Monday, June 26, 2017

First encounters

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright (right)

Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic. Take for example the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein. When von Wright arrived in Cambridge, UK, early May 1939, in order to prepare his dissertation, he heard that Wittgenstein was giving lectures. Of course, he wanted to attend these lectures, although the running class had already almost finished. Let’s see what von Wright tells us about it:

 “My first encounter with Wittgenstein was rather dramatic. I went to his lecture ..., introduced myself when he entered, and said that I had the chairman’s permission to attend lectures in the faculty. Wittgenstein murmured something in reply which I did not understand, and I seated myself among the audience. He started to lecture and I became at once fascinated. ... At the end of the lecture, however, Wittgenstein expressed his great annoyance at the presence of ‘visitors’ in his class. He seemed furious. Then he left the room without waiting for an apology or explanation. I was hurt and shocked. My first impulse was to give up efforts to approach this strange man. But I also wanted a straightforward answer as to whether I could come to his lectures or not. So I wrote him a letter [not expecting an answer. However,] a few days later I got a friendly reply from the man whom I had so angered.” (pp. 10-11) This led to a personal encounter between them, and although Wittgenstein didn’t like von Wright’s presence in this class, he was welcome to visit the next series of lectures.

This first rather dramatic meeting between two outstanding philosophers – one who had already established his fame; the other would soon do so – became the start of a long lasting friendship. After Wittgenstein’s death von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and moreover he became one of the executors of Wittgenstein’s literary legacy. What would have happened if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein after his rejection? Actually, I am a bit surprised about the good relationship between Wittgenstein and von Wright, for to my mind it was difficult to become befriended with “this trange man”. It’s true that Wittgenstein had also some other good friends, like his student Elizabeth Anscombe. However, his at first good relationship with Russell finally broke up, especially because Wittgenstein couldn’t accept Russell’s different philosophical views.
“First encounter stories are generally fascinating and frequently bloody”, as H.T.R. Williams writes on But then he thinks of more or less political meetings, like those between the Romans and the Gauls or between the Europeans and people outside Europe. Often such encounters are dramatic if not tragic, indeed. Nevertheless, I think that we forget most of our own first personal meetings, since they are usually routine and nothing special. Of all personal encounters we experience in life, we remember only a few, like the first time we met our future partner. Although first encounters can have a big impact, most of them are far from dramatic. And really, in view of the world events that followed from many first meetings in the political field, also the one between Wittgenstein and von Wright was only a little bit dramatic; almost melodramatic. Even so, what would have been the consequences for philosophy, if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein?
Actually, it would be nice if I could meet yet Georg Henrik von Wright, since I have devoted a big part of my Ph.D. thesis to his action philosophy. Alas, it will not be possible anymore, for the philosopher died in 2003 in Finland, where he had returned after his professorship in Cambridge. 2003 happened also to be the first time I was in Finland, but then I visited only shortly a strip of land in the extreme north of the country, far away from where von Wright lived.
First encounters are often underrated, I think. The problem is that we have so many of them and often it will be difficult to foresee their consequences. Most of them are only brief and casual. Also explicit appointments are usually hardly different. Maybe we should give our first encounters more attention, even if it is from some kind of autobiographical curiosity. They say so much about the way we live and the persons we are.

Georg Henrik von Wright, “Intellectual autobiography”, in Paul Arthur Schillp and Lewis Edwin Hahn (eds.), The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The cement of society (2)

Trenches of the Western Front, First World War.
 On the foreground Allied trenches; on the background German trenches. 

In my last blog I put that trust is the cement of society. Montaigne stated that it is just language that ties people together, but I see it this way that language is the means used to inspire trust. However, what is trust? In an old blog I described trust as a kind of promise, but as I see it now this is actually not to the point. It’s true that accepting a promise is not possible without trusting the person who gives the promise, but trust is much wider. It involves also other relationships. Nevertheless we can find the essential aspects of trust in the relationship constituted by a promise. For one thing, a promise involves a kind of dependence, and so it is with trust. One doesn’t give a promise or accept it, when one has nothing to do with the other. The person who accepts the promise needs the help of the person who gives the promise, or the other way round. This dependence can be of different kinds. For instance,you need the practical help of the other, or his or her moral support. My friend promises to help me, or a person in need promises to follow my advice, knowing that it is the best for him or that by not doing so he will lose my future support. However, the latter example shows that the dependency may be rather weak, for perhaps the person who gives the promise may know others who can help him, so why not break the promise? Often there are no sanctions in order to extort a promise. It’s the same so for a relation of trust. So, for another thing, trust is vulnerable. This makes that Annette Baier sees trust as a kind of reliance on the good will of the other, and that she formulates the essence of trust in this way: “Where one depends on another’s good will, one is necessarily vulnerable to the limits of that good will. One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also show’s one’s confidence that they will not take it. ... Trust then ... is accepted vulnerability to another’s possible but not expected ill will (or lack of good will) toward one.” (p. 235) This description of trust is, so Baier, a first approximation of the idea, but for this blog it will do.
Briefly, who trusts takes the risk that things will not evolve as hoped or expected. It’s therefore not surprising that for Niklas Luhmann – who wrote an influential book on trust – risk is the core of trust. He called it a “risky advance” (p. 27). I think that this idea of trust as risky advance needs an explanation, but instead of spending some abstract words on the matter, I want to quote a passage from Léon Werth’s autobiographic novel Clavel Soldat, which exactly says what it is about. The event takes place during the First World War on the Western Front in Northern France. Clavel cannot sleep and goes back to the trench for a smoke, when dawn breaks:
“Someone holds out his head above the parapet. He makes a movement with his arms as if he brings a rifle to his shoulder. Then he shakes his head as if he says “no”. It’s Arnoult, one of the volunteers...
Apparently a German in the trench on the other side has answered his signs, for he seems not to consider it necessary any longer to take precautions.
– Comrades... Dirty work... Arnoult says.... Scheissarbeit [shit work]
A voice on the other side answers:
Verfluchte Scheissarbeit [damned shit work]
The corporal plucks him by his coat.
– They’ll shoot you down.
He answers:
– I trust them.
And then he shows himself up to his middle through a break in the parapet.”
(p. 174)

In our incalculable and anonymous world we have often no option but trust if we want to reach our aims or if we want to make contact. Not everything can be arranged and regulated ahead: We have to take risks and to trust, even though, as Luhmann puts it, in the end trust has no foundation (p.31). For trust bridges the moments of uncertainty in the behaviour of other people (p. 27).

- Baier, Annette, “Trust and Antitrust”, in Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jan., 1986), pp. 231-260.
- Luhmann, Niklas, Vertrauen. Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft; 2014.
- Werth, Léon, Clavel Soldat. Paris: Viviane Hamy, 2006.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The cement of society

Murder is the worst crime you can commit. I think that most of us will agree. Not so Montaigne. For him there is at least one crime that is worse: Lying. As he writes in his essay Of liars: “In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”
On the face of it, Montaigne’s view seems surprising. Nevertheless there is some truth in it, for as Montaigne says a few lines after the quotation: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” In other words, lying undermines the faith we have in the speaker. We cannot trust a person if s/he lies. And if we cannot trust what someone says, what remains then? As Montaigne had just said (see the first quotation here): we have no other ties with each other than by what we say. We need it for inspiring trust. That’s why lying affects the basis of society, even to that extent that for Montaigne it’s the worst crime that can happen.
I think that the importance of trust for our living together is underestimated. It glues society together. It’s the cement of society. If we don’t trust someone, it is difficult to built a relationship with him or her. If a person lies to us on one occasion about something that is important to us, who knows maybe s/he’ll do it a next time as well. If we don’t have reason to think that this person has changed, we tend to avoid him or her and we don’t want to enter into a relationship with this man or woman any longer or we take our precautions in order to diminish the risk that we’ll again be deceived. As a consequence our relationship becomes difficult, often to the detriment of both of us. That’s one reason why corrupt societies are economically less flourishing than societies where corruption is more or less absent. For isn’t corruption also a kind of a lie?
Montaigne says of himself that “I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie.” Actually, I think that this has more to do with the type of personality Montaigne is than with a principled horror of lying whatever the circumstances – if it is true what he writes here, for who says always the truth about him or herself, even if s/he doesn’t lie? – For, would a modern Montaigne who had hidden an Anne Frank in a tower of his castle really say “yes”, if an SS-man would knock on his gate and ask whether she is staying there? (If I may believe him, Kant would have said that she is). Who lives within a lie must not be surprised that s/he will meet with a lie. And a lie to the SS-man is a word of truth and confidence to Anne Frank. Sometimes lying is necessary in order to restore trust.

Sources: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Liars”,
James Lewis, “Commentary on Montaigne’s On Liars,

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Barber of Seville

Although it was not a real promise to write yet another time on Russell, nevertheless once I have said that I may return to him sooner or later I feel it as a kind of obligation to do so. And since there is a saying that you must never put off till tomorrow what you can do today, I think the best is to write about him now.
I reread the chapter “The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge” in Russell’s book The Problems of Philosophy, but when I asked myself what I should say about it, I realized that I had not so much to add to my criticism written a few weeks ago. For also in this chapter Russell’s view on philosophy (as treated here and in the whole book) is somewhat limited and moreover it is a bit outdated. When Russell thinks of philosophy he thinks of epistemological issues in the first place, so questions in the field of knowledge. But as I have written four weeks ago, there is so much more in philosophy. Now it is so that Russell himself writes in this chapter that “we have scarcely touched on many matters that occupy a great space in the writings of most philosophers. Most philosophers – or, at any rate, very many – profess to be able to prove, by a priori metaphysical reasoning, such things as the fundamental dogmas of religion, the essential rationality of the universe, the illusoriness of matter, the unreality of all evil, and so on.” (p. 82) And then he thinks of philosophers like Kant and Hegel. However, according to Russell, such problems cannot be solved by philosophy but only by science. That’s true, I think, but I doubt whether most, or otherwise very many philosophers spent their time in Russel’s days and before on the themes just mentioned and on related themes. I think that there were also quite a lot of philosophers who reflected on other themes, and they were not the least important. I guess that there were more of them than Russell thought. A case in point is Nietzsche. And when I was developing the ideas that led to my dissertation, I spent much time on studying the works of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), who transformed the method of explaining texts into a general method for the social sciences. By doing so he developed the method of Verstehen (understanding) and in this way he became one of the founders of the philosophy of action (still today one of the lively branches of philosophy). Dilthey was also an important contributor to the so-called Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life). A few other philosophers I want to mention yet without further explanation are Montaigne, Rousseau and Karl Marx. All these philosophers (with the exception of Dilthey) are mentioned in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
But by writing in this way on Russell I tend to ignore his great contributions to philosophy. For example, his critique on set theory led to a shock in the world of mathematics around 1900. I am not a mathematician, so I can’t explain you the ins and outs in detail and in a accessible way, but who doesn’t know the story of the Barber of Seville? And then I don’t mean Rossini’s opera but the barber in this town who had written on the signboard of his shop “I shave all men who do not shave themselves” (implying: and only men who do not shave themselves). It’s a paradox, for what about the barber himself? The story has been told in another version by Lewis Carroll and has been used by Russell to criticize the set theory, for does or doesn’t the barber belong to the set of his clients? The set theory couldn’t tell and finally the problem was solved by changing the rules that define a set. It seems that there is nothing as easy as that: When you can’t solve it, ignore it. In a positive way we can say, of course, that a mistake in the set theory was eliminated in the sense of Popper’s error elimination. It’s the way science develops. Nevertheless, it looks a bit like a trick. Moreover, actually the entire paradox is based on the prejudice that the barber is not a woman.