Monday, October 19, 2020

Are you happier when you are rich?

Can money make you happy? A common saying says that it doesn’t. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have some, and not only a little bit but enough to satisfy your basic needs and a little bit more. It makes you happy, if you haven’t only enough to eat and have a decent house, but also if you can – depending on your personal preferences – go to concerts, travel abroad, buy a lot of books etc. In this sense money makes you happy, for you need money in order to be able to do such things. Indeed, as Daniel Kahneman tells us in his Thinking, Fast and Slow: “An analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 Americans,” definitively makes clear “that being poor makes one miserable, and that being rich may enhance one’s life-satisfaction”, although at a certain level of income your feeling of well-being levels off. But below that level, money will certainly make you happier.
This seems in line with what Richard Easterlin discovered. Easterlin, who is considered to be the first happiness economist, studied in the 1970s the relation between economic welfare and standard of living. His results were:
1) Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
Then you would think that people in rich countries are happier than those in poor countries. Not true, so Easterlin, for he also discovered that
2) rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
And also, which is actually a variation on the just mentioned levelling off thesis:
3) As countries get richer, they do not get happier.
Since these three points together seem contradictory, they are called the Easterlin Paradox.
Actually it is so, according to Easterlin, that happiness – certainly economic happiness – is relative and your feeling of (economic) happiness is related to what people around you have. So, if you become richer but everybody around you as well, your position in relation to those around you doesn’t change and so your feeling of happiness remains the same (compare also point 3 above). Or (I took this example from Geoff Riley): Faced with this choice what would you rather have: You get £5,000 and a friend gets £3,000 or you get £10,000 and a friend gets £15,000? You feel happier in the first case, so Easterlin.
Since Easterlin published his study in 1974, many other researchers have discussed the thesis and also many presented results that seem to refute the paradox. Nevertheless, yet in 2017 Easterlin maintained his original view and stated (quoted from Agarwal; see sources below) that the ‘long-term trends in growth rates of happiness and real GDP per capita are not significantly positively related.’ He believes that the criticism towards the Easterlin Paradox is misguided and detractors ‘omit available data, overlook problems of data comparability, err in the measurement of economic growth, or, most importantly, fail to focus on long-term rather than short-term growth rates.’ ”
So far so good, and here I cannot judge who is right and who isn’t. The Easterlin paradox sounds interesting and there can be some truth in it. Nevertheless, I have some questions. Point 1 of the paradox says that within a society rich people tend to be much happier than poor people, while point 2 says that rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much). Then I would conclude that each country is more or less as happy as each other country, and if you live in a poor country you don’t need to compare your happiness with the happiness of the rich in the rich countries: an average happy person in a poor country is as happy as an average happy person in a rich country; there is no need to feel miserable because the average happy person in the rich country is, for instance, ten times or even 25 times richer than you in the poor country. Only the relative happiness counts, and average happiness is the same everywhere in the world in every country (and the same so for those 10, 20, 30 … % below or above the average happiness; etc.).
I have my doubts. Take for instance the ranking of happiness by country in the World Happiness Report 2019, Figure 2.7. In the first place you can see there that countries do differ in the degree of happiness and also that on average the richer countries are happier than the poor countries. The ranking gives the results of 156 countries and the top happiest countries in the world are Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands (which belong to the richest countries in the world), and at the other end you find Rwanda, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan (which are among the poorest countries). And why would all those economic migrants try to come to Europe and North America, if they would be happy where they live? I guess that on average people are happier if they are richer (even if this may level off above a certain income level) and that your feeling of (un)happiness is not limited by international borders.

- Agarwal, Prateek, “The Easterlin Paradox”,
- Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books, 2012; pp. 396-397
- Riley, Geoff, “Q&A: What is the Easterlin Paradox?”, 1st April 2009
- World Happiness Report: John F. Helliwell, Haifang Huang, Shun Wang, Chapter 2: Changing World Happiness, (20 March 2019)

Monday, October 12, 2020


In my last blog I referred to my distinction meaning 1 / meaning 0 which I had used in older blogs. However, now I realize that I have never well explained here this important distinction. Therefore, let me do this now.
Let me repeat Stoutland’s example of the person who nods her head, used last week. We can take this movement sometimes as just physical (the person nods because she is falling asleep) and sometimes as an action (the person greets someone). But why is it sometimes just physical and sometimes an action? This becomes clear when we ask the person why she nodded. If she says, for instance, that she wanted to greet a friend, we call it an action. But if she nodded while falling asleep, she cannot give a reason for it: the nodding movement happened to her. We can say it also this way: the nodding of greeting, unlike the nodding of falling asleep, has a meaning for the agent.
However, the idea that physical data, unlike mental data, don’t have a meaning cannot be upheld. Like for instance Mary Hesse showed, every empirical assertion, also pure descriptions of observations, contain interpretations ‘in terms of some general view of the world or other ... There are no stable observational descriptions, whether of sense data, or protocol sentences, or “ordinary language”, in which the empirical reference of science can be directly captured’. It is true also for natural science that ‘what counts as facts are constituted by what the theory says about their interrelations with one another. … [M]eanings in natural science are determined by theory’ (Hesse 1980, 172-173). So both natural data, like the nodding of a person falling asleep, and mental phenomena, like the nodding of greeting, have a meaning. They don’t differ in this respect. However, Hesse neglects here that there really is a difference between the meanings we give to physical (natural) phenomena and those we give to mental phenomena: Mental phenomena are given meaning by the agent him or herself; physical phenomena get their meanings from us from the outside. Both the agent and the onlooker from the outside, like a scientist, interpret what an agent does. But as Anthony Giddens made clear, the (scientific) interpretation from the outside is double: the onlooker has to reckon with both with the way s/he sees what the agent does and with the way the agent him or herself sees it. This made Habermas distinguish two levels of meaning: level 1 and level 0. Level 1 is the level all sciences – and onlookers from the outside in general – are faced with when interpreting their objects. Moreover, there is a level 0 that is characteristic for those sciences that study objects that has been given a meaning by the people themselves, such as a nodding that the agent sees as a greeting (Habermas 1982, 162-163). This insight made me distinguish two kinds of meaning: meaning 1 and meaning 0. Meaning 1 is the meaning used on level 1. It is the meaning a scientist gives to an object, either physical or social in character. It refers to the theoretical interpretation of reality by the scientist in a scientific theory. Meaning 0 is the meaning on the underlying level 0. It refers to the meaning the people themselves who make up social reality give to their own reality, experiences and doings. It refers to the interpretation of their own lived reality. The existence of this double meaning from the scientist’s perspective does not imply, however, that the interpretation of reality by the people themselves is different in character from the theoretical interpretation of it by the scientist. It says only that the interpretations of the social reality by the agents themselves are single and that those by the scientist are double.
Since the matter is complicated, I want to illustrate the difference between both kinds of meaning yet with the help of the example of studying grammar as grammarians do. As native speakers of a language, we have in our heads a (usually implicit) knowledge of what are correct and incorrect sentences, forms, etc. in our language. We can call this our ‘implicit grammar’. Grammarians try to make this knowledge explicit and to systemise it. The ‘explicit grammar’ so made seems to be a reflection of our implicit grammar. In a certain sense it is but there are differences. The explicit grammar has been formulated in terms and rules native speakers will never use as such. For example, such a grammar distinguishes between substantives and adjectives and it indicates when inversion is applied, things native speakers usually are not aware of when they speak. And though it is correct to say that the explicit grammar is a reflection of the implicit one, the reverse is not true. If a native speaker no longer keeps to the current grammar and more native speakers begin to speak in the same deviant way, after some time we no longer say that these speakers make grammatical mistakes but that the language has been changed. If, on the other hand, the explicit grammar does not correctly reflect the implicit grammar, the language of the native speakers does not change, even if the grammarians maintain that they have described it correctly. If the native speaker does not want to conform to the rules of the explicit grammar, then the latter just describes the implicit grammar in a wrong way and it must be adapted. The language as spoken by the people themselves, so the implicit grammar, is the reality that patterns the explicit grammar. In the same way we can say: The way agents see their actions is the reality that patterns the way onlookers must conceive these actions.
The upshot is that interpretations from the outside, including scientific interpretations, always depend on the agent’s interpretations if we want to investigate what people do. If we don’t see this, in the end scientific explanations of what people do cannot be more than physical and chemical explanations of material stuff labelled “man” or “society”. 

- Giddens, Anthony, Studies in social and political theory, London: Hutchinson of London, 1977.
- Habermas, Jürgen, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Band I, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982.
- Hesse, Mary, Revolutions and reconstructions in the philosophy of science, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980.
Weg, Henk bij de, “The commonsense conception and its relation to philosophy”, Philosophical Explorations, 2001/1, pp. 17-30.

Monday, October 05, 2020

What is an action?

If “in fact … the most essential part of the person is constituted by her actions”, as I maintained, with Korsgaard, in my last blog, what then is an action? When do we say that what constitutes us is not just a movement of our limbs, so a piece of behaviour, but something that
we do? In order to make this clear I must first explain in what respect a simple bodily movement is different from an action. Now it is so that in my last blog I mentioned the characteristics of an action: It is guided by perception; it is guided by an intention; and the action is attributable to you. However, this needs further explanation, for isn’t it so that also behaviour is guided by a kind of experience in the sense that most behaviour not just happens but that it is a reaction to what happens to the behaving body or to what happens in its environment? And isn’t it so that often behaviour has a purpose and that it can – no must – be ascribed to a body for how else can we say that a body performs a piece of behaviour?
In order to make clear what the difference between an action and a piece of behaviour is, I take an extreme example. It’s extreme in the sense that the behaviour involved is not guided by a perception, anyhow, and that it has no apparent aim. I got this example from Frederick Stoutland (1976). We see a man nodding his head. Why does he nod? The simplest way to know is to ask him. If the man intentionally nodded his head, for example because he was greeting someone, he can tell you. However, if he nodded his head unknowingly, for example because he was falling asleep, he cannot give you a reason. In the first case we say that he performed an action and in the second case we say that what he did happened to him. But, alternatively, we can also say that in the first case the action had an intention for the man: The greeting is a greeting because the nodding man himself sees it as a greeting. However, if he nods his head when he is falling asleep, the nodding has not an intention for him. His head just moved and not more than that. In other words, in the first case the man who nodded can give it a sense, while he cannot when he nods while he is falling asleep. Only if the performer of a deed him or herself can give a sense to what s/he does, s/he performs an action; if s/he cannot, it is behaviour.
The distinction action-behaviour just described looks rather Cartesian, but in my PhD thesis I have explained that it isn’t. Here I want to ignore this problem. (You can also find some further explanation in my blog “Two levels of reality” and in other blogs (enter “meaning 1” or “meaning 0” in the search engine of my blog)). Here I want to concentrate on the significance of the distinction for the present problem. It’s true that there are pieces of behaviour that are guided by a perception and by an intention and that are – of course – performed by someone. For example (an example by Davidson), you come home at night and turn the light on and by doing so you warn a thief in another room of your house. Even though warning the thief is what you did by an intentional action (turning the light on) it’s not what you intentionally did, so it’s not your action (usually we call it a consequence of your action turning the light on). Only your doings that you yourself can give a sense (in the way described above) constitute you as a person. Doings that are merely pieces of behaviour and cannot be interpreted in this way do not constitute you as a person or contribute to your further development as a person (which doesn’t mean, of course, that they are not important for you (they can contribute to your animalistic side, for instance). I act so I am, because I can tell what I do.

- Davidson, Donald, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”, in: Essays on actions and events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; pp. 3-20.
- Stoutland, Frederick, “The causal theory of action”, in: Juha Manninen and Raimo Tuomela (eds.), Essays on explanation and understanding. Dordrecht: Reidel,1976; pp. 271‑304.
- Weg, Henk bij de, De betekenis van zin voor het begrijpen van handelingen. Kampen: Kok Agora, 1996; chapter IV.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

New photo book


My new photo book "Van Kinderdijk tot Kampen. Foto's met pinhole camera" - English: From Kinderdijk to Kampen. Photos with pinhole camera" The texts are in English and Dutch, including an explanation of the pinhole camera. The book contains 47 photos that I have taken for my newest project of pinhole camera pictures. I have followed the Lek river, starting in Kinderdijk (you know, the site with those famous Dutch windmills) and then followed the Rhine and IJssel till I reached the old Hansa town of Kampen. The photos show the changing landscapes that you pass when you follow this route. By capturing these landscapes with a pinhole camera, I got the romantic and sometimes surreal images of the heart of the Low Countries that you will find in this book. Already on the photo on the book cover above (the windmills of Kinderdijk) you can see some special features of pinhole camera pictures. You can see the wings of some windmills turning around. You can see the wind moving the grass and plants in the foreground. The clouds are brighter than in normal landscape pictures. And in the left upper corner you can even see the sun rays!

16 photos of this book will be exhibited in the library in Wageningen, from 3-30 October 2020 (Stationsstraat 2, 6701 AM Wageningen). Click here for more information about this exhibition (in Dutch).

The book is for sale for 29,95 euros + postage & package. You can order the book via this website or via my main website or Dutch photo website or by sending an e-mail to 

Monday, September 28, 2020

I act so I am

By far my most successful blog is “I act, therefore I am”, written about twelve years ago. It has been read already more than 16,000 times, while my second successful blog (“By accident” and “by mistake”) has been read “only” 5,000 times. In the blog “I act, therefore I am” I defend the view that, unlike what Descartes says, it is not our thinking that is fundamental for us but that our acting is. Or as Christine M. Korsgaard says in her book Self-Constitution: “[A]ction is self-constitution. … [W]e human beings constitute our own personal or practical identities … through action itself” (p. 45). However, when I reread this blog now after so many years, I find it quite cryptical, but that regards the way I worded my view, not the view itself.
Take for instance a brain in a vat. It’s an example used by several philosophers in order to substantiate their views. Sometimes it is also used by me, but then in order to refute such views. Some philosophers (to start with John Locke) think that actually my body is not important for my personality. My question is then: So why have one? It would be enough to be a brain in a vat in order to exist. However, if you would be not more than a thinking brain in a vat that couldn’t express itself in some way, what would you be then? A minimal way to express yourself, even if it is only with the help of others or via others, is required or otherwise you cannot exist. And even a minimal way of expressing yourself is a way of acting. For even a minimal expressing of yourself, anyway, has the characteristics of an action: It is guided by perception (the mental stuff put into your brain by the person responsible for keeping you there as a brain in a vat plus your memories from the time before you were in this deplorable situation); the expression is guided by an intention; and the expression is yours, it is “attributable to you”, as philosophers say. And the body? Haven’t I always stressed in my blogs that a person needs a body? With the exception of the stuff that makes up the brain, you as a brain in a vat doesn’t have a real body, indeed, but just as many people have artificial limbs, the person who notes your expressions and executes them functions as your (artificial) body. In this way, we can defend that even a minimal you as a brain in a vat is constituted by your actions, as long as you can express yourself. If not, there is no way to say that you exist. Since already a self-expressing brain in a vat is constituted by his or her expressions, this is even more so for a more or less “normal” person.
I could give more philosophical reasons for my thesis, but as important is that there are also psychological reasons that man is constituted by his or her actions. I’ll give an example. You want to make a tour in the countryside and so you buy a day-ticket for a bus and let yourself drive around. Or, alternatively, you make a tour by bike or walking. Psychological investigations say that in such situations you see more and remember by far better what you have seen when you go by bike or walk than when you do a bus tour, for when you cycle or walk you are active, while in the bus you just sit down and are mainly passive.
Only by acting you exist. However, it is not only so that you have become what you are by acting, in fact your acting is what constitutes you and not your thinking does, as Descartes stated. If you don’t act (in the broadest sense), you are not. Or as Korsgaard says (p. 100): “The intimate connection between person and action does not rest in the fact that action is caused by the most essential part of the person, but rather in the fact that the most essential part of the person is constituted by her actions.” 

- My blog “I act, therefore I am”,

- My blog “ ‘By accident’ and ‘by mistake,’ ”,
- Korsgaard, Christine M, Self-Constitution. Agency, Identity, and Integrity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
- O’Mara, Shane, In praise of walking. London: The Bodley Head, 2019

Monday, September 21, 2020

False reasoning in Covid-19 times (and not only then)

What surprises me a lot in these days of Covid-19 is that so many people stick to false views that allegedly should explain the origin of the virus. Even highly intelligent friends of mine with a university education adhere to so-called conspiracy theories, for instance.
One of the most important fallacies used when “explaining” the origin and spread of Covid-19 is the false cause fallacy. This occurs when “the link between premises and conclusion depends on some imagined causal connection that probably does not exist” (see Source below, p. 342). There are three different types of this fallacy:

- Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for: after this, so because of this).

- Cum hoc ergo propter hoc ((Latin for: with this so because of this).

- Ignoring a common cause.

The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy involves that “one argues that a causal relationship exists between A and B mainly because A happened before B” (id. p. 343). For instance this fallacy happens (Manninen’s example) when athletes attribute winning a race to an article of clothing they wore during the event. The cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy involves assuming “a causal relationship between two events [simply] because they occurred simultaneously” (id. p. 335). For instance, a door bangs shut and at the same moment you hear a bang outdoors. Your automatic reaction may be that the one caused the other, but normally there is no connection. The ignoring a common cause fallacy “occurs when one notices a constant correlation between A and B and assumes that A caused B (or vice versa) while ignoring that there is a third variable, C, that causes both and therefore accounts for the correlation” (id. p. 338). For instance, an example I learned when studying sociology: In the countryside more babies are born than in cities, while there are also more storks in the countryside than in cities. Of course, this doesn’t happen because storks bring the babies to the parents, as fairy tales say. My teachers didn’t tell what the common cause was, but if there is it must be a factor that can be typified as “countryside-city difference”.
You find the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy especially in politics and “so” also in Covid-19 discussions, which often are political. But actually this is not important. What is important is the false reasoning in these types of fallacies namely that correlations are interpreted as causal connections without any further proof but only for the reason that two events occur together.
We often see such unsound reasoning in popular Covid-19 theories. It’s true that in Wuhan, where the pandemic started, there is an institute that studies viruses, and viruses can escape from laboratories, indeed. However, in order to prove that this virus comes from this laboratory it must be explained how the virus escaped and spread and so far nobody has been able to do so. Or take the view that Bill Gates is the puppet player behind the Covid-19 scenarios to control the world. Until now I haven’t heard any sound reasoning that makes true how Bill Gates does this. The only thing I see is that Bill Gates is an influential person (indeed!) and that he has a big influence in the international health world by sponsoring the WHO and other organisations. Nobody has made clear by now what’s wrong with this and how he uses his impact to the detriment of others. It looks like the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. If a doctor sees many Covid-19 patients, it doesn’t mean that he made them ill …
Recently I read a suggestive article in a paper published by an “antivirus movement”. It stated that organisations like the WHO, the Rockefeller Foundation or persons like Bill Gates have developed or supported scenarios how to control people in order to stop a pandemic and how to keep controlling them after the pandemic has gone. It was also the WHO that declared that there is a pandemic going on. “Big organisations and do-gooder Bill Gates promise [sic] us a big pandemic already for years. And they got it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared earlier this year Covid-19 to be a pandemic.” Now I must admit that it’s my interpretation but what this article suggests to me is that the WHO etc. are the cause of the misery that now rules the world. However, isn’t it just reasonable to develop scenarios of what might happen in case of …? And declaring the Covid-19 to be a pandemic is nothing else than stating how worrying the situation is.
I think that what the WHO etc. do can also be interpreted in a different way. You can read such scenarios as possible ways to restrict people in their doings in order to keep a virus under control (and if you are in bad faith how to oppress people). However, you can also read these scenarios and the measures proposed as what they consider the best thing to do in order to suppress a nasty virus. Of course, it’s no problem to discuss whether the proposed measures against the pandemic are correct. Many politicians have seen already that at least some measures taken were not the right ones. But when you want to solve a problem like Covid-19 you must not simply put facts (if they are facts) together and correlate them in the sense of simply saying that they occur together (and nothing more than that). What you must do is showing how such facts are causally connected. Otherwise we’ll never get rid of the problem and besides of a nasty virus we’ll also have a nasty controversy. 


Arp, Robert; Steven Barbone; Michael Bruce (eds.), Bad arguments. 100 of the most important fallacies in Western philosophy. Oxford, etc.: Wiley Blackwell, 2019, chapters 78-80 by Bertha Alvarez Manninen, pp. 335-345.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Do collective intentions exist?

Or : Can you step twice in the same river?

The IJssel near Kampen, Netherlands

A much-discussed question in the philosophy of action is whether collective intentions exist and if so what they would be like. Some philosophers defend the idea that there are shared intentions (like Bratman), but such intentions are literally shared by the individuals who have them: Each individual involved has the idea to do something together and in this way we can call such intentions shared but in the end they are individually owned. It’s the same for so-called joint intentions (Gilbert), which are owned by the individuals who jointly act. Also what others (like Searle) call collective intentions are individual states. Graduates of a business school who agree to strive for a liberal economy during their careers (Searle’s example) are still individuals with the same aim. They are not a group but simply businessmen (or whatever) who work independently from each other. So, all this cannot be what we rightly can take as “collective intention”. On the contrary, when we talk of collective intention the question is whether there can be a kind of intention in the sense that we say that a football club tries to become the national champion. For in this case we ascribe the aim to the team and not so much to the individual players. And we do not say that John or Pete became national champion if the team succeeds, but that the team did or at most we say that John or Pete became champion with the team.
As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, the central problem can be spelled out as a contradiction between the following two widely accepted claims:
-  Collective intentionality is no simple summation, aggregate, or distributive pattern of individual intentionality (the Irreducibility Claim);
-  Collective intentionality is had by the participating individuals, and all the intentionality an individual has is his or her own (the Individual Ownership Claim).
I gave already an example of the irreducibility claim: We say that the team wants to become champion and not so much that the players want, for isn’t it so that during the season sometimes one or more players leave the team – and may even play then for another team – and are replaced by other players and we still say that the original team wants to become champion? As for the individual ownership claim, generally individual intentions are ascribed to persons, if not to their minds or brains. But where do we locate a collective intention if a team is actually something abstract with a fluid membership? We cannot say that the collective intention is in this or that player or in all players together (for what if someone leaves?), but where then is it?
I think there are several reasons that collective intentions in the sense that they can be ascribed to groups as such do not exist. I have presented already one reason, namely that people can leave or join groups, while this doesn’t influence the collective intention of the group. Generally groups don’t have the same members in the long run, even though they can keep the same goals. Moreover, in a small group one might say that the collective intention is in the heads of John, Mary and Anna, but what about big groups like business concerns? Maybe a company has the aim to maximize profits, but usually the employees only want to earn a decent income (and it is basically difficult to mark off smaller groups from bigger unities). There are more reasons, which I have expounded elsewhere (see my blog dated 27 July 2020), but I think that this is enough to substantiate my view that collective intentions in the right sense do not exist.
If then philosophers think that there is something like collective intentionality, to my mind it is because they confuse levels. By explaining this, let me take the example of a river. A river consists of water and water consists of molecules. So, in the end the molecules make up the river. Nevertheless, when you want to study a river, you are not going to study the behaviour of the molecules, for example by investigating how the separate molecules move from the source of the river to the sea. No, normally rivers are studied in terms of current, fall, erosion, depth of the river, sediment, bed, etc. So, we don’t study rivers in terms of their individual parts (the molecules) but in terms of aggregate concepts; in terms of really collective concepts and not in terms of collective concepts that actually refer to the individual parts that make up the whole. And this is what we must also do if we want to study groups. We must study groups at a group level and individuals at an individual level. There is nothing against speaking of collective intentionality, but if we do we must realize that we are simply using a metaphor, or that we (following Dennett and then Tollefsen) take an intentional stance towards groups: We study groups as if they have intentions, aims, etc. This can be a very useful approach, but we must not think that groups really have intentions, aims, etc.

P.S. All this made me think of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Didn’t he say that you cannot step twice in the same river? However, by saying so Heraclitus confused levels, namely the levels of the river and the water (or molecules), and you can step in a river as often as you like. 

- My blog “What is a group?”,
- David P. Schweikard, Hans Bernhard Schmid, “Collective Intentionality”, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
- Deborah Perron Tollefsen, Groups as Agents. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015

Monday, August 31, 2020

Being introvert in Covid-19 times

Concert in Covid-19 times: Only a limited number
 of visitors allowed because of the corona restrictions.

Suppose a close friend invites you for his birthday party, like every year. You don’t know most people that will come there and you always find it difficult to begin a conversation with someone you don’t know, so you are glad if another guest starts talking to you. You also don’t like those three kisses on the cheek that you are supposed to get from and give to people you hardly know when you or they come and leave. So, every year you are a bit reluctant to go, and you always look for an excuse. But in the end you do go, and usually you think later that it was not that bad there and that you have amused yourself. Nevertheless, each year again you would like to have an excuse when you get the invitation. However, this year is different because of the corona pandemic. It is not only that you would rather not go, like each year, but you also expect that more people will come than the corona restrictions allow. Moreover, you know that most infections take place in closed spaces with many people together. So, you’ll not feel safe there. And not only this: You feel even glad that now you have a good reason not to go! So, you call your friend and say that you’ll come another time when both of you can be just together. That is also what you actually prefer and really like: talking with someone in person and no other people around that distract you with small talk. Do you recognize this? Are you maybe such a kind of person? Then you probably are an introvert.
During these days of the Covid-19 pandemic especially big events like sports matches, concerts, mass meetings etc. are forbidden. If they are allowed they are allowed with only a limited number of participants and visitors, so that the rules of social distancing can be maintained. Even more, not only public meetings are forbidden or allowed only with restrictions, also private meetings sometimes are. Because of a new rise in the number of Covid-19 virus infections recently yet the Dutch government gave a strict advice to ask not more than six people to your house, so people that don’t belong to your family. However, introverts seldom invite so many people at the same time.
When you follow the Covid-19 news, one thing that you come across again and again is that it is so bad that big meetings and parties cannot be held and that people miss them. As a result parties are sometimes illegally held, in halls or in the open air under bridges and in parks. What you do not hear, however, is that there are many people who think that it’s only a pity and not more than that that big meetings and parties cannot be held. Of course, you have nothing against it that others have their pleasures, but why such a fuss about this ban on big meetings? It is as if everybody misses them and that everybody feels sick because they cannot take place. But lots of people think: There are other things that are by far more important now in this crisis. Moreover, now we have more time for face-to-face contacts. Now there is more opportunity to meet your friends in person and not in the mass. If you think so, you are probably an introvert, and in fact it is so then, of course, that you already meet your friends preferably only together with the two of you.
And those three kisses that I mentioned in the example I started this blog with? Most introverts hate them. Kisses are for people you really know and who you really like and love, not for people you know only superficially and have met only a few times before, so introverts think, and they are happy that also these kisses are not allowed now. They actually hope that they’ll never return when normal times have come back. Introverts, so I quoted Allison Abrams once in a blog (dated 3 July 2017), are not the first to give you a hug, but if they do feel honoured. They don’t let just anyone in... Their presence is a gift.
Is there then nothing that introverts miss? Are they happy with the restrictions that must chase the Covid-19 virus away? Of course not. Like everybody they don’t like it being limited in their freedom. Of course, also introverts like it to go to big events now and then. Also for them such events can be stimulating and joyful. But they can also give stress. What I personally miss, for instance, are the concerts I used to go to, once or twice a month. But it is because of the music in the first place, and not because of the mass of visitors. For me the concert I recently visited with only hundred other visitors (because of the corona restrictions) in a big music hall for more than 1500 people was as good as a concert in a full house.
Yes, I miss it, and I miss more, like my travels abroad. However, what I find so annoying in those discussions about the question whether big events must be allowed again is that apparently only the extrovert view counts (and the economic view as well), although there is a big group of people that has another view on it, the introverts, who comprise about a third of the population. 

P.S. And yes, I felt disappointed when last Friday a concert was cancelled that I wanted to visit.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Who am I ?

In my last blog I wrote about John Locke’s case of a cobbler who got the soul of a prince. He discussed it in order to expound his theory of personal identity. I think that this is a good reason to write again about this theme, also because I just finished reading a book by the Dutch philosopher Monica Meijsing about personal identity. I’ll not check what Locke and Meijsing exactly have said. I just write down what’s in my mind.
What is personal identity? What makes us the same person as the one I was some time ago? That was Locke’s question when he presented his case. His answer was: Our identity is our memory. For instance, I remember now that I was the general who won the Battle of Newtown many years ago. I also remember that I was the boy who stole apples from an orchard. Therefore, now I am the same person as the general and as the boy. However, there is a problem, so it was commented later. Say, I remember that I was this general, but I forgot about my lapse as a boy. But when I was the general, I still remembered it. Then we must conclude that I am the same person as the general but not the same person as the boy. This cannot be true, and when the discussion on personal identity flared up again some years ago, this problem was solved by stating that the continuity of our memory is what makes us the same person as my predecessor. Then I am the same person as the boy who stole apples, even if I have forgotten about it, if the general who I was still remembered his boyish lapse.
There is yet another problem in Locke’s case: He supposes that the body is not important for who I am. After having received the prince’s soul, the cobbler is the same person as the little prince who grew up in a palace, even if he is now making shoes with the help of a body that grew up in a poor quarter. Intuitively we tend to think that Locke’s idea is right, if we apply the criterion of continuity just explained. So, although neo-Lockeans devised all kinds of weird thought experiments in order to improve and fine tune Locke’s point of view, they ignored this point. Brains were swapped with other bodies, brains and bodies were teletransported to other planets, while the organism left behind was not destroyed by mistake, etc. All this has led to interesting literature, but these thought experiments contained a crucial flaw: They suppose what they want to improve, namely that you can separate the brain from the original body. Once you think so, it is not difficult to show that a person is different from the body that it “inhabits”, as I have made clear in an article. Instead of the examples I discussed there, I want to present another one.
If my body is not important for my personality, why then have one? In order to answer this question, I called a scientist friend and asked him to remove my brain from my body, put it in a vat, keep it alive and feed it with all information I need in order to think that I am still the person with the body that I was before the experiment begun. Next, since I am a runner, I wanted to participate in a race on 5,000 m, and my scientist friend made that I thought that I did. I even won the race in a personal record. However, in reality there was no race, for it was all simulation. Nevertheless in my memory I won the race in a PR. So, for me, I am the person who has won, etc. The question is then: Can I be the person that I think I am, even if I cannot do what I think that I do? Following Locke and the neo-Lockeans that answer is “yes”, for that I am not more than a brain in a vat without a body doesn’t count. What counts is the memory, and all what is relevant for my being a person in the (neo-)Lockean sense is simulated in my brain by my scientist friend. But if you aren’t a (neo)-Lockean and if you aren’t me (the brain) there in the vat, I guess you’ll say “no”. And after my scientist friend had replaced my brain in my body and had erased the running simulation from my brain, it’s what I think, too: This thought experiment shows that although my memory may be part of the person that I am, it doesn’t make up the person that I am. My person is also made up by my body, as I have also made clear in my article just mentioned, for otherwise I couldn’t run a race. In addition, my person is made up by others who see me winning and praise me for my running qualities. Etc. Therefore, we must conclude, I think, that the person that I am is an aspect of the human being that is running there and that later remembers that race. Or, following Meijsing, we can also say that the person is a property of the human organism I am. And, as we just have seen, my person is not only made up by what is in my mind and by the characteristics of my body, like that my body is made and trained for long-distance running. It is also made up by the others around me who consider me (also much later) as the winner of a race. In short, my person is made by all what shapes me, like my experiences and thoughts, the features of my body and the relevant others. 


- John Locke, An essay concerning Human Understanding. (1689).

- Monica Meijsing, Waar was ik toen ik er niet was? Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2018.

- Henk bij de Weg, “Can a person break a world record?”,

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Face mask required


In the Netherlands face masks are mainly required in public transport in the fight against the coronavirus. This inspired me to take and make this photo, titled "Face mask required". You find more corona photos by me here:

Monday, August 17, 2020

Montaigne and Locke

Montaigne’s Essays were widely read, not only during his life. Also after his death in 1592 the work kept attracting many readers. Not only the general reader with some education read the Essays, but also influential persons who would have a big impact on the development of our intellectual life did. The impact of the Essays in the years after Montaigne’s death was especially big in England, even more than in France. One of the readers there was the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). We know that he possessed two copies of the Essays: a copy of a 1669 edition in French and a copy of an English translation published in 1603. We also know from Locke’s journal that he read the Essays in 1676-7 and 1684.
Locke didn’t only read Montaigne’s book; he was also influenced by it. Especially the influence of Montaigne on Locke’s ideas on education is striking. Like Montaigne Locke acted as a kind of advisor of the nobility and gentry on the education of their sons. Even more, unlike Montaigne, who was a jurist, Locke has also worked for some time as a tutor and governor for the sons of the gentry. Like Montaigne, Locke wrote also down his ideas on education, namely in letters and in a treatise titled Some thoughts on education (1693). In writing the treatise he didn’t only fall back on his own experience as a tutor and governor but also on what he had read about education. According to Warren Boutcher the exact literary sources that Locke used there are still debated. However “a contemporary collaborator of Locke, Pierre Coste, thought Montaigne’s Essais, especially I 25, to be the most important source and analogue”. Book I 25 is Montaigne’s essay titled “Of the education of children”. Locke himself mentions Montaigne only once in the treatise, but the whole context shows, so Warren, that Locke “closely … associates Montaigne with the topics of the choice of the right ‘governor’ or ‘tutor’ and of the direct method of Latin-learning–the topics of Essais I 25.” I think that this is enough to show the influence of Montaigne on Locke’s ideas on education; you can find the details in Boutcher’s book (see Sources below).
We see Montaigne’s influence on Locke also in other works, but the immediate impact of Montaigne on Locke is often difficult to demonstrate. That Locke has been influenced by the Essays when developing his ideas on democracy and toleration is not unlikely. However, Locke doesn’t mention Montaigne even once in his main work An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), although it is striking that he called this book (in imitation of Montaigne?) an essay. Alexander Moseley devotes in his intellectual biography of John Locke a chapter to the influence of Montaigne on Locke and notes that both authors have some striking points in common (but it is remarkable that he doesn’t mention the indication of the direct influence of Montaigne on Locke discussed by Boutcher). Anyway, I think that if we take all the similarities between Montaigne and Locke together and also think of the direct reference of Locke to Montaigne just mentioned, then we must conclude that Locke must have been much influenced by the Essays.
Recently I was leafing through Montaigne’s essay “Apology for Raimond Sebond” (Book II 12) for a blog for my Dutch Montaigne blog website ( Suddenly my eye was caught by a sentence that I had underlined and that made me immediately think of Locke. This is the sentence: “The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mould”. A few words later Montaigne speaks of “princes” instead of “emperors”. Then it is only one step to Locke, for what does Locke write in his Essay (Book II, Chap. XXVII, § 15): “For should the Soul of a Prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the Prince’s past Life, enter and inform the Body of a Cobler as soon deserted by his own Soul, every one sees, he would be the same Person with the Prince, accountable only for the Prince’s Actions: But who would say it was the same Man?” Etc. It is the famous example in the famous passage in which Locke discusses the problem of personal identity, a problem that I have also treated several times in my blogs. Of course, any similarity between two texts of two different authors can be mere chance, but in view of the fact that we know that Locke has read Montaigne’s Essays, while we also know that Locke explicitly refers somewhere to Montaigne, the similarity is striking. The similarity between Locke and Montaigne here can be mere chance, but the influence of one author on another author often shows itself in the details; maybe just in the details. 


- Boutcher, Warren, The school of Montaigne in Early Modern Europe. Volume 2: The Reader-Writer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp. 367-371.

- Moseley, Alexander, John Locke. London, etc.: Bloomsbury, 2007; pp. 37-38. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

The cooperation paradox

While some scientists, like Frans de Waal, try to show that man is not so unique in the animal world as we think, others, like Michael Tomasello, just try to show that we are distinct. An approach like the one by De Waal teaches us to be modest and that we are not the kind of superior beings we always supposed to be. From Tomasello’s approach we could get the idea that we are the masters of the animal world and that we can do with other animals what we like. However, that’s absolutely not what Tomasello wants to suggest. His motive is to explain what makes us different from other animals – and especially from our nearest relatives the great apes – without connecting this with any other pretention than an improved understanding of ourselves.
What makes man unique in the living world is, so Tomasello, that unlike any other creature on earth man has the capacity of shared intention, joint commitment, collective intention, or how you want to call it. Tomasello didn’t invent these concepts himself but borrowed them from others like Michael E. Bratman and Margaret Gilbert. Since I have written about shared intention etc. before in my blogs, I’ll not say more about it here.
But there is more that makes “us” different. Here are some features of man and human society that you don’t find elsewhere in the animal world, although most of these features are based on the capacity of shared intention, indeed. They are a bit arbitrary chosen, in the sense that other points could be added, although those mentioned belong to the core of what makes man different from other animals. 

- Altruism. In my blog last week we have seen that altruism is fundamental in man. Here is yet another example: You are standing somewhere and looking around. Then, a passer-by asks you: “Sir, can I help you?”
- Social institutions, namely, as Tomasello defines them, “sets of behavioral practices governed by various kinds of mutually recognized norms and rules.” (p. xi) A case in point is marriage. In all cultures you find the practice of marriage as a kind of stable relationship between man and woman plus sanctions if the norms and rules that define marriage are broken.
- Organisations: planned coordinated human interactions in order to attain one or more goals. Here I want to mention especially schools or other teaching for others than your kin in general. Tomasello: “Teaching is a form of altruism … in which individuals donate information to others for their use. … [T]here are no systematic, replicated reports of active instruction in nonhuman primates” (not to speak in other animals – HbdW). (p. xiv)
- Cumulative culture. It happens that nonhuman animals have learned habits that occur only in some groups of these same animals and not in others, so that we can call them “culture”. However, only man also makes improvements of what once has been learned and practiced. The result is that human culture evolves. Many once simple human instruments and practices develop and become more complicated in the course of time. No such a thing is known in the animal world. (pp. x-xi)
- Imitation. Man tends “to imitate others in the group simply in order to be like them, that is, to conform…” (pp. xiv-xv) It can even happen that people who break norms of conformity are sanctioned. Fashion is an example. 

Note that these points are not mutually exclusive but overlap for a part (schooling and altruism, for instance). Anyway, such special kinds of cooperation, namely cooperation based on shared intention, have brought us a lot. I think that most people will agree. Nevertheless, this cooperation is not only positive. For the foregoing gives us the impression that we are cooperative angels, always trying to make the best for us all. However, as also Tomasello makes clear, we aren’t. To quote him again” [H]umans …also [do] all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside ‘the group.’ Indeed, recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to motivate people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that ‘they’ threaten ‘us’. The remarkable human capacity for cooperation therefore seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group. Such group-mindedness in cooperation is, perhaps ironically, a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today.” (pp. 99-100) So, the cooperation that made human beings so successful seems to be founded on a non-cooperative attitude and practice towards all who do not belong to their own group. Therefore, cooperation rests on a paradox. In order to overcome this paradox and in order to make the world a more peaceful and yet better place to live in, a better place for all and not only for some men, we must promote that our group comes to include the whole world, humanity in its entirety. Or, as Tomasello says it: “The solution … is to find new ways to define the group.” (p. 100) 


Michael Tomasello, Why we cooperate. Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2009.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Rousseau or Hobbes?

A man is a wolf to another man, so Hobbes. Man is selfish and egoistic by nature, he thinks, and in order to protect men against other men they must be forced to cooperate. That’s why there are states. States force men to work together and to help each other, if necessary, so that in the end everybody is better off. Others, however, think that men are good by nature and that men are by far that selfish as Hobbes thinks. According to Rousseau, for example, men are helpful and cooperative and it’s just the state that corrupts them. Which view is correct? In his first Tanner Lecture on Human Values in 2008 Michael Tomasello tried to answer this question.
Three main types of human altruism can be distinguished, so Tomasello: You can share goods like food with others. You can help others like fetching an out-of-reach object for someone. Or you can altruistically give information to another person. What can we say about the presence of these types in man? All men are more or less sharing, helping and informative but are we naturally so or are these characteristics forced upon us and do we share, help and inform others only for egoistic reasons? For answering these questions Tomasello presents several investigations done with young children and chimpanzees.
He first discusses helping. In one study (Tomasello pp. 6ff), of the 24 eighteen-month-old infants tested 22 helped at least once, when a person they didn’t know dropped something accidentally, but they did nothing, when the person dropped something on purpose. Tomasello gives several reasons why studies like this one makes it likely that men help altruistically by nature. First, they show helpful behaviour already at a very young age before most parents expect their children to behave pro-socially. Second, parental rewards and encouragement don’t seem to increase infant’s helpful behaviour. Third, chimpanzees do such things as well. Fourth, probably such behaviour is shown in different cultures. Fifth, an adult makes a drawing and another deliberately tears it up. Or, alternatively, an adult puts aside an empty sheet of paper and another adult tears it up. In the first situation infants look concerned and want to help more often than in the second situation. For such reasons, Tomasello believes that “children’s early helping is not a behavior created by culture and/or parental socialization practices. Rather, it is an outward expression of children’s natural inclination to sympathize with others in strife.” (p. 13)
Although altruistically helping is something both human infants and chimpanzees do in some situations, altruistically informing others seems typically human. Take this study, for example: An adult is stapling papers and an infant is watching it. The adult leaves the room for a moment and another adult comes in and moves stapler and papers to some shelves. The first adult comes back and wonders where stapler and papers are. Then most infants will spontaneously point where they have been put. In another study, a chimpanzee is looking for food. You see where it is and point to the location. However, the chimp doesn’t understand, for why should you tell him where to find the food? Any chimpanzee tries to keep it for himself! Apes don’t point or it should be advantageous for themselves. Generally they don’t understand what (altruistically) pointing means, while infants see it as informative behaviour. Such studies show, so Tomasello, that “the comparison between children and apes is different in the case of informing. When it comes to informing, as opposed to instrumental helping, humans do something cooperatively that apes seemingly do not at all. This suggests that altruism is not a general trait, but rather that altruistic motives may arise in some domains of activity but not in others.” (pp. 20-21.
And sharing? “Virtually all experts agree that apes are not very altruistic in the sharing of resources such as food.” (p. 21) How different children are. Since Tomasello presents cases of somewhat older children, where learned culture may have had already an influence, I prefer to give an experience of my own with the same content. Once on holiday by bike in Norway, my wife and I stopped somewhere. A man came from a nearby house and began to talk to us in Norwegian and we didn’t understand a word of it. We were a bit confused and didn’t know what to do. Then the man left for a moment and returned with a big bag with shrimps and gave it to us. Why? Till today I have no idea, but I think that it is a case of altruistically sharing in due form. But back to Tomasello. Do people always share? Probably not, he says, when your plane crashes in the Andes and you have one granola bar in your pocket. So, his conclusion is: “In the case of sharing resources such as food … human children seem to be more generous than chimpanzees. But … this is only a matter of degree. Starving humans are not so generous with food, either. It is just that chimpanzees act as if they were always starving.” (p. 28).
Now I must cut short my analysis, but anyway, there is little proof that altruism in helping, informing or sharing is the result of acculturation, parental intervention, or any other form of socialization. (p. 28) This doesn’t mean that man is only altruistic by nature, and that helpfulness etc. are not also promoted by culture in some way. Children learn by themselves, too. They adapt to what society requires of them, although this adaption, too, is innate to a large extent. Children follow the rules because they feel to do so and they often feel ashamed and guilty by themselves if they don’t follow the rules. The upshot is then: If someone is right, it is not Hobbes but Rousseau. But we start as a Rousseau and then we become infected by Hobbes.

Michael Tomasello, Why we cooperate. Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2009.

Monday, July 27, 2020

What is a group?

Everybody has the same intention, but do they form a group?
Farmer's demonstration in The Hague, Netherlands, 2019

One of the major problems in the philosophy of action is how it is possible that a group acts while actually the acts are performed by the members of the group. That was the theme of my blog last week. This problem can be solved, for instance, by ascribing intentions to groups and treat them as entities that perform actions. This is Tollefsen’s solution. However, what is the entity that we can ascribe intentions to? In other words, what is, what I want to call, an intentional group?
Michael E. Bratman, and actually also Margaret Gilbert, state that entities we can ascribe to collective intentions must be small. However, when is a collectivity is small enough to consider it as an intentional group? Let’s take Bratman. He says: “... my focus will be primarily on the shared intentional activities of small, adult groups in the absence of asymmetric authority relations within those groups, and in which the individuals who are participants remain constant over time. Further, I will bracket complexities introduced by the inclusion of the group within a specific legal institution such as marriage, or incorporation. My interest will be primarily with duets and quartets rather than symphony orchestras with conductors, with small teams of builders rather than large and hierarchical construction companies” (2014, p. 7)
In his analyses, Bratman considers only two-person groups. But why should it be so that what is true for two-person groups is also true for bigger groups like quartets if not for groups bigger than quartets? Bratman doesn’t justify his choice. Actually any upper-limit in group size will be arbitrary. We can change a quartet into a quintet and the philosophical analysis will not basically change. And the same so if we take a sextet, then an octet, then a nonet. The change is gradual and to limit group size in view of the possibility to ascribe a collective intention is difficult to justify.
A second problem is whether a group is still the same group, when a member is replaced, especially if we consider small groups like duos or foursomes. In many groups it’s normal that members are substituted. Think of sports teams, the board of an organisation, debating clubs, etc. Members come and go and often after some time the group has got a completely different composition. Four members of a symphony orchestra have formed a string quartet. Then one of them is ill and is temporarily replaced by another musician. Must we say then that we have a different string quartet, although name and repertoire of the ensemble haven’t changed?
A third question is whether a group needs to be an independent entity not linked to an umbrella organisation. Bratman, and also Gilbert – implicitly –, think so. However, it’s doubtful whether this assumption is realistic. Bratman and Gilbert analyse examples like two people who want to paint a house together or who have agreed to make a walk together. But often groups are not of that kind in the sense that they are merely a few people who voluntarily perform activities together without any responsibility towards a kind of umbrella organization. Take the string quartet just mentioned. Even if the strings can decide themselves where to play and if they always want to play with the same four musicians, probably they must take care of what their boss, the symphony orchestra, requires of them. Or four athletes decide to form a relay team, but they’ll have to reckon with the rules of their club and the athletic union. Or four virologists decide to form a corona vaccine development team. Nevertheless, they can only do so if they belong to a medical institute, since they lack the means to work independently. If we would require that a group is really independent, then many cooperating people with a common intention to perform a certain task would be denied the status of being a group, although they apparently are.
But, fourth, even the differences between individual actions and groups actions are gradual. Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht. I buy a ticket and take the train. This apparently simple individual action supposes much implicit cooperation with other people! Already buying a ticket requires many intentions of other persons in order to make it possible. I buy, for example, the ticket at the ticket machine. Someone (or several people) must have thought out this machine, some must have constructed it, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. For being able to buy a simple railway ticket – not to speak of the ride itself – a whole structure of intentions (and actions) is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. Nobody can make his own train ticket, or it would be seen as a falsification. That such buying a ticket is “groupish” becomes clear if we compare it with my spading my garden. I take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself.
These are a few questions that I want to raise when we consider intentional groups. The upshot is that although groups exist and although we can ascribe intentions to groups, it’s impossible to define what a group is. Agents, groups and big complicated organizations if not societies or humanity as a whole are actually ranges on a continuum with the former and the latter as extremes. In this sense groups do not exist.

- Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. A Planning Theory of Acting Together. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Gilbert, Margaret, On Social Facts. London, etc.: Routledge, 1989.
- Weg, Henk bij de, “Collective Intentionality and Individual Action”,

Monday, July 20, 2020

How groups act

Group mind
One of the major problems in the philosophy of action is how it is possible that a group acts while actually the acts are performed by the individuals that belong to the group. That is, the bodily movements that are interpreted as actions are done by these individuals, and the intentions that make that the body movements are interpreted as actions belong to the acting individuals. How could it be otherwise? Intentions are mental phenomena that are developed in the mind. However, a group hasn’t a mind and so it cannot have intentions. And without an intention there is no action. Ergo group actions do not exist, and one step further is to say that there are no groups.
This reasoning seems sound, but nevertheless I think that, with the exception of some other-worldly philosophers, nobody will defend this Thatcherian view. (see for my rejection of this view). Any person who has his/her head screwed on the right way, will see that everyone behaves as if groups exist. And if such an other-worldly philosopher walks through the corridors of a university s/he will meet colleagues from other faculties who study groups or at least do as if they are real in their theories and investigations. Sociologists, historians, lawyers, etc., they all study the activities of groups. Is it then that they see ghosts, or is it the other-worldly philosopher who suffers from delusions? For, to give some examples, how it is possible then that a football team wins a match if there are no groups? For even if it is the centre forward who kicked the ball in the goal of the opponent, if he didn’t have ten other – or at least six other – team mates, there wouldn’t have been a regular match. Or, other cases, I cannot sing a duet alone, and it is almost daily practice that companies are sentenced in court and that it is the company that has to pay the fine and not the individual members of the management.
So groups are real phenomena. Even so, the problem remains then how to explain group actions if it is the individual members of the group who act. Many philosophers, sociologists and other scholars and scientists have tried to answer this question. For instance, I am charmed by the structuration theory developed by the sociologist Anthony Giddens that tries to tackle this problem. However, here I want to discuss the approach proposed by Deborah Tollefsen in her Groups as Agents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), which I find also interesting.
But first this. In her Persons and Bodies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) Lynne Rudder Baker defends the so-called “constitution view”. If we take Michelangelo’s famous statue David, actually we have only a pierce of marble. Nonetheless we call it a statue that represents David. It is not only that the marble represents a person, we say also that it has a head, arms etc, even though we have only a piece of marble in front of us. Moreover, it’s not the marble that has a head, arms, etc, but it is David (the statue) who has. Baker explains this by saying that the marble worked by Michelangelo constitutes David.
This is also more or less implicit-explicit in Tollefsen’s approach. According to Tollefsen – and I agree – we don’t ascribe intentions to the brain, even though the thinking process takes place there. No, we ascribe intentions to the whole person, and that’s what we do when we try to interpret, understand or explain the actions and or behaviour performed by individuals. When we want to understand why an individual acts in a certain way, we don’t look in the brain in order to know what his or her intentions are but we derive them from the actions and the situation in which the individual acts. Knowing what a person does is “attributing intentional states” to her. We ask “What are the constitutive features of our practice that account for its explanatory power? That is, what assumptions do we need to make about an agent in order to interpret her behavior successfully? If interpretation is successful, then the assumptions we make about an agent in the process of interpreting her are justified.” In order to know why someone acts, we don’t examine her (or his) brain states, so to the body, but we consider the person that has been constituted by this body and see whether we can ascribe relevant intentions to this person.
Following Dennett, this approach can also be applied to groups, so Tollefsen. Dennett developed the “intentional stance”. “When we adopt the intentional stance toward an entity, we attempt to explain and predict its behavior by treating it as if it were a rational agent whose actions are governed by its beliefs, intentions, and desires”, so Tollefsen, interpreting Dennett. But if this is correct, then we can apply the intentional stance also to groups. Groups are constituted by the individuals that make up a group. Moreover, when we ascribe an intention to an agent, we don’t look for the way it is formed in his or her brain, but we ascribe the intention to the person as a whole. In the same way, even though a group hasn’t a kind of brain (and mind) as an equivalent to a person’s brain (or mind), nonetheless we can ascribe intentions to a group and treat it as if it has. We simply must consider the group as constituted by its members and treat it as a whole.

Note: The quotes are from Tollefsen p. 98. However, the interpretation of her text is mine, and is much wider than what Tollefsen writes here or elsewhere in her book.

Thursday, July 16, 2020


 I have seen Naples. I have seen Lenin (his dead body). However, one wish remained still unfulfilled: to see a comet. And now also this wish has been fulfilled, for a few days ago I took this picture of the comet Neowise near Utrecht, Netherlands. It's a bad picture, indeed (for my as such good camera is not the youngest any longer), but it clearly shows a comet.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Hobbes and Spinoza

Monument for Johan de Witt (to the right) and his 
brother Cornelis, Dordrecht, the Netherlands

Actually a blog of thousand words is too short to do justice to Spinoza’s theory of the state. But you can see it as a very short introduction and maybe it will make that you want to read more about it. It’s worth to do so, for Spinoza was the first major philosopher since antiquity who was an advocate of a democratic system.
Like Hobbes’s state theory also the one developed by Spinoza has been influenced by the political circumstances of the country he lived in. The Dutch Republic was not a real state but a kind of confederation that can be compared with the present European Union. It originated in 1579 as an alliance of provinces against the repressive regime of the King of Spain, who was also Lord of the Netherlands. The revolt that followed led to the independent Republic of the United Netherlands. The provinces were first held together by a common foreign policy and a common defence, but gradually they became more integrated. The Republic was governed by a council of representatives of the united provinces that met in The Hague. In 1672 the Republic was attacked by four countries, including France and England. Although it survived, the result was much unrest. Its most important political leader Johan de Witt, who in practice functioned as a kind of Prime Minister, was murdered by a mob, and William III, prince of Orange, was installed as the new Stadtholder (the function had been empty since 1650). In a time that questions like republicanism or monarchy, and the influence of the aristocracy, civilians and the people in general were much discussed, Spinoza wrote two political texts: the Theologico-Political Treatise and the Political Treatise. I want to concentrate my remarks on the latter, even if it hasn’t been completed.
The political unity Spinoza had in mind was the city state. This was just as in the Dutch Republic where actually all important political decisions that influenced the life of the citizens were taken by the town councils. Like for Hobbes, also for Spinoza a political unity is a kind of contract – or “statute” as Spinoza calls it – between people and highest authority. The aim of the statute is peace and safety for everybody. It is the authority that determines what is good and bad, justice and injustice, etc. and that determines the laws and rules that the citizens must obey. It’s also this authority that interprets the law and determines when it is in the interest of all to break the law.
On the face of it, this is not really different from what Hobbes says. What distinguishes Spinoza from Hobbes is the way he elaborates these background ideas. According to Spinoza, they can be realized in three types of state: a monarchy, an aristocracy or a democracy. In the first kind of state there is only one ruler, the king. However, this is only a matter of theory for in practice there is never just one ruler: the king needs advisors, delegates a part of his power to generals and friends, etc. So, what looks like an absolute monarchy is actually a kind of aristocracy but then an aristocracy of the worst kind. Moreover, a monarchy has many other defects, which I’ll pass over, but it’s clear that a monarchy is a not a good political system according to Spinoza.
In an aristocracy it is not one person that rules the state but several do. They have been chosen from the people but the difference with a democracy is that the right to rule belongs to a selected part of the population while in a democracy basically everybody has this right. Spinoza calls this selected group the patricians and certainly here he thinks of the practice in the cities in the Dutch Republic, where the governments were in the hands of patricians. An aristocracy is better than a monarchy, since there is not a king (who is the only authority) who can die, but an aristocratic council that can exist forever. Moreover, the charge of power is often too big for only one ruler, while a council, if it has enough members, can divide the charges and rule together. Moreover, the aristocratic authority is not dependent on one person who can be too young, too old, be unstable and fickle, etc. However, also an aristocracy has its defects and an important defect is nepotism: Although the patricians in power are officially chosen, actually they try to be succeeded by their children and relatives (as was the practice in the Dutch Republic). But since the decisions by an aristocratic council are taken in the interest of the patricians, so only in the interest of a part of the population, in practice it can never have absolute authority, even if it has a formal authority. It must always fear the population as a whole (see what happened to Johan de Witt). This makes that in an aristocracy the patricians must make concessions to the population.
Now it would be interesting to know Spinoza’s view on what he sees as the best political system: democracy. This is the system in which all citizens of a country basically have the right to get political representative functions and have public offices. Spinoza begins with a wide definition of who are citizens in a country, but, alas, before the description starts what a democracy really involves, the manuscript of the Political Treatise breaks off.
Unlike Hobbes, who thinks that only a person who has all authority in his hands can protect the peace and safety of the subjects of a state, Spinoza thinks that the more authority is spread over the population (in the sense that all can participate in it), the more peace and safety is guaranteed. This makes him one of the first advocates of the modern idea of democracy.