Monday, May 26, 2014

The possibility of we-intentions

A part of the gang

The question of responsibility for an action, in case this action has been performed on orders from a superior (see last week) is related to the question whether someone is responsible for the actions of a group s/he belongs to. I have discussed this theme long ago in my blogs, especially in relation to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, so I’ll bypass it. However, it is generally accepted that it is possible to ascribe responsibility to a group, as is done, for instance, when a company as such – and not the individual managers – is sentenced for breaking the Environment Law. Who or what is it then that holds the responsibility? Or in my example, who or what is it then that is sentenced? For normally a sentence is passed only for something that is intentionally done or for what is the result of an action intentionally performed (even if this result hasn’t been foreseen or hasn’t been intended). Since our juridical system makes it possible to prosecute organisations and other formal groups, apparently they are ascribed actions and intentions. This is in line with common parlance, which ascribes intentions and actions to all kinds of groups, formal and informal. “The football team wanted to win in order to avoid relegation.” “The gang decided to beat up the first passer-by”. Such phrases are common use and they have nothing metaphysical and they are seen as reflecting the facts. Nevertheless, I think that it is reasonable to ask what we mean by them. For it’s not Local United that will do its utmost in order to avoid relegation but John, Pete, Charles and the others will do and kick the ball. And it is the same for the gang. For if John, Pete and Charles form a gang after the match (which they have lost) and then attack Henry, the first passer-by who happens to be also the goal keeper of the opponent, it is not a mysterious unity that hurts Henry intentionally, but there are three men of flesh and blood who do.
I think the problem is this. On the one hand a group is made up of individuals agents and it is they who act. On the other hand a group is a real social phenomenon and what a group does cannot be explained by referring to individual agents and simply put them together. For if we see groups only as an aggregate of individual agents, we get something like this: Agents have individual intentions and when they act together they have joined their intentions and have developed a joint commitment. On base of this joint commitment a group intention is formed. This is basically the approach of present-day philosophers like Raimo Tuomela or Michael E. Bratman. A typical case discussed by them is painting a house together. The approach sounds quite Thatcherian, for in the end it sees cooperating only a matter of bringing people together in the right way (and that’s why Thatcher thought that there are no societies but only individuals – and families at most). What this approach forgets, however, is that intentions and the ways they are put together do not come out of the blue. They are based on the possibilities, rules, associations etc. that an agent happens to find already present when s/he “decides” to act or develops intentions. It is this what is already there that determines and structures what an agent wants to want (and not just wishes to want) and what this agent factually can do and will do (within a certain latitude; it’s true). These “existences” or “availabilities” or how we would call them (structure, culture) are the foundations of our we-intentions or group intentions. It’s an idea that is a consequence of Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory and actually it is a concise rephrasing of this theory in a we-intentional wording. It sounds quite Marxian, indeed, but it is Marxian only for a part. For it is not without reason that I said that an agent has a certain latitude when s/he is going to act in a certain situation. For every situation where an agent has to act needs both to be interpreted (“what am I supposed to do?”; “what can I do?”; etc.) and it leaves room for choices: our elbow room. Sometimes our elbow room is limited; sometimes it is very large. And here, and especially in the latter case, the first (“Thatcherian”) approach becomes valid, namely the freedom to choose our own joint intentions and commitments. Only then and there we can say: we can leave it or we can take it. Only then and there we can jointly put our individual intentions together so that we get a we-intention, for instance for painting our house together. It’s a thing that every free rider knows.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Authority and responsibility

Execution pole, Poperinge, Belgium (West Front): Place where soldiers sentenced to death were shot.

Last week I wrote about the case of Grischa who had been condemned to death and who had been shot death, although he was not guilty of what he was accused of. But who was responsible for the execution? I think that most people would say: Schieffenzahn, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front of the German army, who had the power to reverse the verdict. But how about the responsibility of the others involved in the execution? For it wasn’t Schieffenzahn who shot Grischa but the firing squad did. Isn’t it so then that the firing squad was actually responsible for the death of Grischa? For hadn’t these soldiers fired, Grischa would have stayed alive. Nevertheless, many people would say that not the firing squad was responsible for the execution but that Schieffenzahn was. This would imply, however, that one can perform an act without being responsible for it. How can this be? Isn’t it so that in the end we all are responsible for what we do and for the consequences? Of course, I know that many answers have been given to this question but has it been solved? I would call it the problem of obedience to authority. In my last blog we have seen that authority can be blind, but as for instance Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown obedience to authority can be blind as well (see old blogs). One reason is that it needs more courage to obey than not to obey, as we can see every day around us.

Friday, May 16, 2014


La Meuse - De Maas

Photos taken with a pinhole camera showing towns on the River Meuse from its sources in the Northeast of France till Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The book contains 25 photos from my exhibition in Stenay, France, which will be held from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014 in La Capitainerie in Stenay (Meuse). The book includes texts, maps and an explanation what a pinhole camera is, both in Dutch and in French. The photos will not be published on my photo websites (with the exception of three photos).
Price 26.75 euro plus postage. For ordering the book click here or send me a message via this website or an e-mail.
My photo exhibition is part of the International Art Project VALDART 2014, which will be held in the region of Stenay (Meuse), France, from July 5 till Septembre 28, 2014. For more information on Valdart click here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The case of authority

Death cell for soldiers sentenced to death in World War I; not on the East Front but in Poperinge, Belgium. Through the windows the soldiers could see the place where they would be shot dead.

In his novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa ( Aufbau Verlag, 2006; English: The Case of Sergeant Grischa), which is based on a true occurrence during the First World War, the German author Arnold Zweig describes the story of the Russian soldier Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, who had been taken into captivity by the German Army. Grischa escapes from the prison camp, since he longs to see his wife and his newborn child. When he meets the young woman Babka, a partisan, she advices him to take the identity of the Russian deserter Ilya Pavlovich Bjuscheff, so that he’ll not be sent back to the prison camp if caught. However, when caught Grischa, alias Bjuscheff, is sentenced to death as he is considered a spy. Then Grischa says that actually he is Grigori Ilyich Paprotkin, which he can prove in a convincing way. Although the local authorities under general von Lychov want to have the sentence revised in view of this new evidence, the chief administrator on the Eastern Front Schieffenzahn wants to keep the sentence as it is for the sake of discipline. A dispute over areas of responsibility develops between von Lychow and his staff and Schieffenzahn and his office. A big part of the novel is about this question of competence. In the end Schieffenzahn wins and Grischa is shot dead, innocent.
Much can be said about this novel, which was one of the first German novels that described the First World War from the view point of the war veterans (Arnold Zweig has fought near Verdun and elsewhere). This book and other books by Zweig give a good impression of the cruelties and other aspects of this war. However, what I want to emphasize here is that the novel shows the danger of appealing to authority instead of being open to what is reasonable and to the interests of those subjected to this authority. Demarcations of competence and authority can have sense and often they do have sense, but a field of competence never exists as a purpose of itself. There is always a reason for it, at least originally. When one loses sight of this reason, authority loses its contents and it becomes fossilized. Then it’s only there for the bearer of the authority and as a weapon against his competitors in other fields of competence and authority, and a struggle of competence will certainly develop. When it comes that far – be it in business, politics, or where else lines of demarcation are drawn – there’ll be victims and at least a part of these victims will be innocent. Some will “only” suffer damage but in extreme cases some will have to pay with their lives, too. When it has come that far, authority has become blind.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

What to see on holiday

Soon it will be summer and so for a lot of people it’s time to think about how and where to spend their holidays. Will it be on the beach or in the mountains? Shall I stay at home or shall I travel to a country far away? Shall I stay at the same place all the time or shall I make a tour? So I took my holiday guides and started to browse on the Internet as well. But I thought that it would also be a good idea to put the things a bit into perspective, so I bought the treatise on the philosophy of tourism by Ruud Welten. Soon I forgot that actually I wanted to plan a trip, for it’s a very interesting book and I got totally absorbed in it. But then I realized that I had to write my blog and I thought that it would be nice to write about it here.
When I tell other people that I seldom go to the big objects sought by most tourists, but that I prefer to avoid the trails well-trodden by millions of travellers before me and that I follow the roads in the “boring” countryside that are almost exceptionally used by locals, then I get often reactions saying (in polite words, of course) that I am actually a kind of a fool. How stupid I am that I don’t want to enjoy the beauty of Florence; that I don’t make a stop in Paris when I pass it on the highway (yes, I can see the Eiffel Tower from there); and that I roam around the countryside of Lorraine in France or the inland of Latvia instead. But thanks to Welten’s book I know now what I do wrong: I break the Golden Rule of tourism: Don’t miss it! And the “it” is what is valuable according to tourist guides and to all who believe in their truth. For tourist guides describe what must be seen by everybody.
Tourism is a special way of looking at the world. It’s a kind of collective gaze. The gaze is not collective in the sense that the tourists belong to the same group, for they don’t. Tourists are individuals. That’s why we as tourists don’t like it when there are too many other tourists at the same place, for they hinder the individual gaze. The others don’t belong to our group. Even more: we have often the feeling that we are not like “them”. We are “different” and we have our own individual reasons to be there. Or so we think, for the goal of our visit is collective: It is what has worth in an objective sense (that’s what the tourist guides say, at least): The pyramids in Egypt, the Tapestry in Bayeux or the Taj Mahal in India. You must have been there at least once in your life according to the Golden Rule of Tourism and the idea of the collective goal. And in this why the tourist looks with a collective gaze at the world.
This means that tourism is a matter of framing. In the social sciences, a frame is a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how we perceive reality and behave accordingly. Framing is the social and perspectival construction of a social phenomenon. In the case of tourism, framing tells us what are valuable destinations and useful ways of spending our holidays. It is done by the tourist guides and by the collective culture that determines what has worth.
Tourism is also framing in another sense: The tourist is never a part of what s/he sees. It is as if s/he looks through a window and sees what is happening in the world on the other side of the glass. Welten uses the picture of someone who looks out the window down to the street that runs along her hotel. She sees people passing by and she can observe them as long as she likes. Nobody will disturb her, for she does not belong to thoese there down in the street. In other words: the tourist is an outsider. She remains so as long she is a tourist, at least mainly and most of the time. That’s why for many tourists it’s quite annoying or it even upsets their temporary life, if they suddenly become involved in a strike or a demonstration and so become an insider in the life around them.
This brings me back to my way of tourism. My way of travelling on holiday is also the tourist way, or at least usually it is. But there is a difference, for although the “main stream” tourists as characterized above hope or even expect to see the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate from their hotel window, I am happy when I see from there something like the view on the picture here above.

Source: Ruud Welten, Het ware leven is elders. Filosofie van het toerisme. Zoetermeer, Klement, 2013.