Monday, December 29, 2008

Making peace

When the end of the year comes by, people tend to look back. And they talk about peace. Especially then they do and especially politicians and leaders do. Why just they? And what do they bring? In the First World War, in 1914 during the first Christmas of this war, the soldiers wanted a truce, but the generals forbade it. However, on many places along the Western Front the soldiers stopped fighting and spontaneously fraternized with the “enemy” and celebrated Christmas with them. The generals and political leaders were afraid of peace, the soldiers weren’t. A truce and fraternization might have meant the end of the war.
This made me think of something that I have written many years ago in my philosophical diary, which I used for writing down casual remarks and ideas. It was a kind of blog avant la lettre, for blogs did not yet exist. To be exact, it was on September 9, 1988 that I wrote: “Peace is not something to be left to statesman”. In fact, it is not a very original statement. Most likely it weren’t my even own words that popped up in my mind. However, I am afraid that nothing has changed in the world since Christmas 1914 and also not since I noted this statement twenty years ago. Of course, much has changed in the world, but none of these changes have made this self-quotation false. For didn’t the fall of the Berlin Wall a year after I had written this, and didn’t all the developments that made this fall possible and that took place in those days confirm the truth of these words? For wasn’t the fall of Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War mainly the work of the long lasting silent (and often not so silent) nonviolent resistance of the common people in extended parts of Europe who simply didn’t agree with the policy of their leaders who were supposed to be statesman (but often weren’t)? And hasn’t laid this, what I have called elsewhere “underground resistance” (which actually is Václav Havel’s “living in truth”), the foundation for what seems to have become the start of a long lasting peace between most European nations and peoples?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Success ?!

Having finished an article, a book or a photo is one thing, being successful with it is something different. My joy of having completed a difficult piece of creativity was immediately followed by feelings of what might other people think about what I made, as I wrote in a blog lately. However, these are two different things. First there is a feeling, a kind of emotion. It is a mixture of joy followed by emptiness. The joy of “I have done it!”. And then, suddenly there is a hole within me. The feeling of nothing having to do.
When these feelings have fade away, questions pop up relating to the world around me, questions about success: Did I really do a good job? What might other people think about it? Do they even find it worth the effort to think about it? And when the joy and emptiness have gone, and the emptiness has been filled with new tasks, the question of success comes more and more to the fore: How has my creativity been received? Was I really so creative, as I had thought at first? However, success is not something absolute. Success is relative. Everybody defines his or her success in view of his or her relevant activities and what relevant others think about it. Seen that way, success is subjective. And is it really possible that success is objective? Success changes on the gulfs of the developments of history. Each generation has to interpret history anew. And what or who has been forgotten once can become a centre of attention later. And what or who was once considered an example of success, can fall into oblivion, while another star of success rises again. And so it may also happen with our pieces of creativity, if it does not sink into oblivion from the start. Is that why we are doing it for?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Visiting Florence

In one of his essays in his book about Montaigne, Philippe Desan writes how the library forms for many authors a way to accumulate knowledge and to organize it, while one can stay on the place where one is. It is a guide to the world. But for Montaigne his library is in the end not more than a starting place for all his voyages. Montaigne has travelled a lot. In France, of course, but also in Germany and from there to Italy. His diary of this journey is famous.
For me it is also often the case that my travels start in a library, be it my own library, be it in a university library or now also in the library of the Internet. I use these libraries as a start for the travels in my mind (as the readers of my blogs may already have noticed) or for my physical travels in Europe or sometimes in Japan. For my mental travels, books give me the guidelines that lead my thoughts. For my physical travels, they give me an impression where it might be interesting and where I should go, and how to organize it.When Montaigne travelled, he gave more attention to the people he met than to the landscapes he passed. Although landscapes are important when choosing my destinations and travelling around, I cannot help to look at people, too, and at their relics. I suppose it is my sociological past. And there is also another similarity between Montaigne and me. In his travel diary, Montaigne has written hardly any word about his visits to Florence. It is as if he has seen hardly anything of the beautiful art there, which was there also already in his time. Anyway, it did not impress him enough in order to write about it. I make always a photographic diary of my travels, and I have photos of nearly all bigger and smaller towns that I visited. But in Florence I took no picture at all.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Finished !

The joy of having finished an article, a book, a complicated photo! And then the feeling of emptiness of having nothing to do (as long as it lasts). And also the fear, for is there really anyone interested in my creativity? Is it really so good as I think? Will the reactions not be negative, or even worse, will my work not be ignored? As if it had fallen in a pit and nobody knows.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The price of freedom

When Eve and Adam ate from the apple in Paradise, they learned what freedom was but also what its limits are. In Paradise Eve and Adam were happy (I suppose), but not free. They could get everything they needed, but just for that reason they couldn’t choose. They simply got what they needed. However, there was one exception: the apple tree. When, urged by the snake, Eve picked an apple and ate from it, she made a substantial choice, and by doing this, she learned what it is to be free. And when Adam ate also a part of the apple, he had the same experience. But the consequence was that they were chased away from Paradise, and in this way Eve and Adam learned also what the limits are of being free and that freedom has a price.

Monday, November 24, 2008

On freedom and determination (2)

In my last blog, I distinguished two types of freedom: freedom as opposed to being limited and freedom as opposed to being determined. I want to call them external freedom and fundamental freedom. But is this all that we can say about it on the conceptual level? If we are fundamentally determined, I would say that we are externally determined as well (but is that really so?). But if we are fundamentally free, is our freedom then only limited by our external restrictions? From the point of view of action theory, this seems very unlikely. Action theory asks for the factors that makes that we act the way we do: for what reasons we make our choices or quasi-choices (I speak of quasi-choices, because I want to keep it open here, whether our choices are really our choices or whether we are fundamentally determined). Following the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, we can call these factors external, and then we are thinking of institutionalised practices, an order to do something (in an army, by a policeman), external circumstances that happen to take place (rain, a falling tree, and so on), and the like. But there are also factors that we can call internal, and then we can think of our motives, desires and intentions to do something. Actually, these internal factors are often not the consequences of our independent deliberations, but are in many cases steered by our psychological constitution, education, casual experiences and other inner determinants, which usually limit our free choice of them in some degree. In other words, our being free or being restricted is not only outside us (external freedom) but also within us (internal freedom). However, as von Wright remarked with right, the external and internal factors need not always to be separable in the individual case. It is quite well possible that some external factors have become internalised and that they influence our internal degree of freedom, just as our individual desires and intentions do.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On freedom and determination

I received several reactions on my blog “Freedom to act”, not only here, but also on another website where I publish my blogs. Some people said that freedom is not something absolute but that it is the feeling of the limitations of the possibility to choose. If we realize this, then we can be free within our limits. Such limits may be our financial means, our physical restrictions, the need to be considerate of other people and their freedom, and so on. I must admit that I started to write this blog about freedom as a kind of brainstorming for myself, not with the idea to write something original. In view of the reactions it was a good choice. Moreover, it helped me to distinguish between two kinds of freedom: freedom to act the way I would like as far it is possible in view of existing external limits, and freedom in the sense of: Are my choices really my own choices (given their limits) or are my choices determined in some way? When we think of the latter meaning of freedom, we come back to a question that I discussed some time ago: to what extent am I responsible for my actions? If we give freedom the first meaning, then, for instance, someone has the freedom to come to my house, if he likes, and to shoot me down (a reader gave me this example). That is his freedom, indeed, if he prefers to do that (I would certainly advice him not to do it, but it is his freedom to ignore my advice). But is the potential shooter also free to shoot me down in view of the second meaning of freedom? In other words, is he responsible for this action because it was his own choice or was he already in some way determined to do it and he couldn’t help? Suppose that the whole future development of the world and everything in it, in all its details, was already fixed when the big bang took place. Is this person then still free to shoot me down or is it a consequence of the laws of nature that he does? Happily, the person concerned told me also that he has no intention to execute the plan because of his moral objections, but does that make any difference when it has been determined by or during the big bang what will go on in the world from then on and for all eternity?
Here is yet a quote from the same reaction: “How many words does it take to make a difference to the way things are?” Maybe it has no sense to talk about it, for if we the world is determined, we simply do, because we have to, including doing this discussion about freedom.But is the world determined? I have no idea. As it was said in another reaction: “The free will problem might be the toughest philosophical problem”. I wonder whether until now any discussion has brought us much nearer to an answer. Our freedom is limited, that’s clear, but is our freedom determined? And to what extent? Wholly or partially? It is important to know this if we want to know whether we are responsible for our actions.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Who chooses?

What makes that I choose this and not that? Is it I who makes the choices or is there something in me that makes the choices for me? For example, a Cartesian homunculus? If it is I who makes the choices, who or what is this I? Alternatively, if there is a kind of homunculus in me that makes the choices for me, can I say then that I do not like the choice and refuse to execute it? Or am I forced in some way to execute it? In the first case there can be no homunculus that chooses for me, for in the end it is I who makes the choices. In the second case, I seem to be determined to follow the choices laid upon me, but what is then the difference between me and the homunculus? It is weird that there would be something in me that decides in my place, but sometimes I have the feeling that I do things that I do not want to do but that I am forced to do for an unclear reason like a puppet on a string.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Freedom to act

When am I free? I mean, when am I free to act, not only here and now but fundamentally? Let us say that I want to take the train to Utrecht but I do not have the money for it and I know that I’ll be stopped if I want to go into the train without a ticket. Does this mean that I am fundamentally not free to act? For everybody has wishes that he or she cannot realise. Must we say then that nobody is fundamentally free to act?On the other hand, let us suppose that I can do everything I want to do. Does that mean that I am fundamentally free to act? Isn’t it so that I am steered then by my wants? I mean, I want to do something and I can do it. Nobody will stop me. But what determines what I want to do and what determines the choice between wants that cannot be realised at the same time? Isn’t it so that having to choose involves limits of freedom? So, either I am limited because I have no choice but I simply follow the want that pop ups in me for some reason, or I am limited because I have to choose and can follow only some wants. Or is the freedom in the choice, even if this choice is limited? However, can a person be fundamentally free?

Monday, October 27, 2008

On translations

Sometimes I think that a translation gives me a text that has nothing in common with the original. For instance, for me Habermas in German and Habermas in English are two different philosophers. What would Habermas’s philosophy be like, if we would translate his works into Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, or Silozi? I mean into languages that have, unlike English and German, not any relation with German at all besides that they function as ways for expressing the contents of the mind? Could we in those languages still understand what it is all about?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Allowing and responsibility

The distinction between doing and allowing that I mentioned in my last blog applies also to the question of the limits of responsibility. To be more exact, doing refers to acting oneself, allowing refers to not preventing that another person performs an action or that something happens, especially if one considers the action of the other person as wrong or what happens as harmful. Here I am interested only in allowing other person’s actions, not in happenings.
Then, in what cases is it so that one is morally required not to allow what another person does, because one thinks that the other person’s action is wrong? I think, but I am not sure, that it is hardly possible to make general rules for solving this problem and that one must decide from case to case. At least two things are important, I guess. When we have been in the position that we allowed someone to perform a wrong action, although we could have prevented the action, I think that we have a certain responsibility anyway. But how much? In the end, allowing is a very wide concept. Whether we allow someone to perform a wrong action depends for example on the risks we have to take in order to prevent it, or what the social or legal rules say about such cases. Not intervening can be a matter of cowardice or not being interested but it is also possible that by intervening we risk our life. And in each case it is possible to speak of allowing, if one gives it a wide meaning. In the first examples, I would say that a person that did not intervene is also guilty in a certain sense of the wrong action, for this person had, what I would call, a “reasonable” possibility to intervene, at least in a certain degree, even though he did not do it. In the last example, I wouldn’t talk of guilt in any sense, for in most cases it is not reasonable to risk one life (or being hurt) in order to prevent a wrong action. But there is much room for interpretation and judgement here, and much depends on the concrete situation.A second factor that may have an influence on collective responsibility is whether and how much a wrong action by another person is advantageous to you. If it brings you an advantage, it increases also the need for indemnity for the victims of the wrong action if you have a certain collective responsibility for the action concerned, for example, although you were not personally involved in the action concerned.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Doing and allowing

Arendt defended, as we have seen, that a person can be guilty only of something he or she has actually done. So, a person can be held individually responsible for his or her own action. However, as Arendt also defended, we can have a collective responsibility for what we haven’t done, but what has been done by a member of our group. This difference between guilt (individual responsibility) and collective responsibility is useful, but in some ways and in practice it is often difficult to apply. On the one hand, how can we be held (collectively) responsible for something if we could have no influence at all on what other persons of our group did? It is a hot question as examples in politics show (the holocaust, Srebrenica). On the other hand, not having done an action does not automatically mean that we cannot be guilty of what happened. As far as I know, Arendt does not distinguish between doing and allowing. Most philosophers (including me) consider allowing also as an action. Then we can be guilty because of a wrong action that another person does, even if we did not take part in it. However, this guilt does not refer to the fact that the other person did something bad, but to the fact that we were in the situation that we could have prevented it: we can be guilty because we allowed what the another person did (on condition that we could do something in order to prevent it and that it was reasonable that we did; otherwise we cannot speak of allowance) and because allowing is also an action.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Power and the people

With the help of Hannah Arendt it is not difficult to see why nonviolent action can be so effective, for she wrote: “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (italics mine). Nonviolent action can be effective, because it is based on the concerted action of as many people as possible. But at the end of the quotation we see already also a weak point in nonviolent action, if not the weak point. This point becomes even clearer, when we read what Arendt writes next: “The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with …, disappears, [power] vanishes” (Hannah Arendt, On violence, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, enz., 1970; p. 44). Actually, when writing this passage, Arendt referred to the power of one man and how it is based on his supporting group. As we have seen last week, this characterization of power is fundamentally LaBoétian. Defining power this way is very exceptional among political scientists, who usually define it as something like the possibility to impose one’s will. However, it provides much insight in how power works. It makes clear, for example, that it is not enough to mobilize people in order to bring down an usurper. It is also necessary to keep the people mobilized or to keep them ready to be quickly mobilized in some way. This is one of the most difficult problems of nonviolent action, and not only of this type of action. For most people watch rather a football match on TV than step into the street for a demonstration. And every ruler knows.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On voluntary servitude

On August 25, I wrote in my blog that “it is easier to follow the stream that carries us along rather than take a moment for a break. It is easier to let other people think for us. It is easier not to oppose even if it might be wrong to give in”. Then I was thinking of our intellectual creativity and originality, our mental independence. However, one can give it also a political meaning. More than 400 years ago Étienne de La Boétie wrote a booklet with the title The discourse of voluntary servitude. In this treatise, which he wrote when he was still very young, he defended the thesis that we behave like the slaves of our rulers. La Boétie wondered how it is possible that so many people endure the whims and oppression of a tyrant and that hardly anybody opposes. La Boétie mentioned many reasons why people just do what the ruler desires, but in the end it is because of this: it is simply easier not to oppose and to behave oneself voluntarily like a slave. In short, the easiest way is to obey and to live in voluntary servitude.One can call this a naive idea, a too simple analysis of power, and in some respects it is, although one must see it in the context of his time (La Boétie implicitly criticised Machiavelli, for example). However, the idea is not as naive as one might think. Through the ages it has attracted many persons, and among them were not the most insignificant ones, like Rousseau. And since the rediscovery of the treatise in the 19th century, its central idea has been very influential and cannot be ignored any longer, unless one wants to say that leaders like Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have brought about nothing. For they have been demonstrably influenced by the idea of La Boétie, and they showed how important it can be to go against the stream and not to obey if the circumstances require.

Monday, September 22, 2008

On collective responsibility

In my blog last week, I talked about “collective responsibility”. Seen from the first person point of view, it refers to feeling myself responsible for what a person that I have a relation to has done, for instance for what a person of my group has done. Collective responsibility can also work in the other direction in the sense that I am held responsible by other persons for an action done by a person that I have a relation to. This can be quite problematic, for am I really responsible for an action done by a person that I don’t know but that happens to be a member of my group? An action that I even reject? Or take this. Often it is so that, for example when I am abroad and I do something good, people praise me, Henk. But when I do something bad, they say “that stupid Dutchman” instead of “that stupid Henk”. Can all the other Dutchmen really be blamed for what I did wrong?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Feeling guilt for what one hasn’t done

“There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them” (Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, Schocken Books, New York, 2003; p. 147).Sometimes a person we know did something bad, or a person of our group did something bad, and we did nothing to stop him or her doing it, even when we might have known that it would happen. Then we can feel guilty of the act. However, as Arendt explains, this is not right. For if you declare yourself guilty of something you didn’t personally, in the end everybody is guilty and that means that nobody is. Guilt is something personal for a personal act that one has done. It singles out, as Arendt says. However, this does not mean that we never have anything to do with what another person does. There is also a thing like responsibility, and actually that is what we mean in such cases. In order to distinguish this kind of responsibility from the responsibility for one’s own acts, one might call it “collective responsibility”, as Arendt does. Collective responsibility does not arise by being present on the place of the act but by having a relation to the actor. Being present when the act happens as such is not important. One knows the actor or belongs to the group of the actor, and it is this relation that is the reason that one is held responsible for the act or that one holds oneself responsible for it. However, one problem, which Arendt discusses only superficially, is when does one have a relation to a person and when not? It is true, some cases are clear, like in the case of an explicite group membership. Then one can escape possible collective responsibility only by leaving the group (a possibility that Arendt does discuss). But isn’t then there a kind of collective responsibility that goes back to the time that one still was a member of the group? And, on the other hand, aren’t we all citizens of the world in this time of globalisation? So, what are the limits of collective responsibility?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Voyage to Nagasaki

It is not philosophical, but if you want to read the story of my voyage to Nagasaki go then to

Monday, September 08, 2008

Philosophy and empirical research

Basically, philosophy investigates themes that cannot be investigated empirically, like themes in the field of ethics, methodology, ontology, politics, and so on. However, I do not think that this means that empiricism has to be avoided. Not only is it so that philosophy formulates the foundations of empirical research (like in methodology) but the use of empirical findings in philosophical discussions can also improve these discussions. Nevertheless, it often happens that philosophers ignore empirical results, sometimes with weird consequences. Take for example the discussion in analytical philosophy about personal identity. The mainstream view in this discussion is the so-called “psychological view”, which states that personal identity is merely a psychological characteristic of man, not a bodily characteristic or a mixture of both. It is as if we still live in the days of Descartes and Locke and as if psychological research and other empirical research haven’t shown that there is a narrow relation between mind and body. However, these research findings do not play any role at all in the discussion. The psychological view is simply proved by means of thought experiments. As such, I have nothing against thought experiments. They can be useful when real experiments are not possible, but they cannot replace real experiments. And what is evident for one philosopher needs not to be so for another philosopher. In the case of personal identity, the psychological view is generally “proved” with the help of thought experiments like this: The brain of person A is transplanted into the body of person B. Or, alternatively, person A is teletransported (like a telephone call, by way of speaking) to another part of the world or to another planet, while the body that is left behind is not destroyed. Or what kind of thought experiment one succeeds to devise. The problem in these cases is, however, that what needs to be proved is in fact already being supposed: that brain and body can be separated without fundamental consequences for the former (or for the mind) or the latter. And just this contradicts the findings of empirical research. However, as said, these findings are simply ignored by the defendants of the psychological view. It is simply taken as true that body and brain can be separated. But with the help of a false thesis everything can be proved, including a false conclusion. And that’s why the results of empirical research cannot be disregarded in a philosophical discussion, in case they exist.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Some thoughts about a quotation from Martha Nussbaum

“We should not take the absence of the word to be equivalent to the absence of thought” (Martha C. Nussbaum)
Once I wrote down this quotation from Martha Nussbaum but I do not know anymore where I can find it back in one of her books. Therefore, I do not know in what context she said this. However, when I read it again a few days ago, it raised immediately some thoughts within me, for since a long time already I am interested in language and its philosophical and psychological significance and I cannot remain neutral when I see an expression related to language.For many people, the content of this quotation is obvious: why shouldn’t we be able to think without using language? On the other hand, it has been thought for some time by outstanding philosophers that thinking and language are two sides of the same coin: there is no thinking without language and language implies already some way of thinking. As for the first side of the coin, I think that nobody today will deny that what an artist, a painter, a sculptor, a photographer etc. does is a way of thinking without words; that it is a kind of thinking with colour, forms, light or what means the artist uses. What the artist shows is the expression of his or her thinking in a non-linguistic way. As for the second side of the coin, once some scientists thought, to give an example, that using a word told us something about how we thought the world around us looks like. In the meantime, this view has become obsolete in the sense that there appears to be no one-one relation between a language and how the native speaker of this language sees the world. It would indeed be very odd if there was. It would be difficult to fit in new things in an existing language and world view, for example. It would make us too static when something new happened to us. It would also learning a new language with its own categories even more difficult than it already is. Despite such objections, I think that this thesis cannot be completely rejected. And here I defend a minority view. For although it is not so that our native language determines how we see the world, it does give us a first classification scheme, I think. Actually, our language is nothing else than the linguistic expression of our cognitive schema in the sense of Schank and Abelson. However, it is nothing more than that. It is a first guide for dividing the world in categories. But it is as with seeing colours: if we do not have a word for a certain shade of a colour, it does not mean that we do not and cannot see that colour. Under normal circumstances, we can already immediately give a preliminary description of that shade of colour, like reddish yellow, bluish green, and the like, until we have found a better word for it and until we have improved our classification of colour or what it is what we see and what we talk about.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The habit of thoughtlessness

“[D]on’t we all know how relatively easy it has always been to lose at least the habit, if not the faculty of thinking? Nothing more is needed than to live in constant distraction and never leave the company of others.” (Hannah Arendt, The life of the mind, Two p. 80)Thinking, for instance considering what to write in this blog, seems a very natural activity for man. Isn’t it so that we always think automatically? In a certain sense it is true but most of what we call thinking is following the stream of what we already do: The habit of taking care that our daily life runs smooth; reacting on the stimuli that come to us. But if we intentionally want to consider what to do, if we want to deviate from our daily routine, follow new roads, be creative and so on; in short, if we want to stop the stream of automatic thought, we must isolate ourselves from the world around us, from the world that contains so much that can distract us. However, it is easier to follow the stream that carries us along rather than take a moment for a break. It is easier to let other people think for us. It is easier not to oppose even if it might be wrong to give in. Being creative and original, being independent is not the easiest way. Is that the reason that many people have given it up already so long ago?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time as distance

According to Hannah Arendt, Henri Bergson first discovered that all words referring to time are words borrowed from spatial language. As Arendt quotes Bergson: “If we want to reflect on time, it is space that responds … [D]uration is always expressed as extension” (The life of the mind, Two p. 13). Or, as Arendt adds: “[W]e can measure time only by measuring spatial distances. Even the common distinction between spatial juxtaposition and temporal succession presupposes an extended space through which the succession must occur” (ibid.).
What Arendt quotes here about what Bergson discovered is exactly in line with a personal experience that I apply several times a week. As readers of my blogs may have noticed, running is one of my favourite sports. However, unlike many other runners, I have no particular routes where I make my runs. I run usually in the wood behind my house and I simply go with the idea to run, say, 45 minutes, choosing the paths during the run as my mood is and according to what I see. However, how long is 45 minutes? Already after less than 10 minutes, I have no idea anymore, how long ago it was that I left home. I experience this phenomenon even more when I do not run in my familiar wood but on an unknown road somewhere abroad, when I am on holiday. The solution I have found is this (and I do not suppose that it is unique): I know every path, every corner, every tree by way of speaking, in “my” wood. After all those years that I come there, I know also how much time it takes about to arrive at certain points on my runs there in the wood. Therefore, in a Bergsonian way, I simply translate my running time into distance and use the paths and places that I pass as marking points in order to guess how long I am already on the way, checking now and then on my watch (usually not before I am halfway) whether my guesses are right. This experience has made me realize already before I knew about Bergson’s time analysis that time as such cannot be measured and that it has to be translated into distance.

Monday, August 11, 2008

No news

When I wrote my blog on “the devil in our mind” two weeks ago, I was impressed by my recent experiences in Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Auschwitz and I wondered how people come that far that they do such cruel acts. The actual problem is not, I think, that there are people that deliberately are prepared to kill people. I mean, that is a problem, of course, but the real problem is that, although most men do not want to kill, they are prepared to do it if a “person with authority” demands it, as Stanley Milgram has shown in his famous study Obedience to Authority. Some people think “If that person tells me that I can do it, it must be okay”. In other cases, people know that what they do is not good, but they are in such a situation that they do not see a real possibility to avoid cruel or despised acts, unless they risk their lives. What I think is that if we have come that far, that people are in such a situation, something has gone wrong already long ago, and that the phase that violence can be prevented has already past. There are many reasons why it can come so far, but one reason is that preventive measures are often considered “soft”, which is the same as “not realistic”. War and violence are presented on the first pages of newspapers and stressed in the TV news and everybody knows about it, but who knows for example about the preventive actions of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ( Things that do not happen are not seen as news. However often this news is more important than the news of what did happen.

Monday, August 04, 2008

On friendship

Many people have tried to express the essence of friendship, but I think that nobody did it as well as Montaigne, when he thought of Étienne de La Boétie, his friend who had died several years before: “Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi” (Because it was he, because it was I). Friendship with a person is something that we do not have with hidden thoughts in the mind, it is not something we have for trying to get something else. Somebody is a friend for us and we are a friend for that person simply because of who that person is, his or her good sides, his or her bad sides. And that is what Montaigne expressed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The devil in our mind

It has been a heavy time in a certain sense: Nagasaki, a few days later Hiroshima, and then last week ─ the remembrances of the other human made calamities were still fresh ─ Auschwitz. In all these cases people who had no personal relation to the killers, who had no personal relation to the motives of the killers were killed. They were victims in the most objective sense.
Hannah Arendt spoke once of the “banality of evil”, in the sense that this evil did not come from a diabolic attitude but from a kind of thoughtlessness. If that is true, it means that everybody can have a devil in his or her mind. Most people are lucky that he does not come out, but nobody can guarantee that his or her devil will never escape.
Sometimes I wonder why so few people try to take the other person’s perspective before they act. Actually, this was the kind of thoughtlessness that Arendt was referring to in this context. The question is, of course, as Arendt puts it, whether “the activity of thinking as such [could] … be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it” (The life of the mind, p. 5). On the other hand, by taking the other person’s point of view, maybe they would realize that their own viewpoints are not as absolute as they think, and that there may also be some truth in the other person’s side. I do not want to say that this will make that the devil in our mind does not come out but I am convinced that it helps a bit.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Right, duty, and virtue

In his book on Gandhi’s philosophy, Parel writes: “Modern society … has placed its bets on rights rather than on virtue, which to Gandhi was a matter of deep concern. He wanted modern society to place equal emphasis on rights, duties, and virtue” (Anthony J. Parel, Gandhi’s philosophy and the quest for harmony, p. 98). Maybe that is the problem of present society: We ask too much but do not feel obliged to give.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Social problems cannot be solved as if they were technical problems

In my last blog I talked about the problem of double interpretation: each person has his or her own frame of reference for interpreting the world. This frame is also used for interpreting other persons, as we have seen there. Now it is so that if we see a problem, we often try to find a solution for it. For example, if we have a problem with our car, we bring it to a garage for having it repaired by a car mechanic. The knowledge the car mechanic has received at school and then through his or her experience forms the frame of reference that helps him or her to repair the car. For technical problems this kind of behaviour is rational and it works well. However, when we have a social problem to be solved, many policymakers like administrators, managers, parliamentarians, government ministers and so on who are involved in solving social problems think that it works the same way. What they forget then is that cars do not have brains with a frame of reference but that human beings do have and that these human beings use it for interpreting the world in their own way. For this reason, the solutions that policymakers make for social problems often fail. For what is a rational solution for a problem from the point of view of the policymaker need not to be so for the people for whom the solution has been made (the “objects” of the solution). The latter give the solution proposed often their own turn and execute it in their own way, which may be quite different from what the policymaker had imagined. Or the “objects” of the solution do not understand what the policymaker means with their measures. Or they simply try to use these measures for their own benefit, they evade them or they succeed to ignore them, or whatever they do. The result of all this is that proposed solutions for social problems often do not have the effects as thought of in advance, as long as social problems are simply treated as technical problems. For the people which are to be helped with a solution or are in one or another way involved in it are not objects like cars but they are subjects with their own frames of reference.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On prejudice

The problem with seeing the culture of another person is that one has always to see it through spectacles with glasses coloured by one’s own culture. One cannot remove these spectacles for then the picture will become blurred. The most one can do is changing the colour of the glasses, but the glasses will always have some colour. In philosophy we call this the problem of double interpretation. People interpret their own situation by means of their own frames of reference (what I called mind schemes in another blog). But people that are looking at them and that are maybe studying them have their own frames of reference. Usually both frames of reference do not automatically fit. Therefore, understanding other people involves the double act of understanding their understanding (finding out what the colour of their glasses is) and understanding one’s own understanding (finding out which colour the glasses in one’s own spectacles have). Often the first kind of understanding fails, which is the basis of prejudice (one thinks that all spectacles have glasses with the same colour and that the colour of the glasses is the colour of one’s own glasses). In analogy with a distinction made by Chalmers, one can call the first kind of understanding the hard problem, and the second kind the easy problem, although I must say that also understanding oneself can be a very hard job.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Can one desire without suffering?

“Peut-on désirer sans souffrir?” (Can one desire without suffering?). When I watched the French TV news lately, I heard that this was one of the themes for the final exam for philosophy for the French lyceum this year. I was intrigued by the subject, so I decided to write a blog about it. If the students that did the “bac philo” could write an essay about it, it should also be possible for me to write a less requiring blog.
Actually I was surprised by the theme. I would never get the idea that there would be a relation between desiring and suffering in the sense that desiring would necessarily bring suffering with it. I must say that I do not know much about Schopenhauer, so maybe I am wrong, but the theme makes a Schopenhauerian impression on me. It makes me also think of Goethe’s novel “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The sorrows of young Werther”). But for someone like me who came into touch with philosophy because of my interest for methodological problems and then for the philosophy of action, a relation between desiring and suffering is far from obvious. If one enters philosophy from that corner, a desire is simply one of the reasons that can make one act. It has nothing emotional in the sense implied the theme of the French bac philo. In the philosophy of action, desiring is more like a kind of technical term. It is one of the possible pro attitudes that can function as a reason in a practical syllogism that explains (or rather makes understood, as I would prefer to say) a person’s action, as for example Davidson has made clear. It is, in Davidsonian terms, a disposition to act, a psychological factor that makes one act under the appropriate circumstances. Well, and if I do not get what I desired then I give it up, usually without much emotion involved. Often it is as easy as that. For example:

I desire to take the train of 10h22 to Utrecht
I think that I can catch the train, if I leave my house 10 minutes before the scheduled arrival of the train at the railway station
Therefore I leave my house at 10u12 and walk to the railway station

But what if I meet a friend halfway? Well, I stop and have a chat with him and I take the next train, 15 minutes later. I can do that without any grain of suffering, for example, when I am going to the library in Utrecht and I do not have an appointment there. Even more, I had the pleasure of meeting my friend, which I hadn’t seen for some time. Of course, everything depends on definition in this case, and one might give “desire” another meaning. And one’s conclusion will also depend on the meaning given to “suffering”. However, seen from the viewpoint just presented, I would say: Desiring does not exclude suffering because of this desire (in case the desire cannot be reached), but desiring does not necessarily bring suffering with it. Desiring without suffering is quite well possible. Even more, it is the normal situation.

Monday, June 23, 2008

On travelling (3)

Actually, the way I described travelling in my blog of May 26 (2008) gives a very narrow view of it. It is travelling as tourists do. I knew that, of course, but I realized it fully when I read Peter Sloterdijk’s passage about it in his Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals, last week. Travelling as I defined it is a rather new phenomenon. Before the Renaissance, usually it was so that people went on a trip because they had a purpose: they wanted to visit someone, they were moving around because they were trading, they needed goods, they had to go somewhere, they were soldiers, or who knows for what reasons they travelled. There was what we could call an external reason for it. Since then a new kind of travelling has come into being: travelling without an external reason, but for the sake of travelling as such. We can call this travelling for an internal reason. This kind of travelling is done only in order to be able to see unusual or new things and maybe later be able to tell about it (cf Sloterdijk p. 65) or, in the modern way, to show one’s photos or video of the trip to family and friends. Essentially, it is done for the experience of travelling. Even simple relaxing cannot be called an aim of tourism, for the moving around that is called travelling is often quite tiring if not exhausting. Maybe, during the trip one feels relaxed, far away from the daily activities, but once back home often one feels tired for the first couple of days, or how long that may be, and one feels sometimes even the need to take a holiday, by way of speaking. Tourism is hard labour in a certain sense.The famous journey made by Montaigne was a kind of tourism in the modern sense. Montaigne enjoyed it for its own sake, it seems, and he was open to many new experiences, as we notice, when we read his travel diary. But in some respects it wasn’t tourism. Montaigne had a medical purpose for his journey: visiting medicinal springs, hoping that he would be cured of his problem of kidney stones. It is true, he wrote (or dictated) a diary of his trip, but he did not publish it, although he used experiences from his trip when writing his essays. But even if Montaigne’s journey can be called a kind of tourism, the modern mass tourism was yet far away.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Words and knowledge

When I just had finished my last blog, I happened to read Martha Nussbaum’s “ ‘Where the dark feelings held sway’. Running to music”. Actually, I started to read it not because I was interested in what she said about the relation between intellectual knowledge and practical knowledge, but in what she said about running. However, her ideas there appeared to agree well with what I had expressed in my last blog. Nussbaum calls “the tendency that all intelligence is essentially linguistic” language imperialism. There are, according to Nussbaum, different ways to express what one thinks, ways different from language: visual art, gesture, dance, music. When I make a photo, I do that because this photo “says” what I want to tell in a way that is different from when I would write an essay describing what is on the photo. The essay can tell “exactly” what is on the photo, and still it is different. Or sometimes it happens to me that I want to say something, but I cannot find the words. I get the feeling that I must make a gesture, and then, suddenly as it seems, I know what I mean. The thought pops up, by way of speaking. Must I say then that the proposition that describes my gesture would do as well? If we describe a non-linguistic expression in words, we must not forget, as Nussbaum maintains, that these words are a translation, not a faithful replication. It is a bit like a translation from one language into another one, I would say: the translation may look verbal, but how often doesn’t it happen that we have the feeling that the translation is actually not exactly like the original. Some linguistic meanings are impossible to translate from one language into another one. This must be the more the case, when we try to translate meanings from other realms of knowledge into linguistic knowledge.And then we are back to running. “The body has its own ways of perceiving the world” (Nussbaum). And it is not only a matter of perceiving the world; I would rather talk of experiencing the world. But in the end it is as simple as this: I know how to run but I cannot say how I do it. I just do. It would be absurd to say that here is no knowledge only because it cannot be expressed in words (cf Nussbaum’s article).

Monday, June 09, 2008

Propositional knowledge

In his The concept of mind, Gilbert Ryle developed the distinction between knowing how and knowing that. The first concept refers to our intellectual knowledge, our rationally knowing; the second concept refers to our practical knowledge, our knowledge of the way how to do something. In a former blog I spoke of mind knowledge and body knowledge in order to distinguish both. Recently, some philosophers, like Stanley and Williamson (in “Knowing how”), have argued that knowing how is a kind of propositional knowledge, which actually is nothing else than reducing knowing how to knowing that. The mistake here is that such philosophers think that, anyhow, all knowledge is mind knowledge, or, saying it differently, that all knowledge is rational thinking in some way and that all knowledge can be related to some form of knowledge that we have in our minds. What these philosophers take no notice of is that the knowing body is more than simply the brain and its intellectual counterpart the mind. Many other parts of our body have and can develop some sort of knowledge in the sense that they know when and how to behave in the appropriate circumstances and that they can learn so that later they can behave better. My legs have learned and know what to do when I stumble in order to prevent that I fall; my arm knows how to take a cup, when it receives a sign from my brains to do that; and when my finger is bleeding, usually the wound is repaired without that I have to think about what to do, often even without applying a bandage. These are all kinds of knowing how on a different level of complexity and learning ability. In other words, knowledge has many forms, and only some of these forms are intellectual in the sense that they are in the mind and can be formulated with the help of propositions.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Gardening is philosophizing

Some people find gardening boring. They think only of the weeds that disturb the plan and structure that they have made or want to make of the piece of soil that they call their garden. However, there is also another way of looking at this same piece of soil. Take for example the weeds that I just mentioned. It is true, there is something in a garden that we call weeds, which are nothing more than plants that do not grow on what we consider their proper places or that we do not want to have in our garden at all. Actually, there are no weeds; there is only something that we call weeds.When I walk through my garden I look here and there and sometimes I see a plant that I categorize as weed and so I remove it. But am I weeding by doing this? No, what other people call weeding is simply a casual act for me. When I walk through my garden, I look at the plants and watch how they grow. I look at the plan and structure of my piece of soil. I look at what grows and what fades away, and while doing that my hand is moving to a plant that does not grow on its proper place, which means that it does not grow on the place where I want to have it or that I do not want to have this plant in my garden at all. Or I see a plant called “weed” and I do nothing. As such I do not find weeds so important. The image of the whole is what counts, and if it is important from the respect of the view of the whole and the relation between part and whole to remove a plant, well, than my hand moves to that plant and removes it. We could call that weeding, but it is weeding of a different kind. It is not a task or an effort, in the sense of being a burden for me, but this “weeding” is here nothing else than making the parts fit together. In that sense there is no difference between gardening and philosophizing. When I am philosophizing, and I have built up and elaborated an idea and I have written it down, usually, on a second reading, it happens that I find a word, a sentence, a partial thought that was to be expected to fit in the whole but that appears to be like weeds in my garden. It has to be removed and if possible it has to make room for one or more ideas that fit better there. But this weeding is not a kind of boring job that I would rather have done by someone else. No, it is an act of completing my basic idea that I have elaborated and it is an act of taking care that the whole fits harmoniously together. And just that is also what we do when we are weeding in a garden.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On travelling (2)

Travelling is moving through another world without participating in it but experiencing it from the outside. A traveller does not really belong to the world where he or she moves. It can be compared with playing, insofar one does it for the joy of doing it but does not take it seriously. However, in a certain sense it is not true that travelling is a thing besides the world. Nothing is inhuman what humans do and this is also true for travelling. Travelling is a part of the real life, both for the traveller and for those persons in the travelled world that, for instance, get an income from the travelling of other people or that have in another sense a certain relation with the traveller. Travelling is simply a fact of life. And where does simply moving to another place end and does travelling begin?Travelling needs not to be physical but can also take place in the mind. The quality of physical travelling improves if it takes place with an attentive mind, but how many people travel not only with their legs and brains but also with their minds?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On returning

When I move to the other end of the world, the centre of the world moves with me. And when I go back home, I am sure that the centre of the world will go back home with me again. But before that time has come, how difficult it is to understand that the daily routine will come back then. How far away “normal” life is during the time that you are still in the country you are visiting. That is the similarity between leaving and returning: In a certain sense before leaving and before returning there is no future.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

On travelling

Normally it is so that when I look to the future there are many things that I have planned to do or that I expect that will happen. Of course, it is not so that everything happens as I thought that it would happen, but I have clear expectations about it. One can say that the future is real for me and that there exists a future for me in a psychological way. How different everything is however, when I have planned a journey. When the date of the travel comes near, it is as if the future stops at the day of my departure. This is not only so when I want to make an unplanned journey, as I often do; a journey in which I have only a vague idea about the region I want to visit, and where I decide what to do when I am there and from day to day. No, the future stops also when I have decided to make a planned journey and when I know beforehand in which hotels I’ll sleep, which routes I’ll follow, and more or less which places and sites I am going to visit. Also then the future stops at the day that I have planned to leave and what comes then is a kind of nothing, as if the world stops turning around. Is that also the feeling that a person has who has been sentenced to death and knows the date of his execution?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Development and happiness

What de Certeau also says is that “Every society as a whole learns that happiness cannot be equated with development” (Culture in the plural, p. 17). But doesn’t this implicitly suppose a very narrow meaning of “development”? Isn’t it so that we tend to interpret this quotation as if “development” means economic development? Actually it should have been so that in the first place we talk of development just if we mean something that makes us happy. This does not exclude economic development, of course, for everybody knows that economic development can make us happier, and economic development that brings us above a certain basic level surely does. However, everybody knows also about the saying “money does not make happy”. Therefore we cannot say that the more economic development there is, the happier we are. For if that would be true, we simply needed to work harder and harder and we would be in the highest state of happiness at the moment that we died because of our working so hard.

Monday, April 21, 2008

De Certeau on violence

Michel de Certeau writes: “What is true is that violence indicates a necessary change” (Culture in the plural, p. 36). What is not true is that such a change needs violence. It is not so that de Certeau says that change needs violence, or at least that some changes do, but his mystifying language does not make clear what he really means here and it actually both suggests that change needs violence and that it needs to be reached by political means. This makes me think of a saying by Mark Kurlansky. Many people, anyway too many, glorify violence. Other people find it acceptable but, as Kurlansky says: “War is always more popular with those who don’t experience it” (Nonviolence, p. 141). I want to say that the same is true for violence in general.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Personal identity (22)

On April 30, 2007, I wrote: “When ‘I’ stumble, is it then I who stumbles or is it my body that stumbles?” Now we can ask: Is it then my mind scheme that has failed or is it that my body scheme has failed? I do not refer to the fact that I am about to fall, for that problem is usually solved in an adequate way by a perfect co-operation of my mind scheme and my body scheme. But what is it that had had to take attention to that branch, while I am running, so that I could go on smoothly instead of stumbling over it? Was it my mind scheme that had had to take attention to everything that is in my way (in co-operation with the senses), or is it my body scheme that has failed to give attention to my environment, for instance like when I am driving a car safely, while I am thinking about everything but driving?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Body scheme

Schank and Abelson developed the idea that we have a scheme in our head that organizes the way we see the world and that we use in order to interpret the world. It is a kind of abstract knowledge structure in which we try to fit what we perceive. Referring to my last blog, we can call the knowledge that my body has when it knows how to run “body knowledge”. Then we can call the knowledge that I intellectually have about my running (and that I can write down in a book or article) “mind knowledge”. When people talk about knowledge, they usually mean mind knowledge, but body knowledge is also a real kind of knowledge that we need when we want to act. Some philosophers talked in this case of knowing how and distinguished it from knowledge that, which I have called mind knowledge. If it is so that our mind knowledge is ordered in a scheme that we use for interpreting the world, it is not unlikely that such a scheme also exists for our body knowledge, a kind of body scheme that organizes the knowledge of the body about the world and where the body tries to fit in new experiences about the world and that it uses for acting. But as Gallagher has shown, it is impossible to separate the mental part from a person’s bodily part, and actually both schemes are only different sides of the same scheme (cf. my blog of June 18, 2007).

Monday, March 31, 2008

Running and my body

When I run in the wood behind my house, I can think about many things. Usually it is so that during the first 20 minutes or so I am thinking about what I have done just before I left my house, if it required much concentration, or about other things that occupy me. But gradually these thoughts fade away and my thoughts are about nothing. Or rather that is not true. My thoughts are about my running. About the feelings in my body. And shall I take this path or that? Listen, a raven, it’s new in this wood. Or, in late winter and spring: this bird has come back, that bird has come back. Take care, a hole, don’t fall. A branch on the soil. Let me go faster, let me go slower. Let me make a sprint, let me walk a little bit, and so on. But there is one thing I cannot think about: my running itself, I mean the movements of my legs and feet and of the whole body that supports them. How must I move my left feet when I move my right feet forward? How must I move in order to avoid a sprained ankle, when I step suddenly in a hole that I hadn’t seen? What to do when I slip away? And so on, and so on. I am running and my body is moving. I meet many obstacles, and I avoid them. But I never think about what to do in detail. I simply do, and I never fall. And even more, should I really try to think about what I have to do with my left leg, with my right leg, with my body, I am sure that I would do it in the wrong way and that I would fall. No, it is better not to think about it. Or rather, that’s no correct. My brain must not think about it. Let my body do it, my experienced mover. If I would think about my running, I could not run, but my body, my legs and feet know everything about my running and they think for me by way of speaking. Just as Merleau-Ponty described it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Subject-object division

In another sense than Popper explained, there are two kinds of worlds in which we live: The world of objects which would exist even if we did not exist and even when there were no other (human) beings that could give it a certain meaning, and the world as it is for us, for the human beings that we are. This implies that there are two kinds of subject-object divisions. (1) On the one hand we have the division between the subject that we are and the objects of the physical world around us and from which are physically separated. We could call it the ontological subject-object division. (2) On the other hand we have the division between the interpreting and knowing subject that we are and the fundamentally interpreted objects around us. These objects exist only for us, because we see them and we can see them only because they fit, in one sense or another, how minimal that may be, in our scheme of interpretation (“scheme” in the sense of Schank and Abelson). We could call it the epistemological subject-object division.These fundamentally interpreted objects of the epistemological subject-object division can be divided into (2a) objects that are only interpreted by us and (2b) objects that give themselves an interpretation (“human beings”). We can interpret (“explain”) these self-interpreting objects only by taking part in their self-interpretations. The subject-object divisions in the sense of 2a and 2b are fundamental for science. Nowadays, the subject-object division between subjects and self-interpreting objects (or subject-objects, as Apel called them) is widely recognized, but hardly any investigator of man and his or her institutions takes it seriously in practice.

Monday, March 17, 2008

About the subjectivity of the world

In my last contribution to this blog I suggested that the world is different for different people, and that the world is subjective in this sense. Actually, it would be strange if this weren’t so. For isn’t it so that everybody has a different place in this world, and that from each point of view the world looks different? Physically, there can be no two persons on exactly the same place. Psychologically, each person has different experiences; even identical twins have. Therefore, each person is existentially different, and no two persons can have exactly the same view on the world. But is there a view point that we should prefer? Maybe there is, but also our selection criteria will be fundamentally subjective. In the same way as I reasoned that there are no objective view points, we can also reason that it is impossible to find objective criteria. Therefore I have to conclude: There simply is no absolutely best point of view. There are only better and worse points of view for looking at the world. So, from a human point of view the world is subjective. That is so whether we think of the physical world (Popper’s World 1), the world of the ideas we have about the world around us (or what Popper called World 2), or the world of ideas as such, independent of the persons who think them (Popper’s World 3). However, this does not imply that we cannot give at least to the physical world another, non-subjective, i.e. objective, sense. But this non-subjective or rather objective sense has nothing human. It is related to the fact (supposing that it is a fact) that there is a world independent of our existence. I do not want to suggest that this world wouldn’t be there if we weren’t there. It would be stupid to suggest that the world as such is dependent on our presence and that there would not have been a world during the times that there were no human beings to interpret it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Roads to philosophy

When I say that I am a philosopher, many people think that I have always been a philosopher. However, actually that is not so. It’s true, I have always had some ideas and asked questions that might be considered “philosophical”. One thing that has intrigued me when I was a child is, for example: Do all people see colours in the same way as I do? One can read this question as a physical question and in a certain sense it is. But it is also a philosophical question, for if the answer is “no” (and I found that answer likely), one consequence is that the world is different for different people and that there is not one unique interpretation for the world that is the same for all people. In other words, an objective word, an objective reality does not exist in that case. There is only a world, a reality, that is subjective, i.e. one that depends on the person who is looking at it. I do not want to say that I reasoned as far when I was a child. But the foundation had been laid.However, when time had come to go to the university, I wasn’t interested in studying philosophy at all. Even more, I did not follow the philosophy courses of my study program because I did not find them interesting and they were not compulsory. But soon I met questions that did not have a sociological, psychological, physical etc. answer. They could be answered only by discussing them from a philosophical view point (insofar as they could be answered at all, of course). And so I became gradually interested in philosophy; and so I found the road to philosophy. Or rather, I must say that I found a road to philosophy, my road to philosophy. For it is possible, for instance, that one is already so interested in philosophy, that one studies it on the university from the start. Or one does not follow an “official road” to philosophy, one doesn’t follow courses, but life itself makes one ask philosophical questions and develop philosophical attitudes. And so on. In fact, there are many roads to philosophy. It is impossible to show them all, but here are a few of them: .

Monday, March 03, 2008

I act, therefore I am

Man is a thinking being, that is true. Although I disagree with Descartes about the relation between my being and my thinking, I agree with him that we have to think. I have explained that in my last blog. Descartes saw this thinking of mine as the foundation of my existence, as an Archimedean point that grounds my existence and from where my existence starts. But can my existence, my being, really start from there? Not if we see my existence as a precondition of my thinking, as I do. This does not mean, however, that I see my existence as an Archimedean point. It cannot be, if we realize that I have always to take care that my existence continues to exist. In concrete words: I have to do something in order to stay alive. I have to eat, to drink, to take care of my health and to do many other things in order to make that my existence continues. And I can have many ideas about how the world and I have been made up and what the my foundation is, in the end it doesn’t feed me. In other words, for being able to think, I have to do so something, to act, in order to stay alive and to make my thinking possible. And if there is an Archimedean point of my existence, it would be this: the fact that I have to act, because I am in this world, i.e. exist. And that is in my view what Wittgenstein meant, when he wrote: “Die Begründung aber, die Rechtfertigung der Evidenz kommt zu einem Ende; – das Ende aber ist nicht, daß uns gewisse Sätze unmittelbar als wahr einleuchten, also eine Art Sehen unsrerseits, sondern unser Handeln, welches am Grunde des Sprachspiels liegt” [However, the foundation, the justification of the obviousness comes to an end;but the end is not that certain sentences become immediately clear to us, so it is not a kind of seeing by us, but it is our acting, which forms the foundation of our language game”] (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Über Gewißheit, 204).

Monday, February 25, 2008

I am, therefore I think

In his Meditations, Descartes defended the thesis “Cogito ergo sum” ,”I think, therefore I am”, and reasoned that mind and matter are two different things. However, isn’t it the wrong order, I think, therefore I am? For if I wouldn’t be, I couldn’t think, for a non existing thinking being is impossible. Thinking is only possible for me if I exist and if this existing of me has developed that way that the existing being that I am can think. Therefore, my existing is a precondition for my thinking. For this reason it is not correct to say “Cogito ergo sum”, but rather one should say “Sum ergo cogito”, “I am, therefore I think”. But then it is not so that there is a thinking that happens to be my thinking, but my thinking is a consequence of my being as it happens to have developed. And this has consequences for my thinking, for my thinking cannot be separate of my being, as Descartes reasoned, but it is an inextricable part of my being, whatever that may involve.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A passport to the world

When people ask me what the best way for learning a language is, I always say: live in a country where the language is spoken. However, for most people that is not possible. They can spend their holidays there at most. Then my answer is: practice the language you want to learn, if so that you do not have the feeling that you are studying, but that using it has become a part of your life. And so it is for me. I learn languages, because it is better to read a book in the original language. I learn them by watching foreign TV channels for the news, since I want to know what is happening from the first hand, but also since it is an interesting way to learn about a country. I learn them by writing letters and e-mails to people in others countries. I learn them, because I use them on holiday abroad. It is true, I learn them, because I like them and because I am interested in languages. But the most positive of all this is that now I do not know only a good couple of languages, but that every day new worlds are opened to me. Languages give me a direct entrance to areas that were once closed to me because they are means of communication, but in addition they give me new experiences because they are reflexions of other ways of life: Learning languages has given me a passport to new cultural worlds. And that’s the most important what language learning means to me.

Monday, February 11, 2008

About a saying of Bart de Ligt

Karl Marx called violence the midwife of a new social order. In a certain sense this is not incorrect. I mean, where violence is used, change takes place, and where much violence is used big chances take place in a society. If the changes are big enough, we call it a revolution. But is it that what Marx meant to express? I think that Marx meant something different. He wanted to say that violence is the first step, or at least a first step we have to take on our road to a better society. But if we look around us, where do we find a better society that came about by a violent revolution? Most or at least the most important so-called revolutions that came about by violence did not end in a better society but in repression and a Thermidor. On the other hand, other social changes, if not many social changes, in other societies took place in a nonviolent way. I do not want to say that such changes have led to an ideal society. Far from that. As long as man is not an ideal being with an ideal character, society cannot be ideal. But many societies became better by relying on nonviolent means for opposing suppression, violence and the attack on democratic institutions. The Philippines, Serbia, Georgia are only a few examples of countries where recently nonviolent change had positive results. Rather than supporting the idea that violence is the midwife of a new society, these social changes endorse the idea of that Dutch peace activist and peace researcher Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) expressed when he said “The more violence, the less revolution”. Isn’t it just that, the violence, what made that so many so-called revolutions failed in the end?

Monday, February 04, 2008


Read in a newspaper report: "The explosive growth of scientific literature on the Internet makes plagiarizing and duplicating one’s own work (self-plagiarism) easier and easier".
I do not understand this sentence, for what is self-plagiarism? It sounds as if it is possible to steal one’s own thoughts. Is it so that I have to give account for a thought that I once had and that I use again, for the simple reason that I repeat it? Not for the fact that it is a thought that can cause damage to other people, that is disgusting, or that nobody understands, or something like that. No, this quotation suggests that I have to give account of a thought of my own for the simple fact that it has once been expressed or written down, independent of the fact that it is I myself who has expressed or written it. What a stupid idea. It looks as if I am not allowed to repeat myself without consent and that there is an independent body that can prescribe what I am allowed to say twice (for example the publisher of a journal or book where I had written down my thought for the first time?). Isn’t that the end of freedom? Isn’t the word self-plagiarism a contradiction in terms?

Monday, January 28, 2008

The essence of terrorism

The essence of terrorism is not that it kills people (which it does in a terrible way), but that it attacks the mental environment of people. Everybody can become a victim of terrorism, and it is very difficult to protect yourself against it. It can happen everywhere and at every moment, even there or just there where you once thought to be safe. Or at least, so it feels.
In order to try to prevent terrorist attacks, measures are taken by the state that are totalitarian in the sense that they intrude into the private lives of people and that by this they try to control the private lives of them. From the state point of view, every individual becomes a potential terrorist. By means of the salami method privacy is limited again and again and just because it is done gradually, everybody accepts it and the danger of it is not seen. Each measure against terrorism appears to have sense in itself but each measure is a step in the direction of a totalitarian control of the lives of the citizens, not purposefully but in its effect. In this indirect way, terrorism kills the mental environment of people and so a whole way of life. That’s the essence of terrorism.

Monday, January 21, 2008


The outburst of enthusiasm while the echoes of the last tones of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto are dying away or when Manrico’s expression of dismay has ended in a high C in the aria "Di quella pira" in Verdi’s "Il Trovatore"…. Often I have the impression that the audience applauds as much for the brilliant composition as for the brilliant performance.

Monday, January 14, 2008

On my blog

My blog is a philosophical commentary on my thoughts. My thoughts are a philosophical commentary on what I read. But what makes that I have read just these books and not a selection of all those other books in the world? When I look around in my study and I see my books, there must be a reason that I have chosen to buy them. Maybe it is so that my library is a reflection of my mind? For why else should I have chosen these books and not those that do not have a relation to me now, but that I might also have found interesting in case I should have read them? And why did I even have the propensity to read? Why is reading so important for me? There are so many people in the world who seldom read a book. This makes me think of what Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote in a letter to his publisher Ludwig von Vicker: "Ein Buch, auch when es ganz und gar ehrlich geschrieben ist, ist immer von nur einem Standpunkt aus wertlos: denn eigentlich brauchte niemand ein Buch schreiben weil es auf der Welt ganz andere Dinge zu tun giebt" ("A book, even when it has been written in a completely honest way, is always without value seen from one point of view: in fact, nobody had to write a book, because there are so many other things to do in the world"). Doesn’t this apply also to my reading and even more so also to my blog?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Killing a man because of his convictions

"Tuer un homme, ce n’est pas défendre une doctrine, c’est tuer un homme" ("Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man") (Sebastian Castellio, 1515-1563). When Castellio said these words he criticized Calvin who justified the burning on the stake of Michael Servet because of heresy. However, this statement has lost nothing of its value since then and it is very relevant to our times. When one looks around in the world, it still happens very often that people are killed because of or in the name of a religious belief or a political doctrine. If one thinks of religion, one need only think of the suicide attacks by Muslim fundamentalists; the murders of doctors who have performed abortions by fanatical Christians in the United States; or the killings of Muslims by zealous Hindus in India. And are the tortures by American soldiers in Iraq of a different kind? Or what to think of Guantanamo? Isn´t it so that the human rights apply to everybody, also to whom you don´t agree with, how extreme the differences between you and your opponent may be? Isn’t that the essence of human rights? Here also a word by Montaigne is applicable: "N’y avoir qu’une justice", there is only one justice.