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.