Monday, January 20, 2020

What Mary Didn't Know

A much discussed subject in analytical philosophical is the so-called “knowledge argument”. In order to explain what it involves, I’ll extensively quote from Frank Jackson’s article “What Mary Didn't Know”, which was the start of the present discussion:

“Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies. Physicalism is not the noncontroversial thesis that the actual world is largely physical, but the challenging thesis that it is entirely physical. ... It seems, however, that Mary does not know all there is to know. For when she is let out of the black-and-white room or given a color television, she will learn what it is like to see something red, say. This is rightly described as learning – she will not say ‘ho, hum.’ Hence, physicalism is false. This is the knowledge argument against physicalism in one of its manifestations. ... The knowledge argument does not rest on the dubious claim that logically you cannot imagine what sensing red is like unless you have sensed red. ... [It] is not that ... [Mary] could not imagine what it is like to sense red; it is that, as a matter of fact, she would not know. But if physicalism is true, she would know ...” (pp. 291-2; italics Jackson)

To summarize: Mary learns all physical facts that there are about, say, colour. However, Mary lives in a black-and-white world, so if she sees a ripe red tomato for the first time in her life, she learns something new about colour, namely what red is. So it is not possible to describe the world as if it is entirely physical. The upshot is that the thesis that the world is entirely physical is false, so Jackson in this article.

Now it is so that Jackson, who published his article about Mary in 1986 (and a related article in 1982), was not the first one to draw attention to this “knowledge argument”. Already in 1689 John Locke had put forward the same idea in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and, for instance, in 1927 Bertrand Russell wrote “It is obvious that a man who can see knows things which a blind man cannot know; but a blind man can know the whole of physics. Thus the knowledge which other men have and he has not is not a part of physics.” (quoted from Crane 2019, p. 18) However, it was Jackson’s article that led to a long lasting discussion, which actually lasts till the present. Recently yet, Cambridge University Press published a book that examines the relevance of the knowledge argument in philosophy of mind today (Coleman 2019).

Here I don’t want to discuss this book, but most articles in it reject the knowledge argument. As I see it, the essence of Jackson’s article is that the idea that the world is entirely physical is false because of the knowledge argument. However, I think – and I am not the only philosopher who thinks so – that Jackson confuses two levels. One level is how the world is like; another level is how we know about the world. The first level is a matter of ontology (how things are), the second level is a matter of epistemology (how we describe and know about things). To take an analogy, look at this picture: 

You can describe the colour of this square as pink. But even in case you see and describe this colour rightly as pink, you still don’t know how this pink is constituted. For it can be made by mixing the colours red, green and blue (RGB), but it can be made also by mixing the colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CYMK). Rightly interpreting the colour as pink and knowing how it is constituted are two different things. Ignoring the saturation, brightness and hue of a colour, this pink can be described technically by its RGB values 235-184-198. Alternatively it can be described also by its CMYK values 5-35-11-2. Nevertheless you don’t know how the colour is produced, if you know only the description. Analogously, a description of the world doesn’t say how the world is constituted. So, say, someone states that the world can be described entirely in physical terms, then the knowledge argument shows that this view is not right, but it doesn’t refute the view that the world is entirely physical.

I think that the thesis that the world is entirely physical is false. For example, meaning and culture are two non-physical phenomena. What red is like is another case in point. But this physicalism thesis is not false because of the knowledge argument.

- Frank Jackson, “What Mary Didn’t Know”, in: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 5. (May, 1986), pp. 291-295.
- Sam Coleman (ed.), The Knowledge Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- Tim Crane, “The Knowledge Argument is an Argument about Knowledge”, in Coleman (2019), pp. 15-31.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The banality of life

The end of the year holidays are behind us. Christmas and the New Year – we all have celebrated these days, or many of us have. Most then celebrate Christmas the 25 and 26th of December; others, like many Russians, do it the 7th and 8th of January. In Spain and other countries they celebrate also Epiphany on the 6th of January, which is especially for children. Without a doubt in other countries they have their own around the end of the year celebrations and traditions as well. But then it’s over and we have turned back to the daily routine. I guess that most readers of this blog have even forgotten already these days of celebration and relaxation, when they read this blog.
So we are again in the daily rut. Banality reigns again, for highlights are the exception. Otherwise they wouldn't be highlights. We go to the office, park our cars, do our shopping, clean the windows and peel the potatoes. Banality. Is it banality? What is banal wouldn’t be banal or it has happened that sociologists have studied it and have written articles and books about it; and photographers have photographed it. I, too, regularly take photos of “banal” objects and events, for I think that also the banal is interesting. And also in some blogs I have written about it. Why gets banality so much attention? Because actually nothing is banal, even if it seems so at first sight. For you can see the ordinary things, the everyday events and the drag of daily life also in another way: These so-called banal routine activities just sustain our lives. They keep life going. You can see the routine as the stream of life. Then the “obstacles” in the stream that brighten and break the life are as rocks and islands in a river, bridges that connect the banks, and whirlpools that you have to sail around: They symbolize the peaks and lows of our lives. They break the stream and so the banality. As a skipper you try to avoid them or they are just your target where you want to moor and stay for some time. Therefore you can say that the banal is the foundation of our life activities. Without doing the banal you cannot live the highlights, and without the banal there’ll be no setbacks. Banality is important!
That we can call the daily stream of life banal, says a lot about life today, I think, for I wonder whether there has always been such a “banal” stream of life. In a sense it is a recent phenomenon, for in the past life was so full of risks and unexpected happenings that it was hardly possible to talk of routine, and also many normal daily activities lacked routine. Illness, death, accidents, war, hold-ups, sudden meetings (note that nowadays we call up when you want to meet someone, but till not so long ago you just walked or travelled to his or her house without giving notice that you would come) were once integrated in daily life. Also, for instance, the work of a carpenter or smith was not routine. A big part of life was like a whirlpool. But medicine, social order, technology and so on have embanked the life stream and brought it under control. The wild water became a peaceful flow and sailing became routine. Banality set in and it became more and more exceptional that the routine was broken. And so banality became a characteristic of modern society. However, as you know now, nothing is banal. Enjoy it!

P.S. A few days after I had written this blog, I discovered that taking banal photos in the way I do has even a name: Deadpan photography.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Nieuw boek: Rondom Montaigne

Mijn nieuwe boek. My new book: Rondom Montaigne. Essays. Inhoudsopgave en beschrijving op
Bestellen in de boekhandel en op
ISBN 9 789087 599034

De Franse filosoof #Montaigne is in Nederland vooral bekend om zijn levenskunst. Zijn denken was echter ruimer. Montaigne was een nauwkeurig observator van zijn tijd. Hij schreef over allerlei onderwerpen en gaf er zijn mening over. Veel blijkt nog steeds actueel. Bij de schrijver van dit boek roepen Montaigne’s observaties gedachten op die hedendaagse verschijnselen in een nieuw licht plaatsen.
Montaigne is ook als persoon interessant. Zijn denken en leven zijn niet te scheiden. Om hem beter te leren kennen bezocht Bij de Weg plaatsen waar Montaigne gewoond en geleefd heeft. Dit moeten we heel ruim zien, want Montaigne was een fervent reiziger. De schrijver zocht Montaigne dus niet alleen op in zijn kasteel, maar ook elders waar hij verbleef.
In dit boek komen beide aspecten aan de orde. In het eerste deel ontmoeten we Montaigne in zijn kasteel, in Bordeaux waar hij gestudeerd en gewerkt heeft en op zijn reis naar Rome. In het tweede deel gaat de schrijver in op Montaigne’s denken, met thema’s als eerste ontmoetingen, macht, vertrouwen en woede. Hierbij wordt Montaigne niet als geïsoleerd denker gezien maar zijn opvattingen worden in verband gebracht met die van andere belangrijke filosofen.

Inhoudsopgave op
Bestellen in de boekhandel en op
ISBN 9 789087 599034

Monday, January 06, 2020

Moral fog

Moral fog actually is a term that comes from the military world. It refers to the phenomenon that in complex situations, which are so typical for war, moral lines and distinctions become vague and obscure, so that it becomes difficult to distinguish right from wrong. This is worsened by the fact that in war situations military decisions come to have priority: What is good from a purely military point of view is good as such. This has been worded by Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s: “We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.” (from: ) McNamara talks here of “mistakes” but actually this is an understatement if not hiding the facts, for often moral fog situations bring also outright crimes with them as well. But here I don’t want to talk about evil in war but about evil online.
The world of the Internet hasn’t broadened our world a lot only positively but also negatively. As for the latter: There is much evil online, and then I don’t only mean what is done by criminals who try to steal our passwords and inlog data in order to steal our money, for instance, but much evil is done by people who are seemingly good souls; souls like you and me so to speak. Take for instance the phenomenon of happy slapping: knock down someone, record it with your mobile camera and upload it to Facebook. For fun. For fun? What kind of fun is it if you physically and probably also mentally hurt someone else and show it to everybody? It’s evil! Or someone has sent you a nude picture in trust because you are Internet friends. But you both get into a virtual fight and you share the picture publicly online in order to blame him or her. It’s evil. Etc. Cases abound. Would you do such things outside the Internet in “real life”? The answer for most of us is “no”. Why then is your Internet conduct so different from what you do offline? In order to explain this Dean Cocking and Jeroen van de Hoven have broadened the use of the idea of moral fog and have applied it to the Internet as well. For there is much in the online world that makes our moral lines and distinctions vague, as they state in their book Evil online.
On the Internet, just like in war, so Cocking and van den Hoven, “our abilities to make and act upon reasonable judgements about our conduct, and about where we are headed, are fogged up in some atypical and hugely amplified ways.” (p. 87) To mention a few factors that make our online world foggy:
- “Filter bubbles”: searching machines select information based on what it “thinks” that you find interesting in view of your past searching behaviour. This makes that you mainly get information you already agree with. So your view is restricted to your “normative environment”. Critical information is screened out.
- The human tendency to associate with similar others and copy their behaviour.
- Anonymity. But also that online you can easily present yourself better than you are and leave out what you want to hide for others. And many believe you.
- Social isolation. You are alone behind your computer and nobody really controls you. You can have the weirdest ideas in your mind and put them online.
These are only some of the characteristics of being online that are treated in Evil online. They make that our social lives change and are different in online situations from what they are in the face-to-face world. Relations that were once clear and distinct become vague and obscure like in a fog: What is public, what is private? Who can we trust? What can we show of ourselves to others online, for example when we think of intimacy (if not to speak of nude pictures and sex?). And to mention yet something else: in the age of the Internet it has become more difficult for parents to check what their children do. The rise of the online world has education made more complicated than before. This is not only so because children are often more knowledgeable about the online world than their parents are, but also because it is easier for them to hide their Internet behaviour from their parents than their “real life” behaviour.
Factors like these make that the online world is foggy and nebulous in comparison to the “real world”, so Cocking and van de Hoven make clear, with the result that, to quote a book review by Robert Crisp, “[t]he internet environment causes us to be blind to morally salient features of what we’re doing, screening off our moral understanding. The technology distances us from the people we are harming, and the moral authorities that provide us with guidance are no longer our parents, our teachers, ordinary role models, but our internet ‘friends’ ”. And then the fog can becomes so thick that we lose sight of the moral lines we always followed and still follow in the “real world”. “[W]hat was obviously bad, now seems fine” , so Cocking and van de Hoven (p.97). When you have come that far, there are not many thresholds anymore for you to commit evil online.

- Cocking, Dean and Jeroen van de Hoven, Evil online. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018.
- Crisp, Robert, “Evil Online and the Moral Fog”, on

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Monday, December 30, 2019

The self-fulfilling prophecy and the sciences of man.

In my blog one week ago I presented the example of the global warming deniers – or the “climate deniers” as they are often called – as an instance of the Pinocchio paradox. It’s a pragmatic instance of a pragmatic paradox. However, in a sense, global warming denying (namely that it has been caused by the behaviour of men) can also be seen as an instance of a self-defeating prophecy. You’ll know that a self-defeating prophecy is a prophecy that prevents itself from happening. For example, your daughter spends a lot of time on playing football, so you warns her: “If you go on in this way and don’t spend more time on preparing your exam, you’ll not pass it.” It makes your daughter think about it and from then on she gives more time to her study and doesn’t go so often to her club anymore, and she passes her exam. What climate deniers do is a bit like this, but then the other way round: They have been warned that, if they go on ignoring the effect of their behaviour on global warming, the global warming that they denied will happen. So the reverse of what they say that will happen, will happen. It’s a pragmatic reversal of a pragmatic prophecy, which is quite paradoxical. But that’s how things often happen.
Once we talk about the self-defeating prophecy, it’s only one step to the self-fulfilling prophecy, the phenomenon that a prophecy becomes true just because it has been made. In my example it can also happen that your daughter realizes that she must make a choice. She is a good football player and she sees already a career as a professional before her eyes. Or she can opt for an academic career. She decides to choose for a sports career. As a consequence she doesn’t pass her exam. By her decision, your daughter makes that the prophecy comes true.
When I thought of examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy, immediately Oedipus popped up in my mind. It wasn’t a really original idea, for a bit browsing on the Internet learned me that the Oedipus myth is often mentioned as an instance of this prophecy. In case you don’t know it, here it is, very briefly (which I copied from the Wikipedia for practical reasons): Warned that his child would one day kill him, Laius abandoned his newborn son Oedipus to die, but Oedipus was found and raised by others, and thus in ignorance of his true origins. When he grew up, Oedipus was warned that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his foster parents were his real parents, he left his home and travelled to Greece, eventually reaching the city where his biological parents lived. There, he got into a fight with a stranger, his real father, killed him and married his widow, Oedipus’ real mother. Never try to escape your fate, is what the Greek want to say here. In this blog the relevance of this story is how Oedipus fulfilled a prophecy that he tried to escape just by his behaviour.
Because of this Greek myth, Karl R. Popper called the self-fulfilling prophecy the “Oedipus effect”, a term which he introduces in The Poverty of Historicism (although he had used the idea already in The Open Society and its Enemies). In his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest he says about it (pp. 121-2 in my 1980 edition): “One of the ideas I had discussed in The Poverty was the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted. I had called this the ‘Oedipus effect’, because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfilment of its prophecy. … For a time I thought that the existence of the Oedipus effect distinguished the social from the natural sciences. But in biology, too—even in molecular biology—expectations often play a role in bringing about what has been expected.” It’s a pity that Popper doesn’t say which cases in biology he had in mind, for the essence of the distinction between the social sciences and the natural sciences is not simply in the way as Popper interprets the self-fulfilling prophecy. As far as I can remember, Karl-Otto Apel has made this clear, but I couldn’t find the passage where he does, but this is how I see it. In the “Oedipus interpretation” of the self-fulfilling prophecy it is so that Oedipus knows about the prophecy and just by his try to escape it, it is fulfilled. But actually it is not Oedipus himself who fulfils the prophecy, but that the prophecy comes true happens to him. Not knowing that his foster parents were not his real parents, he could not intentionally realize or prevent the fulfilment of the prophecy. However, in my example of the father who warns his daughter that she’ll not pass her exam, if she goes on to spend so much time on playing football, the daughter has a real choice and she takes a conscious decision. This conscious decision makes the case of the daughter different from Oedipus’ case. It’s true that Oedipus consciously left his foster parents, consciously killed a stranger and consciously married the stranger’s widow, but he didn’t consciously kill his father and consciously marry his mother, for had he known who they really were, he wouldn’t have killed the stranger and married his widow. So, it’s not the Oedipus effect, and the self-fulfilling prophecy in general, that distinguishes the social from the natural sciences, but it is the possibility to influence predicted effects in a conscious way that makes the social sciences different from the natural sciences. And this phenomenon doesn’t make only the social sciences different from the natural sciences but it holds for all sciences of man.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Pinocchio paradox

You’ll certainly have heard of the Liar paradox: “All Cretans are liars”, Epimenides – himself a Cretan – said. But this utterance contains a contradiction, for if the sentence is true, Epimenides does not lie, while he says he does. And if he lies, it’s just a confirmation of the statement, so not a lie. Since the days of Epimenides (who lived circa 600 BC) philosophers have discussed a lot about the Liar paradox and developed several variants. Do you know the Pinocchio variant?
Once the logician Peter Eldridge-Smith explained the Liar paradox to his children and asked whether they knew a version of their own, so he tells us in a paper with his daughter Veronique as co-author. Veronique replied: “Pinocchio says ‘My nose will be growing’.” I assume that you’ll know the story of Pinocchio, whose nose grows every time he tells a lie. Since the use of the future tense makes the statement a bit complicated, the father changed it into “Pinocchio says ‘My nose is growing’.” And here we have the Pinocchio paradox. As Peter Eldridge-Smith explains: “So, Pinocchio’s nose is growing iff it is not growing. It is clearly a version of the Liar [paradox].” However, there is an important difference between the original Liar paradox and the Pinocchio paradox. The former is semantic: It is about what the speaker (Epimenides in my example) says and the meaning of his (or her) words. But in what way ever we interpret “my nose is growing”, it is not semantic for it is not about the meaning of words. “My nose is growing” is a statement about a fact, which may be the case or may not be the case. Therefore, we could call this paradox pragmatic (in distinction to a semantic paradox). Anyway, it is a real paradox, for if Pinocchio says that his nose grows and he speaks the truth, it will not grow. But if his nose doesn’t grow, when Pinocchio utters this sentence, the sentence is false and so Pinocchio lies and his nose must grow. Voilà.
After a discussion about some logical implications of the Pinocchio paradox, Peter Eldridge-Smith writes against the end of his paper: “The Pinocchio paradox raises a purely logical issue for any metalanguagehierarchy solution, strict or liberal. The Pinocchio scenario is not going to arise in our world, ...” (the italics are mine). Is it true? Without a doubt, there are no Pinocchios in this world: There is nobody whose nose will grow if and because s/he tells a lie. Nevertheless, Pinocchio scenarios do exist. One of the main political issues in present politics is the fact of the global warming. It’s a theme on local levels, national levels, regional levels and globally. All scientific data make clear that it is not a mere opinion that the world gradually becomes warmer and that man is the main cause of this global warming. It is a fact. Therefore, the statement “Man is the main cause of the present global warming” (the “global warming statement” for short) is true. But alas, there are always people who deny what is clearly true, and so there are still many people who deny the global warming statement, and these people happen to be still quite influential. Let me call them “global warming deniers”. If these global warming deniers will determine global policy, they will take no measures to stop the man-caused global warming and the earth will keep warming up. However, if those who endorse the global warming statement will gain the upper hand and will determine global policy, they’ll take all kinds of measures that will stop the global warming and then the earth will not warm up any longer. Briefly: If those who deny the global warming statement win, there’ll be a global warming caused by man; if those who endorse the global warming statement win, there’ll be no such global warming. This is clearly a version of the Pinocchio paradox. However, I don’t doubt that there are more realistic instances of this paradox, for this world is full of lies.

Peter Eldridge-Smith, Veronique Eldridge-Smith, “The Pinocchio paradox”, in: Analysis, Volume 70, Issue 2, April 2010, Pages 212–215.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers! 
Don't forget to read my next blog on the Pinocchio Paradox.

Monday, December 16, 2019


I think that most readers of this blog don’t know that I am interested in the First World War (1914-1918). I’ll not tell here how this came about but the result is that many years ago I begun to take photos of monuments and sites related to this war, which I upload to a special section of my website (you’ll find them here:; the explaining texts are in Dutch, but just follow the links). In the meantime my website contains about 800 such photos. However, this is only a fraction of what can be photographed of this war. So now and then I travel to the battle fields of the Westfront in Northern France and Belgium – or elsewhere – in order to take new pictures for my website. Or I take pictures of those countless monuments behind the former frontlines, which you find everywhere in Europe (and outside Europe as well). Last month my wife and I made again such a trip. This time we went to the battle fields of the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914) and the Second Battle of the Marne (May-August 1918), northeast of Paris not far from Reims. We travelled around there, looked for and looked at the monuments and visited many war cemeteries as well (it’s unbelievable how many war cemeteries there are along the former Westfront and how many soldiers died there). And I took many photos, of course. However, for me, such a visit to battle fields is not an emotionally neutral affair. Since I always try to imagine how it must have been there in those days of the war, I see the many wounded lying and dying in the fields and the trenches. I see the many many dead everywhere on the ground. So one week being there is long enough for me, for it makes me very sad.
Now I am home again and I “must” write my weekly blog. Thinking of my trip to the Westfront, I thought that it would be a good idea to write about emotions, and especially about sadness. So I looked up Aristotle says about emotions. I found that in the Nicomachean Ethics he calls them “feelings accompanied by pleasure or pain” and that he also says “By emotions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing, emulation, and pity”. (1105b21) In his Rhetorica he even gives a list of fourteen emotions. Next I took Spinoza’s Ethics from my bookcase, where I read that for him sadness (or pain) is one of the basic emotions. It signifies “a passive state wherein the mind passes to a lesser perfection.” (Part III, prop. XI, note). Or should it be better to write about emotions and sadness by discussing Martha Nussbaum’s book Upheavals of thought? It’s another option. But would these words really capture what emotion is and especially what sadness is? Then I realized that often a picture says more than 643 words (the number of words in this blog). Actually, pictures can better express what emotions are than words can do. So this time you get a pictorial blog. Look at the emotional photo here on the top of this blog, look at the face of this soldier carrying his dead comrade, and you know what sadness is. (click on the photo, in order to see it better; use the escape button – not the backspace – in order to return to this blog).
Description of the monument
Monument for the 42th US Division (the Rainbow Division), situated 8 km south of Fère-en-Tardenois in the Aisne department in France. It represents a sergeant from the 167e regiment from Alabama who carries a comrade fallen during an attack on a nearby farm, 25-26 July 1918. The bronzed statue has been made by Britannique James Buttler and it has been inaugurated on 12 November 2011.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


It’s unbelievable: One of my blogs got 10,000 views! My blog “I act, therefore I am” passed this magic limit today. Do you want to read it, too? Here it is:
Enjoy it!

Monday, December 09, 2019

Alternative knowledge

What do we know? It’s an intriguing question, also for philosophers. Once I discussed this case: My wife and I are driving home on a Friday afternoon and stop at the bank to deposit our paychecks. However, there was a long queue in front of the counter, so I said: “I’ll do it tomorrow. I know that the bank will be open.” But my wife says: “Maybe the bank won’t be open on Saturday. Maybe it has changed its opening hours.” Should I check it? If I am in a hurry and can deposit my paychecks also on Monday, in case the bank happens to be closed tomorrow, I’ll not check it. If it is important to deposit my paychecks before the weekend, I’ll do. In other words: What I know depends on the context. (for a full explanation see my blog dated 12 December 2011:
Contextuality can affect what you think you know. Possible alternatives are another condition that can affect it, as Fred Dretske has made clear in his article “Epistemic Operators”. To illustrate this he discusses a “silly” example, as he calls it, although it is no more silly than many other philosophical examples. In short, it is this:
“You take your son to the zoo, see several zebras, and, when questioned by your son, tell him they are zebras. Do you know they are zebras? Well, most of us would have little hesitation saying that we did know this. We know what zebras look like, and, besides, this is the city zoo and the animals are in a pen clearly marked ‘Zebras.’ Yet, something’s being a zebra implies that it is not a mule and, in particular, not a mule cleverly disguised by the zoo authorities to look like a zebra. Do you know that these animals are not mules cleverly disguised by the zoo authorities to look like zebras?” (p. 39)
Probably you’ll answer this question with “Yes”, for you simply don’t find the idea that the “zebra” is a mule in disguise reasonable. If Dretske hadn’t asked this question, it wouldn’t simply have come to your mind that the zebra might be a mule in disguise. And why should the zoo authorities deceive you? And is it really possible to disguise a mule that way that you’ll not notice it? Etc. In other words, what you believe to be true in this case, depends on what you think what the plausible alternatives are. You “know” that the animal in the zoo is a zebra, for what else would it be? (or so you think). But you don’t have checked it. So even if the animal is a zebra, actually you don’t know. For, as Dretske says, “the question here is not whether [the] alternative is plausible, not whether it is more or less plausible than that there are real zebras in the pen, but whether you know that this alternative hypothesis is false.” (ibid., italics Dretske) Nevertheless, we think that we know, or as Dretske says a few lines hereafter: “[W]e simply admit that we do not know that some ... contrasting ‘skeptical alternatives’ are not the case, but refuse to admit that we do not know what we originally said we knew.” (ibid., italics Dretske)
What we think to know depends on the alternatives we judge relevant. That’s why this approach of knowledge is called the “Relevant Alternatives Theory”. But since at first sight non-relevant or left out alternatives might be true, it may always happen that we don’t know what we know, even if we belief that our knowledge is justified.

- Dretske, Fred, “Epistemic Operators”, in his Perception, Knowledge and Belief. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000; pp. 38-40. You can find it also here:

Monday, December 02, 2019

Standing on the shoulders of giants: Montaigne and Descartes

We all stand on the shoulders of others. In my blog last week, we have seen how Wittgenstein has been influenced by Spinoza, albeit only a little bit. However, with the exception of a short remark in his personal diary Wittgenstein doesn’t mention Spinoza in his work, just as he mentions hardly any other name in his writings. As for this he should have patterned himself on Montaigne, one of the first modern philosophers. Montaigne’s Essays are full of quotes. He mentions always the authors who stimulated him to develop his ideas. For a big part his Essays are a debate of Montaigne with his predecessors and we see how Montaigne grows by it.
On the other hand, Montaigne had and still has an impact on thinkers after him. Especially during the first years after his death he had, but actually his influence extends till this day. Christophe Bardyn – the most important shoulder for this blog – writes in his splendid Montaigne biography that the Essays were widely read in the seventeenth century, even to that extent that one could promote the reading of one’s own work just by referring to Montaigne (a trick that is still applied: Write how your book relates to other important works, and the chance that it will be read increases). Two of his most important readers in those days were Blaise Pascal and René Descartes. A few years ago I have written already about the influence of Montaigne on Pascal (see my blog dated 23 December 2013), although Pascal called the Essays a “foolish project”, since it was not done to write about yourself, he said. Anyway, the impact of Montaigne on Pascal is explicit. On the other hand, as Bardyn notes, the indebtedness of Descartes to Montaigne is inconspicuous and not properly expressed, although it is decisive. It’s mainly indirect. For example, actually the whole Discourse on the Method is an application of Montaigne’s idea of doubt on the foundations of the knowledge of his time, but Descartes doesn’t mention Montaigne’s name in this grounding work. By using passages and ideas from the Essays without crediting the source, today Descartes would risk being accused of plagiarism. Even more, Descartes’s indebtedness to Montaigne if not his plagiarism starts already in the first sentence of the Discourse, where he writes:
“Good sense is the best shared-out thing in the world; for everyone thinks he has such a good supply of it that he doesn’t want more, even if he is extremely hard to please about other things.” It seems to be an original if not brilliant intro for what would become one of the most influential philosophical works in history, but Montaigne had written already before him:
“’Tis commonly said that the justest portion Nature has given us of her favours is that of sense; for there is no one who is not contented with his share: is it not reason? whoever should see beyond that, would see beyond his sight.” (Essays, book II, 17).
It is as if Descartes wanted to profit by Montaigne’s popularity without mentioning his name. Or he wanted to appear more original than he really was. But when Descartes would have mentioned his sources, nobody would have detracted even a little bit from his achievements.
We all stand on the shoulders of others, or as Isaac Newton said it: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In other words, everything we do we couldn’t have been done without what our predecessors had done before us. By speaking of “giants” and not simply of “others” Newton implicitly acknowledged that his predecessors were greater than himself. And isn’t it so that making a start is often more difficult than to continue? Descartes was a giant because he made many important (re)starts in philosophy and science. Paying tribute to his gigantic predecessors would have made him even taller.

- Bardyn, Christophe, Montaigne. La splendeur de la liberté. Paris: Flammarion, 2015; pp. 467-8 (my main shoulder for this blog)
- Descartes, René de, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one’s Reason and Seeking
- Montaigne. Michel de, Essays. Adelaide: University of Adelaide, 2015. On
- Phillips, John, “Montaigne and Descartes”. On
- Wikipedia

Monday, November 25, 2019

Wittgenstein and Spinoza

Has Wittgenstein been influenced by Spinoza? It is a question that haunted my mind already for some time, so now that I had written a few blogs on Spinoza again, I thought that it was a good idea to sort it out at last and to search for the answer on the Internet. The result was meagre but the answer is clear: Yes, Wittgenstein has been influenced by Spinoza, indeed. Probably Wittgenstein has even read some texts by Spinoza as a schoolboy, for such texts were read on the type of school he visited. However, how big has this influence been? In fact, as far as I know and could find out, Wittgenstein mentions Spinoza’s name only once, and then it is not in one of his philosophical works but in his war diary. Actually, the reference to Spinoza is a bit weird. Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War Wittgenstein decided to volunteer in the Austrian army. Then, on 15 September 1914 – one month in service – he writes in his diary: “The Russians are on our heels! The enemy is very close to us. Am in a good mood. Have worked [=philosophized] again. I can work best now while peeling potatoes. I always volunteer for it. It is for me what lens-grinding was for Spinoza.” Here, Stan Verdult adds in his blog: “Then you do feel a touch of identification”.
However, identification is not the same as being influenced by. If there is any work by Wittgenstein that has been influenced by Spinoza, it is the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP). This work has been written originally in German and the title was [translated] Logical Philosophical Treatise. When the work was published in English, G.E. Moore suggested the Latin title as homage to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Wittgenstein agreed. This is not really strange, for not only held Wittgenstein apparently the Dutch philosopher in high esteem, but a closer look at the TLP shows that its structure has some similarity with the structure of Spinoza’s Ethics. Both works are characterized by a mathematical structure and decimal arrangements.
Also the text of the TLP shows here and there a touch of Spinozism, especially in section 6, where Wittgenstein writes:

6.4311 ... If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. ...
6.4312 ... The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. ...
6.432 How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.
6.4321 The facts all belong only to the task and not to its performance.
6.44 Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.
6.45 The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole.
The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

This can be read as a reference to Spinoza, but unlike Spinoza, Wittgenstein has placed God outside the world, while for Spinoza, the world is God (“Deus sive Natura”, “God or Nature”, as Spinoza says.) It’s a kind of criticism on Spinoza. But Wittgenstein doesn’t mention Spinoza here, for Wittgenstein only rarely mentions names in his works. To what or whom Wittgenstein’s words refer must be find out by the reader. This makes Wittgenstein’s work so difficult to interpret and altogether I think that the similarity between the TLP and Spinoza’s work is quite meagre. Then, the further Wittgenstein has left the TLP behind him in time, the less Spinoza we can see in his work. In his other main work the Philosophical Investigations – finished 30 years after the TLP – I can see no relationship with Spinoza at all. My conclusion is then that Wittgenstein valued Spinoza a lot and that Spinoza’s thoughts have touched Wittgenstein here and there early in his philosophical career. More is mere speculation.

References and Sources
- Baum, Wilhelm, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918). Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.
- “Daarover moet men zwijgen”,
- Verdult, Stan, “Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) De wereld is al wat het geval is - één werkelijkheid, een onzegbaarheidstheorie en Spinoza”,
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

Monday, November 18, 2019

Methods as rules for the mind

When Spinoza was working on his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, he intended to write a method that would lead to true knowledge. In this blog I’ll ignore what true knowledge is. It’s even debatable whether such a thing exists. However, also in case there is no true knowledge in science and the humanities, we can consider it an ideal that we strive for. Then the question is: What is a good method that will bring us true knowledge? According to Spinoza, a good method “shows us how the mind should be directed, according to the standard of the given true idea.” (38) But what is the standard of the given true idea? I think that much can be said about it, but I find Spinoza’s description of method in his Treatise vague and obscure and of little help for modern thinking. However, Spinoza at least tried to answer the question what a method is. In later discussions until today it has often been ignored, even when it was essential (for example even Hempel and Popper didn’t define method). This a strange, for if we are talking about methods and their use – and methods are the heart of science and the humanities –, isn’t it then important to know what we are talking about?
In order to answer this question on method, I think that especially Abraham Kaplan’s The conduct of inquiry is useful. In this book, Kaplan distinguishes two kinds of methodology, namely a methodology that studies specific practical scientific techniques and a methodology that studies the general philosophical principles behind these techniques. Only in the latter case Kaplan talks of methods, and therefore I think that it would be better to call the other type of methodology a theory of techniques. So while techniques are things like questionnaires, experiments or scales, following Kaplan we can define methods as the “logical or philosophical principles sufficiently specific to relate especially to science as distinguished from other human enterprises or interests. [They] include such procedures as forming concepts and hypotheses, making observations and measurements, performing experiments, building models and theories, providing explanations, and making predictions” (Kaplan, 1964: 23; italics mine). In short, techniques are concrete and apply to this or that research or investigation; methods are abstract and basically they apply to all sciences and humanities or at least to a significant part of them.
Of course, much more can said about this, but I think it is enough for this blog. Although I don’t want to give an interpretation of Spinoza’s definition here in the sense of explaining what Spinoza meant, I think that Kaplan’s description of method can give an interpretation of Spinoza’s definition that satisfies us. Spinoza says that a good method should “show us how the mind should be directed, according to the standard of the given true idea”. (see above) Now we can say that a good method should give us the logical or philosophical principles and procedures that lead our mind to true knowledge. In this sense, methods are rules for the mind.
Just one more thing. Some people say that science is just another opinion. And then these people set the facts as they see them against the scientific facts they don’t agree with. I think that this is not a correct approach if you want to reject scientific results. This approach assumes that science is about facts, although actually science is about methods (and techniques as well): The essence of science is the right method. So if you think that a scientific result is not correct, false or even fake, basically you must not attack the result but the way that led to this result, so the method. Only if you have shown that the method used is not right, or that mistakes have been made in its application (or the same so for the techniques used) you have shown that a result is not correct or even fake.

- Full texts in English of Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect:
- Kaplan, Abraham, The conduct of inquiry. Methodology for behavioral science. Scranton, Penna.: Chandler Publishing Cy.,1964.

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.