Monday, April 23, 2018

Reading Spinoza

Spinoza is seen as a philosopher whose work is often obscure and difficult to understand, unlike, for example, Descartes whose texts are well written with clear and distinct concepts. Especially Spinoza’s Ethics is considered opaque, not only now but also by readers in his time. Nonetheless his ideas are still important today, which becomes apparent if one gives them a somewhat anachronistic interpretation that relates them to present discussions.
Take for instance Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza had read the philosophical works by Descartes very well. He had even written a course on Descartes’s philosophy for his friends and followers. However, Spinoza did not agree with Descartes. Especially he rejected his dualistic world view. I think that many readers of this blog will know that according to Descartes the world is made up of two basic substances: matter and mind. Although these substances could interact with each other (in man this happened via the pineal gland in the brain), they were independent of each other. It was not what Spinoza thought. Let’s see what he writes in the beginning of his Ethics, where he expounds his world view. Spinoza has built up his Ethics as a mathematical theory. This involves that he starts from definitions and axioms and that with the help of them he proves his propositions. Since substances are what make up the world, he starts his works with discussing them and their characteristics. First he gives eight definitions. For us the most important are:

III. By ‘substance’ I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.
IV. By ‘attribute’ I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

Next Spinoza presents seven axioms. Then with the help of the definitions and axioms he develops his propositions. Until now I assumed that there are several substances, but in proposition V Spinoza clearly rejects Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind by concluding from his definitions and axioms:
There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.
Or as the last sentence of the proof of this proposition reads:
[T]here cannot be granted several substances, but one substance only.

All this is rather vague. However, I think that Spinoza’s view becomes clear, if we see it as a first version of what nowadays is presented as the dual aspect theory of body and mind.

One of the main current ontological discussions is on the nature of the relation between mind and matter, and especially between mind and body, in case we study the problem how man is constituted. Are mind and body one? Are they separate? If the former, what then is mind exactly, if we assume as undisputed that man has a body anyway? If the latter, how do mind and body relate? Since Spinoza rejects the dualism of mind and body as two substances, we can ignore the latter question. But what is mind then given the presence of body (matter) anyway and Spinoza’s monist view that there is only one substance? A view accepted by many philosophers today is that man is a material being and that the mind is a kind of epiphenomenal effect emerging from the human matter. Others, like me, prefer a dual aspect view on man, which says that man can be considered and studied in two different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. In other words, man has two aspects: a bodily aspect and a mental aspect, which are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. This is now what Spinoza wants to say, too, I think. We have seen already that – against Descartes – Spinoza maintains that there is one substance, which we can interpret that way that there is only one “stuff” that makes up the world. But how must we conceive such a substance? That’s why Spinoza has introduced the concept of attribute. As defined by Spinoza it’s a difficult concept. However, following Lord in his Spinoza’s Ethics – which is an explanation of and introduction to the book – we can say that “attributes are the different ways in which a substance can be perceived. ... An attribute is the substance itself, as perceived in a certain way” (p. 21; italics Lord). According to Spinoza, two attributes are relevant for man: Extension and thinking. Also for Descartes extension and thinking are relevant for man. The difference between both philosophers is, however, that for Descartes extension and thinking are separate substances, but for Spinoza they are two different attributes of the one substance that exists in this world.
Once we know this I think that the analogy between Spinoza’s view on the world and the dual-aspect theory is clear, certainly if you know that the latter is also called dual-aspect monism. Spinoza’s attributes are nothing but what we now call “aspects” and his extension and thinking are what the dual-aspect theory calls “matter” and “mind”. Even more, also Spinoza speaks often of matter and mind in this way. Seen thus, Spinoza’s view is actually quite simple.
I want to add yet one remark. According to Spinoza, the one existing substance has an infinite number of attributes. So in fact, his theory is a multi-aspect theory. But because only two attributes are relevant to man, we can ignore it.

Spinoza, Benedict de, The Ethics, on
Lord, Beth, Spinoza’s Ethics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010. Also available online:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Why we act

One of the most lively discussions in philosophy is about how to understand or explain human actions. It’s a discussion that is almost as old as Western philosophy. The problem was discussed, then faded away, then flared up again, again it faded away, and so on. It was discussed by Aristotle (the first who did), by Hume and by Kant. It was a central theme in the methodological discussions at the end of the 19th century when Dilthey presented his view on Verstehen (understanding) as an alternative method for explaining human actions. It flared up again during the 1960s and thereafter, when Davidson, von Wright and Apel presented their views on action explanation as alternatives for Hempel’s positivism and Popper’s critical rationalism. These are a few highlights in the history of action philosophy, and actually since the 1960s the discussion didn’t die down. In 1996 I published my PhD thesis as my own contribution to the field – a book that, as so many books, has largely been ignored (but that’s reality).
Probably I hadn’t written this blog, if the journal Philosophical Explorations hadn’t devoted its most recent number (Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2018) to a long period in this discussion: The philosophy of action from Suárez till Anscombe (roughly the period from 1570 till 1970). I’ll not discuss the articles here, but they made me think of two main approaches in action philosophy. These approaches may have become obsolete today (for superseded by recent views), but even so I think that its distinction gives a clear insight into relevant questions that must be answered if we want to understand or explain human actions: The distinction between the Humean approach of action explanation and the Kantian approach. Note, however, that “Humean” and “Kantian” are only labels. It is not so that these approaches as put forward by me can be literally ascribed to Hume and Kant.
If it weren’t already so before that date – since in 1963 Donald Davidson published his famous article “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”, which states that it is our beliefs and desires that determine how and why we act, and that there are actually no other factors that do, this typically Humean approach has been the mainstream in the philosophy of action for decades. Although now it has faded into the background in some sense, it still has a big influence on the thinking of many action philosophers, even if they are critical of it, like me. For basically it says that only factors internal to the mind determine our actions, and it leaves no room to what is external to the mind and happens around us. And just such factors are the fundamental and main action determining factors in what I called a Kantian approach. According to Kant it are our moral obligations and our maxims, so let’s say our guidelines, that make how and why we act, and it need not be so that these guidelines are internal. Most of the time they have been imposed upon us, if not enforced by the people around us, society and the world around us. This can go that far that some philosophers think that only such – what is usually called – external factors make us act, which have to be distinguished from the internal factors that make us act according to a Humean approach. Indeed, there is some reason to think so, when we consider the psychological view that says that is especially the situation we are in that makes how and why we act, and that it’s not our internal makeup and ideas that do. Maybe you remember my blogs on Philip Zimbardo, who stresses the influence of situational factors on our actions (if not, you can find these blogs via the search machine on this page). Also the philosopher Hannah Arendt actually says that it works that way, when she analyzes the Eichmann process and talks of the “banality of evil”. And there is much truth in it.
Nevertheless I think that it is a too polarized way of thinking to say that either a Humean approach of action is right or a Kantian approach is. Maybe in some cases a Humean approach is better and in other cases a Kantian approach is, but I don’t want to see them as mutually exclusive. Isn’t it so that often the best course is a middle course? I think that this “golden rule” applies here as well. Often, if not mostly, we act in a certain way because the situation we are in presses us to do so; because moral obligations do, etc. Briefly, external factors make us act as we act. However, this doesn’t mean that internal factors don’t play a part, for we’ll not act, if we don’t agree with the actions imposed upon us. Or rather then, what we’ll do can vary from acting unwillingly to resistance and refusal. Or we act because in advance we had already intentionally decided to do so, even in case we wouldn’t fully agree with what is asked from us. Or we act as we are asked or assumed to do since it fits our character or background ideas. In other words, internal factors are explicit or implicit filters that can control what externally is expected of us. And sometimes they can also play a part of their own, as Humeans assume. Actually we always do what we wanted to do, even if we are forced to do so. Of course, stated in this extreme way, it’s not true, but the statement can be used as a standard when we have to judge morally relevant actions.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The paradox of tolerance

Statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam

Sometimes it seems that every philosopher has his or her own paradox. Last week I discussed Condorcet’s paradox. In other blogs I have discussed paradoxes ascribed to the Greek philosophers Epimenides, Meno and Zeno. There is a Hume’s paradox; Wittgenstein discusses in his Philosophical Investigations the rule-following paradox; there is a Russell’s paradox and a Pascal’s paradox; Derek Parfit discusses a paradox; and so on. These are only a few examples, although not all paradoxes developed by philosophers or paradoxes bearing their name are philosophical paradoxes. Pascal’s paradox is one in the field of physics, for instance.
Many paradoxes are intriguing and involve brain teasing problems but are not really relevant for daily life. So, Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox says: “No course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” (PI 201) We could paraphrase it as “Does the rule determine the action or does the action determine the rule?”, which is nothing else but the well-known chicken and egg problem. However, we just act, also when we haven’t solved the paradox or haven’t thought about it, and we eat our eggs and continue breeding chicken as well.
Not all paradoxes are of this kind and some are really relevant for the way we live and how act. Take the paradox of intolerance, which Karl Popper discusses in a footnote in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (vol. One, Ch. 7, n. 4). In Popper’s words: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” It’s a question that presents itself again and again, like now in the days of the Islamic State: Should we tolerate who are intolerant towards us and want to put us in their straitjacket? Popper’s answer is “no”, and with right, I think. Nevertheless the problem is not as simple as it seems by this simple answer. For instance: What is intolerant? Which words and actions are intolerant? And then I don’t think of the extremes, which are usually clear, but of the limits between what can be tolerated and what cannot. Moreover, measures against the intolerant will backfire on the tolerant. If intolerant behaviour is a real problem, as it currently is, it need not only be suppressed but measures have to be taken in order to prevent it and to track it. In these days of the Internet and social media it involves secretly spying what everybody does there, since basically anybody can be intolerably intolerant and nobody’s face tells you whether s/he is. Briefly, in order to fight intolerance we need a Big Brother in order to help us, or at least a Little Brother (or so we think). But even if our Brother is only a Little Brother, little brothers grow up and will be big brothers in the end. It looks like that this is happening now. As is known, everybody who thinks that s/he is spied, will behave as if s/he is spied and will become his own Big Brother or her own Big Sister. Then we get the practical (or even maybe actual) consequence that Big Brother is not only intolerant against the intolerant but against the tolerant as well. Then it is no longer the rule to be tolerant that determines whether we do or don’t act in a tolerant way, but intolerance has become the standard. And then nobody wins and everybody loses. It’s the paradox of paradox.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Condorcet’s Paradox

When I made a walk through Paris, two weeks ago, with the intention to take pictures of statues of philosophers, Condorcet was not on my list. I passed his statue by chance, simply because I had turned into the wrong street. But once I saw the statue, of course, I knew that he was an important Enlightenment philosopher from the 18th century. His ideas were and are still modern. He stood for a liberal economy; he was an advocate of human rights, especially women’s rights and Black’s rights (he actively worked for the abolition of slavery); he opposed the death penalty; he stressed the importance of education and wished free public education for all citizens, including women; and he strived for a constitutional republican political system. When Condorcet criticized the new French constitution of 1793, he was considered a traitor and he had to flee. In 1794 he was caught and he died in mysterious circumstances in prison.
Marquis de Condorcet was not only an important and progressive political thinker, he was also a mathematician. Combining both interests, he developed a voting system, which came to be known as the Condorcet Method, but he also discovered that this method can sometimes lead to what is now known as Condorcet’s Paradox or the Paradox of Voting. Let me concentrate on the paradox.
In an electoral system based on the Condorcet Method the voters vote for candidates by arranging them in their order of preference. For keeping it simple, let me assume that there are three voters, namely X, Y and Z, and three candidates for a certain political function, namely A, B and C. Look how the voters vote:
X prefers    A to B and B to C
Y prefers    B to C and C to A
 Z prefers    C to A and A to B.
Let’s compare the candidates pairwise:
A > B (= A is preferred to B) by two voters, namely X and Z, against one (Y).
B > C (= B is preferred to C) by two voters, namely X and Y, against one (Z).
This would make that A > B > C, or A is preferred to B and B to C.
However, C has also received two votes, for
C > A (= C is preferred to A) by Y and Z, while only X prefers A to C.
This would make that A > B > C > A, which is not possible, of course, since nobody can be preferred to himself at the cost of himself (resp. herself). Voilà the paradox: Everybody becomes first but no one wins. Currently nowhere in the world a Condorcet Method of voting is used in government elections. However, some private organisations do. I suppose that usually these elections function well, but nevertheless the risk remains that everybody wins, although everybody is a loser.

Sources: Wikipedia and Mário Filipe Pinhal, “Condorcet’s Paradox”, on

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A sociological walk through Paris

When I was recently in Paris, I was there for going to an opera. I also wanted to take pictures of statues of philosophers for this blog and pictures of monuments of the First World War for another website. That’s what I did and that’s what I looked at. However, this is what I saw, when I walked there:

A walk throught Paris from a sociological point of view
Also on my Dutch photo website:

Monday, March 26, 2018

A walk through Paris

Condorcet (1743-1794)

When I went to Paris last week, it was because I wanted to see Händel’s opera Alcina. It was performed by a dream cast with the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who has a voice like an angel, and the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli in the leading parts. The story of Alcina has been taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso and it is about the knight Ruggiero who has fallen in love with the sorceress Alcina and who was in her clutches, just as the Greek hero Odysseus who was in Calypso’s grasp, as Homer told us.
However, I wanted to do more than just take the train to Paris, go to the theater, spend the night in a hotel and return home next day. It wasn’t the first time that I was in Paris and now I decided simply to take a walk downtown. Or rather, it would not be a simple walk but a walk with two themes: a sociological theme and a philosophical theme. I got the idea for the sociological theme when I walked from the railway station to my hotel after my arrival in Paris: To point my camera down and to photograph what I saw. I’ll upload this photograph report of Paris soon to my photo website, and I’ll tell you when I do. Here I’ll write about the philosophical theme: Taking pictures of statues of philosophers.
There are statues of gods, statues of persons and statues of animals. You find them in public and in buildings, like churches and government buildings. They tell a lot about whom and what society considers important and worth to honour. Since Paris is a big town, you find there many statues, and I had to make a choice. I could have made it myself easy and have gone to the Louvre: Hundreds of statues adorn its façades. Statues of scientists, writers, craftsmen, philosophers, and others who made France great (or so they think). However, I preferred to take a real walk and are you surprised that the first man I photographed was Montaigne? I found him somewhere on the side of a little park, sitting on a stone and friendly smiling. A statue of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, drinking milk from a she-wolf nearby. Montaigne loved Rome but even more he loved Paris. “Paris has my heart since my childhood”, as an inscription on the statue says. He came there often, although it took him a horse ride of more than a week from his castle near Bordeaux. Did you know that Montaigne spent a night in the prison of the Bastille? In one of the civil wars that raged in France then he was run in by one of the warring factions and shut up there. But as soon as Catherina de Medici, the mighty mother of the king of France, heard about it, he was released.
I find Montesquieu and Voltaire next together in another little park: The former represented by a bust, the latter full length with a coat on his shoulders and a book in his left hand. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu gave us the idea that there are three administrative powers: the executive power, the legislative power and the judicial power. These three powers must be separated and kept independent of each other, so he says; and many states do. And need I to introduce Voltaire, which is actually the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet? He was an advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of state and church, although he defended the freedom of speech more for himself than for others. His literary production was enormous with 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. Like Montaigne, he spent some time in the Bastille: Not one day but eleven months.
Then Condorcet. I find him between the Mint and the Institute of France, on the border of the Seine. The full name of this politician, mathematician and philosopher was Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet. He has been a director of the Mint and a member of the French Academy of Sciences. In 1794 he died a mysterious death in prison.
Next I walk to the Louvre and take pictures of some of the philosophers’ statues there. Not Descartes, whom I had photographed already long ago in Descartes, his town of birth – which was later named after him – but Pascal and Rousseau. Then it’s time to go to the opera, and I walk to the Théâtre de Champs Élysées in the Avenue de Montaigne.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The looking-glass of society

A clean Córdoba is a reflection of you

Some philosophers have been forgotten and can be found back only in the archives. Other philosophers are yet only known by a few catchwords, but actually nobody knows anymore what they have written about. Georg Herbert Mead is as a philosopher of the latter kind, I think. Though he is still well-known among sociologists, most contemporary philosophers don’t know more about him than that he wrote about the self, I and me; if they do. Among philosophers he has been forgotten. Anyway, I haven’t come across his name in the discussions where he is relevant, namely those on the self and personal identity.
Many people, including philosophers, think that we are subjects who finally themselves make who they are. Mead doesn’t. For him a self cannot exist without the presence of others, the views of others and communication with others, for a self is a reflection of your society, and especially the people immediately around you. Mead says it this way: “The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group as a whole to which he belongs. For he enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved.” (138; italics mine) This getting to know your self is done via your communication with others, which is here “a form of behavior in which the organism or the individual may become an object to himself”, so Mead. (138)
What is striking here is that according to Mead the self is not a subjective experience but the way others experience us and the way we reflect on it. The self is objective and socially made: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience.” (140) However, seen this way, the self is only a kind of objective image of a person, constituted by the society around him – or her, which Mead ignores –. Therefore s/he needs an I: “The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the ‘me’ is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized ‘me’, and then one reacts toward that as an ‘I’. ... ‘[I]t is due to the individual’s ability to take the attitudes of [the] others in so far as they can be organized that he gets self-consciousness. The taking of all of those organized sets of attitudes gives him his ‘me’; that is the self he is aware of. ... [However, the] response to [a] situation as it appears in [the individual’s] immediate experience is uncertain, and it is that which constitutes the ‘I’.” (175) Briefly, a person arises in interaction with the social environment and doesn’t exist without this social environment. Actually we find Mead’s view already in the idea of the looking glass self, earlier developed by Charles Cooley: The idea that our self-image arises in an interaction between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Mead has developed it into a comprehensive theory.
Mead’s view on who we are and how we develop into who we are is still interesting for philosophers for it shows important aspects of us and how they come about. We are not our brains, and we are also not the self-centred subjects who many of us think they are in this Age of the Ego: We are where we grew up and where we live. Philosophically, for instance, Mead’s approach implies a criticism on those personal identity theorists who defend the view that it is our personal continuity in time that makes up our personality. According to them a person is formed by the subjective experiences of the past. What they forget, however, is that a person is formed as much by his or her present interactions with the social environment. A person is not simply a remembered past. Look in the looking glass of society and you see a reflection of yourself.

George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974 (1934). The numbers in the text refer to the pages in this book.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Forgotten philosophers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a forgotten opera by an almost forgotten German composer: the opera “Siroe, Re di Persia” by Johann Adolph Hasse. Hadn’t this opera been rediscovered by the Greek conductor George Petrou, this beautiful piece of art would still have been hidden in the archives. How many beautiful operas and other pieces of music are still “waiting” to be brought back to the public? Really, one wouldn’t believe it today, but also much music by Johann Sebastian Bach was once more or less forgotten and his son Carl Philippe Emanuel was better known than the father. Also the now famous composer Antonio Vivaldi was once passed into oblivion.
Being known if not famous and then becoming forgotten is a common phenomenon. Each age has its own celebrities and one cannot look always to the past and honour the past celebrities as well. During the ages the number of celebrities would become so big that there is only one way to avoid to become overloaded with them: Forget them. When everybody will be known who is worth to be known, no one will be. In the end there can be only a few at the top, or everybody would fall down. So many outstanding composers fell into oblivion, and this happened to many philosophers as well.
The American philosopher Roy Sorensen tells in one of the mini-essays in his A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities that on a stroll through a graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, he passed the grave of Adam Ferguson, once – two hundred years ago – a professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburg, as the epitaph told him. He had never heard of him, so for him Ferguson was a forgotten philosopher. Actually Ferguson is not completely forgotten, for a building of the University of Edinburgh bears his name. Nevertheless, I think that for most of us Ferguson belongs to the category of forgotten philosophers, even though he has a page in the Wikipedia. Should he really have been forgotten, he wouldn’t even had such a page, but who reads it? However, a really forgotten philosopher will only be found in the paper archives of the libraries of universities, courts and monasteries. And when I think of Hasse’s beautiful opera, I wonder how many philosophical writings of value are hidden there. Probably a lot. Some may be known be specialized specialists but belong to the forgotten category for most of us; others are really forgotten. Much research in the records is to be done! Some forgotten philosophers may be still known by name, but apart from a few catchwords, nobody knows anymore what they have written about. Alexander of Abonoteichus, Wilhelm Homberg, Martin Knutzen, Adam Wodeham: Do you know them? And these are philosophers that can yet be found on the Internet! Thanks to the web, the chance to be forgotten these days is smaller than ever before, in the sense that once you are mentioned on the Internet or once you have published there, all this is public and not hidden in inaccessible archives. Nevertheless if nobody reads it, you are still forgotten.
Sorensen tried to find a solution for the problem that he would be forgotten. Maybe he could be remembered as the forgotten philosopher, he thought. I hope he will not, or rather that he will not be remembered as the forgotten philosopher, for I had reserved this title for myself. But if he will be remembered as a forgotten philosopher, it is okay. But perhaps there is a better way for me to prevent that I’ll sink into oblivion: I can be remembered as the forgotten philosophical blogger. In view of what I just said about the Internet, my chances are then better than his – or so I hope –. But Sorensen and I wouldn’t have been philosophers, if we shouldn’t have to conclude that our tries will end in a contradiction in terms, for, as he says, “Anyone who is forgotten is not remembered. I cannot be both remembered and not remembered.” But who cares, if everybody knows that it is me who has been forgotten?

Roy Sorensen, “Fame as the Forgotten Philosopher: Meditations on the Headstone of Adam Ferguson”, in A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities. A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas. London: Profile Books, 2017; pp. 244-250.

Monday, March 05, 2018


At the end of my last blog I used the word “prejudiced” in the sense of biased, partial or one-sided, and usually this is meant in a negative sense. Often the negative connotation of the word is even stronger. So the Internet version of the Cambridge Dictionary describes the substantive “prejudice” as “an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge”. Now it is so that there are also positive prejudices. Nevertheless, there is always a sense of reprehensibility attached to it, but is having prejudices only to be disapproved of?
The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer has examined the concept of prejudice in his treatise Truth and Method. He defends there the view that there is a prejudice against prejudice. According to him “not until the Enlightenment does the concept of prejudice acquire the negative connotation familiar today.” (273) And Gadamer continues: “Actually ‘prejudice’ means a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined. In German legal terminology a ‘prejudice’ is a provisional legal verdict before the final verdict is reached. For someone involved in a legal dispute, this kind of judgment against him affects his chances adversely. Accordingly, the French prejudice, as well as the Latin praejudicium, means simply ‘adverse effect,’ ‘disadvantage,’ ‘harm.’ But this negative sense is only derivative. The negative consequence depends precisely on the positive validity, the value of the provisional decision as a prejudgment, like that of any precedent.” (ibid.)
So, actually a prejudice is a pre-judice, so a pre-judgment: a preliminary judgment passed before the final judgment. It will be changed into a final judgment when one has enough information for doing so. As such “prejudice” is a neutral concept, neither positive nor negative: “Thus ‘prejudice’ certainly does not necessarily mean a false judgment, but part of the idea is that it can have either a positive or a negative value.” However, “[t]his seems a long way from our current use of the word.” (ibid.) How did this come about? According to Gadamer, this change of the meaning of the concept must be attributed to the “spirit of rationality” during the Enlightenment: “The German Vorurteil, like the English ‘prejudice’, ... seems to have been limited in its meaning by the Enlightenment critique of religion simply to the sense of an ‘unfounded judgment.’ The only thing that gives a judgment dignity is its having a basis, a methodological justification (and not the fact that it may actually be correct). For the Enlightenment the absence of such a basis does not mean that there might be other kinds of certainty, but rather that the judgment has no foundation in the things themselves—i.e., that it is ‘unfounded.’ This conclusion follows only in the spirit of rationalism. It is the reason for discrediting prejudices and the reason scientific knowledge claims to exclude them completely.” (ibid.; my italics)
Gadamer shows then how the origin of the negative meaning of “prejudgment” is to be found in the supposed necessity of a “methodological justification” of the facts. The essence is that in the Enlightenment the view took root that all knowledge must have a rational – in this case methodological – foundation, but when the Enlightenment philosophers examined the knowledge acquired in the past, they saw that such a foundation was absent and that this knowledge was often obscure and so must be false. For them past knowledge was simply a prejudice. In this way the concept of prejudice got the negative meaning it still has. But was it rational that the Enlightenment philosophers saw past knowledge as prejudiced? For what else could their predecessors have done? Waiting until rational methods had been developed? And was all knowledge collected in the age of Enlightenment true and unprejudiced? Of course not.
I think that we must see it this way. Having prejudices belongs to the characteristics of man and necessarily so. Let’s assume you are a stone age man. You have ideas about how the world is like, such as “bears are dangerous”. Now a bear crosses your path. The bear sees you but does nothing and goes quietly his way. So, your idea that bears are dangerous is not confirmed. Should it be skipped as being a prejudice? Everybody knows that bears can be dangerous, even though the statement should actually be “all bears are dangerous under some [specified] conditions” (Just like many prejudices could be qualified so). Anyway, I guess that the necessity of prejudices has developed, because they were often functional and could save your life, even if they might be false, or false in some circumstances. It was often simply impossible or not practical to test them so you could better have them. Actually today it is still so. For often we are in a new or only partly known situation. Should we then first test what is the right thing to do, before we finally act? Usually it’s not possible, so we simply act, based on the views we have, even if they are prejudices in the sense of the pre-judgment described above.
Having prejudices is not problematic. What is problematic is having them and then deny that you have them and to refuse to change them, if they are false. However, that is what too often happens. Often we lack the facts and we cannot collect them for some reason or another, but nevertheless we must act. Then we act and must do it in pre-judiced way. But it is a challenge to get the facts right and to act according to them.

Source: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method:

Monday, February 26, 2018

Who is Charlie Chaplin?

Charlie Chaplin is said to have entered once a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and he lost: He became third. When I searched for it on the Internet in order to find out whether it was true, I found that it had happened in 1915 according to some websites, while other websites say that it was in 1975. Again other websites say that it’s not true. It looks like an “alternative fact”, as the American president Trump has called it. That’s interesting, for some governments (like the French government) want to forbid by law to publish alternative facts on the Internet, which would mean that such amusing websites have to be removed from the web, if the contents is not definite. Be it as it may, for this blog the factuality of this fact is not important, for Dolly Parton says that she, too, once lost a lookalike contest, so such things happen. Philosophically and psychologically it is interesting, for how can it happen?
If you ask a cartoonist to draw a certain well-known person such as a politician or a pop star, it’s likely that he’ll exaggerate the characteristics of that person, especially the facial traits. It’s not only because it may be amusing, but by doing so the person drawn is easier recognized: You see immediately who it is. And so it is also in a lookalike contest. If you want to recognize the participant as Charlie Chaplin’s double, he must exaggerate Chaplin’s traits and behaviour just a little so that he is a bit more Chaplin than Chaplin himself is. That’s the best way to look alike Charlie Chaplin. And in the end a person is who he is, so that’s why Chaplin himself failed. Note, however, that Chaplin finished third and not last or almost. So to look alike another you must exaggerate but not too much.
Such a contest raises the question “Who am I?” For in the eyes of others who look at me and who judge me, I am not myself if I am myself but only if I am just a little bit more than myself. Sometimes we say about a person that she or he has excelled her or himself, when s/he did something extraordinary. In view of the foregoing it is to be wondered whether it is true. Anyway, such a yourself lookalike contest in which you participated but didn’t win or such a deed by which you allegedly excelled yourself say a lot about the idea of personal identity. For is it true that you are simply the traits that constitute you plus your past, so the way you got your traits, as identity philosophers tell us? Judging by how a cartoonist or a lookalike contest jury would see you, it’s not the case. Then your identity does not exist of your actual version of yourself, whatever this may be – for how to establish who you actually are? – but it is a kind of biased version of it; or rather I would prefer to say that your identity is a saturated version of the actual version of yourself, to say it in a clumsy way. In photography many photographers tend to process photos that way that the colours are just a little bit (or sometimes a lot) more saturated than they are in reality. Red is made somewhat redder, blue somewhat bluer, yellow somewhat yellower, etc. They think that the colours in the photo are really so or they think that it’s more beautiful. And so it’s also with your personal identity: It’s the saturated version of yourself – at least in the view of others! One step more and one could call it a prejudiced version of yourself. In the end you are only a caricature of yourself, aren’t you?

Monday, February 19, 2018

The passion of anger

The Angry Boy  in the Vigiland Park in Oslo, Norway

When Martha Nussbaum writes about anger, it’s striking that she refers to classical authors like Aristotle and Seneca and not to early modern philosophers like Montaigne and Hume, who wrote on anger as well. Montaigne devoted an essay to this subject, while Hume wrote on anger in two sections of his A Treatise on Human Nature. Since I am not very acquainted with most of Hume’s philosophy, I’ll ignore him in this blog, but if Nussbaum had given some attention to Montaigne, her view on anger might have been different. It is so that both for Montaigne and for Nussbaum people become angry because they have reasons for it. Moreover, for both of them the reasons why one gets angry are usually good reasons in the sense that someone did something to you that this person shouldn’t have done. But then their approaches separate.
When Nussbaum starts to discuss anger she says “that the idea of payback or retribution ... is a conceptual part of anger. ... Either anger focuses on some significant injury, such as murder or a rape or it focuses only on the significance of the wrongful act for the victim’s relative status” (p. 15). Montaigne’s view on anger is very different. For him other aspects are important. As he says in his essay Of Anger: “There is no passion that so much transports men from their right judgment as anger. ... We ourselves, to do well, should never lay a hand upon our servants whilst our anger lasts. When the pulse beats, and we feel emotion in ourselves, let us defer the business; things will indeed appear otherwise to us when we are calm and cool. ‘Tis passion that then commands, ‘tis passion that speaks, and not we. Faults seen through passion appear much greater to us than they really are ...”
When we put these quotations next to each other, the differences between the two authors become clear. For Nussbaum anger is an emotion that leads to a wish for revenge. Moreover, anger happens always because you are seriously hurt, not because of an act that is actually not very significant. She talks explicitly about murder and rape – in the quotation and elsewhere in her book –. Nussbaum argues then that revenge makes no sense for reasons she explains, even though – which is implicit in her argumentation – the eye you wish for an eye or the tooth you wish for the tooth taken from you might have equal values. For Montaigne, on the other hand, it’s no problem to punish a person who has done something to you but for him punishment is not a kind of revenge but it is what it is, namely punishment in the actual sense. It’s a way to correct the perpetrator, or a penalty for what has been done, and not a kind of compensation; or it is a warning for other possible perpetrators. The problem is, however, that your judgment is disturbed just because you are angry: Anger leads to a false judgment. Therefore Montaigne’s advice is: Don’t judge before you have cooled down. Only then your judgment can be reasonable and right. Moreover, as the cases discussed in his essay make clear, usually anger is aroused by minor things, for instance because a servant didn’t do what you had ordered him to do or because someone was rude or disrespectful.
If we compare then how Nussbaum analyses anger and its consequences and how Montaigne looks at it, we can conclude that Nussbaum has an interesting view, but that she actually considers only a part of the idea. For isn’t it so that at most times that we are angry it is not for very significant reasons but for the daily annoyances, rude acts, mistakes and stupidities done to us (or so we think)? Often we explode with fury because of only little affairs, even when we don’t want to, for, as Montaigne says, it’s not we that hold it, but anger holds us.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Michel de Montaigne, “Of Anger”, in Essays, Book II-31.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Anger and forgiveness (2)

Better filled half-full than not at all.

Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia” – mentioned in my last blog – is full of anger but it ends with forgiveness. Also Martha Nussbaum’s book that I discussed there is not only about anger but also about forgiveness, as the title of the book, Anger and Forgiveness, already shows. Nussbaum distinguishes three kinds of forgiveness. First she considers “transactional forgiveness”. It involves that the offender of the act to be forgiven “must approach the other person directly, confess the fault publicly, express regret and commitment not to do this sort of thing again – to change the course of one’s life in regard to that whole area of sin. And then the victim must accept the apology.” There is “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition.” (p. 63) Transactional forgiveness seems to restore the cosmic balance, as some people think, but actually, so Nussbaum, it involves the errors of anger discussed in my blog last week, since it contains the idea of payback: “the victim’s pain somehow atones for pain inflicted.” (p. 74). In my words, it’s a sort of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Transactional forgiveness does not involve transition to the future in the sense of restoring what went wrong. It looks only back on what happened.
Although transactional forgiveness has been widely accepted, there is also another model, so Nussbaum, which she calls “unconditional forgiveness”: “forgiveness that rains down freely on the penitent, without requiring an antecedent confession and act of contrition.” (p. 75) According to this model “we should ... forgive those who wrong us even when they do not make any gesture of contrition.” (p. 76) Although unconditional forgiveness is to be preferred to transactional forgiveness, it “is rarely free from some type of pay back wish, at least at first. [Moreover,] it remains backward-looking and not Transitional. It says nothing about constructing a productive future. It may remove an impediment to the future, but it does not point there in and of itself. ... [S]ometimes the forgiveness process channels the wish for payback.” (ibid.) This can make that the person who forgives feels him or herself morally higher than the offender. Then unconditionally forgiving “is itself a punishment of the offender”. (p. 77) Moreover, it “is still about the past, and it gives us nothing concrete with which to go forward.” (ibid.)
Nussbaum prefers to call her third kind of forgiveness not forgiveness but “an ethic of unconditional love”. “[I]t departs altogether from judgment, confession, contrition, and consequent waiving of anger.” (p. 78) This love is unconditional and needs no apology by the offender. It “is a first response, not a substitute for a prior payback wish.” (ibid.) The model case for Nussbaum is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 in the Bible, where the father accepts his son in unconditional love despite what the son has done to him. In the case of unconditional love, so Nussbaum, “there is no allusion to a past of anger. Not only is there no structured ... penance process, with its multiple conditionalities, there is also no forgiveness in any recognizable form at all, even unconditional. There is just love, silencing anger.” (p. 85)
Nussbaum sees this unconditional love as an ideal of forgiving, but is it realistic? Could it be put into practice, not incidentally but in some institutionalized way? Just then where the discussion should have to start, Nussbaum says: “This theme cannot be fully developed at this stage.” (ibid.) How disappointing, for now she avoids the fundamental problem: how to deal with unconditional love in practical cases. Recently in the village where I live a young woman has been violated and murdered. The murderer has been caught and then he has cooperated with the police in solving the case. He has also shown regret. So far, so good. But then? Even if the family of the murdered woman would give the murderer unconditional love – which I seriously doubt, but Nussbaum mentions such a case – what practical consequences will this have for him? No sentence? Not in prison? Note also that this man was already in a psychiatric institute for another crime but that he was on leave when he committed his act.
Nussbaum’s ethic of unconditional love assumes that we behave like saints, but there are only a few people among us who can. Saints do as saints are but humans do as humans are. Look around and ask yourself: Can we ever succeed to build a society on an ethic of unconditional forgiveness? I am afraid that the answer is “No”, if it were only because there’ll always be free riders – people who consciously will commit crimes with the thought in mind that if caught unconditional love will be the punishment. I have ideals but not illusions. Let’s keep the ethic of unconditional love as an ideal to be strived for. Try to practice it where it may work, and the more often it will work so the better. But remain practical. Practice comes often not farther than halfway our ideals, but it’s already ideal when it comes that far.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Anger and forgiveness

The cast receiving the applause after Hasse's opera "Siroe, Re di Persia"
Wilmink Theatre, Enschede, Netherlands, 26 January 2018

When in Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia”, the Persian King Cosroe appoints his younger son Medarse as his successor to the throne, and not his older son Siroe, a range of intrigues develop. One of the leading emotions in these intrigues is anger: Anger that the characters in the play don’t get what they want; that their victims don’t do what they should do. Siroe, the main victim, is driven to despair and cannot choose when he should have to. This makes his father Cosroe – who doesn’t understand Siroe’s doubts and feels himself betrayed by him – so angry that finally he orders to kill his son. This qua music and expression beautiful opera is more like a soap opera than a play in which characters develop. But here we see anger performed as one of the most important emotions of man. And we see its pernicious consequences: revenge and destruction, which in the end backfire on the protagonists. For which father wants to kill his son, the more so when it turns out to have been done on false grounds?
Anger has been analyzed by such outstanding philosophers as Aristotle, Seneca and Montaigne, and recently by Martha Nussbaum in her book Anger and Forgiveness. They all see a relationship between anger and revenge, or at least “payback and retribution”, as Nussbaum calls it. But as she says “the payback idea is normatively problematic, and anger, therefore, with it.” (p. 15) Before I’ll expound Nussbaum’s reasons why this is so, let’s look how she defines anger. Actually she doesn’t develop a definition of her own but she takes Aristotle’s description, which she then discusses and corrects. Here it is: Anger is “a desire accompanied by pain for an imagined retribution on account of an imagined slighting inflicted on by people who have no legitimate reason to slight oneself or one’s own” (p. 17). Essential is, I think, not only the slighting that hurts but the feeling that we are hurt. The slighting is subjective: We become angry only when we believe (rightly or wrongly) that the damage was inflicted illegitimately or wrongfully. (p. 18) And then and therefore we want to payback.
Now it can happen, so Nussbaum, that you become angry because your social status has been hurt by someone and then it may have sense to payback in order to uprank your perceived downranking. But apart from this special case, does revenge make sense? According to Nussbaum there are several objections to it. Often paying back is considered as assuaging the pain inflicted on the victim and the revenge should arouse a feeling of pleasure (cf. p. 21). However, this view is not correct, so Nussbaum, and she thinks here of cases like rape and murder in the first place, but I think that it applies to many kinds of “little” cases as well, from small crimes like theft to big crimes, from little damages in the private circle to big ones there. We don’t get our damage restored by tit-for-tat actions. By doing so we only bring damage to others, without getting compensation for the damage done to us. But let’s see what Nussbaum says. The problem is, she says, that simply hurting others doesn’t reverse what has been done to you, and from that point of view payback, revenge and retribution make no sense. “Doing something to the offender does not bring dead people back to life, heal a broken limb, or undo a sexual violation. So why do people somehow believe that it does? Or what, exactly, do they believe that makes even a little sense of their retaliatory project?” “[W]hy would someone who has been gravely wounded look forward with hope to doing something unwelcome to the offender?” (pp. 21-22) Pain done to yourself cannot be undone by doing pain to others.
However, anger is not pointless. It can have three functions. It may serve as a signal that something is amiss; it can be a motivation to do something about what is amiss; and it may be a deterrent. (pp. 37-40) But all this doesn’t imply that anger must lead to a kind of revenge. It means only that anger must be a reason to do something about what is amiss. And this is what Nussbaum sees as a very important function of anger. She has also a special name for it: Transition-Anger. Anger must not lead to revenge, but it must be a reason to restore what has gone wrong. “There are many cases in which one gets standardly angry first ... and then, in a cooler moment, [thinks] ... ‘How outrageous! Something must be done about this.’ ” (p. 35). Elsewhere in her book Nussbaum discusses the “extreme” cases of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but  cannot we each of us be a little Mandela or King?
But, alas, “[t]here are many ways in which anger can go wrong”, so Nussbaum. (p. 35) In Hasse’s opera, out of anger the Persian King Cosroe orders Arasse, Siroe’s friend, to kill his son. Then, when Cosroe hears that Siroe is innocent, he is full of remorse. But as it goes in operas, Siroe comes back on the stage, alive and well. For it was a trick of Arasse to accept the order and he didn’t kill Siroe. And Siroe himself? He was happy that the intrigues had come to an end and that at last he got the throne of Persia. Instead of seeking revenge in anger and rage, he forgives all, despite the slighting and trouble inflicted on him.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Dretske and the causality of reasons

How can it be that a thing has a meaning and that the fact that it has this meaning can explain certain effects or is at least relevant for the explanation of these effects? This question is the central theme in Fred Dretske’s book Explaining Behavior. Here, I don’t want to discuss this interesting philosophical work, but only one of its theses, namely that talking about reasons makes only sense, if reasons are causally relevant for the actions they are reasons for. Is it true?
When asking the leading question of his book, Dretske had two things in mind. First, the meaning concerned as such must be relevant for the explanation of the effects. “A soprano’s upper-register supplications may shatter glass, but their meaning is irrelevant to their having this effect” (1988:79). Even if the sounds had no meaning, the effect would be the same. However, there are cases where the meaning of a thing is explanatorily relevant, and it is these cases that Dretske’s theory of the causal role of meaning refers to (1988:77-80). Second, explanatory relevance is for Dretske causal relevance. As he puts it in his “Reasons and Causes”: “Any theory of meaning that doesn’t make a thing’s having meaning into a causally relevant property of the thing (and hence the fact that it has meaning into an explanatorily important fact about the thing) is a theory of meaning that can be rejected at the outset.” (1989:5).
When Dretske talks about the causal relevance of reasons, apparently he implied: 1) If reasons are not causally relevant for behaviour, they are also not relevant in a different way. For if reasons are not causally relevant, although they are otherwise relevant, we might suppose that Dretske would at least attach some value to having them in that case, and he would not reject a theory that ignores or rejects their causal relevance at the outset. 2) If we talk about the reasons why we do something, this “why” has a causal meaning.
For Dretske, reasons are “those content-possessing mental states (belief, desire, fear, regret) we invoke to explain one another’s behavior” (1988:79). Particularly, the agent’s reasons are the cognitive factors and conative conditions that steer his behaviour. The function of the cognitive factors C or “beliefs” is “.… to indicate the presence of those conditions that, if the right motivational state is present, will lead, other things being equal, to M” (1988:105) with M being what is done by the agent. However, having a belief is not sufficient for M taking place. There must also be a conative condition or “desire”, i.e. a certain motivational state (D). Basically, the cognitive factors and the conative conditions determine together the agent’s behaviour, and so they are the reasons for this behaviour (1988:105-107).
Take now this case: A friend of mine calls me asking whether I can come to help him. So, I take my coat, walk to the shed, and take my bike. Seeing that I want to go, my wife asks me to post a letter.
What I do now can be described as 1) posting my wife’s letter; 2) going to my friend. Take 1). If we apply Dretske’s theory, the cognitive factor is my belief that my wife wants me to post a letter. I want to do her a favour, and so I have a desire (conative condition) for really doing it. This analysis seems to explain my action “posting the letter” (M). However, we must also consider my “second” action: going to my friend. It can be explained in the same way as the “first” one, but that is not what matters here. I want to examine the relation between both actions. If I had not gone to my friend, my wife would not have asked her question, and I would not have posted the letter, but she would have done it herself. So I post the letter because I go to my friend. My going to my friend is therefore a relevant explanatory factor of my action “posting my wife’s letter”. Accordingly, it is a reason as described by Dretske, namely a “belief”. But is it also a causal relevant explanatory, namely a cognitive, factor for my action “posting the letter”? Dretske correctly says that cognitive factors can be causally effective only if there is an accompanying conative condition, or “the right motivational state” (see above). As just said, the conative condition (desire) in my example is that I want to do my wife a favour. However, the consideration that I am to go to my friend does neither refer to a circumstance that can fulfil my wanting to do my wife a favour, nor is it a cognitive factor that is or can be fulfilled by this conative condition. As Dretske puts it, it is not an “internal indication of the appropriate stimulus conditions” (1988:113n). In order to fulfil this conative condition, we need another cognitive factor that does indicate the appropriate circumstances, in this case that my wife asks me to post the letter. I go to my friend because he called me and because I want to do him a favour. It is not my going to my friend but my wife’s request that is the causally effective reason for my action of posting the letter; at least in the sense of “reason” given by Dretske. However, in the presence of another cognitive factor, my going to my friend becomes a relevant reason for doing my wife a favour and this is what happens in my example. So, in this case there is a (cognitive) factor that is a relevant reason for an action but not a causally relevant reason in Dretske’s sense.
The upshot is that reasons can be relevant for explaining of what I do without being causally relevant for it. Nevertheless, reasons give an answer to the question why I act that way.

Dretske, Fred, Explaining Behavior. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: MIT; 1988
Dretske, Fred, “Reasons and Causes”, in Philosophy Perspectives, vol.3 (1989), pp. 1-15

Monday, January 22, 2018

What matters

At the end of the last volume of his three-volume On What Matters, Derek Parfit says that he had written so little about what matters. It is not true. Maybe the trilogy says hardly what matters but it says a lot about what matters. Parfit added that he hoped to say more about what matters in a fourth volume (p. 436), but, alas, it will not happen, for he died yet before the third volume had been published.
An author has often another view on his work than his readers and I think that this is here also the case. In order to show that the trilogy discusses really what matters – and not only about what matters –, I cannot give an extensive analysis, but here are some examples (I quote from Volume Three):
“When we ask”, so Parfit, “whether some act’s effect would make [an] act right or wrong, many of us [believe] that we can ignore very small benefits or harms.” For instance: “[W]e ought to save one person from a year of pain rather than saving each of many people from only one minute of similar pain”, so many believe. Parfit doesn’t agree: “Suppose that another million people would, without our help, have two years of pain. When applied to this case, [the thesis] is clearly false. If we million people saved each of these other people from one minute of pain, we together would save these people from two years of pain” (p. 422)
Although it is true, nevertheless we could prefer to spread the pain among one million people, since we find one year of pain for one person terrible, and one minute of pain for each of one million people tolerable. Parfit admits that this case is quite unlikely to occur, but that as such the argumentation is not unreal:
“We can often act in ways that would be better for us, or for a few other people, but would also be worse for many other people. The bad effects on each of these other people may be slight, so that we assume that they don’t matter, but when very many of us do what has such slight effects on very many people, the harm we do may be much greater than the benefit we give ourselves. For a clear though trivial example, if we drive ourselves to work rather than taking a bus, we may shorten our time spent traveling by thirty minutes, but by increasing congestion we may lengthen a thousand other people’s journeys by one minute, so that these people together lose a thousand minutes a day. Similar claims apply when there is overfishing or overgrazing. If many fishermen use larger nets, each may cause himself to catch a few more fish, but each may also cause others to catch many fewer fish.” (p. 423). So individually few win much but altogether many lose through this selfish behaviour. In other words, also an action with individually unnoticeable effects for others may be wrong, despite what many people think. “[Such an] act is wrong ... because this act imposes on others a significant amount of pain, even though the amount imposed on each of these other people would be very small.” (pp.431-2)
Indeed, each of us enjoys the gadgets and conveniences of modern life and if I buy a barbecue or drive to the supermarket, because I am too lazy to take my bike, the contribution of this single purchase or this idle act to the air pollution is imperceptible. But I am not alone on this world. “When each of us contributes to global warming, none of our acts will be significantly worse for anyone, but we together make things go much worse for many people. ... [I]t would be clearly better if many fewer people acted in these ways. Many fewer people would then be killed or harmed” (p. 432)
Who says that On What Matters does not says what matters?

Parfit, Derek, On What Matters. Volume Three. Oxford, etc.: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Isaac Beeckman: From wonder to no wonder

The house on the corner is Beeckman’s birthplace in Middelburg.

When I recently wanted to visit Middelburg, an old and beautiful town in the southwest of the Netherlands, I wondered whether there might be a well-known philosopher who came from there. So I searched on the Internet and, indeed, I found one: Isaac Beeckman, who was born there in 1588. I hear you say: “Isaac who?” You needn’t to be ashamed if you have never heard of him, for Beeckman did not publish his ideas and outside a little circle of philosophical experts hardly anybody knows his name. Nevertheless he had an important impact on philosophy because of his relations with many outstanding philosophers of his time. He had such a big influence on the development of science and philosophy that Gassendi called him even the greatest philosopher he ever met. If you have heard of Beeckman, it is probably because of his friendship with Descartes. Some call him even his teacher. Anyway, he stimulated Descartes’s enthusiasm for science and designed mathematical puzzles for him.
Beeckman’s contributions would have remained rather unknown, if in 1905 his journal hadn’t been found again by Cornelis de Waard. Since this journal – which Beeckman kept from 1604 till 1634 – is very detailed, we know much about his discoveries, ideas and relations. So we know that Beeckman first met Descartes in Breda, a town in the south of the Netherlands, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that both men met when they were looking at a mathematical problem on a poster on the marketplace and Descartes asked Beeckman to translate it for him from Dutch into Latin. They got talking and the next day Descartes brought Beeckman the solution. They stayed friends till Beeckman died in 1637 (in Dordrecht), although their friendship was difficult and sometimes broken off (especially in 1630).
Beeckman studied theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden, and later also medicine in Middelburg and then in Caen in France, where he graduated in 1618. Since he couldn’t get a vicarage because of a theological conflict with the church, he first became a candle maker and begun to repair water pipes. Returned from Caen he became a teacher at the Latin School in Utrecht. However, more important is that he was a very curious man (and maybe this was one of the reasons that he found no time to publish his ideas) and he did much research and study in all kinds of fields. So he was active with experiments and the theory of physics, music, medicine and philosophy, but he tried also to find a proof that God existed. In Leiden Simon Stevin and Rudolph Snel (Snellius) were among his teachers and later he corresponded with, for example, the mathematician Marin Mersenne, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the philosophers Pierre Gassendi and Francis Bacon and the physicians William Harvey and William Gilbert.
In this blog I cannot do more than drawing attention to this philosopher who was so important for the development of philosophy. Therefore, I have to limit myself to mentioning only some of his most important contributions and ideas:
- Beeckman’s idea that matter is composed of atoms.
- His mechanistic world view.
- Beeckman gave a new and correct description of inertia, namely that every moving object follows a straight line, unless other forces work on it. However, he accepted the false idea that also a circular movement is a basic movement (not seeing that it is caused by a centripetal force).
- His analysis how a pump works. Beeckman rejected the prevailing view that water avoids a vacuum but explains the working with the help of the idea of air pressure.
- His explanation of the relation between the sound of a string and the length of the string.
- Beeckman made the first weather station in the world, yet before Torricelli invented the barometer.
It’s no wonder that such ideas brought Beeckman into conflict with the Calvinistic church in the Netherlands, which had completely opposite ideas on how the world was constituted and had to be explained. In his diary on 19 November 1626 he succinctly wrote down what the heart of the problem was:
“In philosophy you have always to go from wonder to no wonder. I mean, you must examine so long till what appears strange to you no longer appears strange to you. However, in theology you have to go from no wonder to wonder.

It’s difficult to find information on Beeckman on the Internet, so I gathered it by taking here and there some relevant facts from Dutch websites on Beeckman, from the Wikipedia on Beeckman (Dutch and English versions), from several books in my library (mainly on Descartes) and from Beeckman’s journal (on

Monday, January 08, 2018

A marshmallow test for ravens

You’ll certainly have heard of it, for the research is nearly fifty years old: The marshmallow test, done by Walter Mischel and his colleagues of Stanford University. You can find it on the Internet and here I’ll simply quote one of the descriptions there, in this case one by Stewart Brand: “A researcher whom the child knew and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a ‘waiting game.’ The researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing (marshmallows, cookies, pretzels) – depending on how long the child waited for them after the researcher left the room. The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. To practice, the researcher left the room, the child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, ‘You see, you brought me back. Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!’ The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes. [The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell, and about one third waited till the researcher came back by himself.]” (
After the experiment Mischel followed the children for many years and it became clear that it said much about what kinds of persons the children would become later in life. However, that’s not what I want to talk about. Here it’s relevant that we can delay gratification in order to be better off in future. A part of us can do it already at a young age and most people can do it better when they grow older.
I think that you consider this ability to think ahead and to control yourself typically human. Look around: Isn’t it so that animals always immediately take what they can get? Okay, maybe there are some apes and monkeys who can refuse to take now what they like, expecting that later they’ll get something what they like more. And maybe there are other mammals that can do it as well. But birds?
Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath of Lund University decided to test the ability of flexible planning in birds and took five captive ravens. They had to do tasks they do not do in the wild. Let me quote how The Guardian describes it:
“The birds were shown a box that had a tube sticking out of the top, plus three stones. They learned that they could use a stone as a tool. If they dropped it down the tube, the box would release a doggie treat. They also learned that other familiar objects, such as a small wooden wheel or a ball, would not work. In one experiment, the ravens were shown the box without any stones available. Then the box was taken away. An hour later, in another location, they were presented with a tray containing a stone plus three objects the birds knew would be useless. They were allowed to choose one thing from the tray. Fifteen minutes later, the box would show up again. In 14 cases of encountering the tray and later seeing the box reappear, the birds usually chose the stone and proceeded to use it correctly. The same thing happened in another experiment, when the box did not show up again until the next day, a delay of 17 hours. Further work showed the ravens would pass up an immediate reward if they could get a better one by waiting.” ( To be exactly, in 80-90 % of the cases the ravens selected the correct tool! The result is the more impressive since “Monkeys have not been able to solve tasks like this,” so Osvath (on the same website) Moreover, the ravens were also better than toddlers in such experiments.
As it happens, experiments like these are always difficult to interpret and alternative interpretations are always possible. It’s likely that the test shows that ravens (and possibly other birds as well) have a planning capacity that is more than stashing food away for later (like squirrels do, for example). However, as Alex Taylor, an animal cognition expert of the University of Auckland, says to National Geographic: “The ravens may not be thinking about the future at all, they may instead just be choosing the object that has been associated the most with food.” What’s true must yet have to be found out. Nevertheless, the result is remarkable. Until now scientists thought that flexible planning for unexpected future events was limited to humans and great apes. In the test, the ravens – so birds – were as good in such pre-planning tasks for novel behaviour. If so, this pre-planning ability must have been evolved more than once.
It even seems that ravens are more patient than humans, since they go somewhat less for immediate rewards than humans! Indeed, it might have happened that ravens would not have shown the same behaviour, if they had been given marshmallows. Simply, because they don’t like them so much as children do, they might postpone picking at them. Be it as it may, we think that nothing is as unique as how humans think, but apparently we are not as unique as we think. There are white ravens in nature but they are not human.

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