From our editors: What we’re reading this month (1/2)

Andrew Hines:

How to Read: Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk

As someone with a background in post-Kantian European philosophy, whose interests had leaned quite heavily toward phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction, I had unfairly dismissed Wittgenstein as “one of those analytic philosophers”. Recently, I’ve found my philosophical palette broadening as I’ve become increasingly concerned with understanding the broader context within which key, culture shaping ideas emerge as well as understanding why a particular thinker took the intellectual route he or she did. Ray Monk’s How to Read: Wittgenstein addresses both these interests on top of providing a lucid and authoritative introduction to Wittgenstein.

What comes through is Wittgenstein’s intellectual journey, the way that he continually reframes the problems he’s concerned with. Its evident that two of Wittgenstein’s abiding concerns are the limit and function of language. By focusing on Wittgenstein’s own biography alongside the ‘biography’ of his ideas, Monk not only provides an introduction to Wittgenstein’s main ideas, but an entire history of the development of one of Western philosophy’s key themes in the twentieth century. Not only did Wittgenstein revolt against his teacher Russell and assert that the activity of philosophy did not consist in providing a scientific like precision but in clarifying the true nature of the logic of language. He also built on Goethe and looked at the ‘morphology of expression’ and how philosophy provides the opportunity for a new perspective on a problem. Because of this, poets and musicians, Wittgenstein thought, can give us as much instruction as science.

The sheer breadth of this intellectual journey is far too often written off by students of ‘continental philosophy’ and I am perhaps the worst offender. Because of this, I would generally recommend ‘How to Read: Wittgenstein’ by Ray Monk to anyone looking to fill in the gaps of the intellectual-historical context of the early twentieth century. Particularly, however, I would recommend it for those, like myself, who had unfairly ignored Wittgenstein.



In one of my very favorite plays, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), one of the titular students proudly describes his attempt to impress the new teacher by referring a book he’s been reading, by one “Frederick Kneeshaw.” This beautiful malapropism, achingly relatable and touchingly human, has haunted the name “Nietzsche” for me ever since I first saw The History Boys some ten years ago. Just as in the Hebrew Bible, there is the word as pronounced, the qere (“what is read”), that may differ from the word as written, the ketiv (“what is written”)—most famously in the name of God—so I have spent a decade hearing “Kneeshaw” in my head whenever I have read (or more rarely written) the name of that great philosopher.

Yet, until this week, my knowledge of Kneeshaw’s oeuvre went no further than the handful of aphorisms that have become common currency: “God is dead.” “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

Prompted by Carlo Ginzburg’s masterful History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999), in which Nietzsche is a key interlocutor on rhetoric, I plunged a few days ago into On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). The going has been slow, more as a result of too many claims upon my time than any fault in Michael Scarpitti’s translation. Indeed, the quality of the prose has been a revelation, surpassed only by the humor. Take Nietzsche’s imagining of the moral systems of the weak (the lambs) and the strong (the eagles): “And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is most unlike a bird of prey, who is most like its opposite, a lamb – is he not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil about in the setting-up of this ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey will regard it with some measure of derision, and say to themselves, ‘We bear no ill will against these fine, goodly lambs, we even like them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’”

There is always the danger that mellifluous prose and trenchant wit (a particular delight of mine) misdirect attention away from the ideas Nietzsche is propounding. And for a pacifist, Jewish reader such as yours truly, these must be awkward fare. Nietzsche’s veneration of the “blonde beast” does not wear so well in the wake of the twentieth century—and did not wear much better in the nineteenth. So, too, the denigration of the Jews as “a priestly nation of resentment par excellence” and the propagators of “slave morality” rankle all the more in the light of recent tragic events in Pittsburgh. I learn from Cathy Gere’s excellent Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (2009) and other scholars that Nietzsche himself was a dedicated critic of anti-semitism and that the filiation between his works and the ideology of National Socialism was largely the creation of his vehemently anti-Semitic sister. Perhaps so, but Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was not without material to work with in her brother’s writings.

These uncomfortable flashes of prejudice aside, the content has been striking in its familiarity—my ignorance of Nietzsche’s work notwithstanding. What I have realized is that a century and more of thought and culture steeped in Nietzsche has made his ideas ubiquitous, even banal. The suggestion that morality is the creation of power does not shock in 2018, even for those to whom it is anathema.



Just this week, I picked up a slightly older book: P. Steven Sangren’s Chinese Sociologics: An Anthropological Account of the Role of Alienation in Social Reproduction. More than a work of ethnography in China, this volume is primarily a theoretical treatise which unfolds a slightly modernized Marxian understanding of social mechanisms and patterns while drawing upon the author’s fieldwork in Taiwan for examples and illustrations. While some aspects of the work merit critique (particularly the titling of the work as “Chinese Sociologics” when the vast majority of its basis is specifically Taiwanese, and a bit of a simplistic take on “Gender and Exploitation”), its primary purpose as a cohesive and thoughtful Marxian analysis is insightfully fulfilled.  With chapters focusing on classical Marxian cultural features such as production, alienation, circularity, etc., as well as copious citations from Marx, Durkheim, and other related scholars, this work serves as an interesting insight into the Marxian tradition of social theory as well as more modern attempts to incorporate Marxian theory into modern ethnography.



This month I’ve found myself reading quite a bit about the history of gunpowder. Gunpowder was first discovered by Chinese alchemists before the 11th century. The earliest European gunpowder recipes from the 13th century were written in code because the alchemists were fearful of the compound’s power: “No clap of thunder can compare with such noises. Some of them strike such terror to the sight that the thunders and lightnings of the clouds disturb it considerably less.” (Kelly DeVries, Gunpowder and Early Gunpowder Weapons, in Gunpowder: the History of an International Technology.) States were less fearful. Centuries of experimentation used gunpowder to make fireworks, rockets, cannons, blunderbusses, rifles, and pistols. For the next six hundred years, battlefields would be covered with a black brimstone smoke.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. The result is a brownish, smelly powder that when exposed to flame can produce a fire so sudden that its shockwave hits the speed of sound—an explosion. Of gunpowder’s three ingredients, the most unusual and most important is saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which makes up 70% of most gunpowder recipes. There are some natural formations of saltpeter in cakes of whiteish powder forming a crust atop nitrate-rich soils. Damp caves with beds of guano or fetid houses sometimes produce a white salt on their walls—the salt of the rock (petrus). But this was not enough to meet states’ growing demand for gunpowder.

You can manufacture saltpeter as well. The big European powers employed roving armies of saltpeter men who were allowed to go into people’s dovecotes and mangers looking for guano and manure. They’d cart this ordure off to special factories, and soak it in urine (that of drunk men worked best) to leech out the saltpeter. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist, searched for a way to make artificial saltpeter after the British seized the world’s great Indian saltpeter areas during the Seven Year’s War. Lavoisier’s success kept the French gunpowder barrels full over the next quarter century of war. (During the Revolution, Lavoisier’s apprentice, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, fled to America where he set up a gunpowder mill—the birth of DuPont, the world’s biggest chemicals company.)

Saltpeter is a form of reactive nitrogen, and reactive nitrogen is one of the hidden foundations of the modern world. Nitrogen is plentiful: it makes up three quarters of the air, but this is tightly bound up in N2, hitched together with strong triple bonds. But reactive nitrogen is rare. To use nitrogen, we need to make reactive nitrogen like saltpeter and ammonia that can be used by plants and animals. Much comes from bolts of lightning turning atmospheric N2 into nitrogen oxide. Some plants (particularly legumes) have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that can make reactive nitrogen. Fertilizing crops with manure helps plants grow by giving them the reactive nitrogen bound up in our dung. Without nitrogen, no food.

In the early 20th century, German industrial chemists looking for a way to make explosives figured out how to turn atmospheric nitrogen into reactive nitrogen in a lab—the Haber-Bosch process. This is now the most important source of fertilizer on earth. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in your body comes from the Haber-Bosch process. All this readily-available reactive nitrogen is probably one of the reasons why we have nearly 8 billion people on earth today. Nitrogen kills: nitrogen feeds. The early alchemists treated gunpowder and other nitrates with wonder. Perhaps we should do the same.


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