Monday, December 28, 2015

Montaigne on Christmas

Montaigne's chapel in his castle

 I know that Wittgenstein used to celebrate Christmas with his family (see my Christmas blog last year), but how did Montaigne? I have no idea. In his Essays he shares many personal experiences with us, but although Montaigne was a religious person – he had even a chapel for personal use in his castle and he came there often – he doesn’t tell us about his Christmas celebrations. Maybe he had a mass celebrated for himself and his family in his chapel or maybe he went to the church across the gate of his castle. I don’t know, but the former seems most likely to me. And how did Montaigne spend Christmas Day, when he was at home? With his wife and children? No idea.
Only once Montaigne tells what he did that day, but it was not in his Essays but in his travel journal. During his travel through France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, Montaigne spent the whole winter of 1580-1581 in Rome. On Christmas Day he went to the papal mass, as he let his secretary write down in his diary, and he gave a short description of what happened. Actually, it was nothing special, with the exception that it was new to Montaigne that the pope, the cardinals and other prelates sat down most of the time with their heads covered, while chatting with each other. The lustre seemed to be more important than the devotion, so Montaigne.
And did he watch the woman, too, during the mass, as young people still do today during a religious service? Anyway, in the next indentation the secretary tells us that Montaigne wasn’t impressed by the beauty of the women and that it didn’t correspond to the reputation Rome has. Was this a general observation or one he had made during the mass?
In his Essays Montaigne mentions Christmas only twice and even then it’s only for referring to the winter season and not to the religious feast. The first time is in his essay “Of presumption” (II, 17): “An understanding person of our times says: That whoever would, in contradiction to our almanacs, write cold where they say hot, and wet where they say dry, and always put the contrary to what they foretell; if he were to lay a wager, he would not care which side he took, excepting where no uncertainty could fall out, as to promise excessive heats at Christmas, or extremity of cold at Midsummer.” The second time that Montaigne mentions Christmas is in the essay “Of physiognomy” (III, 12): “What good will this curiosity do us, to anticipate all the inconveniences of human nature, and to prepare ourselves with so much trouble against things which, peradventure, will never befall us? [Like] ... to put on your furred gown at Midsummer, because you will stand in need of it at Christmas!”
So, in fact Montaigne ignored Christmas in his writings, although it must have been important for him, since for him religion was more than just a custom in an age in which everyone was religious. But maybe this explains why Montaigne didn’t mention Christmas in his essays. Sometimes we don’t talk about what is important to us, simply because it is so obvious that it is. Not celebrating Christmas in some way was unthinkable in Montaigne’s age. We tend to ignore what we think that everybody knows, even if it isn’t so.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Conceptual analysis in a social world

Individuals or group?

Take this statement by Kit Fine: “Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: ... it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and yet constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language ...” (source: see below). This is especially so in the analytical philosophy. As the name indicates already, its method comprises conceptual analysis, hoping that by doing so we can say something about reality. Analytical philosophy in its several forms is one of the main streams of Western philosophy so one must not underestimate its influence on thinking about important questions.
I am a big fan of this approach. Since I am a sociologist by education, it might be expected that I prefer to answer questions about society by going to the field with a questionnaire and ask people what they think. Or that I should observe how they behave. Then I should try to find out from the data I collected what is common in what people do. For instance, a question that intrigues me at the moment is: How do groups behave? Well, collect data about all kinds of groups and draw your conclusions. However, what I actually do is sitting behind my laptop and analyzing the concept of group.
I am certainly not alone in studying social groups this way. Outstanding analytical philosophers who do so are for instance Michael Bratman, Raimo Tuomela and Margaret Gilbert. Take for instance the latter. Gilbert argues that when we want to explain group activity, we can look at a simple model of a two-person group for seeing what is going on; for example the case of two people walking together. She says: “[G]oing for a walk with another person involves participating in an activity of a special kind, one whose goal is the goal of a plural subject, as opposed to the shared personal goal of the participants. [It] involves an ‘our goal’ as opposed to two or more ‘my goals’.” (1996, p. 187) Walking together is more than just walking next to each other in the same direction, even when both are talking with each other, for maybe at the next corner each will go his or her own way. “[I]n order to go for a walk together”, so Gilbert, “each of the parties must express willingness to constitute with the other a plural subject of the goal that they walk along in one another’s company” (id., p. 184; italics MG). The individual wills must be put together to “a pool of wills that is dedicated, as one, to that goal. ... The individual wills are bound simultaneously and interdependently” (id., p. 185; italics MG). It is not only that each individual promises to follow the group goal, but there is a mutual, or as Gilbert says it, joint commitment that I follow the group goal if you do: “[E]ach person expresses a special form of conditional commitment such that (as is understood) only when everyone has done similarly anyone is committed.” (ibid.; italics MG) Only if the others agree one is released of the obligation. So, according to Gilbert, a group is founded on some appointment between its members, and the two-person walking group is a model that basically applies to all kinds of groups. From this we can conclude that in the end all groups are based on a kind of explicit agreement between its members.
Is Gilberts right? At first sight it sounds plausible. Nevertheless I think that we come here at the limits of the analytical approach. For when I look around what is happening in the world, the practice is often different. Groups as described by Gilbert do exist, indeed. If people go for a walk together, usually they do this by agreement. But is it a model case of all kinds of groups? I have my doubts. How often doesn’t it happen that I belong to a group that I don’t have constituted with the other members, but that I simply joined and that I adapt myself to, because I have no choice and because the positive aspects of joining exceed the negative aspects. People join sports clubs but often they have no say in its rules. “The club” determines in which team you play and changes also the club rules now and then, and it often happens that you have no say in it. You are in an army unit because military service is compulsory in your country, but if possible you would quit. Or you work in a team of a department of your company, for you need the money, but if you had the choice, you would work elsewhere. However, the unemployment is high so you can’t. And your boss can dismiss you, if he doesn’t need you any longer, even if you don’t agree. Most people have so little influence on the groups they belong to, that it’s difficult to say that these groups are based on a joint commitment. Indeed, the members have committed themselves to do what the purpose of the group requires, and once having joined they must follow orders and adapt without having much say in what the group does. As said, I am a big fan of the analytical approach, but I find it also important to look at the facts. Philosophy, even analytical philosophy, and sociology need to go together and they go well together, when they talk about society.

Sources: Margaret Gilbert, Living Together. Lanham, etc: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996. Mahrad Almotahari, “The identity of a material thing and its matter”, in: The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 64, No. 256 (July 2014), pp. 387-406 (p. 387 for the quotation of Fine).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Après nous le déluge

The future of the Netherlands?

“Après nous le déluge” (After us the deluge) is a saying that has become proverbial in many languages. It is ascribed to Madam de Pompadour, mistress of the French King Louis XV. She should have said it, when France was in troublesome circumstances. It means something like: As long as we aren’t hurt ourselves in person, we don’t need to care; when the consequences will be felt, we will be gone or we will be dead. Such an attitude has everything to do with responsibility or rather with irresponsibility. It’s an attitude that says: I care only about what touches me and I am not interested in the consequences of my behaviour for other people, as long as I stay beyond their reach. It’s an attitude you find, for example, among politicians who think that they don’t need to account for their deeds, like dictators and leaders in authoritarian states. For who would call them to account, is what they seem to think. Happily practice is sometimes different, but often irresponsible politicians escape and don’t need to give account, for instance because they die.
Although, as far as I know, responsibility as such is not a theme Montaigne explicitly wrote about, the idea comes back in one form or another in many of his essays, for instance in the essay “That the intention is judge of our actions” (Essays, Book I-VII). Here Montaigne first discusses the question whether we can try to escape responsibility and account by postponing the effects of one’s actions till after one’s death. For isn’t it so that death discharges us of all our obligations? Montaigne’s examples are always a bit antique from our point of view – but also always to the point – but he mentions the case of Henri VII, King of England, who had promised to save the life of a certain duke but in his testament he ordered his son to kill the man as soon as possible when he had died. As if his death would discharge Henri VII from his obligations to save the duke’s life! Or, just the other way round, when the counts of Horn and Egmont were about to be decapitated on the 4th of June 1568 in Brussels by order of the Duke of Alva, Egmont asked to be the first to die. For wasn’t he responsible for the death of Horn by having asked him to come to Brussels, promising that nothing would happen? But Egmont had said this in good faith and it was Alva who had tricked both counts. Basing himself on these two cases, Montaigne’s conclusion is: “We cannot be bound beyond what we are able to perform, by reason that effect and performance are not at all in our power, and that, indeed, we are masters of nothing but the will, in which, by necessity, all the rules and whole duty of mankind are founded and established.” Or, as the title of the essay says: “That the intention is judge of our actions”. So, Egmont was to be excused, whether he would die first or second, but Henri VII was responsible for the death of the duke, even if it took place after his death, for he gave the order to kill the man.
Another instance of the idea that death discharges us of our obligations is that people try to correct their mistakes in their testaments, although they could have done so already in life time. This is not right, so Montaigne, for not only need mistakes be corrected as soon as possible, but also “penitency requires penalty”.
What Montaigne makes clear in this essay is that responsibility doesn’t end with death, even if the perpetrator can no longer give account of his deeds and doesn’t feel the consequences in person. I know that there are too many people who think “What happens after my death is no concern of mine”. Politicians – and not only politicians! – should think of these words of Montaigne, but who does? Some don’t even care about their reputation.
Now the Climate Change Conference in Paris has reached an agreement. That’s a first step. Is it a good step? Is it enough? Anyway, the next step must be that the responsible politicians carry out the agreement and that they’ll not think “Après nous le déluge”, for then I fear that we’ll have to take this saying literally.

Monday, December 07, 2015

On the Climate Change Conference

Just one question: How many participants of the Climate Change Conference in Paris have arrived by bike?

When I publish this blog, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris will go on yet for a few days. Some 40.000 people (not only politicians) have come together for discussing one of the most important political and social problems of the future: Global warming and its consequences. And, let it to be hoped – but I am very sceptical about it – that they’ll take relevant and effective decisions in order to tackle the problem. As everybody knows, all this is very important. That’s why the participants of the conference should set an example to the world population. Or better, each participant should be an example and be the necessary change she or he wants to see. How different reality is. The conference hasn’t yet finished and the actual decisions are always taken on the last day, but already now I know how the result has to be summarized, in view of what resulted from such conferences in the past. In good French “Après nous le déluge” (After us the deluge), as Madame de Pompadour said, when France was in troublesome circumstances. As long as we aren’t hurt ourselves in person, we don’t need to care, is often the implicit attitude on such conferences. Need to change the climate change? Get on your bike.