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.