The Argumentum Hystericum

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.

Geuss’s own example of an argumentum hystericum is related to Iraq (since he wrote the book in 2016). Geuss was clearly outraged by the argument that if you do not support the invasion of Iraq then you are condoning Saddam Hussein’s crimes or even condoning the events of 9/11. He considered calling this the “Tony Blair”. And we should take up this suggestion. For do we not also have the “Anthony Fauci’” and the “Greta Thunberg”? The “Anthony Fauci” is something like if you do not support the recommendations of the CDC and the National Institute of Health then you are against the science. The “Greta Thunberg” is something like if you do not try to reduce carbon emissions then you are stealing my dreams. I leave it to the reader to formulate the “Neil Ferguson” and the “Susan Michie”, and the rather duller, greyer, “Chris Whitty”. (There is also the “Boris Johnson”: if I do not repeat this draconian tosh then everyone will give me a Paddington stare for the next hour or so.)

I submit that one of the gravest problems in our contemporary politics is the argumentum hystericum. Not least because it sells newspapers. Admittedly, we have lost our minds before. The British, as Macaulay said in the nineteenth century, suffer from periodic fits of morality. But the most famous exhibit of an argumentum hystericum in modern times, the unattractive hounding of everything Germanic during the First World War, was at least comprehensible. In 1916 or so, D.H. Lawrence was holed up in Cornwall having to explain Frieda to the local policemen, and acquired a distaste for his own country. An old Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, changed his name from Waldstein to Walston. Even the King changed his name. The argumentum hystericum carried all before it: Bertrand Russell ended up in jail. But there was a war. Whereas the argumentum hystericum has become an almost insolently negligent entity now. Consider the hounding of Russians in 2022 – when we are not at war with Russia ourselves. The argumentum hystericum is a staple of the climate movement. It has had its most signal victory in COVID-19 policies. And it is obviously very influential in the unthinking Lineker world in which footballers get down on one knee (in order to tackle racism?). It is now a pons asinorum in our education system: repeat these propositions or ‘You shall not pass’. It is a major weapon in fighting thought crime. As our police have recently shown, it has enabled “causing anxiety” to become a criminal offence. Causing anxiety nowadays being the emphatic proof of thought crime. (A finesse Orwell missed.)

Let me end with some examples of the argumentum hystericum, which I shall put in ad hominem form.

  • Either applaud footballers taking the knee – or you are a racist.
  • Either take the vaccine/wear masks etc – or you are endangering lives.
  • Either reduce your emissions/stop eating meat, etc. – or you are damaging the planet.
  • Either repeat these politically correct phrases – or you are guilty of thought crime.

This is a politics of tar and feather, and it is being conducted through a pseudo-logic of coercive dichotomies, all of which have the form of the argumentum hystericum.

Until we collectively restore some sort of sense of proportion to our entire culture, there is nothing to be done. But at least, for the moment, we can identify the problem.

Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.

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Dr James Alexander


August 14, 2022


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