13 Dec 2017

Kissing Hitler 2: Notes on the Führer's Love Life

Heil honey, I'm home!

Hitler's love life has long been subject to critical and clinical analysis, as well as sensational speculation and obscene rumour. We know that he had relationships with a number of young women during his life and seemed to enjoy their company. The most famous and long-lasting of these relationships was with Eva Braun, whom he married in a civil ceremony on April 29, 1945, shortly before they committed suicide. (Is there anything more Romantic than a honeymoon in Hell?)

Although this relationship was kept secret from the public so as to protect Hitler's image as a man dedicated entirely to his political mission and the German people, there is no reason to think it was in any way an abnormal affair and Braun's biographer, the respected historian Heike Görtemaker, notes that the couple enjoyed a normal sex life (whatever that is).

There is also no real evidence that Hitler ever had any homosexual encounters, or desired such. The 1943 report by Walter C. Langer for the American Office of Strategic Services and the separate psychoanalytical study for the OSS by Henry Murray written in the same year that describe Hitler as having repressed homosexual tendencies and speculate that he was a shit-loving, sado-masochist with only one testicle who had trouble getting it up can, I think, be safely dismissed as shameful wartime propaganda that, actually, relies upon homophobia and encourages queer bashing.

Even if true, there's nothing wrong with being a kinky monorchid and coprophile; certainly in Hitler's case, this wasn't the most troubling aspect of his character and doesn't explain the genocidal nature of National Socialism. It's a shame, ultimately, that Hitler wasn't more of a libertine and less of a Nazi. For without wanting to sound like an old hippie, it's always better to make love rather than war, no matter how perversely one may choose to do so - though we shouldn't, of course, mistakenly posit these things as mutually exclusive terms, or binary opposites.

Note: readers interested in the idea of kissing Hitler should go to part one of this post: click here

Kissing Hitler 1: Some Like It Hot


Whilst working on the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot in the summer of 1958, Tony Curtis was asked what it was like to share an on-screen smooch with his (often difficult) co-star Marilyn Monroe; a question to which he famously replied that it was like kissing Hitler.

Curtis later explained that this was meant as a humorous rather than a malicious remark. One that whilst seemingly made at Monroe's expense, was also intended to poke fun at the absurdity of the question - for how could pressing your lips against Marilyn's be anything other than pleasurable? 

What really interests me, however, is the further underlying assumption that Hitler would have made an unattractive recipient of one's affection and was probably not only a monstrous human being, but also a terrible lover. This may, in fact, have been the case, although there's little real evidence to support such a belief and there's no way that Curtis would have been able to know this for sure.    

What it tells us is that for a Jewish-American heterosexual male of Curtis's generation (he served with the US Navy during the Second World War), Hitler was just about the very last person one might imagine kissing ...

Note: those interested in knowing more about the Führer's love life should go to part two of this post: click here.

12 Dec 2017

Object-Oriented Ontology and the Joy of Washing Up (With Reference to the Work of D. H. Lawrence)

Einai gar kei entautha theous

One of the reasons that D. H. Lawrence continues to fascinate is because his work is an attempt to construct a queer form of philosophical realism that is very much object-oriented. Even when, as a novelist, he writes of human subjects, he clearly cares more about their impersonal and, indeed, inhuman elements and how they interact within an ontological network made up of all kinds of other things; be they dead or alive, actual or virtual. For Lawrence, art is primarily an attempt to help us understand how all things – including ourselves – exist within this dynamic network of relations.

Human being, we might say, has its belonging in this network and although Lawrence often suggests that the most important of all relations is that between man and woman, there is of course no such hierarchy in reality. All things may not be equal, but they are all equally things and all relations are established, developed and dissolved on a flat ontological playing field. For a man to be rich in world requires more than the love of a good woman. He has to have also a quick relationship to "snow, bed-bugs, sunshine, the phallus, trains, silk-hats, cats, sorrow, people, food, diphtheria, fuchsias, stars, ideas, God, tooth-paste, lightning, and toilet-paper" [SoTH 183].

Thus it is that so many of Lawrence’s characters only really blossom when they enter into strange and startling new relationships with nonhuman objects; objects which, for Lawrence, even if composed of inert matter as opposed to living tissue, nevertheless exist "in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects" [SCAL 77].

This is true irrespective of actual physical contact, although Lawrence encourages his readers to establish joyful small contacts with objects, even offering a philosophical justification for doing the washing up:

"If I wash the dishes I learn a quick, light touch of china and earthenware, the feel of it, the weight and roll and poise of it, the peculiar hotness, the quickness or slowness of its surface. I am at the middle of an infinite complexity of motions and adjustments and quick, apprehensive contacts ... the primal consciousness is alert in me ... which is a pure satisfaction." [RDP 151]

When Lawrence advocates climbing down Pisgah, this is an important aspect of what he means; discovering the sacred in daily life. It's not a new idea, obviously. Even Heraclitus standing before his kitchen stove was keen to impress upon visitors that the gods were present everywhere and in all activities. But it remains an important idea that counters all forms of ascetic idealism that advocate separation from the world of things and devotion to a spiritual life of prayer and meditation.   

Critics have often accused Lawrence of contemptuously dismissing modern life as inauthentic. However, in order to make this charge stick they have to glide over passages such as the above which demonstrate that he was eager to relate his ontological vision to everyday existence and those things that lie closest to hand (such as a bowl of soapy water). 

For Lawrence, no chore was too humble that it didn't warrant being done well and he happily absorbed himself in cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, and milking the cow, whilst his wife lay in bed smoking cigarettes. Indeed, far from washing the dishes, Frieda was prone to breaking them over Lawrence's head - though I suppose this too is a way of demonstrating that matter actually exists and that violence can also give pleasure ...      


D. H. Lawrence, 'The Novel', in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985). 

In the first version of ‘Morality and the Novel’, Lawrence offers a different – no less surprising – list of things with which it is crucial to have relations. This includes "children, creatures, cities, skies, trees, flowers, mud, microbes, motor-cars, guns, [and] sewers". See Appendix III of the above text, p. 242.

D. H. Lawrence, 'Edgar Allen Poe' (Final Version, 1923), in Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003). 

D. H. Lawrence, 'Education of the People', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988). 

8 Dec 2017

Holy Cow

Kamadhenu (aka Surabhi)
A bovine-goddess described in Hinduism as the Mother of all Cows 

I've been ruminating recently on the bovine figure of the cow; the most common type of large domesticated ungulate - it's estimated that there are almost one-and-half billion of them - in the world today.

Most are raised as livestock for meat, farmed as dairy cattle, or slaughtered for their hides within a multibillion dollar global industry. And many are kept in truly appalling conditions, suffering constant cruelty and abuse before they eventually meet their violent end at the hands of men who often have zero concern for their welfare and even, it seems, regard these poor beasts with udder contempt.

And this is true even in countries such as India, where cows are venerated and their urine (gomutra) used for (crackpot) medical purposes. It may be a religious belief within Hinduism, for example, that life in all its forms is interconnected and that non-violence (ahimsa) towards all creatures is therefore an ethical obligation, but the fact is even the sacred cow is not fully protected and respect for cattle, whilst widespread, is far from universal.   

Thus, whilst most Indian states have some form of regulation prohibiting the sale and slaughter of cows, these laws vary greatly from state to state and the country still produces and exports a lot of beef and a lot of leather. There are also numerous illegal abattoirs operating across the country. In addition, hundreds of thousands of (often stolen) cows are smuggled by criminal gangs across the border each year into Bangladesh, where they are then brutally dispatched and dismembered (not always in that order).  

Europeans like to believe that their expensive leather goods are made in Italy and that the cows who supplied their skins were killed in a humane manner after leading relatively comfortable lives. But this is a mixture of bad faith and bullshit. For a lot of 'Italian leather' originates from the backstreets of Dhaka, where it's processed in makeshift tanneries in which workers, including children, are subject to atrocious conditions.

Unfortunately, that luxurious leather handbag that you're so proud of and paid so much for, is invariably the result of animal cruelty and human exploitation. And, if that weren't bad enough, the unregulated tanneries located not only in Bangladesh, but all over the developing world - from Brazil to Ethopia and Vietnam - produce eye-watering levels of pollution.

At this point, one feels like sighing with despair. But then one remembers Baudrillard's fabulous essay in which he suggests that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - the human variant of BSE or mad cow disease - is the suicidal revenge of a sacred animal whom, in our carnophallogocentric arrogance, we have transformed into a meat-milk-and-leather producing machine, and I start to smile again.

However, if it's true that all the gods reside in the body of Kamadhenu, the Mother of all Cows, as Hindu scripture suggests, then perhaps CJD is less an example of bovine terrorism and more a case of divine retribution: whom the gods wish to destroy, must first have their brains softened ...     

See: Jean Baudrillard, 'Ruminations for Spongiform Encephala', Screened Out, trans. Chris Turner, (Verso, 2002), pp. 171-75. 

For further reflections on human-cow relations, please click here.

7 Dec 2017

Reflections on the Death of a Cow (with Reference to the Work of Damien Hirst)

Figure 1

Along with sharks, skulls and flies, the artist Damien Hirst obviously has a thing for cows ...

One of the iconic works with which he made his name back in the 1990s, for example, Mother and Child (Divided), is a sculpture comprising four glass tanks supported by signature-style thick white frames, containing a cow and a calf, each cut in two and preserved in a translucent turquiose solution of formaldehyde.

Whatever one may think of the work - whatever may one think of Hirst himself - there's no denying it has a certain devastating beauty coupled with a terrible sense of sadness and loss. For not only is the calf fatally isolated from its mother, but both animals are also bisected and thus self-divided as well as separated from one another. 

Hirst seems to suggest that just as individual integrity is rendered impossible by death, so too is the hope of some kind of heavenly reunion or renconciliation between the generations. Further, Hirst wants the viewer to question why it is that corpses seem to often have a greater fascination and mystery than living beings - and even, once you overcome your initial horror, a greater beauty.

Cattle standing around in a field, he once said, lack the aesthetic interest of his cows suspended in formaldehyde. For the former are little more than soon-to-be beef burgers; dead beasts walking, chewing the cud whilst waiting for slaughter. In other words, they are organic components within an industrial food system that Heidegger describes as essentially genocidal in character and which Derrida brands as carno-phallogocentric.

The violence and injustice of our treatment of nonhuman life, particularly those animals reared on farms exclusively for food and for profit, is powerfully brought home in another of Hirst's works, The Promise of Money (2003):

Figure 2

Now, I'm not sure what Hirst is protesting with this work (if anything). But, to me, it speaks powerfully about the ongoing animal holocaust that many vegetarians, vegans, animal rights activists, and even ethically concerned carnivores are rightly sickened by. Eating well, may involve the sacrifice of animals, but it needn't involve appalling systematic cruelty, nor the symbolic cannibalistic sacrifice of other human beings (due to the voracious greed of those who thrive on such).     

I think Derrida is right to argue the crucial importance of determining a more caring and respectful (almost reverential) way of relating to the living animal in its otherness. If Hirst's sensational strategy of shock and awe can help provoke this, then that's great. Personally, however, I prefer the attempt by D. H. Lawrence to equilibrate with a black-eyed cow called Susan in all her cowy wonder:

"She knows my touch and she goes very still and peaceful, being milked. I, too, I know her smell and her warmth and her feel. And I share some of her cowy silence, when I milk her. [...] And this relation is part of the mystery of love: the individuality on each side, mine and Susan's, suspended in the relationship."


Figure 1: Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided). This is a photo of the exhibition copy that Hirst created for the Turner Prize retrospective at Tate Britain in 2007. The original work (1993), is in the Astrup Fernley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. For more details, click here.

Figure 2: Damien Hirst: The Promise of Money (2003), Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates  / © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. For more details, click here.  
D. H. Lawrence, '...... Love Was Once a Little Boy', Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 329-46.

To read more on Lawrence's relationship with Susan the cow, click here.

This post is dedicated to David Brock and Thomas Bonneville.

5 Dec 2017

D. H. Lawrence and Susan, the Black-Eyed Cow

Alexandra Klimas: Susan the Cow (2016)
Oil on canvas (70 x 120 cm)

As David Brock reminds us in his most recent column in the Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser, whilst living on his ranch in New Mexico, Lawrence acquired a cow which he named Susan.

He happily milked her twice a day and was able to produce a couple of pounds of butter each week. But he was also obliged to spend a good deal of time chasing after her on horseback, as Susan was prone to wandering off into the surrounding hills; something he was less pleased about.
For the American James Joyce scholar, William York Tindall, Susan is best thought of as a symbol rather than as an actual cow. For it is as a symbol that she provides the critic with a key to Lawrence's philosophy and art. Indeed, symbolic Susan might even help us, says Tindall, come to a better understanding of some of the wider problems within literature and society. Thus it is that in his 1939 study of Lawrence and Susan, Tindall has very little to say about the latter.

This is disappointing - and also, I think, mistaken. For Lawrence himself makes it very clear in his own writings on Susan that she is not to be thought of as a symbol, or metaphor, or a piece of livestock whose function is simply to produce milk like a machine, but as a living creature with her own non-human reality.

For Lawrence, the fact that birds, beasts and flowers - indeed, all things - exist independently of man is the essential point to make. And the great challenge, this being the case, is to find a way to come into touch with things without compromising their integrity or falling into anthropomorphism and projecting one's own characteristics and values onto them.

Thus it is that Lawrence is desperate to discover how, as a man, he can equilibrate himself with black-eyed Susan in all her cowy mystery. It isn't easy. For although there's a sort of relation between them, neither can ever really know the other (certainly not in full). But still they can sense one another and she can swing her tail in his face when he sits behind her, making him mad.

And this physical relationship hinges, like all relationships, on a form of desire:

"She knows my touch and she goes very still and peaceful, being milked. I, too, I know her smell and her warmth and her feel. And I share some of her cowy silence, when I milk her. [...] And this relation is part of the mystery of love: the individuality on each side, mine and Susan's, suspended in the relationship."

Tindall refers to these lines from '... Love Was Once a Little Boy' in the preface to his study, but seems more than a little embarrassed by them; explaining that whilst "it cannot be denied that [Lawrence] sounds foolish", he was a genius and genius "is not always reasonable".  

Well, I don't think Lawrence sounds foolish here; in fact, I think he's being perfectly reasonable and that the lines quoted are not only very beautiful, but also philosophically of great interest. It's Tindall, I'm afraid, who is being crass and displaying a remarkable non-affinity with his subject.  


David Brock, 'D. H. Lawrence and his well-loved pet cow named Susan', Eastwood and Kimberley Advertiser, (1 Dec 2017). 

D. H. Lawrence, '...... Love Was Once a Little Boy', Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 329-46.

William York Tindall, D. H. Lawrence and Susan His Cow, (Columbia University Press, 1939).

For a related post to this one, click here.

4 Dec 2017

Lipstick Traces: Lessons for Lucia

Lucia Pica photographed by Daniel Jackson 
Vogue (Sept 2015)

Like many people, when I heard a couple of years ago that Italian-born, London-based Lucia Pica had been appointed creative director at Chanel cosmetics, I was very happy for her and very hopeful of what we might expect; for she is undoubtedly a makeup artist with a bold and brilliant understanding of colour and unafraid of taking risks.

Expectations were further raised when it was revealed that her first collection for the label would in part be inspired by the work of Jean Baudrillard; that we could finally delight in nail polish and lipstick that pops with hyperreal playfulness.  

Unfortunately, however, if you take time to read interviews with Ms Pica, you discover that she subscribes to a disappointing model of aesthetic idealism, in which beauty is something essential and makeup merely a method of enhancement that should never be allowed to mask the natural character of a face, so that the real woman can shine through.

In other words, the ultimate personal expression is that of your own true self.   

Having resisted the urge to vomit, I'd like - at the risk of repeating what I've said elsewhere on this blog - to provide some lessons for Lucia on artifice and nature (and the nature of artifice), in relation to the question of Woman conceived in terms of style and seduction ...  

1. Woman is a myth activated through a system of signs encoded, for example, in art and fashion.

2. Those things which serve to construct her femininity, such as her shoes, her makeup and her lingerie, matter more than her biology. For whilst the latter determines her as a female belonging to a species of domestic animal, it does not determine her as a woman. In other words, her being is not naturally given; she is not born a woman, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, but becomes such via culture.

3. Because of this, woman fully understands the need for illusion and defends the right to lie. She uses cosmetics not because she wishes to conceal an essence or a hidden reality beneath appearance, but because she has no inner self and only wants to make us think she does. To mistake the exceeding of nature for a crude camouflaging of the truth, is to commit a cardinal error. Makeup isn't false - it's the falser than false and so recuperates a kind of superior innocence.       

4. Further, via a confident and sophisticated use of clothes and cosmetics, a woman can strike a blow against the puritanical drabness of the world with its neutral tones and sensible footwear, rediscovering the power of witchcraft known as glamour. As Baudelaire writes:

"Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. [...] It matters but little that [her] artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible."

5. If this means that woman risks surrendering to emptiness and reification on the one hand, whilst becoming commodified and fetishized on the other, this need not necessarily be such a bad thing; models, actresses and prostitutes, for example, have all cleverly turned their object status and vacancy into an art, exploiting what Walter Benjamin termed the sex appeal of the inorganic (i.e. that pale power of seduction and stillness founded upon the ecstasy of a blank gaze and a Pan Am smile).   

6. Finally, Lucia, you might like to consider how it is only at the symbolic level of appearances that systems become fragile and only via enchantment that the power and meaning of these systems becomes vulnerable. In other words, the idiosyncratic feminism of Coco Chanel - in which you profess an interest - needs to be understood as a politics of style that is all about a light manipulation of appearances, rather than a politics of desire and identity that still concerns itself with libidinal and psychological depths.

Why become fixated on true feelings and ontological foundations, when you can just add more lipstick and attack?


Stephen Alexander, Philosophy on the Catwalk (Blind Cupid Press, 2011).

Charles Baudelaire, 'The Painter of Modern Life' in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne, (Phaidon Press, 2006).

Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, (St. Martin's Press, 1990).

Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow, (University of Chicago Press, 1979).

2 Dec 2017

Lipstick Traces (with Reference to the Case of Cleopatra)

Zabrena: Historically Accurate: Ancient Egypt / Cleopatra Makeup Tutorial
YouTube (8 Oct 2014): click here

One of the questions I find endlessly fascinating is that of nature and artifice and the nature of artifice in relation to femininity.

It's a question that invariably takes us back to Baudelaire who suggests that without makeup Woman - as a figment of the pornographic imagination and not merely as a lump of flesh with distinct reproductive organs from the male - not only fails to excite or interest, but is less than human. It is only as a cultural-cosmetic effect that she elevates herself above her animal biology and captures the hearts and minds of men who would otherwise happily make do with other pleasures.      

For as Baudelaire admits, woman is not an animal whose component parts - even when pleasingly assembled and proportioned - provide a perfect example of harmony; "she is not even that type of pure beauty which the sculptor can mentally evoke in the course of his sternest meditations". In order to cast her complex spell of enchantment, she needs to adorn and thus enhance her physical attributes. 

Take the mouth, for example: who in their right mind would ever have dreamt of kissing the lips of a mucous-lined orifice with two rows of sharp teeth - and, indeed, exploring such with their own tongue or virile member - were those lips not first painted in an irresistible shade?

For whilst a smile, betraying as it does a certain vulnerability, may attract the attention of a man, I doubt that alone would be enough to persuade to perversion. And, let's be clear about this, oral sex - which includes French kissing - is an obvious abberation, involving as it does a form of what Freud terms anatomical transgression.

Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, Isis Reborn, and a skilled fellatrix, knew exactly what she was doing when she applied crushed beetle juice in a beeswax base to her lips in order to stain them deep carmine red.

As Adam Ant once put it: She was a wide-mouthed girl ...    


Charles Baudelaire, 'The Painter of Modern Life' in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. by Jonathan Mayne, (Phaidon Press, 1995): click here to read online. 

Sigmund Freud, 'The Sexual Aberrations', in Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory, trans. A. A. Brill (NY, 1910): click here to read online.


Adam and the Ants, 'Cleopatra', Dirk Wears White Sox, (Do It Records, 1979): click here to listen on YouTube.

29 Nov 2017

Reflections on Wittgenstein's Rhino

Albrecht Dürer: The Rhinoceros (1515)

Even many non-philosophers know two stories concerning Wittgenstein's time at Cambridge: the first, an amusing confrontation with Karl Popper in October 1946 involving a poker, was the subject of a best-selling book by David Edmonds and John Eidinow; the second, an encounter between Bertrand Russell and his young Austrian student thirty-five years earlier, involving a discussion that centred on the question of whether or not there was a rhinoceros in the room ...

In brief, Russell wanted Wittgenstein to concede that we can have empirical knowledge of the world by admitting that there was, in fact, no rhino present. But the latter refused to do so - even after Russell amusingly began looking for the beast under the desk to no avail. Whilst Wittgenstein may have had a point, one can't help thinking he was, in this instance (as in others), being a bit of a dick.

Indeed, I'm not sure I understand the point he's trying to make or why he can't simply accept the factual non-presence of the rhino, given that in his early work he maintains that only such propositions can legitimately be asserted. But then, my understanding of Wittgenstein's thinking is limited (and probably inaccurate) due to its having been shaped primarily by drunken discussions in the Barley Mow pub many years ago.        

At this very early stage in their relationship, Russell worried that Wittgenstein was a crank, rather than a philosophical genius. I can imagine how he felt, for I experience the same concern whenever I correspond with a friend of mine, let's call him Mr X, who also likes to deny - or at least contest - the propositions of natural science and refuse to accept that there is a mind-independent reality about which we can speak with confidence.

For Mr X, the world consists neither of facts nor of things, but only of interpretations and all descriptions are essentially metaphorical. He thus posits a daemonic ontology that is mytho-poetic rather than material-scientific in character. Rather than agree there was no rhino in the room, Mr X would sooner insist on its invisibility, or point out that imaginary objects are also real even if physically not present as actual entities; thus his (psycho) logical belief also in supernatural beings.

For Mr X, as for Wittgenstein (though for different reasons), Russell's seemingly commonsensical proposition is questionable on the grounds that it doesn't meaningfully assert anything about the world - certainly nothing upon which we can ever be completely certain - and is, therefore, what Wittgenstein terms in the Tractatus a 'nonsensical pseudo-proposition' [4.1272] (i.e. one that refers us only to the logic of language by which we talk about the world and not to things in themselves). 

And so, perhaps Wittgenstein wasn't being a dick after all ... Perhaps, as J. F. Macdonald argues, it was Russell who profoundly misunderstood matters and who, by attempting to ridicule the younger man, was the one acting like a dick. Wittgenstein, says MacDonald, wasn't rejecting empirical propositions; rather, he was rejecting propositions that posed as such, but were not, and discreetly "making a point about what can be meaningfully said, not about what we don't know".

And perhaps I too should learn to listen more carefully to what it is Mr X is saying and not be so quick to dismiss it as absurd, or him as foolish ... For I fear this reveals merely my own philosophical arrogance and limitations. 


Details of the conversation between Russell and Wittgenstein on the rhinoceros can be found in Russell's letters from the period to Lady Ottoline Morell (reprinted in Ray Monk's biography, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, (Vintage, 1990), pp. 38-40), and in Russell's article in Mind Vol. 60, issue 239 (July 1951), pp. 297-98, which served as an obituary notice for Wittgenstein who died in April of that year.

Click here to read the above article online, noting how Russell misremembers the conversation concerning a hippo, not a rhino.

The essay by J. F. MacDonald from which I quote, 'Russell, Wittgenstein and the problem of the rhinoceros', is in the Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 31 (4), (1993), pp. 409-24, but can also be found in full online at the Rhino Resource Center (the world's largest rhino information website): click here.   

The book by Edmonds and Eidinow that I mention at the beginning of the post - Wittgenstein's Poker: the story of a 10-minute argument between two great philosophers - was published by Faber in 2001.

Finally, readers interested in directly engaging with the early Wittgenstein should either get hold of a copy of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), or click here to read the original 1922 edition as an ebook trans. C. K. Ogden, with an introduction by Bertrand Russell, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

This post is for Mr X and Andy G.

27 Nov 2017

Cut the Crap: In Praise of Occam's Razor

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

Occam's razor is a convenient problem-solving principle attributed to a 14th-century English monk, scholastic philosopher and theologian, William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), which states that among competing theories, the simplest (i.e., the one with fewest underlying assumptions) is, more often that not, likely to be correct and that complexity should not be valued for its own sake or unnecessarily fetishised.

Obviously, all events are open to interpretation and for any accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there will be a large number of alternative (often ad hoc) hypotheses. Thus we need something that helps us cut the crap and cut to the chase and Occam's razor does the job - although it should be noted that it functions more as a heuristic guide, rather than an irrefutable method for determining what's right.

It does, however, encourage and enable us to choose between competing truth-claims by opening them up to falsification and for that I'm grateful; just as I'm also grateful that it serves as a weapon in the fight against occultists, conspiracy theorists, and crackpots of every description for whom nothing is ever easy or as it appears and there's always a darker, deeper, more diabolical level of meaning to be uncovered. 

When hearing the sound of hooves on cobblestone outside your window, it's reasonable to assume it's someone on horseback and not that there's a unicorn passing by, or that a member of a sinister cult or secret government agency must have released a zebra from the local zoo in order to spread panic and confusion amongst members of the general public.

The law of parsimony helps us understand and appreciate this by taming the wildness of our imagination and curbing our enthusiasm for the elaborate and fanciful. As Bertrand Russell put it in his own reworking of Occam's razor: "Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities."         

Having said that, I realise that Occam's razor is itself a metaphysical assumption; that there's little empirical evidence that the world is actually straightforward and transparent, or that simple accounts are more inherently true than weirdly complex ones. 

I also concede that Occam's razor is an inherently conservative device that tends to reinforce the general consensus of opinion and cut out opportunities to speculate, fantasise, and poetically re-imagine events. Artists, and those who like to daydream and listen to the (irrational) murmurs of their unconscious, as well as pataphysicists for whom knowledge is not only complex, but ambiguous, paradoxical and radically inconsistent, will naturally have an instinctive dislike for it.    

But, nevertheless, I think the scientific method and the axioms upon which it's based - there's an objective reality that is subject to natural laws which we can understand - is something worth defending, particularly in this present time of resurgent religiosity. And Occam's razor generally lends support to these axioms (although, of course, it doesn't prove them).


An article by Chris Chatham that shows the limitations (or bluntness) of Occam's razor - particularly within a scientific context - has been brought to my attention by Simon Solomon: click here. It seems that Whitehead offers us the best perspective on this topic: "The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be 'Seek simplicity and distrust it.'"