Monday, June 27, 2016

On the fringes of society

Some time ago I wrote a few blogs about what I called “passages”, which I described as a kind of non-places where you have to spend some time when being between a past destination (the place you left) and a future destination (where you want to go). They are non-places since you don’t do there a special activity, with the exception of passing, of course. You come to a passage with the intention to leave it as soon as possible. For society as a whole passages may be important, if they are ways to move on people as a smooth as possible. Therefore they are often large and wide (highways), provided with time tables (railway stations) or with signs that lead you into the right direction. In other words, passages are often constructed as passages. But for the users they are places they want to ignore, forget and pass through as quickly as they can. Seen that way they are pointless and that’s why the French anthropologist Marc Augé called them non-places.
Passages did not always exist. They belong especially to the modern age. Of course, also in the past people had to go from one place to another, but the roads and places a person had to go through usually had a different meaning for the passer-by, also because pre-modern man had a different time perspective, a different pace of life and different kinds of relationship towards other people, including strangers. Passages are a modern phenomenon, albeit one that gradually developed. It’s not so that we can say that in the 19th century they suddenly were there and that before that time they didn’t exist.
Passages are a kind of marginal phenomena in the sense that they don’t belong to what life stands for. We don’t long for them; we don’t strive for being there. They just came to exist and only when the unorderly way of their existence became a problem, they were constructed, for nobody likes to drive a car on a sandy road – unless as a sport –  or to get into a traffic-jam. Although being marginal, passages had a function and in that sense we can call them functional marginal phenomena or even, with a contradiction in terms, essential marginal phenomena.
Such marginal phenomena that developed into functional marginal phenomena or even became important are not exceptional in modern society. Especially since the 19th century – and maybe somewhat earlier – modernization brought into being a lot of them, as the Dutch historian Auke van der Woud has shown so well in his book on the New Man. To mention a few (I have added also examples of my own): Shop windows; coffee houses and street cafés; souvenir shops; monuments that were more than just for the glorification of emperors, generals and battle victories; lampposts and kilometer markers  – and some kilometer markers are used as little monuments, like those along the Voie Sacrée, the Holy Road that played such an important role in the Battle of Verdun for transporting troops and materiel –. These are only a few of those “marginal” phenomena. Look around and you’ll see more of them than you had ever thought. Most people don’t see them as such, as special modern phenomena, for they think that they are eternal, and they are only on the fringe of their attention or even outside their attention. Nevertheless, some are hardly marginal any longer, and that’s why I just used inverted commas when writing the word. Man and society are changing, as ever, and certainly in this age in which leisure but also public emotions have become increasingly important people have developed another view on what is meaningful in life. Even so, many such phenomena seem to be on the outer edge of life. They are what everybody knows to exist but nobody sees since nobody looks. However, they would miss them, if they weren’t any longer there.

Source: Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens. De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900. Amsterdam: Prometheus-Bert Bakker, 2015.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collective Intentionality and Individual Action

Collective intentionality by individual action

I have written a new article on collective intentionality, a theme that gets increasing attention in the philosophy of action. Below you find a summary of the text. Interested to read it? Then you find the full text here on my website:
The article can alos be found on the website of

Abstract of “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”
People often do things together and form groups in order to get things done that they cannot do alone. In short they form a collectivity of some kind or a group, for short. But if we consider a group on the one hand and the persons that constitute the group on the other hand, how does it happen that these persons work together and finish a common task with a common goal? In the philosophy of action this problem is often solved by saying that there is a kind of collective intention that the group members have in mind and that guides their actions. Does such a collective intention really exist? In this article I’ll show that the answer is “no”. In order to substantiate my view I’ll discuss the approaches of Bratman, Gilbert and Searle on collective intention. I’ll put forward four kinds of criticism that undermine the idea of collective intention. They apply mainly to Bratman and Gilbert. First, it is basically difficult to mark off smaller groups from bigger unities. Second, most groups change in membership composition over time. Third, as a rule, on the one hand groups are internally structured and on the other hand they belong to a larger structure. It makes that generally it cannot be a collective intention that moves the actions of the members of a group. Fourth, conversely, most individual actions cannot be performed without the existence of a wider context of agents who support these actions and make them possible.
My critique on Searle mainly involves that in his approach his idea of collective intention is superfluous and that he is not radical enough in his idea that collective action is based on coordinated individual intentions and actions. However, it is a good starting point for showing how collective action actually functions, especially when combined with Giddens’s structuration theory. Every agent in a group executes his or her own individual intentions, relying on what the group offers to this agent and asks from him or her. In this way individual actions of the members of a group are coordinated and it makes that the group can function and that its goals can be performed. And in this way the group is produced and reproduced by fitting individual actions together. An individual agent who belongs to a group only needs to know what s/he wants and what s/he has to do in the group, even if s/he has no knowledge of the intentions and commitments of the other members. Then he or she can do things together with others in a group without supposing that there is something like a collective intention.

collective intention, collective intentionality, collective action, we-intention, shared agency, shared action, joint action, joint commitment, joint intention, group intention, individual action, action, structuration, structuration theory, Bratman, Gilbert, Searle, Giddens.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Responsibility for what someone else does

The readers of my blog last week may think that it’s a strange view that there are actually no pure individual intentions and actions. How can this be so if most of the time it’s the agent who decides to act here and now? However, just after I had finished the draft of that blog I read in Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained (London: Granta, 2015) a passage that clearly illustrates what I mean. Therefore, let me quote a big part of it. But first a remark: I had thought out the mainline of this blog already before the Orlando club shooting took place, so it’s mere chance that in the quotation such a shooting is used as an example.
Here is the quote from Baggini, pp. 201-2:

“[In] the shootings ... at Virginia Tech in April 2007[,] Seung-Hui [Cho] killed thirty-two people and injured seventeen others before committing suicide, in [what was then] the worst massacre by a lone gunman in US history. The reaction of Hong Sung Pyo, a sixty-five-year-old textile executive in Seoul, was typical of many Koreans. ‘We don’t expect Koreans to shoot people, so we feel very ashamed and also worried.’ It was this sense of shame that led the South Korean ambassador to the US to fast for thirty-two days, one for each of the murdered victims.
Many Americans were baffled by this, but every expert on South Korea ... had the same explanation. ‘It’s a notion of collective responsibility’, said Mike Breen, author of The Koreans. “I can smell a collective sense of guilt,’ said Lim Jie-Hyun, a history professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. ‘There is confusion [in Korea] between individual responsibility and national responsibility.’ As [Tamler] Sommers concludes, ‘Koreans did not merely feel shame for the act of the Virginia Tech killer, they felt responsible. They wished to apologise and atone for the act.’
The psychologist Richard Nisbett has assembled an impressive array of evidence which suggests that deep cultural differences like these do actually change the way people think. In particular, the very idea of who performs an action differs across cultures. ‘For Westerners,’ writes Nisbett, ‘it is the self that does the acting; for Easterners, action is something that is undertaken in concert with others or that is the consequence of the self operating in a field of forces.’ This means that easterners have a sense of ‘collective agency’ largely absent in the West.”

So far my quotation from Baggini. I think that especially what Richard Nisbett says about the self clarifies my idea that there are no pure individual intentions and actions. No individual grows up by his or her own. A new child is born is educated by the parents and explicitly or implicitly also by others in his or her environment, like teachers, family, neighbours and actually everybody in his/her field of life. When the baby has grown to maturity, the once little child has developed a self. This self has a lone side and a collective side. The lone side is what the now grown-up person makes an independent agent, a person who makes his/her own choices from what s/he has learned – consciously or unconsciously; I am aware that much happens unconsciously within us –. The collective side is what someone has borrowed from other people and makes this person connected to the “field” around him/her. It makes that person Dutch or American; a father or a mother; a man or a woman in the sense of Simone de Beauvoir; an expert in a profession; and so on. It makes that someone at the same time is not only an individual agent but also a social agent in the sense explained in my last blog. Westerners tend to see an agent as a self, so to see the lone, individual side of the agent. “Tend”, for not always they do, for why else should parents feel ashamed for the evil their adult children do? Easterners tend to look at the collectivity an agent belongs to, so the collective side of the agent. Therefore they often feel ashamed for what a group member does. Every acting person has both sides. That’s why there are no pure intentions and actions and why it needs not be bizarre to feel guilt and shame sometimes for what others have done. Even more, sometimes it can be strange not to do so, for – ending with a quotation from Baggini (p. 203) –: “Given what we know about the importance of nature and nurture, for example, isn’t it actually unreasonable to hold the individual and the individual alone responsible for all the bad things they do?”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Digging your garden alone or Do pure individual intentions and actions exist?

A hot issue in the philosophy of action today is whether there is such a thing as collective intentionality and if so how it works. Collective intentionality is the idea that in some way we can ascribe intentions to groups and other collectivities, just as we do to individual agents. The phenomenon is discussed under different names like shared intention (Bratman), joint commitment (Gilbert) or we-intention (Tuomela). The main problem in ascribing intentions to groups is that the actual performers of what groups do are the individuals they are composed of and that only these individuals can be the bearers of intentions, for where else should a collective intention be stored than in the brains and minds of the group members? Recently I have written an extensive article on the matter that I’ll publish soon on my website and on (you find the abstract already here: I’ll tell you not yet my conclusions, although you can guess what they are from what I have written in my blogs. Here I want to discuss the opposite problem: In the analytical philosophy of action it is generally supposed that individuals have intentions but whether groups have is controversial. But do individual intentions really exist, at least in their pure form, or are they actually more or less collective? That’s what I want to examine now. By doing so, I want to go one step further than the view – discussed in former blogs – that many individual intentions are not as individual as they seem on the face of it and that they suppose the actions of others. I’ll state here that there are simply no pure individual actions.
Say, I have a garden behind my house, where I want to grow vegetables. However, it’s overgrown with weeds and before I am going to sow the lettuce, beets, beans and carrots, I want to dig it and change the little field into a nice piece of black soil with seed-beds. So I walk to the shed behind my house, take a spade, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over and make the seed-beds. Then I sow the vegetables. I do it all alone. Anyway, that’s what most people think, but is it so? Leaving aside that I had to buy or rent the piece of land where I make the garden, how did I get my spade and other garden tools I need? How did I get the seed? How did I get the knowledge how to make a garden and grow my own food? I think you have already guessed what I am going to say: I bought the garden tools in a shop, I ordered the seed on the Internet, and I learned gardening from a book. Even if I intended to make the garden alone, I couldn’t avoid that others were involved in it. Everything I planned to do in my garden supposed already that there were others who had done some groundwork for me like making a spade and producing seed. Or did you do all this yourself? Did you go to the wood, took a piece of wood and turned it into a spade by using a sharp stone you had found there? And did you collect the seed from wild plants? But how did you get the idea that you can make a garden? Did you invent it yourself like neolithic man some 20.000 years ago (but even this prehistoric man must have developed the idea of gardening in cooperation with his fellow men). Unless you are a Robinson Crusoe on an island and haven’t met yet your Friday (and maybe I must add: haven’t had a father and a mother) everything you want to do supposes a kind of – maybe hidden or under-the-surface –relationship to others and what others have planned and performed. Nobody can live and survive alone. Of course, not all allegedly individual intentions and the actions based on them include the intentions and actions of others in the same degree. In some the individual contribution is bigger, while others suppose more preparatory work by other agents. However, the upshot is that in the end there are no pure individual intentions. Max Weber famously defined “social action” as an agent’s behaviour that is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we extend the agent’s intentions to the actions he or she performs we can say that in this way all individual actions are social but some actions are more social than other actions.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mind and Brain

The Ghost in the Machine

My blog last week might suggest that I think that man is a kind of machine with a ghost in it. I certainly don’t want to say that. That man is not a ghostless machine doesn’t need to involve that there is a ghost inside the machine. Since Gilbert Ryle in his The concept of mind disproved what he calls “Descartes’ Myth” that there might be something like that and coined the expression “ghost in the machine”, it can be clear to everybody that man is not constituted that way. Problems that arise from this ghost-machine dualism are, for example, how the ghost is constituted. Where does it live? Is there a kind of little man (homunculus) in the machine? Can we catch it in some way? What moves the ghost? Maybe another kind of ghost? But if so we get an infinite regress. That cannot happen. Therefore I think that ghost and machine are one in some way.
But let me speak of mind and body instead of ghost and machine, as is usual. Then we see that the mainstream view tends to become the one that reduces the mind to the body. As the Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab has put it: “We are our brains”, and that’s it. If this were so, the mind is an illusion. It’s like the smoke that escapes from the locomotive, to repeat a metaphor that I used last week. Although more and more this becomes the main stream view, there are alternative ideas, as it always happens. Here it’s not the place to present these views, let alone to discuss them, but I think that none of them is true. I mean, neither the mind-is-an illusion view nor the alternatives are true. What has been presented by now as solutions to the problem cannot be more than useful suggestions that can lead to further research but that are far from being the solution, even not an embryonic one. To paraphrase Mark Balaguer in his introduction to the problem of the free will (a related theme): The question whether we have a mind is so hard that, given our current knowledge of the brain, we are nowhere near ready to answer it. It is not without reason that David Chalmers talked here about the hard problem.
I think that the whole neuroscientific approach is too one-sided: If you look for causes and suppose a material structure, you’ll find causes and you’ll confirm the idea that the structure of the brain/mind is merely material. Let me give an example that even in the physical world things are not simple as that. I got it from Julian Baggini: Striking a match will only start a flame if oxygen is present, and the presence of oxygen is not an a cause of the ignition but a reason for it. Baggini adds: “In a similar way, most of what we do is for a reason, but those reasons are not the actions or events that trigger what we do”.
I think that this simple instance points to a possible solution of the body-mind problem, namely that at least for a part the mind-body relation is a matter of different aspects. It’s the idea that the mental and the physical are two aspects of the same substance: When we talk about the mind, we mean something different than when we talk about the brain (and the same so, when we talk about free will and see what happens in the brain; or when we talk about action and behaviour). When I say that I liked the concert, I don’t mean that some neurotransmitters have been released in my brain that caused a sensation of happiness in me. I liked the concert in its commonsense meaning, but I don’t deny that some liking-arousing processes happened in my brain. Here, we don’t have only a different kind of description, we have also a different kind of event and accordingly a different kind of explanation.
However, we are yet very far away from a solution of the body-mind problem and my example and the dual-aspect theory that explains it might seem mysterious in view of the present state of knowledge of the brain. Therefore, I see this theory only as a useful suggestion that might guide a range of investigations. Since the mind-body problem is so hard, I don’t dare to stake my head on it that it is true. Maybe we find it later back on the dumping ground of scientific waste or in a brain museum in a display case with funny philosophical theories.

The quasi-quotation from Balaguer is from his Free Will. Cambridge, etc.: The MIT Press, 2014; p. 122. The reference to Baggini is from his Freedom Regained. The Possibility of Free Will. London: Granta, 2015; p. 42.