Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the most insightful philosopher of the 20th Century, made the following seemingly paradoxical (but now considered banal) observation. Pretty much everything makes sense until we try to make sense of it. 

So we’d have been just fine had we left well enough alone. But we didn’t. We started thinking about our thinking. And overthinking it to boot. But thinking was never meant, either by God or by natural selection, to be thought about. And now it’s too late.

So, says Wittgenstein, philosophy is therapy. It’s the unravelling of all this gratuitous navel-gazing, to get us back to a cognitive place we shouldn’t have left in the first place.

A case in point – ex hypothesi everything is a case in point – we knew what we meant by cause and effect before Hume fucked us up by asking. Likewise what we meant by time, or God, or right and wrong, or … In short, all the usual philosophical suspects. And now the latest suspects, like what we mean by rape, by genocide, terrorism, colonialism, indigenous … And what we mean by a woman. 

About pornography, in 1964 then-SCOTUS justice Potter Stewart remarked that, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” I doubt that he’d read Wittgenstein, but he got the point notwithstanding.

Wittgenstein’s insight was instructively on display when, during Katanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation hearing, in a puerile attempt to pasquinade her over the trans issue, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn asked her to define a woman. What she should have said, but didn’t, was, “Gee Senator, I don’t know. But clearly you must. So why don’t you tell us?”

Some people think we can settle for definitions by ostension. “What I mean by a woman is one of those things.” But of the innumerable things, or collection of things, I could be pointing at, which exactly am I pointing at? Like Potter Stewart would have said, “I don’t know what a woman is, but I know one when I see one.”

Or do I?

Apparently not. 

A longstanding member of staff for the royal family was recently forced to resign for asking a black guest at a royal reception where she was from. “England,” the woman answered. “No, I mean where are you really from?”, the staffer pressed on. “I was born in England,” the woman answered. “Yes, but where are your people from?” And that, apparently, was career-ending racism.

Now imagine you’re a white man at a government reception in Ghana. “Where are you from?” asks another Ghanian guest. “I was born in Ghana.” “I see. But where are your parents from?” That, apparently is not a racist question. What explains this asymmetry?

So far as I can tell, only one thing could. The question asked of an historically  subaltern is racist. The same question asked by an historically subaltern is not. 

Is my point that there’s some kind of injustice here? Not at all. My point is that we would all grant the legitimacy of the asymmetry. But if asked to explain why, we couldn’t. Or if we thought we could, our explanation would die the death of a thousand qualifications. In short, “We may not – in fact we do not – know what racism is, but we know it when we see it.”

Are these kinds of definitions-by-ostension – be they of pornography or of a woman or of racism – adequate to our forensic needs? My moral and jurisprudential intuitions tell me they’re not. As a curator I need to know whether a photograph of rope on skin is pornographic before I hang it in my gallery. As a member of the selection committee I need to know whether this job candidate is entitled to preferential hiring. And as an ESL teacher I need to know whether I can ask one of my students where’s she’s from. In other words – and this I think is Wittgenstein’s point – pornography, woman, and racism are precisely the concepts our overthinking has saddled us with, and that philosophers are now charged with unravelling.

I recently assigned each of these three randomly selected concepts to a class of my students. At the end of the term they were all of one mind. “Philosophy is really hard!”

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Wittgenstein was a great philosopher, but don’t underestimate the philosophical acumen of Humpty Dumpty, who said “‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: