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Thursday, December 07, 2023

Random quote
The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
Harry G. Frankfurt (1929-2023)

Monday, December 04, 2023

Harry Frankfurt

Harry Frankfurt and his alternate possibilities

A few months ago, the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt died, 94 years old (1929-2023). I think that many of my readers will not know him, although I have mentioned him a few times in my blogs, but he was one of the most influential American philosophers of the last century and the early 21st century. He had especially a big impact on the discussion whether there is a free will. You simply cannot ignore his view when you are interested in the free will debate.
Free will, so many philosophers say, is all about responsibility: Free will and personal responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Is this true? No, Frankfurt said: We can be responsible for what we do without being free. Take this case (and now I use an old blog):
Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a chip in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should Black detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black will activate the chip to ensure that Jones will vote Democratic. However, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes.
In this case, voting for the Democratic candidate was Jones’s own choice, so we can say that Jones was responsible for this choice. Nevertheless, he was not free to vote for the Democratic candidate, for would Jones have wanted to vote Republican, Black would have intervened. The upshot is that responsibility and free will don’t need to go together. But what then free will is about if it is not about responsibility? This blog is not the place to try to answer this question, but by presenting this, what now is called, Frankfurt case, Harry Frankfurt has left his mark on the free will debate. To my mind it is his most important contribution to philosophy.
Another important contribution of Frankfurt to philosophy is his definition what a person is. A person is, so Frankfurt, someone who wants what he or she wants. In order to understand what this means, Frankfurt distinguished first-order volitions and second-order volitions. First-order volitions are simple wants, desires, wishes etc. I like oranges so I want to eat oranges. I like reading so I want to read a book. I like opera so I desire to go to an opera performance. Etc. But do we really want what we want? Do I really want to want to eat oranges? Yes, for they are healthy and tasty. Do, I really want to want to read books? Yes, for reading books is a pleasure and it is good for my mental development. But, say, that I am a drug addict. Every day I want to take a shot of heroin, if not more often. Do I really want to take heroin every day? No, for it ruins my health and it makes me dependent, for I want to have it now or I’ll become sick. So I want to get clean and I ask for help. However, a friend of mine, also a heroin addict, never asks the question whether he wants to get clean. He simply wants to have his shots. What is the difference between us? According to Frankfurt, those people who ask both first-order and second-order questions – like me – are persons. If I succeed to get clean, I am a free person; if I don’t succeed to get clean, I am a person but not a free person: I have asked first-order and second-order questions, but I don’t succeed to act according to my answers (I stay a drug addict, although I don’t want that). However, since my friend doesn’t ask second-order questions, he cannot be a person. Frankfurt calls him a wanton.
For me, these are Frankfurt’s most important contributions to philosophy, but he did more. Among philosophers he is also known as a Descartes specialist. Among the general public he is especially known by his bestseller On Bullshit. In this booklet he defends the view that worse than simply lying is talking bullshit: Talking nonsense (or maybe even truth) without caring whether what you say is true or false. For the speaker (or writer), the only thing that is important is how s/he appears to others or that s/he gets what she wants and reaches his/her goals. Another influential book written for the general public is Frankfurt’s The Reasons of Love. Harry Frankfurt was an analytic philosopher in the first place, and analytic philosophy is typically a kind of philosophy performed in academic circles. However, according to Frankfurt it is also a good method for explaining general issues that are important for the general public. In the book just mentioned Frankfurt gives an analytical and well-understandable explanation of the idea of love.
It will certainly not be difficult to write more about Harry Frankfurt, but with this blog I hope to have made clear that he was a remarkable and influential philosopher, a clear writer and one of the most important American thinkers of the last hundred years.

Harry G. Frankfurt, The importance of what we care about.
Maarten Meester, “De analyticus van de vrije wil”, in Filosofie Magazine, 2023/12; pp. 54-58.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Random quote
For most people an irresistible pleasure is associated with obedience, credulity, and a quasi-loving submission to a master they admire.
Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904)

Monday, November 27, 2023

The moral foundations of behaviour

Nelson Mandela

Why do people behave morally? What is the origin of moral behaviour? What does morality actually involve? These are intriguing questions that philosophers and psychologists have been asking almost as long as they are asking questions. In these blogs, I have presented already some answers given by the American developmental and comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello. At least as interesting are the answers given by the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. What makes this book interesting is not only the moral theory presented there, but also that he uses his theory to explain why people have such different views in matters of politics and religion. However, the meaning of this moral theory goes far beyond politics and religion. In this blog I want to deal with Haidt’s schema of the foundations of morality, hoping that it will help you understand the political and religious (and other) discussions and differences better.
People often differ in their political and religious views. These differences are not only theoretical, but they make that people act in different ways and support different political parties and religious organisations. This made Haidt, together with others, realize that there is not one foundation of morality, although interpreted by different persons in different ways, but that morality has a modular structure. Morality basically consists of several modules, and each module is a moral challenge of what is important to realize. Different moral views involve then different combinations of such modules, and different ideas about which modules are most important. What then are these modules, or moral challenges, or, as Haidt usually says, foundations of morality? Here they are (from Haidt, pp. 178-179, 215):

1) The care/harm foundation. This makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need of others and makes us despise cruelty. It makes that we want to care for those who are suffering.
2) The fairness/cheating foundation. This makes us sensitive to indications that another person is likely to be a good or bad partner for collaboration and reciprocal altruism. It makes us also sensitive to proportionality and makes us want to shun or punish cheaters.
3) The loyalty/betrayal foundation. This makes us sensitive to signs that another person is (or is not) a team player. It makes us trust or reward such people, and it makes us want to hurt, ostracize or even kill those who betray us or our group.
4) The authority/subversion foundation. This makes us sensitive to signs of rank or status, and to signs that other people are or are not behaving properly, given their position.
5) The sanctity/degradation foundation. This makes us wary of a diverse array of symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest in objects with extreme and irrational values – both positive and negative – which are important in binding people together. For example, in the religious field, think of “holy” objects and places; or think of the special meaning the national flag has for many people.
6) The liberty/oppression foundation. This makes people notice and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together to resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.

This, what Haidt calls, the Moral Foundations Theory describes the elements or modules that in different combinations and stressed in different ways form our moral, religious and political views. When political views clash, we often can understand why this happens by analysing them and then see, for instance, that for political view X modules 1) and 2) are most important, while for political view Y modules 4) and 5) gives the goals that are most important to pursue. Although knowing this may not prevent heavy clashes between advocates of these political views, it may help both sides understand each other better, which can be a first step to depolarization and a common solution of the problems in question. Generally today, we see a growing polarization in all Western countries, be it in the USA, Spain, the Netherlands, or in any country, whichever, and this leads to growing internal tensions and demonization of “the other”. Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory can be a useful instrument in helping to overcome this undesirable situation.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Random quote
Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Monday, November 20, 2023

Language and manipulation

Soviet propaganda in Moscow in 1983

Language has an influence on the person you are. We have seen it in my last week’s blog. However, the influence of language doesn’t occur only at the individual level but also on the group level and on the level of nations. No wonder that language is often used to manipulate groups if not whole peoples. Some political orators are very skilled in using language for manipulating the will of the people and make them do what they like. Often this has ruined the country. Here I want to discuss two ways of manipulating collectivities such as states with the help of language. Again, I have made use of Viorica Marian’s The Power of Language (esp. chapter 7).
In all countries of the world, words are used for influencing if not manipulating the way people think. I still remember that when the first people from Southern Europe, North Africa and Turkey arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, looking for work, they were called guest workers. Soon, however, the authorities thought that it was better to call them immigrants, a word that after a few years already was replaced by allochthones. Now, many years later immigrants officially are called newcomers. Sometimes special words are used for special categories like knowledge immigrants. These word switches were often used in order to avoid the pejorative meanings that the old words had got by replacing them by more neutral if not positive words. This is a good reason, of course, but it is manipulation, anyway.
The person who has best described how, especially in a negative way, language can be used for manipulation is George Orwell (see his 1984). Orwell called this substitution of old words by new words and old word meanings by new meanings “Newspeak”. For instance,
take the word “free”. The word is not removed from the vocabulary, but in Newspeak it is used to communicate only the absence of something, for instance “The dog is free from lice”. That it once referred also to “politically free” or “intellectually free” is removed from the vocabulary. Because quite recently yet I wrote several blogs about this kind of manipulation (see for example here and here), I’ll give no further explanation.
Newspeak and language manipulation are often manners for oppressing people and making them obey the will of the leaders. A related phenomenon is discouraging the use of a certain language if not completely forbidding its use in order to promote and shape the national identity of a country. It happens both in dictatorships and in democracies. I don't think it goes too far to say that language is the soul of a people. Therefore, by suppressing the use of a certain minority language one can try to suppress the identity of the group of the speakers of this language. By forcing them to speak the national language, the authorities can try to make this minority accept the national identity, if not immediately then in the long run. As Marian says it (pp. 133-4): “[D]omination through language cuts to the heart of a nation and its people precisely because language and mind are so closely connected. To forbid not only certain words but entire languages is to forbid a certain way of thinking and of being in the world.” An example of the promotion of the majority language for the national unity and identity is the russification of the Soviet Union, when the country yet existed. In Turkey Kurdish, the language of the Kurdish people in the east of the country, had been forbidden till 1991 for use in public, since it was considered an expression of separatism and a provocation of the unity of Turkey. Especially since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia (which occurred in fact already in 2014), in Ukraine Ukrainian is promoted as the national language at the cost of Russian, which had been the major language when the country was a part of the Soviet Union and yet long thereafter.
However, when authorities in a country try to suppress a minority language, they often forget that language suppression can lead to resistance and national division. This can be seen in many countries, for instance in Turkey but also in Spain, where the Catalan language had been forbidden from 1939 till 1975. Even books in Catalan were then destroyed. This ban on Catalan has been an important factor contributing to the wish of Catalonia to become independent of Spain. Also in Belgium we see that the restriction of the rights of the Dutch language speakers till the 1960s has led to an independence movement in Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of the country) and, in the end, to the federalization of the state as a provisional (?) solution.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Random quote
Of all the follies of the world, that which is most universally received is the solicitude of reputation and glory.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Monday, November 13, 2023

Person and language

I am Pinocchio

Following Viorica Marian’s The Power of Language. Multilingualism, Self and Society, in my blog last week I explained how knowing several languages has a positive influence on your perception of the world and on your health, and that it affects your emotions as well. However, the influence of knowing more than one language, and of language in general, goes much farther. It’s one of the main factors that make you the person who you are. Take memory. In the discussion on the question whether and to what extent you are the same person that you were many years ago, many philosophers ascribe a decisive role to memory: The idea is that, when as an adult you still remember what you did as a child, you as an adult are still the same person as the child whose deeds you remember (the so-called psychological continuity thesis). Here I don’t want to discuss the thesis as such (see my old blogs and see here), but in the present context it is important that what you remember is not independent of the language you used when you were acting in the past and of the language you use for recalling your past. The language you speak influences in at least three ways what you remember, so Marian (pp. 112 ff.):
1) Through language co-activation at the time of encoding
2) Through language dependent memory
3) Through the labels used in remembering.
1) This is about the same effect that appeared in the association test in my blog two weeks ago. After a certain event a monolingual English speaker will easily remember a fly and a flashlight if they happen together while a bilingual English-Spanish speaker may be more likely than a monolingual English speaker also remember the arrow (“flecha” in Spanish) passing by.
2) More interesting in view of the psychological continuity thesis is language dependent memory. This involves, so Marian (pp. 113-4), that “the likelihood of remembering something increases if you are using the same language that was used when the original event occurred… [Multilinguals] remember different things about their lives and recall information about the world differently in their native versus their second languages because the accessibility of those memories varies. What comes to the forefront changes across languages… In turn, the memories accessed influence how we think about ourselves and our lives and how we interact with others.” However, if this means that we remember different things about our youth dependent on the language we use and, maybe, that in the extreme case we must switch to the language we used when we were young in order to remember what we did then, this raises the intriguing question whether we are different persons dependent on the languages used. Even more, does this mean that when speaking a second language I am not identical with the child I was long ago, while I am still identical with this child if I speak my first language? Here it is not the place to try to answer this question, but I think that a further exploration of the issue would be an important contribution to the discussion on personal identity. It may throw a new light on the answers given so far.
3) A third factor that influences memory is how things are labelled in a language. For instance, Spanish uses two different words to refer to a corner, namely “rincón” (inside corner) and “esquina” (outside corner). Therefore, speakers of Spanish have better memory for where items are placed in a display that involves corners than speakers of English have. (Marian, pp. 115-6) Or, another example, in Dutch there is only one word for “male cousin” and “nephew”, namely “neef” (and one word for “female cousin and niece”: “nicht”). Think how much more difficult it is for a Dutch person to recall what kind of family relationship he or she has with a certain relative than for a Chinese who has already eight different words for “cousin”, depending on the relationship to him or her (on the maternal or paternal side; male or female; younger or older).
Many psychological investigations but also investigations in other fields ignore the languages the test persons speak. In addition, they ignore the question whether test persons are monolinguals or multilinguals and whether they are tested in their first languages or in a second language. As an example, I mentioned the discussion on the psychological identity thesis. Is this disregard of language right? I think that this blog makes clear that it is not. Humans, and certainly test persons, are not “language free”. What they feel, perceive, think, remember etc. depends to a great extent on the languages that they speak and that shaped them; on their mother tongues in the first place, but also on the other languages they learned. Language has a big impact on the person you are. One would almost say: Tell me which language you speak and I’ll say who you are. Or maybe even: Tell me which language you are speaking now and I’ll say who you are, at this moment.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Random quote
The fundamental question that one ought to be asking before launching a war is basically this: would a war be worth it morally? Is what is at stake in this conflict–the evil that war might prevent in this case–worth all the evil that this war can be expected to create?
Henry Shue (1940-)

Monday, November 06, 2023

Otto Dix, The War

Otto Dix (1891-1969), The War

In view of the present times, I have uploaded this triptych by Otto Dix instead of my regular weekly blog.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Open your world, improve your health: learn a language

When I had finished the Dutch gymnasium, 18 years old, I didn’t know that I had taken there important steps towards a healthy life and a life that made me more open-minded. Then a gymnasium was a school that stressed language learning. Besides subjects like physics, maths, history, etc., I got French, German and English plus the classical languages Latin and Greek. Of course, I knew that the gymnasium was a school that educated for the university and asked intellectually a lot of you. What I didn’t realize then was that knowing several languages has a big positive impact on your mind and your physical health, especially if you keep using at least some of the languages you learned. And so I did. Even more, I learned also some new languages and in the end I had learned twelve languages (see here –in Russian – or see this blog). Although I forgot some, for it’s quite an effort to keep up twelve languages (at least for me), nonetheless almost each day I still use five or six languages.
Knowing several languages makes you mentally and physically stronger and more open to the world compared with monolinguals. This is what the Moldavian-American psycholinguist Viorica Marian argues in her book The Power of Language. Multilingualism, Self and Society
. The effect is even stronger, if you are fluent in the languages you have learned, especially when you have learned them already at an early age. The effect is also stronger the more languages you know. In order to understand how it works, you must know that languages are stored in the brain via networks. Such a brain network is like a street net that connects all sites that are relevant from a certain point of view and that need to be connected. Suppose you are a postman. Then you have the street net that connects the post office, where you collect the mail to be delivered plus the district with addresses where you deliver the mail. However, for buying your daily necessities, you have another street net. It contains the streets and shops (supermarket, bakery, greengrocer, etc.) where you buy what you need. If you work in a different district than where you work, these street nets will be different, but if you live in the district where you deliver the mail, the street nets overlap. Then, while delivering the mail, you can stop at the baker’s shop and buy the bread you need; etc. It works in the same way for languages. For each language there is a network in your brain; moreover, the networks for the separate languages always overlap. Of course, these networks are not completely equal; there are “streets” in one language network that do not belong to the network of another language. However, that the networks overlap has important consequences, for when one language network is used (for example, you are speaking English) and you are bilingual (for example you know Spanish as well), your other language (Spanish) network is activated at the same time. This becomes clear in association tests. Say you see a candle, candy, a lock, a fish and a match, and you are a monolingual English speaker. When you are asked to point at the candle, then “candy” is activated as well, because the words “candle” and “candy” are similar (this can be concluded from the eye movements you make). However, if you are also fluent in Spanish, the lock will also be activated, for “lock” in Spanish is “candado” (“fish” and “match” in Spanish are “pez” and “fósforo”). This simple test illustrates that for bilinguals the (possible) range of attention is wider than for monolinguals. This will be the more so, the more languages you know, for multilingualism helps you to be open for more alternatives, for instance when you must solve a problem.
Multilingualism delays also the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease. It doesn’t stop the development of the disease, but it makes that the effects appear later. Also this is a result of developing a brain network for each language you learn, and it works about in the same manner as the widening of your attention span just described. If you have Alzheimer’s, your brain is gradually demolished, so also your language networks are. For monolinguals, as soon as the language network becomes damaged, the symptoms of the disease appear. If you are bilingual or multilingual, your language networks will be gradually destroyed as well, but although your language networks partially overlap, often it will possible to create diversions via another network, if one becomes defective. It is not that multilinguals cannot develop dementia, but the symptoms will be less severe for them than for monolinguals with the same level of anatomical decay. It is known that multilingualism will delay Alzheimer’s (and other types of dementia) with four to six years on average. Even more, in countries in which the mean number of languages spoken is low the incidence of Alzheimer’s is higher than in countries where it is high. The more languages spoken the lower the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
Just short yet a third example of the influence of language on personality: the influence of language on your emotions. It has been shown (and probably you have experienced it yourself if you are multilingual) that your emotions are stronger when expressed in your mother tongue rather than in another language you know. For instance, if you are a native English speaker and someone uses the s-word, the emotional effect on you is much stronger than when you hear a Dutchman saying the Dutch equivalent (which happens to begin also with a s). Generally it is so, that your view on the world and your feelings depend a bit on the language you use, if you are multilingual. As Marian says: “We become somewhat different versions of ourselves when we use one language versus another.” (p. 123). Every language you know extra has a positive impact on you. It widens your world and it improves your health. So, learn a language, and it will change you: For the better.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Random quote
The costs of losing are rarely mentioned by politicians promoting war, who tend to talk as if one is going to win.
Henry Shue (1940-)

Monday, October 23, 2023

Philosophical humour

Humour bij DALL.E when I asked it to make a picture
putting Descartes before the horse

In these times that the world seems to explode, since two major wars and many small ones are going on, I should have a lot to comment on, to explain and to criticize. Nevertheless, maybe it is better, just now, to pay attention to the funny side of philosophy and to present again some instances of philosophical humour. In the end, philosophy is not only a serious affair! Philosophers are not inherently serious people. They are as human as humans are and they, too, make jokes: philosophical jokes; jokes in which they ridicule philosophical theories. It’s a way to criticize their opponents and themselves but also to make fun. Actually, philosophical jokes are minor philosophical theories in a fun package. Didn’t Wittgenstein say A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”? But oops, I forget now what I wanted to do this time: giving you cases of philosophical humour instead of a philosophical theory of philosophy jokes; not more than that. So let me start. Enjoy it (and, it’s true, I can’t help to write some philosophical comments on the jokes here and there).

My most popular blog is one that I wrote already fifteen years ago. It criticizes Descartes’ idea “I think so I am” (see here). So let me start with a joke about Descartes and this idea. It exists in many versions. Here you find some, like this one:
* Descartes walks into a bar. He orders a beer, drinks it, the bartender asks if he would like another, he says “I think not” and disappears.
I assume that I don’t need to explain this joke to you. Nonetheless, I feel a need to comment on it, even if then it might not be funny any longer. To my mind, there are at least two flaws in this joke:
- Descartes’ idea “I think so I am” does not imply “I think not, so I am not”. From the implication if A then B, you cannot conclude that if not-A then not-B. So, the joke is based on a fallacy.
- In my blog on “I act, so I am” I rejected Descartes’ idea and defend the view that it should be “I act so I am”. So, if Descartes says “I think not”, nothing will happen, for his existence doesn’t depend on his thinking. A joke about Descartes should be then something like this:
* Far after midnight, a police officer sees a man sitting on a bench in a park. It’s Descartes, which he doesn’t know. The officer asks: “Sir, what are you doing here?”. “I am thinking, I do nothing”, Descartes replies. He had hardly finished his last word and, poof, he disappears.
But I am afraid that now the joke is not funny any longer. So, let me give some philosophical jokes and humour without comments:

Wittgenstein is sitting with another philosopher in the garden; the latter says again and again “I know that that’s a tree,” pointing to a tree that is near them. Someone else arrives and hears this, and Wittgenstein tells him: “This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy.”
Jeremy Bentham goes up to the counter at a coffee house, holding a $50 bill. “What’s the cheapest drink you have?” he asks. “That would be our decaf roast, for only $1.99,” says the barista. “Good,” says Bentham and hands her the $50. “I’ll buy those for the next twenty-five people who show up.” (source and explication)
* As I sometimes have explained in my blogs and as many philosophers hold true, sense data, like what you see with your eyes, are not reliable. Once you know this, the following joke may be funny:
Morty comes home to see his wife and his best friend, Lou, naked together in bed. Just as Morty is about to open his mouth, Lou jumps out of bed and says, “Before you say anything, old pal, what are you going to believe, me or your eyes?” (source)
* Dean, to the physics department. “Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff. Why couldn't you be like the math department - all they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets. Or even better, like the philosophy department. All they need are pencils and paper.” (source)
* What is a kiss? (source)
- a Sartrean one:
a kiss that you worry yourself to death about even though it really doesn't matter anyway.
- a Wittgensteinian one: The important thing about this type of kiss is that it refers only to the symbol (our internal mental representation we associate with the experience of the kiss–which must necessarily also be differentiated from the act itself for obvious reasons and which need not be by any means the same or even similar for the different people experiencing the act) rather than the act itself and, as such, one must be careful not to make unwarranted generalizations about the act itself or the experience thereof based merely on our manipulation of the symbology therefor.
- a Zenoian one: your lips approach, closer and closer, but never actually touch.

To end this blog, again one on Descartes:
A horse walks into a bar. The bartender asks the horse if it’s an alcoholic considering all the bars he frequents, to which the horse replies “I don’t think I am. I think not!” Poof! The horse disappears. On hearing this, the philosophy students in the audience begin to giggle, as they are familiar with the philosophical proposition “I think, therefore, I am”. But to explain the concept aforehand would be putting Descartes before the horse. (source

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Random quote
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Monday, October 16, 2023

Pericles on democracy and war

When I read some parts of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I was surprised to see how topical this book still is, 2400 years after it has been written. The facts in the book are a history of the time that the historian Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BC) lived. Nevertheless, if one abstracts from the concrete facts, and take the parties in the war as abstract agents, then it is as if not much has changed. The Peloponnesian War was a war between the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta. Although this war lasted from 431-404 BC, in fact both towns were for a big part of the 5th century BC each other’s competitors if not enemies. Politically and economically both states were very different. Athens was a democracy and a sea power, while Sparta was an authoritarian state and a land power. Both had built their empires by making alliances with other Greek states or by outright subjecting them by force and forcing them to return to their alliances if they wanted to quit. Already this is, I think, enough to make pop up in your mind the conflict between the USA and the Western countries on the one hand and the Soviet Union and now Russia and their allies on the other hand. Once I saw this, it was not difficult for me to apply what happened in Greece 2400-2500 years ago to the present Ukrainian War, in which Ukraine fights a proxy war for the western countries against Russia, after having been invaded by this country without having given any reason for that. This conflict of a democracy state v. an authoritarian state and a sea power v. a land power is especially apparent in the so-called “Funeral Oration” of the Athenian general Pericles (c. 495-429 BC) on occasion of the funeral of a number of fallen Athenian soldiers. Actually, you should read the whole speech.
Usually in my blogs, I comment on texts and I explain their relevance to the present situation, but in this case, I think it is better to quote a long passage of Pericles’ speech, which contains, to my mind, the essence of what he wants to say, and which would lose persuasion, when I would summarize it. It’s up to you to apply the text to the Ukrainian war or any other war since 1945, or maybe also before that date.
Before you are going to read this fragment, a few warnings. The text (which I have copied from the Gutenberg project website) does not give the words originally spoken by Pericles but the words as Thucydides thinks (with good reason) that Pericles has spoken them. Moreover, there is much ideology in the words of Pericles; just as there is much ideology in the way western leaders defend western democracy (and as there is much ideology in the words of their adversaries). The speech is meant to motivate the Athenians to participate in the war against Sparta and to praise the deeds of the soldiers fallen. In democratic Athens, women had no say in politics; only men had. Moreover, Athens was a slave society, as all Greek states in those days. Democracy in Athens existed only for the free male Athenians. Moreover, the speech represents only the Athenian point of view. It would be worthwhile to have the Spartan point of view as well (I have no idea whether Spartan writings that explain that view still exist). It’s the same as presenting the western point of view and ignoring how people in Russia think about the situation at the same time. Here then is the fragment I have chosen:
Excerpt from Pericles’ “Funeral Oration”
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.
If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. … Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.
Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War,
Johanna Anink (ed., translation), How to think about war. Thucydides. An ancient guide to foreign policy. Speeches from The History of the Peloponnesian War. Princeton/Oxford: Prince University Press, 2019.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Random quote
People are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it.
Pericles (c. 495 - 429 BC)

Monday, October 09, 2023

Can AI systems have emotions?

Image generated by DALL.E

In a recent blog, I raised the question whether AI systems can have consciousness. Now I found on the Psychology Today website several articles by Marlynn Wei that shed an interesting light on the question. In these articles Marlynn Wei discusses recent AI research with psychological relevance.
In my blog I stated that having consciousness is not only a matter of showing consciousness-related behaviour, but that it involves also having consciousness-related subjective experiences. So, a conscious AI system should not only behave as if it is conscious, but it should also have the right feelings, like having the right emotions in the right situation. Having emotions is a complicated affair, but having the right emotions in the right situation at least involves being able to recognize the emotions of other humans, being able to have the right emotions in reaction to the emotions others have, and reacting in the right way to emotions others have. These three aspects of having emotions are not independent of each other, as the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons has made clear. If one of these three aspects of having emotions is missing, then we can say that an AI system doesn’t have consciousness in my sense.
Although such conscious AI systems are still far away and don’t (yet?) exist, some research discussed by Dr Wei is very interesting in this respect. For although, for example, ChatGPT
has gained widespread attention for its ability to perform natural language processing tasks, its skills go much farther than “only” producing texts. This chatbot is also able to recognize and describe emotions. Moreover, it does it better than humans do. At least this was the outcome of a recent study by Zohar Elyoseph and others. Using a test called the Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale, the researchers found that ChatGPT scored higher on this test than humans did. (from Wei) Of course, so Wei, “this does not necessarily translate into ChatGPT being emotionally intelligent or empathetic” (a capability that wasn’t tested), nor does it show that it has a “conversational capability in sensing and interacting with the emotions of others.”
Nonetheless, steps into the direction of a conversational capability have already been taken, as another research shows. One of the problems when being in contact with other persons on the internet often is that we don’t see them. It’s a problem because seeing others makes it possible to read their emotions from their faces. Just the absence of face-to-face contacts makes that some people are ruder when dealing with internet partners than when they would have been in real-life contact with those persons. As such, contact via a screen is not the same as a real personal contact. Now the study just mentioned developed “an AI-in-the-loop agent” (called Hailey) “that provides just-in-time feedback to help participants who provide support (peer supporters) respond more empathically to those seeking help (support seekers).” Using Hailey led to a substantial increase in feeling empathy by the peer supporters and expressing this empathy in their contacts with support seekers. So, Hailey did not only help peer supporters to recognize emotions in support seekers but also helped them responding in the right way by advising how to respond. “Overall,” so Dr. Wei, “this study represents promising and innovative research that demonstrates how a human-AI collaboration can allow people to feel more confident about providing support.” But for this we need AI systems that can recognize emotions and then respond in the right way.
All this can be seen as first steps toward a world with conscious AI systems that can be characterized as virtual humans that apparently behave like real humans. Another study, discussed by Marilynn Wei, shows that such AI systems are no longer fiction but on the way to become fact. In such a world, empathy and social connection are within reach of AI systems. Once AI systems behave like humans, humans tend to see them as humans (see the article by Marilynn Wei just mentioned). It’s a bit like the famous theorem by W.I. Thomas: If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Virtuality and reality intermingle, and the difference between men and machines tends to disappear. Nevertheless, behaving like humans is not the same as being human, for Chalmer’s hard problem still stands:
Even if an AI system shows behaviour that is characteristic of having consciousness, we still don’t know whether it really has consciousness. It is still possible that the AI system is a zombie in the philosophical sense, because it shows consciousness-related behaviour but doesn’t have the consciousness-related subjective experience. Who cares?

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Random quote
If people can choose between butter or cannons, they prefer the butter by far; but a mysterious fate forces us to choose cannons despite ourselves.
Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Communist Manifesto 175 years

This year marks the 175th anniversary of one of the most influential books ever published: the Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Actually, the booklet – the first edition had only 23 pages – was titled Manifesto of the Communist Party, but since 1872 it is known under the present title.
1848, the year of publication, was a year of revolution. People revolted in many countries, because they wanted better living conditions and political control. France, Germany, Austria, Sweden …. However, soon the revolutions were crushed, and most reforms of 1848 were reversed. Anyway, the Netherlands – where the people did not revolt but the King found it better to give in before they would – got in 1848 a new and modern constitution, which made it the democracy it still is today.
It was on the eve of these revolutions and rebellions in 1848, on the 21sth of February, that Marx and Engels, then the
intellectual leaders of the working-class movement, published their manifesto. They had written it as a political and programmatic statement for the Communist League, a group of German-born revolutionary socialists in London. It contained a materialistic view on history, a history of the development of humankind from feudalism till the 19th century capitalism, and a political program. It stated that the capitalist class would be overthrown by the working class and that the “proletariat” would govern society. The Communist Manifesto became the leading program for the communist movement in the years to come till far in the 20th century.
The book didn’t have only a long-term influence, but, having been published at the right moment, its impact was immediate. Of course, it didn’t cause the revolution in France, the first country that revolted and where one day after its publication revolution broke out
over the banning of political meetings held by socialists and other opposition groups. Isolated riots followed, and two days later the French King Louis-Philippe abdicated. After this success, equal revolutions followed everywhere in Europe. As said, the revolutions were crushed and reforms were reversed, but not all reforms were. For instance, Hungary, which had declared its independence from Austria, got a special status within the Empire; I mentioned already the Netherlands; and also in other countries some reforms were permanent. Also the Communist Manifesto, the book that had predicted these revolutions, wasn’t placed in the archive of history, although after the end of the revolutions at first it was almost forgotten. In the 1870s, however, it experienced a revival. In 1872 a new edition was published, with a comment by Marx, saying why the manifesto was still important and which parts had been outdated. Numerous editions have followed since then and the manifesto became influential all over the world. Nowadays, this political pamphlet belongs to the classics of history.
When today you hear of the
Communist Manifesto, maybe you think of an influential writing that contained maybe interesting ideas but that in essence was radical and dangerous. Maybe parts are quite extreme and maybe the list of ten measures for the advancement of the position of the proletariat somewhere halfway in the booklet was seen so in 1848, but I think that now in 2023 we judge it differently. Nowadays, many measures proposed are far from radical, and most of them have been realized. To give you an impression, here are some:
- Measure 2 wants to introduce a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”. When Marx and Engels wrote this, no country had an income tax, but during the First World War (1914-1918) many European countries introduced such a tax and since then it is seen as just and correct. In 1980 in the Netherlands the highest tax bracket was as high as 72%! (now it is 52%, still a figure Marx wouldn’t have dreamed of). And doesn’t the influential French economist Thomas Piketty tell us that the present taxes on high incomes and on capital are too low? Also Bill Gates, one of the richest persons in the world, says that the taxes for the rich are too low.
- Measure 3 says “Abolition of all rights of inheritance”. In my country inheritance rights are undisputed, but inheritances in the second degree and further are heavily taxed.
- Measure 10 wants “Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.”. Also this demand has already been realized to a great extent if not fully in Europe and in many countries elsewhere in the world. However, still much is to be done in this respect.
But in 1848 there was still a long way to go, before such “radical” measures would be accepted.

- “The Communist Manifesto” in the Wikipedia.
- “The Communist Manifesto” in Britannica.
- “
Karl Marx publishes Communist Manifesto” on
Plus the sources in the text.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Random quote
If philosophers are powerless, why are they murdered? Precisely because they are powerless. Ironically, they are targeted not because they are as a threat, but because they don’t count
Costica Bradatan (1971-)

Monday, September 18, 2023

What we don’t know we don’t know

Thinking is a difficult affair. Nobody is free from making mistakes when using arguments. Nobody is free from committing fallacies. Also professionals commit them, although they are supposed to argue correctly, since it may be a matter of death or life, or acquittal or conviction, if they don’t. But also judges commit fallacies, with sometimes disastrous consequences. Innocent people are sometimes sentenced to death. Or take some cases that now pop up in my mind: Nurses got long sentences as if they were mass murderers, because they were too often present when patients died. But isn’t it one of their tasks to help dying people and isn’t it obvious then that a nurse is more often present at the death of a patient than an average person? Nevertheless, it has happened several times that nurses were accused of murder (and sentenced) on grounds of a badly understood – so false – statistical analysis.
Also in politics fallacies abound. Politicians often don’t understand what they say; they don’t understand their own arguments. Nor do their followers. Even worse are the cases that politicians intentionally use fallacies and try to manipulate the people.
Also in less dramatic cases, it is important to know what is a correct argument and what is a fallacy. It can make life more pleasant, since it can help you avoid making mistakes, which are maybe not dramatic, but annoying anyway. Therefore, now and then I pay attention to fallacies, for everybody can commit them.
This time I want to discuss the fallacy that is called “Appeal to Ignorance”, or in Latin “Argumentum ad Ignorantiam”. As often, my description of the fallacy is based on a chapter from Robert Arp et al. 2019 (see source below) and also a bit on the Wikipedia.
The term “Appeal to Ignorance” was coined by the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). You commit this fallacy, if you think that a statement must be true because it has not yet proven false, or the other way round. In logical symbols:

~[proof that ~p] → p
~[proof that p] → ~p

Especially the version in logical symbols makes clear that “the fallacy uses lack of evidence as the grounds for accepting some claim” (McCraw, p. 106). It is a confusion between the categories “lack of evidence” and “presence of disconfirming evidence”. (106-7) That this fallacy is really an appeal to ignorance is illustrated by an example mentioned by McCraw (106). It’s a statement by the American senator Joe McCarthy from the early 1950s, when many people were falsely accused of being communist (implying that such a person is an enemy of the state): “I do not have much information on this except the general statement of the agency that there is nothing in the files to disapprove his Communist connections.” (106) Paraphrased: “I do not know that he is not X, so he must be X.” In fact, if I do not know that someone is not X, all options are open, besides being X, so also that he could be A or B or …or W or Y or Z or AA … etc.
The form of the Appeal to Ignorance just discussed is the basic form of this fallacy. However, it can have different forms that can all, in one way or another, be reduced to its basic form. I mention some:

May it not be that ~p? → p

In this “interrogative form” of the fallacy the ignorance in the argument is implied in the question. (107) For instance: “Isn’t it likely that John is a thief?” [although I actually have no proof that he is], implying that John is a thief.
Or take this case, which, I think, everyone will have encountered once:

  A: p
            B: Why?
            A: Why not?

Here the burden of proof is shifted by A to his opponent, while actually the burden of proof should be with A. (108) And if, as often happens, B doesn’t know how to answer the question “Why not?” (or doesn’t want to answer it), this is falsely seen by A as proof that p is the case (or A says so for manipulative reasons).
The upshot is that we only know that something is the case or not the case if we have evidence for it. Ignorance can never proof facts.

- McCraw, Benjamin W., “Appeal to Ignorance”, in: Arp, Robert; Steven Barbone; Michael Bruce (eds.), Bad arguments. 100 of the most important fallacies in Western philosophy. Oxford, etc.: Wiley Blackwell, 2019; pp. 106-111.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Random quote
A philosopher who wants to make himself into a politician usually only manages to make a fool of himself
Costica Bradatan (1971-)

Monday, September 11, 2023

Must fake news be forbidden?

Recent research by the
Netherlands Institute for Social Research, the national Dutch “Think Tank” on social and cultural affairs, shows that a majority of the Dutch wants that the national or EU authorities take measures against fake news on the internet. There should come rules stating what is not allowed and if necessary the freedom of expression should be limited. I’ll spare you the details, but in short this is what the majority of the people here in the Netherlands thinks and I assume that not only in the Netherlands but also in other countries that theoretically stand for the freedom of expression most people think so. Is it a good idea?
I think that there are good reasons to be worried about the fake news and disinformation on the internet. They can really cause much damage and be really threatening for some persons. Indeed, some so-called fake news is clearly false. Last week yet there was an internet message that the French schools would start the new year on the 18th of September to come, while in fact it started last week, the 4th of September. Or persons are threatened because false information has been spread about them. In other cases, people are offended by disinformation about them on the internet. These are clear cases that, moreover (the second and third case), hit persons directly. I think that nobody will be against stopping such clearly false information and protecting people against threats and insults in the way as always has been done. Nevertheless, generally I think that it is not a good idea to prevent and stop information on the internet that is considered fake or false, for generally it is not as clear as that. How often doesn’t it happen that what first is seen as fake later is judged to be true. For example, in the 13th century saying that the earth revolves around the sun was considered fake “news”. You could even be sentenced to the stake for saying so. At least in Europe this could happen. In the 17th century, however, there were already many people who believed the statement to be true, although in some countries it was still dangerous to say so (see what happened to Galileo). Now in the 21st century the statement is common sense. Nevertheless, people in the 13th century had good reasons to think that it’s not the earth that revolves around the sun, but that’s the other way round, for the Bible, then the highest authority in Europe, said so. This shows that what fake news is, is not only an objective fact but also a social affair and depends on what is known at a certain moment. As for the latter, in the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic the Dutch National Health Institute said that wearing a face mask was not necessary (unlike what was said in many other countries or what the World Health Organization said), but later it changed its mind. It shows again that it is not easy to say what is true and right.
Establishing what is really true and right doesn’t come by itself. And as we have seen so often, if not too often, we can better not leave it to the authorities to tell us what to believe. If we would have done so, maybe we still would have to think that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the earth is flat. In case authorities establish what is right and true, it will happen too often that what is said to be fact in reality is fake. Moreover, too often such “false facts” are used for manipulation, if not they are constructed to that end. Then the defenders of the “facts” are not different from the producers of fake news and disinformation today. To prevent such an undesirable situation there is only one effective measure: freedom of information and expression. Only crystal-clear cases like those mentioned above should be stopped (but rather afterwards than beforehand; in fact, stopping them beforehand without censorship will hardly be possible). However, we must be careful to do so. Only if persons are explicitly in danger or are hurt, it should be done. Yes, it will make that there’ll remain much fake news and disinformation on the internet. But isn’t a growing repression of free information and of the freedom of expression worse, since this will be done more and more in the name of combatting fake news and disinformation?

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Random quote
There are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific text-book, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact.
George Orwell (1903-1950)

Monday, September 04, 2023

Can AI have consciousness?

One of the intriguing questions in the debate about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) is whether AI systems can have consciousness. Consciousness is a characteristic that is seen as typical for human beings, although some – if not many – animals have it to a certain extent as well. Self-consciousness is seen as the highest form of consciousness. Probably only human beings and a limited group of animals have it, like chimpanzees and elephants. It can be established only in an indirect way. For instance, if an animal recognizes itself in a mirror, it is assumed that it has self-consciousness. Once we know that a being has consciousness, maybe it is relatively easy to establish whether it has self-consciousness (for example with the mirror test), but what does it mean that a being has consciousness tout court? This depends not only on the facts, namely on the way a being behaves, but also on how we define “consciousness”. As for this, scientists and philosophers disagree. Moreover, once we know how to define consciousness, the next problem is how to know that a being has consciousness. In a sense, human beings and other beings are black boxes: we can study their behaviour and maybe the mechanisms that cause this behaviour, but not directly the feelings and other qualia etc., so the subjective experience, behind the behaviour, and just the possibility to have subjective experience is essential for having consciousness. Therefore, even if we can measure behaviour that is typical for having consciousness, we don’t know for sure whether the being that we study really has consciousness. It is possible that the being concerned is a zombie, as David Chalmers called it: It does show consciousness-related behaviour, but it doesn’t have the consciousness-related subjective experience, like for instance, human beings have.
Therefore, such a zombie is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being. The problem is then: How else can we distinguish it from a human?
Recently, a group of AI experts has published a report in which they try to answer the question whether AI systems can have consciousness. Now I must say that I do not have read the report but I have read only about it. Nevertheless, I think that I can write some reasonable words about it in this blog. In their report, the experts come to the conclusion that computers can have consciousness, although the present AI systems are not yet developed to that extent that we can call them conscious. Far from that. Nevertheless, the experts think that sooner or later conscious AI systems will exist and they discuss also several possibilities how such systems would be structured. This is very interesting and intriguing, of course, especially because people (so you and I) tend to think that such conscious AI systems are a kind of humanlike beings, like apes are, for instance, and then maybe even yet more developed; even yet more human than apes already are. But even if we do not personify such AI systems and keep seeing them as machines, we do ascribe to them a typical human characteristic, namely consciousness. And we do so in view of the behaviour of the AI system plus the structure of the AI system (the “machine”), so in view of what we know about its software and hardware. However, being consciousness is not only a matter of showing a certain type of behaviour and of having a certain structure (mechanism); it is also a matter of having the related subjective experiences. And how do we know that AI systems do have subjective experiences, when they show the related behaviour? In this respect, David Chalmers distinguished two kinds of philosophical problems: the easy problem and the hard problem. The easy problem is to establish that a being or an AI system behaves like a conscious being. It is done by measuring and explaining its behaviour from its physical structure and then conclude that the behaviour is how a conscious being should behave (or just not). However, how do we know whether a being or AI system really has subjective experience? This is what Chalmers calls the hard problem. As yet, no answer has been given how to solve it. So, even if an AI system behaves like a conscious being and its physical structure might make having consciousness possible, it is still very well possible that it is a zombie.

Some interesting links:

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Random quote
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

George Orwell (1903-1950)

Monday, August 28, 2023

Travelling around

The house in La Villa near Bagni di Lucca, Italy,
where Montaigne had rented some rooms

When I publish this blog, I have just returned from a holiday in Norway. Norway is one of my favourite holiday destinations because of its beautiful landscapes and nature, so I have been there already many times and I have visited most of the country during the years, from Kristiansand to the North Cape. Only the eastern part of Finnmark in the extreme northeast is waiting yet for my visit. In 2020 my wife and I wanted to make a round trip in Sweden and Norway, to Stockholm and Oslo. However, we had to cancel it because of the pandemic. But at last we could go to Scandinavia again, although now we had chosen another destination: the region between Kristiansand on the south coast and Oslo.
Like often in the summer, we made a round trip without any specific planning. We had chosen the region, so we had booked a ferry to Kristiansand, and we had tickets for the opera in Oslo. But this was all we had planned before we left, so we had to look yet for places where to stay once we were there. It was a bit risky, for most of the time we made such a round trip we had our tent with us and then there is always a place on a camping site where you can stay. But now we had left our tent at home. If you need a camping hut or a hotel room, it’s always possible that they are already fully booked. In the end, it appeared not to be a problem.
I’ll spare you the details of the trip, for this is a philosophical blog and not a travel blog. Anyway, travelling around without a clear planning, is what I like most. However, I would not be a philosopher, if I would not think of the famous journey that Montaigne made in 1580 and 1581. He travelled from the north of France to Switzerland and then via Munich and Augsburg in Germany through Austria to Bagni di Lucca, Florence and Rome in Italy. From Rome he made also a round trip through central Italy. Montaigne returned to France only, when the king had ordered him to do so, because he had appointed him mayor of Bordeaux. Montaigne did so reluctantly and he didn’t hurry to reach Bordeaux.
Montaigne kept a travel diary and so we know much about this trip. From this diary, we get the impression that the journey was an unplanned round trip, in the way I often make them, though the French Montaigne specialist Philippe Desan thinks that Montaigne had a secret mission. Of course, both at the same time is also possible. Anyway, from his diary we know that Montaigne wanted to go to Rome and that his trip had a medical purpose as well, for he wanted to visit medicinal springs, hoping that he would be cured of his problem of kidney stones. So, Montaigne stayed not only several months in what he saw as the capital of the world, but also twice in Bagni di Lucca, a known spa resort in Tuscany. Montaigne stayed also in some other places he liked, so his journey was a bit like my round trips, although mine are usually only very short compared with his travel. But doesn’t everything go faster now than four centuries ago? Think of the current means of transport: In Montaigne’s time, you could not go faster than a horse could run. And when you travelled a long distance, you didn’t go much faster whether you travelled by horseback or on foot. Montaigne tells us in his dairy that, while he and his co-travellers used horses – friends and his younger brother travelled with him during a part of the trip –, their servants walked. Even if they had taken the shortest way to Rome, for this company the trip would have taken, say, two weeks, while nowadays you can do it within a few hours by air or in one or two days by car (depending on where you start in France).
What always has been an enigma for me is: How did Montaigne and his company find their overnight accommodation? Note that Montaigne’s company consisted of some twenty persons. When reading the diary, it never seemed to be a problem (actually Montaigne tells us only where he stayed himself; not where the others slept). Telephone and Internet did not yet exist, so did Montaigne reserve his accommodation by letter? Probably not, for his journey was not well planned, so he didn’t know when to arrive. Moreover, postal services in those days were slow, which could make booking an inn by letter a complicated affair. Did Montaigne (who was the leader of the company) send a servant to the next stop to reserve a place in the local inn? But what if the inn was already fully booked? If another company had already occupied the local inn? Maybe it was not difficult to find a place to stay in a big town like Augsburg, but Montaigne tells us also that he stayed in Seefeld, a little town in Austria, which had probably only one inn (Once when I was in Seefeld, I saw there an inn that was already 500 years old. I wonder whether Montaigne has stayed there). Maybe the inn in Seefeld had enough free rooms, when Montaigne arrived (and maybe the servants slept in a barn or somewhere else in Seefeld). But did it never happen that there was neither place in the local inn nor elsewhere nearby? When your fastest means of transport are your legs or a horse, you cannot go elsewhere to look for a place when the night is falling. But that’s a risk, when making a round trip.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Random quote
If an image is too good to be true, it is probably constructed, they think.
Carel De Keyser (1958-)

Monday, August 07, 2023

Hotel rooms

Look at the photo. It shows a hotel room. To be exact, it’s a hotel room in Brønnøysund in Norway. I took the photo when I was there on holiday many years ago. When on holiday, I always take photos of the hotel rooms where I stay. I didn’t get the idea to do so by myself but from the Belgian photographer Johan de Vos. In the 1990s, he wrote columns in the Dutch photo magazine Foto (which doesn’t exist any longer) about hotel rooms: a photo of the room plus a description and a comment. I liked the column and I decided to take pictures of all hotel rooms where I would stay. So, I did. Therefore, I have photos of all hotel rooms where I have spent the night the past 30 years.
The photo shows an average hotel room. Not really big, not really small. I have stayed in all kinds of hotel rooms during the years; small ones and large ones; simple ones and luxurious ones. But most of the time I stayed in hotel rooms like the one in the photo. You find there everything you need for a short stay: a double bed or two single beds (usually I travel with my wife); a bathroom and a toilet; a desk with a chair; an armchair; a mirror; sometimes a small table; a refrigerator, a TV set and sometimes a safe and a coffee maker, too. In the simplest hotel rooms you only find a bed, while luxurious hotel rooms can have much more, like two or more armchairs plus a bigger table; two TV sets; two rooms; two toilets; etc. The most luxurious hotel room I ever had, had a hall and several rooms and toilets; several TV sets and more, although I had asked only for a standard room. Apparently, the hotel was fully booked and therefore I got this apartment, for the price of a normal room, though not the special service that belonged to the apartment. The simplest hotel I ever had was a road hotel: only a bed and a little bathroom with sink and toilet and hardly any space to move. But let’s talk about a normal, average room like the one in the photo; just comfortable enough to stay there one, two, or maybe three nights but not much longer.
Hotel rooms may differ slightly from country to country, but generally they are everywhere the same. Some differences may exist, however. Hotel rooms in warmer countries often have stone floors and no carpets on the floor. The wall decorations and colours used may show regional influences or have regional pictures. However, especially in the bigger cities hotel rooms are the same all over the world, and often when you see only a picture of the room, you don’t know in which country it is; whether it’s a hotel room in Tokyo, New York or Amsterdam. You find differences mainly between hotel rooms in the countryside and in smaller towns. They may have a local look. But the differences are usually in the details.
A hotel room is a kind of passage. Hardly anybody stays there for a longer time. You come, stay there for a while and go. You take a hotel room only because you need or want to do something in or near the place. It is a temporary residence. Before you come there, another person or couple used the room; when you leave, others will take your place. You don’t know these people and you are also not interested to know them.
Just these characteristics make hotel rooms interesting from a philosophical and sociological point of view. They tell us something about a special category of people: travellers. They tell us what they need for a stay. Therefore, it would be interesting to compare contemporary hotel rooms with hotel rooms in the past and look what has changed. Of course, the TV set has been added in the course of the years, and the refrigerator as well; but what more? Moreover, there are categories of travellers. In the past, travellers were mainly businessmen, merchants and rich people with time and money to make a trip and to go on holiday. When other people travelled, they usually stayed with family, friends and acquaintances, or they didn’t go, and even the just mentioned categories often stayed with people they knew. It would also be interesting to compare hotel rooms for categories of people, and to see what is added to a hotel room if it is more expensive. Or to study regional differences, insofar they exist. It would tell us much about people on the way. For aren’t hotel rooms kind of pictorial descriptions of them?