Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Assassination & the British National Character

CONSIDERING the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholics to assassinate King James I, and blow up the House of Lords, puts me in mind of a dispute over 'national character' between the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who studied aeronautics at Manchester University) and a colleague Norman Malcolm as the war with Germany approached in 1939. 

A newspaper vendor's sign announced that the British had attempted to assassinate Hitler, and Wittgenstein commented that he would not be surprised if it were true.  Norman Malcolm demurred claiming such an act was incompatible with British 'national character', Wittgenstein reacted angrily to this 'primitive remark', and said:
'... what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not make you more conscientious than any... journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS  phrases such people use for their own ends.'

Wittgenstein was concerned about jingoism and as he was a fan of the cinema at that time this caused him a problem because it was the custom then to play the national anthem at the end of the film, at which point the audience was expected to rise to their feet and stand respectfully still.  This was a ceremony that Wittgenstein could not abide, and he would dash out of the cinema before it could strike up.

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