Rob Minto

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What Sarah Palin has in common with Ludwig Wittgenstein

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My college philosophy tutor* once told me why Wittgenstein was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It was because he permanently changed the debate. All philosophers who came after him could agree, or disagree – but they couldn’t ignore him.

I’m worried that Sarah Palin’s Facebook page is going to become the modern equivalent of Wittgenstein on every news event –  you agree or disagree (in my case, strongly disagree), but you have to have an opinion. The latest use of her forum as a prism for news is the controversy over the Arizona shooting and whether she is inciting violence.

In fact, it’s not just her Facebook page. She has, like Wittgenstein, changed the debate, whether it’s via her silly comments on Twitter, or her TV show, or her book, or the fact that the entire 2012 presidential race will be in some way about her.

Sarah Palin has also one other thing in common with Wittgenstein – it’s all about language. Wittgenstein would have recognised her language games as having rules all of their own. Whether it’s the new word “betcha”, a conflation of two words (bet you) one of which is already a shortening, or “refudiate” with reference to the ground zero muslim centre, she’s mangling language like crazy. Allies or enemies? North or South Korea? What’s the difference? Palin didn’t know, but it changes nothing – her supporters couldn’t care less.

Sadly, Sarah Palin seems unlikely to follow Wittgenstein’s maxim which ended the Tractatus – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. (Translation for Palinites: If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the hell up.) Somehow I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her on things she knows absolutely nothing about.

* My tutor was Peter Hacker, the world’s authority on Wittgenstein and a wonderful philosopher in his own right. So he knows what he’s talking about.


  1. Very funny – and I say that as a Palin fan (who was taught Witt by Baker rather than Hacker…)

  2. Interesting, I commented here :

    There is one point here I wish to emphasize, and that is your point about needing to be seen to either agree or disagree, the bigger or more public an issue is, and that this pressure increases the more there are public on-line opportunities to do so. I was very taken with Zizek’s “Empty Wheelbarrow” response to the whole post-9/11 war against xxxx movement, about resisting the need to take sides on big issues. (Currently reading “Living in the End Times” by Zizek.)

    Incidentally, I’m in the camp believing that Palin is dangerous (game changer, interesting case, yes, but increasing the dangers), and a big fan of Wittgenstein (thanks largely to your other commenter Sam putting me onto him originally.) Interesting recent NYT reference to Wittgenstein here too.

  3. Dude…that is a serious “nose grill” you’re wearing in your photo.

    • rob

      January 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm

      Yes it is. Here’s the story behind it:

      The picture at the top
      The strange picture of me at the top was taken by my (then) girlfriend (now wife) Jo in Florence in 2006. She said she wanted to take a picture of me at the top of the cathedral, and that I had to lean forward so she could get both me and the view in the picture. There was a wire barrier in the way, but she insisted it would work. What she took instead was a very painful picture of me pressing my face against a metal mesh. She thought it was very funny, and I realised it probably was too, once the red marks had died down. Anyway, it’s me, but not in a normal pose, and I quite like that. Normal can be a bit dull.

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