Monday, June 29, 2015

Locke's tremendous idea

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, John Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” I suppose that it is true that Locke said so, although I cannot check it, for there is no reference added to the quotation, which actually is to be expected in a work of that standing. Anyway, the passage is not from the famous chapter XXVII “Of Identity and Diversity” in Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1689, but this chapter was added in 1694). Here Locke develops the idea of personal identity and links it to the idea of consciousness. For instance, in §19 Locke says that “personal Identity consists, not in the Identity of Substance, but ... in the Identity of consciousness ...” The idea of consciousness was not an invention of Locke. Already Plato and Aristotle formulated theories on consciousness and the English word “consciousness” existed already more than a century before Locke wrote his Essay. However, just as we can call Descartes the father of epistemology because he first systematized scientific methodology (see my blog last week), we can call Locke the father of consciousness theories because he first gave the concept a full place in philosophy and science.
As my quotation from the chapter on identity and diversity in the Essay illustrates, for Locke consciousness and substance – so mind and body, as we would say now – were two different things. In this respect Locke’s approach of consciousness was Cartesian. So for Locke it was basically possible that “the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s past life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler” (§15 in chapter XXVII of the Essay), for the bodily characteristics of the prince were not part of his personality. We still find this separation between mind (or consciousness) and body in the modern discussion on personal identity, from Bernard Williams in “The self and the future” (Philosophical Review 79/2: 161-180) till Derek Parsons in Reasons and Persons (1984) and thereafter, and the so-called psychological-continuity theories of personal identity still form the mainstream view on personal identity, despite alternative views of, for instance, John Olson (The human animal (1997)) and myself (see Only now it becomes more and more accepted that substance and consciousness in man, so mind and body, are fully integrated. For some this means that man is nothing but a body or that man is a kind of biological machine, or how they see it; anyway that man is a completely material being and that the mind is a kind of epiphenomenal effect emerging from the human matter. Others, like me, prefer a dual aspect view on man, which says that man can be considered in different ways: as a biological body or as a conscious and thinking mind, although in the end man is both together. I think that this view makes it also easier to understand how in a certain sense man can survive his or her material dead. With this remark I do not mean that man can survive in any religious sense, for example as a soul, but the idea that mind as one of the two aspects of man makes it possible to understand how culture can survive the bearers of a certain culture; how ideas can remain to exist and have influence long after the thinker of these same ideas who has written them down in books or on the Internet has passed away. But maybe this is not as anti-Lockean as it seems on the face of it, for didn’t Locke say in the §15 just quoted that “The body, as well as the soul, goes to the making of a man” and that the cobbler who would receive the soul of a prince still “would be the same cobbler to every one besides himself”?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Descartes' tremendous idea

Science is a modern idea. In my last blog I wrote that Montaigne was an essayist and a writer. He was also a keen observer. By writing down his observations, Montaigne broadened our view on ourselves and environment and our self-insight. But Montaigne was not a scientist; he was not an investigator. In his time the idea of science was yet developing and by his view that everything can be doubted Montaigne contributed to its development. His adage was “What do I know?”, which would later find expression in the doubt that Descartes used for laying the foundations of the ideas of knowledge and consciousness with his famous words “I think so I am”. The idea of consciousness was fully developed by John Locke, but we can see RenĂ© Descartes as the father of epistemology.
Descartes blamed many researchers of his time for not working systematically. He reproached them that there was no line in the way they worked. But then, so Descartes, it is impossible to get at the truth. What we need is a method: certain and easy rules that lead us to true knowledge. Moreover, Descartes was not satisfied with the old syllogistic logic of Aristotle and the medieval scholastic logic. It’s so that they help systemize existing knowledge and that they are useful in helping explain arguments to other people, but they are not useful in getting new knowledge. For getting new knowledge we need something else: A research methodology. Therefore Descartes wrote his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. However, this work, written in 1628 or just thereafter, was not published before 1684, so after his death. And the first publication was not in the original Latin but it was a Dutch translation. The first Latin edition came out in 1701. This work and other ideas on methodology made Descartes the founder of epistemology.
These Rules and generally Descartes’ approach of science gave us not only a new way of investigating nature, including man, but it gave us also a new view on knowledge. Or rather, it lead not only to a new view on knowledge but it changed the whole idea of knowledge, because we got a new way to experience what is around us. Before Descartes, from Aristotle till the Middle Ages, those experiences were considered knowledge that could be fit in a coherent way in what we already knew. New experiences had to be fitted in frames accepted by tradition. But from Descartes on only those experiences were considered knowledge that could be justified by the right method. Knowledge became what stands the tests of science. Four centuries later Karl R. Popper would sharpen the question what knowledge is: what we think to know has always to be formulated that way that we can test it. Montaigne and Descartes introduced the relation between doubt and knowledge. Popper made doubt a part of knowledge.
Descartes did not go that far. He believed yet that absolute certain knowledge is possible. It was only a matter of time to get it. But what he did do was founding knowledge no longer on experiences, so on what we think to see and hear as such, but on method, so on the way we see and think. Already this was a tremendous idea. It was a new idea, an idea that would lead to a new world: the world we live in today.

This blog is based on an unpublished manuscript by me, titled Science as Method (1988).

Monday, June 15, 2015

What everybody knows

In his essay “Of virtue” (Essays II-29) Montaigne writes about the case of a Turkish lord who in vain tried to shoot a hare. Also his dogs didn’t succeed to catch the animal. Therefore the lord concluded that the hare had been protected by his fate. This made Montaigne remark: “This story may serve ... to let us see how flexible our reason is to all sorts of images.”
A few years ago I wrote a blog about Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which says that when there is a gap between what we believe and what actually is the case we try to adapt the facts to our believes (see my blog dated Dec. 31, 2012). In Montaigne’s example the Turkish lord was so convinced of his own qualities and the qualities of his dogs that he couldn’t imagine that he failed. Something different must have been the case so that he could maintain his belief in himself and his dogs: There was a higher power that protected the hare. The much simpler explanation that he wasn’t a good hunter couldn’t be true in his eyes. It’s a clear instance of the reduction of cognitive dissonance in the sense of the theory of Festinger.
So far, so good. However, I wrote – which is generally accepted – that it was Festinger with his team who first formulated the theory of cognitive dissonance, but now we see that four centuries before Montaigne expressed already the same idea. Must we say now that Festinger and his co-workers didn’t invent this theory but that it was Montaigne who did, even though he didn’t call it that way? I think that there are arguments to say so, but that we can better stick to the opinion that Festinger & Co. are the inventors.
When I studied sociology long ago, many people said to me: A sociologist investigates what everybody already knows. It is a common opinion but it is easy to show that it’s nonsense. Nonetheless, there is some truth in it. Often, sociologists do investigate what “everybody” already knows, but it is not so that everybody knows that “everybody” knows (see note). Or some facts are only known to certain groups but the policy makers don’t know it or, if they do, they don’t believe them. Then it’s useful that social scientists investigate the matter. Do teachers really make such long hours as they say? Well, let’s investigate it and compare it with the work load of other of other employees. Or, what is often heard: “All foreigners are criminals – with the exception of my neighbour” (forgetting that once you have passed the border of your country you yourself are also a foreigner). So let’s investigate it and show that this prejudice simply isn’t true. By the way, it can happen that prejudices are true, for – as Hans-Georg Gadamer explained – a prejudice actually is nothing but an opinion that is not well established by the facts; but it can exist because we don’t know the facts or don’t have them at hand. It’s true, in practice prejudices are often unreasonable, biased opinions, dislikes and so on, but then it’s just the challenge for investigators to demonstrate that – or to topple their own prejudices.
Be it is it may, Montaigne was not a systematic investigator. Even more, in his days systematic research in the modern sense did not yet insist but the idea was yet under construction so to speak, to which he in fact also contributed, for example by his view on “doubt”. Montaigne was an essayist and writer. He was a keen observer who wrote down what he saw and thought. Investigating opinions, views, ideas etc, – called “hypotheses” in the scientific jargon – in a systematic and methodological way and testing the truth of them is what investigators do and what Montaigne did not do in his Essays. Therefore maybe we can say that Montaigne was the inventor of the idea of cognitive dissonance – if he was – but not the inventor of the theory. It was Festinger with his team who was the latter. Generally it is so that there are many good and useful ideas in society but often it’s uncertain what the truth in them is, even if they appear to be useful. That’s what we science need for. But perhaps the present blog is only a case of cognitive dissonance reduction that I wrote for confirming my own prejudice.

Note: If I remember well, Anthony Giddens once discussed this point already but for this blog I’ll not try to find out where he did.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Art as a daily practice

In his “Afterword” to Michel de Certeau’s Culture in the Plural, Tom Conley writes: “[For de Certeau] ‘culture’ needs to be understood not as a monument celebrating human mastery of nature but, to the contrary, and more modestly, as collective ways or manners of thinking and doing. ... [Culture] is marked by heterogeneity of practices, styles, modes or fashions of selectively and affectively producing (but not arrogating) habitable space.” (Conley, p. 151). In other words, according to de Certeau culture is not something highbrow, as it is often seen, but it is the way we do what we do, and it can even refer to the most banal actions and kinds of behaviour. In this view, culture consists of modes of doings characteristic for certain groups or even societies.
When I read de Certeau’s Culture in the Plural (and other books by him) and Conley’s “Afterword” for the first time several years ago, this view was not new to me. I subscribed to it already long before I had ever heard of Michel de Certeau, let alone that I had read his articles and books. I had borrowed the idea from authors in the field of cultural anthropology. But are both views – the “highbrow view” and the view of culture as the mode of daily practice – really so different today? Take the picture at the top of this blog. I have taken it on the yearly art market in my town, one week ago. What you see there is my stall with some of my photos and books and on the background a super market. Before or after having done their shopping, many people made a walk along the stalls of the art market. Some bought a piece of art; most didn’t. Is there a better example of the growing contemporary integration of culture as the mode of daily practice and highbrow culture, which is often supposed to be at a distance from the hectic of daily routine? Art is no longer something we need to watch in the serene atmosphere of a separate temple-like building, be it a theatre or a museum, and that we take in full of awe. Art is no longer something performed by demigods and explained by expert interpreters. No, art has become for everybody and by everybody. You can enjoy it everywhere and do it everywhere, as a part of your normal activities; also when you are in a supermarket or before and after shopping. It has become a part of the daily practice and it is consumed as easy as a cup of tea or a bag of chips. Isn’t it what we have aimed for, when we talked about the democratization of culture? Oh, and don’t forget the milk or the mayonnaise.
Source: Michel de Certeau’s, Culture in the Plural. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Tom Conley, “Afterword: A Creative Swarm”, in id., pp. 149-175.

Monday, June 01, 2015

A bird in a cage

Last week, I stated that man is a prisoner of his or her own habits and routine. Even if the door of the prison is open, s/he doesn’t use the opportunity to escape, as any animal would do. Is it true? Maybe man is more rational than animals. Why should s/he escape when the door is open? Once you are free, you have to decide for yourself; not only now and then but always. You can do anything you like, indeed. However, if everything is possible in the end nothing is possible. For how to choose? Moreover, once you take a step, it limits the number of the next steps you can take. When, for instance, on your own walk through life you reach the bank of a river, your choice where to go seems almost without limit, but once you choose to spring in the river, your number of choices will be reduced to four: Going back, swimming to the other bank, giving in by following the stream, or becoming recalcitrant by going against the current. And do you know where it will bring you, whichever decision you take? Most men are not adventurous and don’t have enough insight in order to be able the take the right choices in all unexpected circumstances – or at least in most – so that it is wiser to stay where you are: In your cage. And because you know that the door is open, you keep the freedom to leave when you get an idea what to do outside, with the possibility to go back when you like. Seen that way it is not unreasonable to stay where you are and limit your space of freedom in practice to your cage.
Or is this freedom an illusion? For whether the door of the prison is open or closed makes for most people no difference at all! Even if it is open, they don’t see that it is open. They see no cage. They simply think that they are free and can go where they like. Why this is so has been made clear by the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye. Although her metaphor has been developed for explaining the idea of oppression, I think it can also be used for making clear why many people have the illusion that they are free. Let me first give a long quote from Frye’s article “Oppression”, where she puts forward her picture of the bird cage:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

This picture used by Frye for grasping why it is so difficult to see why and when oppression exists can also be used for grasping why many people think that they are free, even when they actually live in a cage. For most people just stand too near to the wires and see only the wire that is right in front of their eyes. This gives them the idea that they are free: Isn’t it so that it is easy to go out by walking around the bar? However, if they would do a few steps back they would see that they are caged in ... and maybe they would see also that there is a door that is open.

Quotation from Marilyn Frye, “Oppression” on