Monday, December 30, 2013

The stage we are on

Presenting the better side of yourself while ignoring the worse side is actually a way of pretending. It is misleading in the sense that you offer a false image of yourself or at least an image that’s not correct or one-sided. As long as it is done in a moderate way, it needs not to be bad, however. Everybody knows that it happens. Actually you are expected to keep up appearances to a certain extent towards people you are not close with, so everybody does. Only towards your most intimate friends and members of your family you are supposed to be open. A moderate kind of pretending is even useful. It helps you to get on in society and to avoid unnecessary conflicts. It functions like a kind of lubricant in your relations. “How are you?”, “Fine, thanks” is a simple example of it, for towards a person you hardly know you don’t complain about your little or big ailments, even not if you are half dead, or about the quarrels with your best friend. But don’t overdo this pretending for then it can work against you.
A kind of pretending of its own is role-playing. A role-player places himself outside the normal course of society for the duration of the play, so to speak. Of course “so to speak”, for role-playing is a social practice. Maybe it is best to see it as a social meta-practice. Role-players by excellence are, of course, actors on a stage. However, good acting doesn’t only mean that the actor pretends the role he is playing but he is the role for the time the acting lasts: The actor has the inner sense that he is the person he plays. Then the actor is at his best. And if then the audience gets the feeling that it is real what is happening on the stage, appearance has become fact. The play is no longer a pretending but it has become reality for the time of the play. It explains the shock when we see an actor later eating in a restaurant. The dream has ended; the illusion has gone. Hamlet is a person like you and me and when you make a talk with the actor, it may turn out that he lives a few streets further down from you in your town. He is a human being like you.
I remember having experienced something like that. The person concerned was not an actor but a guide in a conducted tour I had had that morning. Later that day my wife and I went to a restaurant and just after we had chosen our table we saw at the next one the guide with his girl friend. He recognized us, too. We greeted each other and that was all but the situated remained a bit uncomfortable for both of us.
Sometimes it is for an actor (and not only for an actor) difficult to forget the roles he played when outside the stage and then you find back role elements in his daily behaviour. Pretence has become a bit real or the other way round when pieces of reality are used for constructing appearance.
That an actor is absorbed by his role makes me think of the people opposite the stage: the audience. Good acting can give the audience the feeling that it is real what is happening on the stage, as I said. It’s clear that, unlike the actors the spectators are not pretending: They are spectators. I have noticed that I enjoy my “role” as a spectator better, if I “play” it a bit as an actor on the stage. An actor plays his part better when he consciously tries to be the person he plays. This goes better when he explicitly prepares himself on being the character he plays. This involves more than simply learning the text he has to say and what he has to do during the play. For me as a spectator it’s more or less the same. If I explicitly prepare myself on what I am going to see and, once present in the theatre, concentrate myself consciously on the play – or in my case the opera – as soon as it begins, then I enjoy it so much more, even if it’s actually an opera (in my case) that’s not really my taste – and that’s why sudden sounds by other spectators can be so annoying: They disturb the illusion that I and the singers have created “together”, since they bring me back to the reality off stage. However, maybe it would be good if the illusion created by our absorption by the world around us would be disturbed now and then. It is not that this makes that we arrive in a world out of our relations, but maybe it makes us realize better what the world we are in is and what we are doing there. Often it’s necessary. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

The reflection of yourself

Self-portrait by the author 

When a cow takes a look at herself in a mirror (or in the water surface of the ditch when she drinks), she doesn’t recognize herself, while a man does. There are hardly any animals that recognize themselves when looking in a mirror. I think that this is also an indication that man has personhood, while a cow hasn’t or has a reduced kind of personhood at most: One cannot be a person if one hasn’t a conception of oneself. Being able to recognize oneself as oneself in a mirror is an expression of this conception, which is usually called self-awareness. Following Velleman in the article I quoted in my last blog one can say that this self conception is not just the feeling of being there in the world. It’s not merely subjective, but “it is the conception of himself as a creature with this very conception of itself. This self-conception is objective in the sense that it represents its subject as its subject in the world …” (Velleman, 325) So, one’s self-awareness is objective in the sense that one can take an objective stance towards oneself just as one does towards a bird in the garden and wonders whether it is a marsh tit or a willow tit. Likewise one can think and talk about oneself.
Literary and philosophical expressions of this phenomenon are self-descriptions like autobiographies, autobiographic novels, apologies and the like. Many essays written by Montaigne have also an autobiographical content or aspect. His subjective treatises became so popular that they were the beginning of a completely new genre. However, not everybody valued the personal content of such writings. Blaise Pascal, for instance, wrote about Montaigne’s work: “His foolish project of describing himself! And this not casually and against his maxims, since everyone makes mistakes, but by his maxims themselves, and by first and chief design. For to say silly things by chance and weakness is a common misfortune; but to say them intentionally is intolerable …” (II, 62) Nevertheless Pascal has been much influenced by Montaigne, although his project was not self-descriptive.
But is it really so foolish to describe yourself? Maybe Pascal thought that it isn’t as long as you keep it for yourself, but showing yourself intentionally to the world isn’t done, according to him. Maybe it wasn’t in his time, but Montaigne’s Essays were widely read and withstood the ages, and that not only as a way of peeping in the soul of another person. They help to understand the age he lived in and human life in general; not only the author’s life. That’s also a function of autobiographies. They are interesting as self-descriptions of this life or that life (and they satisfy our voyeurism as well), but they reflect also the age the author lived in and they are lessons of life.
In these days of individualism self-descriptions in any shape have become very important. In an age in which one can rely less on relations, the way you present yourself has become very important. This concerns not only the way you look, your appearance, and the way you know to manipulate your looks in the right way. It concerns also the way you tell others who you are. A self-description is often a way to present the better side of yourself and then it is more a kind of self-justification, or self-promotion. And just as photos added to job applications are photoshopped today in order to suggest a “better” appearance, so often self-descriptions as presented to the world are nothing else than kinds of self-advertisements, in which the raw edges of the subject’s life are polished away. But who tells us that also Montaigne hasn’t avoided talking about the potholes in his road of life he was ashamed of? So I finish with a quotation from Pascal, torn loose from the context: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him.” (II, 64) In other words: Look at yourself, take an objective stance and judge. Who can? “

David J. Velleman, “Sociality and solitude”, in: Philosophical Explorations 16 (3): 324-335; Blaise Pascal, Pensées, on

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why no cow prepares a meal for the herd

Most blogs I have written here about the question what a person is are about personal identity in time. So they go into the question what makes that I am still the same person as many years ago. Another question is what the characteristics of personhood are, so what distinguishes a person from a non-person, like, for instance, a human being from an animal (or from most animals, for some animals certainly have personhood in a way). This question was dealt with by J. David Velleman in his recent article “Sociality and solitude”. I shall not discuss the article here, but the following passage caught my eye. It says a lot about who we are as a person:

Visiting a museum is a human sort of grazing, but visiting with a companion is not just a case of grazing in the same place  …; it is a case of two going together … The mere personhood of another person, which makes him eligible for going together, is of value even in the absence of any personal relationship. (p. 332)

Velleman is referring here to Aristotle’s description of friendship. Aristotle sees friendship as “two going together”, which he contrasts with “the case of cattle, grazing in the same place”. Grazing cows in a herd are doing the same: grazing. But each cow grazes for herself. Cows in a herd do not have a common (or joint) intention, but they have an intention in common. (ibid.)
Also man can behave like a grazing cow in a herd and he often does! For instance, when someone walks alone through a museum and looks at the paintings one after another while ignoring the other visitors present. But it doesn’t need to be a mere individual activity. The same action can be done together with a friend, wife or husband, child, and so on. Then one has a joint intention performed in a joint action, and usually one talks with the partner about what one sees. This possibility of having a common intention – to be distinguished from an intention in common – is a characteristic of personhood, so Velleman, and I agree. It doesn’t need to be so that one jointly shares attentions only with people one knows. If I want to bring the piano upstairs I can hire a hand for helping me. I don’t need to know the guy, as long as he is prepared to help me for a remuneration.
As Velleman states, this characteristic of personhood does not need to present itself continuously and openly. It doesn’t need to be manifest. It can also be latent and come to the surface at the right moment. Let’s say that we are grazing the paintings in a museum and then we make a remark to another visitor about a certain painting. A conversation starts and we walk together through the museum discussing about what we see. So a sudden and temporary kind of friendship or companionship comes into being, which probably ends when we leave the museum. Cows will not do that. They’ll not start to talk about the grass, showing another cow the place where the grass is best. In this sense cows don’t have personhood, while man has. And have you ever seen a cow making a meal for the herd?

David J. Velleman, “Sociality and solitude”, in: Philosophical Explorations 16 (3): 324-335.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Why things happen, like eating

Somewhere I came across this quotation from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710 - 1796):

Though man knew that his life must be supported by eating, reason could not direct him when to eat, or what; how much or how often. In all these things appetite is a much better guide than our reason. Were reason alone to direct us in this matter, its calm voice would often be drowned in the hurry of business, or the charms of amusement. But the voice of the appetite rises gradually, and, at last, becomes loud enough to call off our attention from any other employment.

On the face of it, this quotation is a simple statement. Who can deny what Reid asserts here? Maybe we can object to some details of the quotation, for example to the first sentence, but this will not affect the essence of the idea expressed, namely that basically our body decides that we have to eat and when. I think that nothing can undermine this idea as it stands. However, the quotation contains not only a fundamental fact of life. A closer look will reveal a complete ontology of man. I’ll not try to develop such ontology from these few sentences, but I’ll make a few arbitrary remarks which will show the depth of these words.

Many people think that they are free, but this quotation shows that freedom has its limitations. We are free to choose lettuce or endive or other vegetables to eat but our body says that we need vegetables in order to stay healthy. On the other hand, would we be free, if we hadn’t any limitations at all? If we could choose anything we liked? Elsewhere in my blogs I have argued that we need limitations in order to be free. Without them we had nothing to chose. Our body gives us such limitations and makes us free in this way.

In my last blog I talked about Dretske’s distinction between triggering and structuring causes. A drop of certain body parameters causing us having the feeling that we are hungry while this feeling makes us looking for food is an example of a body related triggering cause of what we do. The structuring cause in this case is that we are going to prepare a meal and not going to take a nap. And this is so because nature structured us that way that taking food and not going to sleep is a solution of our hunger problem. That’s how we have been made.

Descartes contended that body and mind are two different things. Many people still think so. However, Reid’s instance shows how they are intrinsically related. The mind is not a kind of free floating spirit. It is an aspect of the body or a way to consider the body at most. When the body becomes hungry, the mind can push this feeling to the background for some time, but in the end it can only think of how to get food and how to satisfy the hunger. Then our mind is governed by our feeling of hunger and it loses its feeling of independence that it thought to have. Some people will object that hunger strikers (like Gandhi) can suppress the feeling of hunger. But isn’t this just an example of the intrinsic relation between mind and body (but then in the opposite direction)? If such a relation didn’t exist, there was nothing to suppress and the mind could go its own way without giving attention to any feeling whatever.

It’s the same for pain, and that’s why I once asked here in a blog: “When I stumble, and I hurt my toe, is the pain then in my toe or in my brain?” It’s the same for noise, too: One cannot think when hearing a drill. Or rather, one can think only “Stop!” or “I must go away!”.

We can never act without taking care of what our body wants. If we try to do so, sooner or later the body will call us to order and guide – if not determine – what we do.

And so on. These are just some thoughts of me triggered by my structural habit to read what other people write.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Why things happen

For many years I was interested in the questions what causes are and what reasons are and how they help explain what happens in the world and understand what people do. Gradually my philosophical interests strayed away from these questions to other issues and my blogs reflect the new paths I have taken. However, I have never lost my sympathy for these old themes and now and then they come back into my mind. Sometimes they simply pop up and sometimes other people let them pop up. The latter was the case for instance when I was asked to give my opinion on an article about Fred Dretske’s theory of mental causation. Much can be said on Dretske’s theory and I, too, have written a critical comment on it, but what I have never forgotten from the book Explaining Behavior. Reasons in a World of Causes, where Dretske expounds his theory, is his view on the concept of cause. Most of what I read soon slips my mind again, but when I happen to think about “cause” for any reason whatsoever one of the first approaches  I always remember is Dretske’s. Especially in practical situations Dretske’s concept is very useful, since it helps disentangle complex occurrences or convoluted argumentations.
In fact, Dretske distinguishes two concepts of cause, namely “triggering cause” and “structuring cause”. When we ask what the causes of a process are, we can answer this question in two ways, so Dretske. Either we can look for the event that triggers the process, and then Dretske speaks of the “triggering cause”; or we can look for the background conditions that made that this process has a certain form or structure, so that it is M1 and not M2 that is the consequence of a certain event or state. Then, Dretske speaks of the “structuring cause”. A temperature drop causing to occur certain events in the thermostat, while in turn these events cause the furnace to ignite, is an example of a triggering cause. The structuring cause is what makes that the thermostat turns the furnace on and does not open to garage door, for instance, when it becomes cold. And this can happen either because the thermostat is wired to the furnace in a certain way, or because the electrician wired it that way. So structuring causes can be of two kinds: “(1) the background conditions that enable the one thing to cause the other or (2) whatever earlier event or condition that brought about these background conditions” (Dretske 1988, 42). There is also a difference in time perspective between a triggering cause and a structuring cause. The former makes that the process takes place now; the latter concerns already existing relationships that have been made in the past. (id., 37-50, 114-115)
Dretske’s distinction is an important philosophical contribution to the discussion on what we mean by “cause”. Moreover, as said, it is also very practical. A car slips in a bend of the road and collides with another car. Was it a mistake by the driver, because he was distracted, or is it a faulty construction of the bend that makes that many cars slip there? Then we ask whether a triggering cause or a structuring cause brought about the accident.
Dretske has made many other important contributions to philosophy, especially to epistemology and to the philosophy of mind. But his idea that had most influence on my thinking is this distinction between triggering and structuring causes, which I often use when it is relevant. It makes that I’ll keep remembering him for Fred Dretske died on July 24 this year, 79 years old.

Sources: my “Dretske and the causality of reasons” on; Fred Dretske, Explaining Behavior. Reasons in a World of Causes, MIT: Cambridge, Mass. etc., 1988.

Monday, November 25, 2013

How we think: The time perspective

The future: The way ahead of us or the way up?

Language affects (but does not determine) the way we think about the world around us. We have seen this in my last blog, where I introduced an example from the interesting studies by Lera Boroditsky in this field. Other studies corroborate this view. However, the influence is not universal. So, it seems that the language we speak has no effect on the way we see colours. Does it also affect the way we see time? An investigation by Boroditsky makes clear that it is likely the case. At least, that is the result of a study with English and Mandarin speaking test persons. English has other spatial terms for referring to past and future than Mandarin Chinese. English uses horizontal terms like ahead and behind while Mandarin uses vertical terms like up and down. According to this study by Boroditsky (and now I quote from her summary) “Mandarin speakers tended to think about time vertically even when they were thinking for English (Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical array of objects than if they had just seen a horizontal array, and the reverse was true for English speakers).” However, the effect of language on thought is not determinate and can alter under the influence of external factors like having learned another language. So it is no surprise that another investigation by Boroditsky showed “that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English.” The effect works also in the other direction, for “[i]n another experiment”, so Boroditsky, “native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical spatial terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On a subsequent test, this group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers.”
But why then the difference between the case of time and the case of colour, since for colours language does not affect the way we see them? Boroditsky suggests  – and I think it’s plausible, although much research has yet to be done in this field – that the difference between time and colour is that colour experiences happen already before a newborn has learned a language while abstract concepts like “time” develop only after the language acquisition. All this brings her to the idea that once there “one’s native language plays an important role in shaping habitual thought (e.g., how one tends to think about time)”. Which should explain that colour perception is more or less universal while abstract ideas like time are is more or less language-bound, at least initially.
So far, so good, and, as said, all this is very plausible in my opinion, and it agrees with my view. But it made me think a bit about the idea of time. I should have consulted Henri Bergson and other philosophers (and psychologists) for saying something reasonable about this (and in order to avoid telling something as if it were new, while others may have said it many times before). However, we can see time quite momentaneous, as is actually done by Boroditsky in her studies: we stand here now on the road from the past to the future (or maybe a Mandarin speaker would say on the mountain between the valley and the top) with much time behind us (down to us) and much time ahead of us (up). And so life goes in a certain and significant sense, at least for an individual. But in another sense time is recurrent. The seasons and how we live through them are a case in point (and now the question occurs to me what the difference is between my experiencing the seasons, living in Northwestern Europe in a region with a clear seasonal cycle, and the experiencing by a person living in a region of the world like the tropics where this cycle is very different). Another instance of the recurrence of time is the way we produce our society and so our history as conceived by the sociologist Anthony Giddens: By what we do, so by our actions, we produce our social systems and social structure, which we later encounter as the conditions that make new actions possible and that give them an embedment. These visions of time make that it is much wider than merely a linguistic phenomenon (and I think that no one interested in the language-thought relation will deny this). But besides that, this recurrent cycle, or rather spiral, is also the way a language is produced and reproduced. Does this mean that the influence of time on the way a language produces its time categories is at least as big as the influence of language on our view of time? In general: does this mean that the influence of thinking on language may be at least as big as the influence of language on thinking?

Source: Lera Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English
Speakers’ Conceptions of Time”, on

Monday, November 18, 2013

How we think, at least initially

Meuse Bridge at Harreville Les Chanteurs, France: Sturdy or elegant?

Many languages classify nouns in categories called “genders”. Spanish nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, for example. To take a few instances, masculine in Spanish are the nouns for man (hombre), bridge (puente) and courage (coraje), while feminine are those for woman (mujer), tower (torre) and happiness (felicidad). German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. Some masculine German nouns are man (Mann), road (Weg) and courage (Mut), feminine are woman (Frau), bridge (Brücke) and happiness (Glück); neutral nouns are house (Haus), girl (Mädchen) and trust (Vertrauen). Don’t say that it’s obvious that “man” is masculine and “woman” is feminine for in Russian the word for man (muzhchina) has a feminine gender. And we have just seen that the German noun for girl is neutral. Some languages, like English, have only one gender (or no gender, if you like); some Australian aboriginal languages have up to sixteen genders.
Although there is no necessary relation between the gender of a noun and its meaning, it’s an intriguing question whether its gender influences the way we think about a noun. For as my examples show, the same words can have different genders in different languages: puente (bridge in Spanish) is masculine, while its German equivalent Brücke is feminine. Lera Boroditsky accepted the challenge to find an answer to this question. She took a group of Spanish speakers and a group of German speakers and asked them to describe words with opposite gender assignments in their respective languages. The tests were done in English, which has only one gender, so that the language used for the test didn’t influence the findings on this point. For instance, when asked to describe “bridge”, the Spanish speakers said “big”, “dangerous”, “long”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”, so Boroditsky, while the German speakers said “beautiful”, “elegant”, “fragile”, “peaceful”, “pretty” and “slender”. Other tests gave equal findings. As Boroditsky concludes: “Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.”
On April 19, 2010, I wrote in a blog: “Once some scientists thought that the language we speak determines in a certain degree the way we think and see the world around us. However, this view could not be substantiated by research. Nevertheless I think that our language has some influence on the way we think and observe: Our language is a guide for us, by the way we look at the world and make classifications. It gives us the first categories of what we perceive. But as it is with any guide: we can improve it or we can take a better one.” Then I hadn’t heard yet of Boroditsky and her research. For some years I had been occupied with the question whether language determines our thoughts (the so-called Sapir-Whorf thesis), but I came to the conclusion that research had refuted the thesis. Nevertheless the feeling remained that this conclusion was false. I mean, it was correct that languages do not have a determinate influence on how people think, but I thought that there had to be some influence, namely that the language you speak serves as a first guide for the way you think about the world around you. That’s what I expressed in the quote from my blog. However, I hadn’t the means to research it. Now we see that Boroditsky comes to the same conclusion. Although the example of her research presented here may give the impression that language determines the way you think (“German speakers gives bridges female qualities, Spanish speakers give bridges male qualities”), other research by Boroditsky and her team shows that such world views can change. Speakers of a certain language can change their views when they learn about other views. Actually, the world view in your native language is the view from which you start, but which you can alter later. That’s why I wrote then that “We can use another language with other categories and we can invent new categories. In that sense anything goes.”
I do not write this because I want to be right, but Boroditsky’s findings show how important it is to consider the way we speak (what feminists always have said). They show for instance (and here I refer to and quote from Prinz, 2013, pp. 189-190) that “we must be cautious when using gender-specific language”, and, as I want to add, “language in general”. It influences the way we see and categorize, anyway initially. “It’s a mistake”, so Prinz (and I fully agree), “that we cannot think without language”. However, “if you look at a scene, you immediately and automatically label the salient objects.” And although cultural and other influences and facts affect the way you see and classify as well, “linguistic variation is not superficial. It is a powerful example of how something we learn through experience can shape our understanding of the world.” Or in Boroditsky’s words: “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.” In short: Languages help us shape and discriminate, positively and negatively.

Sources: Lera Boroditsky, “How does our language shape the way we think?” on ; Jesse J. Prinz, Beyond human nature, Penguin Books, London etc., 2013.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Whether one must always directly confront an enemy

View of the battlefield of Lake Trasimene from
the place where consul Flaminius was killed

When travelling usually I follow not so much this or that travel guide, but I follow my mind and sometimes my photo camera, which is actually the same. So when I was in Tuscany in Italy a few weeks ago, I found it more interesting to be led by the Montaigne’s footsteps and to walk on the battle field of Lake Trasimene where Hannibal ambushed a Roman army than to see the great objects of art admired by many, although one can doubt whether most of them really admire them or that they admire them “because they have to” (as a pen friend remarked to me). But it is not up to me to judge the truth of the admiration of others. That would be quite arrogant and these “others” could probably say the same about me, and with right. Anyway, I remember that when I was in Florence a few years ago I walked into a church and my eye was caught by a statue on the wall and, although not being an art connoisseur, I immediately saw how excellent it was and when I looked up in my travel guide who had made it, I saw that it was by Donatello. Since Donatello is recognized as a famous and very good sculptor, I concluded that there must be something objective in what is good art and what is bad art and that even a layman can see that and can sincerely enjoy it. Nevertheless, my feeling tells me that my mind must lead me to other places when I am on a travel. Or most of the time.
Anyway, walking on the battle field of Lake Trasimene I wondered why Montaigne hadn’t been here, since he needed to make only a brief detour in order to go there. Montaigne writes several times about Hannibal in his essays, although not over consul Flaminius who was commanding the Roman army there, if I am right. I think that a walk, or rather a horse ride a Montaigne’s case, would have given him new insights and would have stimulated him to new themes, if he had looked at the details of the battle and had compared the reports of Livy and other authors with what he had seen in person on the terrain. And certainly he would have got inspiration if he would have studied what had happened after the battle, if he didn’t know it already. For after the Romans had heard about what was a calamity for them (15.000 soldiers had been killed, 6.000 had been taken captive and only 4.000 soldiers escaped), they were seized by panic and, as they had done so often in such situations in the past, they appointed a dictator who was charged to solve the situation and, of course, to beat Hannibal. However, Quintus Fabius Maximus, the new man on the top of the Roman Republic, chose the strategy of avoiding a direct confrontation with Hannibal. Instead he used a tactics of law-level harassment in order to exhaust his opponent and to give Rome time to rebuild its military strength. By doing so Fabius got the nickname Cunctator or “Delayer”. But the Romans were not very charmed by this approach. They dismissed Fabius and elected two consuls instead, who gave battle to Hannibal in the Battle of Cannae, which was even a worse defeat for the Romans than the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Apparently, Fabius’s strategy of avoiding and exhausting was not so bad. Even more, the same method was used by the Russian generals Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia and occupied Moscow. In this case the strategy was a big success and Napoleon was forced to leave Russia, which actually meant the end of his reign. Of course, Montaigne couldn’t have known about Napoleon, but without a doubt a few other such instances would have come to his mind. If he would have written about them, I think he would have given his essay the title “Whether one must always directly confront an enemy” and the upshot would have been that procrastination is not always as bad as it looks on the face of it.

Monday, November 04, 2013

In Montaigne’s footsteps

The house where Montaigne stayed in Bagni di Lucca

When I was in Tuscany some years ago, I suddenly realized that Montaigne had been there, too, on his trip to Germany and from there to Italy. But where exactly had he been? I seemed to remember only vaguely that he must have stayed some time in Bagni di Lucca, but I wasn’t sure of it. I had a book on Montaigne with me, but it didn’t talk about Montaigne’s tour. It was purely philosophical. I had no Internet connection at my disposal (smartphones did not yet exist, for instance), so how to find out where Montaigne had been in Tuscany? In the end, I skipped the idea to visit the places where he had stayed, although I was a bit disappointed, also because I was so stupid not to think of it, when I prepared my trip.
But now, I had a second chance. My wife and I had planned to visit the region again and this time I was well prepared. I had reread the relevant passages of Montaigne’s travel journal and I had previewed the places where he stayed on the Internet.
Our hotel was just north of Lucca and after our arrival our first trip was to Bagni di Lucca. We followed the same road Montaigne had taken in 1581 on the right bank of the River Serchio, stream up. The typical high bridge just north of Borgo a Mozzano described by Montaigne was still there. Today only pedestrians are allowed to use it. Had it really been possible to ride over the bridge with a cart 400 years ago? For the bridge was very steep and rather narrow. But Montaigne and his company had only horses with them.
We crossed the Serchio via a modern bridge and soon we were in Bagni. First we walked a bit through the little town. Then we went to the tourist office. They had a book with names of all famous and less famous people who had stayed in Bagni. Montaigne was certainly not the only person who had got the idea to cure there, in his case because he suffered from kidney stones. The healing power of the springs was already known in Roman times and Montaigne tells us that many people from the surrounding area used to spend the summer there. Especially in the 19th century it was a popular health resort, but today the bloom days of the spa seem to have gone.
Montaigne had rented rooms in a house in La Villa, a residential quarter a bit separate from the actual town, mainly existing of mansions and villas. The road leading to it is rather steep but from here you have a view on the roofs of the houses of Bagni. Where the road enters La Villa, there is a little square. To the left I see the stately mansion where Montaigne had passed many weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1581 and then again in August and September. The house is not open to the public but a plaquette tells us that Montaigne has stayed here 74 days all together. In front of the building, where once coaches were parked, now modern cars take their places. The mansion has been built against a slope. A staircase on the right side brings us to a garden on the level of the top floor of the house. Actually it’s not more than a lawn. A mountain wall closes the garden on the backside. A basin with a tap has been built in it. Was it already there in the days of Montaigne and has he used the tap then? As such it’s a bit a strange idea for me to imagine that the man must have gone there where I am now stepping in his footprints so to speak.
We walked a bit around the house and I absorbed the scene as well as I could. Then we went down again to the centre of Bagni. Later on our trip we met Montaigne yet a few times more. In Siena, for instance. According to Montaigne, its square is the most beautiful to be found anywhere. The square is beautiful, indeed, but it is clear that Montaigne hasn’t been in Brussels (or was the “Grand Place” not so beautiful in his days, as it is today? Anyway, Montaigne hasn’t been there). In the spa of Bagno Vignoni we saw the large basin with hot water, which has also been described by Montaigne. What surprises me is that he hasn’t visited the battle field near Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal defeated the Roman army in one of the most famous ambushes in military history. Montaigne needed only to make a little detour in order to go there. It’s true; there are no medicinal springs nearby. But isn’t it so that his interest was usually much wider than that, also when travelling? We can learn a lot of his openness for new experiences and his receptivity to new customs and habits, also on his travels abroad.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friendship between books

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog on choosing books in an eclectic way or rather on “reading broadly”, as I called my blog. I argued that reading broadly lays a better foundation for understanding the specific and maybe narrow topics you are interested in. I had to think of it, when I happened to read a novel by the German author Walter Flex on his friendship with Ernst Wuche during the First World War. I see you thinking already: This is again a case of eclectic reading, for what has a novel on the First World War to do with the themes discussed in these blogs? “Maybe nothing and yet maybe a lot”, is my reply. However, here I don’t want to talk about the direct relevance of these novels for “my” philosophy and philosophy in general but about eclecticism.
Flex’s novel is on friendship and especially on his relation with Ernest Wuche. In a certain sense the book can be compared with Montaigne’s essay “On friendship” dedicated to his friend Étienne de La Boétie, who had died a few years before Montaigne wrote it. Also Flex wrote his novel after his friend’s death. Flex meets Wuche for the first time when they received officer training somewhere in Germany. They clicked immediately with each other, just like Montaigne and La Boétie. And also the friendship between Flex and Wuche was short lasting but intensive. A difference is that Flex wasn’t there when Wuche died, although he was present at his burial. Also Flex, like Montaigne, couldn’t forget his friend and thinking of him made him depressive. This made Montaigne write his Essays and Flex write his novel Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten (The Wanderer between Two Worlds).
On the train to the Eastern Front, Flex and Wuche got into conversation. They talked about books. Wuche is an avid reader, and also in the trenches and behind the frontline he read a lot (as many other soldiers did, on both sides of the front). Flex tells how Wuche gets a few books from his knapsack: An anthology of Goethe, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the New Testament in a special edition for soldiers. “Is this compatible with each other?”, Flex asked. Wuche smiled and said: “In the trenches all sorts of people who do not know each other are forced to comradeship. It’s the same with books as it is with people. They may be very different – they need to be only strong and honest and be able to hold out, this gives the best comradeship.”
Must I add anything to it? Good books do not need to fit objectively, as long as they fit in the mind of the reader.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The power of words (2)

In my blog last week I wrote about Simone Weil’s analysis of the use of empty words in politics. Later this phenomenon has been exposed so well by George Orwell. The slogan “War is Peace” from his novel 1984 is a good example of how meaningless words can be used for manipulation. Weil gives also a few instances of vague words with a baleful influence on the practice of politics, just because of this vagueness: nation, security, democracy … Still today these words are often used for justifying political measures and even war. The problem is not that these words have to be skipped from our vocabulary (I certainly do not want to deny that the idea of democracy is important!). The problem is that, so Weil, “each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean … anything whatsoever” (242). Nevertheless, “we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related to one or another or to any concrete facts.” (243) Many fights are fought only in the name of abstract words that haven’t been translated into concrete aims. With right Weil speaks here of “lethal absurdity” (243).
“The prime specimen [of this lethal absurdity] is the antagonism between nations”, Weil continues. Nothing could be more true, if one realizes that the nations that a few years after she had written these words begun to fight against each other in one of the most lethal wars in history, six years after the end of this war concluded a treaty of cooperation transferring powers of these same nations to a supranational organ: The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), one of the foundations of the present European Community. The ECSC exemplifies what Weil writes just after the quotation: that national rivalries are meaningless in the light of many international networks that exist at the same time, and that, for instance, “the German steel industry may be regarded with hostility by producers of steel goods in France; but it makes little difference to the mining companies whether the iron of Lorraine [in France] is worked in France or Germany…” (243). How absurd would the establishment of an organisation like the ECSC would have sounded when Weil wrote this at the end of the 1930s!
In view of the many actual relations in the world between individuals, groups, companies and peoples, the relations between national states is only one way of how we go along with each other globally. The importance of it is simply overstressed. However, the interest of the nation cannot be in the relations with people outside the nation; it would mean that the nation would disaffirm itself. According to Weil, a study of history has shown that its interest is in its capacity to make war. Weil doesn’t say it, but I think that this can be reduced to the sociological phenomenon of ingroup-outgroup, which explains much of the social behaviour of man. Here, I cannot take notice of this complex problem, but in the end it makes that man is prepared to use violence in order to defend its own group, the ingroup, against the outgroup. “Right or wrong my country”, as the British say (and not only they do!). As soon as we see this, much of what happens internationally becomes comprehensible: “What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war; petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict. Thus when war is waged it is for the purpose of safeguarding or increasing one’s capacity to make war.” (244) However, as the singer Country Joe McDonald song in his famous chorus of the “Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag”: “What are we fighting for?”. What are the real interests of a nation? Again Weil puts the finger on the problem: “If the countries were divided by a real opposition of interests, it would be possible to arrive at satisfactory compromises. But when economic and political interests have no meaning apart from war, how can they peacefully be reconciled? It is the very concept of the nation that needs to be suppressed – or rather, the manner in which the word is used”. (245) That’s what’s done today by the European Union, for instance. The EU has been successful insofar since its foundation no war has been fought anymore between its member countries, although before the history of the relations between these countries has been a history of war (so the Netherlands, “my” country, fought at least four wars against Britain; an eighty years lasting war against Spain; several wars against France; one against Belgium; one against Germany and others against its founding states; etc.). How sad then that the EU meets with so much nationalistic opposition now. “For the word national and the expressions of which it forms part are empty of all meaning; their only content is millions of corpses, and orphans, and disabled men, and tears and despair.” (245)
The quotations are from “The power of words" in Simone Weil, An Anthology, London: Penguin Books, 2005. Here you can listen to the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag:

Monday, October 07, 2013

The power of words

Actually I didn’t need to write a blog, this week. Instead I could past Simone Weil’s essay “The power of words” here and then I would have a clear political comment on the world events of today. For Weil’s criticism of what was happening in the world around here is eternal. Or must I say, following Nietzsche, that history repeats itself? For, when writing this essay, Weil was not practising futurology but she was disclosing the hidden reality of contemporary political conflicts.
What Simone Weil (1909-1943) saw in many conflicts of her time (she wrote the essay on the eve of World War II) was that they were empty in purpose or rather that they didn’t have a clear purpose at all: “… they are conflicts with no definable objective” (p. 240). But just this kind of conflicts, are the most dangerous, Weil goes on: “The whole of history bears witness that it is precisely such conflicts that are the most bitter”. (ibid.) In a conflict where the stakes are well-defined, each combatant can judge whether the efforts and pains are worth the possible gains, Weil explains. “But when there is no objective there is no longer any common measure or proportion; no balance or comparison of alternatives is possible, and compromise is inconceivable” (241). Then only the past costs, especially the number of victims, count and just this is often a reason to continue. What we see then is that each combatant picks an object from its gamut of possible purposes and writes it with capital letters. Then the combatant says: THIS is our purpose. But often this purpose is empty. It’s just a word. “But when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruins in their name, without effectively grasping anything to which they refer, since what they refer to can never have any reality, for the simple reason that they mean nothing.” (241). Then, the only measure of success is that you are able to bash the brains of your “enemy” in.
The part of the essay I just summarized contains only one aspect of Weil’s comments, but only this analysis is enough to make it a “brilliant essay”, as Siân Miles, who wrote an introduction to it, calls it. Referring to Homer’s Iliad and Early Rome, she wrote an attack on French foreign policy of her time, and without a doubt she was also thinking of the ideological conflicts of her days between nazism, communism and western capitalism c.q. democracy. And she thought of the First World War, of course, which was still fresh in the minds of many Europeans and which might have finished earlier, if the politicians hadn’t been so stubborn. However, it is not difficult to apply Weil’s words to the political events after the Second World War as well. Although the Cold War remained cold between the countries immediately concerned (the western countries versus Russia and Eastern Europe), because of the emptiness of the conflict and its aimlessness it lasted more than forty years. The consequences of this conflict about words, or ideological struggle as it is usually called, were bigger in the regions where the ideological differences led to hot war. Then one has to think of the Vietnam War in the first place, where what was initially a war for independence dragged along so long, because it was reinterpreted in ideological terms.
Weil’s analysis can also easily be applied today when we think of what Samuel Huntington called a clash of civilizations and what can also be seen as a clash of religions. For what is actually the “definable objective” of the attack on the Twin Towers in the sense that if this or that has been reached war is over? It’s also a war that is drags along since then because of the vagueness of the aims of the terrorist attacks. And, by the way, here, too, we see that history repeats itself, as becomes clear when we read Albert Camus’s analysis of anarchistic terrorism around 1900 in his L’homme revolté (translated into English as The Rebel). For although the justifications for terrorism may have changed, its form and dynamics have remained almost exactly the same more than hundred years later. But back to Weil, her analysis is brilliant because she disclosed a phenomenon and laid her finger on a problem that were not only important in her time but that apparently are eternal. “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

The quotations from “The power of words" have been taken from Simone Weil, An Anthology, London: Penguin Books, 2005.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Reading broadly

Eclectic selection

Once someone told me that my choice of books is quite eclectic. As soon as I had finished Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, I started to read an anthology of Simone Weil, which I happened to find in a book shop when I was on holiday in Estonia this summer. I must admit that Schopenhauer and Weil are very different kinds of philosophers, but does this mean that my choice is really so eclectic? For what kinds of books I read, already since many years the philosophy of mind and action is at the centre of my field of interest; and also a theme that I am concerned with already much longer: non-violence. As I see it now, this will still remain so for the time to come, although you never know what will happen. Alternatively, however, one can say that at the forefront of my philosophical thinking are the questions I have chosen as the subtitle of my most recent book: Who am I? What do I do? (which is expressed also in my blogs here). Seen in that light, books like Schopenhauer’s or Weil’s are not more than side-roads for me.
Be it as it is, I think that actually it would be better if many philosophers would have a wider choice of reading than they have. How often doesn’t it happen that I read a philosophical article or book and I think: What is asserted here is absolutely not according to the facts. This author trusts too much his intuition and if he had read a bit about the theme, he would have known that it is simply not right, what is said here, or at least it is doubtful and needs more discussion or it needs some evidential support instead of relying only on intuition. Often this happens when the philosopher concerned supposes something intuitively about how the mind works or about social behaviour. So many new discoveries have been done in brain research and so much has been discovered about how the minds works in recent years, that the days are gone, I think, that one can philosophize only or mainly on the base of intuition about such themes. And also society is often more complicated than an intuitive feeling can bring to the light. It would be good for philosophy, if it would be more eclectic in a certain sense. How the world is shaped cannot be thought out intuitively, to formulate it succinctly.
Coming back to Simone Weil, hadn’t I seen that anthology of her work in an Estonian book shop, maybe I would never have read a word of her writings, which has yet been so influential, although Weil was philosophically a bit of a loner. Her philosophy touches central themes of life and Weil herself participated in the main events of her time (the labour movement; the resistance against the Nazi occupation of her country France). While reading her work, again and again I discovered insights that I discussed here in my blogs from the viewpoints of other philosophers or researchers. Take for example this. In her “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” Weil writes: “… the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature. Possessed by war, he … becomes a thing, though his manner of doing is so different – over him, too, words are as powerful as over matter itself. And both, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb.” And a few sentences further, she goes on: “It is not the planning man, the man of strategy, the man acting on the resolution taken, who wins or loses a battle; battles are fought and decided by men deprived of these faculties, men who have undergone a transformation, who have dropped either to the level of inert nature, which is pure passivity, or to the level of blind force, which is pure momentum. Herein lies the last secret of war …”. And I wanted to add: and of much of what we else do in life.
But isn’t this what Hannah Arendt has written down later when she discussed the banality of evil and in fact holds the thesis that what we do is determined to a large extent by the situation we are in? That we are carried away by the dynamics of the situation we are in, which tends to push away our individuality and our faculty of independent thought? Isn’t it the same as what Philip Zimbardo experimentally demonstrated in the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”? That the situation often makes us do things we would never have done if we would (and could) have taken time for reflection? Reading “broadly” helps you see connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It helps you also to come into touch with authors who are interesting as such, irrespective of their wider meanings, like Simone Weil.

Note: The quotations are from Simone Weil. An anthology, Penguin Books, London, 2005; pp. 204-5.  What I wrote in my blogs about Arendt and Zimbardo can be found back by using the searching machine on this website.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On rumination


When I stand on the shoulders of other people (see last week) and I am the one at the top, how do I come higher? Once being there I have the risk that I ruminate what those others below me have thought out before and that I see it as something new. If that happens, my thinking has become an obstacle for my thinking. Then, it’s time to spring down and to do something. Act! Gather new experiences! But isn’t this what most of us fear?
Actually, my physical constitution says already so, for why else should I have not only such a big brain (the thinking system in my head) but also such refined hands (typically made for doing)?  Isn’t it so that they represent the two sides of what I am? They express the two aspects of my existence. These aspects are dependent on each other and cannot do without each other. As such they exclude each other but nevertheless they supplement each other, too, and seen that way they are complementary, in the way the German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel has described so well in a different context. Thereby they make up human life, which is made for thinking and acting, anyhow.
More on Apel in my PhD thesis (see left) and in older blogs.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Actually what I write down here are mainly thoughts about thoughts, or meta-thoughts. Some time ago, in a blog called “What thinking can” (Jan. 14, 2013), I wrote also about meta-thinking but from another perspective. There I discussed the question whether meta-thinking (and thinking as such) influences our behaviour. I think it does. Even more, it’s an important means for stimulating our basic thinking and that’s what I want to talk about here.
My written work has always been full of quotations. Not only my blogs are but I begun extensively quoting already long ago when I wrote papers as a student. I used citations  as a kind of evidence for my thoughts, but when looking for them and when reading the articles or books where I found them, they stimulated my thoughts as well and they led to new ideas in me. The thoughts of other writers made me think and brought me to new meta-thoughts. Therefore, I do not understand why some authors commit plagiarism. I am happy that I can stand on the shoulders of other people and that I can go to the top by doing so. And also that I can give the opportunity to others to stand on my shoulders. By committing plagiarism you run away for yourself – apart from what is further wrong with it–, for have you ever seen a person who shaped his own world without any help? Once I said to a photographer: “When I make photos, actually I copy what others have already done”. When I photograph a shop-window, for instance, I simply copy the work of the window-dresser. “No”, he said, “you give your own view of it and you put it into your perspective, and just that makes your contribution special”. It’s true, I think. To take another example, there is much misery in the world, but by making pictures of it, the cameraman doesn’t make an objective report but makes other people taking action. So, for philosophy we can say that meta-thinking helps take the best in a person out, and I think the more so if you consciously admit what you are doing.
One of the thinkers who most of all used this method was – my dear readers will have guessed already his name – Montaigne. His works is full of quotations from and references to the works of other authors, especially classical authors. Montaigne did not hesitate to mention those who influenced his thoughts and brought him to the ideas that still make him famous today. There are even some essays in which he mentions this approach explicitly in the title. One is his “Of a saying of Caesar”. Referring to a quotation from Lucretius Montaigne says there: “Whatever it is that falls into our knowledge and possession, we find that it satisfies not, and we still pant after things to come and unknown, inasmuch as those present do not suffice for us; not that, in my judgment, they have not in them wherewith to do it, but because we seize them with an unruly and immoderate haste”. I do not know whether Schopenhauer was aware of this passage, but in his The World as Will and Representation we find it as the idea that man quickly becomes bored and again and again looks for new activities. For Schopenhauer it is an argument that to live is to suffer since man is continuously desiring, without ever being satisfied. For Montaigne this restless searching means, following Epicurus, that we don’t know how to enjoy in the right way. And since we think that it is our own fault, we look for support elsewhere and outside us and give it honour and respect. Or as Caesar formulated it according to Montaigne: “ ‘Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things unseen, concealed, and unknown.”
Trust yourself and do not only stand on the shoulders of others, but find out also whose shoulders they are. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Deceiving oneself

In this room, where he used to work in winter, Montaigne wrote on the wall (in Latin):
“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Wittgenstein says somewhere that nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. Maybe I walked into this trap, when I wrote at the end of my last blog that “although my body may fail the mind still is as fresh as since I was a child” (but then Schopenhauer walked into the same trap as well). It’s true that I added to this statement “or so I think”. Moreover, since I was talking about a feeling, I couldn’t be wrong. For although a feeling may not be the right one at a certain place or in certain circumstances, it cannot be false. One has a feeling, whether one wants to have it or whether one doesn’t want to have it. In the latter case one can be ashamed about it.
Nevertheless, maybe Montaigne was more to the point when he wrote in the essay “Of age” that the mind does deteriorate, whether one thinks so or whether one doesn’t think so. And he adds “by how much the more it is a disease of no great pain to the sufferer, and of obscure symptoms, so much greater is the danger”. In other words, often you don’t notice it, and then it’s a dangerous phenomenon, like a hidden disease. When one becomes older “[v]ivacity, promptitude, steadiness, and other pieces of us … languish and decay”, so Montaigne. “Anyhow”, I would say. “Sometimes the body first submits to age, sometimes the mind”, Montaigne rightly states, and in the end it is this process that will make that one doesn’t feel young in the mind anymore and that the mental feelings adapt to the condition of the body.
Until fifty or forty years ago or so most sportsmen stopped being active when they were about thirty years old. The idea was not only that above this age the body was not fit enough for top sport any longer, but also that sport was something for the young and that after this age it was time to build up a career. Sport and career couldn’t go together and sport at a later age was “not done” in a certain sense. In case one did continue doing sport (and in fact, there were still a lot of people who did, although not as many as today), doing sport was something that you had to take not too serious or not serious at all.
How much has changed since then. Sport has not only become an important part of the lives of older people, sport at a later age is also stimulated, and no longer it is seen as an activity that is actually not to be taken seriously and that doesn’t fit with a career. Not only has it become clear that sport at a top level can be done past the age of thirty as well, but also how fanatic older sportsmen can be! As if they were twenty years old. And is there something wrong with it? Is there something wrong with feeling younger than you are? Sometimes and maybe often it is. But as often it isn’t. And then, although the body languishes and decays, there is nothing against doing as if the mind doesn’t, even if you are deceiving yourself (or so I think).

Monday, September 02, 2013

Feeling onself

"... although my body may fail the mind still is as fresh as since I was a child (or so I think)."

The idea that to life is to suffer has a subjective and a objective aspect. Whether my life is miserable or happy depends to a large extent also on the way I, the person who lives the life, see it. Some people are happy and optimistic by nature. Other people have a depressive and pessimistic character. Something can be done about this but not everything. On the other hand, according to Montaigne, whether a life was happy as a whole can be judged only once it has come to an end, for the final part of the drama of life can give yet a turn to the way we judge the life of the person concerned as a whole. The end of a life puts a life into perspective, as we can say. There is some truth in Montaigne’s view and maybe there is much truth in it, but is it the whole truth? I think it is the truth of history but it needs not to be the truth of the carrier of the life. To put it differently, we must make a distinction between the third person’s perspective or objective perspective of man and the first person’s perspective or subjective perspective. Despite what others say about me, during my life or after it, finally it is only the subjective perspective that counts for me. When I feel unhappy it is no help for me that other persons say that I am happy, how much truth there may be in it. And although other people may say that my life is happy as a whole, I (and any person whoever) live from moment to moment. I live in the now. With this I do not mean that I ramble from one subject to another and that I do not make any planning of my activities at all, like that I think only about getting food at the moment that I become hungry, so that I have no food at home just when I need it. But the way I feel, is always in the now. I can try to suppress my “true” feelings; I can try to cheer myself up, if necessary; good memories can make me happy and the future can make me worry; but all this takes always place in the now and is from the perspective of the now.
I wonder what these remarks have all to do with it, but I got these thoughts, when I read an observation by Schopenhauer, which says something that I had noticed already long ago: “… however old we become, we yet feel within that we are entirely the same as we were when we were young, nay, when we were still children”. This is typically a judgment from the first person’s perspective. For whatever other people say of me, and how much younger people (and older people, too) see me as “that old man” with his old-fashioned or weird ideas and habits, for me the present feeling of myself is and has already been during my whole life that I am the same person as I always was, at least mentally, for although my body may fail the mind still is as fresh as since I was a child (or so I think).

Monday, August 26, 2013

Our experiences are rarely pure

When I commented on Schopenhauer’s statement that to life is to suffer, my point was that it is oversimplified. Suffering is not the background noise of everything we do, not to speak of the thread through life. Rather I think that suffering and happiness are personal experiences brought about by the personal and individual happenings of life. In fact, everything is possible and what will be the case depends on where you live and in what circumstances, on your personality type and character, and on much more. There are moments and periods that we are happy and moments and periods that we are unhappy and that we are suffering. For some or maybe many or even most the latter may prevail, for others perhaps the former. This doesn’t imply that happiness or suffering is inherent in life, although one might tend to think that the latter is, if one realizes what is happening in many places in the world. Maybe life was so different in Schopenhauer’s days that for him it was the natural way to think so and maybe it still is in many parts of the present world.
Nevertheless, Montaigne, who lived a few centuries before Schopenhauer, had a more balanced view on life, I think. Montaigne didn’t ask whether the foundation of life is suffering or happiness, or whatever, but he wrote a lot about experiences and facts of life and what they mean for us. While Schopenhauer stressed that actually life is suffering, according to Montaigne pure experiences do not exist, as we can see in his essay “That we taste nothing pure” (Book 2, XX). Both our joys and our sorrows, both our positive experiences and our negative experiences are mixed and contain at least a bit of the opposite. “Of the pleasure and goods that we enjoy, there is not one exempt from some mixture of ill and inconvenience”, as he says there,  which he illustrates with a quotation from Lucretius: “From the very fountain of our pleasure, something rises that is bitter, which even in flowers destroys”. “Our extremest pleasure has some sort of groaning and complaining in it…”, so Montaigne.
On the other hand, Montaigne refers to Metrodorus, who remarked “that in sorrow there is some mixture of pleasure”. Although Montaigne seems not to be completely sure what Metrodorus meant by it, he adds that it can be seen that way, for instance, that “there is some shadow of delight and delicacy which smiles upon and flatters us even in the very lap of melancholy.” The “confusion” between joy and sadness can be seen well, when painters hold, so Montaigne, “that the same motions and grimaces of the face that serve for weeping; serve for laughter too”. This is actually an exemplification of the fact that both pure delight and pure sorrow do not exist. And I think that for most people it’s the same for suffering and happiness. Schopenhauer interpreted the world that way that everything we do has at least a shade of suffering if it is not suffering in disguise or suffering right away. But wouldn’t a more optimistic mind have said that the reverse is the case and have called happiness the essence of life? But in view of what Montaigne says we can ask whether any pure principle of life exists at all.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Can one desire without suffering?

Despite the remark by Schopenhauer quoted in my last blog and my comment on it, the main function of books remains that they are there for being read. So, I didn’t stop reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation after the preface. But when to read such a thick book of nearly thousand pages if one has no special reason for doing it besides simply wanting to take note of its contents? I always read a lot when I am on holiday, so I put it in my luggage for my summer travel and I begun reading it from the first day on. But even then I haven’t finished it yet, also because I have read two other books at the same time (and because I am not on holiday for reading, of course, but for getting new impressions). I still have about half of the book to go. Nevertheless I can give some first thoughts.
What I found most striking in the book till now is what I see as its central theme, namely: Das Leben ist ein Leiden, or, in English: To live is to suffer. For Schopenhauer suffering is part of the human condition. It is the consequence of the fact that we always are busy striving for things. People never do nothing or they become bored. We always have desires, so Schopenhauer, and we want to fulfil them. These desires can be small things or they can be big things, such as wanting to read a book (like the one by Schopenhauer); making a travel; having a special job; and so on (the examples are mine). As long as the desired goals haven’t been attained we are more or less unhappy and we keep looking for ways to achieve them. However, once a wish has been fulfilled, we are happy for only a short moment. In another blog of mine you can read that such “moments of happiness” last three months at most according to present insights in psychology. Then we become bored. We begin looking for other desires and the process starts again, so Schopenhauer. That’s why he says that desiring, and human life in general, is suffering: Life is the striving to fulfil unfulfilled wishes. It is mainly a matter of being dissatisfied with what one has and so of wanting to have it better, but this is basically impossible.
Is it true? When one looks at the portrait of Schopenhauer on the cover of his book, I see a happy man and not someone who is suffering. But maybe it’s merely a pose. Be it as it is, I want to state that by and large Schopenhauer’s thesis is false. I agree that people become bored after some time once a desire has come true, so they start to strive again. It shows that man is made for acting. But does this make suffering the foundation of life? I think that there is much that denies it. When I want to start a new project, once one has finished, this doesn’t mean that I am unhappy because my last project has come to an end; even not after three months. I have done a lot in my life long ago that I still enjoy when thinking of it. The thought of having done it still makes me happy. Moreover, no person is trying to fulfil wishes one after another. One is always trying to do several things at the same time. Career, being a good parent, being a good sportsman, being a good club member, having relations with other people, to mention only a few things, are activities one does simultaneously. Most times moments of happiness and moments of being less happy go together. Life is a stream of concurrent activities, which are often a pleasure to do. And even if these activities are guided by aims, achieving these aims needs not be most important of what one is doing. Often it’s so that going on the road is more important than reaching the end of the road. The desire as such is often less important than Schopenhauer thinks. It is often a guide and not a purpose as such: One can be happy in the doing as such; not only for a moment by the fact that a wish has been fulfilled. All this makes, I think, that suffering is rather an extreme phenomenon of life than a basic fact of life.
But it is true that once I have finished Schopenhauer’s book, I want to read another one (not counting the fact that I am always reading several books at the same time), but it doesn’t involve that I am continuously suffering.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The function of books

Four years ago I posted here a photo of my study by way of illustration of a blog: The walls of the room are full of books, as you can see; not only the one in the picture, but also the other walls. Once I have finished reading a book, I put it there. The books yet to be read have a special shelf. Books are the wall paper of my study, so to speak.
I have uploaded the photo of my study also to a social networking website. People there often ask me: Have you read all those books? Actually, I find it a bit a silly question. For why else should I have my books? Okay, I did not read the dictionaries and the atlases, for one doesn’t “read” such books but one uses them. But I have read my books insofar they have been published for reading in the normal sense. All of them? I must admit that the answer is “no”. Indeed, there are a few books that I didn’t read for some reasons, or I did only for a part. Why? Some had been so long on the waiting shelf that I wondered why I had ever bought them. Again and again I postponed reading them, because other books I had bought later looked more attractive and got a preferential treatment. Now I have solved the problem by reading books more or less in the order I have bought them: It has no sense to read a book ten years later when your interest has changed. Another reason why I sometimes postponed reading a book is that it looked so difficult to me that I found it better to read it with extra attention instead of reading it quickly and a bit superficially, as I often do. However, I did not make time for doing it and in the end the book came in the “Why had I ever bought it?” category. And there are also those books that I started to read but I found them so boring or incomprehensible or obscure that I put them aside before having finished reading them. Without a doubt there are other reasons why I didn’t read some books, but these are some of the most important. In fact, it didn’t happen so often so when asked “Have you read all those books?” I can honestly answer: “Yes, I did, or at least, say, 95% of them”.
Nevertheless, I always feel myself a bit ashamed when admitting that I haven’t read all, for in the end that’s why I bought them. But is this feeling right? Maybe my idea that books are there only for being read is too narrow minded. I got the idea that they can have other functions, too, when I read Arthur Schopenhauer’s preface to the first edition of his The World as Will and Representation, where he said:

“The reader … has bought the book for cash, and asks how he is to be indemnified. My last refuge is now to remind him that he knows how to make use of a book in several ways, without exactly reading it. It may fill a gap in his library as well as many another, where, neatly bound, it will certainly look well. Or he can lay it on the toilet-table or the tea-table of some learned lady friend. Or, finally, what certainly is best of all, and I specially advise it, he can review it.”

When writing this blog, I still have to read the rest of Schopenhauer’s book, which will be quite a job, for it has nearly thousand pages. But even if I’ll not succeed to read it till the end, I’ll have learned at least one thing: A book can have many functions. Using it as wall paper is acceptable even if you haven’t read it (so Schopenhauer). Improving the relation with an intelligent lady friend is good, too (how about a gentleman friend? Schopenhauer doesn’t talk about it). Writing about it makes also sense (it seems that Schopenhauer supposes that you do not need to read a book in order to criticise it). And certainly there are more usefull applications for a book as well (like supporting a wobbling table). And in the end a book has another possible function as well, for you can read it, too.