George Floyd Meets Wittgenstein

George Floyd Meets Wittgenstein

Otherness is neither absolute nor meaningless, so it’s important we understand what it is if we are to be more constructive than simply engaging in binary battles between ideological extremes.


I need to write two posts, but they’re closely related, and this probably isn’t either of them. It’s my usual preamble, so that the posts themselves can be free of that distraction.

Prompted to write at this moment following a Twitter dialogue with Mark Hammonds on Wittgenstein (Witt or W to his friends and/or enemies), following some words of Frank Ramsey (Witt’s precocious translator) being quoted because of Anthony Gottlieb’s New Yorker review of Cheryl Misak’s new  biography of Ramsey.

(Oops tw sp “Ramsey” and “Gottlieb”)

I have a very particular take – aired here many times before (*1) – on how we should use “W” stories in our futures. It’s a passion of mine because like so many topics taking sides in “camps”, it sets up potentially destructive binary debate on what are in reality much more subtly nuanced ontologies across many dimensions of reality. The identities of meaningful “things” that exist in ontologies is my day job. It really is. And it’s the origin of my two decades and counting interest in what philosophies of ontology and epistemology have to say about the reality of … life, the universe and everything … which includes … my day job.

But firstly, immediately prior to today, the whole BLM eruption following the George Floyd murder and the widespread police brutality in responding to protests and curfews, egged on by the #fuckwitinchief in the White House. As ever it’s about the otherness of identity, in this case BAME minorities, but also recently and ongoing the feminist & LGBT+ “TERF wars”, before that and ongoing all the other binary choices Hillary (or Bernie or Biden) vs the fuckwit, Covid19 (or Brexit) on lockdown vs free-movement. The freedom fetish as I’ve dubbed it. But let’s stick with the otherness of identity.

It’s neatly summed-up in that Danish TV2 public information film that’s been doing the rounds recently – including as a ubiquitous “duty of care” moment on inclusiveness in the day-job context. It’s important to the message that it makes you smile, despite the seriousness of the BAME / George Floyd context of its immediacy.

The point is we have many identities, memberships of many classes, on many different dimensions, overlapping on many Venn diagrams. In fact our individual identities are the sum of those sets (*2). We can’t fundamentally choose any or all of our identities, but we can choose which (or which subset / pattern of) identities are appropriate to any context we operate in. The point – neatly summarised by Robert Frost as “Good Fences” (*3) – is *not* that we’re all the same, that differences – fences – are inherently bad and must be minimised or removed. It’s important to maximise the common ground, the overlap, but the individual classifications and identities remain real and important to understand, in context.

We give different things different names for good practical reasons. The dividing lines between classes, the distinctions between this and the other, me and you, the names we give things, are real and necessary for our world to function. They’re good fences, patterns by mutual agreement, but easily moved between contexts and across which the evolution of constructive dialogue is always possible. They’re rarely brick-walls or impenetrable fortifications to be defended at all costs. In fact there are many different kinds of distinction, whose relative values where they come into conflict require understanding. There’s no absolute freedom to choose. Human rights and freedoms are relatively important, but it’s important not to fetishise them as literally paramount or absolute.

Very few distinctions – a very small few – are individually fixed or definitively ruled “by the science” in all evolving contexts. But neither does that mean that all differences should be treated arbitrary or relatively meaningless. None should be imposed ideologically.



(*1) See > Ian’s take on W as an “elaborate, backfiring – but ultimately useful – joke”. In brief,  Witt’s shows two extremes – logical positivism (in TLP) vs linguistic games (in PI) – to be equally absurd, yet idolised by both camps of idolaters who failed to get the absurdity in the “joke”. Reality lies between (obviously).
(TLP – W’s Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus)
(PI – W’s Philosophical Investigations)

(*2) – “Intersectionality” is a buzzword for understanding these multiple overlapping sets of identities. Like “EvoPsych” or “Queer Studies” using the word “Intersectionality” for the general idea is not to be confused with a school of socio-political academe whose baggage has hijacked the same name. (See words and “private language”.)

(*3) See > Ian’s take on Robert Frost’s “Good Fences” and G K Chesterton’s “Gated Road in the Forest”.

See Also:

Rules for Guidance of the Wise

Identity Politics

Vive la Difference / Différence / Différance

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