Friday, August 7, 2020

Witcraft in 1901 and 1951 - a distinguished crankologist is prepared to give lessons in this important subject

In 1901, William James gives a series of lectures in Edinburgh that will become The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  In 1951, Ludwig Wittgenstein dies.  James and Wittgenstein guide us through Witcraft’s English philosophy for almost two hundred and fifty pages (the chapters are getting pretty long).

1901 features more Mill, now a radical and feminist, and more Carlyle, now a hero of the new Labour Party.  Darwin, Spencer and Huxley are dragging philosophy in a new direction, as are Marx and Engels.  The first great philosophical craze, though, as we have discussed before at Wuthering Expectations, is for Arthur Schopenhauer, taken up by every decadent and aesthete, to be followed by the Nietzsche craze.  Also Hegel: “Before long Hegel-worship was taking hold in England too” (393).  In the 1951 chapter, it’s Kierkegaard; in a theoretical 2001 chapter, it would be Sartre and Derrida and various other French writers.  I would not mind reading a literary or book history of received philosophy.  It explains a lot (of what is in novels).

For example:

For some of Nietzsche’s followers, however, profundity was not enough.  Their leader was a self-styled ‘man of affairs’ who was a political agitator in Australia before surfacing in Chicago under the name of Ragnar Redbeard…  ‘Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong,’ he added… The full doctrine was set out in a pamphlet called Might is Right  Redbeard’s propaganda struck a chord with a young student in California called Jack London, helping turn him into a writer who aimed, as he put it, to proclaim ‘the paean of the strong with all my heart’, while ‘raging  through life without end like one of Nietzsche’s blond beasts’. (390)

Ragnar Redbeard!  This chapter is filled with interesting figures who were not themselves significant writers, but who were great propagators, most notable the Scot Thomas Davidson who “by vocation” was “a rebellious vagabond” of high intellectual powers, who drifted around Britain and the United States thinking and teaching, often in philosophical clubs.  “Davidson got on well with the ‘St Louis Hegelians’, as he called them – yes, a St. Louis specific Hegel-craze, headquartered in the St. Louis Mercantile Library, which I urged you to visit in this post.

Here we see a page of advertisements in the special Christmas edition of Mind! magazine (1901, p. 457).  I have adopted “a distinguished crankologist” as my new self-description, even though I am not particularly distinguished.  Am I ever prepared to give lessons.  I’ve been delivering them on this very website for years.

The long 1951 chapter is essentially a “life and times” of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who I take as a hero of Jonathan Rée’s, an exemplar of the practice of philosophy.  He barely publishes.  He is always thinking and talking, working on the most difficult problems.  His intelligence is astounding; who knows what he could have done if he had remained an engineer.  He has a perpetually complicated, comical, relationship with universities.

Bertrand Russell becomes, in the narrative, something of a villain, a corruption of philosophy.  I don’t know that Rée thinks of Russell as a villain, but narratives have their own logic.

The chapter’s title is “A Collection of Nonsense”:

The main topic of his classes [this is 1929] was still nonsense (or ‘nonsense in the philosophical sense’, as one of his students put it), and he spoke with great animation, sometimes rapidly, with dashes of ‘schoolboyish English slang’, sometimes slowing down and sinking into silence, ‘with perspiration streaming down his face’.  Students were often bewildered, but the effect was ‘hypnotic’. (475)

I suppose I see part of my attraction to Witcraft here.  I take nonsense, and not necessarily in the philosophical sense, as the basis of literature, with meaning and mimesis and all of that built on top of and out of language.  Ideas are made of language.  It is great fun to play with language, but it is also full of traps.  “Philosophy as [Wittgenstein] saw it was ‘not a theory’, but the practice of clarifying thoughts that are otherwise ‘opaque and blurred’” (613).  I do not see literature so differently. So Witcraft is a congenial book.

But it is a big book, too.  There are many other things a reader could do with it.


  1. i do lots of Xword puzzles. they familiarize the practitioner with language traps of all sorts. and it is fun. as a prof. of crankology, you're probably aware of the beginnings of mankind: a small feeble mammal in the early Jurassic; my conviction is the end will mirror the beginning with the wimpy inheriting the earth... after the strong have broken all their toys...

  2. I saw that ad for Moneyism and immediately thought of The Confidence Man.

    I'm absolutely willing to get on board the crankology bandwagon. I think the annual conventions would be fantastic.

  3. Wow! This sounds so fascinating and fun besides. Noodling with the likes of Wittgenstein about words is a grand idea.

  4. call me old-school, but YM "psychoceramicist"

  5. Thanks for your posts on Witcraft as I was interested but hesitating to commit to reading it. I'm all in now. It doesn't hurt that I've been spending a lot of time with Adam Smith (and thus Hume) recently. Thanks!

  6. This is a curious and perhaps apt set of comments to gather here while I was on vacation.

    Distinguishing between the crank and the crackpot (which is how I interpret the cryptic psychoceramicist bit) is a good definition of the study of philosophy. Perhaps there are a few other categories.