Whimsy, Analysis, Alienation: Between Wodehouse and Brecht

by John Holbo on December 16, 2019

I’ve been working through David Estlund’s new book, Utopophobia [google books]. His work has changed my thinking in a lot of ways, mostly because I don’t usually think like him. So, when I realized I thought he was right about some things, it kind of spun me round. But in this post I’m going to talk about something else – another topic I’ve been mulling for years and meaning to turn into a paper at some point. The place of whimsy in thought-experiments.

As you know, my flesh is weak, so I’m on Twitter now. Today I meant just to riff on one funny, absurdist-tinged example from Estlund. But he’s got so many and I couldn’t help myself. It’s Lewd-and-Prude all over again, just like in the old days when there were blogs.

The issue is this: whimsy is – well, it’s not an emotion, I don’t suppose. It’s an attitude. More exactly, it’s a mode or manner of being detached. But it’s not a full, nor neutral style of detachment. It’s not the view from nowhere. It’s not action-oriented. But that doesn’t make it pan-observant or unfeeling. It’s perpetually tickled; it’s preferentially attendant to certain things, as opposed to others. (It knows you can’t just tickle yourself. Something else has to do it.)

The concern is that this makes it stupid, not to put too fine a point on it.

But I don’t think this is right in the least. I don’t think analytic-style philosophers, who not only use but clearly have a taste for slightly silly examples, are being stupid – as a rule. To be clear about why I don’t think this, let’s flip it. Let’s think how detachment, plus a taste for the silly, can make you stupid – about politics and ethics. Orwell’s essay on Wodehouse will do. Wodehouse was stupid about politics, through being detached and silly about it. But his fault was, in effect, that he could turn any ethical problem into a joke about manners – a technique that worked, until it didn’t. And, by the time it didn’t, it had been so long since Wodehouse actually thought of an ethical problem as ethical (if ever, once upon a time, he saw ethics by the light of ethics) the muscle was atrophied. He couldn’t do it. But when analytic philosophy is silly in its examples, it is not like this at all. It is manneristic – whimsical, brittle, made to a definite, academic taste. But it is not about manners. Estlund’s doctors who are always allowing their patients to perish through sheer can’t-be-bothered-ness, and going golfing, are a bit Bertie-like. Their world needs a Jeeves. (At which point it is very appropriate to point out that Jeeves reads Spinoza. I have been doing some Twitter research on that, too.) But Estlund’s thinking is not the least bit Wodehouse-like, let alone Wooster-like, for all that.

Now, let’s flip over to the other side. One way to defend analytic philosophy’s literary honor might be to point out that the formula for these sorts of examples is actually Brechtian. Whimsical philosophy examples follow the formula for generating Brechtian alienation effects. Brechtian A-effects are, to a T, analytic philosophy TE’s, highly manneristic – while not being about manners. It’s essentially gestural. But I don’t think it’s really right to say that analytic philosophy, like Estlund’s, is Brechtian.

It has to do with the accent being placed on intellectual interesting-ness vs. indignation (the Brechtian default mood.) Rawls may be right that the first virtue of social institutions is justice, but the first attraction of justice is not supposed to be its interesting-ness. To be attracted to the first virtue of social institutions, firstly, because it is so interesting, is a peculiar slippage. The silliness of the examples slots into this slip. The silliness complements – highlights – sheer interestingness. To care about the puzzle of justice because justice matters would be the natural way of it. To seem to care about the puzzle of justice because puzzles matter, and justice is one, is something else. It’s not Wodehouse-ian. Wodehouse didn’t care about the puzzle of justice at all. He wasn’t deep through superficiality. He was genuinely superficial through repetitive, intuitive appreciation of one (rather deep!) point. He cared about the puzzle that manners drift over the surface of morals. He cared about the surface-of-a-surface.

It’s a mistake to think that Estlund’s examples are not genuinely deep, and really about justice, just because they are about slapstick doctor duos. I honestly think they’re both, accidental as the link seems.

Every craft makes crooked (as Nietzsche says.) Brecht is, in his way, as deformed as analytic philosophy. He is interested in politics, and in politics as raw material for art. Which is two different things. Analytic philosophy is no more deformed than plain old comedy, which is always looking for absurd, odd angles on life, for a laugh. Compulsively spying out absurd, odd angles on life for sheer, brain-teasing interestingness is like that. I say this as someone who, obviously, temperamentally, tends to turn philosophy into comedy.

I am also, due to a personal vow, not allowed to go over 1000 words anymore. So I’ll stop.



Alan White 12.16.19 at 3:13 am

Great post. Whimsy is as well a great word for characterizing game-changing thought experiments–as well as some not so transforming. It depends on how one’s whimsy plays into a larger background. Take three of Einstein’s best gedankenexperiments: surfing on a light-wave, falling to one’s death while letting objects go in your hand, and riding on a train/standing on a platform observing lightning bolts. The first led him to see light-speed as a constant (from the age of 16 when he first conceived it!), the second helped him to see gravity as a form of inertial motion, and the third explained his principle of the relativity of simultaneity (derived from his conclusions about surfing light waves). I think nothing but the courage of using whimsical–but still intelligible–scenarios allowed him to push the use of logical possibility to encroach on what is really possible. The best purely philosophical thought experiments do the same–e.g., Frank Jackson’s What Mary Didn’t Know, which I thought of immediately last week viewing a story about a lad who received glasses that allowed him to see significant color distinctions for the first time. His strong emotional reaction to donning them surely evoked some kind of knowledge he previously didn’t possess. People usually say such thought experiments are merely creative genius or something like that. Whimsy–whimsy is a great word for it.


ADAM ROBERTS 12.16.19 at 7:59 am

I think this is a very interesting post, but there’s a part of me that wonders if you’re just rebranding irony, giving that old warhorse a Wodehousian spin. But presumably you don’t think you are.


Adam Roberts 12.16.19 at 8:00 am

Not sure why my username is in all-caps there. Looks like I’m shouting. Bad form.


nick James 12.16.19 at 9:02 am

a bit off topic, but if the sensation of colour or smell isn’t physical, that pushes it into the realm of mental processes like maths or poetry?

(am confused here, as I’ve just realised that I take it as axiomatic that all mental processes are physical. thus given some mental process, find the corresponding physical process. this breaks down when considering for eg poetry or smell.

construct a brain machine with appropriate sensors and agency – it has a nose and eyes, it can decide which things to look at and smell. my claim would be that the machine sees and smells as we do. presumably your claim would be that such a machine is impossible in principle? apologies if this is all first year philosophy stuff)


SusanC 12.16.19 at 12:33 pm

Good post.

One possible hypothesis: the function of the Brechtian alienation in the thought experiments is to jolt us out of our emotional responses, and offer only a logically justifiable answer. The examples are so silly that we can’t have a serious emotional reaction to them, except as black comedy, or as something like horror movies.


Bill Benzon 12.16.19 at 3:23 pm

Hmmm… We live in a world where the problem of having to choose between allowing a run-away trolley to plow over a fat man or a dozen school children is disconcerting and problematic. If we lived in a world where we faced such problems all the time we’d have a way of dealing with them and philosophers wouldn’t find them interesting. So, is that story teasing us about our moral intuitions, the nature of the world, or both?


John mcgowan 12.16.19 at 6:12 pm

I just finished reading Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories. Among her three categories is “ interesting.” Very worth your reading if you want to think about what kind of claim “interesting” is making upon an audience. It, on the face of it, seems a weak claim (compared to indignation, for example). But Ngai alerts us to how often we do start out by telling an audience that something is interesting, that it is worth our attention, that it is worth pausing or even puzzling over. But then that claim needs to be “cashed out” (to invoke William James) in order for the statement that the thing is interesting to prove sustainable.


Matt 12.16.19 at 8:20 pm

My Wodehousian Utopia, as revealed on Crooked Timber 8 years ago.

Also me 7, years ago, angryposting in the Occam’s Phaser discussion.

I want John Holbo to post more here and less on Twitter, because I don’t use Twitter and will never find half of my day vanished in reading or writing there. I also want Holbo posts to stay on Twitter, where they will never make half of my day vanish. Is this a problem that Lewd and Prude can adjudicate?


Priest 12.16.19 at 9:39 pm

A version of Einstein’s thought experiment was conducted by William Leitch in an essay published in 1861:

“Suppose our world is the illuminated dial of a clock that the hand is at twelve o clock and that the machinery is faithfully doing its duty we have only to take up our position in a star that moves from the earth as rapidly as the rays from the dial in order to arrest the hand for ever at that hour To one who is stationary the hand makes its ordinary revolution but one who moves away with the rapidity of light sees it perfectly fixed .”


alfredlordbleep 12.17.19 at 3:25 pm

in the spirit of a trivial comedy for serious people
Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely artificial

Part I:
in three comments starts here

Part III:
Early in Our Hero’s stay (summer 1897) Algy and Ernest Moncrieff have introduced him to Lady Mabel Goring, Lord Arthur Goring’s wife. She is a perfect example of the English type of prettiness, the apple-blossom type with all the fragrance and freedom of a flower. On this afternoon Merriman has just gone off leaving a tray of refreshments on the garden table and Mabel and JH tête-à-tête

JH Merriman is the ideal servant: perfect anticipation, faultless execution. So I have learned during my stay. Are people wrong when they say being served degrades those served?
MABEL Loathe to obey, loathe to command.
JH A stimulating thought. In theory equality is possible only in love and death.
MABEL [satirically] Then doubly satisfied in a short and deadly marriage.
JH Have Goring’s bad qualities outlived their attractiveness?
MABEL When Arthur thinks of them at night, he still says, “I go to sleep at once”, but with less esprit over time. [neutrally] You seem to know more of us than I could have imagined. Has Cecily been indiscreet?
JH My impression of Cecily is faultlessness despite her faults.
MABEL [trying to comprehend] Hers is a teasing curiosity. And you are teasing me.
JH I’m a pushover for paradox.
MABEL She can’t be serious for more than five minutes which sometimes leads the unwitting astray.
JH Someone who is always serious has a trivial disposition.
MABEL I believe opposites attract if only in flirtations. [Breaks into laughter faced with John’s winsome expression]
JH I wonder what you know of us. What present-day Americans have made an impression?
MABEL Young heiresses from America boosting flagging English fortunes. Of course, the Puritans among them are all named Hester.
JH [inscrutably] I know no scarlet women. Maybe due to my twenty-first century values. Or the strictures of life in Singapore.
MABEL I believe that life in Victorian times means, across Empire and back, that bad acts need go under cover. Especially Anglicans’.
JH Not to mention the best people’s supine communion. In broad daylight missionaries in the nineteenth century laid down guidance for heathens. The White Man’s Burden cast its shadow over the twentieth century and beyond.
MABEL May the sun never set on Empire. Philosophers have a reputation for so much love of second-hand knowledge that they have little left for sunshine. Mind over matter?
JH [smiles] Of course, civilization itself is the creation of handed-down experience. Bookish stuff. [Looks at his watch] Evening clothes now. [With a wave goes off]

Algy and Cecily join Mabel
ALGY Our visitor is impatient with aristocracy.
MABEL Afterall, he is an American.
ALGY No doubt he makes exceptions.
MABEL Philosophers are strict in their views if not consistent in their practices.
ALGY I think he could overlook a beautiful woman’s principles when she mislaid them.
MABEL I know a man you mean.
CECILY Uncle John has told me there is a plague of nonsense in the future about meritocracy—I think that’s what it’s called—aristocracy is rather beneath notice.
MABEL [to Cecily] When you introduced us, at first I wasn’t amused to find him in our midst carried in the tide of his country folk. Heiresses and ambitious men.
JH [entering with the last speeches in his ears but absent a change of clothes] E pluribus unum.
CECILY [to Mabel] He is more amusing when not coining a phrase. [whispers to John as he removes his gloves] Your evening clothes?
JH [lowered voice] I forgot where I saw a mirror in the house.
CECILY Of course, one in my [inaudible]!—
ALGY [to JH] We have looked to the New World for that ideal man, the Noble Savage.
LADY BRACKNELL [entering with a plate of cucumber sandwiches] Professor, we will have to introduce you to a large social gathering when the season is underway. It is a great temptation to show a visitor from the future. Thank you, Algernon, for this thought—much as Pocohontas, an icon of the First People of her land was exhibited to civilization. London in fact. I believe she is buried at Gravesend, Kent.
CECILY Aunt Augusta, Uncle John may be the herald of the Last Civilization. Or is it the Lost Civilization?
JH If I may, a philosopher, according to his calling, has no such ambition aware as he is of the limitations of any theory of knowledge. However, let me not stray into earnestness in mixed company.
CECILY Earnestness becomes you.

Lady Bracknell fends off Algy’s strong play for sandwiches
MABEL [sub rosa] Loathe to serve, ready to command.

At Merriman’s gesture the company moves to a large dining table in the garden arbor
CECILY [to John] Come along, Paleface—


bad Jim 12.18.19 at 7:31 am

Humor is often the only alternative to despair and also the aptest response to success: our most ardent desires, when realized, can be ridiculous in their details (like the wet spot). East African plains apes gussied up in the flimsiest finery, and disguising their intentions from themselves with the most eloquent persiflage, occasionally confront the gulf separating pretense from presence, perhaps in a mirror or the response of an acquaintance, and acknowledge the gap with a snort or half a smile.


MisterMr 12.19.19 at 10:58 pm

My two cents :
The purpose of thought experiments is I think that of showing something in a different light so that our judgment isn’t clouded by assumption from common sense or emotion.

This is because rationality is supposed to be a purer form of thought than common sense, without biases, common assumptions, and in moral philosophy pre-learned emotional responses.

But, what is rationality? In my opinion rationality can only be defined as conscious thought, as opposed to unconscious biases or emotions.

So it’s more about psicanalisis than about logic.

If we could distinguish rational conscious thought from emotions and unconscious, I believe that we would see conscious thought as a thin veil over a sea of emotions and preconscious thought. But as it is difficult to define rationality, it’s difficult to say if this or that argument is really rational, or is just a well disguised emotional impulse, as in motivated reasoning.

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