you are not right. It would have been rational to change your choice to B. Let me explain.

There are six possibilities how the money cheque and the donkeys are divided over the doors. I have written them out in a table:

Door A
Door B
Door C
5 mln
donkey A
donkey B
5 mln
donkey B
donkey A
donkey A
5 mln
donkey B
donkey B
5 mln
donkey A
donkey A
donkey B
5 mln
donkey B
donkey A
5 mln

Let’s suppose that you have chosen A and the quizmaster opens a door with a donkey behind it. Then you change your choice to B or to C, as the case may be. The last column of the table shows what happens. If division 1 is the case, you are out of luck: The cheque is behind Door A and you have changed to a door with a donkey. Therefore I have written a minus sign in the last column. Also in situation 2 you are out of luck and will get a donkey. But in the situations 3, 4, 5  and 6 you’ll change to the door with the cheque, since the quizmaster has opened already the only door with the monkey. So the odds are two to one that you’ll win the cheque, on condition that the quizmaster knows behind which door the cheque is (and so opens the other one with a donkey).
But how about if you had stuck to your choice of Door A? Then you had won the money in situations 1 and 2 but you had got a donkey in all other situations (the minus signs become plus signs in the last column of the table and the other way round). Now the odds are one to two to get the cheque.

Was it rational to switch? Now you’ll say “yes”: It does sense to change your choice because the quizmaster knows what he does, when he opens one of the doors you hadn’t chosen. But most likely you’ll not be the only person who makes this mistake, unless he or she has read the explanation. Even more, after it had been published (in the American Statistician and elsewhere), still many readers thought that the chances were even. Among them there were highly educated and knowledgeable people. Rationality is often not a matter of knowing the right thing but a matter of psychology. Know who you are and what rationality means.

Source: Herman de Regt & Hans Dooremalen, Het snapgevoel. Amsterdam: Boom, 2015; chapter 5. If you want to know more about it, google then “Monty Hall problem”.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The end of the universe

In these blogs I talked already several times about thought experiments. Thought experiments are used in all kinds of philosophy but especially when discussing questions concerning man’s personal identity and analyzing ethical problems. The reason is that it is often impossible to do real experiments in these fields, for practical or for moral reasons. For example in the debate on personal identity it often happens that brains are switched between two persons. Should we take the risk that a man wouldn’t survive such an operation just for the sake of testing or developing a philosophical theory? So we use our imagination for answering our questions.
The first philosopher who used a brain switching thought experiment was John Locke in 1694 in his An Essay concerning Human Understanding. (Actually, Locke didn’t switch the brains but the bodies of a prince and a cobbler in his case). Before Locke Descartes used already thought experiments, for example when he developed the theory that led to his statement “Cogito ergo sum” – I think so I am. However, thought experiments are much older and also Greek philosophers employed them, although they didn’t call them by that name. Some of their cases are still used by modern philosophers, like “The Ship of Theseus”. One version of it is that gradually the planks of Theseus’ ship are replaced by new planks but that the old planks are again used for constructing a new ship. Which ship is the real ship of Theseus?
Although “Theseus’ Ship” is the best known thought experiment from classical philosophy, it is not the oldest one. That’s one ascribed to Archytas of Tarentum (428-347 BC), so Katerina Ierodiakonou in a Dutch philosophy magazine. His thought experiment is the first one that has been recorded. Archytas worked in the tradition of Pythagoras’ School and he is an interesting person. He is said to be the founder of mathematical mechanics and to have developed a kind of airplane that has even flown over a short distance. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I think that for historical reasons, but also for philosophical reasons, this oldest thought experiment is interesting, also because it’s one that can be used in present-day philosophical debates. When discussing the problem whether the universe is finite or infinite, Archytas says: Suppose that you arrive at the end of the universe and extend a staff. Then you touch either a body or it is possible to extend the staff in empty space. In both cases you will not have reached yet the end of the universe and you can go on and repeat the same action when you have arrived at what you think now as the end of the universe, which will lead to the same result. The upshot is that the universe is infinite. What Archytas did not and could not consider is that the universe might be curved, so that nevertheless it could be finite. Is it important? As Karl Popper told us, every answer is significant for it gives us a starting point to discuss about and to improve it. But despite that, Archytas’s thought experiment is not only a contribution to the cosmological theory, but it has also a psychological meaning, for instance – “for instance”, for I guess that it can be given very different interpretations –: Even if you think that you have come at the end of your mental possibilities (for example in a conflict), stretch your mind and you’ll see that there still is some space to move and to solve your problem and to solve your inflexibility. Thinking is infinite, as are our ideas.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Of cannibalism

When travelling abroad, one of the most interesting things to do is to look what the local people eat and to enjoy their dishes. However, in this era of globalization – and I must admit that just by travelling I contribute to it – taking traditional local dishes has become increasingly difficult. As so many other things, also what people eat tends to become international or “global”, which are other words for “everywhere the same”, in this case. Is this “everywhere the same” the price of globalization? It seems so. Nevertheless, there still are local differences and there still is local food to enjoy. In terms of my blog two weeks ago, where I distinguished three kinds of eating: It’s still possible to take a traditional meal, although more and more eating on holiday gets the feature of getting food, so to speak. At last one has to eat.
It’s weird – and I am the first to admit it – but in this context of talking about food, meals and travelling I had to think of cannibalism: eating your fellow man. It sounds as if men are bred for that purpose, like pigs and poultry. As if it is one of the dishes you can enjoy when you travel in an “uncivilized country” and make your choice from the local specialties in a restaurant. Happily, it’s not as simple as that. Man is not seen as a delicacy. Although sometimes men are eaten for satisfying one’s hunger, especially in times of a serious famine, it seems to be rather exceptional and generally cannibalism has a ritual or spiritual or sometimes a medical reason. Modern man calls this practice barbarous, and with right. However, one has to put the practice into perspective, for what is barbarous? Look around and see what people do to each other.
Montaigne describes the custom of cannibalism practiced by a people in South America that he doesn’t mention by name. Apparently he had borrowed the story from a book by the French geographer André Thevet who travelled in 1555 in Brazil. Thevet told that people there ate prisoners they had taken during their wars with surrounding people. The prisoners were held captive for some time but they were well treated. In the end they were slaughtered and consumed in a public ceremony. Montaigne agrees with those who call this practice cruel and a barbarous horror. However, he says, isn’t it so that “every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.” (in “Of Cannibals”) But then, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.” Montaigne had seen a lot of cruelty and barbarism in his life. Also today we still have a lot of cruelty around us. How then can we condemn other acts that are in fact less barbarous? Shouldn’t we first look at ourselves before we point a finger at others? Apparently the so-called “barbarians” often live in closer accord to our belied morality than we often do ourselves, is what Montaigne wants to tell us; a lesson that needs to be told again and again – also today.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Some quotes

Once I had a list of quotations on a social network website. I used to publish there my weekly blog, too. However, the number of members and visitors of that website diminished gradually and the webmaster decided to discontinue it. How pity, for I met a lot of nice people there and I got also many comments on my blogs. My blogs can still be read here on, but the list of quotations had gone. I am a bit sorry for it, so I decided to publish them here as my blog for this week. Some quotations are not completely new for the readers of this blog in the sense that I have used them here before. Do you mind? Good thoughts cannot be repeated too often, so here they are, without comments:

"No man shall be interfered with on account of his religion, and any one is to be allowed to go over to any religion he pleases" (Akbar, Indian Moghul Emperor, Muslim,1542-1605)
"Se battre pour le prestige, pour le honneur, c'est se battre littéralement pour rien" (Fighting for prestige, for honour, is litteraly fighting for nothing) (René Girard)
“We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
“We should not take the absence of the word to be equivalent to the absence of thought” (Martha C. Nussbaum)
“Every society as a whole learns that happiness cannot be equated with development” (Michel de Certeau)
"C'est une dangereuse invention que celle des gehenes, et semble que ce soit plustost un essay de patience que de vérité."
“The putting men to the rack is a dangerous invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth."
Montaigne on torture.
“War is always more popular with those who don’t experience it” (Mark Kurlansky)
“If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine” (Guy Chapman)
"The more violence, the less revolution" (Bart de Ligt, 1883-1938)
“Tuer un homme, ce n’est pas défendre une doctrine, c’est tuer un homme” (Castellio, 1515-1563)
"Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man".
“Does it never strikes you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?” (L.F. Richardson)
Instead of "Cogito ergo sum" - "I think, therefore I am" (Descartes) I would rather say "Sum ergo cogito" - "I am, therefore I think". (myself- HbdW)
"Parce que c'etait lui, parce que c'etait moi" (Because it was he, because it was I)
Montaigne's definition of friendship

Friday, April 22, 2016

On eating

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Food for thought

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

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

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to make a hollandaise sauce

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

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

Monday, April 04, 2016

A picture on the wall

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

A philosophy of photos

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

March 22, 2016

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