Can ‘religion’ be defined? Or is it a case of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance?

Responding to the request of participants, today’s session will be about religion. I will use the opportunity to illustrate the idea of ‘family resemblance’ as put forward by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations.

In the analytical tradition, thinkers often engage in conceptual analysis. They attempt to find clear definitions of concepts that are important to human existence, like ‘truth’, ‘justice’ or ‘art’. A clear definition is one that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for that concept. It describes which criteria must apply to that concept, and only that concept. In other words, a clear definition of a concept takes the following form:

Something is [concept] if and only if conditions 1, 2, 3…..n apply.

for example: something is a triangle if and only if it has three sides and the sum of its corners equals 180 degrees.

Someone found a triangle with four sides? Then it’s not a triangle. Someone found a triangle with corners the sum of which is 179 degrees? Sorry, not a triangle. Someone found an object with three sides and corners adding up to 180 degrees, but claims it is not a triangle? Again, incorrect, because it must be a triangle. There’s no way around it. Everything that meets the definition is a triangle, and every triangle meets the definition. There are no exceptions. That is the deal with a clear definition.

Analytical philosophers would very much like that every concept we use has a clear definition. They see it as their task to find these definitions, however difficult it may be. Wittgenstein, however, famously argued that for some concepts, this is a hopeless endeavour. Some concepts just don’t have clear definitions, he argued. Does that mean such concepts are meaningless? Or that we are confused about the use of these concepts? Or that we can give them just any meaning we want? No, none of these things is the case. According to Wittgenstein, some concepts point out a class of phenomena that have no set of fixed criteria in common, but that share a family resemblance.

Imagine a family gathering. All family members are related, all share some features with each of the others, but there is not a single feature that is shared by everyone. In my family, for instance, some family members have the distinctive ginger hair, others have the big nose, some have the funny head shape, some have the inward-turned knees, some are very tall, some have big front teeth. Each family member has a couple of these features, no one has them all, and none of these features occur in all family members. There is not a single feature that we all have in common. Still, it is these features that make it easy to tell who is related to me and who is not. The limits of who belongs to my family and who doesn’t is blurry (everyone is family of everyone in some degree, of course) and not clear at all, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to tell at all that I’m related to my uncle, my brother, my aunt et cetera. Wittgenstein used this example to illustrate that some concepts are very meaningful and used with great competence by language speakers, even if they haven’t got a clear definition.

I will argue that this is the same for the concept ‘religion’.

Religion. What is it?

This question is very difficult if not impossible to answer. Hent de Vries, in his substantial introduction to the voluminous collection of essays Religion: Beyond a Concept, makes this quite clear. Religion, he laments, is a “semantic black hole”
and has “resisted all enlightenment” in spite of numerous attempts to pin down its distinctiveness.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz provides a definition of religion: “a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of facticity that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1966 p.90). This is an elegant definition, because it uses the cognitive aspects of religion to explain other aspects, like why religious moods and motivations are in some sense more significant (“powerful, pervasive, long-lasting”) than other, more mundane, moods and motivations. This, in turn, can explain the intuition that a person’s religious beliefs play a different kind of role than a person’s mere opinion about this or that.
But there are problems with this definition. Geertz’ definition is both too broad and too narrow. Veganism, for instance, is a framework of beliefs that meets all five of Geertz’ criteria, but is generally not considered a religion. At the same time, religions that traditionally place more emphasis on the spiritual or ritual dimension than on beliefs, like Sufism or Zen Buddhism, fail to meet Geertz’ definition whilst they are without a doubt religions.
How about defining religion in terms of spirituality? Theistic philosopher John Cottingham takes such a direction in his essay Human Nature and the Transcendent (2012). He points out that experiences most central to human existence are precisely those that cannot be explained away in terms of science and naturalism. The sort of experiences that induce a sense of awe in us, and make us feel connected to a greater whole. The “restlessness of the human spirit” and our “transcendent urges”. He invites us to acknowledge that “one is struck by the extent to which religious belief offers a home for our aspirations. Theism, in its traditional form found in the three great Abrahamic faiths, involves the idea of a match between our aspirations and our ultimate destiny” (Cottingham 2012, p.253).

But the problem with such a definition is that it is too broad. It seems to suggest that a non-religious person is in conflict with her feelings of awe and her spiritual restlessness if she maintains her non-religion. But it is not exactly clear why religion should have the monopoly over spiritual restlessness and awe. Constructing non-religious people as homogenously uninterested in such things or even disingenuous (unwilling to acknowledge that awe in the face of the larger-than-life is fundamental to human existence) is an act of ‘othering’: defining one’s own group in terms of a desirable characteristic and constructing others as a group in virtue of lacking that characteristic, regardless of whether that actually corresponds to the facts. Simone de Beauvoir demonstrated in The Second Sex that such a tactic constructed woman as ‘the second sex’.

There is, for religious as well as non-religious persons, a strong tendency to define religion in a way that suits oneself. Non-religious people might be tempted to point to dogmatism, authoritarianism or uncritical devotion as the defining characteristics of religion. Religious people on the other hand, might be tempted – as Cottingham does – to define religion along the lines of spirituality, hope, moral anchoring or transcending self-interest. The temptation lies in the fact that one’s religion or lack of it is identity-constituting. We use our religion to describe our stance, or we explicitly think of ourselves as distancing from religion. This creates the urge to account for that with good reasons. We want to be able to say that distancing ourselves from religion is the right thing to do, or that confirming our religion is the right thing to do. The only way to do that is by constructing the other group as, in some respect or other, the lesser choice. But however tempting that may be, the risk is that actual opponent don’t conform to the construction. Construct religion as ‘dogmatic’ and what are you going to do when you meet a religious person who rigorously questions and revises their own belief? Call non-religion a lack of hope or spirituality and you’re faced with the task to explain the hordes of hopeful and spiritual non-religious people. It takes a lot of bending reality to fit your favoured definition to make this work.

I think no single characteristic reliably distinguishes religion from non-religion. Does this mean that ‘religion’ is a meaningless concept, or that we can’t use it reliably? Not at all. Perhaps it just works like a family resemblance.



Elizabeth Anscombe’s Action Theory – 18/07/16

We have previously, in the session on free will, discussed determinism: the idea that everything that happens in the world is part of a determinate – albeit unknown – causal chain. Some philosophers take this to mean that there is no free will, since determinism implies that the future is fixed and we cannot change it. Furthermore, some would argue that this means that although we may take ourselves and each other as morally responsible for our actions, in fact we are not, because we could not do otherwise.

A view in moral philosophy is consequentialism. Consequentialism is the view that what matters morally are the consequences of our actions, rather than our intentions or our will. In this view, it doesn’t matter whether we have a free will or not, since only the consequences of what we do matter. Whether we did them freely or not has no bearing on the consequences of our actions, therefore it is morally irrelevant.

Consequentialism, as well as the idea that free will is an illusion, are controversial doctrines in philosophy. Many reject these doctrines, for various reasons. Anscombe is one of them. What is particular about Anscombe’s argument against consequentialism and determinism is that it is founded on her development of the idea of intentional action.

The case that intentions matter morally, and not only consequences, is fairly easily made. Imagine you’re working high up on scaffolding, laying bricks. In spite of your careful precautions, you lose grip on one of the bricks and it slips out of your hands, falling down towards the street, where, unfortunately, it hits a passer-by on the head, killing him instantly. You did not intend to kill him. Now imagine you are laying bricks, high up on scaffolding, but this time you throw a brick at a passer-by, aiming at his head in order to kill him – and you are successful in your wicked plan. In both cases, the consequences are the same, but we would normally judge these situations differently; we would judge the intentional killer more harshly than the accidental killer. So, intentions seem to matter, morally.

But what does it mean to act intentionally? To answer that question we should look at what sort of action an intentional action is, says Anscombe.

All sorts of movements happen in the world, but only some of those movements are the behaviour of agents. But not every instance of behaviour is an action. So actions are again a subset of the behaviour of agents. Scratching a mosquito bite in your sleep is behaviour, for instance, but it differs from an action in that you are not in a privileged position to account for it, compared to any other observer. You were asleep and didn’t even know that you were doing it. Actions, on the other hand, are things an agent does knowingly.

In the category of actions, we can make a further distinction: that between intentional and unintentional actions. When we do something, we can have a certain intention with which we do it. I hammer nails in wood with the intention to construct a table, for instance. But in addition, there can be unintentional side effects. By hammering nails in wood, I am bound to make noise, but making noise is not my intention. My action, hammering nails in wood, is therefore intentional when described in terms of making a table, but it is an unintentional action when described in terms of making noise.

An important claim made by Anscombe is that intentions are not causes. Intentions are an answer to the question “why?”, which can only be answered by the agent, and not by an observer. Causes, on the other hand, can only be identified upon observation. To take the carpentry example again: any observer can point out a causal chain that eventually results in my behaviour of hammering nails in wood. Parts of that causal explanation can refer to my brain, my hands, the movement of my muscles et cetera. But no matter how adequate the causal explanation is, it says nothing about why I’m hammering nails in wood. The answer to the why-question is: because I want to make a table. Observers cannot give this explanation, only the agent can.

Of course, you can point out that perhaps an observer might be able to identify my desire to make a table in a state-of-the-art brain scan. Or you might argue (with Davidson) that my intention to make a table is just one shackle in the causal chain. But that doesn’t refute the point that an answer to the why-question is a different kind of answer than the question ‘what caused this behaviour’? Intentions explain the significance of an action to the agent, causes do not. Intentions correspond to the reasons for which an action is done, causes do not.

If we accept this distinction between intentions and causes, then this sheds light on the difference between two mental states: beliefs and desires. A belief is a description of the world – or at least how we take it to be – in our mind. The belief that Paris is the capital of France, the belief that H2O is the chemical composition of water, et cetera. Desires are not descriptive. They are not how our mind describes facts, but they indicate what we would like the world to be like. John Searle calls this a difference in ‘direction of fit’. Whereas beliefs are meant to fit the world as it is, desires are meant to make the world fit the desire.

Anscombe uses the example of a shopping list to illustrate this difference. Imagine you are walking in a supermarket with a shopping list you wrote in advance. The shopping list expresses your intention to buy the things listed on it; it expresses your desire to acquire those items. It is not a prediction of what you are in fact going to buy. It does not express your belief that you will in the future buy these items, although you might very well have that belief, too. Imagine that there is a detective following you, writing down exactly which items you pay for at the till. His list of items might be the same as your shopping list, but there is an important difference: his list is not an expression of anyone’s intentions to purchase these items. Instead, it is a description of the items you have in fact bought. You can see the difference in ‘direction of fit’ when we consider a mistake in either case. Suppose you come home to discover that instead of butter – which was on your list – you accidentally bought lard. You would not correct this mistake by crossing out the word ‘butter’ on your shopping list and replacing it with the word ‘lard’. Instead, you would go back to the shop to change it for butter. You would make the world fit your shopping list, not make your shopping list fit the world. On the other hand, if the detective had accidentally written down that you had bought butter, and later discovered that you in fact bought lard, he would just correct his list, because his list is merely a record. It is meant to fit the world as it is, not to express desired changes in the world.

Anscombe used her action theory to defend a version of the Doctrine of Double Effect. This doctrine holds that there is a difference between intending harm and merely foreseeing harm, and that this difference is morally relevant. Whereas intending harm is morally forbidden, according to this doctrine, it may not always be morally forbidden to perform an action that has harm as a foreseen side-effect. For example: a doctor might administer drugs to a patient with the intention of relieving the patient’s pain, and she might foresee that death might occur as a side-effect of the drugs. By contrast, a doctor might administer heavy painkillers with the intention to kill a patient. Those who accept the Doctrine of Double Effect would evaluate these two cases differently. In the first case, the doctor’s action is permissible, in the second case it is not (assuming the patient wants to live, if possible, but not in pain). The test included in the Doctrine of Double Effect is the following: if the agent would avoid the foreseen side-effect if they could whilst still performing the intended action (use a different, less harmful painkiller, for instance), then the action is permissible, in spite of foreseen harm. The Doctrine of Double Effect does not, however, excuse all actions with horrible side-effects, since it does not relieve the agent from the responsibility to give these foreseen side-effects due consideration.

This doctrine explains the difference between a strategic bomber and a terror bomber. A strategic bomber intends to bomb a particular object, but foresees that in doing so, civilians living in the area will probably be killed. The strategic bomber may or may not accept that side-effect, but it is not his intention. A terror bomber, however, intends to kill civilians. The death of the civilians is not a foreseen side-effect, but the very reason for the bombing in the first place.

Anscombe’s main concern is that the Doctrine of Double Effect is often abused, that is, appealed to without taking this test into consideration. She used this argument to argue against the University of Oxford awarding a Honorary Degree to Harry Truman, who was, in Anscombe’s eyes, a mass murderer. Defenders of Truman argued that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were strategic bombings, with large numbers of civilian casualties as foreseen but unintended side-effects. Anscombe, however, believed that the demonstration of atomic weapons – if that were the intention – could have been conducted in more isolated areas. She believed that Truman intended to kill the population and was therefore a terror bomber rather than a strategic bomber.



Introduction to Propositional Logic – 11/07/2016

One of the many sub-disciplines of philosophy is logic. Logic is concerned with the question: when is an argument valid? (Of course, ‘argument’ means ‘inference’ here, and not ‘fight’. Philosophers don’t care whether a fall-out between partners is valid; they care whether their own reasoning is valid.)

I will here discuss some valid types of argument as well as some invalid types of argument, and how you can distinguish the valid from the invalid types.

Valid arguments – modus ponens and modus tollens

A valid argument is one where the conclusion must follow from the premises. In other words, if you take the premises to be true, then you must also accept the conclusion, if the argument is valid. If an argument is valid, the conclusion is a logical consequence. If it is logically possible to accept the premises, but not the conclusion, then the argument is a non sequitur (latin for: does not follow).

A non sequitur is a type of fallacy. Fallacies are invalid types of arguments. There are many variations. I will not discuss them all, but it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the most common fallacies. Being able to identify fallacies protects you from being lured into other people’s poor reasoning. I will say more about fallacies later.

There are several types of valid arguments. Here are some examples:


Example 1.

p1. If Molly drinks too much, she’ll get a headache.

p2. Molly drinks too much

C. Molly will get a headache.


Example 2.

p1. If Molly drinks too much, she’ll get a headache.

p2. Molly does not have a headache.

C. Molly didn’t drink too much.


Example 1 is an inference of the form modus ponens (latin for: the way that affirms), also known as confirming the consequence. We can write such an argument down schematically as follows:

p1. P → Q

p2. P

C. Q

The letters P and Q can be replaced by a proposition, such as ‘Molly drinks too much’ or ‘Molly will get a headache’. A modus ponens is an inference used in propositional logic. The arrow is a connector sign used in logic that means ‘if… then’. So P → Q means ‘if P, then Q’. Note that the arrow doesn’t point both ways, so ‘if P, then Q’ does not imply ‘if Q, than P’. In this case, not all Molly’s headaches are caused by drinking too much, but drinking too much will always cause headaches in Molly.

Example 2 is an inference of the form modus tollens (Latin for: the way that denies), also known as denying the consequence. This can be schematically written down as:

p1. P → Q

p2. ¬Q

C. ¬P

This, too, belongs to the field of propositional logic, since P and Q can be replaced by propositions. The sign ¬ means ‘it is not the case that’, or in short ‘not’. It denies whichever proposition follows it, or, when brackets are used, it can deny the relation between two or more propositions, like ¬(P→Q). In this case, Q means ‘Molly will have a headache’, so ¬Q means ‘not Q’ or ‘It is not the case that Molly will have a headache’. You can now see why the conclusion must follow from the premises: given that p1 means that whenever it is the case that Molly drinks too much, the consequence is that she’ll get a headache (so there is no case in which Molly can drink too much but get away without a headache), and p2 means that she won’t have a headache, it is impossible that she drank too much. There is no rational or valid way to accept p1 and p2, but not the conclusion.

Whichever propositions you choose to replace P and Q with, modus ponens and modus tollens are always valid arguments.

Invalid arguments – two related fallacies.

It is easy to make a mistake in reasoning. Common mistakes are two fallacies which relate to modus ponens and modus tollens, but it is important to understand why they are invalid.

Here’s an example of the fallacy known as affirming the consequent:

p1. If Molly drinks too much, she’ll get a headache.

p2. Molly has a headache

C. Molly drank too much.


Or schematically put:

p1. P → Q

p2. Q

C. P

As noted above, the arrow in P → Q goes only one way. Molly always gets headaches after drinking too much, but that doesn’t mean that she never gets headaches caused by other things. So if you know that Molly always gets headaches after drinking too much, and you find Molly having a headache, you’d be jumping to conclusions if you’d conclude solely on that information that she’s been drinking too much. This fallacy is all too common. It lies at the basis of a lot of prejudice. If this is used against you by your annoying uncle at the family dinner table, you can now point out that he’s committing a fallacy and that therefore his argument is invalid. You’re welcome.

Another common fallacy is known as denying the antecedent. An example:

p1. If Molly drinks too much, she’ll get a headache.

p2. Molly didn’t drink too much

C. Molly won’t get a headache.

In other words:

p1. P → Q

p2. ¬P

C. ¬Q

Again: Molly’s headaches can be caused by other things than her drinking. Heat stroke, for example, or stress or migraine. So if she thinks that she is guaranteed to not get any headaches if she just doesn’t drink, she is sadly mistaken. Again, whichever propositions you use instead of P and Q, any inference that follows these structures is invalid.

Another related valid argument.

Of course, things change when the arrow points two ways. If Molly is the sort of person who never (never ever ever) gets headaches, the only exceptions being when she’s been drinking too much, then you get this:

p1. If and only if (iff) Molly drinks too much, she’ll get a headache.

p2. Molly has a headache.

C. Molly has been drinking too much.


p1. P ↔ Q

p2. Q

C. P


This is a valid inference.

P ↔ Q is a more efficient way of saying (P→Q)˄(Q→P), which means ‘(if P, then Q) and (if Q, then P). ˄ is a symbol we use to say ‘and’, and ˅ means ‘and/or’. So P˄Q means ‘it is the case that P and Q’, or just ‘P and Q’, and P˅Q means ‘either P is the case, or Q is the case, or both P and Q are the case’. With these symbols, we can also construct valid (or invalid, for that matter) inferences, such as:

p1. P ˄ Q

C. P


p1. P ˄ Q

C. Q


p1. P ˅ Q

p2. ¬P

C. Q

and many more.

We have now discussed the symbols ˄,   ˅,   ¬,   → and ↔. Let’s see if we can use them correctly.

Exercise 1

Translate the following schematic notations in terms of Molly’s drinking, assuming that P means ‘Molly drinks too much’ and Q means ‘Molly has/will get a headache’:

¬(P→Q)       ¬P→Q        P↔¬Q      ¬P˄Q     ¬(P˅Q)

Exercise 2

Is this a valid argument? If so, why? If not, why not?

p1. P → ¬Q

p2. Q

C. ¬P


How about this one:

p1. ¬(P → Q)

p2. P

C. ¬Q


Validity and truth

Whilst doing the above exercises, you may have thought: “but it can’t be true that whenever Molly drinks too much, she doesn’t get a headache! She’s bound to get a headache if she really drinks too much, because that’s just how human physiology works!”

You may be quite right about that. However, it is important to note that there is a clear distinction between truth and validity, and logic is only concerned with validity. Truth will follow if the premises are indeed true, but it is not the job of the logician to establish whether they are or not. It is possible to have a perfectly valid inference with false premises, and it is equally possible to have an invalid inference in which all premises as well as the conclusion are true. I will illustrate the this with some more examples.

Example 3

p1. If Molly drinks lemonade, she will be able to fly.

p2. Molly drinks lemonade.

C. Molly will be able to fly.

This inference is clearly bonkers. Molly can’t fly, and drinking lemonade won’t change a thing about that. However, this inference is just an ordinary modus ponens and therefore valid as can be. Remember that an inference is valid if the conclusion must be accepted if the premises are accepted. And that is the case. If we accept that drinking lemonade will enable Molly to fly, and we then find her drinking lemonade, then we must also conclude that she’ll be able to fly.

Example 4

p1. If Moby Dick is a whale, then he is violent

p2. Moby Dick is violent

C. Moby Dick is a whale.

If you’ve read Moby Dick, then you know that all of this is true. But is it a valid argument? Not one bit. You can recognise this inference as an incident of the affirming the consequence fallacy. That fallacy remains an invalid inference, regardless of the truth of its premises and conclusion. The conclusion, in this case, may be true, but it doesn’t follow from the premises. And remember that logic is only concerned with whether the conclusion of an inference follows from its premises.


We have discussed some basic valid and invalid forms of argument in propositional logic. There are other types of logic (predicate logic, for example), and there are other, much more complicated inferences possible. Inferences with many more than just two premises are possible, and each premise can itself involve more than just two propositions. There are countless possibilities.

But why is this important to philosophers? Philosophers work with complex arguments. To be able to assess the quality of those arguments, it is often necessary to formalise them. This counts for, for instance, philosophy of science, where philosophers discuss which scientific methods really merits certain scientific conclusions based on the data available. It also counts for political philosophy, to name another example, where stripping an argument of its emotive factors allows us to rationally assess whether an inference is valid or not. Fallacies are all too common, and logic allows us to identify them and protect ourselves from being led astray by them. For philosophers of all kinds, if rationality has any value at all, logic is of utmost importance.

What is a democracy? – 04/07/2016

Just over a week ago, UK citizens and Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK have voted on a referendum on the question whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, or whether it should leave the EU. The outcome – 52% leave, 48% remain – caused turbulence in British and European politics. One of the questions currently under scrutiny in the British public sphere is: should Britain actually leave the EU as a result of this referendum? Legally, in the UK, a referendum is not binding, it is advisory. In principle, parliament can respectfully put the outcome of any referendum aside. But what is the democratic thing to do? Some say that ignoring the outcome of the referendum would be undemocratic. The people have spoken, and the majority have voted Leave. The democratic thing to do is to do what the majority says we should do, so therefore we should Leave the EU. According to this position, a referendum is a decision. In a democracy, the majority decides. And what the majority decides, should happen. To disrupt that process or to let any other principle than the majority principle decide compromises democracy and is a concession to a form of authoritarian, aristocratic tyranny. According to this view, a referendum is the paradigmatic democratic institution, and a direct democracy is always more democratic than a representative democracy. Proponents of this view might concede that a representative democracy is a workable alternative for practical considerations (it would be madness if we had to vote on each and every little decision), but in their eyes it nonetheless remains a compromise; the really pressing issues should be decided by means of a referendum, and the outcome should be decisive.

In the wake of the EU referendum in the UK, several challenges have been raised to this position. Some accept the claim that a referendum is indeed the paradigmatic democratic institution, but that this particular referendum did not meet the criteria because, so they argue, had been lied to and/or were unable to cast an informed vote due to lack of relevant information. They point out that many Leave-voters regretted their vote in light of new information or the withdrawal of promises made by political leaders. Others reject the democratic legitimacy of a referendum as such. They point out that a referendum is not the paradigmatic democratic institution, but that, instead, a parliament is. It is more democratic to choose experts who we trust to represent our values, views and interests in parliament, than it is for voters to decide directly on pressing matters. Our representatives in parliament thus have a mandate to make decisions on our behalf, and so they should, because they have access to the information necessary and the skills and people needed to navigate that vast amount of information, so we, the citizens, can all get on with our day jobs. This camp argues that our real interests and values have the best chance to find expression in laws and institutions in a parliamentary democracy rather than a direct democracy. Therefore, a direct democracy is less democratic than a representative democracy, according to this view.

Then, of course, there are others, such as Plato, Hobbes and Nietzsche, who reject the very idea of democracy as something worth striving to. They think that citizens should have no say in the governance of their society at all, because they are ill equipped due to lack of education (Plato), natural rivals in need of absolute authority for social stability (Hobbes) or weak herd animals who will follow demagogues if you let them, so best to let a superior elite lead the way (Nietzsche).

But what is at stake here? What makes something more or less democratic? In times like these, it may be a good idea to review three rival conceptions of democracy. It will become clear that people might have quite different things in mind when they make an appeal to a democratic ideal.

I will discuss three alternative conceptions of democracy: aggregative democracy, deliberative democracy and radical democracy. In each of these three views, democracy is a mode of governance. It describes the way in which groups of people make decisions on issues of common concern. These decisions are binding, affect individuals in the group or the group as a whole and require cooperation. The central idea that characterises a democracy, as opposed to other forms of governance, is that those who are affected by these decisions also have a say in the decision making. Each conception has strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately I personally place myself in the deliberative democracy camp. Feel free to disagree.

Aggregative democracy

In his essay “Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just”, Richard Arneson states that he takes “the idea of democracy” to be the following:

In a society governed democratically, elections determine what laws will be enforced and who will occupy posts that involve political rule. In these elections, all adult members of society have a vote, and all votes are weighed equally. All adult members are eligible to run for political office in these elections, or can become eligible by some non-onerous process such as establishing residency in a particular state or federal division. Majority rule determines the outcome of elections. Political freedoms including freedom of association and freedom of speech are protected in the society, so the group or faction that currently holds power cannot rig election results by banning or restricting the expression of opposing views. (Arneson 2004, p.46)

This view of democracy is an aggregative conception of democracy. There are various aggregative theories of democracy, some are majoritarian (what the majority wants or votes for should be done) and others are utilitarian (what satisfies the best results for the largest number should be done). What these theories have in common is that they focus on preferences: the better preferences of citizens are taken into account (in equal measure, most theorists would add), the more democratic the governance. Politics is thereby characterised by competition of conflicting views, preferences and interests and, in the case of indirect democracy, competition for administrative power. This model is analogous to the model of a market; candidates for administrative positions compete for the vote of citizens like producers compete for the money of consumers.

The aggregative model is appealing because it describes democracy as a reasonably fair procedure for the management of conflicting preferences that, if followed, always leads to an outcome. Let me introduce this aggregative model by means of an example. Imagine a group of seven friends, who agree that they will go on holiday together for a week this summer. There is consensus on every aspect of their holiday, except the destination. The friends want to come to a democratic decision. They start by expressing their preferences. Some have a destination in mind, such as Sweden or Mallorca, others express preferences like “as long as there’s sun and sea” or “somewhere quiet, with impressive natural landscapes”. Perhaps the friends try to persuade each other to support their proposal, but at some point, they vote, and the destination that suits the preferences of the majority wins. If necessary, this process can be repeated, but in the end the friends will have a holiday destination.

Insofar as the preferences of the friends are given equal weight and they grant each other an equal chance to persuade others, this process is fair. But it is not necessarily any fairer than an elitist decision making process. Suppose one of the friends – Jennie – is better equipped, in terms of talents, virtues and expertise, to do the decision making. She finds out what her friends really prefer to do on their holiday, and she happens to know best which destination suits those preferences. As long as she gives each friend, including herself, equal weight, it would be no less fair to leave the decision making entirely to her. Also, because she has better insight in the matter, the result might be better for all concerned than the result of a vote.

The problem with the aggregative model of democracy is that it is not intrinsically valuable or just. If Jennie is better able to decide on behalf of all her friends and find a holiday destination that will suit the group best, then it would be rational for her friends to just trust her with that task and leave her to decide, forfeiting their democratic right to have a say in the matter. With the aggregative model in mind, it is easy to see that an aristocratic model, whereby an elite makes the decisions, might lead to better decisions. Just as we have good reasons to leave science to the experts, why not leave our political decision making to an expert elite as well? Precisely for that reason, Plato argues that a democracy is not a good idea; we should leave the task of governing to the philosophers instead, he says. They know better what’s in the best interest of all citizens than the citizens themselves.

Moreover, an aggregative democracy is vulnerable to the objections raised by Nietzsche and Hobbes. In a democracy like that, one can only win a ruling position by winning the votes of the people. And people are easily swayed by the wrong sort of reasons voiced by a demagogue, a charismatic individual who cleverly plays the suppressed emotions of large groups of people in order to advance his or her own position. This also holds the danger of causing social instability, which is what Hobbes feared so much, that he thought a democracy was very dangerous and should be rejected in favour of a totalitarian autocracy.

It is fair to say that the aggregative model is what most people mean when they have a democracy in mind.

Deliberative Democracy

Advocates of a rival conception of democracy – deliberative democracy – point out a further flaw aggregative model: it lacks answers to important moral questions about fair governance. Aggregative democracy is consistent with existing unequal power relations, and gives no standards by which to decide whether or not such power relations are fair (Gutmann and Thompson 2004, Forst 2005 and 2011). This makes aggregative democracy vulnerable to problems like the tyranny of the majority, where the preferences of the majority cause rights violations or oppression of minorities.

In an aggregative democracy “there still is an unacknowledged competition between morally grounded human rights and the principle of popular sovereignty.” (Habermas 1996, p.94)

As individuals, each of us is due moral respect. Human rights are an expression of that (we’ll leave aside the discussion of whether rights are indeed the appropriate expression of our moral worth, for the moment). We are due moral respect, Immanuel Kant famously argued, because we are autonomous beings. We are the kind of being that can think for itself and decide what we want to do with our lives and what kind of person we want to be. We are also responsible for our own actions. That means we are not entitled to use others for our own gain, because others have as much a claim to their own autonomy as we do. Autonomy, for Kant, is the foundation for all morality.

Autonomy means that if anyone aims to coerce us, they’ll have to justify this to us, otherwise it isn’t moral. If the justification for coercion is based on good reasons, then we would, if we were rational, agree with it anyway and that would mean we no longer need to be coerced. The same counts for state coercion, Habermas argues. Our autonomy means that we are owed a justification when the state coerces us.

But according to Kant every human being could, were they truly rational, sit in an armchair and reason for themselves what the best decisions would be. Kant, therefore, could not really explain why a democracy requires the real involvement of the citizens instead of a perfectly rational and benevolent dictator. According to Habermas, what should really guide our justifications for political decisions is what he calls the force of the better argument. The force of the better argument has an irresistible effect on every rational human being, but it can only have that effect in the context of open, unobstructed, intersubjective communication. It is only in a discursive context that citizens are invited to take an impartial stance, to transcend their own particular preferences and interests and to consider what might be the best thing to do from a moral point of view. Such communication takes place in the public sphere: not only in parliament, but also in the media, at schools and universities, on the bus and around the dinner table.

For this reason, Habermas argues, a society is more democratic if there are institutions that facilitate this deliberation about matters of public concern in the public sphere. An independent press, affordable public education and the right to demonstrate are examples of such institutions. The aim of public deliberation is consensus, even if that is unattainable in practice and only a regulative ideal. Since a consensus would mean that a vote is no longer necessary, Habermas is not a fervent proponent of voting as a decision making process, although he does acknowledge that it is sometimes necessary in the absence of a consensus. All the same, in Habermas’ eyes there is nothing democratic about a referendum as such.

Other proponents of the deliberative model of democracy are John Rawls, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Cheryl Misak and Rainer Forst.

Radical democracy: agonistic pluralism

Chantal Mouffe shares with deliberative democrats the concern that the aggregative model is too thin. However, she contends that the deliberative model, too, has its flaws. Her critique of deliberative democracy is twofold. Firstly, she argues that deliberative democrats assign too much weight to rationality and underestimate the ineradicable role of power, passion and conflict in the nature of the political. Secondly, she argues that deliberative democrats still fail to resolve the tension between democracy and justice, and that we should relinquish the hope that this tension can be solved. As an alternative, Mouffe argues that a satisfactory model of democracy should let go of the ideal of consensus and embrace conflict and pluralism (Mouffe 2000, Laclau and Mouffe 1985).

According to Mouffe, the nature of the political is pregnant with power relations, passions, emotions and conflict. These factors are constitutive of the social relations that enable political action and collaboration, but also political struggle. Political practices, including deliberative practices, cannot be abstracted from these factors; these non-rational factors cannot be eliminated. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge a number of consequences: (a) consensus cannot be achieved, because identity-constituting factors are contingent, they differ among groups and individuals, and they cannot be transcended, (b) an ‘ideal speech situation’, in which actors are guided by no force other than the ‘force of the better argument’, is not only practically impossible, but conceptually impossible; the very social relations needed to be able to speak of any communicative context at all, are constituted by various forces other than the force of the better argument. An imaginary context in which such powers and passions are bracketed is abstract beyond the point of intelligibility; it becomes meaningless and can therefore not serve as a normative ideal.

Based on the same logic, Mouffe maintains that the tension between justice and democracy cannot be resolved, but must instead be acknowledged in a satisfactory theory of democracy. In my view, Mouffe is in danger of contradicting herself here.

According to Mouffe, an inevitable part of politics consists of us/them-constructions. The key question for democracy theory is then not how to dissolve these constructions, but how to enable these constructions in such a way that they are compatible with democratic practice:

Envisaged from the point of view of “agonistic pluralism”, the aim of democratic politics is to construct the “them” in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but an “adversary”, i.e. somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question. This is the real meaning of liberal democratic tolerance, which does not entail condoning ideas that we oppose or being indifferent to standpoints that we disagree with, but treating those who defend them as legitimate opponents (Mouffe 2000, p.15).

The question is: why would we? Why would we tolerate the adversary rather than oppress the enemy? Why would we treat our agonistic opponent as legitimate opponents, whose “right to defend those ideas we do not put into question”? I’d say: because that is just. Morally just. So ironically, by successfully solving the tension between justice and democracy, Mouffe proves herself wrong on this point.

The next question could be: why is it more just to treat your opponent as an adversary who has the right to defend her position, than as an enemy to be destroyed? Mouffe answers:

because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality. But we disagree on the meaning and implementation of those principles and such a disagreement is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion. Indeed, given the ineradicable pluralism of value, there is no rational resolution of the conflict (p.15)

Since we have now seen that Mouffe commits to liberty, equality and the right to defend one’s position, and that she claims that democracy serves these values, I take it that justice and democracy are thereby not in tension.

Of course, there can be endless deliberation about how liberty and equality are best explained. Then we can also have conversations about how we can best institutionalise these ideals. There will be many alternative takes on these questions. Will we reach consensus? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we will reach consensus on some topics, but not on others.

The important insight Mouffe gives us, however, is that while we’re busy disagreeing about what the basic tenets of justice is, justice unfolds. It unfolds because our mode of disagreeing, of deliberating, constructing us/them relations with respect for “them”, passionately committing to values and acknowledging the right of others to passionately commit to conflicting values and so on, is just. It demands tolerance, it recognises the autonomy of individuals, equality and liberty.


Democracy is cultural. Societies can be to a greater or lesser extent democratic. Corruption in society is less democratic than transparency and trust is more democratic than suspicion. Dogmatism is less democratic than intellectual honesty and critical disagreement is more democratic than uncritical agreement. Transparency and trust and other virtues and institutions are not things one can ‘implement’ the way one can organise an election. Voting as such does not define a democracy. A society is not only democratic on the day the citizens vote, but it is democratic all year round. The way I treat you as a citizen can be more or less democratic. Democracy happens on the bus and at the family dinner table as much as in parliament.

The more democratic a society is, culturally, the better. I agree with Habermas that democratic culture is more just than undemocratic culture. Skills, virtues and institutions that encourage engaged rational deliberation among citizens are more democratic and therefore more desirable than practices that discourage such deliberation. The ability to take an impartial perspective is such a skill. We may not be able to bracket our ethical commitments, but we can certainly get better at answering questions like: “why should someone who does not share my ethical commitment be bound by this law?” I agree with Mouffe, however, that for these questions to arise, for us to take position and to be able to reflect on our position, we need an adversary. In this respect, we can compare democratic practice with a game of chess. Your opponent is truly an opponent and you do all you can to win the game and make her lose. But you both agree on the rules of the game of chess, and you need as many opponents as you can get hold of, and good ones indeed, if you hope to get better at chess. The democratic game, if you like, is all about finding the most justified laws. The special feature of the democratic game, however, is that every potential reason-giver you encounter can turn out to be an opponent. The game is never over.

And that, that is democracy.



Arneson, Richard, ‘Democracy Is Not Intrinsically Just’, in Justice & Democracy, ed. by Robert E. Goodin, Keith Dowding, and Carole Pateman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 40–58

Benhabib, Seyla, ed., Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton University Press, 1996)

Forst, Rainer, Das Recht Auf Rechtfertigung (Suhrkamp Verlag KG, 2005)

Gutmann, Amy, and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton University Press, 2004)

Habermas, Jurgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. MIT Press, 1996.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso Books, 1985)

Misak, Cheryl, Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)

Mouffe, Chantal, ‘Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism’, Political Science Series, Political Science Series, 2000



Habermas: Religion in the Public Sphere – 27/06/2016


A Pluralist Democracy

Here are two assumptions we’ll accept for the sake of argument:

  1. We live in a democracy (or in a state that strives to be a democracy, or at least pretends to be one, however much of a mess they make of it in practice).
  2. The citizenry of that democracy is characterised by religious plurality: various religious and non-religious worldviews and ways of life co-exist, and (importantly) this is likely to remain this way.

Democracies occur in many forms, historically, but all have in common that they ought to be an expression of the Democratic Principle: those who are subject to the law, should be able to view themselves as co-authors of that law.

Of course, the way in which citizens can contribute to law-making can take many forms: electing representatives, voting in a referendum, starting and signing petitions, but also contributing to public debate through open, public forums, which require some basic democratic rights, such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, the right to a defense in court and the right to education (this is not an exclusive list).

An often-made mistake is to equate democracy with simple majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is ‘doing what the majority wants’, which can easily be established by a vote. This system is certainly a useful decision making tool, and can at times be applied in a democracy, but it is not the same as a democracy, since it can run against the Democratic Principle. The problem with majoritarianism is that it can lead to what is known as ‘the tyranny of the majority’. A majority can vote to unjustly oppress a minority, so in a majoritarian system, minority rights are in danger. A majority vote in favour of prosecuting homosexuals is a case in point. The problem with this is that the homosexuals in question would be subject to that decision, but they can hardly view themselves as co-authors of it. A democracy requires that all those who are subject to binding decisions should be able to have access to a justification they could come to accept as reasonable, and they should be able to influence that decision by offering a justification of their own. In short: in a democracy citizens owe one another reasons for laws, a vote alone won’t do.

A democracy, therefore, consists of a wide variety of social rights and institutions. We live in a democracy all the time, not only on election day.

Religion in the Public Sphere

So in a democracy, the public sphere is one of these important institutions. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written a lot about the public sphere, ever since the seventies. The public sphere is the domain in which citizens of a democracy discuss matters of public concern with each other. This can be online and offline, in the media, in the pub, in the bus, in the classroom. Habermas divides the public sphere in two tiers: the informal public sphere and the formal, political public sphere. The informal public sphere is the domain where ordinary citizens discuss matters of public concern, and the political public sphere is the domain where policy makers and other public official formulate and finalise laws: parliament and the court of law are examples.

Democratic deliberation takes place in these two tiers of the public sphere. Citizens contribute justifications to the informal public sphere that public officials pick up, and public officials justify the laws they make in the formal public sphere.

In the past two decades, the following question has been a topic of hot debate:

In a democracy, can religious justifications count as legitimate justifications for laws, or should laws be supported by secular reasons only?

One of the basic rights essential for a democracy is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion consists of a negative and a positive freedom. The negative freedom entails the right to be free from the religion of others, so others are prevented from imposing their religion on you, even if that were the religion of the majority. The positive freedom entails the right to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, which enables you to build churches and temples, dress in certain ways or observe certain diets or celebrate certain religious holidays. Each society can negotiate these two freedoms in various ways, but what is important is that both are respected. Habermas explicitly states that he is committed to both the negative and the positive freedom of religion.

So, at face value, this poses a problem. On the one hand, the positive freedom of religion protects the freedom of religion citizens to use their religious views in the public sphere, including in discussions about laws that apply to all. On the other hand, the negative freedom of religion protects the non-religious citizens, or citizens who adhere to minority religions, from having the religion of others imposed on them, which might happen if a law is supported solely with a religious justification. How to solve this problem?

American philosopher John Rawls suggests that citizens can use religious reasons in discussions in the public sphere, but “in due course”, when the law is finally made, the law should be supported by sufficient “public reason”. By “public reason”, Rawls means reasons that every reasonable citizen could reasonably come to accept. For instance, when a religious citizen goes to the polling station, they ought to be able to justify their vote with sufficient reason, even if their own reasons for casting that vote is religiously motivated.

Another philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, however, argues that what Rawls demands of religious citizens is (a) too demanding, and (b) goes against the positive freedom of religion. He argues that many religious citizens are unable to make a “split” in their reasoning between religious and secular reasons, without having to be disingenuous or threatening their own integrity. It is, as it were, part and parcel of their religious commitment that they base their political actions on those religious views. This objection of Wolterstorff against Rawls is called the Integrity Objection. This threat to the internal integrity of religious citizens is particularly a problem because that burden is not asked of non-religious citizens, which poses an unjustified unfairness.

Habermas takes Wolterstorff’s objection seriously and has an alternative to Rawls: he calls it the translation proviso: citizens can use religious justifications for laws in the informal public sphere, even without offering additional secular reasons in support of their proposal. However, in the formal, political public sphere, officials must use secular justifications alone to justify the laws they make. To avoid simply ignoring the religious contributions to public debate, it is essential that religious reasons be translated to secular reasons. This job of translation, according to Habermas, is a responsibility religious and non-religious citizens carry together, as a co-operative task. This means that both religious and non-religious citizens must engage in a mutual learning process: religious citizens must learn to accept that their religious doctrines don’t have a privileged appeal to truth, and that there are rivaling religious and secular doctrines that deserve to be treated with equal respect. Non-religious citizens must learn that religious worldviews are not simply relics of an archaic past, bound to disappear, but that instead religious reasons are vehicles of relevant content that can shine new light on issues of public concern. In the process of translation, Habermas believes that this relevant content can be distilled from religious justifications and reformulated in secular terms.

For Habermas. Secular language differs from religious language in that it is “equally acceptable to all”, whereas religious language is only accessible to those who already adhere to that religion. That is the reason why, in Habermas’ view, at the end of the day, only secular reasons are able to meet the requirements of the democratic principle. His translation proviso, he argues, thus protects both the negative and the positive parts of the freedom of religion.


Habermas, Jurgen. “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens.” In Between Naturalism and Religion: Political Essays, by JurgenHabermas, 114 – 48. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008
Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997):765 – 807
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues.” In Religion inthe Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, by Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996
If you’re on, you could read this conference paper I delivered a few years ago (I am somewhat critical of Habermas, although I admire very much his position on the whole).
Here’s a brief excerpt of a lecture Habermas gave in 2011. Habermas is perhaps difficult to understand (he was born with a speech impediment and, of course, a German accent), but just watch this and pray you’ll be lecturing like that when you’re in your eighties.


Positive and Negative Liberty – 20/06/16

In a previous session, we have discussed the question of free will. In that discussion, the freedom of the will is often understood in opposition to determination or necessity or inevitability. But when we talk about freedom in a moral or political context, freedom becomes a thing individuals and groups can have, or lack, or have to a certain degree. Freedom is something that can be impaired or limited by circumstances, by other agents or even by ourselves – and generally the limitation or impairment of the freedom of individuals or groups is taken to be harmful or an infringement of their rights.

But when is a person – or a group – free? When do we have freedom and when do we lack it? In short:

What is freedom?

There are many different answers to this question. According to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, these many conceptions of freedom can be divided into two types of freedom: positive and negative freedom.

Negative freedom is best understood as freedom from obstacles, or as non-interference. We are free in a negative sense if nobody is stopping us and no external thing stands in our way. Hindrances to our negative freedom can be a wall that obstructs our freedom of movement, a locked door that blocks our entrance, but also laws that limit our options by forbidding things, social oppression that limits our options, like the glass ceiling or racist bias, or criminality in our neighbourhood that stops us from going out after dark. Hindrances to freedom in this negative sense are external to the individual agent. Negative freedom is called negative not because it is a bad thing to have, but because it is defined solely in terms of what must be absent for this freedom to obtain: negative freedom is the absence of obstacles. Negative freedom can only be explained in negative terms: no obstruction, no interference. Other than pointing out which hindrances and obstacles should be absent for a person to be free, there is nothing else one can say about negative freedom.

Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the freedom to do or be certain things or persons. As opposed to negative freedom, positive freedom demands more explanation than just pointing at obstacles that might hinder it. Positive freedom must therefore be explained in positive terms: the freedom to do what exactly? Freedom to be whom? To make sense of positive freedom, such questions have to be answered. Examples of positive freedom are: the freedom to live a life one considers worthwhile, the freedom to develop oneself, the freedom to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, the freedom to choose certain types of jobs, schools, education or projects that one deems meaningful, the freedom to be the person one wants to be. To have freedom in this positive sense, the absence of obstacles is not enough; it requires the availability and accessibility of certain options and facilities, and it can be hindered by internal factors as well as external factors. Psychological factors – fear, depression, addiction – might make us un-free in this sense, because such factors can hinder us from being the person we want to be, or doing the things we deem meaningful or good. In addition, positive freedom often requires interference by others, because others might offer possibilities to you that would not be available if freedom were to be understood as non-interference. Positive freedom overlaps, or is sometimes equated with, the idea of autonomy (self-governance or self-determination). Individuals can be free in this sense, but so too can groups.

To clarify the distinction by means of a story, imagine yourself on an uninhabited island. On your island, you have complete freedom of movement. Nobody or nothing is stopping you from doing what you want to do. There are no dangerous animals, no laws, steep cliffs or thorny bushes that might stop you. However, you might want to be part of a society, you might want to have friends, you might want to have a job or a social circle. The absence of human contact might cause depression, which might eventually stop you from doing anything at all. In this situation, all the requirements for negative freedom are met. After all, there are no obstacles, and nobody is interfering with your conduct. But, in spite of all this negative freedom, it is hard to see how someone in this situation can truly be called free. The island might well be a prison of sorts.

Another example: imagine you’re hiking. You’re free to walk in any direction. Nobody is telling you what to do. You reach a crossroad and you take the left turn, but you could have gone right or straight ahead too if you wanted, nobody is stopping you. You are free in that sense. However, you suffer from an alcohol addiction, and your reason for turning left is that there’s a pub in that direction. Although you think the right turn is the direction you should take, because that’s the way to the beautiful nature trail you were planning to hike, your craving for whisky is so strong that it forces you, in spite of yourself, to go left. In that sense, you very much lack freedom.

In these two examples, you have negative freedom, but you lack positive freedom. The other way around is possible too: imagine you are imprisoned. The prison you’re in offers you one route of self-development: a training to become a wood worker. There is also only one activity you might pursue in your free time: net ball. You can play net ball as much as you want, but no other sports or leisure activities. The library holds all and only Terry Pratchett novels and there’s a Catholic chapel with a Catholic priest available. Should you desire to read any other books, exercise any other religion, play any other sports or hobbies, do another job or go anywhere else, then you will be stopped by the walls, bars and guards. But it just so happens that you desire exactly these things. The person you want to be is a net ball playing, Terry Pratchett reading Catholic wood worker, and you are perfectly free to become that person and do those things. In this way, you have positive freedom, but you lack negative freedom.

Negative and positive freedom in political philosophy

Most accounts of freedom in the history of philosophy can be categorised as defending either a form of negative freedom or a form of positive freedom. Generally, these two conceptions of freedom are rivals, because which type of freedom you value more has consequences for your political and moral philosophy.

Many liberal theorists, for example, understand freedom as negative freedom. This informs their idea that a state should have as little interference in the lives of citizens as possible, because state interference means a loss of negative freedom for citizens. A state should therefore be ‘thin’, largely absent from the daily lives of citizens and as undemanding as possible (low taxes, few laws, minimal public services).

Critics of liberalism (socialists, Marxists or some versions of republicanism, for instance), on the other hand, favour the idea of positive freedom. They argue that it is the duty of the state to provide substantial options for citizens to develop and employ themselves as they see fit, and offer substantial options for groups to organise and govern themselves. The state is thereby seen to have a regulative function in the daily lives of citizens and citizens are encouraged to participate actively in political life, as a way to increase self-governance. On such accounts, a state should be ‘thick’ or ‘substantial’ (many public services and public support for various institutions, many regulations and high taxes).

There are criticisms of both conceptions of freedom. The main problem with the idea of negative freedom is that it fails to explain why the addict or the person who lacks real, tangible options for self-development is not free. The main problem with positive freedom is that it opens the door to authoritarianism or paternalism, because who decides which routes to self-development are more worthwhile than others? Shouldn’t that be for the individual to decide?

As a result, the division between political theories is not as black and white as it may seem here. There are liberals who attempt to reconcile positive freedom with liberal theory, and republicans and socialists who use the idea of negative freedom to support their theories. Across political philosophies, there is the attempt to devise a concept of freedom that reconciles positive and negative freedom in a way that does not lead to conflicts.


Is a slave who is content with her predicament and desires nothing else, free? Why?

Is an addict free?

Does my freedom increase if I learn to align my desires with the options available to me (for instance by learning to be content with what I have, rather than to wish for what I can’t have)? Why, or why not?

Does freedom result in happiness, or is it possible to be free but unhappy, and happy but not free?



Tom Richey explains the difference between positive and negative freedom in this video. It is pitched very much to a US audience, but the lecture is clear enough.

Kant on Space and Time – 13/06/2016

time and space

“Space is not objective and real …; instead, it is subjective and ideal, and originates from the mind’s nature in accord with a stable law as a scheme, as it were, for coordinating everything sensed externally.” writes Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) in his Inaugural Dissertation (1770).


Yes, you read that correctly: space is not real. That is exactly what Kant is saying. But what does he mean?

When we think about space and time, it is useful to consider a couple of distinct questions:

  1. What are space and time? In what way do they exist? (an ontological question)
  2. How do we represent space and time in our mind? How do we think about space and time? (an epistemological question)

Let’s start with the first question: what are space and time? For Kant, the answers available at his time made this a multiple choice question:

  • A. Space and time are substances.
  • B. Space and time are properties of substances.
  • C. Space and time are not properties of objects, but still dependent on objects for their existence.
  • D. Space and time are not substances, but still exist independent of other objects. Or,
  • E. Space and time are not real.

Space and time can hardly be substances themselves. They do not take up space or time (as they are space and time) and they are imperceptible. They are causally inert: they do not change at all when they interact with other substances. Are they properties of substances, then? Just like red is not a substance – it does not exist on its own – but a property of substances – other, independently existing, substances such as apples and books can have red as a property -, perhaps space and time are like red in this respect: a property. Apples and books can be red, blue, big, small, round, square or… spacial and temporal. So perhaps substances exist first, and then space and time are merely properties of those substances? But that is problematic too. That would suggest that the existence of space and time is dependent on the existence of substances. Moreover, if they are properties, then they could fail to exist even when there are substances. If space and time exist, it seems that substances exist in space and time, and not the other way around.

Perhaps, then, space and time are relations between objects. There’s an apple, and a little later I place another apple about three inches next to the first apple, and space is one way in which both apples relate to each other (there is space between them) and time is another way in which they relate to each other (some time passes between the placement of each apple). But this raises a similar problem: this would imply that space and time do not exist independent of objects such as apples. This is a problem, because we would normally imagine that space is what apples are in. That is to say, each spacial object – such as an apple – takes up space, regardless of whether there is something else next or behind or above it. If there were only one object in the entire universe – say, an apple – and nothing else, then everything around it would simply be empty space, not no space.

So, if space and time cannot be dependent on the things that exist in space and time, then they must either exist, in physical reality, independently of any object, or – option E – space and time are not real, that is, not part of reality that exists independent of our knowledge of it. Kant thinks the correct answer is the latter: space and time are not real.

To explain why Kant thinks that space and time are not real, we’ll have to turn to the second question: how do we think about space and time? How do we represent them in our mind? According to Kant, space and time are pure intuitions. They are categories of the mind, which the mind imposes on our perception in order to be able to perceive anything at all. Space and time exist only in our minds.

You may find this an odd idea. Surely, space and time are real and have always been part of reality, even before there were minds. The Big Bang happened long ago in time and ever since the universe is exploding, growing bigger in space. There weren’t human minds back then, so surely, space and time are not dependent on our minds!

Indeed, that was the prevailing philosophical stance in Kant’s time too. The Empiricists believed that we get to know about space and time through experience. We see an apple, and another apple a few inches further away and that’s how we get the idea of space. Likewise, we have an apple, then we eat it, and then we are left with only its core. Experiencing a succession of events like that is how we learn about time. That, very briefly, is how the early modern Empiricists believed we acquire the concepts of space and time.

But not Kant. Kant flips this picture upside down. According to Kant, space and time are not even concepts, they are pure intuitions. Intuitions, according to Kant, are representations in our mind of singular, particular things to which we have immediate access. Concepts, on the other hand, are representations in our minds of generic classes of things, which we have acquired through learning of some kind. We can have an intuition of this particular apple in front of us, but not of apples in general. We have a concept of apples in general, and at any time, whether we have an apple in front of us or not, we can imagine this concept of apples along with the characteristics we have learned about apples. Space and time, on the other hand, don’t work like that, according to Kant, they are pure intuitions. We can only ever think about space and time as singular (space can be divided up into smaller sections, but it remains one big endless space, and the same counts for time) and we have immediate access to it: we needn’t learn anything about space and time, we always intuit them already. In fact, says Kant, we cannot imagine anything at all without imagining space and time along with it. We are simply unable to imagine spacelessness and timelessness.

Space and time, therefore, are categories of the mind, according to Kant. They are features of the mind that enable us to experience anything at all. Our mind apply space and time to our experience of reality, because otherwise we would not only fail to make sense of it, but we would fail to experience anything whatsoever.

Try it. Imagine an apple. Now imagine an apple without space. You can’t do it. Imagine a timeless apple, not an everlasting or eternal apple, but really a timeless apple. One that exists without there being any time during which it exists. Can’t be done. It’s easy to imagine things without apples, but as soon as we imagine anything, as soon as we represent anything in our mind, we must also imagine time and space at the same time.

Now, why is it impossible to imagine anything without space and time? Because space and time are always there, have always been there, and we’ve always experienced space and time, one might answer. But Kant doesn’t think so. Remember, we cannot actually perceive space and time. They are imperceptible. You don’t see space: you see things in space, but not space itself. You don’t feel time, you feel all sorts of things happening in time, but not time itself. Yet, we cannot see or feel or hear things without having an immediate intuition of space and time also.

This means, according to Kant, that our knowledge of space and time must be a priori (before experience), instead of a posteriori (after experience). Geometry, for instance, would not be able to make any progress if space were not known a priori. Geometry is not an empirical science: we don’t go around trying to find lots of triangles to test empirically whether the sum of their angles is indeed 180 degrees. Instead, geometry provides us with the knowledge that the sum of the angles of all triangles is 180 degrees purely with knowledge that is in human minds already: knowledge of space.

Therefore, according to Kant, space and time are features of the human mind, not of reality. They belong to the world of ideas rather than reality, so space and time are not real but ideal.

“But that is ridiculous,” said one of my students when I had explained this in a small group seminar, “how can space and time not exist in reality? That is just bizarre.”

“Of course!” I said, “Of course it’s bizarre. That’s exactly what Kant expects you to say, isn’t it? If space and time are how your mind enables you to experience anything at all, of course it would strike you as bizarre to suggest that space and time do not exist! That’s precisely his point.”

This view on space and time forms part of Kant’s bigger project: to show that we cannot acquire knowledge about things as they are in themselves, but only about how they appear to us. Since how things appear to us is determined by the mind – which, according to Kant, applies 12 categories in total, of which space and time are two – we can only acquire knowledge by means of reasoning. This makes Kant a rationalist as opposed to an empiricist. Kant’s view, that the mind determines what we can know by determining our perception, is called transcendental idealism. There will be more lessons on Kant to follow.


You can find Kant’s Prolegomena For Any Future Metaphysics here. It’s a short piece, difficult, but worth reading.

This video explains how Kant uses geometry to make his case that space is only in the mind:

And here’s a song about Kant:

Martha Nussbaum – The Capability Approach 06/06/16

Contemporary debates about the philosophy of social justice face challenges that are particular to our times. Martha Nussbaum developed – based on the capabilities-based development theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen – a sophisticated answer to many of these challenges, which she outlines in her book Creating Capabilities (2011). What are these contemporary challenges, and how does Nussbaum attempt to meet those challenges?

Contemporary challenges

Global justice. It is uncontroversial that resources and opportunities are unfairly distributed. Not only within countries or states, but also among states. Some states have more resources, or are better able to manage their resources, than others. What do richer states morally owe poorer states? On the one hand, the inequalities between states are arbitrary and not the result of a fair process, so fairness requires that these inequalities be compensated, particularly since these inequalities currently lead to dehumanizing conditions for many. On the other hand, really equal distribution of resources across states is as good as impossible to govern.

Imperialism. We’d like to think that the times when Western nations went around the world invading territories, claiming land and resources for themselves and imposing their laws, norms, religions, languages, culture and governance upon other peoples is long behind us. Likewise, we’d like to think that women and men enjoy equality in all spheres of life and that battles like that of the suffragettes is a thing of the past. But reality is uncomfortable in this respect. Feminists and anti-colonialists have often persuasively pointed out that even after decolonisation and the legal recognition of equality for man and women, male and Western norms are still culturally dominant, often in hidden and implicit ways. Feminist philosophers have argued that many moral and political philosophies in the history of philosophy implicitly assume male standards that don’t quite fit women’s experiences. Likewise, Western philosophies have been shown to implicitly assume a European or US American context, thereby discounting non-Western societies from the outset, but at the same time claiming universal applicability. Western philosophies thus are in danger of implicitly making imperialist claims without realizing it. In this light, postmodern concerns – like those put forward by Nietzsche – spring to mind: is it at all possible to formulate a moral or political theory that has universal application, or does such a theory always amount to imperialism, whereby the dominant group imposes its arbitrary morality on everyone? But if a theory of justice has no universal applicability, can it be said to be a theory of justice at all? After all, aren’t we all owed the same respect, in virtue of our humanity?

Justice to animals. Can justice apply to non-human animals, too? Few would argue that animals can make the same moral claims as humans, or that they should have the same rights. But equally few would claim they are not owed any moral respect at all. Presumably, truth lies somewhere in between. Animals are sentient, they can feel pain and pleasure, fear and joy. Many people would argue that animals should be protected from pointless cruelty. But which criteria apply here? A theory of justice that is not at all able to consider or apply to non-human animals is, these days, considered to have a serious handicap.

The Capability Approach

Martha Nussbaum can’t be said to lack ambition. She claims that her theory of social justice meets all three of the above challenges. She starts from the Aristotelian idea that the idea of justice ought to be based on the question: “What is each person able to do and to be?”[1] If we are to judge any society on its basic justice or decency, that’s the question we should ask, according to Nussbaum. To further break this question down, she has formulated ten capabilities, which form the basis of her account of justice. These ten capabilities are:

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily health (“including reproductive health”)
  3. Bodily integrity (including “opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction”)
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought (“being able to use the senses, to imagine, to think, and to reason”)
  5. Emotions (“being able to have attachments to things and people outside of ourselves”)
  6. Practical reason (“being able to form a conception of the good”)
  7. Affiliation (“being able to live with and toward others”)
  8. Other species (“being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature”)
  9. Play (“being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities”)
  10. Control over one’s environment (“being able to participate effectively in political choices” and “being able to hold property and having property rights”) [2]

These ten capabilities constitute Nussbaum’s account of social justice. To understand how they work, however, a few further things must be said about these capabilities.

Firstly, these ten capabilities form the basis of justice. Justice should be understood in these terms; they are not mere symptoms of justice.

Secondly, these ten capabilities are universal. They apply to all humans and even to non-human animals, regardless of culture of context.

Thirdly, having these capabilities, does not mean that one also enacts them. This should be a matter of free choice, according to Nussbaum. She therefore distinguishes ‘functioning’ from ‘capabilities’, whereby functioning refers to doing what a capability enables one to do. For instance, I may have the capability to connect with other species – I am able to do so and no one is hindering me from doing so nor coercing me to do so – but whether I actually choose to do so is a different matter. The capability approach is therefore a distinctly liberal approach.

Fourthly, Nussbaum employs a threshold with regard to these capabilities. That means that in order for a person to live a life of dignity, and for a society to deserve the label ‘decent’ or ‘minimally just’, these ten capabilities must be enabled to a certain, minimal, degree. It is hardly intelligible that a person could exercise them to a maximum degree, since contingent circumstances necessarily limit them. Hence, justice does not require that people are unlimited in the exercise of these capabilities, but that they have them to a certain degree.

Fifthly, the ten capabilities relate to each other. If the conditions for reasonable bodily health and longevity aren’t met, for instance, we also won’t be capable of many other things. A society is therefore just only if for each citizen conditions are provided that practically enable all ten capabilities to threshold level. That also means that the lack of one capability can not be compensated with an excess in another capability. No amount of education can compensate for the lack of bodily health. All capabilities must be met to threshold level.

Does Nussbaum’s account meet the three contemporary challenges?

According to Nussbaum, societies that are unable to reach a minimum threshold level of these ten capabilities for their members ought to receive help from societies that do have the resources and institutions to provide these ten capabilities. This is, according to Nussbaum, a reasonable demand for global justice.

Although Nussbaum claims that her approach has universal applicability, she is sensitive to the dangers of imperialism. However, she has thought of this too. The capabilities are sufficiently generic, according to Nussbaum, to allow for significant differences in cultural interpretation. How or to which extent we choose to play, make decisions about our bodies or relate to the other species can be informed in various ways by our religion, culture, upbringing, ethical views, tastes or environment.

Finally, the ten capabilities can be employed to evaluate not only the level of justice towards humans, but also non-human animal species. Perhaps even robots!



Thanks for reading my introduction, but who can really explain it better than Martha Nussbaum herself? I really recommend watching this lecture. It is very clear and detailed and really brings home why Nussbaum thinks all of this is very, very important.


[1]    Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities; The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univerity Press, 2011) p. 18

[2]    Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 2011 and Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)

Davidson – On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme 30/05/16

Donald Davidson (1917 – 2003) was a very influential philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the fields he contributed to was the philosophy of language. Among other questions, the philosophy of language concerns itself with questions like: where does language get its meaning from? and, how does language relate to our mind, the world, or our community?

One reason why philosophy became interested in language was the surge in scientific progress in early modern times. With a more sophisticated science, we needed to think about the requirements of a language suitable for speaking about reality in such an objective and sophisticated way. One of the philosophers who influenced Davidson was Quine, who was indeed concerned with the philosophy of science. Quine proposed that all science aimed to form a coherent theory of reality. This, then, needs to be formulated in language. Each sentence in any language, then, formulates a theorem of this over-arching holistic theory. Sentences, then, acquire their meaning from the role they play in the totality of all true sentences in that language.

Kuhn, another philosopher of science, then proposed that it is possible to have quite different coherent holistic theories of reality. Indeed, he famously offered the idea of a paradigm shift: grand discoveries in science cause a radical change of meaning in a language. In the Ptolemaic world view, for instance, concepts like “star” and “planet” just had entirely different meanings than after the Copernican Turn. Thus, the Ptolemaic language and the Copernican language are so different in terms of meaning, that one can’t compare them with each other, even if they use the same words and grammar. They are incommensurable.

From this idea of language as a way to describe reality in different ways, it is only a small step to the following thesis, which is widely accepted today, among philosophers and non-philosophers alike. It’s called the “incommensurability thesis”, and applies Quine’s and Kuhn’s idea to all natural languages (or families of languages):

  1. All languages (or families of languages) are conceptual schemes; they are ways in which we organise reality (or our experience thereof).
  2. Different languages (or families of languages) organise reality in different ways.
  3. Therefore, languages are  not intertranslateable; conceptual schemes are incommensurable.

Davidson rejects this thesis in his seminal paper On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme. He does not argue that languages all are or represent the same conceptual scheme (just in different words), but he argues that the very idea of a conceptual scheme, language as a scheme with which we categorise unorganised content, is unintelligible.

How would a conceptual scheme work? Well, there are four possibilities:

conceptual scheme

Davidson proceeds to reject them one by one.

Firstly, “we cannot attach a clear meaning to the notion of organising a single object (the world, nature etc.) unless that object is understood to contain or consist in other objects. Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it. If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” (p.14)

Secondly, with regards to organising our experience of reality instead of reality itself: “Much the same difficulties recur. The notion of organization applies only to pluralities. … Experience makes another and more obvious trouble for the organizing idea. For how could something count as a language that organized only experiences, sensations, surface irritations or sense data? Surely knives and forks, railroads and mountains, cabbages and kingdoms also need organizing.” (p.15)

Finally, Davidson argues, saying that language fits reality or fits our experience of reality is just a complicated way of saying it is true. But since we’re all sharing the same reality, if all languages just combine true sentences about reality, all languages must share the same meaning.

A truth-conditional theory of meaning

Davidson uses Alfred Tarski’s Convention T to arrive at his truth-conditional theory of meaning:

“according to Tarski’s Convention T, a satisfactory theory of truth for a language L must entail, for every sentence s of L, a theorem of the form “s is true if and only if p” where “s” is replaced by a description of s and “p” by s itself if L is English, and by a translation of s into English if L is not English.” P. 16

Example: “Sneeuw is wit” is true if and only if snow is white.

Since for every language we can determine which conditions in reality must obtain for each sentence to be true, we can then find a sentence in any other language that has very similar truth conditions: a sentence that would be true in the same circumstances. If that sentence is found, then we have a translation.

If languages would indeed not be about the same reality at all, then it is hard to see how we could recognise them as languages at all, rather than mere noise. Principle of charity: interpretation or translation depends on our assuming a great deal of agreement, until disagreements surface. It is then much simpler to explain difficulties in translation as differences in belief about reality, rather than as differences in conceptual schemes.



Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Beyond Good and Evil 23/05/16

Whenever I teach a group of students, there’s usually one among them who is fascinated and persuaded by Nietzsche. Not surprising. With his strong critical claims, his powerful quotes and aphorisms and his limitless plea for creativity is enough to shake even the strongest intellectual movements out of their slumber.

Although Nietzsche is without a doubt one of the most influential philosophers of the past two centuries, he considered himself an anti-philosopher. He refused to call himself a philosopher, because he was critical of the assumptions all philosophers at his time took for granted. Nietzsche’s challenges to the philosophy of his time were radical. He put the very purpose of philosophy into question. This makes Nietzsche the rebel of the history of modern western philosophy.

We’ll discuss three assumptions moral philosophers in Nietzsche’s time generally held true, and Nietzsche’s critique of these assumptions. In light of these criticisms, Nietzsche’s own esoteric philosophy will come to the fore.

Is it true that the opposite of Good is Evil, and that this counts for everyone, at all times?

In On the Genealogy of Morals (19887), Nietzsche complains that philosophers are insufficiently aware of the history of morality. Morality is as old as mankind. There have always been moral prescriptions, but what is regarded as good – as the thing one ought to do or strive to – and what is regarded as to be avoided has shifted in the course of history. Philosophers have failed to understand that what is regarded as good is always what the powerful regard as good. Moral theories are nothing more than a rationalisation of the morals of the powerful. Christianity claimed to offer a god-given – and therefore universal – morality, which included admiration of the weak and condemnation of the powerful as well as the claim that everyone is equal. This introduced the idea that the opposite of ‘good’ is not ‘bad’, but ‘evil’. Nietzsche exposes this shift as stemming from the ressentiment of the slaves in antiquity. Whereas in ancient Greece and Rome the good/bad distinction really meant the noble/base distinction, where ‘good’ was everything that was refined, strong and life-affirming, with Christianity this aristocratic ‘good’ was rebranded ‘evil’ and contrasted with a new concept of ‘good’, which meant altruism.

Are humans really sufficiently similar, so that the same morality applies to all equally?

Nietzsche claims it’s a mistake that humans are all equal, which is an assumption uncritically accepted by almost all moral theories. Humans are never motivated by altruism, says Nietzsche, but by the will to power. This will to power is what motivates humans to true greatness. But some have a stronger will than others, or more power, or find more sublime ways to exercise their will to power. Others have a weak will, are powerless or are blunt in their expression of it. Most people fall in the latter group, but some individuals belong to the former. If we formulate a morality that applies to those of weak will, then we force the strong-willed individuals in a regime of mediocrity, and that paralyses humanity. Therefore, any morality that assumes universal application should be rejected, according to Nietzsche.

Are philosophers really detached, rational, honest reasoners?

Philosophers, too, are motivated by the will to power, according to Nietzsche. Their way of exercising their will is by formulating sophisticated justifications of the moral principles they always already had, without having to really challenge these moral principles. But this is just yet another way to affirm what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” or “herd animal morality”: a focus on eliminating suffering, universal applicability, excusing the weak and frowning on power. This makes philosophers moralists who aim to stifle the creative power of those who are willing to take risks and embrace suffering of themselves and others in exchange for progress. Moreover, philosophers who are unwilling to truly challenge their own moral perspectives and to test radical hypotheses are themselves guilty of weakness of will.

Nietzsche’s alternative

Nietzsche believes it is necessary for the progress of mankind that there be and aristocratic elite who are stronger, healthier, nobler and more creative than the rest. They then serve as a goal for everyone, as excellent individuals to look up to, heroes for inspiration. Without such an aristocracy, we’re doomed to mediocrity. Traditional morality stifles rather than encourages such individuals. Instead, such individuals should not be hindered, because they serve mankind as a whole, even if this means that sometimes this progress and creativity involves suffering. Nietzsche even contends it is a characteristic of higher individuals that they are willing to embrace suffering if that is necessary to exercise their will to power.