Monday, March 20, 2017

Karl-Otto Apel 95 years: A personal homage

Karl-Otto Apel

Last Wednesday, March 15, one of the greatest German philosophers celebrated his 95th birthday: Karl-Otto Apel. Only this fact would be a sufficient reason to devote a blog to this outstanding philosopher. But there is also another reason: Apel is one of those philosophers who has much influenced my philosophical career, not in person but by his writings. I have all his works here in my library, with the exception of the latest ones. For it’s true, through the years I lost contact with his philosophy and it’s already ages ago that I have read a text written by Apel. However, without his work my philosophical interests wouldn’t have developed the way it did. In this blog it’s impossible to do justice to Apel and his ideas, so I’ll keep it personal and write a bit about what he meant to me.
I came into touch with Apel via his friend the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was very popular among students when I studied sociology at the university, and Habermas and Apel developed a part of their early theories together. So it was impossible then to read Habermas’s works and not to stumble upon Apel. Gradually Apel became more important to me than Habermas. One of the theses that Apel defended was that knowledge and our body are inseparably related. Corporality and consciousness are in a complementary relationship, he says. This statement was an attack on Descartes’s mind-body dualism – a theme that is much discussed in the analytical philosophy of mind these days. Both Apel and later – independently – most analytical philosophers who discuss the problem reached the same conclusion: There is no mind-body divide and mind and body are intrinsically related. How this relation is, is still a much debated issue, but, influenced by Apel, I developed the idea that mind and body are aspects of the same substance.
Apel defended also the idea that our argumentations must stop somewhere. Our reasoning must have an end, a point beyond which we say it’s impossible to argue, for otherwise we would get into an interminable relativism. It was an attack on Popper’s critical rationalism. It made me develop the idea that finally we have to act, anyhow, even if it is “only” the “banal” thing that we have to eat and work in order to survive.
What was and still is unusual for a philosopher with a background in the continental philosophy is that Apel paid much attention to themes from analytical philosophy. He wrote on language and action in an analytical way. By doing so he succeeded to bridge the two seemingly unbridgeable approaches of continental and analytical philosophy and especially he succeeded to combine and weave together the ideas of Heidegger and Wittgenstein.
All this had a big influence on my ideas and philosophical development, but most important for me were Apel’s discussions on the question whether there are two basic research methods, namely one for the natural sciences, called “explanation”, and one for the humanities, called “understanding”, or whether there is only one unitary explanatory method both for the sciences and the humanities. Themes from this “Explanation-Understanding Controversy” became central in my Ph.D. thesis. Moreover it’s not difficult to find there ideas that directly or indirectly go back to Apel. However, as it turned out, my thesis led me away from Apel. This happened not because I came to disagree with the his ideas, but my thesis brought me on new paths in philosophy and stimulated me to develop new ideas in new philosophical fields – at least, these fields were new to me.
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I want to end this homage to Apel with a little anecdote which I told here before in my blogs and that illustrates Apel’s influence on my philosophy:
Once I was in a bookshop in Amsterdam and my eye was caught by a new book by Apel: Die Erklären-Verstehen Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht (“The controversy between explanation and understanding from a transcendental-pragmatic perspective”). It was a methodological discussion on explaining and understanding in the humanities and social sciences, a theme that appealed a lot to me then. I found the book very interesting and what I found especially interesting was Apel’s analysis of a book by the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, a philosopher whom I didn’t know yet. I got the feeling that I had to read von Wright’s book Explanation and Understanding anyhow. It took me much effort to get it and in fact it was too expensive, but it came out that it was worth its money. Von Wright discussed here his solution of the explanation-understanding controversy and presented his methodological model for the social sciences. Basically I agreed with his approach, but in my view his model could be improved in several respects. Doing this became the leading theme of my Ph.D. thesis and it made that since then I devote much time to philosophy till the day of today.
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And actually my meeting with Apel and von Wright in a bookshop in Amsterdam is also the reason why I write my blogs today, already ten years long.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Succeeding a successor: Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

Let me take another puzzle from Roy Sorensen’s book that I quoted in my blog last week. It’s about American presidents:
“Grover Cleveland was inaugurated as the 22nd and 24th US president, succeeding Benjamin Harrison, who was the 23rd president. Who was the other [US] president who succeeded his successor? ... You do not need any historical hints” (p. 20).
Unlike last week, I’ll give the answer immediately, so if you want to figure it out yourself, stop reading NOW.
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According to Sorensen the answer is Harrison, for “Benjamin Harrison succeeded his successor, because his successor was Grover Cleveland. Harrison was elected after Cleveland’s first term. Although Harrison was elected only one term, he succeeded his successor” (pp. 256-7).
At first sight, the answer seems correct. Let me do some simple logic:

(1) Cleveland = Harrison’s successor {namely during his second term as the 24th US president}.
(2) Harrison succeeded Cleveland {namely when Harrison became the 23th US president,
he succeeded Cleveland who had finished his first term as the 22th US president}.

Now fill in (1) in (2) and we get:
(3) Harrison succeeded Harrison’s successor.
In plain English we would formulate (3) as “Harrison succeeded his successor”, and that’s what Sorensen contends.

So far so good. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if you think that there is something wrong with (3), even though the formal reasoning is correct. Anyway, I think that Harrison did not succeed his successor, although he succeeded Cleveland, who later became his successor. Just this “later became” is the point where Sorensen goes wrong, to my view, for what he ignores is the aspect of time. The question is: Is Cleveland as the 24th US president identical with Cleveland as the 22th US president? My answer is “No”, at least not in the respect we are discussing here: Being the successor of Harrison.
A much discussed issue in analytical philosophy is the question what makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1. For example, what makes a ten years old schoolboy living in a provincial capital in the north of the Netherlands the same person as the philosopher who writes a blog about a philosophical puzzle more than fifty years later somewhere in the centre of the Netherlands? Now I pass over a long and extensive discussion, but we can say that in the first place it’s the physical continuity between the schoolboy and the philosopher that does, but – as most philosophers stress – it’s especially the psychological continuity in time between the schoolboy and the philosopher that makes them the same person. When talking about psychological continuity we have to think of qualities like character traits, memory, experiences, etc. Does the philosopher still remember to which school he went? Is he still like the boy who wanted to be the best of the class? Does the boy’s experience that he fell from a bridge explains the philosopher’s fear for water? To the extent that we can answer such questions with “yes”, we can say that the philosopher is still the same person as the schoolboy; to the extent that we have to say “no” the philosopher has changed and got another personality. Who doesn’t know the sayings “Oh, John has changed so much through the years”. Or “Pete is still like the one I met fifty years ago for the first time”?
Now I think that it’s clear that the ten years old schoolboy is not the philosopher he is fifty years later. Maybe someone would have predicted that the boy would become a philosopher, but then he was not the philosopher we see fifty years later writing blogs. Let’s now assume that you are also a blogger and you write in your blog “Fifty years ago I was a friend of philosopher By the Way, but when we left the primary school, we lost sight of each other and we have been out of touch since then.” Is this statement true? No. Maybe you were a friend of the boy who would become a philosopher but not of the philosopher. The characteristic “philosopher” applies only to the man many years later and not to the schoolboy, even if that man and the schoolboy can be considered otherwise the same person. In this respect the schoolboy has changed. And so it is also with Grover Cleveland as the 22nd president of the USA. At the moment that Benjamin Harrison became the 23 US president (in 1889), Cleveland was not the successor of Harrison, but the successor of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st US president. It was only four years later (in 1893) that Cleveland became Harrison’s successor. It is an anachronism and therefore wrong to ascribe in 1889 to Cleveland a characteristic he would get only four years later, and at least in this respect Cleveland as the 22nd US president is not identical with Cleveland as the 24th US president. So there has been only one US president that succeeded his successor: Grover Cleveland. When he did, Cleveland became a little bit another person (namely by becoming the successor of his successor), even though he was physically and psychologically continuous with the Grover Cleveland who had ended his term as president of the USA four years before and who lacked the characteristic just mentioned.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Teasing thoughts

Elisabeth and Erika

Sometimes my blogs may be quite complicated. At least that’s the impression that I get from what others tell me when they have read them. Sometimes my blogs, or rather their conclusions, have also a wider meaning than what you read in the blog itself. So, I finished my blog “What is true” last month (Jan 30, 2017) with the statement: “What we see and say is not always as it appears to us”. It was the upshot of a blog in which I attacked the idea that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, and I had an epistemological or logical context in my mind, when I wrote it. Nevertheless, the conclusion can also be given a more general application, and if you forget the original context for a moment, you can see it also as a reference to what people often – or if I were cynical, I would say “usually” – do: People try to appear better than they are. We have many words and expressions for it, like a wolf in sheep’s clothes, hypocrisy, flattery, and so on. Now that you have got the hint, I think that it’s not difficult to mention other cases. This not to say that keeping up appearances and related phenomena must be seen only negative, for the world would be full of conflicts, if we always presented ourselves towards others as we really are and if we would always directly and immediately say what we think. Often it is better to control and restrain ourselves. However, when we would go too far in that, the world could become full of false ideology if not corruption, and appearance would become reality. In other words, we would live in a fake world, to take a word that is often used these days. But isn’t just this what is exposed by carnival, when it criticizes persons in office and old and new habits and customs? And if my blogs would help you a bit to think critically, it would be very nice. As Montesquieu said in his Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, Book 14, ch. XX): “My business is not to make people read, but to make them think.”
In order to break stiff thoughts it is not always necessary to use complicated argumentations. Sometimes simple cases will do, too. Take for instance this logical enigma, which I found in a book with a collection of philosophical puzzles, brought together by Roy Sorensen. (In case you want to solve the problem yourself, I’ll give the solution after the Reference, so stop reading on then, when you are there). I quote (p. 17):
“Elisabeth was born fifteen minutes before her sister Erika. The two were identical and had the same mother. Yet Elisabeth and Erika were not twins.” How to explain this?
It’s just a simple example, but breaking your fixed thoughts is an important source of creativity and a condition for understanding people with other habits and customs that originally seemed to be strange to you, if not weird.

Reference
Roy Sorensen, A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities. A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas. London: Profile Books, 2017
Solution: Elisabeth was one member of a set of identical triplets.