Negative Dialectics

by John Holbo on July 17, 2018

“The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” “So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

That’s not even a double-negative.

In other news, scholars have decided Wittgenstein meant that whereof he could not speak, thereof he would not be silent. Hamlet meant that is not the question. Heidegger wants you to know that nothing does not nothing. (Repeat: does not nothing.) Also, it turns out there is a typo in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

341. The heaviest weight. – What if some day or night a demon weren’t to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine. ‘ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for no thing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

That clarifies Nietzsche on Eternal Return pretty good. Any questions?



Ben 07.17.18 at 11:36 pm

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to not change it


John Holbo 07.17.18 at 11:51 pm

Needs more overall unclarity. How about?

Philosophers haven’t hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.


Alan White 07.18.18 at 12:06 am

“Your honor, I couldn’t possibly have perjured myself. When taking the oath, I meant to say in response to swearing to tell the truth, “I don’t.” That was my intention, so nothing I said under an oath I rejected can be assessed as lying.”

The sad thing is that more people in the US think Trump is infallible than think the Pope is.


floopmeister 07.18.18 at 12:11 am

I don’t understand that very clearly.


floopmeister 07.18.18 at 12:12 am

Whoops, I meant “I don’t understand that very clearly.”


John Holbo 07.18.18 at 12:18 am

“I don’t understand that very clearly.”

That’s good!


Chris (merian) W. 07.18.18 at 2:00 am

I meant to write, surely you mean a typo in some English translation of Nietzsche’s Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. Then I thought, probably not a typo, but a translation error, because German – antiquated German – might admit an expletive negation in this spot, which of course would not negate the verb. But I looked it up, and the German doesn’t have a negation (2nd edition anyhow):

Wie, wenn dir eines Tages oder Nachts, ein Dämon in deine einsamste Einsamkeit nachschliche und dir sagte: „Dieses Leben, wie du es jetzt lebst und gelebt hast, wirst du noch einmal und noch unzählige Male leben müssen; und es wird nichts Neues daran sein, sondern jeder Schmerz und jede Lust und jeder Gedanke und Seufzer und alles unsäglich Kleine und Grosse deines Lebens muss dir wiederkommen, und Alles in der selben Reihe und Folge — und ebenso diese Spinne und dieses Mondlicht zwischen den Bäumen, und ebenso dieser Augenblick und ich selber. Die ewige Sanduhr des Daseins wird immer wieder umgedreht — und du mit ihr, Stäubchen vom Staube!“ — Würdest du dich nicht niederwerfen und mit den Zähnen knirschen und den Dämon verfluchen, der so redete? Oder hast du einmal einen ungeheuren Augenblick erlebt, wo du ihm antworten würdest: „du bist ein Gott und nie hörte ich Göttlicheres!“ Wenn jener Gedanke über dich Gewalt bekäme, er würde dich, wie du bist, verwandeln und vielleicht zermalmen; die Frage bei Allem und Jedem „willst du diess noch einmal und noch unzählige Male?“ würde als das grösste Schwergewicht auf deinem Handeln liegen! Oder wie müsstest du dir selber und dem Leben gut werden, um nach Nichts mehr zu verlangen, als nach dieser letzten ewigen Bestätigung und Besiegelung?

But of course if the English is a translation via a French text, the error might have occurred there as I’d be inclined to use a “ne explétif” here. However, the French tranlator I have at hand doesn’t: “Que serait-ce si, de jour ou de nuit, un démon te suivait une fois dans la plus solitaire de tes solitudes et te disait …”

So I’m going with either stylistic over-egging or mistake by the English translator.


harry b 07.18.18 at 2:55 am

Not badly done, Emma.

Austin is reputed to have said “Its not interesting is it, that in every language a double negative is not a positive, whereas a double positive is not never a negative”, to which Morgenbesser is reputed to have muttered “Not Yeah, Yeah”

Ok that doesn’t work.


John Holbo 07.18.18 at 2:58 am

“It is a untruth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”


JPL 07.18.18 at 3:01 am


I assume you mean, “I don’t understand that extremely clearly.” (As it is, it’s ambiguous.)


ph 07.18.18 at 4:26 am

One of the ways I don’t waste time is listening to politicians give ‘press conferences.’ Another is not reading examinations of the truth value of a politicians statements. Why anyone would expect Trump to tell the ‘truth’ or even remember what he said or didn’t say at this point in ‘our relationship’ with America’s most effective politician is a mystery. But in this case a bit fun.

One of the great ironies, (not the greatest, we’ll come to that) of the Donald Trump presidency is that Trump, were the situations reversed ‘RNC email is hacked – he loses – Hillary accused of being Putin’s puppet,’ Trump would certainly be leading the charge of Hillary is Putin’s agent in Washington. Trump is already on record for leading this kind of nutty theorizing – ‘moon-landing faked’ – ‘9/11 was an American attack.’ The great similarity connecting all three is the absence of any evidence – but the true believer is impervious to fact. Obama will always be a secret Muslim no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented. But Trump did win and we are where we are.

The greatest irony isn’t that Trump has been transformed from hound into hunted, it’s that the very same people who resisted the silly siren call of the ‘birthers’ have raced ass over tea-kettle to sign on for the ‘America’s president is a Russian stooge.’ We’d expect the average creationist, or flat-earth society member, to buy into the birther theory. The great beauty of the Trump is a Russian spy meme is not just that one can, at the moment, openly espouse the crap conjecture with zero reputational damage, but in some circles one’s stature actually increases if one double’s down on the nuttiness. And all the crap conjecture is a matter of public record – tweets, re-tweets, etc. just like the Trump can’t win stuff is. I therefore look forward to much further conjecture of the same kind. Twill make for interesting reading in the not too distant future, doubly so of Republicans hold onto the House.

Trump supporters don’t care too much what he says, Trump detractors believe (or seem to) that Trump’s word will somehow undo him. Call it lessons unlearned. Fun times!


John Holbo 07.18.18 at 4:30 am

“One of the ways I don’t waste time is listening to politicians give ‘press conferences.’ ”

It’s nice to know that you have at least one, ph.


Neville Morley 07.18.18 at 6:01 am

The strong don’t do what they want, the weak endure what they don’t have to.


Hidari 07.18.18 at 6:02 am

It’s easy (and necessary) to mock Trump, but the objective facts are that all words spoken by everyone, anywhere (apart from ‘who gives a shit?’ or the equivalent) about #russiagate, are pointless, and meaningless. It’s not entirely clear to me that Trump’s meaningless (and self-contradictory) ramblings on this topic are fundamentally any more meaningless and self-contradictory than anyone else’s.


nastywoman 07.18.18 at 7:42 am

”Trump supporters don’t care too much what he says”

We agree -(as always?)- with me trying to be even funnier that Trump for sure don’t care much what IT -(his mouth) says.

And you are absolutely right it hardly get’s ”funnier”!
-(and do you know that all these US cities are now buying the Trumpbabybaloons)
And how much fun will that be – with all these Von Clownsticks floating above nearly ever American city?

And as for Nietzsche I believe -(and know as a fact)- that even some ”Philosophers” might believe that some parts of a human body -(like Trumps mouth – or… Trumps… uhhh… other small… body part) – might be completely independent from the rest of his (Trumps) body – and that ultimately might be the reason why Trumps supporters -(and you?) really don’t care what his smaller body parts say or do?


nastywoman 07.18.18 at 8:49 am

but, but, bud –
Hidari might have beaten US to the fun some by at least two diapers – with:

”but the objective facts are that all words spoken by everyone, anywhere (apart from ‘who gives a shit?’ or the equivalent) about #russiagate, are pointless, and meaningless”.

Agreed again – as when you are dealing with small body parts – who act completely independently from the rest of some human pound of flesh – a Philosopher might say:

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
or perhaps even better:
“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
or let’s ask Hidari if he prefers:

“Without Russian music, life would be a mistake.” …


Matt 07.18.18 at 8:59 am

Gosh, Hidari, before reading your sage words I, and I’m sure everyone here, thought those posting here were engaged not just in a bit of fun but in serious resistance work. Now that we have your sage advice, I’m sure everyone will get right back to work on bringing about the True Revolution that they were being distracted from.

(Christ, what an ass-hole, etc.)


Bill Benzon 07.18.18 at 10:38 am

See Language Log, Misnegation as a political tool.


M Caswell 07.18.18 at 11:01 am

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, it’s not like no straight thing was ever made.


Lee A. Arnold 07.18.18 at 11:15 am

Well John after that I suppose my question is, you are saying that Nietzsche would not ever have been surprised, if tomorrow Trump returns, to negate his negation today, like his correction after his correction after Charlottesville, sort of a triple negative?

I agree. It is a truth universally (coming-to-be) acknowledged that it doesn’t matter what Trump says/

He could shoot himself in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he’s completely full of shit, he’ll reverse himself tomorrow, it’ll be a triple axel negative, just like the rhetorical aftermath of Charlottesville

His is the Eternal Return of being completely full of shit

And again the mainstream media will be enthralled near endlessly…

But his opponents? Well, his opponents had better have all their facts straight!

“The Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, also communicated with U.S. persons about the release of stolen documents. On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, wrote to a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the Presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump…” –from the indictment filed July 13

Note that the investigation hasn’t released anything yet about the various “U.S. persons” who are described to be on the receiving end. So I am just trying hard not to imagine too good how any self-respecting little grifters who don’t care about the truth would have done themselves proud not to ignore these ignoble overtures.

“U.S. persons” who already appear to be liable to accessory after the fact to felony hacking, even before We the People get the full story. And might turn state’s evidence given the July 13 demonstration of just how much granular detail the prosecutors already possess.

P.S. Meanwhile there’s a really good book waiting to be written on how the Trump media machine changes its spin, often from day to day. For example, now the Faux News cackle-bobbleheads-in-a-box have begun to parrot, “Okay, jus’ mebbe there was meddling, but, gol dang it, there was no collusion!”

I think this one may last until the next indictment. Then the next excuse will be, “Okay there was collusion, but Trump himself didn’t know!”

Because, you know, you can believe everything he double negates


matt regan 07.18.18 at 12:35 pm

Rightly to be Trump is not to stir without great argument, but Trumply to find quarrel with a “not” when Putin’s at the stake.


alfredlordbleep 07.18.18 at 12:46 pm

Ah, if Prof. Irwin Corey could return to applaud Lee A. Arnold’s twirls and twists @20.


Nigel 07.18.18 at 1:01 pm

‘Trump supporters don’t care too much what he says’

It’s the defining characteristic of being a Trump supporter, with the notable exception of ‘No collusion! No collusion!’ You care a great deal about repeating that, in various ways.

(When you lay it out like that, though, it’s pretty clear how much of Trump support and not caring about what he says when he says things that would get Obama crucified is driven by white supremacy.)


Waiting for Godot 07.18.18 at 3:10 pm

The ability to laugh at the devil is essential to answering Camus’ one philosophical question. This thread is why I check CT every morning.



Neville Morley 07.18.18 at 3:38 pm

Je n’est pas un autre.


WLGR 07.18.18 at 6:57 pm

Who would have pegged our dear cable-news-addled president as such an astute reader of Clifford Geertz?

A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear. The one I want to go after is Russian interference in the 2016 election. Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded. It is unfounded because the moral and intellectual consequences that are commonly supposed to flow from the Russian interference—subjectivism, nihilism, incoherence, Machiavellianism, ethical idiocy, esthetic blindness, and so on—do not in fact do so and the promised rewards of escaping its clutches, mostly having to do with pasteurized American exceptionalism, are illusory.

To be more specific, I want not to defend Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is a drained term anyway, yesterday’s battle cry, but to attack Russiagate, which seems to me broadly on the rise and to represent a streamlined version of an antique mistake. Whatever the Russian interference may be or originally have been (and there is not one of its critics in a hundred who has got that right), it serves these days largely as a specter to scare us away from certain ways of thinking and toward others. And, as the ways of thinking away from which we are being driven seem to me to be more cogent than those toward which we are being propelled, and to lie at the heart of the leftist heritage, I would like to do something about this. Casting out demons is a praxis we should practice as well as study.

My through-the-looking-glass title is intended to suggest such an effort to counter a view rather than to defend the view it claims to be counter to. The analogy I had in mind in choosing it—a logical one, I trust it will be understood, not in any way a substantive one—is what, at the height of the Cold War days (you remember them) was called “anti anti-communism.” Those of us who strenuously opposed the obsession, as we saw it, with the Red Menace were thus denominated by those who, as they saw it, regarded the Menace as the primary fact of contemporary political life, with the insinuation—wildly incorrect in the vast majority of cases—that, by the law of the double negative, we had some secret affection for the Soviet Union.

Again, I mean to use this analogy in a formal sense; I don’t think Russians are like communists, anti-Russians are like anti-communists, and that anyone (well… hardly anyone) is behaving like McCarthy. One could construct a similar parallelism using the abortion controversy. Those of us who are opposed to increased legal restrictions on abortion are not, I take it, pro-abortion, in the sense that we think abortion a wonderful thing and hold that the greater the abortion rate the greater the well-being of society; we are “anti anti-abortionists” for quite other reasons I need not rehearse. In this frame, the double negative simply doesn’t work in the usual way; and therein lies its rhetorical attractions. It enables one to reject something without thereby committing oneself to what it rejects. And this is precisely what I want to do with Russiagate.


J-D 07.18.18 at 10:20 pm

Any questions?

Just one: where is Shrek?


mondo dentro 07.18.18 at 11:04 pm

“All Cretans are liars.”

“But, Epimenides, you, yourself, are a Cretan!”

“Wha? Oh. My bad. I meant to say ‘NOT all Cretans are liars.'”


M Caswell 07.19.18 at 12:52 am

Having harkened to me and not the logos, it is wise to agree that not all things are one.


bad Jim 07.19.18 at 6:18 am

Who among us would not say to any moment, “Verweile nicht! du bist so schön!”


nastywoman 07.19.18 at 8:19 am

– and perhaps it’s finally time to explain Whassup on the Meta-level?

We all know that ”We the people” really didn’t like our government –
so WE (in electoral-college-minority) – voted for somebody who promised US to destroy our government -(and as Mario said: To burn the whole place down)

But it seems – that WE just didn’t think through what we want in our governments place –
as a baby in diapers or Russia for sure is not a good alternative?


ph 07.19.18 at 9:32 am

“We are in a 9/11 national emergency because our country is under attack”, according to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. His response? “And this 9/11 moment demands that we do come together. Issue a subpoena not only for the translator and the notes but also for the national security team that debriefed the president about these supposed agreements in the sphere of international security…To name and shame”

So, we have the “Bush kept us safe from terrorist attacks” argument. (The hack occurred on Obama’s watch, but that’s not my point, today.) So, it’s 9/11 and the right response is for America to name and shame the perps. Campaign on that. Fortunately, it’s not.

But in the world of where facts don’t seem to align here’s where we are, the same people who feared the Orange Tweet-monster would antagonize the world and start WWIII are now losing their shit because a/the US president was too nice to a sometimes adversary. b/publicly admitted the US intelligence services have a less than stellar track record. And then there’s the body language and the 9/11 moment as final proof of collusion.

My guess is that Trump will turn this around as he so does. Pray he does. Trump’s critics have primed their part of the public for war with Russia and are intent on running on that argument in 2018. What if Trump decides he needs to prove he’s no Russian stooge?


nastywoman 07.19.18 at 1:03 pm

”What if Trump decides he needs to prove he’s no Russian stooge”?

He will tell US that Angela Merkel is ”the Russian stooge”?
Oh! – wait – he did that already?

So he will tell us he… found Hillary’s Server?


No – so he will… he will tell US that he started to play soccer in the White House – and that everybody in his administration from now on has to play with the Ball his friend Vladi gave him and that France only won the world cup because they had all of these… immigrants – from Germany and that his dad also was a Back Immigrant from Germany and that if BMW doesn’t close it’s factory in the US and builds Harley Davidsons instead he will stop eating Hamburgers and become a vegetarian??!

Now if that would be happening -(or what Kimmel said) that Trump showed up on Hollywood Blvd -(with a bucket of chicken) and wanted to go to the bathroom – then – then – my god!

”What if Trump decides he needs to prove he has YUUGE hands”?

Will he try to run for US Presidency??!


Nigel 07.19.18 at 1:07 pm

‘What if Trump decides he needs to prove he’s no Russian stooge?’

Trump supporter warning Trump critics not to give the crazy asshole he supports dumb ideas. Are there any other politicians out there whose supporters regularly wield them like a threat?


Colin Danby 07.20.18 at 9:38 pm

There cannot *not* be an outside-text.


ph 07.20.18 at 10:47 pm

Foreigners stole our election.

Trump is not being aggressive enough! Let’s impeach him for that!. A great discussion on anti-Trump nuttiness.

The baseline argument that Trump stole the election is pure birther. America is not being run by a Russian stooge. Obama is not a secret Muslim. The moon landing was not faked. The earth is not 10,000 years old. Saddam is behind 9/11.

“If you believe in Russia-gate you’re living in a conspiracy theory.” Do I think Trump will attack Russia? No. Do I think Trump critics understand the contradictions and weaknesses of their arguments? No. Do I think Trump critics are bad or stupid?

I think Trump critics sound like crazy people too often. Good luck with it all!


Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant 07.21.18 at 5:03 pm

Prof. Holbo, I didn’t not get that. As a favor couldn’t you not repeat it?



Matthew Ernest 07.21.18 at 11:09 pm

The punchline, of course, is that in Russian a double negative can be a negative.


L F File 07.22.18 at 12:49 am

So he just didn’t wouldn’t.



nastywoman 07.22.18 at 4:50 am

”I think Trump critics sound like crazy people too often”.

For sure –
like this Trump critic who even doesn’t know yet – that Trump as ”Precident” – NOW is
”the government” –
and crazily writes:
”inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) – almost unheard of”.

But as Von Clownstick promised US to destroy our government – there seems to be no other way that he totally destroys himself.
In order to prove that our ”favorite” President (Obama) did ”nothing wrong”!


politicalfootball 07.22.18 at 2:10 pm

Nigel@34: Look at how far Trump supporters are willing to go to hold Trump harmless for his own behavior. If Trump starts a nuclear war, it’s the liberals’ fault!


M Caswell 07.22.18 at 9:55 pm

Non omnis determinatio est negatio.


J-D 07.23.18 at 9:01 am


Lee A. Arnold 07.23.18 at 10:24 am

Politicalfootball #41: “If Trump starts a nuclear war…”

He is certainly setting up the preconditions for nuclear war in about 20 years as he unravels things now, particularly in the Middle East and the Pacific. There is desperate alarm in the IR community. But it will take a generation or more to play out, and it’s all a bit too complicated for his supporters. They are perhaps comforted by Trump’s diversions into blaming the New World Order Swamp, his simpletonian calls to increase the US nuclear arsenal, and the confusions of double negatives. Thus it is that world events are sown by simple lack of attention span.


politicalfootball 07.23.18 at 1:15 pm

I assume, given Iran’s ties to Russia, that Trump won’t start a war with that country — although Trump’s fear of Mueller may outweigh his servility to Putin. But you can already see how the faux-leftist argument shapes up if Trump is just bullshitting in today’s tweet. “What? You’d rather have him fight an unnecessary war?”

No, I’d rather have a president who engaged in smart negotiations to get a good result out of Iran, rather than one who is dominated by a foreign power. But given that this option is not on the table, I suppose it really is some comfort to have Putin guiding US policy.

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