Sunday, November 03, 2019

Spinoza’s Rules for the Mind

The present Waterlooplein (Waterloo Square) in Amsterdam. Once here was
the heart of 
the Jewish Quarter. Spinoza has passed his youth here and for
some time his parents had a house where now the church in the photo is.

Just like Descartes, also Spinoza has written down rules for the mind. Or, rather, he had the intention to do so, for like Descartes also Spinoza didn’t complete his book and he left his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect – which should contain these rules – unfinished. Spinoza seems to have worked almost his whole philosophical life on it, and judging his own remarks, it had to consist of four parts on method, plus an introductory part and – I assume –also a kind of conclusion. However, he has written only a few introductory sections, the first part of the method on “fictive, false and doubtful ideas”, and a few pages of the second part on the essence of the intellect. Then the manuscripts breaks off.
For my blog I have read a Dutch translation of this Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione with explanations by Theo Verbeek. According to him, the Tractatus can better be seen as an introduction to Spinoza’s philosophy than a method. Maybe, he is right, or maybe he comes to his conclusion only because the work is unfinished. For, indeed, what remains of the book is mainly introductory. But when Spinoza would have completed the work, maybe we would have considered it a real method. We’ll never know.
What’s also possible is that Spinoza never intended this work for publication. Maybe for him it was simply a kind of finger exercise meant for developing his own thoughts. It could explain why the work sometimes gives a fragmentary impression and that it is vague and obscure on many places. In line with this, also the remaining part of this blog will consist only of some sketchy remarks on the Tractatus, just for giving you a feeling of what you can expect.
In order to improve our intellect so that we can better understand, we can get knowledge by four kinds of perception, so Spinoza:
I. Perception arising from hearsay or from some sign which everyone may name as he pleases.
II. Perception arising from mere experience, i.e. from experience not yet classified by the intellect.
III. a) Perception of what we call in modern terms a causal relationship (i.e. we see that one event regularly follows after another event) or b) perception by deduction (i.e. when we can infer an event from general propositions).
IV. Perception by seeing the essence of a thing. (see Tractatus, 19).
It’s from these perceptions that we must choose one in order to get knowledge (cf. 25). However, it’s not sufficient for getting knowledge. In addition, we need a method. To my mind, Spinoza says it in a rather complicated way, but I want to summarize it in my own words by saying that the method we need gives us rules that lead to true ideas. Actually, Spinoza aims here at Descartes, if I interpret the text and Verbeek’s explanations well, for what Spinoza wants to say here is that we need the right perception and the right method in order to know nature; only then we can understand our mind. Descartes, on the other hand, starts from the idea of mind – “I think so I am” – and we need this understanding of the mind in order to be able to know nature. (30-43)
What must a method do for us? Spinoza mentions four points, namely 1) it must help distinguish true ideas from other perceptions and help the mind ignore these other perceptions; 2) it must give rules in order to get perceptions of yet unknown ideas; 3) it must give a plan, so that we avoid to do useless things; and 4) it must lead to the idea of the absolute perfect being. However, elaborations of 3) and 4) are lacking in the Tractatus. (49) In part 1, which treats the first point, Spinoza gives explanations about fictive, false and doubtful ideas. In part 2, which was intended to elaborate point 2, he starts to write about the essence of the intellect. Then the manuscript breaks off. In this part Spinoza explains, for instance, what definitions are. A definition must give us, so Spinoza, the essence of a thing; it must not be a simple enumeration of indispensable characteristics. For example, we must not define a circle by saying that it is a figure in which all lines drawn from the centre to the periphery have the same length (which is true), but it is – and now I quite the Wikipedia – “a shape consisting of all points in a plane that are a given distance from a given point, the centre”. Next Spinoza gives further rules for a correct definition, distinguishing between definitions of created things and definitions of uncreated things. (91-97) However, I’ll stop here my introductory remarks on Spinoza’s Tractatus. I hope that it’s enough for enticing you to read the book. For although the writing is often obscure and vague and requires much effort to get a grip on it, nevertheless it’s worth reading if you are interested in Spinoza’s philosophy and want to improve your background for understanding his other works, like the Ethics.

Sources and texts
Full texts in English of the Tractatus:
For this blog I used a Dutch translation of the Tractatus plus the useful explanations by Theo Verbeek: Spinoza, Verhandeling over de verbetering van het verstand. Groningen, Historische Uitgeverij, 2017.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Ursula von der Leyen and the Toxin Puzzle

The Toxin Paradox, which I discussed in my blog last week, seems to be a silly case without any reality. Where in the world would you find such an eccentric billionaire like Tramp who would give away a million dollars without getting anything back for it? And how about an intention that you don’t need to intend? Who believes that such a thing exists or rather can exist? It’s simply a contradiction. The only real thing seems to be the toxin, but who would drink it voluntarily? Nevertheless the Toxin puzzle is not as imaginary as it looks on the face of it. Even more, the case happens quite often. For example, a sponsor promises to pay your training for the marathon. You know that a marathon will not be easy for you, but you also know that later there can be many reasons to come back on your decision to run the race, and the contract allows this. You also know that the sponsor will not ask his money back. So you sign the contract.
A field of society where Toxin puzzle cases happen very often is politics. An internet website that discusses the Toxin Puzzle explains it this way:
“The most familiar example of the Kavka’s Toxin puzzle in the real world is the Political Manifesto. Before an election, a political party will release a written document outlining their policies and plans should they win office. Many of these promises may be difficult or impossible to implement in practice. Having won, the party is not obligated to follow the manifesto even if they would have lost without it. ... In this example, the Electorate is the equivalent of the Billionaire, The Manifesto Promise the equivalent of the intention to drink the toxin and implementing the policies is equivalent to drinking the toxin.” (see source below, p.31).
When I read this, I had immediately to think of the recent elections for the European Parliament (see also my blogs dated 15 and 17 July 2019). Of course, each participating party had presented its political program with promises and plans, and some of these promises and plans may be difficult or impossible to implement. But that’s not what I am thinking of. What I have in mind here is the idea of “Spitzenkandidaten” or “lead candidates”. In order to make it attractive for the electorate to vote, parties presented their lead candidates and in agreement with the result of the elections one of these candidates would become the president of the new European Commission (the executive board of the EU that runs the daily affairs). There were three such candidates: a christian-democrat, a social democrat and a liberal. It appeared to be an attractive idea, indeed, and many people went to vote. The election result was that the lead candidate of the christian-democrats, the German Manfred Weber, got the most votes, so he should become the president of the new EU Commission. Or otherwise it should have been the social-democrat lead candidate, the Dutchman Frans Timmermans, who was a good second. And as a third possibility it would also have been possible to choose the Danish liberal Magrethe Vestager. But what happened? The French president Emmanuel Macron had taken it in his head that all these candidates were unacceptable to him, and so he proposed his favourite, the German christian-democrat Ursula von der Leyen, who was unknown to most voters. Now it would have been normal that the parliament would have said: “We represent the people of Europe and the ultimate power needs to be in the parliament. So, we the parliament elect Manfred Weber (or one of the other two Spitzenkandidaten) as president.” But the parliament was afraid to display its power against such a mighty man as the French president Macron, and it gave in. In this way it happened that Mrs. Von der Leyen became the president of the new European Commission, since the European parliament refused to keep its promise and to drink the toxin.

Wikipedians (ed.), Paradoxes. Situations which defies intuition. On website .

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Toxin Puzzle

Philosophers are good in inventing weird cases. Especially action philosophers are. Philosophers are serious people, so, of course, they don’t invent these cases just for the fun of it, although it can be a pleasure to invent them. No, they do it because they think that they have an important problem to solve or at least to raise. This problem is then discussed by other philosophers, and so they fill the pages of their journals and their books. Since I am also a philosopher – even more an action philosopher by origin – I like to read such cases and the discussions they bring with them, and to make my contributions to the debate, sometimes.
Recently I came across such a philosophical case, and I thought that it would be interesting to talk about it in my weekly blog. Here it is:

An eccentric billionaire, let’s call him Tramp, has offered you the following deal. He gives you a vial of toxin. If you drink it, it will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. Tramp will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives. If you succeed you are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin. (The presence or absence of the intention is to be determined by the latest ‘mind-reading’ brain scanner). You accept the offer. (Adapted from the original case by Gregory S. Kavka, see note)

So far so good, and nothing seems so easy as earning the money and become a millionaire. Is it? In the remaining part of his article Kavka discusses why it is not, for actually it is impossible to intend to drink the toxin. I’ll pass over the details, but the essence is this. A reasonable person can seriously and honestly develop an intention to perform a certain action but s/he cannot develop such an intention if beforehand s/he knows already s/he’ll not perform the action because of its nasty consequences. For it is part and parcel of an intention that you seriously have made up your mind to do what you intended, but before you have developed your intention you had already decided not to perform the action the intention involves. You cannot intend not to do what you intend.
The case just described has become known as the Toxin Puzzle. It’s a puzzle, because you are asked to form a simple intention to perform an action, which is a thing you every day do many times. Nevertheless now you are unable to form the intention. Kavka explains it this way. Intentions are not independent decisions but are related to an action. But the reasons for an action are a different thing, and just these reasons for the action are absent in the intention. Or to put it in a different way: The reason to intend are different from the reason to act in the toxin case. Therefore, so Kavka, “when we have good reasons to intend but not to act, conflicting standards of evaluation come into play and something has to give way: either rational action, rational intention, or aspects of the agent's own rationality (e.g., his correct belief that drinking the toxin is not necessary for winning the million).” (see note) We cannot have double rational standards.
The upshot is: You cannot intend to do what you know beforehand that you’ll not do. Or otherwise, you can only intend to do what you seriously and honestly want to do. If you have to abandon an intended action, this can only happen for reasons that are advanced after the intention has been formed and not if such good (and effective) reasons are already put forward beforehand. You cannot honestly say “I’ll do it”, while you know that you’ll not do it, unless you are irrational. That’s what this case is about.

Gregory S. Kavka, “The Toxin Puzzle”, on

Monday, October 14, 2019

The art people like

Last weekend I participated in the local art route. During an art route, all participating artists in a town keep open house. This involves that everyone interested in art can visit the studios or workshops of the participating artists, like painters, sculptors, etchers, jewellery makers, or what else there are, such as photographers as well. Meet the artist at home and see how she or he works is the idea behind such a weekend. I, as a photographer, participate already many years in the art route in my town, and I love it, for it’s always a pleasure to talk with other people about my work and to explain them the magic of photography. But alas, I don’t have a photo studio. I have only my cameras and my computer with Photoshop, and maybe the computer is even more important than the cameras are, for today there is no photo without a computer. Moreover, I don’t have the space to receive many people at home and to show them my work place (so my computer plus chair) on the first floor of my house. But there has always been a solution to this problem, and this year I was the guest of the local painters’ club, which gathers in the community centre in my town.
But what to present during an art route, when you don’t have a studio where you can show and explain the essentials of your way of working? I can take my laptop with me and tell the visitors how Photoshop works, for today a computer with Photoshop – or another photo editing program – is what the photographer’s darkroom was in the past. The darkroom or, today, the editing program is the place where the photographic idea becomes a real image. But are visitors of the art route really interested in it? I think they are not. So instead I always make a kind of mini-exhibition that presents a kind of overview of my work. I show the best of what I have made since the last art route and I show also some older work, for after a year, art hasn’t become obsolete (most of the time) and there are always people who haven’t seen it yet or don’t remember that they have seen it or who like to see it again. And so I exhibited in my space in the local community centre my “Herd of Elephants” ( and my landscape pictures, taken with a pinhole camera or a normal camera. I presented there my Mondrian-like picture of the inner court of a hotel ( I presented there also my by Rembrandt inspired self-portrait (not on the Internet), and my expression of “Homesickness” (, inspired by Magritte. I presented also other art photos inspired by myself. In addition, I did something else. I made a photo series of what some people would rather consider as documentary photography or otherwise as something that is not “real” art. For the occasion of this art weekend I made a series of photos with bikes. Yes, simply bikes. Single bikes as you find them here everywhere apparently lost along the roads. Parked bikes; damaged bikes left behind by the owners; old bikes now used as flower boxes. It was a mini-series of ten photos. Moreover, I added a mini-series of six pictures of refuse. Yes, refuse, as you see it everywhere in the street.
When the art route began, people gradually dropped in. They watched with interest the work of the painters and they talked with them. And they watched my photos in my space in the community centre. Some talked with me and gave their comments. I was a bit nervous, of course, what they would say. I always try not to provoke comments, for people must say spontaneously what they think. Only then they’ll say the truth and say something more than “I like it”.
From other occasions I had expected that the visitors would praise my “Elephants” or my “Double landscape” (; or my Rembrandt, my Magritte or my Mondrian. And indeed, these photos belonged to the best of my work, judging by their remarks. Nonetheless, these photos were not what the visitors liked most. What they liked most were the bikes and the refuse. For bikes and refuse is what everybody sees but nobody watches. And that’s what I as a photographer had done: Watch and photograph what everybody sees but doesn’t take notice of. Just this made these bike and refuse pictures striking and made that they drew the attention of the visitors. Art is not only in beauty, but it can also put forward what everybody ignores. That’s where the art comes in. 

Monday, October 07, 2019


In my blog last week I said that usually we don’t say that an action is an attempt. We just do. But under which conditions is it then that we call an action an attempt? I think that a good starting point for making this clear is Stuart Hampshire’s description of trying, which I came across once when I was preparing an article. We speak of attempting or trying, so Hampshire, when “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”: We call an action a try “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed”. But this is only so, if the agent knows what to do and has decided to act: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1965:107). And I want to add: The agent has not only decided to act, but s/he has started the action as well and maybe already fully performed. Only then there is a try. This addition is perhaps implied by Hampshire but not explicitly said.
But what does it mean that a try involves “some difficulty or a possibility of failure”? As we have seen in my blog last week, an action can fail for two reasons. This implies that there are also two kinds of attempts. First, an agent may choose a certain action and perform it. Moreover, s/he knows that normally s/he is able to perform the action till the end, but s/he is not sure whether the action will result into the effect desired. For example, a runner wants to qualify for the championship. She knows that she can do it, but maybe the strong wind will prevent that she’ll succeed. We call such an action a try, because it’s not sure whether the desired result will be attained, although the agent feels sure that the action itself can be performed.
However, it’s another kind of trying, if the agent doesn’t know whether s/he can fully perform the action as such. Then the try is in performing the action, not in attaining the result. For example, the runner just mentioned knows that her shape is good enough to qualify for the championship. Also the weather is perfect. However, she has got an injury and doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to finish the race. She just tries.
I’ll ignore the possibility that both kinds of tries apply at the same time (the injured runner doesn’t know whether she can qualify, anyhow), but we have seen here two different kinds of tries or attempts. In the first case, the try is in the intended effect of the action; in the second case the try is the action itself. Putting it differently, in the first case the question is whether the action is the right means (the runner might try to qualify one week later, when the weather will be better), while in the second case the question is whether the agent is able to perform the action itself.
How long does an attempt last? When do we no longer talk of a try? In case an action is stopped before it has been completely performed, the answer is clear: The try ends as soon as the action stops. This is also so if the try is of the first kind: If the action has been fully performed but we don’t know yet it’s result, nevertheless the try has ended then. This is the case, for instance, when we have finished the race, but some other runners not yet; or the official results of the race haven’t yet been published. There still can be many reasons then that we haven’t qualified, but our action has ended and the try is over, although we don’t know yet the result. Try and action on the one hand and knowing the result (so succeeding and failing) on the other hand have a different time span. It can even be so that a try has a shorter time span than the action that belongs to it. This is so, for instance, when halfway the race the runner sees that she’ll not qualify. She can stop running then but she doesn’t, for she wants to finish anyway.
Can we try and we don’t know? Sometimes a person succeeds in spite of herself, but unless she herself decided to make an effort to succeed, we cannot say that she tried. She just did.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A note on the failure and success of actions

Sometimes an action leads to a dead end.

Being able to act is one of the foundations of human life. I think that it’s even more basic than being able to think. That’s why in one of my blogs I replaced Descartes’s famous “I think, therefore I am” by “I act, therefore I am” (see my blog dated 3 March 2008:
Although acting is fundamental to man, this doesn’t mean that the performance of an action always goes smoothly. Some actions are better to be described as attempts that can fail or succeed. Nevertheless, it belongs to the essence of actions that most of them succeed. Therefore, it is not normal to see each action as an attempt, before it happens. We just do, and when a normal action fails, afterwards we may say that we attempted to perform it but failed, but this doesn’t mean that it is right to say that the action concerned was an attempt. We just say something like “Something went wrong”.
An action can fail in two ways. Either it is so that the action hasn’t been finished, or the action didn’t bring the result we expected or hoped for. In the latter case, the action hasn’t failed in the sense that it hasn’t been accomplished, for the action as such is there. The runner has finished the race, but didn’t break the record. The long-jumper had a personal record but didn’t qualify for the championship, which was her aim. In such cases the finished action failed in view of its outcome. The jump is good but it doesn’t have the aimed result, even though it was her personal best. Or, another example, she opened the window and fresh air streamed into the room, but the room didn’t cool down, which was just why she opened the window: The effect was absent even though the action – in the sense of an intentional piece of behaviour – had been performed as planned.
What we see here is that the success of an action is not the reverse of its failure. For what should “the reverse” mean in this case? If an action failed, because the intended aim hasn’t been achieved, there are at least two things that might have happened, as we have seen: The agent has not performed the action to its end or the agent fully performed the action without achieving the aimed result. If we should call the latter the reverse of a successful action, there would be no room for unfinished actions, even though they happen often in life. But if we should call an unfinished action the reverse of a successful action, there would be no room for a nice try.
Is failing in acting bad? In a certain sense it is but not if we keep in mind that acting is basic for existing as a human being and that also a failed action is an action. Failures belong to acting. Nobody is perfect and when failing has become inherently impossible, we cannot act any longer. Then life has ended.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The layers of Pagliacci

The cast of Pagliacci receiving the applaus in The National Opera in Amsterdam

In Leoncavallo’s opera “Pagliacci” the actors Canio and Nedda act in a stage play in which Pagliaccio (played by Canio) is deceived by his wife Colombina (Nedda) and kills her. What the public in this play doesn’t know is that in “real life” Canio is deceived by his wife Nedda, and that the murder in this drama is not acted (as it should be) but that it is a real murder: While playing Pagliaccio, Canio becomes so angry that he forgets that he is acting and during the play Pagliaccio becomes Canio who has been deceived by the real Nedda. The border between fiction and fact fades away.
In the opera we see a double-layered story: The first layer is the play with Pagliaccio and Colombina and the second layer is the “real life” of the actors Canio and Nedda, who act their lives in this opera. It’s not without reason that I write real life between quotation marks, for in this case also the “real life” is a play. Actually, it’s not difficult to add more layers. For instance what if the tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang the part of Canio, would have been the husband of the soprano Aylin Pérez (Nedda) and would have murdered her on the stage when I was watching the opera, because she had deceived him? Then fiction would really have become fact. But even without this layer that springs from my imagination there are at least two other layers, namely the spectators in the opera hall (I and my wife and the others present in the hall), for during the time of the opera they had stepped out of “real life” so to speak, and played the part of real spectators (to be distinguished from the actors in the opera who play the parts of the spectators in the play). And then, of course, there is also the real world outside the opera building. So we can distinguish at least four layers, each with their own realities and each with their own fictions and facts, their own actions and events.
The idea of layers is also thematized in philosophy. Maybe the first philosopher who did was Plato with his Allegory of the Cave: A group of people is imprisoned in a cave already since childhood. Behind their backs a fire is burning and between the fire and the prisoners people are continuously passing by. The prisoners cannot see what occurs behind them. They see only the shadows of the passers-by on a wall in front of them. Therefore the prisoners know only how these people look like and what they do in an indirect way. For the prisoners the projections on the wall constitute the real world, since they don’t know the world in another way. Here, we see two layers: (1) the world of the shadows on the wall and their spectators (which is the real world for these spectators), and (2) the world behind the backs of these spectators. However, as the Dutch philosopher Nicole des Bouvrie remarks, when commenting on this allegory: How does Plato know that there is not yet another layer, another reality? And indeed, there is at least one other layer, like in Leoncavallo’s opera. Just like the spectators of the opera in the hall in the same way the readers of Plato’s allegory constitute a layer as well.
An opera wouldn’t be an opera and an allegory wouldn’t be an allegory if they wouldn’t stand for something in reality. And isn’t it so that we all play our parts and that we all have our realities that we try to keep apart and that often interlock like layers? A job is often merely a way to get the money to live, as it is for the actors (as actors) in the opera. Our “real life” – for us – may be at home with our family, or in our club, or elsewhere. And this “real life” is enclosed by a world outside, like the life of the town where we live, our country and the wide world, which have a big influence on us and on what we can do. Real life consists of layers of fiction and fact. For aren’t we often playing a role in our job, for instance, when we hide what we actually think in order to avoid a conflict with our boss? Don’t we often screen off a part of us, so that it becomes a separate layer? (Who of the other students in my class at school knew that already then I loved classical music and opera and not, say, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones)?
Layering is a fact of life. Often it has a protective function, and it simplifies our view on reality. It makes our life structured and surveyable and helps us act in the right way. This is exemplified by Leoncavallo’s opera in a negative way: Negative in the sense that we see there what can happen if the border between two layers fades away and the fiction of a lower layer becomes the fact of a higher layer. Then we can get a problem. Examples are relatives or friends who have to do with each other in different roles. A teacher with her daughter in her class. A mayor who gives a building order to a friend. A husband who deceives his wife with her best friend / A woman who deceives her best friend with her husband. Suddenly the situation explodes. We have a scandal. The business deal becomes public. The marriage ends in a divorce. In the worst case there is a murder. If this happens the last words of “Pagliacci” apply: The comedy is finished. La commedia è finita.

Reference: Bouvrie, Nicole des, Diagnose van de moderne filosoof. Waarom filosofen gek zijn. Eindhoven: Damon, 2018

Monday, September 16, 2019

The solar cell paradox

The solar panels on the roof of my house

I think that every reasonable person will agree that we live in an age of global warming and that the main cause of this global warming is the behaviour of man. We simply use too much energy and moreover we use energy of the wrong kind: fossil energy. In fact, fossil energy is solar energy long ago laid up in the soil by natural processes. Probably all this energy would still have been there, if not once, also long ago, man was added to the big number of creatures that lived already on earth. As all creatures, also man needed energy to live, but as long as man led a simple life, s/he lived more or less in balance with what the earth produced. Now you may think that I’ll add: And everybody was happy. Not true. For many people thought that life could be better, but for this they needed more energy, not only for cooking and for heating themselves during cold nights, but for a lot more, like better shelters, making better tools, producing more food, waging war, etc. In the end man needed so much energy that the immediate environment couldn’t produce enough any longer. Happily man discovered that there was a lot of energy stored in the soil: peat, coal and oil. That was nice, of course, but there was a problem – a problem that was ignored by man at first, for the simple reason that s/he didn’t realize that it was a problem: Peat, coal and oil are stored kinds of energy but at the moment you are going to use it, it is added to the energy that is already freely present on earth. Before man used this stored energy, the amount of freely present energy was more or less in balance, and if it wasn’t it wasn’t man’s mistake. But man begun to use more and more stored energy and more and more stored energy became freely present. And so it happened that the balance of freely present energy was upset: The earth became warmer. First the global warming went very slowly and nobody noticed it. However, it went faster and faster and finally it went that fast that it became impossible to deny that global warming had become a problem. It became also impossible to deny that there was one main cause of the problem: Man, or rather man’s energy consumption. (As it happens, there are always people who deny that there is a problem or who deny that they themselves are the problem. Also in this case there are such men, but I’ll ignore them.)
But where there are problems there are solutions, and so also in this case. Actually the solution was quite simple: If the global warming is caused by using stored energy, don’t use it any longer but use only yet freely present energy. So man started to develop machines and apparatuses that caught freely present energy everywhere on earth, and so they made things like windmills, water turbines and solar cells. But since windmills and turbines are very big and since hardly anybody can or wants to have them in the backyard, the state propagated and stimulated the use of solar cells for the common man. Moreover it was made – at least in my country – that you could automatically sell the solar cell energy to your energy provider if you produced more than you needed yourself. Therefore it became very profitable to have panels with solar cells on the roof of your house, for you saved on your energy costs and you could sell your overproduction. And so, when you walk through my little town and look at the roofs, everywhere you see solar panels and you can see them also on my house. Moreover, everybody with solar panels is happy, for it gives not only a clear conscience because you improve the environment but you get also a big bank account, for having solar cells on your roof is big money, so to speak.
When you have money you want to spend it, or so it is for many people. Therefore, as soon the solar panel buyers had got well filled bank accounts they asked themselves what to do with their money. Some bought new fridges, others bought new furniture, again others booked trips to countries far away, again others took new cars. Thus it happened that many of those people with solar panels on their roofs increased their consumption and bought new consumer goods. But alas, we are still in the age that most consumption goods, also when using self-produced energy, are made with the help of fossil energy. Moreover, many of such products still use fossil energy as well, like the aircraft you use for your travel. To cut a long story short: When people take panels with solar cells, soon they are going to use more energy than before, which still is mainly fossil energy. That’s what we see nowadays. And that’s the solar cell paradox.

Source for the case: Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things. London: Penguin Books, 2016

Monday, September 09, 2019

Subjective and objective methods

Monument for the Battle of Heiligerlee, at Heiligerlee, Netherlands

History is man-made and so it must be studied by methods that reflect that history is man-made. This means that there is no place for the objective methods of the exact sciences in the study of history and in the other humanities as well. Instead we must use methods that reflect the modifications of the human mind. This is the view that Giambattista Vico advocates as we have seen in my blog last week. We can say it also this way: In the natural sciences we look for general laws and for causes, in the humanities we look for individual reasons, intentions and purposes. I basically agree with this view, but as such it is too simple, I think. I want to make this clear with the help of an example taken from Dutch history.
The 16th century was an age full of developments that would transform the social structure of the world, to start with the structure of Europe. Two developments stand out: The rise of protestantism and the end of the medieval class society. These developments went together with a new economic order, and new ideas on freedom and justice. In some parts of Europe the developments went quickly, elsewhere in Europe it was a matter of centuries. A country that was in the vanguard of progress was the Netherlands. In the middle of the 16th century this country was ruled by the King of Spain, but the Dutch found his regime so oppressive that they revolted. The result was a protestant republic governed by civilians.
Traditionally this Revolt – also called the Eighty Years War – is supposed to start with the Battle of Heiligerlee in the north of the Netherlands, on 23 May 1568. Then a little Dutch army led by Louis of Nassau (brother of Prince William of Orange Nassau, also called “William the Silent”) defeated a little Spanish army. Now it is so that Louis of Nassau may have had several reasons for attacking the Spanish. Besides that he had an unique opportunity to ambush the Spanish, he had also political reasons to do so. Maybe Louis saw his attack as an opportunity to advance the cause of freedom, to advance the protestant religion, or he wanted to support the idea to create a new Dutch state, led by the Dutch nobility, as it had been suggested by his brother Prince William. So we can understand Louis’s attack in terms of his reasons and purposes taken from his personal situation and his ambitions. What we cannot do, however, is saying that Louis of Nassau saw his action – at the moment that he performed it, so not interpreted afterwards by him – as an event in the transition period from a medieval class society to modern age that contributed to this transition. Nor can Louis have seen his attack as a step in the Revolt that advanced the rising capitalism. For him the ambush near Heiligerlee was a lucky chance to advance the interests of the Netherlands or something like that.
Anyway, whatever Louis’s thoughts may have been when attacking the Spanish army – and we don’t know the details – we should analyze them in terms of his reasons, intentions and aims, so Vico proposes, if I interpret him well; so in my example we should analyze them in terms of a contribution to the Dutch cause, against and oppressive regime and for religious and political freedom. And if we want to complete our analysis of the battle we should also analyze the motives of the other participants in the battle like Louis’s brother Adolf, who fell in the battle, and the other soldiers, but also those of their Spanish enemies. By doing so we would get a description of a man-made historic event that reflects the modifications of the minds of the participants.
Nevertheless, my example, which describes the “view from within”, shows that there is also a “view from the outside”; a “view from a distance”, so to speak, that sees the battle as an event within certain social developments. In the latter view there is no room for the motives of the participants of the event. As the Dutch historian Romein says it, in this view there is no space for the idea of freedom as felt by the Dutch in the middle of the 16th century. In this sense this approach is “objective”, and according to Vico, there is no room for it in history.
At first sight, the two approaches just sketched seem basically incompatible. A view from the inside is simply different from a view from the outside. Nonetheless both approaches have the same object, for both try to analyze the Battle of Heiligerlee, although they do it in a different way. One approach sees the battle as an interaction of individuals with their reasons, intentions and purposes, while the other approach sees it as an event in the stream of history of political conflicts and social changes that has led to a new order. However, both approaches have a common element and that is the Battle of Heiligerlee. So we can say that this battle binds the two approaches together. The “subjective” approach that analyzes the battle as man-made and the “objective” approach that gives the battle its place in the stream of history simply analyze other aspects of the fight. Such a double approach exists for any historic – and social ! – event, I think. Therefore although at first sight the two approaches seemed incompatible, on closer inspection they just appear to supplement each other as well. That’s why I think that there is room both for subjective and for objective methods in the sciences of man, or – named differently – the humanities.

Source: Henk bij de Weg, De betekenis van zin voor het begrijpen van handelingen. Kampen: Kok Agora, 1996.

Monday, September 02, 2019

The New Science of Giambattista Vico

Scene from Pergolesi’s opera Il Ciarlatano by Die Neue Hofkapelle Graz at the Festival
 for Early Music (Festival voor Oude Muziek). 24 August 2019, Utrecht, Netherlands

When I would ask you to mention a famous inhabitant of Naples from the first part of the 18th century, I think that most of you wouldn’t know whom to name. Or maybe you would mention the composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, known for his Stabat Mater but who also wrote operas. Or you might mention one of the other composers from Naples of that time. But Vico? I guess that most of you have never heard of him. Nevertheless, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) has been an influential thinker, who was read by and had an influence on many other thinkers after him, and they are not the least ones. They range from Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche till recent or current philosophers like Gadamer, Apel, Habermas and MacIntyre. Who was this man, who has been so forgotten and still is remembered?
In fact it was not by chance that Vico became a scholar, for he was a son of a bookseller, and already as a child he had a deep interest in books, which was stimulated by his father. Nevertheless, his development was seriously retarded when he fell from a staircase in his father’s bookshop and hurt his head. It took him three years to recover. Although Vico visited several schools, he considered himself an autodidact. 18 years old he accepted a job as a tutor in Vatolla, 100 km south of Naples. He felt himself isolated there, although he kept in touch with Naples. After nine years he returned to his native city. There he got a chair in rhetoric at the university. Later he was also appointed Royal Historiographer by the viceroy. He published several books and orations. His most influential work is his Principles of New Science, which is still reprinted.
Vico’s influence has been and actually still is great, as said, and his views are still interesting. In view of what I usually write about here in my blogs, I want to discuss three themes from his work.
– Vico was clearly anti-Cartesian in his views. Descartes had developed important and useful ideas, so Vico, but his method and “criteria of clear and distinct ideas could not profitably be applied outside the field of mathematics and natural science.” (Berlin, p. 9). For the science * of history and for ethics we need other methods based on understanding how things come about, such as imagination.
– This anti-Cartesian view is based on what is Vico’s most known statement: “Verum factum est”, which means “Truth is made”. This implies that what we consider true is not an objective representation of what there is in the world that we capture in the mind, but what we consider true is a construction of the mind. This made Vico a forerunner of what nowadays is called “epistemological constructivism”.
– Although he doesn’t use the term, Vico is seen as the founder of the philosophy of history, so the philosophical study of the sciences of history and historiography. One of his most fundamental principles of history is that the history of man has been made by man him and herself. Or to quote Vico: “[T]he world of civil society has ... been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our human mind. [paragraph 331] ... [H]istory cannot be more certain than when he who creates the things also narrates them.” [349] In other words, history is not a natural science but it is man-made and therefore it must not be studied with means of “objective” methods but by methods that reflect that history is man-made. And it’s also the other way round: Not only must history be studied by its own man-made methods, but also, as Apel puts it, just because man has made history, it is possible to understand it (p. 20), unlike nature, which we can only explain, but which we don’t understand, since nature just happens. This principle developed by Vico is not without consequences, for both at the end of the 19th century and again in the second half of the 20th century just the question whether the historical and social sciences have their own methods that are different from the methods of the exact sciences would lead to serious discussions if not conflicts in the philosophy of science and history.
I want to end this blog with a quotation form MacIntyre’s After Virtue: “[I]t was Vico who first stressed the importance of the undeniable fact ... that the subject matters of moral philosophy at least ... are nowhere to be found except as embodied in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive characteristics of historical existence ...” (p. 265) Man-made history is the foundation of the moral and social practices, so Vico. One wonders how a philosopher who had such a big influence could have been forgotten, or almost.

* Note: “Science” in the sense of “wetenschap” (Dutch) or “Wissenschaft” (German), so including both the natural sciences and the humanities.
Apel, Karl-Otto, Die Erklären:Verstehen-Kontroverse in transzendentalpragmatischer Sicht, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979.
Bergin, Thomas Goddard; Max Harold Fisch (eds.), The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Abridged Translation of the Third Edition (1744). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1970.
Berlin, Isaiah, Vico and Herder. Two Studies in the History of Ideas. London: The Hogarth Press, 1976.
Blaisse, Mark, Het orakel van Napels. De alternatieve waarheid van Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Balans, 2018.
MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue. London: Duckworth, 1985.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Giambattista Vico, on

Monday, August 26, 2019

Blaise Pascal and the Pensées

Two weeks ago I mentioned Blaise Pascal in my blog, but actually I don’t know much about this person, although he was one of the great scientists and scholars of modern times. Maybe this is a good reason to write a blog about him.
In fact, I am not really unknown with Pascal’s writings for several years ago I read his famous Pensées (“Thoughts”), one of those classical works that is still widely read, like Montaigne’s Essays, for instance. Actually this is Pascal’s most interesting work for philosophers. But before writing a few words about this book, let me tell first a little bit about the person. Pascal (1623-1662) was brought up by his father, after the early death of his mother. Soon his father saw his talents and he succeeded to introduce his son in the circles of famous French scientists. Pascal corresponded also with well-known scientists, mathematicians and scholars like Pierre de Fermat, Christiaan Huygens and Gottfried Leibniz. This made that he, too, could become one of the most famous mathematicians and physicists of his time. His contributions to the development of science and mathematics are significant. His probability theory had a big influence on the development of economics and the social sciences. He developed also one of the first mechanic calculators and he thought up also a regular coach service in Paris as a kind of public transport. During his life he became increasingly interested in theological and philosophical questions and this made him write his Provincial Letters and his Pensées. The first book was a contribution to the discussions between the Jesuits and the Jansenists then, but it was also valued as a literary work as such. The Pensées is an uncompleted collection of fragments. It is mainly theological but large parts of it are purely philosophical.
In a sense the Pensées can be compared with Montaigne’s Essays. Like the Essays, also the Pensées consists of reflections on philosophical, cultural and, of course, theological themes that showed Pascal’s vision on contemporary issues. However, unlike Montaigne, Pascal explicitly doesn’t write about himself. Even more, he writes about Montaigne’s Essays: “His foolish project of describing himself!” (Pensées, II, 62) Nevertheless Pascal has been influenced much by Montaigne, although his own project was not self-descriptive. (see my blog dated 23 December 2013) But were these Pensées really not about Pascal himself, at least for a part? “Tell me his thoughts and I’ll say who he is” is often not too strong a statement, I think. Anyway, Pascal expressed in his Pensées clearly personal ideas.
Another difference between the Essays and the Pensées is that the former work consists of separate chapters, each treating a certain theme. The later work is a continuous treatise divided into “Articles”. The articles are divided into numbered sections. Since I am not a theologian and moreover since I don’t want to write about theological questions in my blogs, my notices here on the Pensées are limited and one-sided. But even with a philosophical interest “only” the work is still worth reading. Like Montaigne, Pascal writes a lot about things that are important in daily life, like our prejudices, habits and customs, our imagination, justice, politics, morals, and so on. Too many subjects to mention them here all. Therefore, I’ll finish this blog with quoting some passages. Maybe they’ll provoke you to read the work.

– 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. (I, 3)
– How comes it that a cripple does not offend us, but that a crippled mind does? Because a cripple recognises that we walk straight, whereas a crippled mind declares that it is we who are limp-brained; if it were not so, we should feel pity and not anger. (II, 80)
– Things which have most hold on us, as the concealment of our few possessions, are often a mere nothing. It is a nothing which our imagination magnifies into a mountain. Another turn of the imagination would make us discover this without difficulty. (II, 85)
– ... if they are greater than we, it is because their heads are higher; but their feet are as low as ours. They are all on the same level, and rest on the same earth ... (II, 103)
– As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all. (II, 168)
– Contradiction is a bad sign of truth; several things which are certain are contradicted; several things which are false pass without contradiction. Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the want of contradiction a sign of truth. (VI, 384)

But maybe you consider my thoughts in this blog crippled (see the second quote above). If so, then I have an excuse, for, as Pascal also writes “The mind of this sovereign judge of the world is not so independent that it is not liable to be disturbed by the first din about it. The noise of a cannon is not necessary to hinder its thoughts; it needs only the creaking of a weathercock or a pulley. Do not wonder if at present it does not reason well; a fly is buzzing in its ears; that is enough to render it incapable of good judgment.” (VI, 366). The latter is what was happening when I wrote this blog.

Source of the quotes: Blaise Pascal, Pensées, on I have changed the quote from II, 80 and made it closer to the original French text.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Who are we?

When someone uses the personal pronoun “I” it’s clear who is meant with the person it refers to. The word can only mean the one who utters the word. But how about “we”? What does a person mean when he or she uses this word? It’s clear that “we” involves the speaker, but it refers also to others. Does the speaker mean “you and I” and maybe also some or all others present? Often the context makes this clear. However, this can be problematic if you are speaking in a cultural context different from yours, especially if the context is also a different language context. This is illustrated in an anecdote I came across in a book titled The philosophy of grammar, written about hundred years ago by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen: A missionary, who tries to convert people to Christianity somewhere in Africa tells the people present: “We are all of us sinners, and we all need conversion”. When you – having a good knowledge of English and maybe even being a native speaker of English – read this sentence, you’ll probably understand these words as: “We all who are present here together are sinners and we all need to be converted”. However, not so the public of the missionary. They understood the sentence as: “I, the missionary who is speaking to you, and all the people that I represent are sinners and need to be converted.” You can fill in “that I represent” how you like, such as “the British”, if he was a British missionary, “all whites”, since the missionary was a white man and his public was black, or what you think it must be. But you may not fill in “I and all of us who are here together in this space”, for what the missionary didn’t know or realize is that the language spoken by his public has two words for “we”. One “we” (let me call it “we1”) refers to I and you and the persons around here, and the other we (“we2”) refers to I and my group (whatever it is). Since the missionary used the we2 (by mistake or by ignorance), his public will not have got the idea that they were sinners and needed to be converted. “Why does this man make such a fuss?” is what they may have thought.
In order to separate these two types of “we” Jespersen distinguished an inclusive and an exclusive we. The inclusive we is what I just called we1. It means I and you and you and you ... all here present, in contrast to “they” who don’t belong to us. For instance, you have been shopping with your partner and you are tired. “Let’s go home”, you say then to your partner. The exclusive we is what I called we2, so I and the group I represent or belong to, in contrast to you. For instance, “We cannot accept this proposal”, the spokeswoman says in the parliament, meaning herself and the fraction she represents, even if the other members of her fraction are not in the room. Some languages have different words for the inclusive and exclusive we (like the language of the public of the missionary), while other languages use the same word for both meanings, like English and Dutch. If you think that a simple “we” is too vague in a certain situation, you can specify it with an addition like “we philosophers”, “we in this room”, etc.
If there is only one word for we1 and we2, the context often makes clear what is meant, as said. Nevertheless, the absence of this distinction in a language is sometimes confusing or the difference between both meanings is difficult to disentangle. In discussions “we” is often used ambiguously, although the speakers may not realize it. This is especially so in discussions with a political content. Politicians often give the impression to use the inclusive we (we1) in their speeches, saying that they want to do what we actually all wish and what is good for “us”. But don’t they actually mean what is good only for those who think like them or even only for their own clique? The rhetoric and propaganda of the former communist states are clear instances. And that’s what the demonstrators wanted to denounce when they walked through the streets of Leipzig in 1989 and shouted “We are the people”. Here the “we” in the slogan had an inclusive meaning referring to all people in the former German Democratic Republic, instead of only to the political leaders of this state (who had given it an exclusive meaning). But 20 years later the slogan got another meaning when it was adopted by rightwing groups. It’s no longer used to unmask a corrupt regime but now it stands for a certain rightwing political idea. With this also the “we” in the “We are the people” turned from an inclusive we into an exclusive we. The “we” represents now only the followers of this political idea. Look around, listen and see what politicians and other people say and do. Instead of using “we” to include people it is often used to exclude them.

- Otto Jespersen, The philosophy of grammar, on    
- Vincent Descombes, Les embarras de l’identité. Paris: Gallimard, 2013; esp. pp. 221-224.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Being yourself

In his book on identity, the French philosopher Vincent Descombes tells a fable made by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) for teaching one of his pupils (1). Usually I look up the original source of such a text, but since it’s not important here, I’m too lazy to do this and I follow Descombes’s interpretation (more or less). Here is the story:
A shipwrecked person is washed ashore on an unknown island. By chance, not so long before the king of the island had disappeared and the islanders couldn’t trace him, despite their efforts. However, since the shipwrecked person resembles the disappeared king, the islanders think that he is the lost ruler and they reinstall him on the throne. The person doesn’t protest and accepts being the king. From now on he has double thoughts, so Pascal. On the one hand he has the thoughts as the king he now is, but behind these thought he hides the thoughts of the person he really is. We can also say that from now on the shipwrecked person leads a double life: In public as the king and in his heart as the man he really is. In fact, so Descombes explains, we have here an identity problem: Because the “king” doesn’t want to reveal his real identity, he must continuously be on the alert, just as impostors must be.
Pascal used this fable to teach his pupil, the son of a duke, that in future he’ll come across the same problem. Of course, the future duke is not an impostor, but once when he has become duke, people will bow for him, will praise him, will be friends with him, simply because he is the duke and not because of the person he “really” is and because of what he thinks of it himself. For the duke then the problem is how to handle this double identity. He can behave like two very different persons: in public as the duke and in private as himself. Then he must fully separate the two persons functionally as much as he can. Or he can try to integrate both persons and to put as much of himself in his function as the duke, in addition to what the function formally requires. Rules are always open to a strict interpretation or a lenient interpretation and not everything is prescribed. In other words, the boy who has become the duke must continuously ask himself: Who am I? On the one hand, I am the duke, a function that I inherited from my father; a function with rules I didn’t make myself; a function I got without desiring it but imposed on me by others. On the other hand, I am myself, with all my personal preferences, desires, likes and dislikes, characteristics, and so on. To what extent must I, can I and do I want to keep these functions apart?
Actually, the problem that Pascal puts forward here is one of the basic problems of life: How to be authentic and when to be authentic? How and when to be yourself? In fact, Pascal wasn’t original when he raised the problem, for implicitly we find it already in Shakespeare’s words “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. In his fable Pascal dealt with a function that we are thrown in by others; a function we cannot help to be charged with. But functions – or roles, to go on with Shakespeare’s metaphor of the world as a stage – can also be chosen by ourselves. They can be taken up voluntarily. But even when the choice of the role (function) is voluntarily, the rules of the role usually aren’t. It’s an exception that the main lines of a role are made by ourselves. Usually they are already prescribed. So in any role we play, in any function we occupy the basic question always is: Will I be authentic in this function or will I not; and to what extent? Will I play a role or will I play myself?
In the Internet you can find many websites on how to be authentic and how to be yourself. I arbitrarily mention two websites (both by chance from Psychology Today): “Develop Authenticity: 20 Ways To Be A More Authentic Person” (2) and “4 Ways To Be A More Authentic Person” (3). It seems simple: Follow the rules there and you’ll become more authentic in what you do (if you wish). However, I can assure you that being authentic, being yourself is not as easy as that. Being yourself is very difficult and often it is impossible, even if you are and want to be honest. The reason for this is simple: Being yourself is not only dependent on you but also on the people around you; the people you go along with or those you meet in your role. Often authenticity is not valued by them.

(1) Vincent Descombes, Les embarras de l’identité. Paris: Gallimard, 2013 ; esp. pp. 147-156.

Monday, August 05, 2019

The base rate fallacy

Faulty base, faulty result

There is a lot more to say about fallacies than I did in my recent blogs. It is important to avoid fallacies, for they are mistakes in reasoning and they distort the way we look at the world around us and how we get along with others and with ourselves as well! Often fallacies lead to wrong decisions or you can get unnecessarily worried about things that might happen. The book Bad arguments that I used for my lasts blogs treats hundred fallacies, but actually it’s only a selection of all the ways we can reason in the wrong manner. Sometimes one wonders how it is possible to survive, if you can make so many mistakes, but the practice is that we do, more and more successfully.
I end the present series of blogs on fallacies by discussing one that is very common: The base rate fallacy. This is the fallacy in which basic information is ignored or is confused with specific information. If you fall into this trap, you get a completely wrong image of what is happening around you or what is happening with you. You can become worried without reason, as said, for instance when you take part in a medical examination of the population and then it appears that you have a positive test result, so you may have a serious illness.
Say, a medical examination of the population is done for a certain deadly disease. 0.1% of the adult population is infected and the government thinks that it is worth to test the whole adult population of the country, for the disease can be well treated if discovered in time. Let’s assume that there are ten million adults in this country and that every adult takes part in the test. The test has a false positive rate of 5% and no false negative rate, so – besides those with a correct positive test result – 5% of the adults with a positive test result actually is not infected, while nobody who with a negative result is infected. The next step is then that everybody with a positive result is called up for further medical examinations. Now it often happens that people in this selected group think that they have a 95 chance of being really infected, for isn’t it so that the test is 95% accurate? By thinking this way these people ignore, however, that this 95% tells us only something about the quality of the test, not about the presence of the disease in the population, which is 0.1% (among adults). Therefore they may become more worried than they need to. Let me show:

- The test is applied to 10,000,000 (ten million) people and 0.1% is infected. So 10,000 people are infected. They all have positive test results.
- 5% of the tests indicate that the tested persons are infected, while actually they are healthy. So
499,500 (5% of “10,000,000 minus 10,000”) people have a positive test result, but they are not infected.
- Both the first group and the second group will have to undergo extra medical examinations in order to determine whether they are really ill or whether they aren’t. So 10,000 + 499,500 people have to undergo extra examinations, which are altogether 509,500 people.
- Only 10,000 people among these 509,500 people are really infected, so 1,96% of the selected group is really infected. Therefore, if you belong to the group selected by the first test, the chance then that you have really been infected in this example is not a high 95% but only about a tiny 2 %. Although this may be serious enough, don’t be more worried than you need to.

In his article on the base rate fallacy (see below), Manninen discusses yet another case where the base rate is ignored. In short it is this: Between 1999 and 2011, 2151 whites were killed by the police in the USA and 1130 blacks were. Therefore whites are worse off than blacks. Is it true? If you look only at the figures given here, you would think “yes”. However, according to the 2010 Census in the USA, 72,4% of the population was white and 12,6% was black. When you add this basic information to the example, the picture completely changes. Need I further explain? If you have come thus far, I assume that you are smart enough to see that in proportion to the respective populations by far more blacks were killed by the police than whites were.

There is a phrase that says “there are lies, there are damned lies and there are statistics”. However, statistics lie only because we don’t know how to use them or use them intentionally in the wrong way.

- “Base rate fallacy”, in Wikipedia on
- Manninen, Thomas W., “Base rate”, 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. 133-136.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Is a fallacy a fallacy?

An argument is either or fallacy or it isn’t. True? If we say “This is tea”, or “This is coffee”, such a statement is either true or false. A drink is tea, or it is coffee, or it isn’t. But in my last blog we have seen that an apparently clear question such as “Do you like tea or coffee?” can be confusing, since its meaning depends on the context in which it is asked. In the same way, also the soundness of an argument can depend on the circumstances in which it is presented. I want to explain this with a short discussion of the so-called ad hominem argument (see also my blog dated 20 May 2019). Like last week, I rely heavily on the book Bad arguments. 100 of the most important fallacies in Western philosophy, and now especially on chapters 8-11, written by George Wrisley.
Ad hominem argument” literally means “argument [directed] against the man” (homo is Latin for “man”). The argument is also called “playing the man”, namely instead of playing the ball, as you are supposed to do in football and in other ball games. There are several types of ad hominem arguments, but here I’ll ignore that.
The phrase “playing the man” makes clear what is wrong with this argument. In football playing the man is not football, since it is breaching the rules. Likewise using an ad hominem argument is breaching the rules of sound arguing. Whether a person who utters an argument is black, white, young, old, a thief, a murder or a decent person, and whether or not s/he behaves as his or her argument says s/he should do, tells us nothing about the correctness of the argument as such. However, sometimes in football a shoulder charge is allowed, which can be seen as a kind of playing the man. How about the ad hominem argument?
Take this example from chapter 8 in Bad arguments (p. 73):
“A school teacher argues for increased pay for school teachers and a critic attacks his argument by replying: ‘Sure! It’s easy to see why you’re in favor of a raise!’ ” Indeed, a school teacher has an interest in increased pay and he can be biased towards it, but makes it that his argument is not correct? Usually it is so that employers want to keep salaries down and employees want to have them increased. Seen this way, it can be right to look for extra information that supports or just undermines the teacher’s demand. Say, he lives in a country in which teachers receive relative high salaries. Then there is a reason to belief that the critic’s ad hominem argument is right. However, in the Netherlands there is a lack of teachers and one measure proposed by politicians to tackle the problem is a salary increase. So in the Netherlands we can assume that the argument is correct, even though the teacher has an interest in a salary increase. What this example shows is that there may be a reason to play the man (namely in the first case).
Or take this example from chapter 10 in Bad arguments (p. 86):
“An eyewitness is on the stand, testifying to the guilt of the accused. The defense attorney asks the eyewitness: ‘Isn’t it true that you’ve been convicted of perjury twice before, and, thus, you are a perjurer, a liar?’ ”
This looks like an ad hominem fallacy, for usually it is so that eyewitnesses are believed just because they might have seen what happened and not because of their personal qualities. However, in this case the eyewitness’s character and credibility are relevant, for twice it has been proven that he was not reliable. It’s not necessary that he’ll be again unreliable (he might have learned his lesson), but there is a good reason to play the man here, and to test his reliability.
The upshot is that, just as a shoulder charge is allowed in football, an ad hominem argument can be to the point. Whether it is, depends on the situation. In his chapters in Bad arguments Wrisley gives some questions which may help to judge whether an ad hominem argument is relevant. In short they are:
1) Is there a good reason to belief that the utterer of the argument is biased; that his or her behaviour doesn’t agree with the argument; and the like?
2) Are these details about the person and his or her circumstances relevant to the argument in question or to the dialogical context?
3) Makes this that the ad hominem argument is to the point or that we need further information in order to substantiate that the utterer’s argument is correct?
But generally it is so that an ad hominem argument is a fallacy. Whether you are black, white, a woman, a man, a Congresswoman, have foreign roots, or whatever your characteristics are, has nothing to do with the soundness of your arguments.
I return to the starting point of this blog, namely the question whether a fallacy is a clear and distinct notion. In Bad arguments a fallacy is defined as “an error in reasoning whereby someone attempts to put forward an argument whereby a conclusion supposedly has been appropriately inferred from a premise (or premises) when, in fact, the conclusion does not and should not be inferred from the premise(s).” (p. 19) According to this definition an argument is a fallacy or it isn’t. In the sense of the definition an ad hominem argument is always a fallacy, for it is not directed against the reasoning but against the circumstances of the reasoning. It’s the same for other fallacies. Nevertheless, as my example of the ad hominem argument has shown, a fallacy can be a relevant argument in casting doubt on a reasoning.