The Muybridge Moment


The memorable Eadweard Muybridge invented a number of things, including his own name – he was born Edward Muggeridge in London in 1830. He literally got away with murder in 1872 when he travelled some seventy-five miles to shoot dead his wife’s lover (prefacing the act with ‘here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife’) but was acquitted by the jury (against the judge’s direction) on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. He is best known for the sequence of pictures of a galloping horse shot in 1878 at the behest of Leland Stanford, Governor of California, to resolve the question of whether the horse ever has all four feet off the ground (it does, though not at the point people imagined). To capture the sequence, Muybridge used multiple cameras and devised a means of showing the results which he called a zoopraxoscope, thereby inventing stop-motion photography and the cinema projector, laying the foundations of the motion-picture industry.


(“The Horse in Motion-anim” by Eadweard Muybridge, Animation: Nevit Dilmen – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Muybridge’s achievement was to take a movement that was too fast for the human eye to comprehend and freeze it so that each phase of motion could be analysed. It was something that he set out to do – as deliberately and methodically as he set out to shoot Major Harry Larkyns, his wife’s lover.

It is interesting to consider that something similar to Muybridge’s achievement happened a few thousand years ago, entirely by accident and over a longer span of time, but with consequences so far-reaching that they could be said to have shaped the modern world.

We do not know what prompted the invention of writing between five and six thousand years ago, but it was not a desire to transcribe speech and give it a permanent form; most likely it began, alongside numbering, as a means of listing things, such as the contents of storehouses – making records for tax purposes, perhaps, or of the ruler’s wealth – and from there it might have developed as a means of recording notable achievements in battle and setting down laws.

We can be confident that transcribing speech was not the primary aim because that is not something anyone would have felt the need to do. For us, that may take some effort of the imagination to realise, not least because we live in an age obsessed with making permanent records of almost anything and everything, perhaps because it is so easy to do so – it is a commonplace to observe that people now seem to go on holiday not to enjoy seeing new places at first hand, but in order to make a record of them that they can look at once they return home.

And long before that, we had sayings like

vox audita perit, littera scripta manet
(the voice heard is lost; the written word remains)

to serve as propaganda for the written word and emphasise how vital it is to write things down. One of the tricks of propaganda is to take your major weakness and brazenly pass it off as a strength (‘we care what you think’ ‘your opinion matters to us’ ‘we’re listening!’ as banks and politicians say) and that is certainly the case with this particular Latin tag: it is simply not true that the spoken word is lost – people have been remembering speech from time immemorial (think of traditional stories and songs passed from one generation to the next); it is reasonable to suppose that retaining speech is as natural to us as speaking.

If anything, writing was devised to record what was not memorable. Its potential beyond that was only slowly realised: it took around a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call ‘literature’. It is not till the classical Greek period – a mere two and a half millennia ago (Homo Sapiens is reckoned  at 200,000 years old, the genus Homo at 2.8 million)  – that the ‘Muybridge moment’ arrives, with the realisation that writing allows us to ‘freeze’ speech just as his pictures ‘froze’ movement, and so, crucially, to analyse it.

When you consider all that stems from this, a considerable degree of ‘unthinking’ is required to imagine how things must have been before writing came along. I think the most notable thing would have been that speech was not seen as a separate element but rather as part of a spectrum of expression, nigh-inseparable from gesture and facial expression.  A great many of the features of language which we think fundamental would have been unknown: spelling and punctuation – to which some people attach so much importance – belong exclusively to writing and would not have been thought of at all; even the idea of words as a basic unit of language, the building blocks of sentences, is a notion that only arises once you can ‘freeze’ the flow of speech like Muybridge’s galloping horse and study each phase of its movement; before then, the ‘building blocks’ would have been complete utterances, a string of sounds that belonged together, rather like a phrase in music, and these would invariably have been integrated, not only with gestures and facial expressions, but some wider activity of which they formed part (and possibly not the most significant part).

As for grammar, the rules by which language operates and to which huge importance is attached by some, it is likely that no-one had the least idea of it; after all, speech is even now something we learn (and teach) by instinct, though that process is heavily influenced and overlaid by all the ideas that stem from the invention of writing; but then we have only been able to analyse language in that way for a couple of thousand years; we have been expressing ourselves in a range of ways, including speech, since the dawn of humanity.

When I learned grammar in primary school – some fifty years ago – we did it by parsing and analysis. Parsing was taking a sentence and identifying the ‘parts of speech’ of which it was composed – not just words, but types or categories of word, defined by their function: Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb, Pronoun, Preposition, Conjunction, Article. Analysis established the grammatical relations within the sentence, in terms of the Subject – confusingly, not what the sentence was about – something that puzzled me at first – but rather ‘the person or thing that performs the action described by the verb’ (though we used the rough-and-ready method of asking ‘who or what before the verb?’) and the remainder of the sentence, the Predicate, which was what was said about the subject, and could generally be divided into Verb and Object (‘who or what after the verb’ was the rough and ready method for finding that).

It was not till I went to university that I realised that these terms – in particular, Subject and Predicate – derived from mediaeval Logic, which in turn traced its origin back to Aristotle (whom Dante called maestro di color che sanno – master of those that know) in the days of Classical Greece.







Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Aristotle is the third of the trio of great teachers who were pupils of their predecessors: he was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates. It is fitting that Aristotle’s most notable pupil was not a philosopher but a King: Alexander the Great, who had conquered much of the known world and created an empire that stretched from Macedonia to India by the time he was 30.

That transition (in a period of no more than 150 years) from Socrates to the conquest of the world, neatly embodies the impact of Classical Greek thought, which I would argue stems from the ‘Muybridge Moment’ when people began to realise the full potential of the idea of writing down speech. Socrates, notably, wrote nothing: his method was to hang around the market place and engage in conversation with whoever would listen; we know him largely through the writings of Plato, who uses him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Aristotle wrote a great deal, and what he wrote conquered the subsequent world of thought to an extent and for a length of time that puts Alexander in eclipse.

In the Middle Ages – a millennium and a half after his death – he was known simply as ‘The Philosopher’ and quoting his opinion sufficed to close any argument. Although the Renaissance was to a large extent a rejection of Aristotelian teaching as it had developed (and ossified) in the teachings of the Schoolmen, the ideas of Aristotle remain profoundly influential, and not just in the way I was taught grammar as a boy – the whole notion of taxonomy, classification by similarity and difference, genius and species – we owe to Aristotle, to say nothing of Logic itself, from which not only my grammar lessons but rational thought were derived.

I would argue strongly that the foundations of modern thought – generalisation, taxonomy, logic, reason itself – are all products of that ‘Muybridge Moment’ and are only made possible by the ability to ‘freeze’ language, then analyse it, that writing makes possible.

It is only when you begin to think of language as composed of individual words (itself a process of abstraction) and how those words relate to the world and to each other, that these foundations are laid. Though Aristotle makes most use of it, the discovery of the power of generalisation should really be credited to his teacher, Plato: for what else are Plato’s Ideas or Forms but general ideas, and indeed (though Plato did not see this) those ideas as embodied in words? Thus, the Platonic idea or form of ‘table’ is the word ‘table’ – effectively indestructible and eternal, since it is immaterial, apprehended by the intellect rather than the senses, standing indifferently for any or all particular instances of a table – it fulfils all the criteria*.

Which brings us to Socrates: what was his contribution? He taught Plato, of course; but I think there is also a neat symbolism in his famous response to being told that the Oracle at Delphi had declared him ‘the wisest man in Greece’ – ‘my only wisdom is that while these others (the Sophists) claim to know something, I know that I know nothing.’ As the herald of Plato and Aristotle, Socrates establishes the baseline, clears the ground, as it were: at this point, no-one knows anything; but the construction of the great edifice of modern knowledge in which we still live today was just about to begin.

However, what interests me most of all is what constituted ‘thinking’ before the ‘Muybridge Moment’, before the advent of writing – not least because, whatever it was, we had been doing it for very much longer than the mere two and a half millennia that we have made use of generalisation, taxonomy, logic and reason as the basis of our thought.

How did we manage without them? and might we learn something useful from that?

I think so.

*seeing that ideas are actually words also solves the problem Hume had, concerning general ideas: if ideas are derived from impressions, then is the general idea ‘triangle’ isosceles, equilateral, or scalene or some impossible combination of them all? – no, it is just the word ‘triangle’. Hume’s mistake was in supposing that an Idea was a ‘(faint) copy’ of an impression; actually, it stands for it, but does not resemble it.

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The Mechanism of Meaning (it’s all in the mind)

Meaning matters. It is bound up with so many things: understanding and misunderstanding, doubt and certainty, to say nothing of philosophy, poetry, music and art; so it is worth considering the mechanism by which it operates. ‘Mechanism’ is a useful image here: when mechanisms are hidden – as they generally are – their effects can seem mysterious, even magical (as in the marvels of the watchmaker or the stage magician); yet when they are revealed, they offer reassurance: the point of a mechanism is that, unless it is impaired or interfered with, it will go on working in the same way.

Audemars_piguet_1908_montre_poche_640_360_s_c1_center_center magician-performs-a-levitation-trick-on-stage-nita-the-hypnotised-and-suspended-lady

The problem with the mechanism of meaning is that the popular notion of it is misleading: we speak of meaning as something conveyed, like a passenger in a car, or transmitted, like a radio message; we also speak of it as being embodied or contained in things that have it, whether they are sentences, poems, works of art or the like. These two usages combine to suggest that meaning exists independently in some form, and that the business of ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ consists of inserting it into and extracting it from whatever is said to have it. That seems like common sense, but as we shall see, when scrutinised it proves problematic.

Wittgenstein points us in another direction with his observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ which he uses alongside ‘language game’ and ‘form of life’ when discussing meaning, to denote the (wider) activity of which language forms a part and from which it derives its meaning.

It strikes me that the basic mechanism of meaning lies in connection : meaning is only found where a connection is made, and that connection is made in the mind of an observer, the one who ascribes meaning. In other words, meaning is not a fixed property of things: a thing in itself, on its own, does not have meaning. But we must be careful here: this is a stick that some will readily grasp the wrong end of – to suggest that a tree or a person (say) ‘has no meaning’ is liable to provoke outrage and earnest outpourings about the inestimable value of trees and people. That is because ‘meaningless’ is a pejorative term, properly used in cases where we expect meaning but do not find it; it might be compared to our use of ‘flightless’ which we apply to certain birds that are exceptions to the general rule; we would not apply it to pigs or gorillas.


We can gain some insight into how meaning works – its mechanism – by considering an allied concept, purpose. Let us suppose some interplanetary traveller at a remote time of a quite different species to ourselves. Somewhere on his travels he comes upon this relic of a long-lost civilisation: a rectangular case constructed of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, which opens to disclose a cellular array – there are some twenty-four rectangular cells of the same organic material, each containing an identical object, rounded, hard and smooth to the touch. He is quite excited by the find as it reminds him of another he has come across – again a cellular array in a case of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, and again each cell containing a smooth, hard, rounded object, though there are differences of detail both in the shape of the cells and the objects. He may submit a learned paper to the Integalactic Open University speculating on the purpose of these strikingly similar discoveries; he is in no doubt that they are variants of the same thing, and share a common purpose, on account of the numerous points of resemblance.

Were we at his side we might smile, since one is a packet of lightbulbs and the other a box of eggs; it is likely that the resemblances that strike him as the best clues to their purpose might elude us altogether, since we would dismiss them as irrelevant – ‘that is just how they happen to be packaged, for ease of transport or storage: it has no bearing on what they are for. As to the slight similarities of shape and texture, that is mere coincidence. These objects are entirely unrelated, and could not be more unlike.’

577e028b29cf98908190de258ad90d73 light-bulb_1467547c

It is worth considering the key difference between us and the interplanetary traveller that allows us to smile at his ill-founded speculation. These are familiar objects to us, and we can connect them at once to a context or situation in which they belong, where they fit in and have purpose; our ‘reading’ of them is entirely different from the alien traveller’s – we disregard all that seems to him most striking, because we know it is of no significance. We see that the apparent similarity has nothing to do with the objects themselves, but the fact that they are both in storage, awaiting use; neither is ‘active’, i.e. in the situation or context where they are used and have purpose.


How far an examination of the objects in detail might allow our traveller to deduce, on the one hand, a national grid for distributing electricity from power stations to homes and workplaces rigged with lighting circuits, and the delights of omelettes, fried, poached and scrambled eggs on the other depends on quite how alien he is – if he a gaseous life-form sustained by starlight, he is unlikely to penetrate far into their mystery. On the other hand, if his own existence has ‘forms of life’ or activities similar to ours, he might make much better and even surprisingly accurate guesses.

That, after all, is how we ourselves proceed if we come across artefacts or objects that are unfamiliar: we guess at their purpose by thinking of the kind of the thing they might be, the sort of use they might have, by analogy with our own activities or ‘forms of life’ (and it is no accident that truly mystifying objects are often tentatively described as having ‘possible religious or ritual significance’ since in our own experience this is where many things are found whose use could not easily be guessed; and in this connection consider the use made of everyday objects in burial rites – offerings of food put alongside the dead, or cooking or eating utensils for use on the onward journey).


I would suggest that, as far as the mechanism by which they operate goes, ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ are the same, since both are defined in the same way, viz. by placing the thing in question in relation to some context, situation or larger activity where it has a place, where it ‘makes sense’, if you like;  (imagine our alien traveller’s reaction to being shown the circumstances in which a lightbulb is used – the mystery of the object disappears once the connections are made – literally, in this case).

This brings out important aspects of meaning that are often overlooked, not least because – as I observed at the outset – they are contradicted by most popular accounts of what meaning is. The first aspect is that meaning is not inherent: no amount of studying or dissecting the object in isolation will discover it – I emphasis ‘in isolation’ because discovering, say, the filament in the light bulb and how it is connected to the fitting at the base will advance our understanding only if we can relate them to other things: if we have no notion of electricity, or that it will make a wire filament glow brightly, then they will tell us nothing.

The second aspect is slightly trickier to explain but of greater significance. If we agree that meaning is not inherent, not something that can be found simply by examining the object no matter how minutely, then we can reasonably ask where it is located. One answer, from what we have said, is that it lies in the relation or connection to the context, situation or ‘form of life’; but I think that is not quite right.

Rather, it consists in being related to, or being connected with – in other words, it exists as the result of an action by the onlooker, and where it exists – where it means – is in that onlooker’s mind. This is not the usual account that is given of meaning, which is generally more like this, from Wikipedia:

‘meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.’

At first sight, this might not seem significantly different – we have relation to context, we have a process of inference; the main addition appears to be that the source or sender is taken into account, as well as the receiver. However, there is one slight-seeming but important difference, which is the notion of the meaning as something which retains its identity throughout, and which exists prior to the communication taking place and survives after it – the model that springs readily to mind is the letter, which the sender puts in the envelope, which is then conveyed to the recipient who takes it out and reads it.


The analogy with the letter is probably what makes this seem a ‘common sense’ account that most people would agree with, but the logic of it gives rise to problems. If we picture the process of sending a letter, we might start with the sender at her desk, pen in hand, poised to write; she puts the message on the page, folds the page and seals it in the envelope then sends it off; at the other end the recipient takes it out, reads it, and ‘gets the message’. What is the difficulty there, you might ask?
It begins to emerge if you try to make the analogy consistent. At first glance, it seems that

message (that which conveys the meaning) = envelope

But there is a problem here: the message is in the letter, rather than the envelope; in actual fact, the envelope is superfluous – the message could be sent without it, by hand, say, simply as a folded note. Still, that seems trivial – the sender puts her ideas into words, the receiver reads the words and gets her ideas: isn’t that just the same?

Not quite. The question is whether the meaning (or the message) exists before it is put into words; and if so, in what form? Again, this may seem unproblematic: of course the message exists before she writes it down; and indeed she might change her mind and instead of writing, making a phone call and say what she means instead, directly, as it were.

But we must be careful here: the question is not whether the message exists before she writes it down – or even before she speaks it – but before she puts it into words. This is where the image of  the letter in the envelope is at its most misleading: isn’t the meaning just something we put into words, in the same way we put the letter in the envelope?

That is what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language’ argument – the notion that my thoughts are in my head in some form to which I have privileged access, and which I could choose to give public form if I wish, thereby making them accessible to others. Though this again seems like common sense, when examined closely, it is problematic. It forms the basis of popular notions of telepathy, but trying to imagine what such ‘direct transmission’ would actually consist of highlights the difficulty.

If you convey your thoughts to me, what do I experience? Do I hear your voice speaking in my head? if so, we are back to ‘putting things in words’ and no nearer any prior form our thoughts might take. The temptation is to fall back on images, as if these were somewhow more immediate (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all) but what would they be images of? And how, having received them, would I be able to infer your thought from them? A more illuminating (but no less problematic) possibility is that we might hear your thoughts as a musical phrase which we intuitively understand.

This works to some extent because we are accustomed to the idea that music can consistently evoke definite feelings in us – ‘that passage always makes me feel this way, invariably calls this to mind’ – though we have no idea how: ‘it just does’; so that seems consistent with our finding in it something that someone else has put there; but it still leaves the question of what happens at the other end – how would such a musical message originate?

The options here would seem to be either that the message is originally in some other form which I then embody in the music – which takes us back to where we started: if it’s comprehensible to me in that form, why can’t I convey that directly instead of ‘translating’ it into music? – or else we have to accept that only in expressing it do I find what I am thinking; what we experience prior to that is an urge, a sort of pressure which can only be relieved by giving it expression in some way – whether it is an inarticulate cry of rage, a musical phrase (the terrifying opening of the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem, for instance), an image (Munch’s The Scream, maybe) or the words ‘I am very angry about this!’

The Scream

This brings us by a roundabout route to something I have been trying to articulate for a while  – the key distinction between language as the instrument of thought and as one means of expressing experience; but that is a subject for another article. In the meantime, I would conclude by saying that, if this account of the mechanism of meaning is accurate, then it has some interesting implications. It suggests, for instance, that meaning (like beauty) is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder; that it is not fixed, but variable; that it is impermanent; and – perhaps most importantly – it is inseparable from its context, the ‘form of life’ or wider activity of which it forms a part and on which it depends.

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Plucked from the chorus line – a fable

(a racy tale of a manipulative and exploitative relationship, with cross-dressing, starring Speech as Trilby, Writing as Svengali)


Trilby by George du Maurier – grandfather of Daphne – has the rare distinction of giving two new words to the English language, one for a type of hat, the other a sort of person. It was a bestseller in its day (the original naughty nineties, towards the close of Victoria’s reign) and was adapted for the stage; it tells, among other things, how the masterful musician and hypnotist Svengali transforms the tone-deaf artist’s model Trilby O’Ferrall into a hugely successful diva by dint of his mesmeric power.

The trilby hat was made popular in early stage productions of the work, while ‘svengali’ has come to mean (according to Chambers) ‘a person who exerts total mental control over another, usually for evil purposes’ though it is now more loosely used (by the popular press) to describe the sort of showbiz starmaker-manager who is deemed to exert an unhealthy degree of control over his (usually female) star.

I have been trying for some time to find a succinct way of expressing the impact that the invention of writing has had on language, and hence on thought, and it occurs to me that the Trilby-Svengali tale works admirably, though it is better to suppose Trilby a chorus girl rather than a model.


Let us suppose, then, a fin-de-siecle theatre (probably in Montmartre, not far from the Moulin Rouge) – it is called the Theatre of Expression (or le Theatre de l’Expression, if you want) and it has a rather distinctive approach in that it has no star performers – all its entertainment is provided by a multi-talented chorus line of charming soubrettes: Speech, Song, Gesture, Dance, Art, Sculpture, Music, who work together with great skill, interweaving and overlapping their talents, to general delight and widespread appreciation.

Then one day a scrawny young lad comes to the stage door and begs to be taken on in any capacity: his name is Writing, and he doesn’t look like much, but he cherishes vast and secret ambition. Since he has no obvious talent, he is given a range of menial tasks that no-one else wants to do, like making lists and inventories and keeping records (this because the charming soubrettes have no formal education and can neither read nor write).

It might be thought that this lack of education would inhibit the women of the chorus, but far from it – they feel no need to write or plan their routines, preferring to give full scope to their creativity by improvising, though of course they have a whole range of standard routines that they know instinctively because they use them often and they are in any case vividly memorable (in contrast to the dreary lists that Writing has to compile).

To distract himself from this drudgery, Writing takes to noting down the contribution made by Speech, with whom he is rather smitten, though she is by no means the most outstanding member of the troupe. She is flattered by his attention, then fascinated (though a lttle disturbed) when he is able to recite some of her routines, but laughs outright when he suggests he should write them all down and give them permanent form – what would be the point of that? she asks.

Nonetheless, Writing has conceived a plan, and being a stubborn sort of fellow (his chief virtue is staying-power), is determined to push it through. He lays siege to Speech, flattering her with his attentions, and whispering in her ear that she is the real star of the show, that the others are just bit players that depend on her, and if he had his way he’d give her the prominence she deserves. Speech pays little heed at first – she is a gregarious sort and enjoys the company of her friends and how well they all work together – but Writing is nothing if not persistent.

And courting Speech is not all that he is up to: taking advantage of the chorusgirls’ trusting nature and lack of formal education, he uses his position as scribe and secretary for the company to take more and more of the business of the theatre into his hands. Then he proposes marriage to Speech, promising her that if she agrees, he will make her a star. Her head is turned, and she agrees. To mark the partnership, Writing invents a new name for them both – henceforward, they will be Mr & Mrs Language, in complete union, despite their opposite natures (he is solitary, aloof and independent, she outgoing and gregarious).


However, it is a far-from-equal partnership: it is Writing, Mr Language, who calls all the shots. He will no longer allow Speech to improvise her own routines; she must follow what he lays down for her. Transcribing what she says has enabled him to analyse it closely, and he has a range of improvements he wants her to make – he has had to decide on a standardised spelling, so he insists she tailor her pronunciation to it and that she heed the system of punctuation he has invented, as well as the formal grammar he has drawn up, ‘correcting’ what he sees as faults in her natural delivery – he is particularly concerned to eliminate ambiguity and faults of logic (a notion he has invented, but which he claims to be the ‘guiding spirit’ that Speech has hitherto followed imperfectly, but now, as Mrs Language, she must employ with conscious diligence).

Not content with dictating to his wife, he lays down the law for the rest of the company: he is in control now, and there are going to be changes. For a start, the Theatre will now be known as the Theatre of Language, and Mrs L is to the star turn – the rest will have to be content with subordinate and supporting roles. Also, there is to be no more of this improvisation – now everyone must submit their routines to Writing beforehand, and he will knock them into shape. And he would prefer to deal with them individually, so there is to be no more overlapping, no more spontaneous concerted behaviour; everything must be orchestrated by him. For some time now he has been troubled by the rather vulgar and emotional nature of the entertainments they put on, and has decided that henceforth they will take a more intellectual, cerebral approach.

In a bizarre turn of events, Writing takes to dressing in his wife’s clothes and doing his own turns on stage, though he lacks her natural gift and has to read everything from a script. The theatre ceases to be the joyous, spontaneous place of old; the atmosphere is oppressive, and all the players feel undervalued and imposed upon, unable to do anything without Mr Language’s official approval. From time to time, they persuade Speech to slip away from her husband and join them for a night out, where for a little while it is like old times, as they reprise the old routines (and invent new ones) for anyone who will listen, in the pavement cafes and even in the street.

After one such night they return in the early hours to find that the locks have been changed, and that the theatre has been closed. In response to their furious knocking, Mr Language appears (wearing one of his wife’s best frocks) and tells them that he has decided that live performance is too dangerously anarchic and open to interpretation and must be strictly controlled; to that end, he has turned the theatre into an academy, to educate the general public. Only when he is satisfied that they have a proper understanding and a true appreciation of the performances will they resume, under strict supervision. Of course if the women wish to wander the wide world they can do as they like, but if they want to live respectably with a roof over their heads, they better do as he says.

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Storypower: Quigley’s Ineffable Escapade

under a twilight canopy

The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life has become clear to them have been unable to say what constitutes that sense?)’ (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.521)

That remarkable book, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, is to my mind a work of genius, but that is by the way. An episode from it came to mind just now when I was reflecting on the Wittgenstein quote above that I used to close my previous piece, though it resonates even more strongly with another, the one that closes the same work:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (Tractatus, 7 )

Quigley’s Balloon

(to set the scene, this converation takes place between the nameless narrator and the sergeant of police, who are inspecting the scaffold on which the narrator is to be hanged:)

Up here I felt that every day would be the same always, serene and chilly, a band of wind isolating the earth of men from the far-from-understandable enormities of the girdling universe. Here on the stormiest autumn Monday there would be no wild leaves to brush on any face, no bees in the gusty wind. I sighed sadly.

‘Strange enlightenments are vouchsafed,’ I murmured, ‘to those who seek the higher places.’

I do not know why I said this strange thing. My own words were also soft and light as if they had no breath to liven them. I heard the Sergeant working behind me with coarse ropes as if he were at the far end of a great hall instead of at my back and then I heard his voice coming back to me softly called across a fathomless valley:

‘I heard of a man once,’ he said, ‘that had himself let up into the sky in a balloon to make observations, a man of great personal charm but a divil for reading books. They played out the rope till he was disappeared completely from all appearances, telescopes or no telescopes, and then they played out another ten miles of rope to make sure of first-class observations. When the time-limit for the observations was over they pulled down the the balloon again but lo and behold there was no man in the basket and his dead body was never found afterwards lying dead or alive in any parish ever afterwards.’

Here I heard myself give a hollow laugh, standing there with a high head and two hands still on the wooden rail.

‘But they were clever enough to think of sending up the balloon again a fortnight later and when they brought it down the second time lo and behold the man was sitting in the basket without a feather out of him if any of my information can be believed at all.

‘So they asked where he was and what had kept him but he gave them no satisfaction, he only let out a laugh and went home and shut himself in his house and told his mother to say he was not at home and not receiving visitors or doing any entertaining. That made the people very angry and inflamed their passions to a degree that is not recognized by the law. So they held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public apart from the man himself and they decided to get out their shotguns the next day and break into the man’s house and give him a severe threatening and tie him up and heat pokers in the fire to make him tell what happened in the sky the time he was up inside it.

‘But between that and the next morning there was a stormy night in between, a loud windy night that strained the trees in their deep roots and made the roads streaky with broken branches, a night that played a bad game with root-crops. When the boys reached the home of the balloonman the next morning, lo and behold the bed was empty and no trace of him was ever found afterwards dead or alive, naked or with an overcoat. And when they got back to where the balloon was, they found the wind had torn it up out of the ground with the rope spinning loosely in the windlass and it invisible to the naked eye in the middle of the clouds. They pulled in eight miles of rope before they got it down but lo and behold the basket was empty again. They all said that the man had gone up in it and stayed up but it is an insoluble conundrum, his name was Quigley and he was by all accounts a Fermanagh man.’
(The Third Policeman, pp137-9, slightly abridged)

This sent my thoughts on two different tracks: the first was an idea that I expressed in an earlier piece on the notion that we have devised a carapace that protects us from direct experience of reality:

‘The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are.’

The term ‘life-changing experience’ is rather bandied about these days, and can seem no more than the tag-line for a holday advert, but if an experience is truly life-changing, then we cannot expect to return from it unscathed; and it is in the very nature of such experiences that they may be incommunicable to those who have not shared them – if your complete frame of reference is altered (or exchanged for another) then on what basis can you communicate?

The second line of thought was that the O’Brien piece is yet another demonstration of the power of story (and poetry likewise) to convey what would be considered difficult and complex ideas if expressed in standard philosophical language in an easily accessible (and vividly memorable) form (‘Quigley’s balloon’ would make an excellent picture book, or equally (and most appropriately, given its theme of ineffability) a short and wordless animation)

We should not wonder at that, of course: we have only been expressing ourselves in philosophical terms for some 25 centuries; 25 millennia would not be even half the time we have been using stories (and their central method, metaphor) – which, as a way of thinking about things, are probably as old as humanity itself.

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The True Source: a companion piece

(This piece is the origin of the parable I published yesterday as The True Source. Stories and parables are one of our most ancient ways of expressing ideas, so it seemed natural to use one to try and express what I was trying to say about the relation between preliterate society and our own)

Here is an interesting exercise in imagination: what was life like before the invention of writing?

Suppose we tried to depict it by an animation: we might have scenes where great flocks of letters – like flights of birds – emerged from libraries, leaving the books on the shelves blank; the same might happen to roadsigns and shopsigns and billboards and newspapers – a man sitting reading his paper might watch astonished as line after line of type unravelled from the page and rose in the air like a cloud of flies, leaving him clutching so many blank sheets of paper. All over town, people would gaze in wonder at places where words and letters used to be.

Yet that would scarcely touch the real extent of the unthinking that is required to take us back to a preliterate world; removing the physical evidence of the written and printed word might be the most obvious aspect, but is also the least important, because the real impact of writing is on the way we think and consequently how we see the world.

weasel 3

(source of mug: Celestine & the Hare)

A small instance can sometimes be as telling as a great one: it is a commonplace of learning to draw (one I have experienced myself) that we can find it difficult to see what is actually in front of us – we look at the object on the table, but instead of actually seeing it as a shape, a pattern of light and shade, of colour and reflection, we substitute the process of recognising it – ‘that’s a cup’ we say, assigning it a label and putting it in the appropriate box; we do not need to look at it for longer than a moment to know what it is, and once we have satisfied ourselves on that point, we stop seeing; we have entered it on our mental register, as it were, matched it to our concept. And what we draw is not the cup on the table, but our idea of a cup.

Thus, in a space of some two and a half thousand years, and without really noticing, we have come to live in Plato’s World of Ideas (or Forms): our senses are subordinated to our intellect; we apprehend concepts rather than actually seeing things. However, rather than being, as Plato asserted, the Reality that underlies Appearance, it is (I would suggest) more in the nature of a screen (or as I have called it elsewhere, a carapace) inserted between us and reality (or experience). And this has happened as a result of the impact writing has had on language, and through that, on the whole field of human expression.

Wittgenstein’s hard-won observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ is one of those things that are at first difficult to accept (particularly when you are a word-child like me, schooled in the notion that words have meanings that are fixed and can be traced through their etymologies) but, once understood, seem both simple and obvious – and by reminding us of the true source of meaning, it takes us back in a stride to that preliterate world.

What Wittgenstein does, in effect, is look further back, beyond the apparent source of meaning to the actual one, much as one might go beyond the dam that holds the water pent up in an artificial reservoir to look for the source of the stream that feeds it and flowed through the valley before it was flooded. Two and a half millennia of advanced literacy, with the evolution of formal grammar, lexicography, philology and etymology, have (as it were) blinded us to the fact that there was a time before the dam and the reservoir, when there was just the stream flowing through the valley.

To put this another way, we have grown used to assuming an infrastructure that in actual fact is fairly recent in origin. Thinking that meaning is a property of words is much the same as thinking that electric bulbs are a source of light – they are, but only if you take the complex infrastructure of the national grid that provides the electric power for granted.

In a preliterate society (and let us remind ourselves that we were ‘civilised’ – in the sense of living in settled communities supported by agriculture – for some five thousand years before we were even slightly literate) words were not attached to books but to people and situations: to hear a word would be to hear a voice, and (save the unusual circumstance of someone speaking in the dark) that voice would have been part (perhaps not even the dominant part) of a complex weave of expression, using the face, the hands, indeed the whole body (and it is quite likely that musical sounds and rhythm would have been as much part of it as words, which in any case would not have been thought of as we think of words). What is more, this complex weave of activity would itself be inseparable from some larger activity, something that people were doing together, from the mundane (some kind of repetitive toil, say, in field or barn) through the recreational and cultural (celebrations and rituals, story telling) to the solemn and magical (ceremonies associated with death and burial and communicating with or appeasing gods).

I think, if we were transported back in time to such a society, we would soon give up on any attempt to determine the meaning of individual words as irrelevant, and look instead at the activities in which they occurred (what Wittgenstein called ‘forms of life’) – ‘what does this mean?’ would give way to ‘what are you doing?’ as a question more likely to elicit an illuminating answer. Indeed, viewed in this context ‘meaning’ – or more precisely, ‘doubt or uncertainty about meaning’ appears as something that arises when information is lacking, when the picture is incomplete – as when we come on a fragment of writing torn from a larger piece. In that situation, we pore over each of the few words that we have, interrogating all possible combinations of meaning; yet if we are able to reunite it to the page it was torn from, such questions lose all their force – the significance of the piece is swallowed up, as it were, in the whole.

And this resonates, in my mind, with another quote from Wittgenstein, which might be a good point to end on, for now:

‘The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life has become clear to them have been unable to say what constitutes that sense?)’ (Tractatus, 6.521)

It is not so much that we find an answer, more that the question loses its significance; we are no longer troubled by it – an explanation is no longer required.

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The true source: a parable

fine spate - Version 2

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had to travel a long way through desolate country to take his grain to the mill; on the left side of the road that he followed – little more than a track, really – a broad plain spread out, with a long ribbon of mist in the middle distance showing the line of a great river, while on the right side, steep green ramparts reared up, the outer edge of the foothills that towered over the valley yet were themselves overshadowed by the mighty mountains beyond.

These hills were cut at intervals by precipitous glens from which powerful streams gushed, fed by the glaciers above and feeding in turn the great river on the plain beyond. The largest of these streams marked the mid-point of the journey to the mill; where all the other streams could be forded, this one was large enough to need a bridge. As the farmer creaked across it with his cart full of grain, he saw how fertile the broad plain below the bridge was, and he mused that if he farmed there, his journey to the mill would only be half what it was now.

The same thought was still running in his mind the next day as he made his way back home with a wagonload of flour, now with the plain on his right and the hills to his left. It had rained in the night, and the plain looked wonderfully green and fertile. ‘That would certainly be better land to farm,’ he thought. Then he rounded a bend and saw that the night’s rain had done other work: the stream had swollen to a tremendous torrent, undercutting its banks and bringing down trees and boulders that bounded along, swept by the current, till they fetched up against the bridge.

There was already a great mass of debris piled against it, and behind that, the water had begun to rise till it was almost level with the bridge. The farmer saw that he had an instant to decide whether to go on or stop, and fearful of being stranded on the wrong side with his load of flour he urged his reluctant horse onto the bridge; he was barely half-way across when an ominous groaning told him that disaster was upon him. With commendable coolness, he sprang onto the horse’s back, cut the traces, and scrambled to the far bank and safety just as the bridge gave way and his wagonload of flour was swept to oblivion.

You can imagine the farmer’s state of mind as he watched his wagon smash to matchwood in the raging flood: there went all the fruit of his labour; but on the other hand, he was lucky to be able to stand and watch its loss – he could very easily have been down there with it.

Yet it was neither of those things that was in the forefront of his mind as he and his horse ambled slowly homeward; rather it was the recollection of the water pent-up behind the bridge in a spreading pool, and the deep groan as the whole structure gave way – such tremendous force! If he could only harness that…

So it was that the farmer undertook to rebuild the bridge in exchange for the right to farm the land in the plain below and to control the waters above; and as well as a bridge, he built a dam and a sluice and a watermill.

Now everyone came to him, from both sides of the river, because his mill was better built and more powerful than any other; and in addition, he had his own grain to mill, grown right on his doorstep. Soon he had built a jetty and had a fleet of boats that carried his flour downstream to the great river and the cities beyond, and he smiled every time he watched them go, thinking of that day long ago when his first load of flour had been swept away in the very same stream, and what had seemed like ruin was the beginning of his good fortune.

The miller’s trade made him so wealthy that soon he was able to let the management of both farm and mill to others and invest his profit in new enterprises – a distillery, and factories with looms to weave wool and linen (he had built flax-dams in the lower reaches of the stream). Soon there was a thriving community: a village, then a town.

The miller would always tell his children the tale of the bridge being swept away and how what seemed like disaster had proved to be the gateway to prosperity. His children grew up straight and tall and his oldest boy went to the city to study and came back with a head full of new ideas: he saw that his father’s mill and factories, splendid and prosperous though they might be, were only a small part of what might be done.

When in the course of time he came into his inheritance, he set to and built a much bigger dam and flooded the glen behind it to create an enormous reservoir; he installed turbines to generate electric power and transformed the town into a great city, the wonder of the world for its modernity. People flocked there, and it prospered; what the children learned in school was not the tale the farmer who became a miller had told his own children; rather it was the story of the great dam, and the reservoir behind it, the source of all their prosperity.

Now you might think that this is a tale of hubris, of over-reaching; you might take a look at that dam, with the huge prosperous city spread out below it on one side, and all that tremendous force pent up behind it on the other; and you might detect a whiff of irony, and think, ‘I see what’s going to happen here – the very source of their prosperity will prove their undoing!’

But you’d be wrong: for one thing, the people knew only to well how important it was to keep the dam in a state of good repair, so they never slacked in maintaining it in prime condition – yet for all that, their city failed.

What they taught in the schools was wrong, you see: it wasn’t the dam that was the source of their prosperity, nor the reservoir behind it; it was the stream that fed it, and that came from the glacier high up in the mountains – but the glacier was in steady retreat (the climate had changed) and one day it was gone altogether: the stream stopped flowing, and every time the reservoir sluices were open, the level dropped, and it was not replenished. The turbines stopped turning, the electricity failed, and the people moved away, leaving the city to fall into ruin and be reclaimed by nature.

Soon only the dam remained, a huge enigmatic wall reared up across a parched and stony gully. It was something of a puzzle and a mystery to the few people who passed that way, who asked themselves what it could mean, and how it could have come to be built in such a desolate spot.

(though this might seem like an ecological fable, it is actually intended to be a story about language – for a cpmanion piece that throws light on the origin of this parable, see The True Source: a companion piece)


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The End of All Our Exploring

Much has been said of the gallant little spacecraft New Horizons winging its way past Pluto at 14 kms a sec – it’s taken nine and a half years to get there, a journey of some 3 billion miles – and now it is heading off into the farthest and coldest reaches of our solar system: it certainly seems a long way off.

And yet, when you consider that our solar sytem is one of five hundred that we have actually discovered in the immediate neighbourhood of our own, and that a reasonable projection suggests there may be as many as a hundred billion solar systems in our galaxy, and that our galaxy (The Milky Way) may itself be one of a hundred billion in the universe –
well, it is as if New Horizons has scarcely reached the end of the garden path, with the whole wide world beyond.


Such thoughts of the immensity of the universe naturally turn the mind to the idea that we surely cannot be alone, that there must be intelligent life elsewhere – indeed, the wonder is that we have so far failed to find it – the ‘Fermi paradox’, an idea examined in an article here.

And yet what these thoughts called to my mind was a question posed by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus:

‘is some riddle solved by my surviving forever?’ (6.4312)

It seems to me that heading ever outward in space and heading ever onward in time carry no guarantee that the trip, in the end, will yield – not so much anything worthwhile (I’m sure it would) – but rather what we were hoping to find, what we were looking for all along – and that put me in mind of an old folk tale that exists in many variamts, recently appropriated by Paolo Coelho in his widely-read book The Alchemist; here it is in a shorter form, drawn from Jewish tradition:

‘There was once a poor, G-d fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King’s palace, he would find a buried treasure.
Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King’s soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.
After two weeks time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, “Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?” Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man’s attitude. Finally, the King’s guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, “What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery.”
The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my.possession. Yet, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence.’

(‘The Treasure under the Bridge’ adapted by Gedaliah Fleer from the stories of Rebbe Nachman (slightly abridged) which I found here, with thanks )

Here it is again, more succinctly still. in four lines by TS Eliot:

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
(Little Gidding, V – Four Quartets)

And I wonder (not for the first time) if it is not rather Inner Space that we should turn our attention to, if we want to find answers to the questions that keep us searching.

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