Friday, January 23, 2015

Remarks on Frazer

Not Wittgenstein's remarks, but mine.

1. He has a way with words. This could almost be Fred Vargas:
The Mass of Saint Sécaire may be said only in a ruined or deserted church, where owls mope and hoot, where bats flit in the gloaming, where gypsies lodge of nights, and where toads squat under the desecrated altar. Thither the bad priest comes by night with his light o’ love, and at the first stroke of eleven he begins to mumble the mass backwards, and ends just as the clocks are knelling the midnight hour. His leman acts as clerk. The host he blesses is black and has three points; he consecrates no wine, but instead he drinks the water of a well into which the body of an unbaptized infant has been flung. He makes the sign of the cross, but it is on the ground and with his left foot. And many other things he does which no good Christian could look upon without being struck blind and deaf and dumb for the rest of his life. But the man for whom the mass is said withers away little by little, and nobody can say what is the matter with him; even the doctors can make nothing of it. They do not know that he is slowly dying of the Mass of Saint Sécaire.
 2. But his snobbery is incredible:
When we survey the existing races of mankind from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego, or from Scotland to Singapore, we observe that they are distinguished one from the other by a great variety of religions, and that these distinctions are not, so to speak, merely coterminous with the broad distinctions of race, but descend into the minuter subdivisions of states and commonwealths, nay, that they honeycomb the town, the village, and even the family, so that the surface of society all over the world is cracked and seamed, sapped and mined with rents and fissures and yawning crevasses opened up by the disintegrating influence of religious dissension. Yet when we have penetrated through these differences, which affect mainly the intelligent and thoughtful part of the community, we shall find underlying them all a solid stratum of intellectual agreement among the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind. One of the great achievements of the nineteenth century was to run shafts down into this low mental stratum in many parts of the world, and thus to discover its substantial identity everywhere. It is beneath our feet—and not very far beneath them—here in Europe at the present day, and it crops up on the surface in the heart of the Australian wilderness and wherever the advent of a higher civilisation has not crushed it under ground. This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic. While religious systems differ not only in different countries, but in the same country in different ages, the system of sympathetic magic remains everywhere and at all times substantially alike in its principles and practice. Among the ignorant and superstitious classes of modern Europe it is very much what it was thousands of years ago in Egypt and India, and what it now is among the lowest savages surviving in the remotest corners of the world.
Frazer is nakedly racist and what he thinks of the "savages" of Australia he thinks also of the lower classes of England and elsewhere. I don't mean to dig him up just to criticize him for not having been more enlightened, but it seems to me that Wittgenstein's response to Frazer has an interesting and important political aspect. In locating the magical impulse within us Wittgenstein denies this kind of racism and snobbery. He runs shafts down into himself, and invites his readers to do the same, not into the "low mental stratum" of other people or places. Tat tvam asi. This activity is confessional but also radically democratic or egalitarian.

(This probably is not an earthshaking revelation but I need to return to my old "it's only a blog" mentality or I'll post nothing at all.)         

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Write about love

This sounds good:
Conference: Love and the Good

24th –26th September 2015
Pardubice Chateau, Czech Republic

Keynote: Raimond Gaita (Melbourne Law School & Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne)

Speakers include: David Cockburn, Christopher Cordner, Troy Jollimore, Nora Kreft, Camilla Kronqvist, John Lippitt, Susanne Obdrzalek, C. D. C. Reeve

 “Love and the Good” is the second conference to be organised as part of the “Love and Friendship in Ancient and Contemporary Philosophy” project, funded by the Czech Science Foundation. The conference will focus on Platonic conceptions of love and will aim to bring three lines of inquiry into conversation: the scholarly study of Socrates and Plato, the reception of their ideas by later Christian philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, and the contemporary inquiry into the platonic understanding of love conducted mainly in connection with the work of Iris Murdoch and Raimond Gaita.

Some things I've written that are unpublished, or published online, or published in print but very hard to find I put on Some of these things have been seen by hundreds of people, which is surely much greater than the number of people who have seen (let alone actually read) most of my other works. So it seems to be a useful way to spread ideas, not all of which (I hope) are completely worthless.

With that in mind I've just added two pieces that started life on this blog. One is the notes I used when I taught a seminar in Mexico on Winch and Wittgenstein. The other is a talk I gave on the significance of religious experience. I'm not at all sure about the talk--things came up at work that meant I wasn't able to spend as much time preparing it as I would have liked. But I think I agree with it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Choice and Action

Stuart W. Mirsky's new book is now available. Here's the description on amazon:
Moral valuing has long posed a special challenge to philosophers because it purports to establish objectively sustainable claims -- despite their apparent grounding in merely human sentiment. Stuart W. Mirsky here addresses the implications of a sentiment-based moral faculty re: questions of relativism and nihilism by exploring the ways in which we value things and how we come to grant such claims knowledge status. In a series of essays attacking the problem from several different angles, Mirsky develops a picture that places moral valuation in the context of valuing generally to show how moral claims attain their seemingly special status via a pragmatic notion of rational agency. In so doing, he rediscovers and re-emphasizes the essential role of the subject, the aware self, in our moral calculus.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


I've spent the past week in Kolkata (formally Calcutta), my first time in India. The most memorable things:
  1. walking around the New Market a boy wrapped his arms and legs around my leg, clinging to it even as I walked and coming back to do it again whenever I (or anyone else) prised him off. He was dirty and wearing dirty clothes, and he wouldn't go away. He wanted money, of course, but never said anything. But you don't give to beggars, especially not begging children (who ought to be in school). Eventually a man intervened telling me I should just give the boy 10 rupees. I had nothing smaller than 500 rupees, though, so he gave me the money to give to the boy and it worked. After this I visited the Mother (Teresa) House. She was more generous, and I wonder whether I'm some kind of sociopath not to have had more sympathy for the boy. Really I felt none at all. But I can imagine (someone else) feeling unable to leave Kolkata and its poor. Outside the Mother House is a sign telling you not to encourage people who ask for money there (one immediately did and I said No--my guide, who didn't believe in giving to the boy, gave her something).   
  2. the most beautiful non-human sight I have ever seen is the Ganga (Hooghly) in the early morning at Belur Math. The sky is milky with smog, and the river, which is very wide, reflects this and the low sun, making it white, though dotted with black-looking clumps of floating vegetation that you know are really green. It's like a Rothko in landscape format, dusty green at the bottom, then white, with a band of dark grey where the opposite bank is, then white again, turning blue as you go up. A few people are washing in the river, and occasional ships move by. Also an armed man in uniform will angrily shout "hello" at anyone taking pictures. 
  3. the most metal or Lovecraftian place I've ever been is Kalighat Kali Temple, rather different from the modern, peaceful, sensible Belur Math (which only sounds Lovecraftian, and maybe looks it a little from the outside). At Kalighat they sacrifice goats, there are lots of beggars, and movement at times is through narrow spaces crowded with devotees. There is loud drumming from an invisible source and bells struck loudly, repeatedly. Of course there is incense and smoke. The climax is being pushed, pulled, or moved by force of shouting right in front of the image of Kali, which is famous but barely visible because of the distractions of movement, noise, and people demanding ever larger donations. If you give enough you get a blessing, an orange daub on your forehead and a flower to take with you. Mostly what you leave with is the question, "What was that?" 
  4. a cross between Belur Math and Kalighat is Dakshineswar, where you can walk down steps to paddle or wash in the Ganga and then worship Kali or Shiva. Washing your right hand in this water cleans away your sins supposedly. If you pay the right person you are blessed with a colorful wristband and then have a clotted white liquid poured in your hand, which you have to drink. It turns out to be a mixture of butter, milk, and water from the sacred but famously unhygienic Ganga. 
  5. at Dakshineswar lived Ramakrishna, who inspired the building of Belur Math. My first night in Kolkata is to be spent, I find out when I get there, at the Ramakrishna Mission. It's an impressive building enclosing a lovely garden, but the wifi shuts off at ten (just before I arrive) and my room is the closest thing to a cell I've ever slept in. It's not safe to drink the water, and bottled water is not provided. Nor could I get hot water from the shower. The noise of traffic and fear of cockroaches kept me awake, but my fears were unfounded. Another man in another cell had to have a scorpion removed from his though. 
  6. the traffic. Rural Bengal is very much like Cambodia but there are more people here and the centre of the city is packed with traffic almost all day. People drive fast, but only in short bursts before they get stuck again in the jam. While driving, if anyone else is around, which they always are, you honk to warn them you are coming. It's noisy but effective. There surely must be crashes, but not as many as you would expect. Old, yellow Ambassador taxis fight it out with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians, and rickshaws, both bicycle-powered and (illegal) hand-pulled. 
  7. the dogs. As in Cambodia these are all the same kind, but it's a bigger breed than I think you get there. There are stray cows, too, but far more dogs.
  8. the Hijras. In the Indian episode of Extreme Pilgrim Peter Owen-Jones encounters a group of singing eunuchs who are paid to go away. Stuck in Kolkata traffic, a familiar-looking kind of person goes from car to car asking for money in return for the inevitable blessing (not to go away). My guide asks what we call such people in English--they are boys when they are children but have women's bodies when they become adults. It sounds as though he means they change sex naturally, but perhaps he meant that they are eunuchs or transgender. I don't think we have a word, or the same respect, for them.. 
  9. Kumartuli. This was completely unexpected. I was on a guided tour but there had been no mention of this place on the itinerary. It's the neighborhood where idols are made for worship (then thrown in the river) from straw and mud, as well as others from polystyrene. The streets are filled with workshops and half-made gods. Surreal.          
  10. the Indian Museum. Like the British Museum, this is a general collection, not one devoted to Indian artifacts only. In fact it covers natural history as well as art, and I think other things like coins and rocks that I didn't look at. I wouldn't have bothered with the natural history either, but you have to go through the fish exhibit to get to the decorative arts (which are definitely worth seeing). The natural history collection is extremely old school. A good photographer could do great things there. It's full of stuffed animals and the occasional animal head (a giraffe's, for instance, mounted like a trophy) and a few curiosities (two-headed goat embryos and a fully-formed human fetus in a jar, e.g.). The stuff of nightmares. The Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, though, are superb.