Monday, March 28, 2016

A philosophy of photos

In my blog last week we have seen that photos can capture philosophical thoughts and stimulate philosophical thinking. But captured in a photo, we see always an abstraction of reality; not reality as such. Such an abstraction can be done in different ways. Last week’s photo brings several aspects of life together, like a medieval painting that combines related scenes in one picture. Besides that we live through these phases of life one after another and in fact cannot put them together as if they were coexistent, they are also represented in a metaphorical way. The road stands for the course of life, for example. It is also possible to single out one philosophical aspect and take a photo of it. Each aspect of the ferry photo can be photographed apart as a metaphor of an aspect of life. The problem is then – and that is also true for the ferry photo as a whole – that the metaphorical sense of such a photo of an aspect usually needs a verbal explanation: The metaphorical sense is often not obvious, for why would it be so that a road represents the path of life?
A photo can also depict a philosophical theory. So at the moment I am working on a series of photos that tries to express the idea that people don’t look in an objective way to the world around but that they have to interpret what they see, by fitting it in the mental frames they have developed through the years. Such frames are also known as cognitive schemas: schemas that help organize what you see and that let out what is unimportant and bring to the foreground what is relevant for you. However, frames can also distort reality and leave out what might be relevant but that isn’t recognized by you as such, just because your prejudiced or biased cognitive schema blocks it. I still have a long way to go before I’ll have taken a convincing series of photos.
Often I have taken photos of objects, sites or sceneries simply because I liked them, although I couldn’t say why, and only afterwards I saw their possible philosophical relevance. I think that most readers of this blog will know Plato’s allegory of the cave: A group of people is imprisoned from childhood in a cave. Behind their backs a fire is burning and between the fire and the prisoners people are continuously passing by. The prisoners are chained that way that they cannot see what occurs behind them. They see only the shadows of the passers-by on a wall in front of them. Therefore the prisoners know only how these people look like and what they transport in an indirect way and for the prisoners the projections on the wall constitute the real world, since they don’t know the world in another way. Now it is so that I often take photos of reflections in water, like the one on the top of this blog. Once I realized that such a photo does not only show a special image but that in fact it is a photo of a “Plato World”: The picture indirectly shows what was outside the range of the camera just as the shadows in Plato’s cave reflect what is going on behind the backs of the prisoners. But what is seen is actually a distorted reality, for – for instance – houses and threes don’t thrill.
Would the image present reality if I hadn’t taken a picture of the reflection of the houses and trees but had photographed them directly? I think the answer is also “no”. The image of the photo on the top of this blog is actually a second degree image: It’s a picture of a reflection in water and the reflection is a picture of the real houses and trees along the waterside. However, also the image in the camera is a kind of representation of reality and not reality itself, for it is a construction: The image in the camera and the photo based on it are not a capture of the reality as it is (although many people think so) but made as the maker of the camera think we can best transform the world as it is into a manageable picture that can be shown on a computer and, if you like, e-mailed to other people or printed on paper. If the camera construction had been different, the photo would have been different as well (in case you don’t grasp this, think of the way photos looked like, say, 50 years ago). Once we realize this, we must come to the conclusion that the photo on the top of this blog is not a second degree but a third degree representation, for what I failed to add yet is its interpretation by the observer in his or her mind. The upshot is that there is no photo or it is philosophical in some way, even if it’s plain. However, some photos are more philosophical than other ones.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

March 22, 2016

Could the blog I published a few days ago be more relevant? Never kill a phoenix. It will come back stronger.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Life as a passage

Ferry near Wijk bij Duurstede, Netherlands

“A picture is worth a thousand words”, they say, and there is much truth in it. But can a single photo capture a whole life? I had to think of it when I had taken the photo on the top of this blog. It is for a series of passages I am working on. Maybe some readers remember that I have written also four blogs on this theme in November 2014. Passages are places we have to go through because we are moving from one place to another; from A to B. In a sense, most such places have no meaning for us. We are there only because we cannot avoid them, like the waiting room on an airfield, or the platform on the railway station where we have to change trains. Once we have boarded the airplane or got in the next train, we have forgotten how it looked like, unless we have been there already more often. Also the ferry on the picture is such a passage: A place with hardly any meaning for the casual passer-by, for he or she is only there in order to cross the river, not because it’s such an interesting place. It is a good photo, I think, for everything that has to be on it is on it and nothing more: The row of new arrivals waiting for the ferry; the café where you can take a drink or a simple meal; the river, of course; the ferryboat just crossing the river; the other bank; and the old ferry house on the other side of the river. Therefore, the photo gives a meaningful picture of a meaningless place; or at least meaningless for most of us (not for the ferryman, of course, since for him it’s not a passage but the basis of his living).
However, the longer I look at this photo, the more I become convinced that the image is not as meaningless as it might appear at first glance. Indeed, for the passer-by the ferry is a non-place, as Augé would call it. But aren’t we all passers-by during our whole life? From a certain perspective, life is nothing but a passage or a transit or a thoroughfare, or how you want to call it. We come, stay somewhere for a short time, go, stay elsewhere, go again and so on until we definitively leave. Every stay somewhere, shorter or longer, can be seen as a preparation for the next phase of our transit through life. Some call it an eternal journey, but it is an eternal journal with stops and passages. And the longer I look at the photo, the more I realize that it is this what the photo expresses: The transit of life. Must I explain it? Look at the road, which symbolizes the thread of life. It enters the picture as we enter life at birth (but we don’t see where it starts, just as we cannot see the beginning of the past; and aren’t we the continuation of the past?). We see our fellow travellers (the cars); a place where we can stop for a longer time (the café or the ferry house; maybe we let a ferry pass if we haven’t yet finished our meal). We see the problems we have to overcome (the river) and that we don’t need to overcome the problems alone (the ferryboat; our fellow travellers). And we see the future (the other bank). Or is the river the stream of death like the Styx in Greek mythology that kept the world of the living and the underworld apart? But then the ferryboat must be the boat of Charon, the mythological ferryman.
Without a doubt there is much more in this photo. Look and discover and give it your own interpretation. I am sure that everybody will understand the photo in a different way and will see aspects that I haven’t seen: A picture paints a thousand words, if not ten thousand. It is like life, which can be also be considered in many different ways, even in case we talk about one and the same life.

More passages on

Monday, March 14, 2016

On collective behaviour

The question whether there is some kind of collective intentionality that is shared by several people in – for instance – groups is one of the current themes in the philosophy of action. If there is, it will be a kind of we-intention that cannot be reduced to individual intentions put together in some way. In order to show that collective intentionality is a genuine phenomenon, John Searle discusses the case of a class of business school graduates. There is a difference, so Searle, between the way a group of business school graduates acts, if they simply try to behave as selfishly as possible according to the theory of Adam Smith after having left school, and a group of such graduates who have made a common pledge on the graduation day that they’ll help humanity by being as selfish as possible. Only in the latter case, so Searle, there is cooperation and a genuine collective intentionality – even though it is a cooperation not to cooperate on a lower level – for the latter class is bound by a common pact while the former class isn’t. But do we have here really a case of collective intentionality? Is the business class that made a pledge really different from the class that didn’t?
In order to answer this question, I want examine the relation between the supposed collective intentionality and the actions performed by those who made the pledge. Let me first take an example by Michael Bratman. Two people are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of them is painting on his own, but they coordinate the work in some way. One scrapes the old paint and the other paints what the first one has scraped. One buys the brushes and the other buys the paint. Both check what the other person has promised to do; etc. How different is it what the newly graduated businessmen – businessmen for short – who follow a common pledge do. Their actions are based on the common pledge, indeed, but nevertheless the individual actions have no relation with what the other businessmen do. Therefore, as such these actions are not different from the actions by the selfish businessmen who haven’t made a pledge. On the other hand, the two members of Bratman’s painting group, after having made the appointment to paint the house, act together in the sense that the individual actions are related in some way: they spread their tasks. Searle’s businessmen do not do such a common activity as a result of their pledge. On the contrary, a consequence of the pledge is that they do not cooperate, as Searle explicitly says. The actions based on the pledge are not related to each other. They follow purely individual intentions like selling certain products with a maximum gain for the seller. The collective intentionality of the pledge is not a reason for these actions; at most it is a reason for the way the actions are performed, so for the choice of the means. Therefore we can say that the two painters perform the action of painting-the-house-together but we cannot say that the businessmen perform the action of fulfilling-the-common-pledge. If there is a kind of collective intentionality in what the businessmen do (and I doubt if there is), it doesn’t follow from their common pledge.
Why this is so becomes clear when we look at Max Weber’s well-known definition of social action: An action is social if the agent’s behaviour is meaningfully orientated towards the behaviour of one or more other agents. If we look with this definition in mind at what the businessmen who made the pledge do, we see that there is no orientation towards the actions of the other businessmen in the individual actions of each of the businessmen taken apart. The pledge is merely a background factor of these actions. If we compare the actions of the businessmen, we see that the actions with and without the background of the pledge cannot be distinguished with respect to their content, such as intention and means. As regards content they are copies of each other. The upshot is that if collective intentionality exists, it is not for the reason produced by Searle with his businessmen example.

Sources: Searle, John, “Collective Intentions and Actions”, in: P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M.E. Pollack, (eds.), Intentions in Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1990 (also on,d.bGg ; Bratman, Michael E., “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. 109-129.

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Montaigne Fallacy and the Wittgenstein Fallacy

Fallacies are fallacious argumentations. Many people commit them, usually inadvertently but also as a trick to manipulate other people. However, it should be so that philosophers as experts in sound reasoning don’t commit fallacies. Nevertheless, since also experts make mistakes or have their unthinking moments, it can be supposed that they sometimes do. Let me look at two philosophers often discussed in these blogs: Montaigne and Wittgenstein.

Ludwig von Mises, the famous economist (1881-1973), draws attention to a fallacy committed by Montaigne. In his short essay “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another” (Essays I-22), Montaigne writes “no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another”. Of course, as such this doesn’t need to be true, for profits don’t need to be extracted from what other people do, but can, for instance, come from cooperation with others or from a better use of the means, like a farmer who succeeds to get a higher yield from his land. Therefore, von Mises observes: “The Leitmotiv [i.e., an often repeated theme] of social philosophy up to the emergence of economics was: The profit of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others. This is not a philosophy of social cooperation, but of dissociation and social disintegration. For the sake of expediency, we call this doctrine after its proponent, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). In the light of this Montaigne Fallacy, human intercourse cannot consist in anything but the spoliation of the weaker by the stronger.” (; italics added) However, Casto Martín Montero Kuscevic and Marco Antonio del Río Rivera called this comment by von Mises unfair. (see Montaigne lived in a time of a very closed economic system that was full of rules of what was allowed and not allowed to do. Many activities were charged and the profits went to the king, the lords and the tax collector. In that light Montaigne’s remark was not unreasonable and it was probably based on facts. It is “the essence of mercantilist theory”, as another website says ( As we see: Nothing is true, or it is false from another perspective. It depends on the context.

I found also a so-called Wittgenstein Fallacy on the Internet. Michael Dummett wrote in his “Preface” to his Frege. Philosophy of Mathematics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991) that Wittgenstein wouldn’t have survived the present academic system in philosophy in view of his reluctance to publish (during his life, Wittgenstein published only his Tractatus and then yet only one short article) (p. ix). Jason Stanley calls it the “Wittgenstein Fallacy”: “the claim that the profession of philosophy as currently practiced is somehow flawed, because a modern day Wittgenstein would not receive recognition or employment.” ( Or, as I found it formulated elsewhere: The Wittgenstein Fallacy is “the idea that the [philosophical] profession is in such dire straits nowadays – e.g., in demanding mountains of publications for tenure and even tenure-track positions – that even Wittgenstein would not succeed if he were alive today.” ( Now it is so that I was looking for fallacies committed by Wittgenstein and this is only one named after him. But is it a fallacy? In my blog last week, I discussed several definitions of “fallacy”. But according to all definitions a fallacy is a kind of argumentation, albeit a fallacious one. Only the last definition in that blog is wider: “A fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” So, if we see a fallacy as a kind of argumentation, the Wittgenstein Fallacy is not a fallacy. Only if we accept the last definition it might be so, supposing that there is not enough evidence present yet to found Dummett’s idea. However, I would rather call it an opinion or a point of view than a fallacy. It would stretch the concept too much. Not every idea that is wrong is a fallacy. An idea can also be simply right or wrong.

I should have to read the works by Wittgenstein myself with the eye of looking for mistakes in his reasoning in order to find out whether he committed fallacies. I wonder whether I would find any, although it might happen that I find statements I don’t agree with. Certainly it will be the same for many other philosophical works. But even if I would find a mistake in a philosophical theory, it doesn’t automatically imply that it’s a fallacy. It might be nothing more than that: A mistake or otherwise just a difference in view or in interpretation.