Archive for the ‘History/Philosophy’ Category

In the introduction to Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy by Michel Serres, the editors (J.V. Harari and D.F. Bell) wrote a lovely sentence about the accumulation of knowledge and its tendency to specialisation.

They point-out how the different disciplines, but especially the distinction between the exact sciences and the humanities, are growing more and more apart. It’s not merely a conceptual distinction. It’s also something that is institutionalised (different faculties) and noticeable in the different books, programs and other stuff. The cause of this division is found in the practical necessity of specialisation due to the accumulating nature of knowledge. This specialisation has achieved great results.

In this context, they write: “divide in order to conquer“.

While this sentence is usually used to express how someone from above creates unnecessary struggles between others, in this case, it are the searchers for knowledge themselves that create such a division among themselves. Next, they managed to conquer a lot more because of this division!

What a fun change of meaning…


Gabriel Tarde Quote.

Posted: January 29, 2014 in History/Philosophy, Quicky
Tags: ,

In reality, we judge beings to be less intelligent the less we understand them, and the error of thinking the unknown to be unintelligent goes hand in hand with the error […] of thinking the unknown to be indistinct, undefferentiated, and homogenous.” Gabriel Tarde, Monadology and Sociology, p. 24.

What a great statement, relevant for ecology, politics and methodology. It’s a demand for attention and respect to all beings, followed by a warning against generalisations and individualisations (as opposed to a recognition of the multiplicity, both inward and outward).

A few years back, I wrote my BA thesis about the change from geocentrism to heliocentrism around 1600. The questions were quite simple; why did so many intellectuals at the start of the 17th century change from a geocentric worldview to a heliocentric one? The decline of Ptolemaeus, rise of Copernicus and 15 minutes of fame of Tycho. Interesting!

Today I’m reading The Little Comment of Copernicus (Het Kleine Commentaar van Copernicus) by Herman Kattenberg. Somehow he feels the need to compare contemporary knowledge with geocentrism and Copernicus’ heliocentric alternative. Secondly, he points at “ruling dogma’s” as a reason for some poor choices Copernicus made.

Comparison. A history book is supposed to answer questions about history. If I would like to know more about astronomy, I wouldn’t pick-up a history book. The whole comparison between contemporary knowledge and Copernicus and others is redundant. Besides, it wrongly suggests that a theory won acceptance because it’s simply true. 

Dogma. Let’s assume that the 16th century intellingtsia isn’t stupid. A “ruling dogma” shouldn’t be approached as a backward stupidity that blocks intellectual progress. Trying to incorporate new theories and observations in already existing ones isn’t an example of a lack of courage. Instead of ignoring theological and astrological parts of texts, they might be vital to understand the whole situation. The distinction of society in spheres isn’t always identical and equally strong to the ones contemporary Westerners experience. Why did Copernicus write this and that?The dogma’s, obviously!

This approach doesn’t even start explaining why Copernicus wrote what he wrote and why it became influential only 50 years later.

When you want to critique someone in a useful way and show the other that he is wrong, you must research from what point of view he looks at the case – because from that point of view he is usually right – and recognize its validity […]” – B. Pascal, Pensees nr 701. 

Unlike Pascal’s case, studying history isn’t so much about proving someone wrong. But the point to be made remains the same. What was the point of view of Copernicus, Tycho and others? What position did they take in the network of entities that made their opinion valuable?

The new history books in Belgian schools start with a brief discussion of the different ways to view time. Twelve year olds’ first chapter won’t be about Ancient Greece anymore, that’s moved one spot. Instead, they start learning about progression v. digression; linear v. cyclical; finite v. infinite. Interesting! Although I’m having some second thoughts about the classification of the contemporary Western view on time as linear, progressive and (virtually)infinite…

Linear. Years go on and on. Going from the 31st of December to the first of January adds another year to our collection. Yet, our weeks always go from Monday to Sunday and start over again at Monday; months and seasons follow each other, but once their cycle of twelve or four is over, they start again. Every year we have the same special days like Eastern, May First and Christmas. People are at home, come together with family or friends, prepare sometimes for days ahead. Children, students and employees look forward to their day off. We all start our lives as needy and helpless creatures and many of us end-up in a similar way.

It seems to me that the linear view of time is highly popular in history classes in contemporary Belgium, not necessary in our society as such.

Progression. Even though people around me are materially and intellectually well endowed, many of them fear the future. Our parents who are in their 50s fear for their pensions. We, in our 20s, are afraid that we won’t be able to find a steady job, buy a house and settle happy and safely like our parents did. Conservatives fear cultural degradation, liberals fear an attack upon their freedom rights and socialists fear the demolition of a carefully build 20th century welfare system.

Economic uncertainty and cultural changes have made people lyrical about the good old post-WW II 20th century.

Infinite. Time itself probably won’t stop soon, but that doesn’t mean that our view on history is infinite. The end of times according to physics is far away. The end of humanity might be closer. The end of my life even closer. Death of others, diseases or other horrible things might not kill you, but will make history stop from your point of view. Grandparents, parents, I, children and grandchildren, those are in some respects my limits.

Infinity is only accepted in a vague theoretical way. Every aspect of our life and even our conceptions of things we somehow conceive as infinite are always limited.

Blaise Pascal has written extensively on religion. His Pensees and Lettres Provenciales against the Jesuits are interesting sources of his religiosity. I’ll explain some of the arguments that Pascal gives, including Pascal’s wager argument. This latter argument is, in my opinion, the only one of the classic arguments that Dawkins hasn’t really been able to destroy fully in his book The God Delusion. I’ll come back to that later.

The first argument says that all humans have always been looking for happiness. They have a certain knowledge of what absolute happiness is, some kind of memory. Yet, we notice on a practical level that it seems impossible to reach it. In this quest for happiness, the things around us (worldly things like power, scientific knowledge and sensual pleasure) aren’t sufficient, they’re too limited. In order to bridge the gap between the searching individual and happiness we need help from something beyond, namely, God. (N148)

Everything that isn’t directed at Christian love is merely a symbol. Love is the only topic of Scripture.” (N270)

Pascal doesn’t even mention the wager-argument in his list of proofs. He sums up: ethics, doctrine, wonders, prophecies and symbols (N402).
Ethics. God gives us a firm ground for the Good. It doesn’t mean that Pascal will take the Bible and other texts as literal and direct sources for his moral beliefs. It’s more like a recognition of the existence of love and the Good and its incompatibility with materialistic science. So there has to be something beyond matter and the scientific method.
Doctrine. By doctrine he refers to a large body of texts produced by a variety of intellectuals throughout many centuries (although Saint Augustine seems to have a special place). Historically speaking this collection of texts is changeable and considering the work Pascal puts in his attack on the Jesuits, he doesn’t take the idea of a “doctrine” as something that is 100% fixed for eternity and not open for discussion.
Wonders and prophecies are both a combination of information in the Bible and history. For example, Pascal discusses the announcement of the messiah and the role of the Jews in the Bible. The coming of Christ, his crucifixion and the lack of a Jewish country are proofs that the prophecies came true. About the wonders, Pascal says that they aren’t that clear because God only wants to show himself to those that are looking for him.
Symbols. Symbols are signs from God, but they only point towards something else. Unfortunately, some have taken these symbols for ends in themselves.

Now we finally arrived at the wager-argument. The argument is in his pensees merely an a propos, a by the way. At that time, Pascal was working on probability and managed to bring science and coincidence/luck/… together.

The wager argument goes like this:
There are two possibilities: either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
The relative probability of both is impossible to count, but let’s assume it’s 1/10 000 (it’s exact numbers are irrelevant).
God exists = infinite issue vs God doesn’t exist = finite issue.
(1/10 000 * infinite) > (9 999/10 000 * finite number).

The argument is not so much that you have nothing to lose. Because this finite number is the amount of time, energy and resources that you put in your religion while alive. The point is that no matter how much trouble you take in your belief and no matter how small the chances are, infinity will always be the better gamble.

Dawkins asks what the value is of such an argument in religion. Aren’t you supposed to belief in God? Instead of counting what is best for you?
There are plenty of places where Dawkins is attacking the idea of belief, emotions and intuition. It’s a bit odd to see how he is apparently asking here whether it’s ok to be religous on merely a mathematical argument.
Secondly, as previously mentioned Pascal highly values belief and emotions as well. Dawkins can attack the texts about love and the Holy Spirit in his typical psychological way, but the wager argument can’t be attacked for it’s lack of such – according to Dawkins – easy targets.

Dawkins goes on and points at other virtues besides belief (virtue ethics is btw something that he will dismiss later on in the book when he is defending consequentialism as the only proper ethical theory). Now, Pascal writes about love (N270) and the Holy Spirit as the essential part in the interpretation of the Bible (N367). Those are key in our moral beliefs. For Pascal, they probably can be viewed as synonyms. Yet, neither of them can be found in science. Now, the act of believing entails this reaching-out beyond science. To belief is to make this movement towards the infinite that includes the Good. I wonder what Dawkins’ metaphysics of virtues is…

The last point seems a bit more problematic. What about all the other Gods? Well, Pascal doesn’t write about most of the other Gods, he limits himself to Islam and Judaism. Of course, he tries to defend Christianity (and more specific, Catholicism) against the other religions. But even if we take all the Gods that have ever been prayed to in history, the argument of Pascal would still be in favor of belief in at least some religion. The argument is still the same, if you don’t belief, you have zero chance of eternity; if you do belief you can now be wrong in two ways, namely, there is no god or you’ve believed in a wrong God. Nevertheless, your chances are higher than zero.

This argument has never been about Catholicism (although does Pascal attack the protesters, Islam and Judaism at different instances). It’s only a proof of an infinite being, God, that allows humans to have an infinite after-life.

Kazimir Malevich

Posted: December 20, 2013 in History/Philosophy



A grey and shady gentleman surrounded by the powerful red of the primitive and pure naked bodies.

The past days I’ve been reading the book Congo by the Belgian anthropologist dr. David Van Reybrouck. It isn’t an academic work. Instead, it’s a really well-written book that combines the techniques and nuance you expect of an academic with an easy-to-read style. The book got multiple awards in both The Netherlands and Belgium.

As a Belgian, I’m sure everybody will understand my special relationship with Congo. While I was a student, I read in multiple (foreign) books and articles how the Belgian colony Congo was probably the most horrible example of modern colonialism. I recommend everyone to read this great book. Not only shows it the horrific situation, but, equally important, it gives the different socio-political  and ethnical organizations that exist(ed) in Congo their history back. The latter is something that until today is way to often forgotten. Congo has been more than the perverse playground of the Belgians.

The direct motivation for this blog are two sentences about the agreements the Belgian king Leopold II made with over 500 leaders within the area later known as ‘Congo’:

In an oral tradition, in which important statements were made with blood brotherhoods, the leaders often didn’t understand the importance of the cross they put on a piece of paper with weird signs. And, even if they could understand the text, they weren’t acquainted to European concepts in property and constitutional law like ‘sovereignty’, ‘exclusivity’ and ‘perpetuity’.” (p. 64)

Especially the first sentence hit me as something quite important. When a law is implemented in a political structure with a modern and highly developed state bureaucracy, the law immediately spread-out through numerous buildings, people and pieces of paper. Once the law is taken up by the bureaucratic machine, it’s so widely spread that you can’t simply forget or delete it. The law is carried and maintained by a huge variety of entities. Societies with a lack of such a modern bureaucracy need different ways to bring and keep laws/rules into existence. Rituals and ceremonies, like a blood brotherhood, help keeping the day of implementation and the implemented rule itself in the minds of the people for a longer period compared to a simply proclamation of those rules. Repeating these rituals or organizing annual feasts to celebrate them is a way to keep the laws into subsistence.

It might seem a bit superfluous. But in older historical works you won’t find an interpretation of such rituals as a way of seriously organizing socio-political issues. They are considered primitive behavior of a backward people. David Van Reybrouck doesn’t give a thorough explanation of those blood brotherhoods. That’s simply not the goal of the book. But by writing these thoughtful sentences, he does make a difference.

Recognizing the obvious cruelty of the regime isn’t enough. There is a real need in popular history books for a serious and respectful treatment of the complex socio-political structures that already existed. Congo seems like such a proper book.

* English version: Congo: The Epic History of a People, Van Reybrouck (D.), Ecco, March 2014, pp. 656.