The very idea of wanting to explain a practice–for example, the killing of the priest-king–seems wrong to me. All that Frazer does is to make them plausible to people who think as he does. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity.
But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity.
When, for example, he explains to us that the king must be killed in his prime, because the savages believe that otherwise his soul would not be kept fresh, all one can say is: where that practice and these views occur together, the practice does not spring from the view, but they are both just there.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough’
When it comes to chickens and eggs there’s probably no more politically revealing conundrum than the question of which comes first – the idea or the brute facts of the world?
To take one example, it’s been at the heart of the last couple of decades of debate (in ‘the West’) over ‘radical Islam’ and has come to its recent head in explanations of the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
I was reminded of this debate when I heard Graeme Wood – “a contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine and a Edward R Murrow Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in the US” – being interviewed on the Sunday Programme on National Radio (11 October, 2015).
The interview concerned an article Wood had written some months before – “What ISIS really want” – which at the time gained brief social media fame.
Sounds like a promising title.
And, certainly, both the article and interview were interesting enough – but mostly for what they reveal about the kinds of explanations of geopolitical events that many in ‘the West’ seem to find appealing.
But both the article and interview struck me as being almost completely beside the point when it came to understanding the emergence and appeal of ISIS.
(That item was followed up just last Sunday on the same programme by a similarly worrying ‘analysis’ of geopolitical conflict – this time by cognitive neuroscientist Emile Bruneau from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
But, first, back to the conundrum.
Is ISIS mostly a product of Islamic/jihadist ideas or of the brute geopolitical, economic and historical ‘facts of the matter’ in the Middle East?
How this question is answered will – or should – frame responses to ISIS.
And I think the answer is obvious.