The Daily Sceptic has now settled down to fight a battle on three fronts: against COVID-19 policies, against climate change, and against ‘Woke gobbledygook’. I would like to introduce a useful phrase which might help us make sense of what is currently going on on all three fronts. This is not a phrase I invented. I found it in a book called Reality and Its Dreams by the philosopher Raymond Geuss.
Geuss is a charming, idiosyncratic, very late Marxist. His hero is Adorno. His essays are always interesting; and in his most recent book, Not Thinking Like a Liberal, he gives a reason out of his own experience why he thinks certain people are likely to be able to resist, or criticise, their contemporary culture. In his case, it was because he was educated in Pennsylvania by Hungarian Catholics, and thus inoculated against some of the average assumptions of Americans in the 1960s. He was not inoculated against all of them, since he appears to have very standard views about two of the three of our subjects, namely, Covid and climate change – not to mention the usual hostility to ‘neoliberalism’. Indeed, he cited a book by Andreas Malm, which I bought and read on the strength of Geuss’s recommendation: and it was the worst kind of book, one which hastily, in 2020, used the pandemic in order, firstly, to lament that the Climate movement had not got its act together as well as the Covid movement, and, secondly, to suggest that the climatists should copy the Covidists and turn the world upside down as quickly as possible. So Geuss is not an ally. However, his phrase is still useful.
This phrase is argumentum hystericum. By it, Geuss means a type of argument which proposes an absurd dichotomy: that is, offers us two propositions which appear to form a perfect either/or, and then asks us to choose one of the two propositions: with it being clearly understood that the first proposition is the favoured one, while the second proposition is one which involves, for anyone foolish or evil enough to agree with it, immediate moral suicide. This argument, though apparently logical, is to be made with the maximum amount of emotional turbulence and moral coercion.