Friday, October 15, 2010

Making a reader think

Il ne faut pas toujours tellement épuiser un sujet qu'on ne laisse rien à faire au lecteur; il ne s'agit pas de faire lire, mais de faire penser” (We must not always exhaust a subject, so as to leave no work at all for the reader. My business is not to make people read, but to make them think.) - Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, Book 14, ch.XX)

 By chance, when thinking about my next blog, I met this quotation on the Philosophy Calendar, which hangs here somewhere on a wall in my house. I looked it up on the Internet in Montesquieu’s work ( in order to see in what context it had been placed. Montesquieu, so he said there, originially had the intention to investigate for all kinds of moderate governments known how the three powers are distributed and what the relations with the degrees of freedom are, but he wouldn’t do that for something had to be left to the reader: one must not only make him or her read but also make him/her think.
The comment added to the quotation by the Dutch journalist and philosopher Vanno Jobse related it to the difference between what a good book is and what is just a book: Some authors write a book where the whole thread and all thoughts are completely spun out. Then, you read the book and that’s it. Good books, however, have been developed well, everything is thought-out but, despite that, not everything that can be said about the main theme is said, and it gives the reader handles to make him or her think.
When I look back to how I wrote in the past, I must say that I was the type of author and thinker who tried to be complete. My attitude was: try to be as complete as possible. And when I discovered yet a little loose thread in my thoughts I tried to fasten it. I must say, I was also stimulated to do so by others. In case I had sent a paper to a journal, I usually got comments like: “How about this?” “How about that?” “There you can be criticized”. And so on, forgetting the main line of the thought. In the end I was fed up with it. What sense does it have to try to be as precise as possible? So I gradually changed my way of writing, I loosened my style and let the loose threads hang down. Or I intentionally left some points open without discussion. I started a blog website, too, which is exactly a place where you can have your thoughts run freely without thinking whether each thought can be substantiated. It is not that I hoped that I could make other people think, although that would be nice, of course. I write my blogs for myself, often as a reflection on what I have just read. But when I read later an old blog again, I often discover failures or imperfect thoughts that make me think again. And I enjoy it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Liberty of conscience

At the moment I am reading a philosophical book which is very different from those I have recently discussed here in my blogs: Amartya Sen’s The idea of Justice. Although one can wonder whether it is that different, for there is not a real gap between a concept like responsibility and a concept like justice.
Sen is not new to me. I “met” him already when I was studying sociology with economics as a minor and I became intrigued then by his Choice of Techniques, which discusses an aspect of a planned economy. Sen’s ideas and points of interest and mine developed through the years, although in different directions, but now and then I read some of his newest works like Identity and Violence, which is important for me because of my interest in (personal) identity and nonviolence. His present book is mainly a discussion with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and his idea of justice as fairness.
Although I have read only less than a third of the book till now, I met already many stimulating ideas. One of the things that permeates the book is Sen’s multicultural education. Most people tend to become prejudiced in favour of their own cultures, also because as an outsider it is difficult to get to know the huge achievements of other cultures. Sen, living in several countries through the years, got the chance to become acquainted with many cultures and he used it. He tells for instance about the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, who lived from 1542-1605 in what now is more or less Pakistan, Northern India and Bangladesh. Akbar, a Muslim, an enlightened ruler, “ not only did insist”, so Sen, “that the duty of the state included making sure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and any one was to be allowed to go over to any religion he pleased’, he also arranged systematic dialogues in his capital city of Agas between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and others, even including agnostics and atheists” (The Idea of Justice, 37). This happened in a time that religious wars reigned in Europe and people were sent to the stake because of their faith. This quotation makes us think. In a time that right-wing extremism flares up in many European countries (including in my own country, the Netherlands), it shows us another face of Islam than the one presented by this political ideology, which also forgets the zealotry with which Christianity was spread over the world during the ages, including in Islamic regions. When thinking of this zealotry and especially of the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots in France in his days, Montaigne reacted in this way: “ ‘Tis usual to see good intentions, if carried on without moderation, push men on to very vicious effects.” The essay that starts with this sentence bears the title “Of liberty of conscience”. It tells us to be tolerant for other views, even when we do not like them. Although written more than 400 years ago, we can still learn a lot of it, just as we can from the words and practice of the Muslim ruler Akbar.

Monday, October 04, 2010

What does being responsible mean?

In these blogs I have often talked about our responsibility for doing things, but what does being responsible mean? I do not want to give an extensive analysis of the concept. Many philosophers have done that before and I don’t expect to be able to give an original contribution. However, in view of all what I have written about it here, I think that it is time to clarify what the concept in my opinion involves. “Responsible” or “responsibility” is a bit, what I would call, a “bucket concept”: we throw a lot in it which is hardly related. For instance, responsible can mean being in charge with a task, or behaving properly and sensibly, and the like. That is not what I mean with it. As used here, responsibility refers to a person and an action done by that person, to something a person did with an intention or intentionally. Only then I call here a person responsible for what s/he did or for the consequences of what s/he did. But for calling a person responsible for what s/he did it is not enough that s/he was acting with an intention or intentionally. The action or its consequences must also imply a moral obligation.
These are only minimum criteria. If they haven’t been fulfilled in some way, we cannot say that the agent has a responsibility for an action in my sense. And just this “in some way” makes the concept so difficult to catch. For who determines in which way? For example, was running into the car an action of mine? (See my blog last week) Cycling near Breukelen was, for I had the intention to cycle there, it’s true. However, when I saw the car I tried to avoid it. Nevertheless, the collision was a consequence of my action cycling there, and it can be defended that this makes that I am responsible for the accident: It was my choice to become a road-user and I need to know then that I run risks to make mistakes and to cause an accident. In this sense I am responsible for the accident caused by my mistake and it is this which gives me an obligation to pay for the damaged caused by me. But does it give me a
moral obligation? As for me I have the feeling it does, for the car driver couldn’t help that I run into his car. However, the Dutch legislator does not agree. According to him every car driver needs to know that a car can cause serious injuries and heavy damage to a pedestrian or cyclist that can exceed by far the apparent severity of the accident. A car is a dangerous instrument. Therefore, by becoming a road-user, a car driver is responsible for the consequences of a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, even if s/he did not cause it, and s/he has a moral (and legal) obligation to pay at least a part of the damage caused. That’s what the Dutch legislator thinks.
The upshot is that the concept of responsibility can be given many interpretations and can be fleshed out in many ways. Just when we have determined the minimum criteria of what being responsible is, the discussion really starts.