top of page
  • Richard Farr

Blaming "Russia"

In his blog Philosopher's Beard, Thomas R. Wells makes the point that we err dangerously when we say "Russia did this" or "the US is demanding that":

Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.
Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another....
... Countries cannot invade each other. Invasion is an action in pursuit of a goal, and places on a map lack the capacity for either. What is actually going on is that 'the organisation that rules Russia is challenging the sovereignty of the organisation that rules Ukraine'.

Wells overplays his case by insisting that, because Russia is not itself an intentional agent, "Russia attacked Ukraine" is a category mistake. This seems wrong. No one literally thinks this means that Russia itself (the geographical entity) decided to attack another country and then did so; we all understand that this is just a metonym - one thing standing for another. The problem is rather that metonyms can be, as it were, mistranslated. Suppose I say "The White House has announced today that ...," and you reply "Nonsense! The White House is just a building! It can't announce anything! You must mean The PA system attached to the portico of the White House has announced today that..." Well, you mistranslated my metonym, which was aimed not at the PA system (a thing) but at the President (an agent). Alas, Wells is right that when I say "Russia attacked Ukraine" it is indeed very tough for us to distinguish between (1) Russia itself, (2) the people who live in Russia or speak Russian, and (3) the murderous reptilian demagogue who falsely claims to represent the interests of the people who live in Russia or speak Russian.

But there's another interesting wrinkle here, because it's surely plausible that Vlad the Impaler himself really doesn't think this is a case of metonymy. No doubt he's motivated partly by his own personal desire to go down in history as the next Really Major Asshole to Get in the Way of Russia Becoming the Vibrant Free Society it Could Be, aka the Man Who Rebuilds a Greater Russia, just as History Intended. But it seems, from what he's said, that that in turn is motivated by a genuine belief in the "agent reality" of countries, or Nations perhaps we should say, and possibly of History itself: he attacked Ukraine because of (his particular and peculiar understanding of) the interests of Russia itself.

Alas, I suspect that sending him a link to Wells' blog post, in the hope of persuading him that to believe in the interests of Russia itself really is to commit a category mistake - actually, a barking mad one - is unlikely to change anything.

Recent Posts

See All

Putting the con in Conservative

Politics is no longer divided between liberals and conservatives. I think what really happened in politics in the last ten or fifteen years, in Isreal, in the US, in Brazil in other countries, is tha


bottom of page