Friday, January 27, 2017

Anger is an energy?

"It isn't sensible [vernünftig] to be furious even at Hitler: how much less so at God," Wittgenstein wrote around 1945 according to Culture and Value (p. 46e of my edition). There is a lot of anger now about Trump's election, although I suspect (i.e. believe 100%) there might be some "anger" mixed in with it too. That is, I noticed even before the election a tendency among some people to talk about how angry they are or to refer to their own rage. What seems odd to me about this is partly how often certain people claimed to be in a rage, and partly the way they behaved when in this state. They did not scream or smash things,. Instead they went on Facebook and typed about the rage they were in. This, it seems to me, is not genuine rage. But maybe that's just me. 

Now the Daily Nous implies that accusing others of being phony about, or of exaggerating, moral outrage is a bad thing. It is certainly an accusation that can be made insincerely in order to undermine the credibility of people making moral complaints. It draws attention away from the content of the complaint to the complainers and their motives. It is thus a way of changing the subject, and of treating the complainers as being not really worth listening to. They are not to be answered, only diagnosed. There is obviously something bad, or potentially bad, at least, about making such a move. 

Still, aren't some people sometimes phony? And isn't that a bad thing?

I certainly don't mean that no one's anger about Trump is real. Even the people who seem a bit phony to me also seem to have genuine objections to make. I just don't believe that all of these people (the ones I'm thinking of are privileged, white men, by the way) really feel the "pure rage" that they claim to feel. There surely could be an element of performance to some such claims. This might have good effects, signaling a kind of solidarity with those who really do feel angry and encouraging others not to be passive. But it can also have bad effects, either making all protest seem like a pose or just alienating the Holden Caulfields among us from political action.

There is something to be said for genuine anger though. Which is not to say that it is sensible. Part of being angry, surely, is having less control over oneself, being less (inclined to behave in ways that are) sensible or rational. You cannot be angry and calm at the same time, even if you can be angry on the inside and outwardly calm. Which is why sitting down to type "What I am feeling now is pure rage" (or "Pure. Rage.") so often seems phony.

I have always, without thinking about it much, taken Wittgenstein's remark about the unreasonableness of fury at Hitler or God to be a rejection of such fury. It could be taken, though, as a contrast between rational responses and passionate ones, so that of course love or hate will never be sensible, but they might be good things nonetheless. But I don't think that's what Wittgenstein is saying. Not because Hitler is not that bad, nor because fury won't do any good. It's more, I would think, that Hitler is so bad that fury at him is an inadequate response, a silly response. There is something irresolute about fury, having to do, I think, with the facts that it cannot be maintained and that it is not something one can feel with all one's heart and mind. (Is that true?) After careful reflection about something one can be glad about it, or very sad. One can be determined to make sure it happens again, or never happens again. But I don't think one can be angry about it.

Anger seems to be a personal response, a feeling that arises in response to something done to you, or at least done to someone very close to you, perhaps to a family member. And some things seem too small to be angry about, while others seem too big. It would be petty to be angry about a loose button, but absurd to be angry about something too distant in time or space to affect you personally, or too enormous for you to have any hope of doing something about it. Hitler's acts seem like this. I can't reasonably be angry at Hitler partly because I don't have any personal relation to him and partly because his crimes are too enormous for such a personal emotional response as anger to fit them.

Wittgenstein was in a better position to be angry at Hitler, but I assume his point was that what Hitler did is too big for anger to be a reasonable response. If someone breaks my fence with their car I might be angry. I don't know what I would feel if I were close to the victims of a mass murder. But it wouldn't be the same.

Having said all this, I'm not sure that I'm right about either anger or about what Wittgenstein meant. I've also been working on this post, on and off, for far too long. A lot of the seemingly phony anger at Trump has died down, being replaced by some combination of determined resistance, despair, horror, and cautious optimism that in the very long run things might be OK. In fairness to the people who sometimes seem phony to me, they do far more of practical value than I do. So my seeing them as (somewhat) phony might say more about me than it does about them. But, of course, I don't think so.

[And, just in case this needs to be said, I am no more saying that Trump is Hitler than Wittgenstein was saying that Hitler is God.]      

Friday, January 13, 2017

British Wittgenstein Society Newsletter

[Warning: the following consists of little but bragging, although there is also a link to videos of talks by various Wittgenstein-related philosophers.]

The latest BWS Newsletter contains a short piece by Anshel Cohen, a student at Cambridge, about the 8th BWS Annual Conference. He writes:
One highly interesting lecture was Rowan Williams’ on Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and the Gospels, which uncovered many unexpected connections between these topics. However, my favourite talk was by Duncan Richter,...
Woo hoo! (The talk in question is this one, on "The Value of Clarity".)

There's a video of the talk here. Perhaps more interestingly, the same link takes you to videos of the talks given by Gabriel Citron, Genia Schӧnbaumsfeld, John Milbank, Stephen Mulhall, Rowan Williams, Sophie-Grace Chappell, Michael Scott, and Wayne Proudfoot 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

This essay of mine used to be available online but has disappeared, so I've uploaded it to If you like his work, or don't like it but want to understand why others do, you might be interested.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Philosophy as a kind of rebellion

A thought occurred to me the other night, while I was more or less asleep, that seemed like a revelation. In the light of day it seems less exciting, and less certainly true. But, as I have to keep reminding myself or else I will never post anything, this is only a blog. It is just the place for these possibly significant but probably nothing thoughts. So here it is.

A philosopher's not being a member of any community of ideas is the other side of the coin that says to talk ethics is to run against the boundaries of language. In a community of ideas people think, speak, and behave in similar ways. Not to be a member of any such community is not to go along, not to join in. Of course (or: presumably), a philosopher so defined might go along here and there, or now and then, but accidentally, not out of conformity. This does not guarantee running against the boundaries of language (if we recognize such things as existing in the first place), but it does suggest unconventional movements within any such boundaries, and probably increased likelihood of running against them. It will not be conventional thinkers who run against these boundaries.

Another thing I would assume is that a philosopher will not run against the boundaries of language just for the sake of it. Rather, he or she will take their cue not from society or convention but from something else, and this is what will cause the unconventional thinking/speaking/behavior. If this something else is a voice in one's head, say, then the results might not be good. But if it is what you might call God or Nature then perhaps it will be.