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.