Category: Philosophy

I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)

Nacht_der_Philosophie2016

This year I will appear on stage on occasion of “The Night of Philosophy” 2016 (“Die Nacht der Philosophie”,  in Vienna’s “zur rezeption”, Sperlgasse 6, 1020 Vienna, at  19:00 o’clock.

The title of my performance is “I (do not) think (my own thoughts), therefore I am (not)”  (“Ich denke (nicht meine Gedanken), also bin ich (nicht)”).

This title is, of course, a  critique of Descartes’ famous saying “I  think, therefore I am”. Let me say some words about Descartes: I have never taken Descartes’ philosophy seriously, because its outcome seems  to aim at only one goal: to confirm the dominating beliefs of his epoque. Thus from “I think, therefore I  am.” follows the idea of God, because it is an clear idea which, because of its clarity, also has to exist in reality. And God, vice versa, guarantees the reality of the outer world (that is: outside of the thinking subject). From the first moment on, when I came into contact with Descartes’  philosophy, I had the impression of assisting at a foul sleight of hand, and I  was never able to take it seriously. On the other hand, I was surprised when I found out that Analytic philosophers take it very seriously, so seriously indeed that they have invented the “brain in the vat”-mind experiment. (But that only shows that I am not too concerned with proofing the reality of the outer world.)

Only recently, however, it came to my mind that also the basic idea of Descartes (which I had taken for granted), is flawed: I just need to compare “I think, therefore I am” with my own experience to understand that it  is not true. E.g. after some hard days of work I do need  at least one full day (if not more)  to come to myself again. It is just not true that I am able to beware the conscience of the fact that I am thinking this when I am thinking thoughts that are not  mine and do not evolve from my own motivation.

Anyway, the topic of my “evening” during the “Night of Philosophy” will not just be that Descartes is wrong, but the truth lies in the opposite direction. I will argue that the conscience of your existence is not just something that cannot be lost whatever you think, but that you have to work hard and permanently on your thinking in order to regain it sometimes. Writing a diary regularly is a good means for that end to start with. It also helps if you have a friend with whom you can discuss your ideas in order to develop them further, and who will not stop you after the first words you utter.

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

By the way, how did I arrive at my criticism of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” A necessary prerequisite for that idea was a series of 6 texts which I wrote for my book “Twisting With the Mind” (“Twisten mit dem Verstand”), tredition, Hamburg 2015, titled: “How will it be when we will have forgotten entirely what ideas are?”

In this series of texts I have tried to describe phenomenologically the following experience:  When you try to discuss your ideas with other persons, it happens nowadays quite often – and even more in the case when your discussion partners have an earned an academic degree – that your  interlocutors just cut your words by saying something disappointing like: “That’s not true.”  The feeling you will have then is that they did not even bother to try  to understand the problem you are working on. Instead of that they pulled your statements out into a public world, where of scientific or political assertions and qualified them as  “not true in this world”.

This phenomenon I labelled as “oblivion of the concept of the “idea””  for, basically, an idea is “your idea” and to understand an idea  that you utter means to understand you, to understand the problem how you see it, and to understand the solution the way you have worked it out. My conclusion in those series of texts therefore was that studies at the university (and not only those in the subject of philosophy) make us forget the concept of what an idea is by forcing us to understand ourselves as living in an objective/scientific/logical world where something like personal ideas does not even exist. In this world all our ideas have to lose their attribute of being our ideas if they want to be considered as valid arguments by ours. In other  words, in acadamy and in science we are trained to cultivate a way of thinking which is not our thinking or where thinking is not an activity of ours.

The consequence of this training are conflicts and crashes in interpersonal communication because academics are not longer able to imagine themselves in the shoes of the other person and lack empathy.

Nacht_der_Philosophie2016-Programm

Another prerequisite for my ability to understand that Descartes’ Claim “I think, therefore I am.”  was a story I once read in a book by José Ortega y Gasset. Gasset related that he was in the zoo observing the monkeys. Those monkeys moved around quickly with all attention directed towards their surroundings in a way, that Ortega fatigued by just watching their constant tension. He concluded that the capacity of thinking must be something that allows you to look into yourself, to be at home in yourself, without beeing forced to watch your environment all the time.

I do not know anything about  monkeys (and I suppose that Ortega did not either), but this thought is really inspiring. Its consequences are that thinking does not mean to be focused on something (because the monkeys are  focused all the time) thinking it through logically, but that in reality it is completely the other way round. The capacity of thinking means that you are able to refrain from focusing on some problem and look into yourself instead. It means that you are able to daydream, to think wishful thoughts, to listen and wait for the new thoughts that are coming to your mind – in one word, the capacity of thinking means that your are able to think what you want to think and not what your  environment forces upon you to think (because this is just what happened to the monkeys in the zoo).

Now compare this to how we learn in school what thinking is: The teacher places a problem in front of us that has nothing to do with us and orders us to think in order to resolve it. In this situation it is the problem of the “good student” that he or she is docile and accepts that order together with the concept of thinking that accompanies it. By doing that, the good student  “makes the monkey”, that is he or she is passively focused on the theoretical problem without any capacity to gain mental distance from it and to find his/her own point of view. The bad student preserves his/her own thinking by thinking: “Just leave me alone with that crap!”

The same thing happens with philosophy: In the subject of Philosophy the students taught ideas of famous philosophers which are alien and unrelated to them instead of presenting those philosophers to them as examples of human beings who have thought by themselves. The opposition against and indignation of many people at philosophy is all too undertandable:  It  is a sign of mental health when you defend yourself against the social requirement of studying things you are not interested in and thinking about thoughts that  do not have anything in common with you just because they are important in the History of Philosophy.

In science it is unavoidable to think thoughts that are not yours; let the differencia specifica between science and philosophy be that philosophizing means thinking your thoughts, or finding out which thoughts among all of them are your thoughts. Otherwise  it will not only be impossible for the human individual to think indepently, it also will not really exist – because if you always only think the thoughts of others, you are not.

Advertisements

Twisting With Your Mind

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015 cover

Helmut Hofbauer: Twisten mit dem Verstand. tredition, Hamburg 2015.

24,9€

You can order  the book here or also at Amazon.

When talking about philosophy with non-academics I have always the problem that I have made certain experiences during my philosophy studies at the University of Vienna which are unknown to them.

One essential experience of this kind is that the minds of university students are transformed during their studies in a manner so that afterwards they are not able any more to communicate ideas or respond accordingly to ideas of another person in a conversation.

This is the topic of 6 texts in my new book Twisten mit dem Verstand [Twisting with one’s own mind] that carry the title “Wie wird es sein, wenn es unverständlich geworden ist, was eine Idee ist?” [How will it be when it has become incomprehensible what an idea is?]

The central idea of this series of texts is: An idea is an idea of a human being. When a person tries to communicate an idea to another person, what she is doing is to explain to the other person an attempt of a solution of a problem or of a question she concerned with.

However, when this person turns with her idea towards a graduate of a university, what will happen? The university graduate has undergone scientific education. This means that for her ideas of people do not exist anymore (because they would be “subjective”), she only knows an objective reality.

So she will most probably respond to the first person something like: “Of what you have said this and this and this is wrong.” By doing that she will absolutely frustrate the first person for what those person wanted in the first place was to find some understanding for her concern and for the relevance this very problem or question had for her life.

The thought on which the title of this series of texts is based is: The term “idea” is used improperly in academic or scientific discourse; anyway, as we use it differently in everyday language, the use of “idea” in academic discourse is still profiting parasitically from its meaning in everyday language. And this meaning of “idea” in everyday language could be lost someday soon (because university students are trained so rigorously to forget it that this attitude becomes their second nature), and what happens then is that this word altogether loses its meaning for us.

To make things clear: in my understanding, “idea” in everyday language means “someone’s idea”, and in academic discourse it means “some kind of statement that can be true or false”.

As philosophy tries to solve the problems of human beings, it is especially difficult to discuss a problem philosophically with a university graduate because for the university graduate problems and ideas are something that can stand alone, they do not need any subject that holds them.

This is also valid for university graduates of philosophy. That’s the reason why I recommend everybody who is interested in philosophical questions not to study philosophy at the university: As long as you do not study philosophy you can try to solve your philosophical problems, but after your philosophy studies at the university you will be deprived of your problems. They will be objective problems that are of no special concern to you.

Saying that a problem is “my problem” is a form of appropriating one’s own thinking. The common denominator of all texts of this book is autonomy of thinking. To convince us that my problems and your ideas are not my problems and your ideas but objective entities that exist in some kind of “platonic heaven” of today’s scientific community is a method of dispossing us of our own thinking.

Another method is long years of drill. Why does a pope or the American president practically never step down from their offices? The answer is: because they have invested long years of work and a great part of their lives in getting into their offices. Now in one text I have taken Ludwig Wittgenstein as a negative example for this hypothesis: While nowadays a young academic philosopher has to spend long years of formatting the footnotes of his articles in order to submit them to scientific journals, Wittgenstein actually did not publish any academic work during his lifetime. He was the son of a rich father, he had been primary teacher in Lower Austria and the architect of his sister’s house before he became university professor in Cambridge. So he was free as a bird, and this is why it was no surprise that in Cambridge he produced a philosophy his doctor father Bertrand Russell did not like.

When talking about famous professors we usually tend to think in terms of genius and intelligence. By doing this we underrate the significance of drill. Normally a person does not become professor because she is intelligent but because she is intelligent and has endured the drill. It is important that a case like that one of Wittgenstein from the institutional point of view was a mistake – and was something that nowadays will not occur anymore.

The book contains two texts on Tomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What I find interesting in Kuhn’s theory of science is that he described science as a social enterprise. However, if society enters into science society’s chaos and unreasonableness will also enter into science. And because it cannot be true what should not be true, philosophers have found ways of interpreting Kuhn’s theory as if it was not a social theory of science.

Before I knew that I had thought that I could use Kuhn’s theory in order to support my ideas on science. But since I know it I also know that every rational argumentation on the topic of science as a social institution will remain unheard because philosopher refuse to listen to it – the same as they refuse to listen to Kuhn.

helmut hofbauer_twisten mit dem verstand 2015-bookshelf

The frame of my book is constituted by two texts on personal knowledge. One is on José Ortega y Gasset’s book El tema de nuestro tiempo [The topic of our time] and the other on his pupil’s, Julián Marías’, book Razón de la filosofía [Reason of philosophy]. The topic of Ortega’s era, and this is almost one hundred years ago (1923), was that he thought it was time to conceive thinking and knowing as activities of living beings. This is what he also called “life philosophy” (filosofía de la vida). It means that in philosophy we should not look for objective truths but for truths relevant to persons thinking them.

After all, when I remember my time as a philosophy student at the university and how I asked my professor what she thought about my seminary paper and “There is a mistake in the footnote on page 23.” – was the only answer I got, this is exactly what I am concerned about: My teacher then did not understand what was relevant for me (or if she had understood it her scientific attitude did not allow her to admit it to me), and that is why the conversation about my paper turned into a discussion about the footnote on page 23.

In science, in the end no fact is more important than any other fact. So it was science to remind me of the footnote on page 23. However, I had wanted to talk about my seminary paper in order to learn something about it; I did not learn anything from the remark on the footnote on page 23 – it just served to drill me.

These two texts on the two Spanish philosophers allude to the fact that in order to come closer to autonomy in thinking, we would have to re-appropriate our own thinking, we would have to make thinking our thinking again. And this would start by conceiving a thought or an idea not just as a sentence that can be objectively true or false but as a concern of relevance for the life of the subject thinking it. Despite the fact that Ortega’s approach is basically quite straight and common sense, science and scienticism (the exaggerated belief in the power of science) are so strong nowadays that Ortega’s topic of his era sounds to us like the most esoteric thing imaginable.

In other words, I think that if someday in the future we want to achieve autonomy of thought, we would have to go right down to the bottom, to the ultimate cause of the problem: and this cause is that today – in the shade of science and its concept of objective truth – it is forbidden that I consider my ideas to be my ideas.

That the ban of personal thinking does not lead to objective truth but rather to the beliefs of different tribes and groups of people is the topic of another text in this book, a text on isms. Also in today’s philosophy isms are abundant: internalism, externalism, reliabilism, coherentism, contexualism, indexicalism and so forth. They force you to join a group before you have even made up your own mind.

The title of the book stems from a song by the Austrian songwriter Heli Deinboek. In this song he describes the zombies we call “normal people”. These are persons who work and consume as society expects them to and are desperate about the senselessness of their lives. I have always thought that it is necessary to twist a lot with one’s own mind in order to meet this situation. That is: to move one’s own mind, to think a lot, to philosophize.

It should be clear by now that by “philosophizing” I do not mean thinking Plato’s thoughts or those of Descartes or those of Donald Davidson, but thinking my own thoughts. By thinking my own thoughts I am moving myself, maybe in the form of a dance.

The subtitle of the book is: “Philosophizing with the goal of surviving mentally”.

Servants of a Greater Master – Are They Still People?

A philosophical problem that keeps me thoughtful lately is the following: Sometimes when you are philosophizing with another person, you suddenly become aware of the fact that the person you are talking to is not really a person!
This astonishing effect usually occurs when the other person does not speak for herself but for another entity that is larger and much more venerable than a single human being.

This may be the case for a professor of philosophy. For a professor of philosophy does not speak for himself but is an intermediary representing philosophy the subject. He (or she) is, so to say, the servant of a greater master – in this case of philosophy the subject. The same, of course, is true for students of philosophy who study philosophy not in order to become philosophers but in order to become professors of philosophy.

Now, what is wrong with being a servant of a greater master, a servant of philosophy?

The problem is whether these people are still human beings?
At this point, I have to concretize my concern because, of course, representatives of institutions do not lose their human rights in any respect.
So, in what aspect could it be the case that they lose their humanity?

Answer: They lose it in that aspect that they become unable to understand what a human being wants, thinks or is asking for.

This becomes especially visible when it comes to philosophy. Imagine a person who is philosophizing because she has some personal problem, and this person starts to talk to a representative of philosophy the subject. The most probable thing is that the representative of philosophy the subject will not even take the other person seriously, because what she is talking does not look in any way like a contribution to philosophy the subject.

Now, let’s consider the other case, namely that a representative of philosophy the subject is talking about philosophy. Will she say anything useful for other people? Most probably not, for she judges the value of insights according to their valuation in the subject of philosophy. She has lost her sense for the “Put yourself in my shoes-thing”.

When we look now at the subject of philosophy: what is philosophy? The decision that philosophy is a subject and should be developed as such is at once a decision against Socrates’ opinion that people should philosophize in order to take care for their souls.

Or let’s put the same thing in other words: “Philosophy”, the word, means “love of wisdom”. However, wisdom is an attribute that is inseparable from human beings. A philosopher can be (or could be) wise, but never can philosophy be wise. By developing philosophy as a subject, what we did in reality was, we separated philosophy from people. That means that we have decided that the task of philosophy is not anymore to solve the problems of people but in order to solve the problems of philosophy the subject.

Building institutions like philosophy the subject corresponds to our need to build up something greater and more durable than we ourselves are, something that lives longer than a human being. Anyway, when it comes to building social institutions, we always again tend to deceive ourselves: First, we intend build up an institution that serves us and helps us to live better lives. However, soon afterwards this function, to be at our service, seems to be an obstacle to the greatness of the social institution. Therefore, we put ourselves at the service of the social institution and do not ask for anything in exchange for our efforts anymore. What makes us happy then is just to see the institution grow and proliferate. The institution lives instead of us. And we live secondary lives by serving the institution and staring at her well-being.

Something in that manner has also happened to philosophy. For once, a long time ago, philosophy helped people to live better lives. Nowadays many people are already unable to understand the sense of the effort of helping a human individual by means of finding orientation in life anymore because this activity does not contribute anything to philosophy the subject. Any philosophical effort seems senseless and worthless to them if it does not contribute to philosophy the subject.

Now we come to the “philosophical” part of this text. The “philosophical” part of a thought – in my understanding – is always that one where it is not enough to understand my words but where you get the option to change your opinion. Well, and the philosophically tempting question here is: Could it really be that servants of a greater master acquire the habit of living their lives as pure intermediaries or representatives and that they, by that, lose their ability to feel, think and react as humans?

Think about it! If you decide that the answer is yes, then it is like a really big and disgusting thing that you will have to swallow.

On the other side, if you decide that the answer is no than you will most probably go on making the same irritating experiences a person makes when she is talking to another person who is not representing herself.

So, the real philosophical question here is: Are people really able to forget what it means for a person to be unhappily in love, to be afraid of illness or concerned about what the future will bring? Can a person really forget that sometimes one has a problem, which is personal, and one would like an honest and personal reaction from the other person? Is it really possible that a person forgets that language, that communication basically serves the task to tell another person what the first person thinks and wants to tell her?

I am afraid all this might really actually be the case.

We are standing here in front of a quite astonishing phenomenon: What happens when a person considers herself in the first place to be a representative, a servant of a greater master, and not a person? What happens then is that this person somehow abandons her responsibility towards herself. She takes herself not serious anymore. Or, she takes herself serious, but only in her function as a representative, not in her function as a person. In other words, she somehow gives it up or neglects it to be herself.

That means that she actively and deliberately stops being a person. And when you are talking to her you cannot be sure that you are talking to her. Because she will not stand up for herself. She will react as if she were just a kind of membrane of the body of the social institution she belongs to.

At this point, I would like to add a thought that lately seems very important to me. Currently I am working among medical doctors, at the General Hospital of Vienna, and I have learned that they are able to encounter a great deal of sense in the effort of healing a person from a disease. I suppose, this is just the way medical doctors should function psychically in order to be good medical doctors. Anyway, I find it difficult to share their passion for healing the bodies of human beings. Therefore, I asked myself: why do I have a different attitude towards the help medicine can provide to human beings?

To my surprise, I have found the answer to this question in the phenomenon I have just described: I think that there are many persons, who are spiritually dead while living in perfectly healthy bodies. I am afraid that our notion of health, which is closely related to the health of the body, distracts us from the fact that many adult human beings have abandoned being themselves by allowing their social roles to completely absorb them.

With this I want to say that although I dread pain and disease as much as any other human being does I have found a task that seems more urgent to me, the task of preventing immediate, voluntary death by manner of a person renouncing to be herself.

It does not even make much sense to me that a person who is not herself should be bodily healthy, because in this situation illness could provide her with time to think about her life while bodily health allows her to work continuously and keeps her away from looking after her soul.

Maybe this is the reason why I have never even considered becoming a medical doctor: the reason that I can conceive something more horrible than bodily disease, namely immediate, voluntary death by giving up oneself while living in an absolutely healthy body.

Every human being has just one life. If we do not live our lives for ourselves, we do not live them at all. However, many persons prefer to live their lives not for themselves but for abstract social institutions like the nation, we belong to, the company, we are working for, or philosophy the subject. They prefer to do that because the social institution is bigger and more durable than they themselves are, and it makes them feel bigger and stronger if they put themselves at the service of an institution that is big and strong instead of living for their own purposes. It is a bit of a Mafia-like thing: people feel lost and vulnerable if they have no strong protector.

And if somebody, like me, says: philosophy should be an activity in order to gain orientation in one’s own life, and not a contribution to philosophy the subject, the servants of a greater master will react by showing their hostility. That is understandable: Wisdom does not give anything to eat, but philosophy the subject is able to provide a household income.

This leads us to another intriguing aspect of my topic here in this text: maybe many people are just too social? By that, I mean that they try to realize a kind of society, which is like an organic body and its cells. If a cell does, what it wants to do, the result is called cancer. In consequence, the organic society is a society, which is based on the concept that her members should give up their own lives in order to only serve the greater whole. However, I think that the human society is not – and should not be – an organic society. Human society should provide the means for its members to live their own lives. It is a kind of society where the society should be at the service of its members, and not the other way round as in the case of the organic Society.

Returning to the activity of philosophizing and its goal: I have now talked a great deal about the interesting phenomenon that many people are tempted to dissolve themselves in society. They think that the only way of being a good member of society is by giving up being themselves. My idea of the activity of philosophy is that it has a goal that is diametrically opposed to that temptation, namely to help us to “come to ourselves” once more, that is to regain individual conscience again after losing ourselves in social alienation.

My idea of the goal of philosophy is based on Socrates’ idea of taking care of one’s own soul and on the idea of rational autonomy as condensed in Kant’s formula for the age of enlightenment: “Sapere aude!” – “Dare to think for yourself!”

These allusions underline that my understanding of philosophy is not so alien judging it from the perspective of the history of philosophy.
Nevertheless, if we take all the ideas in this text together and draw the conclusion, the result is that the principal goal of philosophy would be to cure professors of philosophy from being professors of philosophy. That is to say, that philosophy – as an ego-strengthening activity – should incite alienated intermediaries, who just try to contribute to philosophy the subject, to think for themselves again.

The last paragraph highlights, of course, in a garish manner, to what degree philosophy has failed on the social level and to what degree it has been incapable to explain the sense of its very existence and effort to the people.

Philosophy Is an Activity – What That Means

I use to say that philosopy is philosophizing or doing philosophy, an that this is an activity. I know, of course, that people do not understand me when I say such things. Therefore today I want to explain this issue which is central for me.

Maybe you will ask: “But aren’t all things that are done by human beings human activities? Philosophy is obviously done by human beings – so what else can it be than a human activity?”

Well, no. I will explain the difference to you.

Academic philosophers do say things like: “The questions of epistemology (which is a branch of philosophy) are: Can we really know anything? What is knowledge? … [and so on]”

This clearly indicates that academic philosophers do not share my idea that philosophy is an activity. If philosophy was an activity, there would be for example us two, you and me, philosophizing. We would then ask each other: “What are you interested in?” And what we would answer then, those are our philosophical questions.

Do you understand the difference? If philosophy was an activity, there would be no “questions of epistemology” or “questions of philosophy” because the discussion would not be about epistemology, or ethics or philosophy, it would be about us.

Seeing philosophy as an activity means that we reappropriate our questions. Those questions might be so called philosophical questions, but they might es well be mathematical questions, biological or musical ones. What makes them to be philosophical questions is not that they belong to philosophy but what we do with them, the special treatment we give them.

What does this special treatment consist in? Here again we can find orientation in the idea that philosophy is an activity. Academic philosophers (who do not understand that philosophy is an activity) will say that a philosophic dispute is about who is right. This is false. Philosophical discussions between two or more persons is not about who has the right answer to the question, but about helping the others and oneself to come to a decision about what one really thinks about the question discussed.

The aim of philosophy is not truth (itself), but it is a decision about what one thinks about a specific question. This decision is a deed, it has do be done, accomplished. This is the reason why philosophy cannot in any sense be theoretical, it is always practical. Philosophizing you are “manipulating” yourself, trying to achieve new convictions and leave old ones behind yourself. The topic of your philosophizing might be theoretical or practical, if you achieve the goal to change your own opinion you have done something. This is why philosophy is eminently practical.

There is one more example that shows very well that academic philosophers do not understand philosophy as an activity. If you read papers in philosophy journals you will often come about expressions like “realists” or “anti-realists”, “contextualists”, “invariantists”, “non-reductionists”, and so on. What are they doing here? They invent names for every possible opinion one could hold about a specific question, and then they situate these opinions in the form of positions in some kind of imaginary landscape or continuum. This landscape or continuum is nothing else than the topic itself. The result will be that knowing something about a specific philosophical proeblem in the academic sense will mean to possess knowledge about all possible intellectual positions that exist in this specific theoretical field.

In short, academic philosophers are analysts of positions. They want to find out why something is, or has become, like it is. They do not want to change anything or do anything, they just want to see how things are.

But if you, like myself, embrace the idea that philosophy is an activity the task is a different one. There might be “realists” and “anti-realists” and so on, but you will have to decide yourself for one position because you are just one person. If you want to decide yourself for two positions, you have to make clear if this is possible at all for just one person. Maybe it is possible in some cases, in others it will not be possible. So, for example in ethics for academic philosophers it suffices to know that there are utilitarianists and kantians and virtue ethicists, and so on. It suffices because they do not want to do anything. But if you are a philosopher for whom philosophy is action your task is to find out whether you, yourself, decide to be a utilitarianist a kantian, a virtue ethicist or something else.

And this is because, philosophizing for you will mean to do something, to make up your mind. You will ask yourself: “Did I accomplish something philosophizing today? Did I arrive at some point? If I haven not arrived anywhere, my philosophical work of today was of no use.”

Did I make myself clear about why not all human activities are activities? (Some of them just try to figure out where we are and have no aim to get us anywhere.)

 

Evidence Is Not Evident

As I have already stated at the beginning, I am writing this blog because of my difficulties with English language.

One of the words in English that makes it especially difficult for me to express myself in this language is “evidence”.

“Evidenz” in German means “obviousness”, “appearance”. It is close to Latin roots “videre” which means “to see”.

“Evidence” in English means a different thing, namely “proof” or “testimony”, but – and this is the confusing aspect of the word – the adjective “evident” means “obvious” just as the German adjective “evident”.

Now there is something, as you might know, that is called “evidence-based medicine”.

The lowest level of evidence according to evidence-based medicine is: “Expert opinion without explicit critical appraisal, or based on physiology, bench research or “first principles””

The highest level of evidence is: “SR [Systematic Review] (with homogeneity*) of RCTs [Randomized Controlled Studies]”

If you take a closer look at these definitions, “evidence” in the sense of “obviousness” can only take place on the lowest level of “evidence” according to evidence-based medicine. For this is the only level where experts, that means: people, directly look at things.

On the highest levels of “evidence” according to evidence-based medicine systematic reviews of the publications of others are performed, and their data have to be believed. There are also mathematical, statistical proofs involved. All the proofs and the data are located between you and the original phenomenon, so that the phenomenon is no longer visible.

It seems clear to me that evidence-based medicine is about scientific proof, and not about “evidence” in the sense of “obviousness”. But tell me, as a not native English speaker, how would you call it, if you wanted to talk about “obviousness”.

As I have mentioned, in German the word “Evidenz” basically does not mean “proof” or “testimony”. Even though evidence-based medicine was translated into “evidenzbasierte Medizin”. The reason might be the low self-esteem of German speakers. However, in scientific circles they start already to use the German “Evidenz” in the sense of “proof”, of which I absolutely do not approve for I think there is a good reason for the fact that “Evidenz” should not mean “proof”.

The reason is that the more proofs are put between you and a thing the less evident it becomes. It becomes – empirically, scientifically – better proven, but it becomes less evident. The thing itself becomes opaque behind all the evidence.

Evidence therefore does not make things evident. For “evident” (also in English?) means “self-evident” which equals to “not needing a proof”.

But there is certain suspicion that I have regarding the situation in English: Is the reason for the meanings of “evidence” and “evident” in English language maybe to be found in a certain belief – based on a strong empiristic conviction – that evidence actually helps to make beliefs/assertions more evident?

Well, the idea would be that evidence is somehing that “supports” assertions, and if the support is so strong that nobody can rationally doubt it anymore, then the assertion is held to be “evident” in the sense of “obvious” for everybody. Is this the case?

Well, if it was so, it would be a false conviction. For evidence in the sense of proof puts itself between the person seeing an object and the object seen by her. In consequence, the person will look at the evidence (the proofs) and not at the object. If she is a normal persons, it is very likely that she will not understand the (sophisticated scientific) proofs. In the end she will have to believe what experts tell her. And to believe that she would understand the case, if she was trained to be an expert herself.

The moral of the story: A mountain of evidence leads to belief, for evidence does not make things evident. Evidence leads to scientifically better proven results, but it does not make things obvious and understandable.

How Can I Stand Success?

A question that bothers me very much lately is: how can I stand success?

How can I live with success? Success seems to me to be the worst thing that has been invented by human beings.

When I experience success I eat too much, I would like to be drunk the whole time, and I feel a profound lack of motivation. All the joy that is in my naturally quite joyful character is gone when it comes to success.

I really would prefer to do a thing the way I like it and be happy with it. If I get the occasion to do a thing my way I can get a lot of energy out of it, motivational energy that helps me to complete other tasks. But as soon as I try do make a good thing, somebody comes up and requires that it be a successful thing. Then he/she changes the thing until I do not like it anymore.

That is what success is: doing things you do not like. Explanation: if you liked them, you needn’t call them “success”. The content of success is selling your thing to people who are not interested in it and do not take the time to look at it and understand it.

If you conceived a thought which is new, success requires to formulate it in a way so that the new part of it is invisible. If you conceived a thought which is a little bit complicated, success requires to formulate it in a way so simple that thinking is not needed to understand it.

I think success is really a very bad thing. It should be known more generally that it is a really bad thing. People should bite into their tongues before asking “…but don’t you want to be successful?” The necessity of success can be accepted only under very rare circumstances. And also under these circumstances it should be clear that the price of success is very high, that the destruction produced by success is remarkable. Success makes the world a sad and ugly place.

Utilitarianism is self-contradictory

There is rarely any other theory in philosophy which I do NOT understand so entirely as utilitarianism. It is said that utilitarianism is the most developed moral theory, but to me utilitarianism makes no sense from the very start. A presentation of utilitarianism as a moral theory sounds to me as if somebody would point at a car and explain to me that in reality it is an elephant.

The reason of my problems in understanding utilitarianism lies in the fact that its very first presuppositions are self-contradictory in my eyes. Here I obviously stumble over things which are sound according to the intuitions of the followers of utilitarianism.

“Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.” (Wikipedia) The goal of utilitarianist action is to contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.

Here, at this point, there is already something I do not understand: If we work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, when do we have time to be happy? If we work to produce the highest degree of utility for the greatest number of people, when do we enjoy the utility produced by us?

This contradiction was already formulated by Benjamin Franklin (although I doubt that anybody is aware of the fact that Franklin’s statement constitutes a criticism of utilitarianism:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but six pence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.” (Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748)) (Wikipedia)

The problem described by Benjamin Franklin in this quote in economics is called “opportunity costs”. Opportunity costs are the lost profit of one alternative of action if you choose the other alternative. In Franklin’s quote a young tradesman has chosen to enjoy his free time, and although he has only spent 6 pence during that time, Franklin calculates that in reality he has spent 6 pence and 5 shillings; for had he worked instead of being idle, he would have earned 5 shillings in this half day.

From that follows that if one enjoys the fruits of his work, he fails to fulfill the utilitarianist imperative, for he would maximize utility rather by working than by enjoying.

This is why I believe that the problem of utilitarianism is not expressed in the controversy between Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the first one argued that all pleasures human beings are able to enjoy are o.k. (“the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry”), whereas the second one held that “higher pleasures” are better than “lower” ones (“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”)

The problem in my eyes is rather that there will be no time left to consume the utility produced by us by working harder and longer hours every year.

Actually, it seems to me that today’s world is aready ruled by utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is inherent in free market economy. By producing goods and providing services to others we try to maximize overall utility and are successful in falling on each others nerves. For instance with the help of advertisments. Every evening when I come home I find a staple of advertisments in my post box. I remember that all these companies try to offer something useful to me. Then I turn around and thrust the whole utility into the dustbin.

Utilitarianism is part of the problem of today`s societies, and not of the solution. If I look around myself everwhere I see people trying to maximize overall utility in the utilitarianist sense. The consequences are stress, depression, psychosomatic and cardiovascular illnesses, drug abuse and a general feeling of the senselessness of life.

If we really wanted to maximize pleasure and positive feelings (higher and lower ones) of all human beings, the first thing we would have to do is stop talking about the utility of all things and projects. Most important would be to stop talking about the utility of enterprises or scientific discoveries for society (“What you can do for your nation…”). Because all these utilities just add pressure to life in society and prevent people from relaxing and feeling at ease.

The second important measure, if we really wanted to maximize pleasure, would be to think about the times and places when and where we can enjoy the fruits of our work and consume the utility produced by us. There have to be isles of leisure amidst the ocean of labour.

Maximizing utility alone will only lead to the erasement of these isles of leisure. If we want to maximize pleasure, we have to be aware of the fact that this puts limits to the maximization of utility.

As the Franklin`s trademan sometimes decides not to maximize utility by not earning those 5 shillings in order to drink a pint of beer with his friends, we should also know that pleasure can only be achieved at the cost of not always maximizing utility.

My message can also be expressed in the following manner: utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that every human action has to be judged by the its consequences. For many people this approach is quite natural and self-evident, but not for me. Consequentialism holds that you always only do something now in order to achieve something later. So when will you be happy? If you are happy, whenever, it is always now. Happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment are always now. But for consequentialism “now” does not exist, because everything that counts is always “later”. So if you ever happen to be happy at the moment, consequentialism will send you away to do something useful, because enjoying the moment is not included in the consequentialist program.