Monday, October 26, 2009


Some people, like Tarski, say that a statement is true if what it says corresponds with reality. But how do we know what reality is so that we can compare this statement with it? For we do not have an objective criterion for determining what is real. How do we know that a statement is true if what we see as real depends in the end on the subjective viewpoints of the observer and on his or her place in the world, so on his or her interpretation of the world? For this reason we can reach an intersubjective idea of what is real at most. Already Plato explained in his Legend of the Cave that what we see is not reality as such but a representation of reality. It is only with this representation that we can compare our statement.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Boxing and the peace movement

Recently the most important Dutch peace movement IKV Pax Christi held its yearly Peace Week. In order to attract new young people as peace activists a short video has been published on the Internet with a leading role for Jan Pronk, president of IKV and a former Dutch cabinet minister who performed also several high functions for the United Nations. In this video we see Pronk entering the training room of his wrestling school in a boxing outfit. He looks around and sees only an old man there, hardly able to do his exercises. Apparently it is not the right opponent for him. Pronk walks a bit around and starts with his boxing workout. While doing that he is a bit daydreaming about how he beats an opponent in a wrestling match. Then he wakes up again and he sees the old man playing chess with another old man instead of doing his workout. Next we see a poster with the text: “Wanted: A New Generation of Peace Fighters”. The video ends with a call to come to the Night of Peace. ( ; the website is in Dutch).
This video is not the only instance that the Dutch peace movement links fighting for peace to fighting sports. In the Night of Peace just mentioned Jan Pronk passed over his task as peace fighter to a new generation in a boxing ring, which was the central stage of the evening. Moreover, the Dutch peace organisation “People Building Peace” appointed a kickboxing promoter as its “peace ambassador”.
Here I do not want to talk about boxing and kickboxing as such. However, my problem of linking peace to these sports is this. The purpose of boxing and kickboxing is to beat your opponent by hitting and hurting him and if possible to knock him down. Your opponent has the right to do the same with you in order to win. In other words, it is a mini-war. What has this all to do with peace? Another website where I also found the video says that the peace movement is looking for people that can build bridges, and that is what in fact peace is: building bridges in order to bring people together. However, what this video suggests is that peace activists must be persons prepared to knock down (at least mentally) people that do not agree with his concept of peace and peace proposals. A peace maker, so it implies, is a person who wins by beating the person who does not agree. But what then is the difference between bringing peace and fighting a war, even if it is a war for a just cause (whatever that may be)? But peace is not a situation where someone who thinks that he is right can take this right at the cost of the opponent. Peace is a situation where people try to come to common solutions, not by fighting but by a process of negotiating where both parties give and take. And a peace activist has to be a mediator in this process. How far has a peace organisation gone from reality if it does not see that suggesting a relation with boxing and kickboxing undermines this idea.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The development of man and the capacity to act

A few days ago it was in the news that a new ancestor of man has been found, which has been baptized Ardipithecus ramidus. Actually she has been found already in 1994 (in Ethiopia), but it takes always time to analyze and interpret a new find. This Ardipithecus ramidus lived about one million years before our famous ancestor “Lucy”, so about 4.4 million years ago, and she had physical traits that were already typically human rather than apelike. What for philosophers is more interesting, of course, is not which physical capacities this ancestor had but her mental capacities. Could she think as we do? Of course not, but had her thinking already something typical human? And could she act? Surely, she could behave but could she develop already some typical human intentions? In my blog last week I proposed the idea that the difference between behaviour and action is a sliding scale. From that point of view it is likely that the doings of the Ardipithecus ramidus were not merely bodily movements but had already some actionlike traits.
A couple of million years later we see that man makes and uses stone tools. I do not remember when it was. Maybe Lucy already did, maybe it was a couple of hundreds of thousands or a million years later, but already very long ago man made intentionally stone tools. That this man did not simple pick up a stone and used it can be seen from the fact that he went already to places where the stones he needed were found and brought them from there to where he used the tools, a distance of often several kilometres. In short: these ancestors of ours planned what they did.
I think that it is reasonable to guess that man did not have intentions in our sense, so did not take actions in our sense, before she used a language. When did language develop? By chance I have just finished reading a book about the origin of language in man. It defends the theory that it must have been between 200.000 and 50.000 years ago, which is about between the appearance of homo sapiens (modern man) on earth and the famous cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere in the world. Moreover, it is likely that the language capacities of man and with it the capacity to execute fully intentional actions developed gradually. In the first homo sapiens the capacity to act intentionally was less well developed than in his descendant that discovered agriculture some 15,000 till 10,000 years ago. Seen it this way, it is likely that these capacities still develop.

What does this mean for action theory? Behaviour and action can be placed on a sliding scale, as we have seen, and the scale can be used for classifying what we do as more actionlike or more like behaviour. In this way, the classification of behaviour and action is synchronic. However, in view of the development of man it must also be possible to classify behaviour and action diachronically: We compare the doings of present man with the doings of our ancestors by placing them somewhere on the sliding scale. By diachronically comparing actions and behaviour of man in this way, we can get insight in human development. Then it is not unlikely that we come to the conclusion that much which is now classified as an action has no equivalent in the past and must necessarily have been more like behaviour (and so necessarily less intentional). Conversely, this may also true for the doings of man in future.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The relativity of action

Definitions of what an action is are often absolute in the sense that they strictly separate actions from other kinds of doing: A doing is an action or it isn’t. My own definition of action in my dissertation is no exception. I called a doing guided by an intention an action; if it doesn’t have an intention, it is an instance of behaviour. Using intention as criterion for distinguishing action from non-action is quite common among action philosophers. However, other perspectives are possible. Jonathan Dancy distinguishes an action from a mere bodily movement when there is a reason behind what the agent does. Berent Enç distinguishes what one does in a deliberative way from what one does automatically. Deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do and determines the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions. However, in all these cases there is a clear distinction between two types of doing.
The dichotomy has been relativized somewhat by an idea put forward by G.E.M. Anscombe that says that actions can be described in different ways and that we have different actions depending upon the description chosen. This idea that has been developed by Donald Davidson. However, even then the dichotomy between action and non-action still remains.
This is different in Christine Korsgaard’s description of action in her recently published Self-Constitution (pp. 97-98). Korsgaard defines action as “an intentional movement … guided by a representation or conception … of [the] environment”. Also in this definition intention is substantial for making a movement an action. However, as Korsgaard explains, there is no “hard and fast line in nature between action and other forms of intentionally describable responses because there is not a hard and fast line in nature between mere reaction and perceptual representation”. There is a sliding scale between how plants react to their environment (non-action), how animals do and how man does when s/he acts. Also the doings of man are on a sliding scale from mere behaviour on the one end till action on the other end. In fact, Korsgaard had anticipated this explanation already in her definition for actually it runs: “Action is an intentional movement of an animal ... guided by a representation or conception that the animal forms of his environment”.

But if it is so that there is a sliding scale between action and mere behaviour and if this distinction is relative then it is also so that our responsibility for what we do must be on a sliding scale and be relative. Then our responsibility for what we do is rarely hundred percent or zero but in many cases it is somewhere in between. In fact this is often acknowledged, for example in trials. There it can happen that the perpetrator of a criminal act is declared to have been in a state of diminished responsibility for what s/he did, which means that the act had not been fully deliberate but that the perpetrator had been partially guided by bodily urges that s/he had not under control. However, as Korsgaard adds, “[t]here are many cases in which we need a hard and fast concept for the purposes of philosophical understanding and indeed for ethical and political life...”. But does it really contribute to our understanding and our ethical and political life if a distinction is based on a distorted view of the world?