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Clarifying concepts

Let's start with an imaginary story:

An English sailor survived a shipwreck, and found himself floating with a life vest. He was in the middle of the ocean, hoping for someone to rescue him before the sharks come. And there he floated, drifting with the waves, for a day and for a night. The next morning he saw a small canoe in the distance - he waved and yelled, and got rescued by natives. He was taken to a jungle island, where the natives spoke only some words of English. Soon he understood that the island is very remote and has almost no contact with the rest of the world. But at least he was saved - now he just has to wait for a year or two, waiting for any group of westerners to visit the island.

The sailor did his best to integrate with the natives. They offered him food and shelter, and he tried to help with their daily chores. Some of the natives spoke simple english, filling in words of their own language when they didn't know an English word. But most of the time he was able to guess what they mean, just because of the situation. For example, the locals gathered some strange nuts, placed them on top of a cliff and hit them with a stone. This way they broke the nutshells, harvesting the delicious kernels inside. He wanted to help, and they said: "Take ubigo, hit ennigi!". He figured that "ubigo" means a stone, and "ennigi" means a nut. He tried couple of times and managed to break some nutshells without damaging the kernels. "Eallu, eallu!" said his instructor, with a smile. "Maybe 'eally' means 'good' in their language", he thought.

Time went on and life was mostly OK. The sailor gained more confidence, and one day he wanted to go fetch drinking water from a water source. There was a small path winding through the jungle leading from the village to the watersource. The sailor took empty containers, and when he was about to leave, one of the locals stopped him to give instructions. The native pointed into the jungle, then acted like a big cat, saying: "Hizzo! Hizzo bad! Hizzo danger!". The sailer asked: "OK. If I see Hizzo what I do?". The native pointed at the sailor, saying: "Hizzo come, you roll". The sailor was bit puzzled, asking: "Me roll?", and the native confirmed: "you roll. ROLL. roll eallu, eallu roll, you eallu roll!" The sailor thought to himself that maybe this is like pretending to be dead - rolling on the ground would make the predator lose it's interest and go away.

So, the sailor went along the path, constantly trying to look around very carefully. He was about half the way, when he noticed a big black cat-like predator sitting on a big tree branch. The sailor stopped on his feet, horrified. The predator hissed and looked like it was ready to charge. The sailor dropped the containers and went rolling on the ground. But he saw it was of no help - the predator started running towards him. The sailor lost his nerve, yelled in panic, got on his feet and started running towards the village. Much to his surprise he realized that the predator chased him for a short while and then just went away. He came into the village still running as fast as he ever could.

The locals saw him running and yelled: "you eallu roll ! eallu roll !". There was a strange feeling in his stomach, he didn't quite know if he was angry or happy. He stopped to catch his breath and to collect his thoughts. He asked a native: "I roll?" and performed a rolling move on the ground. The native shook his head, saying: "aribata". The sailor rolled again, asking: "I aribata?", and the native nodded. Then the sailor pointed at the local, asking: "roll". And the native took some running steps. And so it dawned to the sailor that in the sentence "Hizzo come, you roll", the word 'roll' was not English, but native language, mening "to run like hell". He just got confused because the word sounded exactly the same as English "to roll", and that mistake nearly cost him his life. But, clearly, it was his mistake, and not an evil joke of the natives.

Well, I guess some version of this happens quite often in our daily lives, too. Even if we speak the same language, we might use the same words with different meanings, and that causes a lot of miscommunication. So, let me clarify some of the concepts I used in my previous post. As, clarifying concepts has been one of the traditional tasks of philosophy. (Sometimes people see it like a boring task with absolute no connection with our daily lives. Just talking about words and concepts, making distinctions and drafting out definions. Boooring! . Yeah, but on the other hand I see it also as a good practice. It develops mental sensitivity - making it easier to detect when people give words different meanings. And it develops clarity in thinking. So, these are like tools to improve intellectual argumentation and communication.)


Ordinarily, our beliefs are based on some more fundamental beliefs. Like, I suppose those Witnesses belive that a proposition: "Killing is wrong" is true, and that is justified by beliefs: "It is wrong to break commands The God gave us." and "The God told us not to kill." And these, in turn, are justified by beliefs "In the Bible it says so", and that "The Bible is the exact Word of the God." So, we see that their belief "Killing is wrong" is not just a mere opinion - it is a fact, based on what is says in The Bible. For them The Bible is the absolute foundation of true knowledge. (and to be more precise, I guess they also think that their tradition has the best possible interpreation of The Bible. Other traditions might misunderstand what The God really meant with his biblical words.) Moreover, questionin what The God says is also seen as a sin.

This is what I mean by foundationalism. A belief that there is some final and absolute foundation of knowledge. If The Bible is abandoned as the foundation, other alternatives are things like Human Nature, non-biased empirical observations, innate Rationality, Transcendent Mystical Experience aka. Direct-Contact-With-The-Absolute, or possibly the structure of the language, or something. A foundationalist typically thinks that there just has to be an absolute foundation of knowledge - something which cannot be questioned, which is not relative to culture or speaker's point of view. A foundation which would be solid and true, always and everywhere. Building on this foundation, using clear and faultless logical reasoning, we could build a coherent set of true propositions, eventually having a whole world view, which would be undeniably true.

And why is this? Because a foundationalist is afraid that if we fail to find such an absolute foundation, then we are doomed to an endless relativism, where any opinion is as good as any other. If we can't make a clear distinction between true and false then we can't tell right from wrong, nor science from non-sense. (Now, excuse me, but I see this as a just another version of a christian myth of Heaven and Hell. Those who find the foundation are saved because they are with The God Who Knows Everything. But failing to find The Foundation we will be rejected by The God, all doomed to The Hell where the sinners go. And being afraid of The Hell makes one thrive to seek for The Foundation.)

But is there something wrong with any form of foundationalism? Like, a foundationalist can be a good person, firmly believing that it is wrong to cause harm to others and that it is good to be polite, rational and peacefull. Sure, I'm not to say that a foundationalist is a bad person. Not at all. Personally I just think that Absolute Knowledge and Total Relativism aren't the only alternatives we have. Also, I haven't seen any form of foundationalism that I could believe in. To me it seems that foundationalism is both unnecessary and impossible quest - trying to escape the finity of human viewpoint, trying to find an image of the world seen from nowhere. Such an image, once found, would bring an end to all discussion, because from that on it would just be a matter of "either you accept this world view or you are a stupid sinner." Personally, I feel that it is more honest just to admit that as a human beings we are always tied to our finite and historical viewpoints - and that instead of a direct contact with some sort of Absolute we'd better also look for a good contact with the rest of the world. Intersubjectivity, critical thinking and healthy discussion might prove to be better tools for distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong.


Let me be clear. There are a lot of nice and humane foundationalists. Not every foundationalist is a fundamentalist. As, strictly speaking, a fundamentalist is one who believes that his set of beliefs is both True and gives an unquestioned justification to kill non-believers. A fundamentalist set of beliefs defines some groups as inferior and of lesser value. Nazis being the typical example. We like to think that fundamentalism is evil and liberal humanism is good. And, generally speaking, I'm not against that. Fundamentalism is not a nice way of thinking.

I guess that an intellectual battle against fundamentalism has also been one force driving foundationalism. In order to say "fundamentalism is wrong because it violates basic human rights" we first have to secure the basic human rights. Let's imagine a country Z which has 98% majority of an ethnic group A, and the rest are tiny minorities. Now, in a referendum they would vote for a law "The minorities are not allowed to own anything in this country. They will be given some food and a rough shelter by the society, but in return they must work 18 hours a day in our factories." The law would get passed by 95% of votes. It is a free, democratic country, passing a law in a legal order. Now, we liberal humanists living in The Free World would say: "That is plainly wrong! That is against the basic human rights! You can't do that!". But the gorverment of Z would just reply: "We are a free democratic society, and we just have passed a law based on a referendum. Go mind your own business!" If we want to counter that, we have to find a way to prove that the basic human rights are based on something stronger than just an arbitrary referendum.

But, I'm afraid that in the real world things aren't quite that simple. Let's imagine on; The rest of the world decides that it is wrong to pass such a law in any country. What would they do? Impose economical sanctions on Z? But alas, Z would be producing 90% of raw-material O, desperately needed by the rest of the world. Z refuses to deliver any of the O to the rest of the world. What to do now? You guessed it right - let's invade Z with a military power. Because, um, oh, because we defend the basic human rights! Let's go kill those evil fundamentalists, because they are so mean that they believe that they don't have to respect the basic human rights. Plainly, they deserve to get killed! Oh, what? No, we are not going to kill humans for resource O, we are going to kill fundamentalists to defend human rights, and that's a completely different thing!

Oh, sorry, I'm getting dangerously satirical in my questionable sense of humour (do I have one?). So, but the question is: can we counter fundamentalism without adopting just another version of fundamentalism ourselves? Are there other alternatives? Where does fundamentalism come from? Why would anyone fail to respect the basic human rights? I'm not quite convinced that the issue is solved if we find an universally true set of beliefs, founded on unquestionable foundation of absolute knowledge. Once again, I'd rather turn on intersubjectivity and the slowly ongoing cultural evolution of mankind.

Self-critical thinking

I think that the world "critical" is often used with a meaning "dismissive", "against", "anti-". Like, in Finland some people say that they are "EU-critical" when they mean that they are "anti-EU" and think that Finland should leave the union. But here I'm using it in a more neutral way. Like, a philosophical criticism of X does not start with a bias that "X is bad." So, maybe I'd better use something like "philosophical questioning and self-reflection". The key idea is not to take anything for granted, but to think through everything, ask for arguments and for justification of given beliefs.

In his quest for the ultimate truth René Descartes introduced a method of doubt. Instead of just believing in what is says in The Bible, he decided to question everything - hoping that he would find something which is beyound doubt. Something which would be an unquestionable truth. He thought that he can't even trust the basic laws of mathematics, as it is possible to imagine that there is some evil spirit making it so that it only seems to us that 2+2=4, when in reality it is five, but the evil spirit always hides the fifth object. And it might also be that everything what we see are just mere hallucinations caused by the evil demon. I can doubt everything, but I can't doubt that I doubt. I think - therefore I am. And so Descartes found at least one proposition which is necessarily true, always, everywhere, no matter what, independent on personal opinions. And from that Descartes went happily on, eventually justifying the central dogmas of Catholic Church and the basic structures of the grammar. (Or, this is how I see it; my interpreation of Descartes might be somewhat incorrect.)

Some people see that philophical criticism (self-reflection) leads to inability to decide. If you constantly stop to question everything, how can you be sure about anything? In practical life you just have to make decisions, and to believe in your own decisions without a hint of self-doubt - otherwise you become a loser and others will decide on your behalf. Well, personally I think about the opposite. If you have a habit of critical thinking, it is not easy for anyone to fool you around with propaganda. Self-reflection means inability do decide if and only if you believe that P1:"any action has to be based on an informed decision which is justified by solid and sound true arguments." - so, constantly questioning everything one would fail to decide which arguments are true, thus failing to decide what action is justified. But the trick is to question P1 in itself =) Once again, as I think that it is not possible to find unquestionable set of absolute true beliefs, then all we can do is to learn to rest in not-knowing - learning to navigate with our finite and partial knowledge of the world.

Somehow I feel that there is an existential (or even a religious) tone in the way some of the foundationalists are afraid of losing absolute certainty. As if finding absolute true knowledge would be necessary for mental health and peace of mind - otherwise we lose a sense of reality, fall into existential angst, feeling that nothing is worth anything, being lost in the endless void with no boundaries, no outlines, no directions. And finding the absolute would bring the internal self-doubt to an end - as if self-reflection and critical thinking was a tool we use to achieve a certain goal - namely the truth. Once truth is found, we can abandon the tool, the quest is over and we can rest. (At this point I'd like to remind that no, I don't think that all the foundationalists would feel this way. Maybe some do, but surely not every foundationalist.)

Personally, I feel that it won't be healthy to abandon self-critical thinking in any point. For me it is enough to say: "This is how I see things today. Future experiences or further evidence might make me change my opinions." Symbolically speaking, I feel that instead of an absolute system of true beliefs I want to be in contact with the world. The world, which is always more than I'm capable of comprehending. I can touch, feel, smell, hear and see the world, and I can build conceptual knowledge based on my perceptions, and I can discuss my perceptions and concepts with the others. And that's about all there is to it. To be in contact and communication with the world and with the others. (Here I'm thinking of Plato's way of seeing this mundane historical world as somewhat illusory - the true knowledge resides in the eternal world of the pure ideas, and that is where his soul wants to go. Again, I see that something of this myth survives in the christian tradition and went on in the modern science as well. Leaving the messy, fussy, impartial and ever-changing world of natural phenomenons, and rising to the eternal immaterial crystal-clear world of true theories accurately describing the secret workings of nature. OK, it's not a problem for me if a platonist, a christian, or a foundationalist wants to go there - as long as I'm allowed to stay here in bodily contact with the flesh of the world.)


As Rorty puts it, solidarity is the ability to sympathize with the pain of others. I'm not quite sure if I understand Rorty correctly, but at least my personal opinion is that is is more or less useless to seek a philosophical justification for solidarity. I'm afraid that philosophy alone can't provide an answer if a person asks: "Why should I care about the pain of others? I'm busy taking care of myself, working for my own good - why should I waste my time and resources to help the others? It is up to them to help themselves." To me it seems that such a person lacks solidarity, and that is not just a propositional belief either accepted or rejected based on rational reasoning. I see it more as an emotional ability; you feel empathy, and that makes you show solidarity - and on top of that you can also give very good philosophical arguments justifying why solidarity is better than egoism or fundamentalism. But the catch is that if a person lacks empathy, mere rational reasoning might not be enough to make him/her develop true feelings of empathy.

This is where I come to some forms of feministic ethics - and soft ways of horsemanship. I feel that solidarity is essential. And that it is something which can't be forced, but it is possible to help it grow and prosper - at least in oneself. Now, once again, I firmly do believe that nearly every foundationalist has empathy and solidarity. It might even be that many of the fundamentalists show strong solidarity for members of their own group, at the same time when they show absolute no respect for some other ethic groups. So, empathy and solidarity aren't either/or. They come in many flavours, in many forms and versions. Childhood experiences, culture, life-experiences, art, philosophy, religion, therapy, computer games, travelling - all kind of things might have their influence on which kind of empathy and solidarity one feels.

Also, this boring stuff like describing and clarifying concepts might be of some help for someone devoted to cultivating empathy and solidarity. Developing skills in picking up different meanings of words might help to better understand what others mean. And listening to and understanding how the others see and experience the world is one of the key elements of solidarity. And, at this point I begin to feel that I start to repeat myself. So maybe it is about the time just to post this - again with no pictures attached. Just the final word: "Let there be Solidarity!"

618 users have voted.



heya! It feels as if a secret door was opened inside my mind, and suddenly all this nearly-academical philosophical stuff is flooding my mind! What is this? For so many years I thought that I had lost my inspiration to write philosophical essays - but now it is here, alive and kicking. It is fun to think, to ask questions, to go deeper into details, and then just spell out the path of thoughts - just in case someone else happens to be interested =) Oh my...

Well, but this brings me to the blog UI, as I guess we could use some more advanced navigation. For example, to make it easier to sort posts with different criteria (like "list all the philosophical essays" or "list all posts tagges as humorous"). Last night I stayed up late, trying to learn how to improve the menu bar on the left. And I thought to myself: "Now was it so that this guy named Ethan is familiar with the CMS I'm using? Maybe I should mail him and ask for a piece of advice." But no, I didn't send a mail. And this morning as I opened up the computer I saw that Ethan had left a comment, about an hour after I fell asleep.

All in all, and in any case - if Ethan or anyone other is willing to offer me a piece of advice for advanced Drupal7 customization, please feel free to send me a mail =)

It seems to me a bit reactive and minimal to see solidarity simply as ability to sympathise with others' pain. Certainly the roots of moral behavior, in terms of child development, can be found in sympathy, imaginative engagement and also altruistic punishment.

But when you turn this into social ethics, it sounds much like bland bourgeois charity. Rorty thinks of himself as man of the left, but surely for leftists, "solidarity" is "Fraternité", as in "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la Mort". Solidarity is the basis of equality, not just sympathy. Many people can sympathize with those who work in sweat shops, or are driven from their homes by giant dams (etc.), without really taking seriously their claim to equality.

The same idea of brotherhood in expressed by Paul in his letter to Galatians:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

To my mind, these formulations suggest that we should advance each others projects and basic interests as if they were our own: we should share some of our projects and values with them. This kind of socialist solidarity is certainly not for liberals, if liberal means that everybody should just "do their own thing". My own inclination is to accept some such stronger position, and thus reject Rorty's minimalist thinking. (After all, Rorty once called himself a "postmodern bourgeouis liberal", and I certainly don't want to call myself anything like that...)

There are lot's of other things that your blog post made me think, but let's come back to them.

Ah, fair enough! I guess we agree that ethics and solidarity are based on ability to sympathise with others' pain. But that all of the social ethics can not and should not be reduced to mere sympathy. To have a good foundation doesn't guarantee that there is also a good building standing on that foundation. So we need both the emotional basis and elaborate, strong social ethics?

The case might well be that I'm bit of misreading Rorty, just taking some of his general points and then interpreting them in favour of my own way of thinking. Sorry about that =)

My own hopes are that people all around the world would mostly be able to feel and see how we share one single globe and that there indeed is a single common project for the whole mankind, regardles of skin color, religion, nation or gender. So, I guess the question is that if there is a bunch of powerful people who disregard any common project and prefer just to aim for their private profit then what can we do about it? To force them to respect The Project of the Mankind? Or at least change our legislation so that it wouldn't be so easy for egoistic people to gain so much power?

(Yes, I do believe that there is a something like a big, common, "Project of The Mankind", which unites us in a single fellowship. It is just that I don't believe that this Project can be founded on something Absolute or Universal, like The Word of The God, or Innate Human Nature or Reason or anything like that. This doesn't bother me - bit like nobody knows what time actually is, but everybody can agree that we have clocks and we can have a universal, common system of measuring time. Time in itself remains bit obscure, but for daily practical life it is pretty much enough to have common practices based on an unsolved mystery which just happens to work...)


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