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).