Monday, March 25, 2013

What to read on holiday

I read a lot, especially when I am on holiday. Reading is just a part of my holiday and a holiday without reading is no real holiday for me. Also when I am travelling around and spend a big part of my day on moving, sight-seeing, visiting interesting sites and museums, and – not to forget – on making photos, there is always time for a book. However, on holiday I read other stuff than I do at home. What do I read then? Usually not philosophy but if I do it’s on philosophical subjects that are different from what I normally read. But I read history, for instance; a lot of history. Sometimes I read a novel and further anything else for which I don’t have time when I am at home or that I simply failed to read there. The books may have a relation to the region or town I visit, but often they haven’t.
I also buy books on holiday. I cannot pass a bookshop without at least taking a glance at what they sell. It’s very interesting to see what people elsewhere read and what makes the place I visit interesting in the eyes of the inhabitants. And, of course, often I don’t leave the shop with empty hands. Not uncommonly I buy something philosophical, something that’s difficult to get in my own town, or something that attracts my attention. In a strange bookshop you always find interesting books that you can’t buy at home or just failed to see there.
Lately during a weekend trip in my country, I bought something in a local bookshop, and, because it was Book Week, I got also a free book written by the Dutch author Kees van Kooten. Back in my holiday home, I opened it and immediately my eye was caught by this text:
“Who reads other books than local or regional publications when on holiday offends not only the local culture of the destination chosen but wastes moreover his precious holiday time”.
Actually, I should have brought the book back to the shop, for this free book had no relation at all with the town I visited, nor did the book I had bought. As just said, most books I read on holiday have no relation to the region I visit, and even less so I read local or regional publications. But is the quotation true? I think that it shows quite a limited view on why it is that we are on holiday. And I can say that since just I go often to rather unknown regions hardly visited by any tourist or it must be a lost Dutchman. Just for getting an impression how a country is like outside the well-trodden tourist paths.
You can be on holiday for many reasons and getting to know another region and going into the local culture is only one of them. Many people go on holiday for relaxing, lying on the beach or simply being away from work and home in an exotic or at least different environment. If they come back home mentally and physically fit and well, the holiday is a success. Then local culture is simply a decoration that makes such a holiday more effective; it’s not something you really need to know about. Other people go on holiday for visiting museums and places of cultural or historical interest. Or for practicing sport under circumstances they cannot do at home, like cycling in the mountains for Dutchmen. I can list many other reasons for taking a holiday, but I think that my point is clear: whether reading something different than local or regional publications is a waste of time depends on the reason why you are there. And often one goes on holiday for a mixture of reasons. For me, one of them is just reading the stuff that I didn’t get round to read at home. And be sure, if I am back from a trip to the unknown interior of this or that country, I know a lot of its local or regional culture, characteristics and curiosities, even though I have read a lot that has no relation to it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Freedom and sticking with our choices

Philosophers generally accept that being free is a matter of having alternative choices. However, Harry G. Frankfurt showed that I can be free even when I had no choice, because the alternative chosen appeared to be my only possible choice (see my blogs dated Feb. 23, 2012, and Sep 3, 2012). Nevertheless, often real choices exist. Then I am free, anyway. Okay, I have yet to execute my decision, but after having done so, I can say that I have performed a free action. But is having alternatives enough for being free? For as Richard Holton says: “[I]t is not making the choice that is difficult, it is sticking with it”. Can I say that I am free if I can choose from alternatives and if I have begun executing my choice, but don’t bring the action to an end, although it was under my control to accomplish it?
Let’s say that I take the New Year’s resolution to lose ten kilos in the year to come so that I’ll get my ideal weight. I begin to eat healthier food and to eat more moderately; I don’t take crisps and the like any longer on parties; and so on. In short, I do everything I need do in order to lose weight and at the end of the year I have achieved my aim.
On the same New Year’s Day my friend John calls me and says that he has also decided to lose ten kilos. I tell him that I had taken the same decision and I propose to support each other, which he accepts.
Ten days later John and I are at a reception, and I see John eating chocolate and crisps, while I don’t. So, I ask him: “Have you changed your plan to lose weight?” “No”, John says, “but these Belgian bonbons are delicious and a few crisps don’t care. I know what I do and I’ll certainly reach my aim”. And so it goes on. John keeps eating too much and too fat, although he is absolutely aware of what he is doing and although he perfectly knows that he has to behave otherwise. Each time he slips up. Although he said then first to himself “Shall I take it, or shall I not?”, most times he cannot resist the temptation, despite my warnings, if I am there. John is fully aware that he behaves contrary to his New Year’s resolution and that each time he can decide otherwise and that it is up to him to stop eating too much. Sometimes he really refuses the sweets and fat food he likes so much. But after a few months, his scales show that he hasn’t lost even one gram and John decides to give up and to take up the plan next year again.
Now I want to ask: Was I free and was John free? Is it enough to say that we are free if we can and do choose from alternatives, although we don’t carry out the decision? Is freedom simply a matter of just deciding, separate from the action that performs the decision? As we see in my cases: It is one thing to take freely a decision and another thing to carry it out. But can we say that I am free, if I am free to choose from alternatives, although my choice has no practical consequences? Decisions are often taken on psychological grounds, but the same is true when we are faced with the task to carry it out. It seems that this applies to the case of John. We can say that John decided and acted freely each time he took chocolate or crisps or ate too fat food. Nevertheless, we tend to say that some psychological mechanisms that fit his personality type made that again and again he took decisions that blocked his New Year’s resolution. But is John so different from me that we can say that these psychological mechanisms made that he wasn’t free and that he was a slave of his psychology, while I am free, because I achieve my aim? Isn’t it so that fulfilling a decision also requires certain psychological characteristics, anyhow?
I’ll not give an answer or a solution here. However, what my cases seem to suggest is this:
It needs more than simply having the choice from alternatives for being free. Freedom is not only a matter of having alternatives but it is also in some way related to the execution of the choice. For calling someone free we need a kind of time perspective, a thing that clearly fails in the traditional analytic view on it.
Richard Holton, Willing, Wanting, Waiting, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009; pp. 177-8.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Philosophy between armchair and bullets (and on the saddle)

The expression “armchair philosophy” is proverbial. As I explained in my last blog it refers to a kind of philosophy that wears an air of not needing a factual basis or, more extremely, to an attitude that confronting ideas or opinions with the facts is an unnecessary effort. In short, it refers to simple homespun philosophy. Nevertheless, much philosophy literally takes place in an armchair and seen that way it is armchair philosophy. An example of it in due form was the well-known television programme “The Philosophical Quartet” broadcast by the German TV channel ZDF: two philosophers (Peter Sloterdijk and Rüdiger Safranski) discussing philosophical problems with two guests while sitting on two coaches without any other assistance than the ideas and opinions in their brains. (I admit: actually I should have to call it “coach philosophy”; see for instance Also Montaigne was an armchair philosopher in this sense. In my last blog I showed a picture of his armchair and desk in the library in the tower of his castle where he wrote his Essays. The difference is that Montaigne often consulted his books or used his personal experiences.
Is this the usual philosophical practice: sitting in an armchair, maybe in your tower, and letting your thoughts wander through a world of abstract and less abstract ideas? Or, if you philosophize with a group, the same process done in several armchairs plus verbal interaction between the thinkers? The wandering of the thoughts through the world of ideas is inherent to philosophy but I discovered that some of the masterpieces of philosophy and brilliant works of the mind were thought up in quite different and sometimes very extreme circumstances.
Maybe the situation where Descartes came to his idea of Cogito ergo sum – I think so I am – is yet close to the kind of armchair philosophy just discussed. Descartes had taken service in the army of Maximilian I of Bavaria. Once he travelled back from the coronation of the emperor to the army and the winter weather forced him to stop somewhere. While he sat there alone in a “stove” (heated room) because he felt cold and he had nothing else to do than thinking, he got the ideas that would determine western philosophy for four centuries. The story doesn’t tell whether Descartes sat in an armchair in his stove, but at least he was not in his familiar surroundings.
Also Erasmus wrote some of his works during his travels, not only during his stays in the inns along the roads but also on the back of his horse. And that is how Erasmus wrote his famous “In Praise of Folly” on his way back from Italy back to England, as he tells in his introductory letter to Thomas More.
Nietzsche, too, laid the foundation of at least some of his works not in his armchair. Because of his health Nietzsche had moved to the Swiss mountains. There he spent a big part of his days by making long walks during which he enjoyed not only the overwhelming nature around him but which he also used for thinking. Nietzsche had always a notebook with him for writing down the thoughts he found valuable. Back home he worked up his notes resulting in what he called his “wander books”.
So, much outstanding philosophy has not been written in an armchair and therefore isn’t literally armchair philosophy. Also Wittgenstein loved philosophizing elsewhere, for instance pacing up and down the lecture-room in front of his students, saying out loud the thoughts that popped up in his mind (which were noted down and later published by his students). But what beats all, I think, is the way he wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: he made the notes for this book between the bullets of the First World War and completed it when he was a prisoner of war in Italy. What would have happened with the Tractatus if Wittgenstein had been killed in action?
Be that as it may, I must admit that I am only a simple armchair philosopher: I wrote all my books and articles in the armchair on the photo above the blog three weeks ago. Nevertheless, not all my philosophical thoughts developed and still develop there, for sometimes I get my ideas while taking a shower or sitting on the saddle of my bike.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Armchair philosophy (3)

Montaigne's armchair

When I criticized “armchair philosophy” in my last two blogs, I meant the kind of philosophizing that looks more like groundless imagination than well-founded reflection. There is nothing against imagination in philosophy, of course, and imagination can be very useful when considering a certain problem or question. What I reject is that assumptions of imagined cases are unrealistic, and this is what often is the case. It can be said that philosophy begins where science ends, and that they are in line with each other. My criticism is then that too many philosophers forget this, which makes philosophy deficient and unprolific in the long run. That’s just why I so often refer to research results in these blogs: In order to give my analyses of who we are and what we do a solid foundation.
One point of view sees armchair philosophy as philosophy by “somebody who is a complete know-it-all, usually a douchebag or self-declared intellectual. They always feel the need to seem intellectually superior to others, by continuously arguing about any subject they see in media, conversations, etc. and quoting themselves as experts on the subject.” They stick to their opinions, even when confronted with contrary facts, and they feel a need to comment on everything, even “where careful analysis is needed”. ( If this were the only correct view of armchair philosophy, there would be no place for armchair approaches in philosophy. More relevant here is what the Wikipedia says about it, which sees armchair philosophy as “an approach to providing new developments in a field that does not involve the collection of new information but, rather, a careful analysis or synthesis of existent scholarship.” ( And that’s what academic philosophers often do:  trying to bring progress in the field under discussion by means of intuition, intelligent imagination, theoretical insight, and the like. That’s why, as Timothy Williamson says, “[a] striking feature of the traditional armchair method of philosophy is the use of imaginary examples” ( But just this “armchair thinking” has met opposition and led to a new philosophical movement, called “experimental philosophy” or “X-Phi” for short. According to this approach philosophical reasoning must be based on experimental data, philosophical questions can be answered by experimental data, conceptual analysis can be aided by experimental data. But can experimental data lead to philosophical answers, even to that extent that we could better burn our philosophical armchairs? (see for this). I don’t think so. Maybe we can answer some philosophical questions by means of the X-Phi approach, but it doesn’t alter the fact that we need armchair analysis in order to raise the questions that we want to answer in an experimental way, to mention one thing. In a certain sense, it can be defended that actually all philosophy is armchair philosophy. Nevertheless, the X-Phi approach has a point, and as so often, the truth is somewhere in the middle, I think. Albert Einstein, one of the biggest geniuses that ever lived on earth was typically an armchair scientist. But weren’t also Einstein’s conclusions to a large degree founded on the analysis of experimental results? The same must also be expected from armchair philosophers: At least that their analyses and argumentation have a sound factual basis. Otherwise they will result in mere speculation and fantasy. Also an armchair needs a floor to stand on.