Monday, November 30, 2009

The inspiration of Wittgenstein

When I set myself to write my next blog and I do not know what to write about, the Essays of Michel de Montaigne are always a good source for inspiration. However, there is another source that is actually as good as Montaigne’s book. This is the Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In fact, I had read Wittgenstein already long before I had ever heard of Montaigne and, unlike Montaigne, Wittgenstein has had a direct and an indirect influence on my philosophical thinking and work. I can best formulate the difference between Montaigne and Wittgenstein for me in this way: I read Montaigne’s Essays like a novel, but I read Wittgenstein’s work like a scientific treatise.
Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy cannot be summarized in a few statements. But what has always interested me is the importance he has given to the place of language in science and life. For Wittgenstein, language was not simply an instrument for expressing our thoughts, but language has an important influence on the way we think. This made him one of the ancestors of the so-called linguistic turn, the idea that language constitutes our reality and that it is actually the foundation of all our knowledge. This relieves the older idea, which goes back to Immanuel Kant, that the foundation of our knowledge is to be found in consciousness. It is also contrary to the idea, defended by Karl Popper and especially by his follower Hans Albert in discussion with Karl-Otto Apel in Germany, that there is no foundation of knowledge at all but that scientific method is characterized by a continuous criticism. Formulated in contradictory terms: criticism is the foundation of science.
Despite that language was fundamental for Wittgenstein’s thinking and analyzing, in the end he did not found our thinking on language. We can try to give any explanation we like by going to their linguistic sources, be it of scientific facts, be it of facts of life, but such an explanation means nothing to us, when we do not know how to use the explanation, namely how to act on it. In this way, Wittgenstein formulated a fundamental insight, for isn’t it so that there is no longer life where there is no action? Isn’t it so that, if we want to give a foundation to man in all her or his aspects (physical, mental, historical, and who knows what more) it must be action? And then I do not mean only action in the sense of moving arms and legs and other body parts, but I think of action in its widest sense. Also our speaking is an acting, as has been shown in such a powerful way by J.L. Austin, as well as our thinking is.

How inspiring can Wittgenstein be, considering that this was only a comment on the first of the 693 philosophical investigations in the first part of his book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The banality of banality

A few days ago I talked with a friend of mine, a photographer, about taking pictures of banal things. My friend is good in it but most photographers, professionals as well as amateurs, take photos of things that are striking in some way and that are therefore not banal by definition. What is beautiful; a place where something is happening, like an accident or a birthday party, a political fact; a place where we have been because we want to keep a memory of it. These are usual themes for photos. But most photographers do not make pictures of what they consider banal. An odd corner between houses with rubbish. A cable lying on the ground. Laundry on a line. Most photographers do not feel it worth to make a photo of it, unless it has a striking aspect, like a coloured detail which makes it artistically interesting, or when the photographer comes from a country where things are different.
It is the same for philosophy and sociology. Scholars in these fields tend to study what is conspicuous or important for some reason. Violence, the mind, power, and so on; themes that are very important, indeed, and that have a great influence on our life. But isn’t that true, isn’t that even more true for the banal?
Once I published here a blog about waiting. It was because of a few photos that I had taken of this theme. Some time later, I have googled the word. And what did I find? Nothing. Oh no, that is not true. I found my own blog (Google is an excellent searching machine), I found a website where my blog had been bookmarked, and in addition two or three other relevant websites. That was all. But despite the little attention given to waiting, it is an important aspect of our daily life and we spend a lot of time on it! For a substantial part, living is waiting.I’ll not try to give here a list of banal themes that would earn more attention in the sciences and philosophy of man, in my opinion. But is the banal really as banal as many people think? If we say no, it sounds like a contradiction, for we just take no notice of it because it is not worth to give it attention, and that is what makes the banal banal. This seems to be true unless we realize that the banal is often not as innocent as we think. We simply have to think of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is a book on the banality of evil as the subtitle stresses, for realizing that banality can be dangerous. And isn’t it so that the idea of “bread and circuses” shows that it is good for a dictator to promote the interest in the banal in order to stay in power?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Montaigne and the stupidity of man

Readers of my blogs have probably noticed that Michel de Montaigne is one of my favourite philosophers. Even more, I started this series of blogs with a comment on a quotation from Montaigne’s Essays. Actually this is a bit strange, for the ideas of Montaigne have no direct relation with my main field of philosophical interest, which is the philosophy of mind and action. However, Montaigne is one of the few philosophers that I read and reread, since I came into touch with him. No wonder, for Montaigne was ahead of his time, and much of what he wrote more than 400 years ago is still modern. Moreover he has a good style of writing. Montaigne is also one of the few philosophers about whom I have read a lot of books, and the more I know about him and his ideas, the more I want to go into the man and his ideas. Montaigne is stimulating and thought provoking when you read him. He is more stimulating and more thought provoking the more you know about him and his time.
At the moment I am rereading Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”. It is his longest essay and actually it is a book of its own. Montaigne translated the Theologia Naturalis by Raymond of Sabunde, a Catalan philosopher (< 1400-1436), on request of his father and later this work stimulated him to write down his ideas on science, knowledge and theology. I will not write here a summary or appraisal of the work, but it is full of ideas and it shows Montaigne as a precursor of Descartes. Almost any sentence there is worth a comment.
Take for instance this: “Who intelligently collected and compiled the pieces of asinine behaviour of human wisdom, would be able to tell us odd things”. Montaigne wrote this sentence after having listed a series of stupidities of the human mind through the ages. And has there been any change in human behaviour since then? Moreover, we do not need to limit us to “scientific” facts like those cited by Montaigne, for example about the places where people have placed the spirit in the body through the ages (everywhere between head and feet). In politics we find many stupidities of the kind discussed by Montaigne, through the ages before and after him. Take, for instance, the Berlin Wall, which has fallen 20 years ago. How stupid the idea that one can close a country with a wall. What would happen could have been predicted: either it would be a failure in the end, or it would lead to a world war. Happily the first thing occurred. But what was the reaction of Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minster of the UK, one day after the fall? She called Michael Gorbachev and asked him to stop the reunification of Germany. “Let they [the East Germans] just stay behind their Wall”, she said to Gorbachev. How stupid. Or take the reaction of François Mitterand, then president of France, who feared the resurrection of a mighty Germany.

In the light of what has happened since then one can nothing but laugh about such stupidities, but in those days it was a serious affaire, like many stupidities of the mind, and giving in would have made a different world. And who would ever have thought in the days of the First and Second World Wars that France and Germany would together commemorate these wars and that these countries would be united in a common union with a common presidency 55 years after the end of the second one of these calamities? It is true, as Montaigne says, the human mind has produced many stupid things through the ages. How unfortunate that we see that often only afterwards and not at the moment that we produce these thoughts.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Outdoor cafes

Streets, and roads (“streets” for short) are places of public life everywhere. Streets have many functions. The main function is connecting places. That’s way they are there. Streets connect places that are important for people for one reason or another, because they live there or work there, because these places have special functions (theatres, shops, railway stations), and so on. In order to go from one such a place to another one you follow the streets that connect them, walking, by bike, by car or how you like. However, streets have many other functions as well. Some people work there like policemen or street sweepers. Other people practice sports along the roads, like running or cycling. Some people use streets for meeting other people, for example by making an appointment at a crossing or on a square with another person or by parading along the streets. Sometimes people use streets for making their opinion public, like in demonstrations. People can use streets also as an extension of private life. On warm summer evenings it can happen in the Netherlands for instance that people put their chairs outdoors on the street sides, for talking with their neighbours, for reading the newspaper, and the like, or for just sitting there. In other countries with a warmer climate a big part of private life takes place in the streets. Streets have other functions as well.
What we often find along streets are outdoor cafes. In most cases, they are (semi-)public extensions of the semi-public life that takes place in the cafes and restaurants along the streets, mainly in the centres of towns and villages, but not only there. I think that outdoor cafes are a very interesting aspect of public and semi-public life along the streets. In a certain sense they reflect local society, since they are often reflections of the life that takes place around the sites where they are. The furnishings are often adapted to the environment or purpose. An outdoor cafe of a highway restaurant is different from an outdoor cafe in a town centre. In some outdoor cafes you find mainly local people, looking for contact with other locals. In other ones you find tourists, stopping for a short rest, a drink and maybe a simple meal. Other ones are for casual passers-by or shopping people looking for a short break. Because they are often so characteristic, I find it interesting to make photos of them (see
One typical photo of such an outdoor cafe is the one here in my blog. It shows an outdoor café on an unpaved surface. Parked cars on the other side of the road. People with race bikes and with a racing outfit standing by or sitting down. In the left upper corner you can just see that it is a place high in the mountains. All this limits the place where the picture can have been taken. It could be in Switzerland, Austria, or Spain, if it is in Europe, or, where it actually has been taken, in France. It is on the Col du Tourmalet, a mountain pass in the French Pyrenees. This col is one of the most famous cols of the Tour de France cycle race, and that’s why it attracts many bike tourists.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Truth (2)

When we admit, like I did in my blog last week, that we can never know that a statement is true, and that things expressed in it can always be different from what we originally thought that they are, truth can no longer be something absolute. However, it can serve as a guideline. For when I argue that there are only subjective viewpoints and interpretations of the world around us, I do not want to say that any viewpoint and any interpretation will do. It is a bit like what George Orwell said in his Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. In the same way we can say: All statements are true (namely from a subjective point of view) but some statements are truer (namely what they say is nearer to reality) than other statements. And because we prefer statements that are truer above statements that are less true, truth can serve as a guideline. This is basic knowledge in science and it is what science is about: to produce truer statements. However, that truth is a guideline needs not to be limited to science but it applies to social life as well: What we think that is true in social life from our point of view may appear to be fundamentally different from another viewpoint. But many people think that their own truths are the only truths and some may even be prepared to die for them and to make other people die for them instead of talking about their truths. Actually matters are more complicated, for truth in science is not exactly the same as truth in social life. But just this brings the idea that one has to talk and not to fight about fundamental differences even nearer to the truth.