Thursday, June 12, 2014

Casting stones

A weird feature of scholarly work is that you pretty much have to disagree with people in order to count as having something to say. This means at least half-hoping that other people have got things wrong, which really one shouldn't hope for at all.

I'm re-reading Brian Clack's Wittgenstein, Frazer and Religion hoping both to learn from it (which I certainly am) and to find something I can disagree with or perhaps add to. I'd forgotten what a good book it is, but here's something that I think I might disagree with:
An Abyssinian king, the Alfai, is held to be able to cast down rain, and:
if he disappoints the people's expectation and a great drought arises in the land, the Alfai is stoned to death, and his nearest relations are obliged to cast the first stone at him. (Frazer;1922: 107)
[...] The case of the Alfai [...] suffices to show that the expressive theory cannot be universally applied, and that some ritualists really do think that the rain-king can make the heavens open. (Clack, p. 33)
I don't intend to defend the expressive theory (which says that rituals, etc. are not instrumental but expressive of feelings or attitudes), but I don't think this case shows what Brian says it shows, at least not in a straightforward way. Before I get to my point I should mention that he has a long footnote at this point, in which he says both that, "Wittgenstein is adamant that primitive peoples do not believe that rain-makers can alter the course of the weather, or that magicians have any special powers whatsoever," and that, "It is remarkable that Wittgenstein does not think for one moment that people could believe that a ruler has supernatural powers" (Clack, p. 178, n. 1). It is these remarks that I disagree with more than the one I first quoted.

The (most) relevant passage in Wittgenstein's remarks is this:
It is, of course, not so that the people believe that the ruler has these powers [to control the course of nature], and the ruler knows very well that he doesn't have them, or can only fail to know it if he is an imbecile or a fool. But the notion of his power is, of course, adapted in such a way that it can harmonize with experience--the people's as well as his own. That some hypocrisy thereby plays a role is true only insofar as it generally lies close at hand with most things people do. (Philosophical Occasions, p. 139)
It seems at least possible that Wittgenstein is denying the conjunction of the people's believing that the king has these powers and the king's either knowing the contrary or else being weak-headed or foolish. If everyone involved believes that the king has supernatural powers (without the king's being feeble-minded) then, on this reading, Wittgenstein is right. This reading seems quite natural to me and certainly more charitable than the one that leads to the remarkable conclusion. It also fits the quotation from Culture and Value that Brian discusses on pp. 113-114, in which Wittgenstein writes that, "Men have believed that they could make rain."

What, though, about the belief that the Alfai can make the heavens open? Do the ritualists believe this? And would their doing so prove Wittgenstein wrong? Certainly the Alfai is held responsible for any great drought. Must he therefore be believed to be able to end the drought? If he were able to make it rain why wouldn't he do so in order to avoid a horrible death? Haven't the Abyssinians thought of this? Did no about-to-be-stoned Alfai ever make this case? Surely either they did and, remarkably, it made no difference to what happened or, remarkably, it never came up. Either way we are some distance from having clear evidence of straightforward ignorance of fact on the part of the Abyssinians concerned. If they say and think that "the Alfai can make it rain" and then kill him if there's a drought then in some sense they certainly believe that he has supernatural powers. But what this sense is is not a simple matter. That 'belief' does not refer to just one phenomenon is a point that Brian makes very well in chapter 4 (see p. 49 especially).

Perhaps an analogy will help me make my point. Is Groundhog Day (not the movie) bad science? It isn't good science, of course, but it needn't be regarded as science at all. Do the people involved really believe that the movements of a groundhog can predict the weather? Perhaps some do. But surely most don't. Still, many people pay attention to what the groundhog does. Why? What are they thinking? I doubt that most of them are thinking much at all. Not that they are stupid people, but that the whole exercise is not an intellectual one at all. It's a ritual. It's just what people do. And something similar might well go for the case of the Alfai. Much more is at stake there, of course, but that doesn't mean it must be more intellectual or scientific than Groundhog Day. It just means that more is at stake. Why would people stone a man to death without thinking through the costs and the benefits? Perhaps the people they have been raised to defer to insist that this is the right thing to do. (Perhaps even the Alfai himself insists on this.) Perhaps they sense that sacrifice is bound to pay off. We are far from immune to such thinking today, and even if it is wrong it is not only the stupid and the insane who go in for it. And that, I take it, is the kind of point that Wittgenstein means to make.

Halfway through the book comes the second point I disagree with Brian on. At the bottom of p. 92 he says that, "Wittgenstein's prohibition on explanation seems [...] a rather bizarre one, informed only by personal preference." Actually, I probably agree as long as we emphasize the word 'seems', but I don't think that Wittgenstein's "prohibition" actually is bizarre. It strikes me as being very similar to some of his views on aesthetics. Understanding what is good about a work of art means something like being able to articulate its good qualities, and perhaps to lead someone else to appreciate it too. It does not mean knowing about any causal processes that result in this or that event in the brain. Perhaps there can be scientific explanations of why we like this or that, but these are not what literary criticism, art appreciation, music appreciation, etc. are concerned with. You could argue that they should be, but that's a different matter. Wittgenstein's interest in Frazer's work, like Frazer's too, I think, is what you might call aesthetic. Not in the sense that he finds the practices described in the Golden Bough (merely) charming, but in the sense that they are fascinating expressions of humanity. Fascinating partly because of the mysterious non-triviality that draws people to such behavior, and partly because we find that this very weirdness resonates with us too, revealing something about ourselves and humanity in general. Knowing about any underlying history or biology would be not worthless but something else.


  1. Is it really about the Afai making it rain or is it about his being who he is, as in pleasing or not pleasing, offensive or not offensive, to whatever divinities have the rain making job?

    If that's the explanation for the tribesmen's behaviors toward the Afai (and maybe it is even if it's expressed as a function of his will), then it's arguable that the tribesmen can still believe there's a cause-effect relation -- only it has little or nothing to do with the will or capabilities of the Afai, himself. He's just an instrument of others in the process in such a case.

    And then it's much harder for the tribesmen to determine whether or not they've got a good fix on that particular causal relationship and it's more reasonable for them to suppose that knocking the Afai off in a formal kind of sacrifice might do the trick rather than keeping him around.

    How sure are any of us when some other agent's thoughts are involved (in this case a divinity's) without physical cues (like facial expressions, body language or actual expressions of sentiment) to go on -- none of which are necessarily available from a divinity, at least not necessarily in an easily intelligible way?

  2. Is it really about the Afai making it rain or is it about his being who he is, as in pleasing or not pleasing, offensive or not offensive, to whatever divinities have the rain making job?

    I don't know. From what I've read it sounds as though he himself is said to have the power to make it rain, but you're right that causal relationships are tricky things to pin down. How and in what sense he can, supposedly, make it rain are not clear. Perhaps the gods are involved, perhaps not.