Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Burry Man

I haven't blogged for a while and probably won't for a week or two because I'm traveling. I don't have much to say right now, either, but here's something that caught my eye. A surprising number of people I follow on Twitter are Scottish and one of them, Ian Rankin, tweeted this story today. According to the BBC:
The Burryman is as he sounds, a man made from burs. Dressed head to toe in the spiked and painful seeds, he parades around Queensferry on the second Friday in August every year. He is accompanied by two aides who help him with his difficult task and a number of other helpers who make up the rest of the entourage. He cannot move his arms to his sides, walk particularly well or even sit down, yet he tours Queensferry for the whole day. The small whiskies the Burryman receives throughout his tour help fortify him in his task and also offers a way for the public to show their gratitude. Even with the pain and discomfort caused by the outfit the Burryman tradition lives on.
The origin of the practice is obscure, but it is at least several hundred years old. One theory has it as a punning celebration of Queensferry becoming a burgh, others as much older and pagan. Not only is the costume painful, it is so hot that it is hard for the man in it not to faint. He is supported by others so he doesn't collapse. But he is also decorated with flowers and the occasion is merry. What would Frazer have made of this? What would Wittgenstein say?

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Of course I don't know, and it doesn't particularly matter. It does, though, seem both an intrinsically interesting case and a good way to try out some of the ideas expressed in Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer. John Nicol (@johnjnicol) was the Burryman for thirteen years and says it baffled him. He also describes the job as an honour and the tradition as a mystery, which he regards as important. I think he's right, and this idea (that the mysteriousness of this kind of customs is part of the reason for their existence) is a Wittgensteinian one. The mystery means we can try out various theories, or rather trot them out, since we have nothing much against which to test them. In doing so we bring what we know about human nature and experience to bear on the facts before us, the phenomenon in question. And then it almost doesn't matter whether our theories are right or wrong. What matters, we might say, is what we recall of human nature and experience, and what we see in the custom itself: individual suffering and sacrifice, hidden (yet obvious) suffering, public and communal celebration, fertility, whisky, and so on. It's almost like a Rorschach test, but not quite. Fascinating, though. And creepy.

Presumably Wittgenstein might object that we should not trot out theories to try to explain the Burry Man. Rather, we just need to set out all the facts in the right way and no explanation will be necessary. (At least he might say that. I don't think he's committed to saying this in every case.) This reminds me of the idea that in ethics there is nothing to be said. But that's something to explore another time.


  1. I think we can safely say that in general we can understand such matters in evolutionary terms in the sense that some aspects of mating/social-status/pattern-recognition/etc are connected to pleasure/drive/satisfaction and to one degree or another become ends unto themselves, what I think we cannot so much say in general (tho as you have illustrated we can show) is the particular details/characteristics of any one totem/taboo, which can't be so different from something like how people can become sexually attached to all kinds of fetishes depending on their circumstances, so how much and by what means do we try and legislate/normalize/socialize such functions to make up ethics and how general can such rules be?
    that's a bit of a tangle but hopefully you get the gist, dmf

  2. I don't doubt evolution but I'm not sure how much light it throws on a case like this. Perhaps I'm just agreeing with you but in a more pessimistic or unsatisfied tone. It's the particular details that interest me, after all.

    As far as ethics goes, I don't think we can legislate or generalize this kind of thing at all. Or rather, we can say things like "celebrate nature" or "don't take its gifts for granted," but there's no rational justification or proof that we should do (or not do) so.

    1. yes so maybe two good/legit limits of philosophy as the particulars will be particular (not generalizable and so akin to Witt vs functionalist reductions) and perhaps better left to psychology/anthropology ( or whatever one might call the kinds of case-studies that might follow from the likes of: ) and the legislation/institutionalization (as Rorty noted long ago) will not be , cannot be, ruled by philo/principles.

  3. It's a poem, isn't it? They're celebrating an image of the human condition. The letter of 9.4.17 from Wittgenstein to Engelmann seems relevant.

    1. Thanks, J.Z. I think I missed this comment when you posted it. It does seem like a poem, yes.

  4. It should be pointed out that rituals using strange costumes are quite common in Europe ( and probably elsewhere as well.

    There are also some modern variations of this same theme that are still very much part of the broader culture, think of Santa Claus, or maybe Halloween costumes. Of course for us it is easy to see that these modern costume rituals are not attempts to achieve empirical goals. They are not rituals that are justified using mistaken and stupid magico-religious beliefs.
    So that should not be the assumed default explanation of the origin and thinking behind the older rituals either.

    Though it might not alway be so easy to distinguish the expressive and the instrumental goals.