In my blog last week we have seen: Distinctions are often not as clear as they seem at first sight, but they are gradual. How to define “man”? Following Aristotle we might use speech or language as a criterion to distinguish men from (other) animals, but we saw that this will fail. Not only gibbons have a sort of language. Probably many animals have and maybe we can only say that man has the most developed language of all. So if we take language as an indicator, the distinction between men and animals is gradual. I think it will be the same when we use Aristotle’s definition of man as a “zoon politikon” (a political being), for it seems that also apes have a kind of political deliberations. And isn’t it so that many animals have a kind of power structure? From this respect it’s not a strange idea that “political” deliberations exist on many levels, from very primitive or instinctive till rational consultations. Also Plato came across the problem how difficult it is to develop a sound definition, when he defined man as a biped without feathers and then Diogenes took a picked chicken saying: “Look, Plato’s man!” Without a doubt also Plato’s new definition that “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails” will have its weaknesses. I leave it to my readers to find them, but as these examples illustrate: differences are often by degrees. There is no rule or there is an exception.
If this is already true when we consider facts of nature, it is even more true when we consider “facts” of thought. It’s not without reason that I write the word “fact” between quotations marks, for what could such facts be?
I became aware of this when, long ago, I studied the discussion on the foundations of knowledge and morality between the German philosophers Hans Albert and Karl-Otto Apel. Albert’s answer to the traditional epistemological questions “How do you know?” and “How do you justify?” is that in the end we don’t know and can’t justify. Every answer to these questions is groundless, for either
- we fall into an infinite regress, or
- we rotate regressively in a vicious circle, or
- we break off our reasoning at a point that might be justified for us but that is in fact arbitrary.
Albert called this trilemma the “Münchhausen-Trilemma”, referring to the story of the baron who pulled himself and the horse on which he was sitting out of a mire by his own hair. Albert was not the first who described the trilemma, but he gave it a nice name.
As such Albert is right but as Apel put forward: In each argumentation we cannot escape that we have to take positions, anyhow. To formulate it broader: we cannot do nothing and let things go for the reason that whatever we do will be arbitrary and that there might something better we could do, so let’s go on looking for it. We have to stop somewhere and act. But how to stop and act if each point to stop our deliberations and to act is arbitrary? Robert Audi sees yet a fourth lemma that can be added to this trilemma:
- “to stop with something that is known or justifiedly believed, ... but not known on the basis of any further knowledge or justified belief”.
Much can be said about this addition to the Münchhausen-Trilemma – and Audi does – but I would interpret it this way: If we cannot stop our reasoning on the basis of knowledge or a thought or idea, we must base our choices on something different. And what else can this be than that we are on this world? That we have been put here and that, if we don’t want to die, we have to act? That we cannot do nothing? We are here on this world and this makes that we must choose anyway, even if it would be the ultimate choice of not being here, i.e. to die. The world we find ourselves in is our starting point, so the place where we find ourselves at birth, the language we learn first, the food we eat, whether we are born poor or rich, etc. These are things we cannot help and make that we have to act. However, this is so for everybody and, as the Münchhausen trilemma tell us, finally nobody is right when persons meet. Maybe the only thing we can do on the basis of Audi’s lemma is to “live and let live” and do a lot of things together. Happily it is what many people do, but sometimes it goes wrong, and some will say that often it must go wrong. Then interests clash leading to all kinds of nasty conflicts.