How Hong Kong became a police state

September 19, 2021

The first round of a so-called “election” process under a new National Security Law has just taken place in Hong Kong. Out of a population of 7,5 million inhabitants, just 4,800 were qualified to be voters. The process has, in fact, more of the character of an appointment process than of an election. All the candidates have been carefully vetted. They were ultimately cleared as the result of a police investigation. It is evident then that the final controlling authority in Hong Kong is today the national security police. The most powerful figure in the city is a former policeman, John Lee, who now serves as the security minister. Carrie Lam, the official chief executive of Hong Kong, has been demoted to being the spokesperson for the new regime.

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The Private and the Public. What we can learn from Wittgenstein

On a Canadian website devoted to the translation of writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, its creator, David Ownby of the University of Montréal, writes: “China is, if not totalitarian, surely authoritarian, and I readily admit that I do not fully understand the relationship between the Chinese state and the intellectuals I study.  It is obvious that their published work is not a perfect reflection of their private thoughts, which surely means that many times they cannot say what they really think, but what trade-offs they make and how they make their calculations remain obscure.  While I prefer to believe that what they publish is a fair if perhaps partial reflection of what they think, many people do not, and I admit that now and again I wonder if I’m being played.”[1]

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Wittgenstein’s Transitions

 “In this work more than in any other it is worth looking at apparently solved questions again and again from new sides as unsolved,“ Ludwig Wittgenstein jotted in his philosophical notebook in November of 1914. “Don’t get stuck with what you once wrote. Think always of a fresh beginning, as if nothing had as yet happened.” (p. 30) [1] The First World War had been raging for months; Wittgenstein was serving as an outlook on an Austrian gunboat; but he remained determined to continue the philosophical work he had been doing before the war with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. “Logic must take care of itself,” had been the opening entry in his new notebook on August 22. He called it “a singularly profound and significant insight.” (p. 2) The sentence was intended to say, first of all, that logic is self-contained, that it does not rest on anything outside it. But by putting it at the head of his notebook Wittgenstein may also have been expressing the hope that his work in logic would not be affected by the vagaries of the war. “Will I be able to work now?” he had asked himself anxiously on the first page of the private diary he attached to his philosophical notebook.[2] It turned out that he could do so even under heavy bombardment. “Canons shook the boat as they fired near us at night. Worked much and with success,” he wrote on December 6.[3] But progress was often slow and he feared that “the redeeming word has not been spoken.”[4] As long as that was the case, he could only go over the same ground again and again. His most vexing problem at the time was that of “the logical form of the proposition,” a topic he had been exploring with Russell in the preceding years. But his view on the topic was still far from settled. “Does the subject-predicate form exist,” he now asked himself. “Does the relational form exist? Do any of the forms exist at all that Russell and I were always talking about?” (pp. 2-3)  And so it went with questions but no definitive answers.

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Michel Foucault a pedophile?

The sordid story is going around that Foucault sodomized little boys in Moslem graveyards while he was teaching at the University of Tunis in the late 1960’s. It is due to a certain Guy Sorman who describes himself as a “leading French intellectual” but is in reality a self-promoting right-wing hack who has spent his career lauding the miracle of unrestrained capitalism. Sorman launched his attack in the middle of March on French media and then repeated it to The Times of London on March 28, 2021. He said that that after more than fifty years his conscience had suddenly awoken and forced to tell his story. We don’t know what really motivates him. Is he just someone who is pining for attention? An idle gossip? Is he simply mistaking the facts after so many years? Or suffering from the first signs of dementia?

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Welcome to the New Reality: Chinese farmers expelled from land to create “an old village to attract tourists”

Four people were killed when a man detonated a homemade bomb in a village in southern China. Local media said the blast occurred at the village committee office, which decides on matters linked to land use. Officials had given 270 acres of land to a developer in Shanghai last year to recreate an old village to attract tourists. Several people who claimed to be living near the area said online that the attack was triggered by a dispute over compensation.

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The Deficiency Theory of Human Nature and Its Deficits

Thomas Hobbes writes famously in chapter 13 of his Leviathan that human life under natural conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] In order to live a social rather than a solitary life, a comfortable rather than a poor one, in order to live in a pleasantly civilized way rather than a nasty and brutish one, and in order to be long-lived rather than cut short in years, Hobbes argues, humans need to overcome their natural condition and create an artificial world, a second nature, a state, a commonwealth. Fortunately, they have “reason” which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”[2] These “laws of nature” allow them to create the desired “commonwealth” with its “commodious living.” But it is not inevitable that they will succeed in this undertaking. Hobbes writes in De Cive: “Men come together … not because naturally it could happen no otherwise, but by accident.”[3]

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“Benevolent Autocracy.” The case of Hong Kong

On January 4, 2021, 1,000 Hong Kong police went out to arrest fifty-three democratic lawmakers, politicians, and activists. The event was as much a demonstration of unrestrained police power as an actual  police operation. The arrested were, moreover, charged with a strange crime, namely “trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government.”[1] They had organized a primary election to produce a slate of democratic candidates for the then upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislature. 600,000 Hong Kongers had cast their vote on that occasion.  The democrats had also expressed hope that their united front might gain a majority of the seats in the new legislature. Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the event, had, moreover, suggested in a newspaper op-ed that such a majority might eventually be able to veto the city’s budget and, perhaps, even push its unloved Chief Executive to resign.

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Breaking Democracy’s Spell

John Dunn's "Breaking Democracy's Spell" offers a withering but timely critique of the way we have come to think about democracy. The book argues that we need to rethink our understanding of democracy, if we are to to deal with the existential threats that face our species.

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The Puzzle of Power

Let us be frank and admit that there is no such thing as power – just as there is no such thing as “the elephant” or “the rhinoceros.” It pays to be nominalist in all these cases and avoid a metaphysics of power just as much as a metaphysics of biological kinds. A noun makes us look for a corresponding object and an abstract noun for an abstract entity. Wittgenstein has shown how that misleads us. So, no power, but no harm will be done with the term, if we take it in the right way. Let us say, then, that there exists a field of relations of something affecting (bearing on, controlling, shaping, transforming, destroying, etc.) something in some way or other. Like Foucault, we can call this the field of relations of mobile inequality. It is from this field that we usually pick a subset we call relations of power. But the choice is wide open. Thus, we end up with disputes about the nature of power, disagreements about how power is to be defined. These arise only from an ill-conceived essentialism and should be relegated to the metaphysical dustbin.

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How to become a philosopher

Let me say right away that I don’t know how one becomes a philosopher. I can only speak about this in personal terms. Having studied philosophy for a lifetime, I suppose I can call myself a philosopher in the way others call themselves physicists or plumbers. Even then I hesitate to use the word. I generally avoid it when I am asked what I do for a living. Experience has taught me that there will be two possible responses. The first is: “Let me tell you my philosophy.” And the second: “So, what is your philosophy?” I find that I can only stammer in reply. After all these years I don’t know what “my philosophy” is. I certainly don’t want to pin some label on myself, saying that I am a realist, a materialist, a historicist, or whatever. And I certainly also don’t want to hear a catalogue of someone else’s dearest convictions.

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What hope is there?

Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis is a tightly argued new book by Ci Jiwei that sets itself the dual task of analyzing China's democratic deficit while doing so in a genuinely philosophical manner.

What follows is a short first stab at an assessment of this book.

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The Darkness of this Time: Wittgenstein’s pessimism

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, and Adolf Hitler, the dictator, were born just six days apart in the Spring of 1889 – Wittgenstein into golden luxury in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler into a modest family and a provincial town at the Empire’s border to Germany. Different as those backgrounds were, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s life-paths came to parallel each other at certain points and occasionally even to intersect. I am concerned in this essay with Wittgenstein’s pessimism about his time but have found it useful to look also at Adolf Hitler as an antithetical figure propelled by another kind of pessimism. The contrast between the two men may help to illuminate questions about their and our age, about technology and technological thinking, and, possibly, about pessimism itself.

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It is so difficult to find the beginning

My graduate seminar this semester was dedicated to reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations once again. My motto were three sentences from On Certainty which say: “It is so difficult to find the beginning.  Or better it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back.” (471) I found this relevant to the question how to begin another reading of the Investigations; but the remarks also puzzled me. One would expect Wittgenstein to say that in philosophy we never go back far enough.  What could he mean by telling us not to go too far back?

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A short trip to China

A month ago I attended the fourth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Xi’an. I gave a lecture on the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations and a talk at Northwest University on “Wittgenstein and the Decline of the West.”

Almost everyone in Berkeley said: “Xi’an. Where is that?” It tells you how ignorant we are about the country. It is a city of some 7 million people (and perhaps unofficially even of 10 million). The first capital of China lone before Beijing and as such full of antiquities. It was also the end of the Silk Road, the place where Buddhism entered China and it has, till today, a thriving Muslim quarter. A modern city but one with a history.

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