The conventional signification of Lockean complex ideas*

In the course of writing up a paper on Locke’s theory of ideas for a volume on The Lockean Mind, it dawned on me that all complex ideas are conventional signs. So in what follows, I’d like to suggest that, while simple ideas are natural signs of their causes, complex ideas, even complex ideas of substances, are conventional signs that depend on linguistic consolidation.

In recent years, work on representation in Locke has reached some sort of consensus. Most scholars agree that simple ideas represent their causes. But it’s not at all clear what complex ideas represent. If substances are not given in experience, what do complex ideas represent? Do they have corresponding objects? Given Locke’s metaphysics, it seems safe to say that there are no apples, dogs, cats, trees or stones in the world, at least not properly speaking. Let’s unpack this a bit: While the ingredients of complex ideas, i.e. simple ideas, represent the qualities (= properties) that cause them, the resulting complex idea might be said to represent its cause insofar as the simple ideas represent their causes. So the complex idea of an apple might be said to be a natural sign of its cause insofar as the simple ideas (of which it consists), say the ideas of round, green, sweet and firm, are natural signs of qualities. Yet, this cannot be the last word, because complex substance ideas seem to have no direct correlate that they represent. Arguably, we cannot say that the things we think of in virtue of complex ideas are given in experience. My idea of an apple is not simply caused by an apple. Rather the complex idea of apple is made up of ideas of qualities, while the apple as a substantial bearer of the perceived qualities is not itself given in experience but presupposed. Looking at the causal explanation of such ideas, we cannot simply invoke extramental qualities. We also need to take into account the tacit mental operations that form the complex idea out of simple ideas (Essay II, xxiii, 1).

What, then, do complex ideas represent? As I have just said, the idea of an apple can of course be analysed into ideas of qualities. But if the apple idea as such is not taken as a sign of the causes (qualities), what does it represent? To answer this question, it is important to note that Locke appeals to an old distinction between two kinds of ideas, archetypes and copies or ektypes. Traditionally, archetypes would be taken to be ideas in the mind of God, where they serve as blueprints of things to be created. Locke doesn’t appeal to divine ideas, but he still makes use of this distinction when discussing adequate and inadequate ideas (see Essay II, xxxi). Arguably, Locke assumes that our mind forms, stores and names such archetypes when we encounter things or invent moral categories. The archetypes are what Locke calls nominal essences in book III. What does this mean? When we have an occurrent idea of an apple, this idea can be seen as a copy of the archetype through which we recognise the thing as an apple. So when we see an apple, we have in fact an idea that matches to some extent the archetype of apples in our mind.

This archetype-copy relation also forms the foundation for Locke’s famous criticism of our assumption that we have cognitive access to real essences of things. According to Locke, we tend to assume that a present idea of an apple matches the real essence of an apple. But this is a mistake, argues Locke. In fact, we refer it to the nominal essence, which is nothing but an abstract idea with a name annexed to it (see Essay III, iii, 15).

An immediate worry arising from this account is that such archetypes would be highly subjective or instable. After all, nominal essences (or archetypes) of substances are formed in our various accidental encounters with things. But if we invoke Locke’s discussion of language, we can see that he meets this worry. Briefly put, the fact that nominal essences are annexed to names means that these essence ideas are socially consolidated. The linguistic community a speaker is part of will sanction some uses and confirm other uses. This way, the abstract ideas are stabilised and even rectifiable in the light of new discoveries. So if I happen to call apples tomatoes, other users will correct and amend my use of the term, and thus make me adapt the conventional nominal essence.

The upshot is that complex ideas of substances (and mixed modes) are conventional signs to some degree. Although complex ideas consist of simple ideas that can be seen as natural signs of their causes, the complex ideas ultimately function as conventional signs for us. What they present to our mind is not solely determined by what causes their ingredients but also by the patterns that are consolidated within a linguistic community. This means that my occurent idea of an apple, while caused by certain qualities, presents to my mind an apple that I can recognise as an instance of what we call apple, because it has to match the socially consolidated criteria of the nominal essence of apple. Were it not for the historically grown categories salient in my speech community, for instance those for certain kinds of fruit, it is possible that my mind would register the recurrent ideas of certain qualities without ever recognising them as pertaining to a certain kind of thing.

Locke makes this point clear when he writes that ideas without names annexed to them would resemble a library with unbound books in which we could access pages without it being determined to which books the pages belong: ‘He that has complex Ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better Case than a Bookseller, who had in his Ware-house Volumes, that lay there unbound, and without Titles …’ (Essay III, x, 26-27). The point is that the precise ingredients of our complex ideas, the structure and amount of simple ideas belonging to them, are determined by the naming practice in a given speech community. Thus, although the ingredients themselves have a causal origin, the way the ingredients are bound into bundles and used in thinking is a matter of convention.


* This piece is now kindly featured by Locke Studies 19 (2019).

“How would you arrange the deportation of my father?” On responsible (free) speech. A response to Silvia Mazzini

Could you tell me, face to face or in writing, how you would go about having my father deported? – Why, you ask? – Well, maybe you think he is a burden for society. After all, he is quite old by now. So how do you do get it arranged? Should some people be sent to fetch him? Perhaps at night? Go on, then! –

You, gentle reader, probably don’t have such desires. But if I follow the political discussions in the Netherlands and other countries, many people want that. Only they don’t tell me personally; they talk about certain groups, not to me.

Ah, it’s not old people, you say, just Muslims? So they don’t want to come for my father? Well, lucky me then… Should it make a difference whether people want to deport my or someone else’s father? Well, it makes a difference, but does it matter? Not much. –– The point I would like to suggest is that we can imagine that certain opinions concern us directly, even if they don’t. In a controversial discussion between two opponents, such imaginations can help both interlocutors to make the conversation more personal, concrete, emotional and thus responsible. Following up on my last post, I would like to develop some ideas, then, how we can turn free speech into responsible speech.

In my last post, I tried to show that our disagreements about the limits of free speech are owing to two different ways of understanding how language works. Ultimately, I suggested that the crucial limit of free speech should be determined by the responsibilities we have as speakers. But I didn’t say much about these responsibilities themselves. Commenting on the post, my colleague Silvia Mazzini suggested that responsibility could be seen as offering the other the ability to respond:

Maybe we could then interpret [responsible freedom of speech] like Levinas did: responsibility is the “ability to respond”. In this sense, freedom of speech would mean that all the people involved in a dialogue are able to respond – that they have the intention to consider the different positions of the others.

This strikes me as the way to go. What I like about this idea in particular is that it doesn’t require us to provide a complicated catalogue of virtues or rules. Rather, the responsibility is imposed through the very fact that the opinion is not voiced as a statement about others but to others.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, does it really make such a difference whether I offer my opinion about a policy regarding a group of people to someone in particular? David Livingstone Smith’s work on dehumanisation made me see one point in particular recurring again and again: Although it might be simple to imagine doing harm to a certain group in the abstract, it is really hard to do something harmful to someone directly in front of you. (That is why dehumanising tactics are employed: it is easier to harm someone if you think of them as not really human.) Arguably, this carries over to speech acts. My hunch is that it is much harder to direct hate speech at someone in particular (rather than speak abstractly about members of a group).

My idea is, then, that it is easier to act as a responsible speaker, if you are addressing someone in particular directly. There are a number of reasons for this. Interacting with a concrete person, we are more likely to respond with adequate emotions and empathy, and we have to face the response. Although a face-to-face encounter will be best, I think this will even work in online communication. It makes a difference for me as a writer whether I imagine you, whoever you are, as a concrete person who might frown or agree. Or whether I simply toss out statements about abstract ideas, however much they might affect you. The point is, thus, that we shouldn’t always try to amend online debates by being as rational as possible or by cancelling out emotions. Rather, the task would be to facilitate adequate social emotions necessary for responsible interaction. Addressing others directly should have two consequences: (a) it should be more difficult to objectify and thus to harm the interlocutor; (b) it should invite the other to respond and make me anticipate some response. Thus, if we get people who utter opinions to address people directly in this way, they will speak more responsibly, rendering free speech not a battleground but a possibility for genuine and considerate exchange.

So far, so good. Of course you might have objections, but my worry at this point is not how to justify my idea. Rather, I see the main challenge in implementing it. I think we should give it a try and then see how well it works. So how can we change our conventions? How can we get from talking about people to taking to them? This is an open question, but at this moment I can think of four steps in the relevant contexts:

  • Change speech acts from third-person to second-person sentences: Saying that you should leave this country is much harder than saying that blog readers should leave this country. I’d think twice about what’s going to happen if i did so.
  • People can stand in for targeted people: If you hear someone going on about a religious group, you can respond as if you were targeted. The point is not to lie, but to offer yourself as a possible interlocutor (which might be more effective than just saying that the speaker is a bad person).
  • As a possible interlocutor you can demand the other to (empathetically) imagine your situation: It might make a difference to ask your opponent how she thinks the deportation of your father should be arranged. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs in the abstract.
  • Dehumanising language must be rejected. Of course, there are limits. It is vital to state that, if your interlocutor crosses a red line.

Now you might think that all of this is too difficult. I doubt that. In the face of what we often call political correctness, we have acquired a lot of vocabulary and changed some of our speaking habits. Now we can adjust our imagination and syntax a bit. Of course, this will take time. But I really hope that you and I as well as (other) people in education, in companies, in the press, moderators in the media, citizens in online or analogue discussions gradually train and learn to adjust their language and address people directly. Yes, it will be harder to offer your opinion, but it will also be more fruitful. – At this point, I’m suggesting this and hope for more ideas about means and ways of implementing it. Ideally, we’ll find that this or something like it turns out to be a viable way of amending political discourse.

By the way, this should cut across the entire political spectrum. It has, for instance, become fashionable to engange in what is sometimes called leftist populism or target the group of “old white males”. Whatever your contention might be, if you want to tell someone like my father that inverse racism isn’t a thing, you won’t get him to respond sensibly if you target him as a member of that group. We act through language. And the way we act in our words is palpable, it affects individuals, and individual people are likely to respond in kind. Verbal attacks affect us, irrespective of the side we think we are on. Thus, whenever we want to make a point that affects others, we should try and address them directly. Conversely, if we encounter problematic opinions, we don’t need to shut them down. To respond on behalf of a targeted addressee, as if you were addressed directly, might be more fruitful in maintaing adequate standards and emotions.

Finally, it goes without saying that I am worst at following my own advice. So please don’t call me out too harshly.

Words as weapons? Free speech requires responsible speech

Whenever I’m asked what sparked my interest in the philosophy of language, I immediately remember two texts that I read almost thirty years ago: one is a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann called “Everything”; the other one is an essay by Václav Havel called “A Word about Words”. Both texts can be read as rather powerful reflections on the social and political dimensions of language. For me, they show a crucial feature of language: language is not merely a medium of describing reality; rather it is interwoven with our actions. Bachmann’s story dispels the illusion that we can freely teach and learn language, irrespective of the social and historical baggage that our verbal categories come with. And when Havel writes that a word can “turn into a baton” that is used to “beat” one’s fellow citizens, this is not entirely metaphorical. A word might carry and pass on the very force that makes someone lift or drop a baton. Thus, a word can hit and harm you. In recent years, these ideas began to haunt me again. If words have such force, then the current appeals to free speech require us to speak responsibly, or so I’d like to suggest in what follows.

Two camps. – Yesterday, the feminist Mona Eltahawy explained that she no longer wants to speak at De Balie, a famous forum of public debate in the Netherlands. The reason was that, after accepting the invitation, she had learned that this forum had formerly hosted a group of speakers who ended up openly discussing the “deportation of Muslims”. Among these speakers were Paul Cliteur, a Dutch academic and active politician in a right-wing party, and Wim van Rooy, a Flemish author with similar political leanings. Already back in the day, the event sparked strong reactions. Some thought that such speech is outright harmful and suggested that this debate triggered associations of the Wannsee Conference. Others thought that the right to free speech entitles us to say anything, or anything as long as it isn’t evidently unlawful. If you’re following the news, you might by now think that this follows a familiar pattern: on the one hand, there are those who deem certain speech acts as harmful and protest against them; on the other hand, there are those who declare that such protests infringe free speech. (See here for an earlier post on misconstruing free speech.) At first glance, then, it looks like we’re dealing with two camps: those who want to regulate speech and those who reject the regulation of (free) speech.

Two camps? – Many people and especially journalists seem to have bought into the idea that we are indeed dealing with two camps, with those who want to restrict and those who don’t want to restrict free speech. But I think that this is a misleading way of plotting the disagreement. It’s not easy to pin down what’s wrong with it, but here’s a try. I think we’re basically dealing with two different ideas of language: let’s call them the action view and the entertainment view.

  1. According to the action view, speech is interwoven with other actions and thus, depending on the kinds of actions, harmful or good. Thinking and speaking are actions, and to be treated accordingly. If I call someone an asshole, for instance, I act in a certain way and can harm others, even in a way that is recognised by the law that sanctions insults.
  2. According to the entertainment view, speech is a medium in which we entertain certain thoughts: we exchange arguments and hypotheses that are detached from action. Thinking and speaking are decidedly distinct from actions. Ideally, we think and speak before we act or instead of acting.

If we take these perspectives as opposites, we can immediately see why they spur so much disagreement. If I take the entertainment view, free speech and open debate will not be a means of harming others but rather a way of preventing bad action. We can argue instead of hurting or harming each other physically. We can anticipate bad consequences, and stop them from happening. – By contrast, if I endorse the action view, then speech is already a way of possibly harming others. Arguing or insulting can be the beginning or incitement of a chain of related and escalating actions. If I start insulting you, I might subtly begin to legitimise stronger harms, possibly ending up with forms of dehumanisation. In fact, ongoing insults might damage your (mental) health already. The upshot is: the disagreement is not about (free) speech, but about how language actually works.

Differences in degrees. – Now, if you ask which of these views of language is right, I have to say: both, in a way. The relation between language and action is not one of different categories but one of degree. Some language use is clearly action-related or even a form of action; other language use is detached from action or even a replacement of certain acts. So if I insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, the language is clearly detached from action. However, arguably the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults.

Now what does that mean for the debate between the two camps? The good news is that they both have a point: language allows for action as well as for replacing action, even if these views are degrees on a continuum. This should allow for some progress in the debate between the two camps. But the crucial question is how we can deal with situations where the different emphases of these linguistic features lead to conflicts. As far as the general pattern of the opposition is concerned, I’d try to treat such conflicts in the same way we treat complaints more generally. How do you react if someone says that they feel insulted or intimidated? If you don’t understand what the complaint is targeting, you will probably ask what it is that constitutes the insult or threat, rather than continue with the abuse. Insisting that your right to free speech entitles you to say whatever you like is comparable to hitting someone and then, if they complain, saying that they might as well hit you, too.

Appealing to free speech is just a way of pointing out that language opens the possibility of entertaining certain thoughts, but it is no adequate response to someone complaining about an insult or threat. What many people forget is that freedom comes with responsibility. So, whatever we think we are entitled to through that freedom requires us to exercise that right responsibly. Thus, free speech requires responsible speech.*

That said, the right to free speech is important and should not be infringed easily. So what about the concerns regarding this freedom? The first thing to note is that such freedom is not infringed by protest or criticism. In fact, if Mona Eltahawy protests and cancels her attendance for the reasons given, she exercises her right to free speech. The second thing is that speech acts and other acts happen to have consequences. You can secretly think whatever you like, but if you publicly discuss the deportation of people belonging to a certain religion or race or whatever, you should face the consequences of being publicly called out and sanctioned accordingly. Again, appealing to free speech is not an adequate reaction to such complaints.

But if free speech is of no concern in such situations, when does it pose a concern? First of all, we should ask ourselves this: Who can actually infringe our right to free speech? Generally, it’s people who hold some power over us. So ask yourself whether the notorious student protests or other events that fill the media are really a threat to free speech. As long as people don’t have any power over you, it’s unlikely that they pose a threat to your right to free speech. It’s more likely that they exercise this very right. That said, exercising this right can be done in a sincere or in an insincere manner. And it can be done in a hurtful or threatening way. Spotting the difference between sincere concern and tactics is probably a lifelong exercise.


* Here is a follow-up post on how free speech can be turned into responsible speech.

I don’t know what I think or feel. On psychological indeterminacy

Somewhere in his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that, if you don’t think something determinate, you think nothing at all. I guess this assumption did catch on, because among philosophers of mind it’s still common to say that beliefs and desires are individuated by their content. So what makes your current mental state the state it is is that it’s p and not q you’re thinking or desiring. Although I can understand the idea, I always thought that this was odd in view of my actual mental life. I often think that I’m not sure what I believe or desire. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this indeterminacy of mental states should perhaps be taken more seriously.* Why? Well, simply because I think it’s fairly pervasive. Our conversational maxims might demand that we be clear, but I think what’s actually going on is more like a duck-rabbit situation: given the context, we might be sad or angry, but we don’t really know, and there might not be a fact of the matter as to what is actually the case. So what’s going on?

“Do you love me?” This is a question we’d probably like to have a determinate answer to. But do we? Stating how we feel or what we think is common in our daily exchanges. If you asked me how I am now and what I think, I’d answer that I am fine, but a bit tired, and that I’m wondering whether to stay up or go to bed. It seems, then, that my mental states come in fairly clear categories: I feel fine in a certain way to a certain degree; I feel tired, and that makes me think whether I should go to bed. It seems, then, that my feelings and thoughts are determinate: I’m not angry or sad, but fine. My thought has a certain content: it’s about whether I want to go to bed, not about the aftertaste of the wine I had a moment ago. However, perhaps more often than I am aware, I don’t know how I feel and I don’t know what goes on in my mind. If you were to ask me in these moments how I am, I’d feel slightly embarrassed because I couldn’t tell. So my hunch is that we make our mental states seem more determinate than they actually are, not because we’d know how we are, but to spare ourselves and others embarrassment.

Now you might want to object that our own insecurity about what we think doesn’t actually matter. As a good content externalist, you might want to say that our thoughts are often about things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they are not determined by something definite; it just means that we don’t have the means to tell what that definite content is. To pick up an example my friend Markus Wild once gave me: You might be bitten by a poisonous or non-poisonous snake; even if you don’t know the least thing about snakes, it will definitely be one or the other. What matters is not what you know about snakes but the kind of snake that bit you. The upshot is that the content of our thoughts or desires or feelings might be determined whether we know it or not. In other words, the content that I am aware of might not at all be the content that my mental state is about. This is an important objection: I might want chocolate, but my body might in fact crave some sort of sugar, whether I know it or not.

That said, this externalist account might be important if we talk about beliefs and desires regarding natural kinds. I’m less sure this account figures in any instructive way when it comes to the question of whether we love someone or whether we have this or that opinion or association etc. What I mean is: even an externalist must accept that there are some thoughts and desires and feelings with regard to which it matters whether or not we are aware of their determinacy. If you ask me whether I love you, it’s no way out to say that I’m a content externalist…

So again: why doesn’t this figure in the philosophy of mind? If it does, please let me know. But as far as I can see, the fact of psychological indeterminacy is pretty underrepresented. That said, this is not quite true outside the narrow confines of philosophy. Although most philosophers (at least the ones I know, except perhaps for Wittgenstein) don’t seem to have picked up on it, literature and art is brimming with it. Thus, I’d like to close this post with one example.

Although there might be a number of instances, the short story “Suspicion” by my fellow medievalist and writer Evelina Miteva is the best illustration I can think of. It suggests psychological indeterminacy on four levels:

  • firstly, you don’t know what the main characters think of each other; so you don’t know whether they can ascribe determinate mental states to one another;
  • secondly, you as a reader cannot guess what the mental states of the protagonists are;
  • thirdly, the author does nothing decisive to make the mental states of the protagonists appear to be determinate;
  • fourthly, the protagonists themselves are portrayed as being unsure about their actual mental states.

Of course, the story offers cues as to what you (or the protagonists or the author) might believe, but it never reassures you about your guesses. I guess that is pretty much what our (mental) lives are like anyway. It’s not just that we don’t know what we think or feel; it’s indeterminate what the content of our mental states is. Given the complexity of thoughts, feelings and perhaps traumata that are present beneath the surface of what we are aware of, it is not surprising that many of our occurent states appear to be indeterminate. But if this is so, why does it not receive more attention in theories of mind?


* Tim Crane kindly points out an intriguing paper on the issue. Here, the idea that mental states are determinate is succinctly questioned as a “textbook view”: “A lot of what we believe is incomplete, partial, confused and even contradictory. The single proposition-plus-individual belief state picture makes it hard to see how this can be the case, tending to attribute these features to our knowledge of our belief states, rather than to the states themselves. […] So we need to be able to say that it may simply be indeterminate whether Sam believes that his son is a great artist. But this is not because there are no psychological facts about what he believes — it’s rather because there are too many. Complexity and confusion can go right to the bottom of our worldview.”

Call for ideas: Why the humanities and sciences protect our values

As you all know, the sciences and humanities are targeted on many levels. We’ve all seen budget cuts happening, for more or less comprehensible reasons. By now we’re used to that, and the more cynical sides of our souls will quickly admit that at least many of the humanities are not much of an asset to the average tax payer. So far, this made for nasty ways of playing off the sciences and humanities against one another. But now the sciences are explicitly targeted, too, for example by people doubting climate sciences or the standards of vaccination. Over the last two weeks, I got a ‘live’ glimpse of the way in which right-wing politicians mobilise people against universities. Of course, we have seen this happening everywhere: prominently in the US and in Hungary for instance. Nevertheless, being exposed to the tactics in my academic home country, the Netherlands, made me realise just how powerful the narratives against us are. This phenomenon is not going to go away by itself. Thus, I think we – people working in the sciences and especially in the humanities – need a positive narrative about why academic work matters and a more concerted way of communicating this. By now, I’ve seen a number of petitions and open letters going … nowhere. Part of the problem is that we’re not only targeted from the outside, but also, mostly inadvertently, internally. In the light of the current threats and the way that universities are structured, the common ways of defending ourselves do not work. Therefore, I would like to launch this call for ideas.

Yes, it’s really bad. – We all know that academia is under threat in many ways. Up till recently, that is, perhaps up till ten years ago (perhaps shortly after the financial crisis), these threats have been generally justified with economic arguments: We need to shut down philosophy, languages and cultural studies because otherwise we can’t finance cancer research and the military – or some such line of reasoning that would convince at least some of us. But now the tune has changed. The narrative that I encountered in the Netherlands and elsewhere is running under the heading of cultural marxism (in the sense of a conspiracy theory): Whether you know it or not, if you are working in education or at a university you are willy-nilly part of a left-wing conspiracy that counters free speech and all sorts of other values. This accusation is of course nonsense. But the problem is that it is widely held and believed. Given that Mr Trump has already approved a policy targeting what are thought to be enemies of free speech, it won’t be long until we will see this in action as a more general means to “evaluate” studies and departments. These are the beginnings of a fairly new concerted set of actions against standards in (higher) education. But the new line of argument against academia is not that we’re just useless; it’s that we are inherently bad.

What might stop us. – In many alt-right narratives, universities are portrayed as bulwarks of leftist indoctrination. So far the the response has been defensive: “Science has no agenda” etc. But instead of defending ourselves against outrageous claims, we need a comprehensible narrative of how academia contributes to the protection of democratic values, and we need ways of implementing this narrative. As it stands, the academic communities are defenceless against such doubts for three reasons: firstly, we represent a form of institutionalised doubting, as it were, and will respond with more doubting rather than reassurance; secondly, we are very bad at collective action and solidarity because we are incentivised to compete against one another wherever possible. Therefore, the principles of our work and the structure of our career paths make it very hard to respond even to common threats. A third reason might be that the narratives against academia have already gained too much power: The current way of playing off academics as right-wing versus left-wing or free-speech versus de-platformers, for instance, has gained so much force that even some of your colleagues might go along with it and see you (or you them) as a mere instance of left or right-wing activism. Academics are of course not immune to the effects of ideologies.

What we need to do. – Given the incentive to compete, it’s difficult to start a conversation. But that’s what we need to do. When we see academia in Turkey or Hungary under threat, we follow the news and start petitions or some such measures. But when it hits home, it’s much harder to believe that it is happening in the first place. So the first thing we need is to break the silence. We need a clear-headed exchange about what is happening around us. If it turns out that I’m just alarmist and everything is fine, then all the better. In any case, it will help to have an open conversation across different status groups (from higher administrators to deans to professors to students). Secondly, we need clear ideas why we matter. Such ideas are hard to come by because we’re often used to make our case against other disciplines. These ideas should not be just defensive, like “no, we’re not against free speech!” Thirdly, we need ways of communicating these ideas at all levels. Many of us are good at talking to students or grant agencies, that’s by and large preaching to the choir. We need to reach those who currently believe that we are the enemies of society. So we need to talk to journalists and others who shape the discourses of the many intently.

How we should begin. – Of course, we don’t need to begin with the most difficult of interlocutors. Convincing your colleagues about the fact that we’re in trouble might be tricky enough already. What we need is an understanding of what is going on. So we should indeed begin by exchanging anecdotes and tentative ideas. Given that we’re all too busy already, the easiest would probably be to ask Greta Thunberg to do it on our behalf. – Joking, sorry! Of course you can begin by responding to this blog post or just by talking to a colleague. If you’re looking for ideas, you could ask a friend outside academia. They exist. Or why not devote some twenty minutes to some exchange at the end of the next department meeting or conference? Once we begin a conversation, ways of coordinating action will suggest themselves.

Whatever we do, we need to understand that we’re not defending ourselves (only) against claims about economic necessities; we’re up against people who claim that we undermine basic values. We shouldn’t let these people dictate the stories about who we are and what we do. Countering them doesn’t mean that we should be defensive; it’s enough if we begin to take control of our own stories and why they matter.

Fake news about free speech

Much of the time we probably assume that thinking and judging are activities that we perform. Who is doing the thinking right now? It is you. You read and form a judgement of what you are reading. But some philosophers have taught us that it’s mostly the other way round. Thoughts float around and pull us along. It’s not you doing the thinking, but you are being thought, one might say. While we take ourselves to be agents, it’s ideologies, prejudices, advertising, superstition or memes that hold us in their grip. Now I don’t take this to be a matter of either-or; rather I assume it’s a matter of degree. We might be driven or pulled along, but we can also build resistance. Perhaps you might assume that we do so in the grip of a counter-ideology. Perhaps we should even say that our minds are driven by layers of different ideologies.* Nevertheless, I guess we can become agents of our thinking to some degree. How? For instance by trying to recognise the reasons out of which we embrace one set of beliefs rather than another. After my last blog post, more precisely after some reports about my last post, I could literally see the pull of certain political memes rushing by. Although I didn’t assume that my little note of protest would pass completely without attention, I was shocked to see what happened after the media reports. If you’re interested in hermeneutics, two things stand out in particular: (1) how recklessly some people distribute false claims, and (2) how much this feeds into political memes. In the following, I want focus on one claim and show how it figured in the discussion.

Let’s begin by looking at my claim and its misrepresentation. In my last post, I suggested that a forum in a university or public institution “provides the speaker with an authoritative platform”. What does that mean? The platform is “authoritative” in that it comes with the usual expectations that we associate with universities but not, for example, with bars or some speakers’ corner. One of our student newspapers, the UKrant, quoted me as follows: “According to Lenz, providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing their positions.” I wrote to the author saying that this was a misrepresentation, and they replaced “endorsing” with “supporting”. I wrote again saying that this misses the crucial distinction between support of the content of a position as a opposed to the support of the speaker by lending authority. The UKrant replied that they thought this was an adequate representation of my view and kept their wording without noting my position. – Anyway, since this distinction between supporting content and authority has been missed by almost all media outlets that I have seen, let me illustrate it with an example: If someone tells you that she has a PhD, you will be inclined to believe that she is an authority in her field. But taking her as an authority doesn’t mean that you support her views, even in her field. In fact, you might be a peer reviewer taking issue with her views in a paper. You might even think her view is false, but the paper might still get published and you might still think of her as an authority. By misrepresenting my view as they did, the newspapers ascribed to me a statement I had never made or believed.

Is this rightly framed as a matter of free speech? – Being known for a view that one doesn’t hold is one thing. But things got worse, because the whole matter was framed as an issue of free speech or diversity of opinion. This framing is absurd for two reasons. (1) If you assume that denying someone to speak at a university is a denial of free speech, then you must at least tacitly believe that everyone should have the right to call themselves a doctor. The right to free speech is not tantamount to the right to be invited to speak at a university or to anyone else’s duty to listen. Otherwise the university would have to invite everyone, because everyone has the right to free speech. (2) My note of protest was not a call for “de-platforming” but a free expression of my personal opinion, as stated in my earlier post. Thus, the framing as a free speech issue rendered the whole matter absurd and perniciously misrepresented not only my own opinion but also the position of the dean and, by extension, other fellow philosophers in my faculty.

How did the media contribute? What struck me in the communication with the representatives of the newspaper in question was the callous insistence that they had presented the state of affairs correctly, and that they did not seem to recognise the right of reply. I think there is a reason why this is considered unlawful in many countries. But let me add that this shouldn’t be read as a generalisation. I don’t think that everyone is a liar or that all media are about fake news. Be that as it may, once the text by the UKrant was out, I found cuts of it screenshotted and shared widely. The Ukrant article with its problematic misrepresentation and framing was quoted extensively by other outlets, both regional like rtv noord and national ones like the volkskrant, as well as on twitter, in emails that passed my spam folder, and even in an open letter by Paul Cliteur. Seeing the framing repeated and increased, it soon it began to dawn on me that the “story” fed into the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, according to which (higher) education is undermined by a left-wing conspiracy against free speech, and other rights and values we hold dear. I began to understand that what drives this spectacle has nothing to do with me or my faculty. It’s all just passed along as another instance confirming the supposed conspiracy. In this machinery, not much seems to matter: many people on twitter don’t seem to care what you think, and they do not want to hear themselves corrected. The journalists who compiled the texts I’ve seen certainly didn’t care about fact checking. I’ve never experienced this machinery at work with a piece of my own mind, as it were. And so I felt quite naïve about my involvement in the whole episode. But I’ve learned some things from it.**

Here is one of them: In view of the machinery that the press and the readers seem to feed, people and their ideas only seem to matter as instances of a larger political meme or ideology. But that’s not the whole truth: Many people who were angry with me for supposedly speaking out against free speech did care deeply. It mattered to them as it had mattered to me. After entering into some longer exchanges on twitter, I realised that some people were even ready to accept that they might have been mistaken about my view. Grudgingly so, but there was progress through exchange. So there is a common ground: we are worried about what’s going on around us. But we must be careful, for the political memes and counter-memes that are set up and fed to play us off against one another are just that: memes. But they are very, very powerful. As we all know, there are ready-made sets of beliefs for everything: for right, left, religious, atheist, migrant, male, female, other, white, non-white, journalists, philosophers … We must look hard and see what’s going on beyond that.


* Apropos being dragged along by other thoughts, I learned a lot about the function of ideologies from Spinoza, interpreters of Marx such as Brian Leiter, and David Livingstone Smith’s teleofunctionalism, who has a recent paper in this rather pertinent volume.

** Additon on 7 April 2019: The free speech spin was carried further in ways I didn’t anticipate: (1) Cliteur publicly tried to intimidate academics (and myself personally) by demanding that “it should be made unsafe” for the likes of me. (2) Following the invitation to the night of philosophy, Cliteur was escorted by security and claimed that the requirement of security proves his point that universities  are undermined by activism against free speech.


On giving propagandists a platform

I always had mixed feelings about debates on invitations to controversial speakers. Every case is different I guess, and should be discussed as an individual case. At the same time, I think that inviting someone as a speaker at a university or public institution should be justified in the light of the fact that such a forum provides the speaker with an authoritative platform. Some even believe that such an invitation produces epistemological evidence in favour of the invitee’s position.* In any case, my feelings were mixed but, I thought, fairly balanced. You can always see pros and cons, and try to listen carefully to the other side, or so I thought. In this post, I want to do two things: I want to protest against the invitation of Paul Cliteur to Groningen; and I want to talk about something that I completely underestimated: the ambiguous weight of stating the obvious.

When I noticed that Paul Cliteur is invited to Groningen’s annual night of philosophy to give a lecture on “Theoterrorism and the Cowardice of the West”, I was not only shocked by the fact itself but also surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction. I feel that, unless I note my disagreement, I am complicit in endowing the speaker with extra authority, simply by being part of Groningen University. Arguably, we should note disagreement not only on behalf of those targeted by propaganda, but also in solidarity with those who feel intimidated to do so publicly. (Not long ago, a number of colleagues from Amsterdam received death threats after politely protesting against a lecture by Jordan Peterson.) Often protest or disagreement is construed as an attack on free speech. (“Nowadays we can’t say that anymore”, you hear them say all the time, while they say whatever they want.) But the opposite is the case: the very idea of free speech must comprise the right to disagreement or protest against speech. Cliteur is an active politician and a professor of jurisprudence, who has written quite a number of texts with all the ingredients of what I’d call right-wing attitudes: claiming a conspiracy of “Cultural Marxism”; nationalism; anti-Islamism, you name it. I don’t want to categorise him too readily, but he strikes me as a Dutch version of Jordan Peterson in Canada or of Thilo Sarrazin in Germany. – But what was I actually reacting to? There is a great number of claims that I find objectionable. But often the problem of propagandistic tales is not that they contain explicitly objectionable things; rather, it’s how they recontextualise “obvious” observations.

A problem with people like Cliteur is that they make outrageous claims, while sounding perfectly reasonable. Here is an example: Cliteur clearly and sensibly distinguishes between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a political ideology based on religious doctrines). So he does not say that religion entails terrorism or that religious people are potential terrorists. But then Cliteur introduces the term “theoterrorism” to label terrorists who motivate their acts by reference to their religion. Indeed, one of his main claims is that he is almost alone in taking terrorists’ reliance on their religion seriously. He portrays others as reverting to misguided explanations and himself as seeing what their true motivation is:

“Many people are reluctant to engage in this kind of research. They are concerned with something quite different: protecting religious minorities from discrimination and the “stereotyping of their religion.” Or they have the ambition to explain why the essence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam is averse to violence. I fully recognize the importance of that type of commentary from a believers perspective. But it is not the kind of approach that makes it possible to understand the theoterrorist challenge. I fear these well-meaning people are dangerously mistaken. The greatest contribution you can make to the peaceful coexistence of people of good will is to make a fair assessment of the role religion plays in contemporary terrorism, and not to suppress or censor people who dare to address this issue.”

What’s going on here? While he pretends to be looking for an alternative explanation of terroristic acts, he does in fact claim a link between religion and terroristic acts. Religious beliefs, then, are taken as the proper reasons (if not the causes) for people to commit terroristic acts. This way the difference between Islam and Islamism, while maintained verbally, is in fact nullified. Thus, Cliteur can evade the charge of hate speech against religious people, but he might be said to celebrate his way of linking terrorism and Islamic beliefs as a scientific discovery.

Linking religion to terrorism in this general way is bad for all sorts of reasons. Believe it or not, many people are religious without ever entertaining so much as a trace of a terrorist inclination. But two further aspects are striking about Cliteur’s claim: Firstly, no one ever denied that the terrorists he cites referred to religious attitudes. There is nothing spectacular about this. Secondly, Cliteur makes no move to invoke any solid evidence for this claim. But if his point were supposed to have the status of a proper explanation, then he would need to rule out alternatives. Compare: I could tell you that I go shoplifting on a regular basis because Father Christmas told me to. Now people might speculate about my motives. But you could just tell everyone: “People, Martin’s reasons have been staring us in the face ever since. Father Christmas told him so!” While no one might deny that I said so, the reference to Father Christmas might not in fact be the best explanation of my actions. Cliteur’s point amounts to no more. He links (Islamic) religion to terrorism; he presents this claim as new while at the same time giving himself the air of stating the obvious, and he provides no evidence or ways of ruling out alternative explanations for the phenomena he picks out. It is obvious that certain terrorists invoked religious beliefs; it is far from obvious that the invoked beliefs or the religion in question explain their acts.

Although this is bad enough, it does get worse. In his little essay on theoterrorism, Cliteur asks what “the West” should do. He sees Dutch values and free speech and just about everything threatened. At the same time, he claims that all the available strategies in the West have failed. Again, without providing evidence. It is obvious that terrorism hasn’t gone away; it is far from obvious that the available strategies were not effective (e.g., against cases we don’t know about). Now what do you actually do if you claim that people are threatened by terrorism but that none of the attempted solutions work? The party Cliteur supports has a well-known list of answers, consisting of the now common right-wing ideas rampant in Europe and the US. In conjunction with the politics Cliteur supports, the brand of nationalism that recommends itself as the answer is not too difficult to guess.

While he is careful enough not to call a spade a spade, his pamphlet on theoterrorism might be read as a legitimisation of both legal and illegal means to overcome what he calls the “cowardice of the West”. The claim that Western measures fail seems to call for new measures.

“But does the west’s defense do the trick? … So as long as the western countries persist in their assault on Islamic sacred symbols, Muslims are not only mandated but religiously and morally obligated to take revenge in the name of Allah, so the theoterrorists contend.”

By building up his case as a threat to the Abendland, by suggesting that “Muslims are … obligated to take revenge”, Cliteur eventually alludes to ‘obvious’ measures without stating them explicitly. It is this unspoken call to arms that is the most dangerous part of such political pamphlets. Inciting strong reactions without explicitly stating them immunises such propaganda against any critique that relies on explicit statements. “Oh, I didn’t say that”, is a common phrase of such people. They are all quite misunderstood.

Giving a platform to such incitements strengthens them. Yet, de-platforming might turn their protagonists into martyrs. Thus, rescinding an invitation might be just as problematic as making it to begin with. That said, what should worry us perhaps even more are the voices of those who were not invited in the first place. There are many more interesting and pertinent speakers for a night of philosophy.


* Clarification in response to some misrepresentations on social media and the news: I’m not saying that “providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing (or supporting) their positions”. I rather claim that it lends some authority to their position A student newspaper misrepresented my position earlier. Unfortunately, that text was then shared widely. (Added on 27 March 2019)

Since the misrepresentations are continuously repeated, I devoted another blog post to them.