Four lessons from Wittgenstein on Trump

The Trump Blimp in Parliament Square
Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe Trump Blimp in Parliament Square Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lesson 1 – Politics is not science

In Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein critiques anthropologist James George Frazer’s argument that the ritual practices (magic) of ‘primitive cultures’ are an early and ineffective form of ‘modern science’. Instead, Wittgenstein argues that societies use magic for an entirely different purpose to science – they do fundamentally different things. If you are unsure whether your partner loves you, you are unlikely to be made to feel assured by a scientific explanation of how much dopamine and oxytocin your partner has in their brain, but you might if your partner embraces you in a certain way and shows their love for you.

Perhaps politics is more akin to magic than to science. Rather than voting in order to affect a physical change in the world, perhaps many people vote for personal satisfaction, for a feeling of power or for aesthetic purposes. Somewhat contrary to their Marxist heritage, this was the view of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. However, Adorno put far less agency in the hands of the voters, instead describing how a ‘spell’ of demagogues, depending on ‘language itself’, exploits the ‘children of today’ (‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda).

Wittgenstein gives us two different insights to those of Adorno. First, Wittgenstein helps explain why, even though Trump is the one depicted as a baby, he still garners massive appeal. Second, language is largely irrelevant to what is going on when Trump talks.

Lesson 2 – Trump’s biggest advantage is that he is a child

Wittgenstein explains how a lover can instinctively tell a ‘genuine loving look’ from a non-genuine or ‘pretended’ look (Philosophy of Psychology). There is something utterly sincere in the gesture that is not an outward sign of an inner thought, but the very manifestation of that inner thought.

For Wittgenstein, ‘a child has much to learn before it can pretend’. This is because a child directly expresses their experience, like an adult who sees a rabbit and cries ‘A RABBIT!’. This is surely what Trump is doing when fiercely and immediately tweeting whatever pops into his head when he watches Fox News or is confronted by a tweet he does not like.

A quintessential Trump tweet. Source: Twitter

A quintessential Trump tweet.
Source: Twitter

Lesson 3 – It’s not what someone says, but who says it to whom and in what way

Wittgenstein writes that ‘if a lion could speak, we could not understand it’. Similarly, Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a tribe of humans who never express their feelings, and says, as with the lion, that they could not possibly make themselves understood to us (Philosophy of Psychology #700).

Perhaps we could also say that ‘if a politician could speak (to us in everyday situation), we could not understand them’. There is something very inhuman about politicians, whether it be May’s robot dance or Miliband’s inability to eat a bacon sandwich. Both can be endearing, but what is not endearing is thinking that a politician does not mean what they say, or that they have agonized long and hard over choosing exactly the right thing to say.

What Wittgenstein does is separates the phrase from the feeling it induces. He writes that: ‘this passage gives us a quite special feeling. We sing it to ourselves, and make a certain movement, and also perhaps have some special sensation. But in a different context we should not recognize these accompaniments—the movement, the sensation—at all. They are quite empty except just when we are singing this passage’ (Philosophical Investigations Hvi).

The crucial fact is not what politicians say, but whether the right politician is saying it in the right way to the right people in the right situation. For example, it is no use if David Cameron offers the same anti-immigration rhetoric as Nigel Farage, or if the CSU in Bavaria try to appeal to the AfD, because the rhetoric does not ‘sing’. This is a general lesson in why we should not pander and adjust political rhetoric to the far right in order to ‘woo’ voters back to the mainstream – such pronouncements are dramatically less effective, perhaps even incomprehensible.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lesson 4 – Propositions and attitudes are nothing to do with reality or knowledge

For Wittgenstein, ‘all propositions are of equal value’ (Tractatus 6.4), and a proposition can ‘depict any reality whose form it has’. In essence, if we claim to be speaking politically, then we can depict any political picture we like, and all these claims are initially of equal value, because, ‘it is impossible to tell from the picture alone whether it is true or false’ (Tractatus 2.224).

It is only if we then assess ‘the agreement or disagreement of its sense with reality’ (Tractatus 2.222) that we can actually determine whether the proposition is a ‘true’ description of the world. However, most people do not compare claims about the economy or empirical world with reality, because it is too time consuming, or as we have said already, because what we want to believe and what science dictates that we should believe are very different things. People think, correctly or incorrectly, that they simply know some things to be the case. For example, on the ‘question’ of whether milk exists, we don’t say ‘I know that milk exists’, it just does and that’s that. Some questions do not require science in order to be answered.

Even if it is incorrect to apply the ‘milk question’ to politics because most people generally do want politicians’ claims compared to reality, then fortunately, we have people like opposition politicians, journalists and academics to do the leg work. However, these people, for good or bad, generally do not express their inner thoughts and instinctive reactions. No wonder they are not considered sincere. And thus we return to a problem of mistrust, where at least Trump can be trusted, generally, to be saying exactly what he means at that moment.

In the words of Wittgenstein, for Trump, dismissive of over-complicated thinking, his ‘world is all that is the case’.