Monday, February 23, 2009

Praising the one who deserves it

In my last blog, I doubted whether still something new is said in the field of the philosophy of action after so many years of discussion. I think that for most publications my statement is true. However, sometimes it seems to happen that a new flower blooms in this field. Is it surprising that this flower was brought there from the garden of experimental philosophy? Take this. Someone does an action, say A establishes a company. The company has detrimental side effects on the environment. Another person, B, establishes also a company and this company has positive side effects on the environment. Both A and B care only for the profitability of their companies and both know about the side effects, but they are not interested in them. Then it is so, as Joshua Knobe found out, that usually people say that A hurt the environment intentionally, while they do not say that B helped the environment intentionally. Why this difference? For in both cases the actors had the same moral attitude towards the side effects and one could say that the side effects were symmetrical. If this is so and if it is also so that the person who is blamed for the negative side effects of his or her actions is rightly done so, then I must conclude that on the other hand often people do not receive the appreciation they deserve for what they do well. But must I really be praised for something that I have done intentionally from the philosophical point of view but that I had no intention to do?

Monday, February 16, 2009

A comment on action philosophy

Sometimes it is said: everything that is written now in philosophy is not more than a comment on Kant. Is it true? I doubt it. Take for example this: what did Kant write on the philosophy of action? If the philosophy of action was merely a comment on Kant, and every piece of writing in the field of analytical philosophy would be, would it have then any sense to make a distinction between continental philosophy and analytical philosophy? For then analytical philosophy could also be classified as a kind of continental philosophy. If the present philosophy of action could be classified as a “comment on” at all, I would classify it as a comment on Aristotle. For wasn’t it Aristotle who has laid the foundation of action theory?
There is much to be said for the idea that action philosophers are annotators of Aristotle. Take for example the late brilliant philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright. His Explanation and Understanding has been a philosophical master piece, but the foundation of this book consisted of Aristotelian concepts and ideas and from that point of view you can call this work an annotation of Aristotle. You can also see my own work so, although in an indirect way, in case you classify it as a comment on von Wright. But have such classifications sense? For why do we distinguish then, for example, between an Aristotelian approach and a Humean approach in the philosophy of action?
This being said, I think that there is some truth in it that the present philosophy of action is a comment on something else, albeit not simply on Kant or Aristotle. For if I read “new” work in the present philosophy of action, then I think often: “Hasn’t the author read the classics? What he or she says has already been said some time ago although it is presented as something new.”Today, actually hardly anything new is presented in this field of philosophy. And if it is new, it contains only some new applications to new areas. In this way, one can say that most new work in the field of action philosophy has nothing new but it is merely a comment on what has already been written before. Indeed, it is difficult to write a book or an article here that is more than a collection of footnotes or an elaboration of details in a discussion that has been going on for already so many years.

Monday, February 09, 2009

On torture

“The putting men to the rack is a dangerous invention, and seems to be rather a trial of patience than of truth. Both he who has the fortitude to endure it conceals the truth, and he who has not: for why should pain sooner make me confess what really is, than force me to say what is not? And, on the contrary, if he who is not guilty of that whereof he is accused, has the courage to undergo those torments, why should not he who is guilty have the same, so fair a reward as life being in his prospect?” (Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), Essays, II-5)
Through the ages people who had been accused of a crime have often been tortured in order to make them confess; or people were tortured in order to make them tell secrets which they might know. Montaigne, who has been a judge in Bordeaux, knew everything about it, but he was clearly against this practice. It was ineffective and he had an aversion to it.
One might think that in the Western countries, which consider themselves enlightened and civilized, this cruel practice, which is against all values they defend, might have gone. However, nothing less is true. Even today, the country that says to stand for the highest values of humanity and democracy seems to think not be able to do without this cruelty, and in order to avoid the application of its own high judicial standards on its own soil, the practice of torturing was done outside its borders in an odd corner of the world: Guantanamo, approved by its highest representative: the president.
However, happily the times do change sometimes. It is true, the expectations of what the new president will bring about are so high, that it will be difficult for him to meet them. But one thing is clear: he takes the values where his country stands for seriously and his first step in office was to start the procedure to close Guantanamo. I do not know whether president Obama has heard of Montaigne and whether he knows what Montaigne has written on torture, but there is one thing he surely knows: torture is not only against all values of humanity, but you simply do not do it for it is a humiliation of yourself and all values you stand for, even if it would be effective and Montaigne was wrong as for this.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The influence of books

Books can have much influence on life, culture and politics, and who knows what more. The influence of religious books is very well known. Or take the influence of the philosophical works by Plato, Aristotle and Descartes, works of science by Newton or Darwin. And so I can go on. The row is endless, and most people can mention a few, or when we mention a title they say “Oh yes, of course”. Yet sometimes a book has been very influential and hardly anybody has heard of it or of the author. Such a work is the Discourse on voluntary servitude by Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563). Only when you ask people in France, there will be a good chance that they know the man and his booklet. Especially since a few years, in France the interest in La Boétie is growing, and when I was in a bookshop in Lille not so long ago, I counted there even four different editions next to one another. But also in France many people do not know about the important influence of the Discourse on popular resistance everywhere in the world, especially on nonviolent resistance.
When exactly the booklet (it has only about 50 pages) has been written not sure. It must have been in or just before 1548, and later La Boétie seems to have made yet some changes in it. In essence it defends the thesis that a ruler can only rule, because his objects are prepared to obey him. Moreover, La Boétie describes the mechanisms how the ruler can make that the subjects are prepared to obey.
After his premature death at the age of only 32, the book was picked up by the Protestants during the religious civil wars in France, where they used it for justifying their struggle against the French roman-catholic kings. When these wars had come to an end and France had been pacified, the Discourse was almost forgotten, although now and then we see that it came back from the depth of obscurity. The influence on Rousseau’s thinking is striking, for example.
The first real reappearance took place in the French Revolution, when it was quoted by several revolutionaries. And since the publication of a new edition by Lamennais in the midst of the 19th century, the advance of the Discourse could not be stopped anymore. Since then every ten years at least one new French edition has seen the light, not counting the editions in other languages. And the book has not only been re-edited and translated again and again, it got also a clear influence on outstanding revolutionaries and activists. In America it has been read and used by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the author of the “On civil disobedience”. The most important line of influence starts with Lev N. Tolstoy, who has written not only great novels but who was also an important thinker in the field of nonviolence, especially in his later years. It was by him that Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi learned about the Discourse. Passages of LaBoétian thinking can be easily found back in his Hind Swaraj. And via Gandhi this thinking found its way in the world.
This blog is not the place to write an essay of the road of this influence, but I just want to mention the influence via Gandhi on American nonviolent activists, including Martin Luther King. Via the thought of the German revolutionary Landauer the Dutch peace activist Bart de Ligt came into touch with the Discourse, and then it influenced the peace movement in the Netherlands and other countries. Another road is the work of the American political scientist Gene Sharp, whose books have had an important influence on all major nonviolent resistance movements and uprisings of the present history, for example in Burma, Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine.

This is only one instance of a book that has become very influential. As said in the beginning, there have been many influential books, and there’ll also be many more in future. But the most surprising thing is how a book can be so influential and hardly anybody knows the book and its author.