Monday, July 21, 2014

Criticism

Pyrrho van Elis

Last week I bought a book by Antoine Compagnon on Montaigne and I immediately started to read it. Compagnon is an authority on Montaigne and he has published several books and articles on this philosopher. The book I bought is titled “Un été avec Montaigne” (A summer with Montaigne). It contains mini-essays like my present blogs are. Originally the pieces had been broadcast on the radio for a broad public. I can recommend everybody to read the book, also if you have read already a lot on and by Montaigne. Montaigne’s Essays are so rich in content that any book on Montaigne reveals new aspects.
In one of the first mini-essays Compagnon shows that Montaigne was a man who was open to critical remarks. He even liked them, as long as they were to the point and didn’t come from a superficial attitude, from snobbery or something like that. This doesn’t mean that he always agreed with the criticism he received but he liked a critical stand as such and he liked discussions. Often he changed his writings under influence of the comments he received. Sometimes it was because he agreed with the criticism, often it was rather a matter of politeness, for showing that he took criticism seriously and for stimulating people to make comments.
The basis of criticism is doubt: the idea that everything need not be so as it appears to be. For Montaigne, who relied on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (about 360-270 BC), doubt was a method for getting better knowledge. No wonder that his motto was: “What do I know?”. In this Montaigne was well ahead of Descartes, who is seen as the founder of modern philosophy and who is known for what we call now “Cartesian doubt” as a method for making progress in science. Nowadays critique is considered fundamental in order to come nearer to the truth. It was especially advocated by the Austrian British philosopher Karl R. Popper (1902-1994).
Everyone who advances ideas that are at odds with what other people think exposes oneself to comments and critical remarks, which may be appropriate or not appropriate. Be they of the former or of the latter kind, I think that one must take all criticisms seriously, anyhow. Critique doesn’t need to come only from other persons. Also self-criticism is an important way to improve your texts and ideas (and yourself!). Therefore I have developed a double strategy for coping with comments on my texts. My first rule is: Every comment is right, even when it isn’t. So every comment needs to lead to a change of my text. I think that some explanation is necessary. That a text must be changed when a comment is to the point is obvious, but what when it isn’t? Of course, it is possible that you and your commentator disagree. Nevertheless, I think that there is always a bit of truth in any opposite remark. What you can do then is trying to present your view clearer and better and maybe it is also good to skip some nuances of your stand that are questionable or not to the point, or just to add other ones. I guess that even inappropriate comments make that I change my texts in 90% of the cases.
And how about the second rule of my strategy to cope with comments? This is self-criticism. Often it happens that I reread a text and that I stumble over a word or a passage. I read it again and think: This word or passage is exactly correct. Nevertheless, I always change it, for how can I expect that another reader understands it if I, the author, needs to think twice before I know what I mean?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Killing in war: Does it happen?

Caterpillar Cemetery, Longueval, France

Only yet a few weeks to go and the commemorations of the centennial of the First World War will begin. When one thinks of war, one thinks of at least two opposing parties and one thinks of killing. Both are essential for what one calls war: There is no reason for fighting, if two parties do not disagree, and killing is the ultimate and often not so ultimate means for getting the other on his knees if he doesn’t give way. It is not difficult to find both elements in World War One. The immediate cause was a conflict between two countries (Austria and Serbia) and since both countries had their allies, already at the start the conflict was a war between opposing alliances: the Allies or Entente (France, the UK, Russia etc.) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and others). Finally more than forty countries were involved. When it ended 8.5 million soldiers had been killed if not more and if one adds the civilian victims, about 15-17 million people died in this war. In several countries almost a whole generation of young people was lost. Who else must have practiced these killings than the fighting soldiers themselves?
I think that it was some fifteen years ago that my interest in the First World War developed. I had heard about the war, of course, but when I travelled in the north of France, the big number of war cemeteries struck me and I wanted to know more about this war. So it started. Since then I have read many books on the World War One and I have visited many war sites, both along the Western Front and elsewhere. I have devoted even a big part of my website to photos made during these travels (http://home.kpn.nl/wegweeda/WO1-Inleiding.htm). I still photograph every monument and site related to WW I that I see and I still read as many books on this war as is reasonably possible. I have a preference for biographies, novels (many of them have been written by war veterans or are based on reports by war veterans) and other personal documents. So not so long ago in a second hand book shop I came across a publication of First World War letters of the British writer Vera Brittain and four friends who fought (and died) in the war and I didn’t hesitate to buy it. Immediately I started to read it and I can say that it is very interesting. It tells a lot about life in Britain in those days and about life at the front. It says a lot about what people thought about the war and about their feelings (especially when a friend at the front had died). And probably it says a lot more. What I miss, however, is that the letters tell us nothing about the enemy and even more nothing about the killing as such. It’s true, some letters talk about the Germans and that they shoot. Sometimes they tell that a soldier dies. However, if one considers how these events are described, I think that it is possible to defend the thesis that there is no enemy and that there is no killing in the letters, certainly no killing by you or your party. In this sense war is an impersonal affaire that passes like a river that washes your feet when you ford it. And even more, the absence of the enemy and the absence of killing by yourself and your side (especially in a personal sense of a personally doing) is striking in most ego-documents I have read on WW I. Of course, if you want to, here and there you can find passages in these works that seem to refute my thesis. Nevertheless, as a general tendency it is true, I think.
Is this tendency strange? I think it isn’t for despite all rhetoric that says that killing in war is allowed, in fact hardly anybody agrees. So most soldiers (who are people like you and I and not a special human race) do not want to confess they did. They would feel themselves ashamed, or unhappy or how you want to call it. Therefore I think that these war novels, biographies and other personal documents tell us not only much about World War I but also much about who we are as human beings. This gives these documents a wider meaning than being merely a report on a certain passage in history. These writings are not on war and war experiences, but they are on man.

Monday, July 07, 2014

How to make perfect photos

My exhibition in the Capitainerie in Stenay, Meuse, France

“Nobody is perfect”. It’s a well-known saying. Implicitly it says that perfection is the norm. It’s something we have to strive for. And so we do, at least often, or at least many of us. In our work. When we educate our children. Advertisements tell us what the best products are for looking great, ... and we buy them. Some writers tend to work infinitely on a book, for as long as it is not perfect they do not want to publish it. Look around and you’ll see plenty of instances in which perfection is the goal or where it is important.
As such there is nothing against perfection, but I have two remarks. What does it mean? Perfection is not something objective but it is a norm and as such it is only a view on what is important; it’s a standpoint and nothing else. Moreover, hidden in the idea of perfection is the view that it makes you happier. But does it?
I do not want to substantiate these remarks here, but I want to say something about a case of the pursuit of perfection: The pixel race in photography: the striving to make cameras with more and more pixels. No sooner has a camera come on the market with a sensor with x thousand pixels than another camera producer brings out one with an even larger number of pixels. And so the race goes on. The idea is that the more pixels a sensor has the better it is. For a sensor with more pixels produces sharper photos, and the sharper a photo is the better it is. Is it true?
Until not so long ago photo sensors produced images that were a bit blurred, certainly in comparison with analogue photos. Since sharp photos are considered better, camera producers developed sensors with more pixels in order to solve this problem. The result is that today photos taken with digital cameras are better, so sharper, than old-fashioned analogue photos. As a consequence analogue cameras were pushed off the market. However, the pixel race still goes on. Camera producers continue to make cameras with sensors with more and more pixels making digital images increasingly sharper through the years.
Is this a good development? In a certain sense it is, but what I find annoying is that nobody seems to ask the question what making more perfect and better cameras means. If new cameras really make better images, why are there then still people who prefer old or simple cameras? Even more, why are there still people who make paintings, for example painted portraits? For isn’t then a photographed portrait simply better than a painted portrait and so to be preferred? Apparently for many people the answer is “no”, so there is something else that makes a photo good. But commercially it is not interesting.
When I am on an art market with my photos, many people spontaneously tell me that they like my photos or even that they find them beautiful. When I am talking to them, I often say that most of my photos are analogue (on my last art market, I had some twenty analogue photos and one or two digital ones). I think that it’s an indication that beauty and perfection do not go together; or maybe they do but then it means that perfection is as subjective as beauty is. And indeed, I like it to take photos “off road”, in a way that deviates from the main stream approach. So I still use my old analogue camera and I use also a so-called pinhole camera, which is a camera without a lens, (the readers of these blogs will have noticed, however, that I do not shun the digital way: most of my blog photos here are “modern”). A pinhole camera produces pictures that are far from perfect, for they are blurred. And a blurred picture is one of the cardinal sins in photography. Is it? Apparently not all people think so, for just these blurred, vague and coarse-grained pinhole pictures catch always more attention than any other photos in my presentations. And many people find them better. Even more: My first big exhibition will show just such pinhole photos: 25 imperfect blurred coarse-grained photos showing the River Meuse from its source east of Dijon till Rotterdam. Where can you see it? In Stenay in Lorraine in France. So if you are going to visit the battle fields of Verdun this summer, or if you’ll be there for another reason, go to Stenay as well, for “il vaut le détour” (It’s worth the trip): The photos are like paintings.

The photos can be seen in the Capitainerie, Rue du Port, Stenay (Meuse, France; just north of Verdun) from July 5 till September 13. www.valdart.info

Monday, June 30, 2014

Trust (2)


Actually I thought it had become old-fashioned, like privacy has in the days of the Internet since it has become increasingly easier to intrude into another person’s life. Even in cases that it is explicitly illegal, privacy is violated, as we all know from recent publications in the media. For what is possible is done, in spite of any laws prohibiting it. I thought that trust had gone as well.
Trust is relying on the reliability of another, for example that she or he will do what s/he says, without having any explicit guarantee that the other will really carry out what s/he is expected to do. S/he is believed on the strength of her or his honest appearance and maybe because of good experiences when dealing with her or him in the past, but actually without any warranty or other more or less material evidence that the person really is going to do what s/he is supposed to do. Till not so long ago trust was normal, also in financial transactions, for how could you check the trustworthiness of your partner? Moreover, making payments was complicated in comparison with the way we do it today. But in these days of digitalization and the Internet trust has become more and more limited to the inner circle of relations of your family and friends. It has been pushed back to the back garden of society, so it seems. Payments can be done with one click now, so you have to do your payments in advance, also large purchases. You have to show your identity card everywhere, while in the past many people didn’t have one (at least not in the Netherlands) and it was seldom asked for. Or before you get into touch with a person or company you don’t know, you do an extensive search on the Internet. Maybe this is an improvement in many respects and maybe it relaxes business connections, but it makes that trust has gone in many ways. It has become limited to really personal relations and to relations with people you have narrow connections with.
Therefore I was happily surprised, when after having ordered a book on the Internet, I received an e-mail with the message: We’ll send you the book and we trust that you’ll pay it within thirty days after receipt. Such a thing is not yet exceptional, but I didn’t know the shop and the shop didn’t know me and nowadays it’s then “normal” to pay in advance. So trust does still exist, even in business relationships and even when they can’t judge the honesty of your appearance.
Has trust really been pushed back to the back garden of society, as I just stated? It has become more limited, indeed. In many fields, like when doing purchases, it has almost gone. But can we do without it outside the personal sphere? I think that we can’t. Look around. Consider relations everywhere in society. In business, politics, etc. Then you’ll see that the importance of trust has been driven back but that is still the backbone of society. We simply cannot do without it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Privacy and public photos


Privacy is an important part of our life. Maybe it hasn’t been always so for in premodern times and certainly in prehistoric times, people lived in small communities and it was difficult to keep anything secret for your environment (and I don’t mean your family, who actually belong to your private life, but the people in your hamlet, village or even little town). But societies and values change so today privacy is considered important by most people, although one can wonder whether there isn’t a difference between what people say and what they actually do. Time and again I am surprised how much of their most private and intimate facts people reveal to others and to the world on social media like Facebook and Twitter. But privacy is still an acknowledged part of the way we live. It is protected by law, although it is also often violated in secret by the same state that that makes the laws and pretends to maintain them. Violating happens openly in authoritarian and even more in totalitarian states, where it is part of the ideology that one has to live for the state and where one has to place one’s life in the service of the state. How baleful this can be is clear from cases like Nazi-Germany, Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the present North Korea. It doesn’t lead only to the end of the individual person with all his and her creativity, expression and feelings of happiness, but also to the backwardness of the state if not to its death. So there are good reasons to take care of your privacy, certainly in this time of the Internet where it has become increasingly easy to intrude into the private world of other people, both for states and organisations and for individuals.
Privacy is important for me, so I do my best to protect it. On the other hand, a part of the sense of living exists in maintaining relations with other people, known and unknown, and just for that the Internet is an excellent means. It enriches my life and enhances my possibilities, but just this is done by showing a piece of my private life to the world. Therefore preserving my privacy is a matter of keeping the balance steady: don’t tell the world too much but also not so little that I wouldn’t profit. But what is a good balance? In the end it’s pure guesswork and using your good sense. It’s a matter of feeling.
One of the things that can be abused on the Internet is a picture of yourself, especially one where your face can be recognized. For what is more private than your face? And maybe it’s just because of this that people publish their pictures on the Internet, as a wish to become a public person and to become known, belying the confessed idea that privacy is important. Possibly people don’t realize the dangers. Photos can be manipulated and so be used for discrediting people. They can be used for searching the Internet just as one can search the Internet for certain words. In this way it is possible to connect websites that have been written under different names or by different persons, if they show photos of the same person. Maybe these are yet the most innocent possibilities to misuse pictures. I am not an expert in this field, so I leave it to you to find out what can go wrong if you have your photo on the Internet. Anyway, I am distrustful so I don’t want to have my photo there, at least not one that clearly shows my face. (Keep it secret: actually there is one but I don’t tell you where; it’s difficult to find). I am a bit more careless, if you cannot recognize me as such, as the readers of these blogs may have noticed. But there are always people who want to see my face, for else they have the feeling that they don’t know me or that I am a kind of talking machine (actually it’s strange to think that my face tells more about me than all the texts I have written and photos I have published). If I trust them, I send them my picture by e-mail.
Makes this precaution sense? I always thought so but now I doubt. For what has come out? The NSA, the American intelligence agency, does not only monitor and collect photos openly published in the World Wide Web, but it steals them also from your e-mail. And it may be supposed that other secret and not so secret services do the same. Actually, it was quite naive that I hadn’t thought that before, and that I hadn’t realized that nothing is so secret or it is open to the world. Does this mean that I must not send vulnerable information by e-mail any longer? But then they have just achieved what they want: that people control themselves instead that they and the national governments do. That will be the end of creativity and of many other things we stand for in this world. However, it will not be the end of privacy, for this has already gone, by the activities of secret services and others who secretly collect information on the Internet (and by doing so in your home) and by the public behaviour of private persons themselves.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How to write my blogs


When I started to write my PhD thesis in 1988, personal computers were not yet universally used. Anyway I didn’t have one. So I wrote first a chapter of my dissertation by hand, then I typed it and I sent a physical copy to my tutor. I think it was a good system. Maybe it was not really efficient in view of the present method, but I had a good survey of what I was writing, and my manuscript was full of lines and arrows connecting parts of the manuscript that belonged together. I cannot draw such lines with a computer. On the other hand, it was difficult to move parts of the text I had written at the wrong place or adding text somewhere in the middle of the manuscript, so I used a kind of reference system. I didn’t see it as a loss of time that I had to retype the handwritten text, for it gave me an extra check. However, when I had finished my thesis the publisher wanted to have it on a floppy (do you still know what it is?), so I bought a computer and typed the whole work again.
Even with a PC available I still continued writing my manuscripts first by hand before typing it out digitally, for I didn’t like working behind a desk and writing with a computer. I preferred doing that sitting in an armchair. Later I bought also a laptop which I literally used as a laptop: in my armchair I wrote down my ideas. Since then handwritten manuscripts belonged to the past for me. So when I started my blogs in 2007, I begun writing down some notes about my approach by hand, but when I started actually writing my first blog, I used my laptop. These notes are some of my last handwritten philosophical texts. Everything is done in bits and bytes since then, even the notes.
Is it a positive change? My present way of writing is good and efficient. Nevertheless, since I have read a present newspaper article I wonder whether the old-fashioned manual work isn’t to be preferred. For what happens to be the case? Handwriting appears to be much better for your recollection than typewriting, so the article states, which makes that it is certainly not yet an outmoded manner for producing texts! Children who learn writing first by hand do not only read faster but they are also better in remembering information and developing new ideas than children who learn their first letters on the keyboard. Apparently the manual writing activity stimulates not only the “writing circuit” in the brain but also adjacent circuits. The reason might be that writing by hand is quite a messy activity in comparison with writing with a keyboard and this makes that a wider part of the brain is involved. This pays off later, when you have to call up from memory what you have done.
Research has shown that writing by hand is useful not only for children. The same effect occurs also when university students make notes by hand during their lectures instead of with the help of a keyboard: The hand writers understand their lectures better and remember them also better when they have to reproduce the matter later. And why would what is valid for young students not also be valid for this old guy? So, the upshot is that from now on I should write the manuscripts of my blogs by hand as in the days that I wrote my thesis. But then the troubadour way might even be better: everything by heart.
Source: De Volkskrant, June 4, 2014, p. 19.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Who will win the FIFA World Cup?




Now the football world championship is coming near, it’s time to speculate who will be the next winner of the FIFA World Cup. However, in view of my last blogs, we have a problem. For the championship is a competition between teams, but as we have seen it is questionable whether we can ascribe intentions to groups, so to teams, and without the presence of an intention to win in the teams, we cannot have a competition in the real sense.
One solution of the problem of group intentions is seeing it as a metaphorical way of speaking. It’s Tuomela’s approach, for instance. As he says in The Philosophy of Sociality (Oxford University Press, 2007): “[G]roups are not literally agents or persons but ... they can be regarded as persons... Within this account one can say that groups really want, intend, believe, and act, but that this amounts to the relevant group members’ respectively wanting, intending, believing, and acting in certain ways as group members”. (p. 124) “We are here somewhat metaphorically viewing groups as analogous to individual agents (persons). ... As groups have no minds and bodies, they cannot have experiential beliefs... Yet the group members can accept views for the group [etc.]”. (p. 140). I can quote Tuomela more extensively, but I think it’s clear what he means: Groups exist only in the minds of the people who make up the groups and in the minds of the bystanders.
Nevertheless, it’s a bit confusing for me. Let’s say that the Netherlands will win the World Cup. or France, or Brazil. Make your choice. But let me not be chauvinistic, so let’s suppose that Brazil will be the new world champion. Who or what is it then that will be the cup winner? Brazil? But “Brazil” stands for 8,515,767 km2 of soil and more than 200 million people and it’s clear that not a certain surface of land and 200 million of people are the winner. So “Brazil” is short for the team representing this area and these people, so for 20+ men (and in fact only eleven of them are playing at the same time in a match).
So, if we say that “Brazil” is the new world champion, then actually the Brazilian national team is the winner? So, it was the Brazilian national team that started the competition, intended to do its utmost to win and did win? Right? No ... For “the Brazilian national team” is only a metaphor and it has no mind and no body, as Tuomela explained. And when the national anthem is played and I look at the team I see ... no team but only eleven, or rather twenty+ men, and although all these men get only one cup, they get twenty+ gold medals. And it is these twenty+ men who have played and it is not a team that did, for a metaphor cannot kick a ball, but only men can do (and women, of course). So what I see are twenty+ individuals, who had each more or less the same intention to win when the competition started and who after x individual kicks against a ball got a gold medal. The team has gone and what is left are individuals. The president of the FIFA can bring the World Cup again back to his office, for whom should he give it, if there is no team? Maybe there are twenty+ men who deserve it to get a gold medal but there is no team to receive the cup. And if you don’t believe it, consider by way of exercise, the case that a player of the Brazilian is sent home during the tournament and doesn’t receive a medal: What’s then the team?
The upshot is that there cannot be a winner of the FIFA World Cup, IF we see “group” simply as a metaphorical way of speaking that refers to a number of individuals with the same intention.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Group intentions


One of the most ignored problems in the philosophy of collective intentionality and action is the question of identity. But what happens when the composition of a group changes during the action process? Can we say that it is the same group that develops an intention and performs the corresponding action, if the persons that make up the group initially are different from those who complete the action? For making the problem clear, let me take an example of the sort used by Bratman or Tuomela, two prominent philosophers in this field:
A group of four movers intends to carry a piano to an apartment on the sixth floor of an apartment building. On the staircase to the second floor, one mover gets a whiplash, so a colleague is called up in order to replace him. On the staircase to the third floor, one of the three original movers hurts his back and he is also replaced by a colleague. On the stairs to the fourth floor one of the remaining original removers slips and sprains his ankle and is replaced as well. And the last man of the original group has to be replaced on the fifth floor because he seriously hurts his knee. So in the end four different men put the piano on its place in the apartment on the sixth floor.
Some readers will recognize here the old philosophical problem called “The Ship of Theseus”: When Theseus returns from Crete to Athens, after having killed the Minotaur, he has to repair his ship at sea and he replaces the old planks of the ship one by one by new ones so that finally none of the old planks of the ship that left Crete remains. Then the question is: Is the ship that arrives in Athens the same one as the ship that sailed from Crete? Or for our example: Is the group that arrived at the sixth floor the same group as the group that started to carry the piano upstairs? If you say no, the idea of group intention has to be skipped, for the consequence is that only individual intentions and actions are possible. But this conflicts with many facts that support the view that collectivities do exist and act. For instance, parliaments vote down a motion, hockey teams become world champion and armies wage wars. However, if you say yes, you have saved the idea of group intention but then you have to explain how it is possible that a group can have an intention even if in the end no member of the original group remains. You have also to explain what it means that a group keeps having an intention, although a group mind (brain) doesn’t exist and although the original group members that have taken up the intention no longer have this intention. Or you have to explain what it means that a group acts, although it is the individual members who move their limbs (for it’s John who kicks a goal with his leg and not the “team”). Unless you give up the idea that the analysis of group actions is analogous to the analysis of individual actions (as Tuomela thinks, for instance; see his The Philosophy of Sociality, chapter 5).

Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibility of we-intentions

A part of the gang

The question of responsibility for an action, in case this action has been performed on orders from a superior (see last week) is related to the question whether someone is responsible for the actions of a group s/he belongs to. I have discussed this theme long ago in my blogs, especially in relation to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, so I’ll bypass it. However, it is generally accepted that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to a group, as is done, for instance, when a company as such – and not the individual managers – is sentenced for breaking the Environment Law. Who or what is it then that holds the responsibility? Or in my example, who or what is it then that is sentenced? For normally a sentence is passed only for something that is intentionally done or for what is the result of an action intentionally performed (even if this result hasn’t been foreseen or hasn’t been intended). Since our juridical system makes it possible to prosecute organisations and other formal groups, apparently they are ascribed actions and intentions. This is in line with common parlance, which ascribes intentions and actions to all kinds of groups, formal and informal. “The football team wanted to win in order to avoid relegation.” “The gang decided to beat up the first passer-by”. Such phrases are common use and they have nothing metaphysical and they are seen as reflecting the facts. Nevertheless, I think that it is reasonable to ask what we mean by them. For it’s not Local United that will do its utmost in order to avoid relegation but John, Pete, Charles and the others will do and kick the ball. And it is the same for the gang. For if John, Pete and Charles form a gang after the match (which they have lost) and then attack Henry, the first passer-by who happens to be also the goal keeper of the opponent, it is not a mysterious unity that hurts Henry intentionally, but there are three men of flesh and blood who do.
I think the problem is this. On the one hand a group is made up of individuals agents and it is they who act. On the other hand a group is a real social phenomenon and what a group does cannot be explained by referring to individual agents and simply put them together. For if we see groups only as an aggregate of individual agents, we get something like this: Agents have individual intentions and when they act together they have joined their intentions and have developed a joint commitment. On base of this joint commitment a group intention is formed. This is basically the approach of present-day philosophers like Raimo Tuomela or Michael E. Bratman. A typical case discussed by them is painting a house together. The approach sounds quite Thatcherian, for in the end it sees cooperating only a matter of bringing people together in the right way (and that’s why Thatcher thought that there are no societies but only individuals – and families at most). What this approach forgets, however, is that intentions and the ways they are put together do not come out of the blue. They are based on the possibilities, rules, associations etc. that an agent happens to find already present when s/he “decides” to act or develops intentions. It is this what is already there that determines and structures what an agent wants to want (and not just wishes to want) and what this agent factually can do and will do (within a certain latitude; it’s true). These “existences” or “availabilities” or how we would call them (structure, culture) are the foundations of our we-intentions or group intentions. It’s an idea that is a consequence of Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory and actually it is a concise rephrasing of this theory in a we-intentional wording. It sounds quite Marxian, indeed, but it is Marxian only for a part. For it is not without reason that I said that an agent has a certain latitude when s/he is going to act in a certain situation. For every situation where an agent has to act needs both to be interpreted (“what am I supposed to do?”; “what can I do?”; etc.) and it leaves room for choices: our elbow room. Sometimes our elbow room is limited; sometimes it is very large. And here, and especially in the latter case, the first (“Thatcherian”) approach becomes valid, namely the freedom to choose our own joint intentions and commitments. Only then and there we can say: we can leave it or we can take it. Only then and there we can jointly put our individual intentions together so that we get a we-intention, for instance for painting our house together. It’s a thing that every free rider knows.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Authority and responsibility

Execution pole, Poperinge, Belgium (West Front): Place where soldiers sentenced to death were shot.

Last week I wrote about the case of Grischa who had been condemned to death and who had been shot death, although he was not guilty of what he was accused of. But who was responsible for the execution? I think that most people would say: Schieffenzahn, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front of the German army, who had the power to reverse the verdict. But how about the responsibility of the others involved in the execution? For it wasn’t Schieffenzahn who shot Grischa but the firing squad did. Isn’t it so then that the firing squad was actually responsible for the death of Grischa? For hadn’t these soldiers fired, Grischa would have stayed alive. Nevertheless, many people would say that not the firing squad was responsible for the execution but that Schieffenzahn was. This would imply, however, that one can perform an act without being responsible for it. How can this be? Isn’t it so that in the end we all are responsible for what we do and for the consequences? Of course, I know that many answers have been given to this question but has it been solved? I would call it the problem of obedience to authority. In my last blog we have seen that authority can be blind, but as for instance Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown obedience to authority can be blind as well (see old blogs). One reason is that it needs more courage to obey than not to obey, as we can see every day around us.

Friday, May 16, 2014

NEW BOOK and EXHIBITION


La Meuse - De Maas

Photos taken with a pinhole camera showing towns on the River Meuse from its sources in the Northeast of France till Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The book contains 25 photos from my exhibition in Stenay, France, which will be held from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014 in La Capitainerie in Stenay (Meuse). The book includes texts, maps and an explanation what a pinhole camera is, both in Dutch and in French. The photos will not be published on my photo websites (with the exception of three photos).
Price 26.75 euro plus postage. For ordering the book click here or send me a message via this website or an e-mail.
My photo exhibition is part of the International Art Project VALDART 2014, which will be held in the region of Stenay (Meuse), France, from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014. For more information on Valdart click here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The case of authority

Death cell for soldiers sentenced to death in World War I; not on the East Front but in Poperinge, Belgium. Through the windows the soldiers could see the place where they would be shot dead.

In his novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa ( Aufbau Verlag, 2006; English: The Case of Sergeant Grischa), which is based on a true occurrence during the First World War, the German author Arnold Zweig describes the story of the Russian soldier Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, who had been taken into captivity by the German Army. Grischa escapes from the prison camp, since he longs to see his wife and his newborn child. When he meets the young woman Babka, a partisan, she advices him to take the identity of the Russian deserter Ilya Pavlovich Bjuscheff, so that he’ll not be sent back to the prison camp if caught. However, when caught Grischa, alias Bjuscheff, is sentenced to death as he is considered a spy. Then Grischa says that actually he is Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, which he can prove in a convincing way. Although the local authorities under general von Lychov want to have the sentence revised in view of this new evidence, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front Schieffenzahn wants to keep the sentence as it is for the sake of discipline. A dispute over areas of responsibility develops between von Lychow and his staff and Schieffenzahn and his office. A big part of the novel is about this question of competence. In the end Schieffenzahn wins and Grischa is shot dead, innocent.
Much can be said about this novel, which was one of the first German novels that described the First World War from the view point of the war veterans (Arnold Zweig has fought near Verdun and elsewhere). This book and other books by Zweig give a good impression of the cruelties and other aspects of this war. However, what I want to emphasize here is that the novel shows the danger of appealing to authority instead of being open to what is reasonable and to the interests of those subjected to this authority. Demarcations of competence and authority can have sense and often they do have sense, but a field of competence never exists as a purpose of itself. There is always a reason for it, at least originally. When one loses sight of this reason, authority loses its contents and it becomes fossilized. Then it’s only there for the bearer of the authority and as a weapon against his competitors in other fields of competence and authority, and a struggle of competence will certainly develop. When it comes that far – be it in business, politics, or where else lines of demarcation are drawn – there’ll be victims and at least a part of these victims will be innocent. Some will “only” suffer damage but in extreme cases some will have to pay with their lives, too. When it has come that far, authority has become blind.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

What to see on holiday


Soon it will be summer and so for a lot of people it’s time to think about how and where to spend their holidays. Will it be on the beach or in the mountains? Shall I stay at home or shall I travel to a country far away? Shall I stay at the same place all the time or shall I make a tour? So I took my holiday guides and started to browse on the Internet as well. But I thought that it would also be a good idea to put the things a bit into perspective, so I bought the treatise on the philosophy of tourism by Ruud Welten. Soon I forgot that actually I wanted to plan a trip, for it’s a very interesting book and I got totally absorbed in it. But then I realized that I had to write my blog and I thought that it would be nice to write about it here.
When I tell other people that I seldom go to the big objects sought by most tourists, but that I prefer to avoid the trails well-trodden by millions of travellers before me and that I follow the roads in the “boring” countryside that are almost exceptionally used by locals, then I get often reactions saying (in polite words, of course) that I am actually a kind of a fool. How stupid I am that I don’t want to enjoy the beauty of Florence; that I don’t make a stop in Paris when I pass it on the highway (yes, I can see the Eiffel Tower from there); and that I roam around the countryside of Lorraine in France or the inland of Latvia instead. But thanks to Welten’s book I know now what I do wrong: I break the Golden Rule of tourism: Don’t miss it! And the “it” is what is valuable according to tourist guides and to all who believe in their truth. For tourist guides describe what must be seen by everybody.
Tourism is a special way of looking at the world. It’s a kind of collective gaze. The gaze is not collective in the sense that the tourists belong to the same group, for they don’t. Tourists are individuals. That’s why we as tourists don’t like it when there are too many other tourists at the same place, for they hinder the individual gaze. The others don’t belong to our group. Even more: we have often the feeling that we are not like “them”. We are “different” and we have our own individual reasons to be there. Or so we think, for the goal of our visit is collective: It is what has worth in an objective sense (that’s what the tourist guides say, at least): The pyramids in Egypt, the Tapestry in Bayeux or the Taj Mahal in India. You must have been there at least once in your life according to the Golden Rule of Tourism and the idea of the collective goal. And in this why the tourist looks with a collective gaze at the world.
This means that tourism is a matter of framing. In the social sciences, a frame is a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how we perceive reality and behave accordingly. Framing is the social and perspectival construction of a social phenomenon. In the case of tourism, framing tells us what are valuable destinations and useful ways of spending our holidays. It is done by the tourist guides and by the collective culture that determines what has worth.
Tourism is also framing in another sense: The tourist is never a part of what s/he sees. It is as if s/he looks through a window and sees what is happening in the world on the other side of the glass. Welten uses the picture of someone who looks out the window down to the street that runs along her hotel. She sees people passing by and she can observe them as long as she likes. Nobody will disturb her, for she does not belong to thoese there down in the street. In other words: the tourist is an outsider. She remains so as long she is a tourist, at least mainly and most of the time. That’s why for many tourists it’s quite annoying or it even upsets their temporary life, if they suddenly become involved in a strike or a demonstration and so become an insider in the life around them.
This brings me back to my way of tourism. My way of travelling on holiday is also the tourist way, or at least usually it is. But there is a difference, for although the “main stream” tourists as characterized above hope or even expect to see the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate from their hotel window, I am happy when I see from there something like the view on the picture here above.


Source: Ruud Welten, Het ware leven is elders. Filosofie van het toerisme. Zoetermeer, Klement, 2013.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The value of peace


It is a tradition to erect monuments to commemorate important facts and events that had a big influence on life. In view of the often traumatic impact of war, it’s not surprising that many monuments refer to wars. War memorials are found everywhere. For instance, in France and Belgium each town and village has a monument commemorating the First World War and its dead. After 1945 they have been “updated” for commemorating World War Two and its victims. In my own country, the Netherlands, you find also many war monuments. Most of them refer only to the Second World War, since happily the Dutch succeeded to stay out of the Great War. Nevertheless, also in the Netherlands there are more monuments related to the World War One than most people expect.
Almost all war monuments refer to the past: to what happened, like a battle won or lost, people that died or events that took place. Some want to say “never more”, other ones glorify an act or a fact, again other ones are only there in order to keep a memory alive. However, sometimes it happens that a war memorial doesn’t remember so much the past and the losses suffered but that it pays attention to a better life that we expect: It shows hope. Then often a tree is planted instead of putting there a monument of stone, marble, concrete or whatever kind of dead material. A tree lives and it grows through the years. A tree represents hope and a better future. But alas, there are by far more monuments that look backward to the misery that has ended and to what we have lost than to the future that we have gained. War monuments are found everywhere, while peace monuments are still exceptional. But there is a tendency to a positive change, for nowadays more and more peace poles are erected in many places in the world. Although war monuments outnumber peace monuments out and away, our feelings tell us that peace is better than war. Wasn’t it George Orwell who made it clear to us that war is often put forward as a kind of peace? “War is Peace” is the well-known slogan in his novel 1984, telling us that war is peace in disguise.
In view of this it is to be expected that peace monuments are cherished and better maintained than war monuments, even if it were only for preserving the illusion that peace is the highest ideal in politics. Far from that. And with this three words I do not only mean that war monuments are better maintained than peace monuments, but also that in fact peace is not the highest ideal in politics. For it is a well-known phrase, said by the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics with other means, but no one has said until now that peace is the continuation of politics with other means.
I think that all this is symbolized by the peace tree that I photographed lately in the town of Emmen in the north of the Netherlands. Note that this peace tree is the only monument in the Netherlands related to the First World War that can be interpreted as a real peace monument. The other monuments are nothing but war monuments in the sense indicated above. One would think that such a monument would be the pride of the community if not of the country and that it would be well maintained, just as the monuments referring to the Second World War in the Netherlands are, for instance, or as all war monuments in Belgium and France along the Western Front are as well. But nothing is further from the truth. Look at the picture above that shows the peace tree in Emmen. Once the tree was planted in the garden of a hotel where many Belgian fugitives lived during the war. The hotel and garden no longer exist. Now you find there a flat with shops and apartments and the tree blocks the rear entrance of a snack bar. Left and right there are rubbish containers and untidily parked cars. Branches have been cut on request of the residents. It’s a place unworthy of a monument let alone a peace monument. In this way, it symbolizes no longer the reason why it was planted in 1918, namely peace, but how we think about peace today.

More monuments related to WW One on http://home.kpn.nl/wegweeda/WO1-Inleiding.htm (follow the links for the photos).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Do all things have their seasons?

Is there a season for blooming?

In his essay “All things have their season” Montaigne writes about the Roman statesman Cato the Elder (234-149 BC): “[T]hat in his extreme old age he put himself upon learning the Greek tongue with so greedy an appetite, as if to quench a long thirst, does not seem to me to make much for his honour; it being properly what we call falling into second childhood.” (Essays, Book II, Ch. xxviii). In the next section Montaigne concurs with Eudemonidas who says about the Greek philosopher Xenocrates (396-314 BC), when seeing him very old, “still very intent upon his school lectures: ‘When will this man be wise,’ said he, ‘if he is yet learning?’ ” Montaigne put this on a par with an example of a Roman general who in the midst of a battle went away from his soldiers in order to pray for victory instead of leading his soldiers when most needed. “All things have their seasons, even good ones”, so Montaigne. Although he puts this remark later into perspective and says that there may be reasons that, for instance, an old man starts to study a language, actually one feels that Montaigne thinks that there is something wrong with such behaviour. But is there really a fundamentally right time or period for every human activity, or at least for most? I doubt it. I think that the appropriate time or period for certain activities depends rather on the values and insights of the age and society in which one lives than that it is an objective fact. This is the same as saying that in fact a correct time or period for human activities in general does not exist. What is right to do depends on the requirements of the situation and on individual choices.
Take for example this. Once sport was something done in particular by the male elite, at least in modern society since the middle ages (which didn’t exclude, however, that sport was actually also practised by the non-elite). Besides, it was especially for the younger ages, which was also, of course, a matter of fitness. Gradually more and more sport was accepted for the “lower” classes and for women, especially with the rise of new sports like football. Nevertheless it lasted until the end of the 1960s or even 1970s that it gradually became normal that sport was practised in a serious way by men older than, say, 30 years of age as well. Later it became also generally accepted for women. And only today it has become normal that older people, also older than 60 years of age, can practise sport more than in a leisurely and casual way. Even more, it is promoted for it is good for your health.
It’s only one example and maybe not even the most relevant one, although sport has become important on all levels of society. It illustrates, however, that what is seen as the right time to do something is not invariable. New insights develop and old insights change. Therefore I wonder whether all things really have their seasons. Isn’t it better to see it more practical and isn’t it also better to ask first what is basically against doing things in the “wrong” season? And as everybody knows today: seasons can change, too.

Monday, April 07, 2014

When to write my blog


Since I started writing these blogs, I am in the habit of writing them on Mondays and using the rest of the week for making corrections and looking for a suitable photo or for making one. Until now I succeeded to write a blog every week, unless I had a good reason not to do it. Nevertheless, I wondered whether it is an effective routine, for sometimes it’s quite an effort to produce a text. Now and then I simply fail to have ideas, even though in the end there is always a result.
On the Internet you can find many advices how to improve your creativity. Often they are an “open door” for me (which is a Dutch expression saying that something is obvious). “Define the problem”, I found on a website. Yes, of course, but that’s often just the problem, although it is not bad to call attention to it, for I think that one of the main causes of having a writer’s block is that one simply doesn’t know what to write about. Therefore the question what the problem is and whether it is well defined is always the first thing I ask myself, when I have problems with my creativity.
Also the other tips on the webpage of PowerHomeBiz.com (see below) are not new to me, but I think that especially this tip is important: Alter your routine regularly. It’s one reason I always read books on different themes. On the other hand, I cannot say that my trips and travels help me much to improve my philosophical creativity, although they do help to improve my photographic creativity, for when away from home I make always my best pictures (see for instance www.henkbijdeweg.nl).
On a page of Psychology Today (see below), I found a tip that is not really surprising but I had never thought about it: Optimize your peak time. At certain points of the day you are being best in this, at other points in that, so be creative during your most creative hours. How stupid that I hadn’t thought of it before. Although I must admit, that for practical reasons you cannot always do what you want to do at your “best” moments: How would your boss react, if you would take a nap in the afternoon during working hours? Anyway, I wondered what my creative peak time is. The result is a bit surprising for what does the web page say? “Most adults perform their best right as they begin to slump in terms of wakefulness.” So I have to take a nap, or almost, in order to write down my most creative ideas! It’s a bit contradictory, for how to type my ideas, when I fall asleep? But okay, my next question is then: at which time do I fall asleep? The answer is: “At around 2pm, sleepiness tends to peak.” It’s true; it’s also my experience, but it is also my experience that my creativity is at its top about three hours later, when I am fully awake again. But I shall not object for psychologists say it.
Since I pretend that my blogs are critical, or at least that most are, I was also interested in my critical peak. This appears to be at the end of the morning: “If you get paid to think critically, try to get most of your work done in the late morning, right after a warm shower.” So, it’s a bit a problem for me that the best moments to write my blogs have different peak times, not counting the fact that I do my physical workouts always after I have mentally emptied my mind, so at the end of the afternoon or early in the evening, and it’s always after these exercises that I take a warm shower (and become sleepy, indeed).
But as we have just seen: The PowerHomeBiz website advices to change your routine now and then, so why not to give it a try and make a new routine: I’ll go for a bike ride or do another workout in the morning, then I take a warm shower, and after a short lunch I become sleepy and can express my critical creativity. But then I ignore the fact that “the afternoon (12pm-4pm) is prime time for distractions”, as the Psychology Today website says, and this would involve that I would just then have to do my exercises and be creative. Moreover, my body doesn’t like to exercise in the morning, for it’s stiff. The upshot is: Man is a barrel filled with contradictions.
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/201212/5-big-discoveries-about-personal-effectiveness-in-2012

Monday, March 31, 2014

A country governed by criminals

(for security reasons I blurred the fingerprints)

I live in a country governed by criminals. And then I do not mean men like a former president who has been twice in jail because of robbery and assault and who recently left his country behind with an empty treasury and an allegedly full foreign bank account for himself when he was chased away by the people (maybe you recognize Victor Yanukovych from the Ukraine in the description). No, I mean the leaders of a country many people wouldn’t have thought of: the Netherlands. Of course, nobody should expect that we live in a paradise here. Only the other day a cabinet minister has been bawled out by the parliament, since he hadn’t told the truth about the activities of his secret service (I am still surprised that the parliament didn’t dismiss him). Recently a politician who is prosecuted for corruption has been elected to a local parliament. And, to take another example, the leader of an ultra-right party has been accused of racist statements. These things are bad enough, but it is not what I mean.
A few weeks ago I went to the town hall for a new passport. What did the counter clerk ask, besides the usual things like a photo and to set my sign on a piece of paper? She wanted to have my fingerprints, or rather two fingerprints. I had been forewarned and as meek as a lamb and without any protest I obeyed the order. As a result, now I am a registered criminal. For as you know, traditionally only criminals are fingerprinted, and at the place of a serious crime, one of the first things detectives do is looking for fingerprints. For nothing is as sure for identifying a criminal, they say, as his fingerprints (certainly in the age when taking DNA not yet had been invented as a better alternative). So fingerprinting and being seen as a criminal have always been two sides of the same coin. And as the sociologist W.I Thomas said in the theorem that made him famous: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. In other words: once you are treated as a criminal, you are considered criminal and maybe even treated as a criminal. So now I am a registered criminal.
Does it help in the sense that more crimes are solved or prevented than would have been without this fingerprinting law? I doubt it. Besides that fingerprints are not as reliable as is often thought (although they do have a high reliability, indeed), a measure can only be effective when it is applied. But actually this preventive fingerprinting is simply a paper measure. In this blog it’s not the place to give a thorough foundation of what I blame the authorities for, but the fingerprints are taken, stored and forgotten most of the time. It is simply a too complicated approach for preventing and solving crime except in individual cases. For instance, if there is evidence that an airliner will be hijacked, the authorities should have the fingerprints of the possible hijackers and they should have to check the fingerprints of all passengers entering the airport. Do you believe that it works that way? There are much better methods for preventing a hijack. And it is the same for other serious crimes of that dimension. Fingerprints are only useful for small-scale individual cases of crime. But then it has no sense to criminalize the whole population of a country. Nevertheless this is what happens; in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
But back to my point and what I wanted to say. Of course, I am not the only one in this country being fingerprinted. Although George Orwell was right when he wrote “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, here it is still so that rules like fingerprinting for your passport apply to everybody, which involves that not only I am fingerprinted but that every member of the Dutch cabinet who needs a new passport is fingerprinted as well, including the Prime Minister. Do you see what this means? Indeed, that this country is a country governed by criminals.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Word and image


Look at the picture above. Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (5.6). I say: Even if I have given a complete description of what is in this picture, nevertheless I still do not know what is in it. However, when I look at it, I know how it is and what it looks like. So my world is wider than what I can describe with my language (And can I describe my feelings fully?)
Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (7) I say: What you cannot say, you maybe can show.
The difference between the third person perspective and the first person perspective is of the same kind (This distinction is discussed for instance also by Wittgenstein in his The Blue and Brown Books).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Philosophy and facts

Can you TRY to forget that you were there?

Wittgenstein wrote on logic which is about thought. Is all philosophy only about thought? I had to think of it, when I read an article by Kevin Lynch recently (see note). Lynch starts his article with the observation that “according to a common assumption in the philosophical literature about how self-deception gets accomplished, subjects deceive themselves into believing something by the control of attention” (p. 63). However, Lynch casts doubt on this assumption, which he particularizes as the idea “whether people have the power to intentionally deceive themselves using the ordinary sources of their own mind and body”(ibid. - italics mine). Or yet more specific: The assumption states that it is possible to make “acquire oneself a belief which, before trying to do this, one knew to be false or at least unwarranted” (p. 64). This can be done, so many adherents of this idea (“attentionalists”) suppose, by shifting attention intentionally from the belief to be suppressed to an acceptable belief. So, attentionalists think that people can manage to successfully deceive themselves intentionally. In their theories they explain how this can be done. (cf pp. 63-64)
Then Lynch presents and discusses a few attentionalist theories. The essence is: Attentionalists, like Perring, Davidson, Audi and others, try to substantiate their idea by philosophical means, so by reasoning. And, as Lynch stresses, “these philosophers make no special effort to insist that these acts of shifting attention are carried out unconsciously” (p. 65; italics by Lynch). The acts are done intentionally and knowingly. They can be done by simply directing one’s attention away from the unwanted thought (pp. 65-69).
This is the theory and so it works according to the attentionalists. But does it really work that way? In order to answer the question Lynch takes an essential step: He turns away from philosophy and asks what psychology says about it, so he appeals to an experimental approach. Keeping it short: Psychological experiments have shown that one can’t suppress beliefs intentionally and consciously. Therefore the attentionalist theory is false.
What does this mean for philosophy? Probably I have said it more often, but there is thought and there is the real world (I don’t want to say that thoughts do not belong to the real world, but here I make the distinction for the sake of argument. I suppose that my readers understand what I mean). Philosophy is about thought. It reasons and discusses about concepts and their relations, about what is fundamental and cannot be shown and about questions of life. Without a doubt you can add a few themes more.
In his Tractatus logico-philosophicus Wittgenstein said: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all” (6.52). This is also true the other way round: Even if all possible questions of life and thought have been answered, we still know nothing about the real world. It’s the latter what science is about. I tend to say that all questions that can fundamentally be answered by science cannot be answered convincingly by philosophy. Even if philosophers give an answer, always the question remains: You say it, but is it true? You talk about facts, so look what the facts are and not how you think they are. However, often it happens that philosophers ignore that what they think and say can be tested against reality. Then they can say what they think, but what they say fails to have the right foundation: facts (whatever this may mean, but just that’s a philosophical question). The attentionalist question is typically a question that can and so need to be answered by science (and so has to be the subject of scientific research): Can you think away your unwanted thoughts? Well, try it and see what happens. But apparently no attentionalist philosopher has tried it, for it is impossible.
The upshot is: philosophy is for philosophers and the rest is for ... (to be filled in, for instance by “scientists”; however there is more in the real world than only science). Every man to his own trade (and the same for women).

Note: Kevin Lynch, “Self-deception and shifts of attention”, in Philosophical Explorations, 2014/1: 63-75.

Monday, March 10, 2014

“Logic must look after itself”

War Cemetery of the Austro-Hungarian Army: It could have been Wittgenstein's destiny

Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my favourite philosophers. I think that only Montaigne is mentioned more often in my blogs. Moreover, I am interested in the First World War (1914-1918), especially in the human side of this war. Since I have read already many books about World War One (WW I), including novels and diaries, it is obvious that I should read Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916 as well. So I ordered the book and a few days ago I received it.
You’ll not be surprised that I haven’t finished yet the Notebooks so I’ll talk not about its contents. Maybe I’ll do it later or maybe never. But I have browsed the book a bit. It is a book on logic, and the notes that Wittgenstein wrote down during his years at the front and behind the front as a soldier laid the groundwork for his world-famous Tractatus logico-philosophicus. What surprises me is that Wittgenstein wrote no word about the war and his life as a soldier in any of his notes. I may be mistaken, for I have only leafed through the book, but I discovered no word about the war and his fighting. It’s remarkable for Wittgenstein made the notes not at home on leave in his study but as a soldier in active service. I do not know much about the circumstances on the Eastern Front during WW I, but I guess that they were not fundamentally different from those on the Western Front in France and Belgium. There life was dreadful, difficult and dangerous, also during so-called “quiet” periods, when there was not much fighting. Sometimes, also during these quiet intervals or behind the front, soldiers had time for themselves. Most spent it relaxing, talking with their comrades, writing letters to those who stayed at home, and writing diaries and sometimes books about their war experiences. Not Wittgenstein. He wrote about logic.
On the outbreak of the war, Wittgenstein did not hesitate to volunteer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He served with the artillery but he has also been involved in some of the heaviest fighting directly at the front with Russia. Wittgenstein received several decorations for his courage. It is clear that he run a serious risk to be killed. Later he fought at the Italian front with his Tractatus in his knapsack. There he was taken prisoner.
War cannot pass without having big effects on life and society. Bertrand Russell said that Wittgenstein returned from the war as a changed man. Paul, Ludwig’s elder brother, lost his right arm during the war and asked Ravel to write his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (so it wouldn’t have been composed without WW I). Others, including many soldiers, wrote novels and books with the war as the central theme in order to let the world know what happened or in order to come to terms with their misery. Henri Barbusse published his well-known Le Feu (Under Fire) with his war experiences already in 1916. Others expressed their experiences in paintings. And so on. That’s only in the cultural field. Also in other areas of social life and in politics examples abound.
But what about what we have lost by war so, in this case, by the First World War? Maybe – although it seems unlikely to me – Wittgenstein would never have put down the thoughts that led him to the Tractatus without WW I. However, I think that the risk was much bigger that he would have been shot during these years and that philosophy would have developed into a significantly different direction. One can wonder how many brilliant young men and not so young men have been killed in this war who would have pushed culture, science, politics and other fields of human interests into another directions, if they had survived. We’ll never know. History would have followed another path, but things do not work that way. Wilfred Owen, the great British war poem who was killed one week before the end of WW I wrote in his poem “To Eros”: “War broke: and now the Winter of the world With perishing great darkness closes in.” It was then true and it is still true. Winter brings much what is flourishing in nature to an end and so does war in life.
It seems that Wittgenstein kept the world of thought apart from the world of “real” life. He started his Notebooks 1914-1916 with the words “Logic must look after itself”. Of course, he gives it a philosophical interpretation in the notes that follow. But in view of the circumstances in which the Notebooks were written it is as if he wants to say: “I am here as a soldier and I am here as a philosopher”. The former refers to life, and I’ll be silent about it. I have nothing to say about it, but all the more so about what counts for the latter, even if what follows doesn’t refer to real problems.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Can a group have intentions?

A group of four or four individual cyclists?

In the philosophy of action almost all books and articles are about what individuals do. Action philosophers discuss about concepts like belief, desire, intention, action and behaviour etc. and their relations and about how we can explain and understand the doings of individuals with the help of these concepts. But how about groups? People are basically social. This is not only so because they live in groups and need other people in order to survive, but there are also many biological and psychological − not to speak of sociological − reasons for this claim. Nevertheless, most philosophers of action do not take notice of groups, although common sense ascribes intentional concepts not only to individuals but also to groups. Isn’t it normal to say things like:
- the government has decided to cut the budget
- the orange team has won the gold medal on the team pursuit
- we carried the piano upstairs
- the crowd chased away the president?
In common parlance it is normal to attribute a belief to a government and say it reduced the budget because it believed that this would stimulate the economy. It is okay to say that the orange team wanted to win the gold medal, although actually three skaters wanted to win. We can say that we had the intention to bring the piano together upstairs, since it was impossible to do it alone. And no one can chase away a president alone but a crowd can do it.
On the face of it there is no difference between these group actions and individual actions, and it seems obvious to attribute intentions, beliefs, desires etc. to groups as if they are a kind of aggregate individuals. Even so group phenomena are generally ignored by action philosophers. Exceptions are Raimo Tuomela and Philip Pettit, for instance, and just they have to say interesting things in this field. However, in this blog I’ll ignore them. Here I’ll discuss only whether it’s reasonable to bypass the question whether groups can be seen as agents in their own right.
There are several reasons why action philosophers do not discuss this question. I think that the one that stands out is that all so-called group agency is nothing else but what each agent individually does put together. However, is it?
I think that this problem has two sides. We can ask whether groups really exist in the sense whether they have properties that cannot be ascribed to the properties of their individual members. I think that there are good arguments for it – I cannot carry a piano upstairs alone – and against it – the individual members of the orange team only have to agree on how to skate together in order to win as a team –. Although in my view the arguments that sustain the idea of group agency are better than those that refute it, at the moment I am indecisive about this what philosophers call ontological question. However, I think that the problem of group agency has also another side, which makes that it is a mistake that it doesn’t receive more attention in the philosophy of action. In order to make this clear I’ll use the example of a river. In fact, a river is simply a flowing quantity of water molecules. Perhaps it is theoretically possible to reduce the effects of this water current on the landscape, the way a river flows, the occurrence of whirlpools and so on to the behaviour of separate water molecules, in practice this is completely impossible, of course. And although we can say that the flow of a river has a certain direction (from the mountains downwards to the sea, for instance), it sounds strange to say that single water molecules show such a kind of behaviour (molecule x flows downward to the sea and along the way it erodes the mountain). That’s why we consider rivers as phenomena of their own and treat them that way. Even if we could defend the thesis that a river is nothing but a number of separate molecules, it is not a workable approach and rivers are considered as independent phenomena. In this way many fluvial geomorphologic processes can be explained in a satisfying way. In philosophical terms, epistemologically it is sensible to treat rivers as such, even if they are nothing but a bundle of water molecules.
I think it is the same with groups in the philosophy of action. Groups behave often that way that the can be considered agents. They display behaviour that looks like the actions of individual persons: as if they have intentions, beliefs, desires and what more. Therefore I think that it makes sense to analyse them – or to analyse them also – from the intentional perspective, even if it is merely an epistemologically assumption and even if ontologically groups do not exist but only their members do. See it this way: We say that the team has won gold, although we give the medals to its individual members.