Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Geuss on magic

In a comment below Tommi Uschanov helpfully quotes Raymond Geuss thus:
The point about magic is that the particular nature of the formulae used and the names of the spirits invoked ('rights', 'the will of God', nature) matter less than that those on the receiving end believe in the reliable efficacy of whatever is invoked.
That passage comes immediately after this:
A 'human right' is an inherently vacuous conception, and to speak of 'human rights' is a kind of puffery or white magic. Perhaps if we repeat claims about natural rights long enough and loudly enough, and pass enough resolutions, people will stop doing various horrible things to each other. Indeed, perhaps they may, but perhaps not. The point about magic...
Three things strike me about this:

1) "Indeed, perhaps they may...", so such resolutions are not necessarily pointless after all, just not guaranteed to work, unless Geuss is only kidding and does not really believe that there is any chance these resolutions will make any difference,
2) it surely depends who is making the resolutions (not every body is powerless to shape the world, through force or other means, to its will), and
3) who precisely is "on the receiving end"?

To understand Geuss here I think it helps to look at a passage on pp. 137-138, in which he talks about the connection between (legal) rights, law, and sanctions. People only have rights enshrined in law, and this law is only meaningful if it is enforced. So rights without sanctions for their violation are worthless, and perhaps not even real:
In principle one could imagine a formal procedure that imposed merely intangible sanctions. The religious court which saw itself as the final and definitive arbiter of salvation might simply declare someone a 'vessel of iniquity' or a 'child of abomination', irrevocably condemned to perpetual spiritual blindness and perdition. It might then be thought unnecessary to proceed any further. Why bother excluding the condemned from social participation in the church, religious ritual, etc.? In fact the presence of the spiritually stigmatised might be thought to have a salutary effect on those who are still potentially saved. Although there was no visible and tangible force to this sanction, it might work as a sanction if all those involved firmly held the appropriate religious beliefs. It would not work as a sanction on people who did not believe. Magic is said by some anthropologists to be like this: it works very well in a society in which virtually everyone believes in it, but will not work either for or on those who do not. Cases like this, then, are not counterinstances to the claim that for us to speak of a legal system there must be some clear and specific notion of sanctions. Failing such a system of sanctions, there is nothing but a set of diffuse individual and collective moral feelings.
One thing to say about this is that, if it's true that talk of rights is a kind of magic that only works if people believe in it, then why would anyone try to burst the bubble? Why try to undermine white magic? Secondly, if "rights" without sanctions have no more reality than do moral feelings, is this really a problem? If "everyone has the right to vote" just means "everyone should be allowed to vote" is it therefore untrue? Or unimportant?

My sense is that Geuss opposes rights talk partly because he sees it as being akin to religion. I agree with him that it has some such similarity, and not only in the sense that everything is like everything else. There is, I think, an important connection between religious language and metaphor or the use of words in a secondary sense. And that is what is involved in the kind of rights talk that I support.

He also seems to oppose it because, despite his reference to white magic, he seems to have at best mixed feelings about what is, or can be, done with rights talk. For instance, see this passage on p. 145:
If we have enough strength we can make others care about our moral beliefs, but if the doctrine of 'natural rights' means no more than that we are powerful enough to make people careful not to do things of which we disapprove, then it seems no more than a theoretically obfuscating name for a well-known and not necessarily particularly edifying fact of power politics.    
Again, talk of rights seems to be, for Geuss, either a mere expression of moral beliefs or a declaration relating to enforcement. The idea that they do reflect moral beliefs, but especially important ones, or that they ought to, but might not, be enforced seems to be ignored. He doesn't ignore these ideas all the time, but when it comes to the crunch he seems to leave them out. And this seems to be for the sake of avoiding theoretical obfuscation, i.e. in order to be clear. But simplification is not the same thing as clarity.
The term 'right' has two clear, but distinct senses. These are, first, the 'objective' sense (that is 'right' which we think ought to be the case or ought to be done), and, second, the subjective sense (I have a right if I have a claim backed up by an effective mechanism of implementation). It does not contribute to clarity of understanding to run these two senses together in the way that is characteristic of the discourse of human rights. (p. 146)
This is surely just the complaint of someone who refuses to join in that discourse. The whole point of it is to blend these senses, to strengthen a certain class of moral claims by adopting a metaphor based on the law. It is a metaphor that Geuss in a sense understands perfectly. His objection to it seems to be based on the fact that it is a metaphor, and therefore theoretically obfuscatory, and the possible harm that this metaphor might do. But only the latter objection has any force, it seems to me, and then only if it shown that the effects are more bad than good. And this, I think, remains to be shown.


  1. It also seems evident – at least within the confines of a Wittgensteinian blog like this – that Geuss is also wrong about magic. The practice of magic doesn’t rely on a “belief” in the “reliably efficacy” of anything (cf. Remarks on Frazer).

  2. Yes, although perhaps the most charitable reading would take him merely to be reporting what some anthropologists have said. And he's probably right about that. I think he has in mind curses, which have been reported to kill people. Presumably this only works if the victim believes in the power of curses to kill. That's not exactly white magic though.

    If we try to apply this idea of magic to a rain dance, say, then it seems to fall apart pretty quickly. Whether it rains has nothing to do with what the dancers believe.

  3. I'm not sure rain dance is a form white magic either.

    As you say: Whether it rains has nothing to do with what the dancers believe when dancing, not with their physical movements either, for that matter.

    Things of this sort has often been said in order to show the vacuousness of such rituals. It's just superstition. Whether people dance or not makes no difference. If rain follows that's just coincidence or dumb luck. This would be a fair point if indeed the people took themselves to be practicing magic. But I have read somewhere that this is mainly a western misconception, with Frazer as one of its most distinguished proponents. A rain dance is not meant as rainmaking, but rather as a celebration of the oncoming rain. Why else dance only in the wet seasons and never during droughts? Because you don't really believe in its magical powers?

  4. It's hard to say what is magic and what isn't, it seems to me. Wittgenstein points out, as I recall, that the rain dance is only done at a certain time (roughly: right before the rain is due), and that this suggests it might not be meant to be causally efficacious as we might understand that idea. But then the idea of causation is itself vague or problematic. Certainly a rain dance seems too ceremonial to be rightly understood as purely instrumental. I think it's OK to call it a form of magic as long as we don't make the mistake of crude instrumentalism though.

  5. Other Geuss-related comments will hopefully follow tomorrow, but here are already some...

    [...] Geuss is also wrong about magic. The practice of magic doesn’t rely on a "belief" in the "reliably efficacy" of anything (cf. Remarks on Frazer).

    As D. Z. Phillips wrote in 2003:

    "Wittgenstein does not deny that rituals may harbour deep confusions akin to metaphysical confusion. In fact, at the time he wrote his 'Remarks on Frazer,' Rush Rhees informed me, he thought that the majority of rituals probably harboured such confusions." (p. 197, my emphasis)

    Already from Rhees onwards, Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion have explicitly denied that magical rituals cannot be confused. The opposite view has been attributed to Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion not so much by its main stream itself as by its hostile critics, such as Brian Clack, Felicity McCutcheon, and Alan Bailey. The attribution has been strongly disclaimed, in print, by a whole string of Wittgensteinians, including Phillips (above), Richard Amesbury, and Lance Ashdown, to name a few.

    What they have Wittgenstein as saying in the Frazer remarks, in my view completely correctly, is that not all magical rituals are confused, especially in Frazer's coarsely empiricist sense of "confused".

  6. Phillips goes on:

    "Wittgenstein shows how the same form of words may go in different directions. For example, the act of pursing one's lips, although not thought of instrumentally in Frazer's sense, may still illustrate a confusion: the confusion of thinking that one can achieve one's goal, all at once, instinctively, in the pursing of the lips. [...] Wittgenstein distinguished between a magical and logical view of signs, the former being the view that the meaning is in the sign itself, in the mark or the sound, instead of in its use. It is as if the meaning is a power accompanying the words. For example, if I beckon and you walk toward me, it is easy to think that there is a power in the words which makes you come. The beckoning becomes a kind of magic. Of course, in fact, you come when I beckon because you know what the gesture means and you obey it. It is part of the life we share together. But if I am in the grip of a longing for the absent one, and I beckon in a ritual for the absent one to return, I may feel that there is something in the beckoning which will make him return." (p. 197)

    It is the "magical view of signs" (a critique of which Rhees characterised the Frazer remarks as being already in his classic paper "Wittgenstein on Language and Ritual") that I view Geuss as attributing - rightly or wrongly, that is an entirely different question - to talk of human rights.

    Geuss views those he criticises, analogously with the lover in Phillips's example, as being "in the grip of a longing for" a world with no human rights violations. Which world they will in Geuss's view no more bring about by using such words than the lover will make the loved one return by pursing his lips. For me, this is not only a Wittgensteinian criticism, but an arch-Wittgensteinian one.

    In the well-known 1930 "sketch for a preface", speaking here of what is acceptable for philosophers and not indigenous peoples, Wittgenstein wrote: "Everything ritualistic [...] is strictly to be avoided because it straightaway turns rotten." So neither does it seem that human rights talk could in his view be defended by claiming that one is talking of human rights in a self-consciously ritualistic way instead of the inadvertently ritualistic way that Geuss diagnoses.

    The self-consciousness might make it worse, not better. Wittgenstein continues: "Of course a kiss is a ritual too & it isn't rotten; but no more ritual is permissible than is as genuine as a kiss." Genuine rituals may genuinely exist while being quantitatively quite rare. As we have seen, this is what Rhees reported Wittgenstein's own view to have been (presumably in conversation), according to Phillips.

  7. This is surely just the complaint of someone who refuses to join in that discourse.

    "I am in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another. I am honestly disgusted with the other. Also I'm trying to state what I think. Nevertheless I'm saying: 'For God's sake don't do this.' E.g. I pulled Ursell's proof to bits. But after I had done, he said that the proof had a charm for him. Here I could only say: 'It has no charm for me. I loathe it.' [...] If we explain the surroundings of the expression we see that the thing could have been expressed in an entirely different way. I can put it in a way in which it will lose its charm for a great number of people and certainly will lose its charm for me." (Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics, III, §§37, 39)

    All I can probably really say is that what Geuss did was to put "it" in a "way in which it lost its charm" for me personally. (And probably for some of his other readers too - somehow I cannot believe I'm the only one.) While for you, it is something that still has its traditional charm. But it would be interesting to hear whether this characterisation is acceptable to you yourself. For Rhees elaborates elsewhere on the Ursell reference:

    "I remember his telling, in 1938, of discussions he had been having with Ursell regarding Cantor's 'diagonal proof' of transfinite cardinals. Ursell agreed finally with Wittgenstein's criticisms, but he added: 'Still I must admit that such proofs have a very great charm for me.' When he told of this, Wittgenstein said with a smile of real pleasure: 'Well that is fine, if anyone can say
    that. They have no charm for me. But someone like Ursell finds a charm in them, OK.' His point was that Ursell was not any longer trying to find some further significance in Cantor's proofs; he recognised that it was just that they did have a certain charm for him." (p. 159)

    Perhaps Geuss would not be as "indulgent" as Wittgenstein here. And perhaps this is the point where there finally begins to emerge a contrast between them in addition to the similarities I've been trying to point out.

  8. Thanks, Tommi, and apologies for not having replied sooner. There may well be a good deal of confusion in many people's talk about rights. I just don't know. And the idea that somehow merely declaring something to be a human right will make the world better would be a confusion. But then it wouldn't be the rights of the philosophers that need to be attacked so much as the rights of the declarers. And finding out whether or not they were confused would take some digging, i.e., real empirical work, not the kind of thing that philosophers typically do. So perhaps what I want to defend is one kind of philosophical conception of rights against another kind of philosophical conception.

    I can well imagine that confused "mere declarers" do exist though. When I was an undergraduate the student body met regularly to discuss its business, and a tradition had developed of introducing motions that we collectively donate money to this or that cause. This led to lengthy and often heated political debates. It also led us to commit to give far more money than we had. In other words, it was basically a waste of time, an excuse to engage in debates that led to nothing. I can well believe, because of this experience, that there are people who would spend time passing resolutions as if they had some meaning when they really had none. What I'm not so far convinced of is that this is all there is to talk of human rights.