Monday, May 29, 2017

Why don’t we care?

Maybe I should add this week yet a bit to what I have written in my last blog. My view on the case there has been implicit, but actually there is much to say about it. And doesn’t the case tell a lot about the kind of persons we are? For I don’t see it as a case about individuals who behave in a specific situation but as a case that is typical for man (woman) as such. So I do not reproach by writing this blog the individual agents involved and their individual behaviour; nor do I reproach the individual policeman and -woman his and her (in my eyes) unprofessional behaviour – “unprofessional”, for shouldn’t it be so that in emergency cases helping the victims is one of the first things to do as long as no other help is present? – No, in my view the case says a lot about the kind of person Man (Woman) is, at least in certain social, cultural and historical circumstances. Just that’s why I started in my last blog with the quotation from Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, – actually Clavel=Werth – which happened to take place in the same region where my wife and I were involved in the road accident. But in the end Man (Woman) does not exist and there are only individuals who act and make choices.
There is much in this case that must make you think and that determines what people do in certain concrete circumstances. I’ll mention a few:
- As psychological studies have shown: The more people are present at the place of an accident, the fewer people will help, for everybody thinks that another person will do so, and if no one else does, why just you?
- Once one person takes the initiative to help, more people present are prepared to help. However, in fact most of them will help only if they are asked in person to do so. So if you are at the place of an accident and can’t handle it alone, don’t expect that the others present will help you, but address yourself to a specific person among the bystanders – whoever it is – and then it’s almost certain that this person will help.
- Each car driver (and car passenger) passing by without giving help was not simply someone passing by, but s/he was passing by in a box, namely in a car. They saw the accident through the windows of their cars, a bit as if they were watching a drama in a theatre. And who will give help to the actors in need on the stage? In other words, the fact that you are sitting in a car creates a distance between your world within the car and the world outside the car. The world outside the car becomes a kind of objective occurrence that develops independently of you; a kind of drama acted on a stage (unless you yourself collide with another car).
- People are more willing to help when they have prepared themselves in some way what to do in situations they don’t expect or that suddenly happen. Even a little mental preparation at home will do a lot to make you act in the right way in sudden circumstances. That’s also why I called the behaviour of the policepersons involved unprofessional, for isn’t it to be expected that it is a part of their training to care for the victims and to see whether help is necessary?
- All persons involved in the accident were foreigners or of foreign origin (which in case of the Frenchman involved was maybe not clear at first sight, however; but the other cars involved had foreign registration numbers).
Voilà a little philosophy of help or rather non-help. I had the intention to write this week yet a bit about Bertrand Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy and especially about the chapter on “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge”. But once I started to write, my fingers begun to type on the Problem of Man (Woman) and so it became a blog on his (her) limits. Maybe another time I’ll return to Russell.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Who cares

(the truck had already gone to the hard shoulder)

Spring 1915, at the front of the First World War near Nancy, France
“At midnight someone is knocking at the door ... It’s a soldier from the colonial troops who comes back from the trenches, wounded at his hand. He cannot find the aid station. Clavel asks the card players. They give only a vague indication. They don’t want to be disturbed. In the black night Clavel goes to look for it, together with the colonial soldier, walking in the rain and through the mud. ...
‘I am bleeding ..., I am bleeding’ the colonial soldier says.
At last after half an hour they find the aid post.
When Clavel comes back, the players don’t ask anything. They even don’t look up.”
From Léon Werth, Clavel Soldat (first edition 1919).

Spring 2017, on the motorway near Nancy, France
The truck moves to the left, comes on our lane and touches our car. Then suddenly another car appears in front of the truck and jumps on our lane. It’s impossible to avoid it. A crash. Our car comes to a standstill.
My wife and I remain sitting in our car for a few minutes. We see the driver of the other car getting out. We see the truck driver walking on the road. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. We sit there yet for a few moments. Then we get out, too. Nobody comes to help us and ask whether we are okay, although it is very busy on the highway. The drivers behind us must have turned their car and fled away. Who cares about an accident?
When the police arrives – a policeman and a policewoman – they immediately start to control the traffic and to move our car and the other cars to the hard shoulder. They don’t get the idea to ask whether we are okay and maybe need medical help. The first few minutes they even don’t talk to us...

A few years ago, on the motorway near my town, the Netherlands
Our car goes into a skid, overturns and lands on its wheels. Dizzy and in shock we are sitting there. We ask each other whether we are all right. Happily we are. A man runs to our car and asks whether we are okay. Two policeman – a policeman and a policewoman – who happen to pass by stop. While the one starts to control the traffic, the other one comes to us and asks several times whether she has to call an ambulance for us and warns us to see a doctor when we get pain in the back of the neck. Then she explains the further procedure to us.

Often we cannot help what happens to us but what we can help is how we get along with it. How one does is a matter of individual differences and a matter of education. It’s up to the reader to pass his or her judgment on the cases described above.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Even Russell sometimes nods

Even Homer sometimes nods

Bertrand Russell was a great philosopher, who made valuable contributions to philosophy. He was also a very creative philosopher. His view was wider than the mathematical and analytic philosophy, which were his specialities and which he helped develop. As for this we must also mention that he stimulated Wittgenstein, who had approached him. Russell was politically very active (which brought him in prison because of his opposition to the First World War). He popularized philosophy. And so on. It was not without reason that he got the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. He contributed to the advancement of philosophical thinking and thinking in general. It will be clear that I cannot do justice to his work in a blog.
Russell also made mistakes, also philosophically, and in many respects his philosophical ideas have been superseded. Here I want to discuss such a mistake.
Let me take again Russell’s book The problems of philosophy, which I discussed in my last blog. In this book he defends the view that “all our knowledge of truths depends upon our intuitive knowledge” (ch. 10). I’ll not go into details, but Russell says that some of our self-evident (intuitive) truths immediately derive from sensation. “We call such truths ‘truths of perception’”, he says. According to Russell these self-evident truths of perception – or perceptive intuitions, as I’ll also call them – can be of two kinds: either they can assert the existence of a sense-datum in an unanalyzed way or they can be judgments of memory (ch. 11). And just here we have a problem. Particularly the idea of sense-data has been the object of much debate and in the end it appeared untenable, especially after its rejection by Karl R. Popper, who put forward strong arguments against the idea. Sense-data, so Russell, is the name for “the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on.” (ch. 1) Now the idea that sense-data exist is seen as naive, although many great philosophers thought so. “[I]f we are to know anything about [a] table”, so Russell, “it must be by the means of the sense-data – brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. – which we associate with the table” (ch. 1). However, one can object that colour, shape, structure (like smoothness), and other properties not mentioned by Russell like material (the wood the table is made of) are not data objectively given in nature. These properties are shaped in the mind. For example, physically colour does not exist. There are only waves with a certain length, which are interpreted by us as red, blue, brown, etc. It is the same for all other properties that Russell ascribes to sense-date. That we see a table in a certain way is an interpretation of the mind. It’s not a kind of objective fact like a sense-datum in the sense of Russell.
Take now the other kind of perceptive intuition: judgments of memory. It’s true that Russell admits that we often make mistakes in what we remember. Therefore he thinks that intuitive truth of memory is gradual. There is a transition from what we certainly and self-evidently know to what we are uncertain about whether we remember it to clear mistakes in memory (cf chs. 11 and 13). Nevertheless there are absolute self-evident truths of this kind, so Russell. Memories and other mental facts can be self-evidently true if they refer to private facts that are finally unknown to others and can be known only by the one who has them. Let me quote Russell for an example: “When Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio, the corresponding fact, if his belief were true, would be ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’. This would be a fact with which no one could have acquaintance except Desdemona; hence in the sense of self-evidence that we are considering, the truth that Desdemona loves Cassio (if it were a truth) could only be self-evident to Desdemona. All mental facts, and all facts concerning sense-data have this same privacy: there is only one person to whom they can be self-evident in our present sense, since there is only one person who can be acquainted with the mental things or sense-data concerned.” It is as if Desdemona has a list with characteristics of being in love that she checks and then says: “Indeed, I’m in love with Cassio”. No, it doesn’t work that way. For Desdemona there is no fact of “Desdemona’s love for Cassio” that can be self-evident to her. Russell confuses here the third-person perspective of Othello and the first-person perspective of Desdemona. She simply is in love with Cassio, without thinking.
There is a saying that even Homer sometimes nods. We use it when even the most gifted person makes mistakes. Despite his flaws Homer was a great poet. Accordingly Russell was an excellent and brilliant philosopher, even though we don’t always agree with him.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The times they are a-changin’

Since I created this philosophical website ten years ago, I have published more than 500 blogs. Nonetheless, if the reader wants to know what the main themes in philosophy are, it has no sense to list the themes of my blogs, since they don’t show what is important in philosophy but only what my philosophical interests are. Moreover, since I am not a philosopher by education but a sociologist who later became interested in philosophy, I even haven’t a good overview of the field. So, I got the idea to browse a bit on the Internet and to enter the words “problems in philosophy” in the Google search machines and see what I would get. Well, what did I find? Pages and pages with entries referring to Bertrand Russell’s book The problems of philosophy. I could even download the book for free, which was not necessary though, since I have it already. As such the result was not bad, but the book is already from 1912. However, because I wanted to see what the main philosophical problems were then according to Russell, I took my copy, read the contents and thumbed it through. What was it that Russell considered the major philosophical issues? I’ll spare you an enumeration of the fifteen subjects he discussed but they concern all the nature of reality and matter (ontological problems) and knowledge related problems (epistemological problems like induction, intuition, truth, universals). Although I lack a good overview of the field, as said, also for me it’s striking what Russell does not discuss in view of what is regarded philosophically important today. It’s true that Russell wrote in the foreword of his book that he had “confined [him]self in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which [he] thought it possible to say something positive and constructive ... For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics ..., and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.” And it’s also true that some problems became important only after Russell had published the book. Even so, it is useful to mention a few subjects that Russell ignored, albeit only for illustrating what has changed in philosophy. So here are a few themes that are absent in his book:
- Themes from ethical and moral philosophy. But didn’t already the ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, talk about questions of right and wrong and the best way of life and about what they meant for us? These themes have always been present in philosophy since then, and maybe they are now even more popular than before.
- What is consciousness and what does it mean for human experience.
- The relationship between mind and body. The theme has become important since Descartes made his famous statement “I think so I am”. In Russell’s time it was still mainstream philosophy that mind and body were different substances. How much has changed, especially since brain research has started booming with all philosophical consequences involved like whether there is a free will.
- If “we are our brain”, as some philosophers and brain scientists say, what does remain then of the idea of the free will? Although this theme has become especially important since the rise of modern brain research, it was not new when Russell wrote his book.
- The philosophy of action, so questions about what actions are, how we study them, what makes how we act and so on. Although action philosophy developed as a special philosophical field not before the end of the 1950s, already in the 19th century there was a debate whether the humanities need a method of their own which is different from the method of the natural sciences. Although this discussion had many epistemological implications it was ignored by Russell, as it was by most other main stream philosophers studying epistemological themes.
- What is a person? What is personal identity? The question was raised by John Locke in 1689 and again and again it attracted the attention of philosophers, till today.
I am the first to admit that my list of problems of philosophy is casual and incomplete, also as a supplement to Russell’s list. Moreover, one cannot blame Russell for not mentioning problems that were not relevant in his days or even did not yet exist. Nonetheless, his list was one-sided, but what is more important, his choice shows that the main themes of philosophy have changed. Epistemological problems have become less important; ontological problems like the essence of matter and reality have become hobbies for specialists. What are important now are questions in the philosophy of mind on the consequences of brain research, for instance, like their effects on our idea of free will. Or ethical questions about good life and how we give sense to what we do. The times they are a-changin’, and so is philosophy.

Russell’s The problems of philosophy can be found on several websites, for example and