When I was young and studying philosophy at Edinburgh University I remember becoming excited about the figurative use of prepositions; they seemed to crop up everywhere, openly and in disguise as Latin prefixes, in uses that clearly were not literal. Reasoning from the fact that the meaning of any preposition could be demonstrated using objects and space, I concluded that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, and that this might act as a limit on what and how we thought.

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What strikes me about this now is not so much the idea as the assumptions on which it is based: I have made Language in its full-blown form my starting point, which is a bit like starting a history of transport with the motor-car. As I have suggested before, what we think of as ‘Language’ is a relatively recent development, arising from the invention of writing and the influence it has exerted on speech, simultaneously elevating it above all other forms of expression and subjugating it to the written form. It is the written form that gives language an objective existence, independent of human activity, and relocates ‘meaning’ from human activity (what Wittgenstein terms ‘language games’ or ‘forms of life’) to words themselves; and alongside this, it makes possible the systematic anaylsis of speech [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment].

In that earlier theory of mine I took for granted a number of things which I now think were mistaken. The first, as I have said, is that the milieu which gives rise to the figurative use of words is the developed form of language described above; that is to confuse the identification and definition of something with its origin, rather as if I were to suppose that a new species of monkey I had discovered had not existed before I found and named it.

Bound up with this is the model of figurative language which I assumed, namely that figurative use was derived from literal use and dependent upon it, and that literal use was prior and original – in other words, that we go about the world applying names like labels to what we see about us (the process of ‘ostensive definition’ put forward by St Augustine, and quoted by Wittgenstein at the start of his Philosophical Investigations) and only afterwards develop the trick of ‘transferring’ these labels to apply to other things (the word ‘metaphor’ in Greek is the direct equivalent of ‘transfer’ in Latin – both suggest a ‘carrying over or across’).

Points to note about this model are that it is logically derived and that it presents metaphorical thinking as an intellectual exercise – it is, as Aristotle describes it, ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The logic appears unassailable: clearly, if metaphor consists in transferring a word from its literal application and applying it elsewhere, so that the sense of the original is now understood as applying to the new thing, then the literal use must necessarily precede the metaphorical and the metaphorical be wholly dependent on and derived from it: to say of a crowd that it surged forward is to liken its action to that of a wave, but we can only understand this if we have the original sense of ‘surge’ as a starting point.

However, there is a difficulty here. It is evident that there can be no concept of literal use and literal meaning till there are letters, since the literal meaning of ‘literal’ is ‘having to do with letters’. Only when words can be written down can we have an idea of a correspondence between the words in the sentence and the state of affairs that it describes (what Wittgenstein in the Tractatus calls the ‘picture theory’ of language). If what we term metaphors were in use before writing was invented – and I am quite certain that they were – then we must find some other explanation of them than the ‘transfer model’ outlined above, with its assumption that literal use necessarily precedes metaphorical and the whole is an intellectual process of reasoned comparison.

The root of the matter lies in the fact already mentioned, that only with the invention of a written form does the systematic analysis of speech become possible, or indeed necessary. Before then (as I suggest in ‘The Disintegration of Expression‘) speech was one facet or mode of expression, quite likely not the most important (I would suggest that various kinds of body language, gesture and facial expression were possibly more dominant in conveying meaning). It was something that we used by instinct and intuition rather than conscious reflection, and it would always have been bound up with some larger activity, for the simple reason that there was no means of separating it (the nearest approach would be a voice speaking in the dark, but that is still a voice, with all the aesthetic qualities that a voice brings, and also by implication a person; furthermore, it is still firmly located in time, at that moment, for those hearers, in that situation. Compare this with a written sentence, where language for the first time is able to stand on its own, independent of space and time and not associated with any speaker).

In other words, when metaphor was first defined, it was in terms of a literate language, and was seen primarily as a use we make of words. (Given the definition supplied by Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘a metaphor is just a long Greek word for a lie’, there is an illuminating parallel to be drawn here with lying, which might be defined as ‘making a false statement, one that is not literally true’. This again puts the focus on words, and makes lying primarily a matter of how words are used and what they mean. The words or the statement are seen as what is false, but actually it is the person – hence the old expression ‘the truth is not in him’. Deceit consists in creating a false appearance, in conveying a false impression: words are merely instrumental, and though certainly useful – as a dagger is for murder – are by no means necessary. We can lie by a look or an action; we can betray with a kiss.)

There is a great liberation in freeing metaphor from the shackles that bind it to literal language (and to logic, with which it is at odds, since it breaks at least two of the so-called ‘laws of thought’ – it violates the law of identity, which insists that ‘A is A’, by asserting that A is B, and by the same token, the law of contradiction, which insists that you cannot have A and not-A, by asserting that A is not-A). It allows us to see it from a wholly new perspective, and does away with the need to see it either as an intellectual act (‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’) or as something that necessarily has to do with words or even communication; I would suggest that metaphor is primarily a way of looking at the world, and so is first and foremost a mode of thought, but one that operates not through the intellect and reason but through intuition and feelings.

To illustrate this, I would like to take first an example I came up with when I was trying to envisage how metaphor might have evolved. Two brothers, out in the bush, come on a lion, at a safe distance, so that they can admire its noble mien and powerful grace without feeling threatened. One brother smiles and says ‘mother!’ The other, after an initial look of puzzlement, nods his head in affirmation and laughs.

The explanation I furnished to accompany this is that their mother is a formidable and beautiful woman and that the first brother, seeing the lion, is reminded of her, and by naming her, invites his brother to make the same comparison that has already occurred to him, which he does after a moment’s puzzlement, and the two take pleasure in this new and unexpected – yet apt – use of the word.


I think that the focus here is wrong: it is still concerned to make metaphor about words, and to see it primarily as a way of communicating ideas.

I would now like to alter the story slightly. A man on his own in the bush catches sight of the lion (from a safe distance, as before). On seeing it, he is moved: the sight of it stirs him, fills him with a mixture of awe and delight. And it is not what he sees, but rather what he feels, that calls his mother to mind: the feeling that the lion induces him is the same as he has felt in the presence of his mother. That is where the identification takes place, in the feeling: the outer circumstances might differ (the lion in the bush, his mother in the village) but the inner feeling is the same. If we think of an experience as combining an external objective component with an internal subjective one (and I am carefully avoiding any notion of cause and effect here) then the origin of metaphor lies in experiences where the external objective component differs but the internal subjective component is the same.

Why am I wary of saying ‘the sight of the lion causes the same feelings that the sight of his mother does’ ? Because it strikes me as what I would call a ‘mixed mode’ of thinking: it imports the notion of causality, a modern and analytic way of thinking, into an account of an ancient and synthetic way of thinking, thus imposing an explanation rather than simply describing. (This is difficult territory because causality is so fundamental to all our explanations, based as they are on thinking that makes use of literate language as its main instrument)

What I want to say is this: causal explanations impose a sequence – one thing comes first – the cause – and elicits the other, the effect. So if we stick with the man and the lion we would analyse it like this: ‘sense data arrive in the man’s brain through his eyes by the medium of light, and this engenders a physical response (spine tingling, hair standing on end, a frisson passing over the body) which the man experiences as a feeling of awe and delight.’

We can demonstrate by reason that the lion, or the sight of it, is the cause and the emotion the effect, because if we take the lion away (for instance, before the man comes on it) the man does not experience the emotion (although he may experience ‘aftershocks’ once it has gone, as he recalls the sight of it).

But there is a fault here. If we leave the lion but substitute something else for the man – an antelope, say, or a vulture – does it still have the same effect? It is impossible to say for sure, though we may infer something from how each behaves – the antelope, at the sight (and quite probably the scent) of the lion might bound away in the opposite direction, while the vulture (sensing the possibility of carrion near by or in the offing) might well move closer.

My point is that the analysis of cause and effect is rather more complex  than I have presented it here, which is much as David Hume makes it out to be, with his analogy with one billiard ball striking another; as Schopenhauer points out, what causes the window to shatter is not the stone alone, but the fact of its being thrown with a certain force and direction combined with the brittleness of the glass (and if the stone is thrown by a jealous husband through his love rival’s window, then we might need to include his wife’s conduct and the construction he puts upon it in the causal mix). Change any one of these and the result is different.

My being human is as much a precondition for the feelings I experience in the presence of a lion as the lion is, and I think that this is a case where, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘we murder to dissect’ – it is much more enlightening to consider the experience as a single simultaneous event with, as I have suggested, an inner and an outer aspect that are effectively counterparts. So the lion is the embodiment of the man’s feelings but so is his mother, and the lion and his mother are identified by way of the feelings that both embody; and the feelings are in some sense the inner nature or meaning of both the lion and the mother (think here of all the songs and poetry and music that have been written where the lover tries to give expression to his feelings for his beloved). This interchangeability and the identity of different things or situations through a common feeling aroused in each case is the foundation of metaphor and, I think, the key ‘mechanism’ of Art.

(This has an interesting parallel with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, as expressed in the title of his work Die Welt als Wille und Vortsellung, variously translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’ or ‘The World as Will and Idea’. In this he borrows from Eastern philosophy to present the world as having a dual aspect – objectively, as it appears to others and subjectively, as it is in itself. Its objective aspect, Representation, is made known to us via our senses, and is the same world of Objects and Space with which this discussion began; we cannot by definition see what it is like in itself since it only ever appears as object, but once we realise that we ourselves are objects in the ‘World as Representation,’ we can gain a special insight by ‘turning our eyes inward’ as it were, and contemplating our own inner nature, which we know not by seeing but by being it.

And what do we find? For Schopenhauer, it is the Will; and the revelation is that this is not an individual will – my will as opposed to yours – it is the same Will that is the inner nature of everything, the blind will to exist, to come into being and to remain in being. (This bears a striking resemblance to the position advanced by evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins, for whom humankind is effectively a by-product of our genetic material’s urge to perpetuate itself).)

I would diverge from Schopenhauer – and the evolutionary biologists – in their pessimistic and derogatory account of the inner nature of things, on two grounds. The first is that it makes us anomalous. Schopenhauer asserts that ‘in us alone, the Will comes to consciousness’ but is unable to explain why this should be so, while his only solution to the revelation that all things are just the urges of a blind and senseless will is effectively self-annihilation (not a course he chose to pursue himself, as it happens – he lived to be 72). There is a lack of humility here that I find suspect, a desire still to assert our uniqueness and importance in a senseless world. If the Will is indeed the inner nature of all things (and that is questionable) why should we consider ourselves the highest manifestation of it?

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The second ground is the nature of the feelings that I describe, which are the opposite of pessimistic: they are uplifting, feelings of awe, elation and delight. There is a fashion nowadays for explaining everything in terms of genetic inheritance or evolutionary advantage (‘stress is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight reaction’ for instance, or any number of explanations which couch our behaviour in terms of advertising our reproductive potential) but I have yet to come across any satisfactory explanation in the same terms of why we should feel elated in the presence of beauty, whether it is a person, an animal, a landscape, the sea or (as Kant puts it) ‘the starry heavens over us*’. The characteristic feature of such experiences is ‘being taken out of yourself’ (which is what ‘ecstasy’ means) a feeling of exaltation or rapture, of temporarily losing any sense of yourself and feeling absorbed in some greater whole.

I would venture that this disinterested delight is the single most important aspect of human experience and is (in Kantian phrase) ‘worthy of all attention.’

*The full quotation is not without interest: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.” (Critique of Practical Reason)


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‘These great concurrences of things’


One of the main ideas I pursue here is that the invention of writing has radically altered the way we think, not immediately, but eventually, through its impact on speech, which it transforms from one mode of expression among many into our main instrument of thought, which we call Language, in which the spoken form is dominated by the written and meaning is no longer seen as embedded in human activity but rather as a property of words, which appear to have an independent, objective existence. (This notion is examined in the form of a fable here)

This means in effect that the Modern world begins in Classical Greece, about two and a half thousand years ago, and is built on foundations laid by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; though much that we think of as marking modernity is a lot more recent (some would choose the Industrial Revolution, some the Enlightenment, some the Renaissance) the precondition for all of these – the way of seeing ourselves in the world which they imply – is, I would argue, the change in our thinking outlined above.

This naturally gives rise to the question of how we thought before, which is not a matter of merely historical interest, since we are not talking here about one way of thinking replacing another, but rather a new mode displacing and dominating the existing one, which nevertheless continues alongside, albeit in a low estate, a situation closely analogous to an independent nation that is invaded and colonised by an imperial power.

What interests me particularly is that this ancient mode of thought, being ancient – indeed, primeval – is instinctive and ‘natural’ in the way that speech is (and Language, as defined above, is not). Unlike modern ‘intellectual’ thought, which marks us off from the rest of the animal kingdom (something on which we have always rather plumed ourselves, perhaps mistakenly, as I suggested recently) this instinctive mode occupies much the same ground, and reminds us that what we achieve by great ingenuity and contrivance (remarkable feats of construction, heroic feats of navigation over great distances, to name but two) is done naturally and instinctively by ants, bees, wasps, spiders, swifts, salmon, whales and many others, as a matter of course.

So how does this supposed ‘ancient mode’ of thought work? I am pretty sure that metaphor is at the heart of it. Metaphor consists in seeing one thing in terms of another, or, if you like, in seeing something in the world as expressing or embodying your thought; as such, it is the basic mechanism of most of what we term Art: poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, dance, music, all have this transformative quality in which different things are united and seen as aspects of one another, or one is seen as the expression of the other – they become effectively interchangeable.

(a key difference between metaphorical thinking and analytic thinking – our modern mode – is that it unites and identifies where the other separates and makes distinctions – which is why metaphor always appears illogical or paradoxical when described analytically: ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle puts it, or ‘saying that one thing is another’)

This long preamble was prompted by an odd insight I gained the other day when, by a curious concatenation of circumstances, I found myself rereading, for the first time in many years, John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep.

Now Buchan is easy to mock – the values and attitudes of many of his characters are very much ‘of their time’ and may strike us as preposterous, if not worse – but he knows how to spin a yarn, and there are few writers better at evoking the feelings aroused by nature and landscape at various times and seasons. He was also widely and deeply read, a classical scholar, and his popular fiction (which never pretended to be more than entertainment and generally succeeded) has a depth and subtlety not found in his contemporaries.

What struck me in The Island of Sheep were two incidents, both involving the younger Haraldsen. Haraldsen is a Dane from the ‘Norlands‘ – Buchan’s name for the Faeroes. He is a gentle, scholarly recluse who has been raised by his father – a world-bestriding colossus of a man, a great adventurer – to play some leading part in an envisaged great revival of the ‘Northern Race’, a role for which he is entirely unfitted. He inherits from his father an immense fortune, in which he is not interested, and a vendetta or blood-feud which brings him into conflict with some ruthless and unscrupulous men.

Early in the book, before we know who he is, he encounters Richard Hannay and his son Peter John (another pair of opposites). They are out wildfowling and Peter John flies his falcon at an incoming skein of geese; it separates a goose from the flight and pursues it in a thrilling high-speed chase, but the goose escapes by flying low and eventually gaining the safety of a wood. ‘Smith’ (as Haraldsen is then known) is moved to tears, and exclaims
‘It is safe because it was humble. It flew near the ground. It was humble and lowly, as I am. It is a message from Heaven.’
He sees this as an endorsement of the course he has chosen to evade his enemies, by lying low and disguising himself.

Later, however, he takes refuge on Lord Clanroyden’s estate, along with Richard Hannay and his friends, who in their youth in Africa had sworn an oath to old Haraldsen to look after his son, when they were in a tight spot. They attend a shepherd’s wedding and after the festivities there is a great set-to among the various sheepdogs, with the young pretenders ganging up to overthrow the old top-dog, Yarrow, who rather lords it over them. The old dog fights his corner manfully but is hopelessly outnumbered, then just as all seems lost, he turns from defence to attack and sallies out against his opponents with great suddenness and ferocity, scattering them and winning the day.


Again, Haraldsen is deeply moved:

‘It is a message to me,’ he croaked. ‘That dog is like Samr, who died with Gunnar of Lithend. He reminds me of what I had forgotten.’

He abandons his scheme of running and hiding and resolves to return to his home, the eponymous Island of Sheep, and face down his enemies, thus setting up the climax of the book (it’s not giving too much away to reveal that good triumphs in the end, though of course it’s ‘a dam’ close-run thing’).

Both these incidents have for me an authentic ring: I can well believe that just such ‘seeing as’ played a key role in the way our ancestors thought about the world and their place in it.

It is, of course, just the kind of thing that modern thinking labels ‘mere superstition’ but I think it should not be dismissed so lightly.

The modern objection might be phrased like this: ‘the primitive mind posits a ruling intelligence, an invisible force that controls the world and communicates through signs – bolts of lightning, volcanic eruptions, comets and other lesser but in some way striking events. The coincidence of some unusual or striking occurrence in nature with a human crisis is seen as a comment on it, and may be viewed (if preceded by imploration) as the answer to prayer. We know better: these are natural events with no connection to human action beyond fortuitous coincidence.’

The way I have chosen to phrase this illustrates a classic problem that arises when modern thinking seeks to give an account of ancient or traditional thinking – ‘primitive’ thinking, if you like, since I see nothing pejorative in being first and original. The notion of cause and effect is key to any modern explanation, so we often find that ‘primitive’ thinking is characterised by erroneous notions of causality – basically, a causal connection is supposed where there is none.

For instance, in a talk I heard by the the philosopher John Haldane, he cited a particular behaviour known as ‘tree binding’ in which trees were wounded and bound as a way of treating human wounds – a form of what is called ‘sympathetic magic’, where another object acts as a surrogate for the person or thing we wish to affect (or, to be more precise, ‘wish to be affected’). An account of such behavior in causal terms will always show it to be mistaken and apparently foolish – typical ‘primitive superstition’: ‘They suppose a causal connection between binding the tree’s wound and binding the man’s, and that by healing the one, they will somehow heal the other (which we know cannot work).’

But I would suggest that the tree-binding is not a mistaken scientific process, based on inadequate knowledge – it is not a scientific process at all, and it is an error to describe it in those terms. It is, I would suggest, much more akin to both prayer and poetry. The ritual element – the play-acting – is of central importance.

The tree-binders, I would suggest, are well aware of their ignorance in matters of medicine: they do not know how to heal wounds, but they know that wounds do heal; and they consider that the same power (call it what you will) that heals the wound in a tree also heals the wound in man’s body. They fear that the man may die but hope that he will live, and they know that only time will reveal the outcome.

Wounding then binding the tree seems to me a ritual akin to prayer rather than a misguided attempt at medicine. First and foremost, it is an expression of hope, like the words of reassurance we utter in such cases – ‘I’m sure he’ll get better’. The tree’s wound will heal (observation tells them this) – so, too, might the man’s.

But the real power of the ritual, for me, lies in its flexibility, its openness to interpretation. It is a very pragmatic approach, one that can be tailored to suit any outcome. If the man lives, well and good; that is what everyone hoped would happen. Should the man die, the tree (now identified with him in some sense) remains (with its scar, which does heal). The tree helps reconcile them to the man’s death by showing it in a new perspective: though all they have now is his corpse, the tree is a reminder that this man was more than he seems now: he had a life, spread over time. Also, the continued survival of the tree suggests that in some sense the man, too, or something of him that they cannot see (the life or soul which the tree embodies) may survive the death of his body. The tree can also be seen as saying something about the man’s family (we have the same image ourselves in ‘family tree’, though buried some layers deeper) and how it survives without him, scarred but continuing; and by extension, the same applies to the tribe, which will continue to flourish as the tree does, despite the loss of an individual member.

And the tree ‘says’ all these things because we give it tongue – we make it tell a story, or rather we weave it into one that is ongoing (there are some parallels here to the notion of ‘Elective Causality’ that I discuss elsewhere). As I have argued elsewhere [‘For us, there is only the trying‘] we can only find a sign, or see something as a sign, if we are already looking for one and already think in those terms. Haraldsen, in The Island of Sheep, is troubled about whether he has chosen the right course, and finds justification for it in the stirring sight of the goose evading the falcon; later, still troubled about the rightness of his course, he opts to change it, stirred by the sight of the dog Yarrow turning the tables on his opponents.

His being stirred, I think, is actually the key here. It would be an error to suppose that he is stirred because he sees the goose’s flight and the dog’s bold sally as ‘messages from heaven’; the reverse is actually the case – he calls these ‘messages from heaven’ to express the way in which they stir him. There is a moment when he identifies, first with the fleeing goose, then with the bold dog. What unites him with them in each case is what he feels. But this is not cause and effect, which is always a sequence; rather, this is parallel or simultaneous – the inner feeling and the outward action are counterparts, aspects of the same thing. A much closer analogy is resonance, where a plucked string or a struck bell sets up sympathetic vibration in another.

This is why I prefer Vita Sackville West’s definition of metaphor to Aristotle’s: for him, metaphor is the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things; for her, (the quote is from her book on Marvell)

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’’

A subject to which I shall return.

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It’s not what you think

What do gorillas think about? Or hens?

‘A hen stares at nothing with one eye, then picks it up.’



(in looking up McCaig’s line (from ‘Summer Farm’) just now I came across two curious comments on it:

‘Could refer to a weathervane as an inanimate hen only has one eye. “Nothing” refers to the wind and the weathervane is picking it up.
The one eye can also refer to one perspective.’

Hmm. Or it could be a beautifully observed and exact description of a hen, in characteristic action. Sometimes the surface is what matters)

This thought came to me when I was reflecting on something that happened yesterday. I was walking up Earl’s Dykes, a curiously-named side street in Perth, pondering the possible meanings and implications of two utterances I meant to write an article about; and it struck me that probably no other species on earth engaged in such speculations.

What do gorillas think about, if anything?

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I have loved gorillas a long time – since my brother and I were small boys playing with plastic Britain’s models of them in our old plum tree – and my kind sister gave us a book by George Schaller, The Year of the Gorilla, about his time spent in the Virunga volcanoes observing Mountain Gorillas. It was published in 1964, so I suppose it must have been fifty years or so since that happened. Schaller was one of the first to counter the popular fictional image of the gorilla as a savage and dangerous monster with actual observation that it was gentle, shy, vegetarian and family-oriented, so his book is of great importance in establishing what has now become the mainstream opinion of these beautiful but sadly threatened creatures.

So I do not mean to be churlish in recalling a passage that has stuck with me, and I hope I am not being unfair in recollecting it from memory, since I do not have the book to hand. The gist of it was that Schaller at one point found himself in close proximity to a large group of gorillas; he and they were sheltering from a downpour (I think this is in the chapter titled ‘am I satyr or man?’). He found himself wondering much the same as my opening line: what was going on behind those watchful, somewhat wary eyes? Not much, was his conclusion, and I think there was a line that likened his companions to ‘rather dim relatives in fur coats’ (if that is not so, or my recollection is awry, I apologise).

My point in recalling this is to wonder whether we do well to plume ourselves on what we consider our unique and superior intellect; maybe we should take our singularity in this respect as a warning rather than a mark of distinction. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a work I enjoy but do not revere to the extent that some do) proposes (if I recall correctly) that humans are only third in intellectual attainment on our planet, behind mice and dolphins. This is satire, of course, but for me it does not strike quite the right note; I increasingly wonder if our reverence of intellectual attainment is not itself the problem.

Schaller’s gorillas sitting somewhat dolefully in the rain (they are prone to colds and pulmonary ailments) or dappled with sunlight as they feed at leisure may well have no mental preoccupations whatever – but is that not something to be envied rather than despised? Do they not attain effortlessly that same absorption in the moment, that pure existence in the present, that is the aim of meditation, which we humans attain only* through rigorous discipline, quieting the mind with mantras and controlling the body through physical training?

Maybe it is the surface that matters. We have much to unlearn.

*I am in error here, of course: we can attain it by various means – drawing, painting, making music or listening to it.


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In the beginning was the word… or was it?


Reflecting on the origin of words leads us into interesting territory. I do not mean the origin of particular words, though that can be interesting too; I mean the notion of words as units, as building blocks into which sentences can be divided.

How long have we had words? The temptation is to say ‘as long as we have had speech’ but when you dig a bit deeper, you strike an interesting vein of thought.

As I have remarked elsewhere [see ‘The Muybridge Moment‘] it seems unlikely that there was any systematic analysis of speech till we were able to write it down, and perhaps there was no need of such analysis. Certainly a great many of the things that we now associate with language only become necessary as a result of its having a written form: formal grammar, punctuation, spelling – the three things that probably generate the most unnecessary heat – are all by-products of the introduction of writing.

The same could be said of words. Till we have to write them down, we have no need to decide where one word ends and another begins: the spaces between words on a page do not reflect anything that is found in speech, where typically words flow together except where we hesitate or pause for effect. We are reminded of this in learning a foreign language, where we soon realise that listening out for individual words is a mistaken technique; the ear needs to attune itself to rhythms and patterns and characteristic constructions.

So were words there all along just waiting to be discovered? That is an interesting question. Though ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ effectively mean the same, etymologically (both have the sense of ‘coming upon’ or ‘uncovering’) we customarily make a useful distinction between them – ‘discovery’ implies pre-existence – so we discover buried treasure, ancient ruins, lost cities – whereas ‘invention’ is reserved for things we have brought into being, that did not previously exist, like bicycles and steam engines.  (an idea also explored in Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms)

So are words a discovery or an invention?

People of my generation were taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, though even in my childhood the theory that the Vikings got their earlier had some currency; but of course in each case they found a land already occupied, by people who (probably) had arrived there via a land-bridge from Asia, or possibly by island-hopping, some time between 42000 and 17000 years ago. In the same way, Dutch navigators ‘discovered’ Australia in the early 17th century, though in British schools the credit is given to Captain Cook in the late 18th century, who actually only laid formal claim in the name of the British Crown to a territory that Europeans had known about for nearly two centuries – and its indigenous inhabitants had lived in for around five hundred centuries.

In terms of discovery, the land-masses involved predate all human existence, so they were there to be ‘discovered’ by whoever first set foot on them, but these later rediscoveries and colonisations throw a different light on the matter. The people of the Old World were well used to imperial conquest as a way of life, but that was a matter of the same territory changing hands under different rulers; the business of treating something as ‘virgin territory’ – though it quite plainly was not, since they found people well-established there – is unusual, and I think it is striking where it comes in human, and particularly European, history. It implies an unusual degree of arrogance and self-regard on the part of the colonists, and it is interesting to ask where that came from.

Since immigration has become such a hot topic, there have been various witty maps circulating on social media, such as this one showing ‘North America prior to illegal immigration’ 2gdVlD0

The divisions, of course, show the territories of the various peoples who lived there before the Europeans arrived, though there is an ironic tinge lent by the names by which they are designated, which for the most part are anglicised. Here we touch on something I have discussed before  [in Imaginary lines: bounded by consent]  – the fact that any political map is a work of the imagination, denoting all manner of territories and divisions that have no existence outside human convention.

Convention could be described as our ability to project or impose our imagination on reality; as I have said elsewhere [The Lords of Convention] it strikes me as a version of the game we play in childhood, ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ – which is not to trivialise it, but rather to indicate the profound importance of the things we do in childhood, by natural inclination, as it were.

Are words conventions, a form we have imposed on speech much as we impose a complex conventional structure on a land-mass by drawing it on a map? The problem is that the notion of words is so fundamental to our whole way of thinking – may, indeed, be what makes it possible – that it is difficult to set them aside.

That is what I meant by my comment about the arrogance and self-regard implied in treating America and Australia as ‘virgin territory’ – its seems to me to stem from a particular way of thinking, and that way of thinking, I suggest, is bound up with the emergence of words into our consciousness, which I think begins about two and a half thousand years ago, and (for Europeans at least) with the Greeks.

I would like to offer a model of it which is not intended to be historical (though I believe it expresses an underlying truth) but is more a convenient way of looking at it. The years from around 470 to 322 BC span the lives of three men: the first, Socrates, famously wrote nothing, but spoke in the market place to whoever would listen; we know of him largely through his pupil, Plato. It was on Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, that Dante bestowed the title ‘maestro di color che sanno’ – master of those that know.

This transition, from the talking philosopher to the one who laid the foundations of all European thought, is deeply symbolic: it represents the transition from the old way of thought and understanding, which was inseparable from human activity – conversation, or ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as Wittgenstein would say – to the new, which is characteristically separate and objective, existing in its own right, on the written page.

The pivotal figure is the one in the middle, Plato, who very much has a foot in both camps, or perhaps more accurately, is standing on the boundary of one world looking over into another newly-discovered. The undoubted power of his writing is derived from the old ways – he uses poetic imagery and storytelling (the simile of the cave, the myth of Er) to express an entirely new way of looking at things, one that will eventually subjugate the old way entirely; and at the heart of his vision is the notion of the word.

Briefly, Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas can be expressed like this: the world has two aspects, Appearance and Reality; Appearance is what is made known to us by the senses, the world we see when we look out the window or go for a walk. It is characterised by change and impermanence – nothing holds fast, everything is always in the process of changing into something else, a notion for which the Greeks seemed to have a peculiar horror; in the words of the hymn, ‘change and decay in all around I see’.

Reality surely cannot be like that: Truth must be absolute, immutable (it is important to see the part played in this by desire and disgust: the true state of the world surely could not be this degrading chaos and disorder where nothing lasts). So Plato says this: Reality is not something we can apprehend by the senses, but only by the intellect. And what the intellect grasps is that beyond Appearance, transcending it, is a timeless and immutable world of Forms or Ideas. Our senses make us aware of many tables, cats, trees; but our intellect sees that these are but instances of a single Idea or Form, Table, Cat, Tree, which somehow imparts to them the quality that makes them what they are, imbues them with ‘tableness’ ‘catness’ and ‘treeness’.

This notion beguiled me when I first came across it, aged fourteen. It has taken me rather longer to appreciate the real nature of Plato’s ‘discovery’, which is perhaps more prosaic (literally) but no less potent. Briefly, I think that Plato has discovered the power of general terms, and he has glimpsed in them – as an epiphany, a sudden revelation – a whole new way of looking at the world; and it starts with being able to write a word on a page.

Writing makes possible the relocation of meaning: from being the property of a situation, something embedded in human activity (‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’) meaning becomes the property of words, these new things that we can write down and look at. The icon of a cat or a tree resembles to some extent an actual cat or tree but the word ‘cat’ looks nothing like a cat, nor ‘tree’ like a tree; in order to understand it, you must learn what it means – an intellectual act. And what you learn is more than just the meaning of a particular word – it is the whole idea of how words work, that they stand for things and can, in many respects, be used in their stead, just as the beads on an abacus can be made to stand for various quantities. What you learn is a new way of seeing the world, one where its apparently chaotic mutability can be reduced to order.

Whole classes of things that seem immensely varied can now be subsumed under a single term: there is a multiplicity of trees and cats, but the one word ‘tree’ or ‘cat’ can be used to stand for all or any of them indifferently. Modelled on that, abstract ideas such as ‘Justice’ ‘Truth’ and ‘The Good’ can be seen standing for some immutable, transcendent form that imbues all just acts with justice and so on. Plato’s pupil Aristotle discarded the poetic clothing of his teacher’s thought, but developed the idea of generalisation to the full: it is to him that we owe the system of classification by genus and species and the invention of formal logic, which could be described as the system of general relations; and these are the very foundation of all our thinking.

In many respects, the foundations of the modern world are laid here, so naturally these developments are usually presented as one of mankind’s greatest advances. However, I would like to draw attention to some detrimental aspects. The first is that this new way of looking at the world, which apprehends it through the intellect, must be learned. Thus, at a stroke, we render natural man stupid (and ‘primitive’ man, to look ahead to those European colonisations, inferior, somewhat less than human). We also establish a self-perpetuating intellectual elite – those who have a vested interest in maintaining the power that arises from a command of the written word – and simultaneously exclude and devalue those who struggle to acquire that command.

The pernicious division into ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ denigrates the senses and all natural instincts, subjugating them to and vaunting the intellect; and along with that goes the false dichotomy of Heart and Head, where the Head is seen as being the Seat of Reason, calm, objective, detached, which should properly rule the emotional, subjective, passionate and too-easily-engaged Heart.

This, in effect, is the marginalising of the old way of doing things that served us well till about two and a half thousand ago, which gave a central place to those forms of expression and understanding which we now divide and rule as the various arts, each in its own well-designed box: poetry, art, music, etc. (a matter discussed in fable form in Plucked from the Chorus Line)

So what am I advocating? that we undo all this? No, rather that we take a step to one side and view it from a slightly different angle. Plato could only express his new vision of things in the old way, so he presents it as an alternative world somewhere out there beyond the one we see, a world of Ideas or Forms, which he sees as the things words stand for, what they point to – and in so doing, makes the fatal step of discarding the world we live in for an intellectual construct; but the truth of the matter is that words do not point to anything beyond themselves; they are the Platonic Forms or Ideas: the Platonic Idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘Horse’. What Plato has invented is an Operating System; his mistake is in thinking he has discovered the hidden nature of Reality.

What he glimpsed, and Aristotle developed, and we have been using ever since, is a way of thinking about the world that is useful for certain purposes, but one that has its limitations. We need to take it down a peg or two, and put it alongside those other, older operating systems that we are all born with, which we developed over millions of years. After all, the rest of the world – animal and vegetable – seems to have the knack of living harmoniously; we are the ones who have lost it, and now threaten everyone’s existence, including our own; perhaps it is time to take a fresh look.

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The Lords of Convention

‘The present king of France is bald’ seems to present a logical problem that ‘the cat is on the table’ does not – there is no present king of France, so how can we assert that he is bald? and is the sentence true or false?

But I am much more interested in the second sentence: ‘the cat is on the table’ – what does it mean?


(‘Cat on a Table’ by John Shelton, 1923-1993)

Can it mean, for instance., ‘it’s your cat, I hold you responsible for its behaviour’?


Scene: a sunny flat. A man sprawls at ease on the sofa. To him, from the neighbour room, a woman.

Woman: The cat is on the table.

(Man rolls his eyes, sighs, gets up reluctantly)

Should you want to grasp the difference between the philosophy of the early Wittgenstein, as expressed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and his later philsophy, as expressed in Philosophical Investigations (and I accept that not everyone does) then this example epitomises it. It also pins down – or at least, develops further – thoughts I have been having lately about meaning, objectivity and the impact of the invention of writing on thought.

The form of the question in the second paragraph above is curious: ‘what does it mean?’ – where ‘it’ refers to the sentence. The clear implication is that meaning is a property of the sentence, of words – an assertion that may not strike us as strange, till we set it alongside another that we might ask – ‘what do you mean?’

I would suggest that the first question only becomes possible once language has a written form: before that, no-one would think to ask it, because there would be no situation in which you could come across words that were not being spoken by someone in a particular situation – such as the scene imagined above. Suppose we alter it slightly:

Woman: The cat is on the table.
Man: What do you mean?
Woman: What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean the cat is on the table.
Man: What I mean is, the cat is under the sideboard, eating a mouse – look!

The words spoken here all have their meaning within the situation, as it were (what Wittgenstein would call the Language Game or the Form of Life) and the question of their having their own, separate meaning simply does not arise; if we seek clarification, we ask the person who spoke – the meaning of the words is held to be something they intend (though it is open to interpretation, since a rich vein of language is saying one thing and meaning another, or meaning more than we say – just as in our little scene, the line about the cat is far less about description of an event, far more about an implied criticism of the owner through the behaviour of his pet – which in turn is probably just a token of some much deeper tension or quarrel between the two).

Only when you can have words written on a page, with no idea who wrote them or why, do we start to consider that the meaning might reside in the words themselves, that the sentence on the page might mean something of itself, without reference to anything (or anyone) else.

This relocation of meaning – from the situation where words are spoken, to the words themselves – is, at the very least, a necessary condition of Western philosophy, by which I mean the way of thinking about the world that effectively starts with Plato and stretches all the way to the early Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus can be viewed as a succinct summary of it, or all that matters in it;  and perhaps it is more than a necessary condition – it may be the actual cause of Western philosophy.

The crucial shift, it seems to me, lies in the objectification of language, and so of meaning, which becomes a matter of how words relate to the world, with ourselves simply interested bystanders; and this objectification only becomes possible, as I have said, when speech is given an objective form, in writing.

If you were inclined to be censorious, you might view this as an abnegation of responsibility: we are the ones responsible for meaning, but we pass that off on language – ‘not us, guv, it’s them words wot done it.’ However, I would be more inclined to think of it as an instance of that most peculiar and versatile human invention, the convention. Indeed, a convention could be defined as an agreement to invest some external thing with power, or rather to treat it as if it had power – a power that properly belongs to (and remains with) us.

(The roots of convention are worth thinking about. I trace them back to childhood, and the game of ‘make-believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’ which demonstrates a natural facility for treating things as if they existed (imaginary friends) or as if they have clearly defined roles and rules they must follow (the characters in a game a child plays with dolls and other objects it invests with life and character). Is it any wonder that a natural facility we demonstrate early in childhood (cp. speech) should play an important part in adult life? In fact, should we not expect it to?)

It is convenient to act as if meaning is a property of words, and is more or less fixed (and indeed is something we can work to clarify and fix, by study). It facilitates rapid and efficient thought, because if words mean the things they denote, then we can, in a sense, manipulate the world by manipulating words; and this is especially so once we have mastered the knack of thinking in words, i.e. as a purely mental act, without having to write or read them in physical form.

We can perhaps appreciate the power of this more fully if we consider how thinking must have been done before – and though this is speculation, I think it is soundly based. I would argue that before the advent of writing no real analysis of speech was possible: we simply lacked any means of holding it still in order to look at it. An analytic approach to language sees it as something built up from various components – words of different sorts – which can be combined in a variety of ways to express meaning. It also sees it as something capable of carrying the whole burden of expression, though this is a species of circular argument – once meaning is defined as a property of words, then whatever has meaning must be capable of being expressed in words, and whatever cannot be expressed in words must be meaningless.

Without the analytic approach that comes with writing, expression is something that a person does, by a variety of means – speech, certainly, but also gesture, facial expression, bodily movement, song, music, painting, sculpture. And what do they express? in a word, experience – that is to say, the fact of being in the world; expression, in all its forms, is a response to Life (which would serve, I think, as a definition of Art).

Such expression is necessarily subjective, and apart from the cases where it involves making a physical object – a sculpture or painting, say – it is inseparable from the person and the situation that gives rise to it. Viewed from another angle, it has a directness about it: what I express is the result of direct contact with the world, through the senses – nothing mediates it  (and consider here that Plato’s first step is to devalue and dismiss the senses, which he says give us only deceptive Appearance; to perceive true Reality, we must turn to the intellect).

Compare that with what becomes possible once we start thinking in words: a word is a marvel of generalisation – it can refer to something, yet has no need of any particular detail – not colour, size, shape or form: ‘cat’ and ‘tree’ can stand indifferently for any cat, any tree, and can be used in thought to represent them, without resembling them in any respect.

‘A cat sat on a table under a tree’

might be given as a brief to an art class to interpret, and might result in twenty different pictures; yet the sentence would serve as a description of any of them – it seems to capture, in a way, some common form that all the paintings share – a kind of underlying reality of which each of them is an expression; and that is not very far off what Plato means when he speaks of his ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ (or Wittgenstein, when he says ‘a logical picture of facts is a thought’ (T L-P 3) ).

While this way of thinking – I mean using words as mental tokens, language as an instrument of thought – undoubtedly has its advantages (it is arguably the foundation on which the modern world is built), it has been purchased at a price: the distancing and disengagement from reality, which is mediated through language, and the exclusion of all other forms of expression as modes of thought (effectively, the redefinition of thought as ‘what we do with language in our heads’); the promotion of ‘head’ over ‘heart’ by the suppression of the subject and the denigration of subjectivity (which reflects our actual experience of the world) in favour of objectivity, which is a mere convention, an adult game of make-believe –

all this points to the intriguing possibility, as our dissatisfaction grows with the way of life we have thus devised, that we might do it differently if we chose, and abandon the tired old game for a new one.

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Not One of the Herd

My entry for the 2016 Pitlochry Festival Theatre Winter Words Festival ‘Fearie Tales’ competition – unsuccessful, alas, for a second year! My early success (here and here)seems a distant memory – but judge for yourself:

‘So, Reverend Sheila, does the Devil go about like a roaring lion, as the good book says, seeking whom he may devour?’

‘I believe it’s actually the lionesses who hunt, and it’s pretty stealthy work – not much roaring involved. It’s only the ones on the edge of the herd – the weak and vulnerable that can’t keep up – who fall victim; tough luck for them, of course, but good for the lion, and good for the herd too, I suppose. I wonder if the others even notice. Perhaps if you surveyed wildebeest about their belief in lions, you’d get the same sort of answers people give about believing in demons – that it’s the sort of thing parents tell their children to keep them from straying – ‘don’t wander off or the lions will get you’ – but not something any self-respecting twenty-first century wildebeest could believe, grazing peacefully with ten thousand of his fellows.’

‘It sounds to me as if your sympathies are with the lions – and the (uh!) demons!’

‘I only meant that if there are such things, they must have their place in the order of creation, just as lions do. Perhaps it is their job to single out and deal with the souls that the herd would be better off without.’

‘I have a feeling that one might be directed at you, Mr Jowell.’

‘Because I’m a successful businessman – sorry, a ‘ruthless capitalist’ – you mean? That’s just the sort of Marxist-feminist claptrap and New Age nonsense I’ve come to expect from the clergy these days. With all due respect to the Reverend Sheila, I am not a wildebeest – in fact, if I can say so without sounding arrogant, I’ve never considered myself to be one of the herd.’

‘And on that note, we must end our discussion for tonight, ‘Ghaisties and Ghoulies in the Twenty-first Century’. My name is Tam McLinn and you’ve been listening to the Highland Heartland Radio Hour – Good night!’

The Reverend Sheila McCabe, a local woman, was glad to stay behind and share the hospitality offered by her hosts – not for nothing did they style themselves ‘the little station with the big heart’. Mr Jowell, however, excused himself, saying that he had to get back to the city, by which he meant Edinburgh, the centre of his extensive business operations.

To tell the truth, he felt that he had rather wasted his time – he had been in town for an earlier meeting and had found himself on the radio programme through some whim of his Personal Assistant’s, who had thought it would be good publicity; he would have to speak to her about that: he doubted if the total audience for the programme ran to double figures.

To add to his annoyance, he realised that he had not paid sufficient attention to where he had left his car: only when he was out in the radio-station’s unlit car-park – which was commensurate in scale with its importance, having spaces for some half-a-dozen vehicles (only one of which was occupied) did he recall that he had in fact walked there from his earlier meeting; his car must still be in town.

But that brought a further problem – or challenge, he corrected himself, automatically. Where, exactly, was here? This was not the angle from which had approached the radio station, small as it was, and now, in the dark, it seemed wholly unfamiliar. The car park was bounded on two sides by trees; beyond them, he thought he heard the sound of water running. He recollected vaguely that a river ran through the town, but not centrally, more as a boundary on one side, though there were buildings on the opposite bank; but the bulk of the town, he felt sure, was on this side, so his car must be somewhere hereabouts.

Walking determinedy – it had begun to rain, an annoying cold smirr that a cold wind drove into his face – he made his way round the angle of the building onto what should be the front; his recollection was that he had walked some distance uphill to get there, which had made him rather hot. No danger of that now, he thought, drawing his coat closer about him.

McCracken’s Bakery! That had been the name of the premises across the road from where he had the meeting; he remembered noticing it out the window, and wondering briefly if the proprietor might be someone of the same name he had known at school. So all he had to do was find the main street (where the bakery was bound to be, since it was not a town of any size) and his car should be there. Heartened by this recollection, he pressed on.

It annoyed him that he should have forgotten where exactly he left his car: it made him feel inept, even helpless, which was not at all the way he was accustomed to see himself. He began to realise that, for all he made fun of it, the experience of being live on radio had affected him rather more than he cared to admit. He could recall clearly what he had been thinking about on the way to the radio station – much as he would with any business meeting, he had rehearsed possible lines of argument, trying to anticipate any traps he might blunder into, though the novelty of the situation had given it an added edge; what he had paid little heed to, however, were his surroundings, which now in the darkness were even less familiar.

In the absence of any other guide, he stuck to his notion of going downhill, keeping his eye open for anything at all that might trigger a memory, but instead he only noticed how strange and old-fashioned the buildings seemed, with their tiny windows and little doors, often below the level of the street, as if they had been there so long that the town had risen like a tide about them; and those curious gargoyles, more like something you would see in France than Scotland: surely, if he had come this way before, he would have noticed them? But of course he had been preoccupied, he told himself.

At length he emerged into a sort of square, or rather oblong, of a kind that is typical of many Scots towns, with a Tron at one end and an area given over to flowerbeds and parking in the middle, with a roadway on either side and shops giving onto it. In the old days, it would be where the market was held; and the Tron – really the public weights-and-measures office – would have doubled as Town-house and jail; nowadays, it was most likely the Tourist Information Office.

The only trouble was that he had no memory of having seen such a square when he was here earlier – yet surely his meeting had been in the town centre? He looked in vain for McCracken the Baker’s, gazing all around, peering in the poor light (the feebleness of the street lamps was worsened by a thin veil of mist creeping in from the river). He reflected how empty of life the whole place seemed, already shut up for the night; it had an unreal quality, like a stage-set. He was brought up short by the realisation that he was not alone: from within the shadow of the Tron, two indistinct figures were watching him. Doubtless it was a trick of the light, but they seemed oddly-proportioned, curiously tall and spindly.

He had a sudden vision of himself as he must appear to them, an evident stranger gawping about him, with no notion of where he was; he might as well be holding a placard proclaiming ‘I am lost’. Feeling embarrassed – and, if he was honest, somewhat vulnerable – he strode decisively and with an air of purpose towards the nearest opening at the side of the square.

However, no sooner had he reached it than some trick of the acoustic filled the street with the noise of rushing water; he must be heading towards the river. That, he was sure, was not the way he wanted to go, but he was reluctant to turn back directly and expose his indecisiveness again to the watchers by the Tron. Instead, he continued down towards the water’s edge, reasoning that he could make a succession of right turns and find the square once more; he was now convinced that his meeting of earlier in the day had been somewhere on the far side of it.

When he reached the riverside path he was surprised by the nearness of the water: it came high up the bank and flowed at great speed, with that ominous smoothness of surface that rivers in spate can have. Had it been raining while he was in the studio? He was nearly sure that it had been dry as he walked up from his meeting. Still, this was steep country, he told himself: it would not take long for a cloudburst in the hills to show its effects here.

After walking further than he thought he would have to, he came in sight of a bridge across the river, an elegant wrought-iron affair painted white, probably Victorian; the water was well up the slender columns that supported it, only a foot or so below the walkway. What troubled him was that he recognised it: of all the things he had seen, it was the first that was at all familiar – had he not, in fact, crossed it at some point? – yet he felt sure his meeting had been on this side of the river.

Determined to pursue this conviction, he turned right, taking the road that led away from the bridge to what should be the Tron square, but again he found himself walking further than he expected. Surely he should be on the square by now? But at least the surroundings were familiar – he felt a growing certainty that he had come this way before; why, there was that little cobbler’s shop with a boot hung outside which had caught his attention earlier and made him wonder what sort of trade a cobbler could do in this day and age in a little town like this.

He had overshot the square by now, he felt sure, so he took the next right, and reckoned he was now running parallel to it on the other side, and to his relief it was a broad street of the sort where many businesses might be housed; and there about half-way down was a sign with a wheatsheaf – had he noticed that before? what an old fashioned place this was! He almost hurried towards it, and found to his delight that the sign on the shopfront said McCracken’s bakery. Delight was no exaggeration: he laughed aloud, and turning, was pleased to spot the premises where his meeting had been earlier. He was surprised at his own elation: he had not realised quite how anxious he had become about the whole thing.

But where was his car?

His first thought – his immediate thought – was that it had been stolen, and he felt a sudden surge of anger and reached for his phone, wondering whether he should report it to the police first or use an App to try and find the nearest acceptable hotel. Then a wave of doubt swept over him: he was not in Edinburgh, where the theft of a large and powerful car like his might happen; this was a douce Scots market town, little more than a village really, already shut down for the night – hardly the happy hunting ground of the opportunist car thief; a car like his would stick out a mile, and besides, it was rated among the most secure on the market.

Then he remembered: of course, he had arrived earlier than he thought, and had actually parked on the far side of the river, which was nearer the main road, thinking to stretch his legs and catch a breath of fresh air before his meeting: it had been a pleasant sunny morning. His smart-phone had assured him of the location of his meeting, but what he had not allowed for was the fact that, by the time it was done, it was easier to walk the short distance to the radio station than go all the way back to the car-park and find his way from there.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness – I’m getting old, he thought, I can’t keep up – he headed down a side street and back to the Tron Square. Here he was surprised to find a bus, brightly lit and laden with passengers – the last of the drinkers, he supposed, or whatever else passed for entertainment here. It was in the act of departing and even as he watched, the last few revellers squeezed boisterously aboard, the door slid shut, and it rumbled off. The revelation that there were others here beside himself but that now they were going away left him feeling strangely bereft: he wished he could have been among the colourful press of humanity squeezed onto the brightly-lit bus, amid a clamour of overloud voices and an atmosphere of alcohol-laden breath, instead of alone in this deserted square.

Or not quite deserted: a glance across to the side street he had taken earlier, now filled up with river-mist, showed the elongated silhouettes of two figures, back-lit by a streetlight. Of course he had no reason (apart from their odd proportions, doubtless an effect of the mist-diffused light) to suppose them the same as he had seen earlier, lurking in the shadow of the Tron, and even if they were, no reason to think ill of them, but all the same he headed round the flank of the Tron building (which was indeed, as he now saw, the Tourist Information Office) and sought a lane which he hoped would take him back to the road he had followed up from the Victorian bridge.

His surmise was correct: he saw the cobbler’s shop with relief, and set off down towards the river, aware of a mounting anxiety as he approached the bridge. What did he fear? that it might be shut? surely the water could not have risen so much in so short a time? But no, the bridge was open and empty. He quickened his pace towards it.

As he passed onto it he did not look directly but registered out of the corner of his eye two figures approaching along the riverside path to his left; with a fear he could not account for, he hastened his step till it was almost a jog; he found himself searching his pocket for his keys. There they were! he took them out and held them ready. As he neared the end of the bridge, a change in the vibration underfoot told him that someone had stepped onto it behind him. He did not look back, but strode up the deep lane with ivied banks on each side and overhung with dripping trees.

The car park entrance was near here, surely? he could not have missed it. With rising panic, he hurried on. Then, much to his relief, he sensed rather than saw an opening to his left and plunging through it, found himself in a slick-shining tarmac space occupied by a solitary car – his own. With an anxious laugh, he pointed his key-fob and clicked: to see the lights flash on in response was like being greeted by an old friend.

In a moment, he was inside, surrounded by the luxury of walnut and leather, strapping on his seatbelt, turning the key in the lock and pressing the starter button. The engine gave a muted snarl and he sprang away with a squeal of tyres and a spray of water, but by the time he had reached the exit he was laughing at himself. A glance in his mirror told him that the car park was as empty as before; his fancied pursuers had been no more than a pair of late-night friends going home, most likely a courting couple.

He swung the car out into the road, surprisingly relieved and light of heart: he told himself that he was getting past the age for late-night travelling. The powerful beams picked up the road ahead as he swept along; he turned on the radio, but could not get reception, so switched to the CD player. It had been an interesting day, he conceded, but not one he would like to repeat: he no longer felt equal to the demands of going to strange places; he preferred to stick with what was familiar. And that woman minister with her absurd talk of lions and wildebeest! It had unsettled him more than he cared to admit.

It was some time before he glanced at the mileometer (he always made a point of checking how far he had travelled, to claim it as an expense). He saw to his surprise that he had already gone much further than should have been necessary to reach the main road; somehow, though he could not account for it, he must have missed his turn. Looking ahead, he saw that the road had narrowed: indeed, it seemed little more than a track. He slowed down. He would have to find somewhere to turn: he had clearly come the wrong way, and was now in the middle of nowhere without the least idea of how he got there.

Then he looked in the mirror, and saw the lights of a car coming swiftly up behind.

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The Disintegration of Expression


The week when a group of scientists have decided to hold the ‘Doomsday Clock’ at three minutes to midnight (though I cannot help feeling that the notion of a clock that can always be reset undermines the idea of time running out) is an apt one to consider the diagram above, which also deals with time, though the message it has to convey concerns not how little time might be left to us  but rather how much has gone before.

The diagram is drawn to different scales and has two related parts. The strip along the bottom with the grey wavy lines represents the last 200,000 years, which is the period our particular species of human, Homo sapiens, has been around (though that is still a small fraction of the human timeline, which streches back some 6.5 million years). The upper part of the diagram represents the last quarter of that time, with today (2016) at the right hand edge, and the jagged left hand edge being 50,000 years ago.

The area to the right of the blue line marked E is the last 5,500 years; it is reperesented on the bottom strip by the coloured portion to the extreme right of the grey strip.

Five and a half thousand years ago saw two significant events, the invention of metalworking and the invention of writing. It therefore marks an important boundary, or rather two: everything to the left of the line marked E (shown at greater length by the wavy line below) is the Stone Age; it is also conventionally regarded as Prehistoric Times, since History is deemed to start with the invention of writing and the possibility of contemporary records.

(It is worth pausing a moment to consider our immediate reaction to the terms ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ – both are widely used pejoratively, to denote whatever is hopelessly primitive, barbarous and old fashioned, with no place in the modern age)

The red line marked with a star is more recent – 2,500 years ago – and takes us back to the beginning of the Classical period in Greece, the age that saw that most significant generation of teachers and pupils, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Somewhere in that time occurs what I have called the Muybridge Moment  by analogy with Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of stop-motion photography, which enabled him effectively to freeze time and analyse the motion of a galloping horse. In the same way, somewhere from Socrates (who wrote nothing) to Aristotle, whose writings arguably provide the foundation of Western thinking and the modern world, the full potential of writing is realised for the first time: it can freeze the flow of speech, giving it an objective form which can be analysed and codified.

That, for me, is a more significant moment than the invention of writing some three millennia earlier, which though a necessary condition for the development of the modern world was not yet a sufficient one, as its potential had yet to be recognised.

One inference that can be drawn from the diagram is that the farther we go to the left, the likelier it is that any human practice we find will by now have become so ingrained that we regard it as coming naturally to us; it is congenital, something we are born with, or born with an aptitude for (to use a very recent metaphor, we are programmed to do it). The prime case, of course, is speech, which we have presumably engaged in from time immemorial, and which we learn (and teach) without need for any formal training.

The naturalness of speech, however, is disguised to a large extent by the advent of literacy: reading and writing, though immensely advantageous (and a key measure of ‘development’ that we use to judge nations and societies) are by no means natural to us: considerable effort and training is required to master them (and to teach them) and not everyone succeeeds in acquiring them; but to be without them – in a literate society – is to be disabled. When it comes to human expression, we are not content to rely on nature: it must be augmented, even supplanted, by formal instruction.

That point is worth bearing in mind: it is quite likely that other of our natural aptitudes have become overlooked and effectively hidden by the way our system of education has developed.

Let us now consider what the first three lines on the diagram represent: none marks an event or a first beginning; rather they are records of activity that must already have been going on for some time – for thousands, even tens of thousands of years – but of which we have some tangible, dateable evidence at these points.


A, some 42,000 years ago, is the date of some bone flutes that have been found in the Swabian Alb region of German. Music, of course, must be older than that: it is probably primeval – the voice is the oldest instrument, though percussion – drumming and rhythmic clapping and stamping – must be a close second. And if we mention rhythm, it is natural to think of dance, and to suppose that it, too, is very ancient, though it leaves little in the way of direct evidence.

(However, there is possible evidence of the controlled use of fire by our ancestor, Homo erectus, dating from 1.5 million years ago, and demonstrable evidence from 0.79 million years ago (790,000 years). Is it at all unreasonable to suppose that dancing around fires, singing and drumming, is equally ancient? Or, for that matter, telling tales around the fire?)

B, 40,000 years ago, is the date of certain carved figures found in the same region of Germany as the flutes, though these again are not a start point but rather an indication of an established human activity; and there are some who find evidence for sculpture much older still (the ‘Venus of Tan-Tan‘ is dated around 300,000 years ago).

C, 30,000 years ago, is the date of some cave-painting found in France, Spain and Indonesia; again, not a start point, but evidence of an already highly developed and skilled human activity.

(I might have included a line a shade to the right of C, around 29,000 years ago, to mark the oldest know ceramics, i.e. fired clay. The striking thing is that its first use is aesthetic, the making of figurines or statuettes In terms of practical application, the oldest pottery vessels we know about are some 9000 years younger, from around 20,000 years ago.)

D, 10,000 years ago, differs from the others in marking a start point – that of civilisation, the habit of living in settled communities supported by agriculture, as opposed to our previous nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. Jericho claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement, with beginnings dated some 11000 years ago.

‘Civilisation’ is another word loaded with overtones, though unlike ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ they are not pejorative: ‘civilised’ is the opposite of ‘barbaric’ – it denotes having all the cultural adjuncts that we esteem highly – education, art, music, literature, and a certain level of human behaviour implying decent treatment, hospitality and respect for others. Which should give us pause, since as our diagram shows, ‘civilisation’ is very much a Stone Age, Prehistoric invention.


‘Civilisation’ (in the strict sense of living in settlements supported by agriculture) is one of the earliest examples of what I have called ‘elective indispensables’ – things we manage perfectly well without till we invent them, then adapt our way of living to them so they seem indispensable. A look at surviving nomadic cultures – the Mongols, for example, or our own (sadly beleaguered) travelling folk – soon gives the lie to the notion that hospitality, decency and a good standard of life are the preserve of dwellers in cities; and where has there ever been squalor, degradation and dehumanisation on a par with that found in great cities down the ages and still today?

As for the notion that ‘Civilisation’ is interchangeable with ‘Culture‘ in its narrow sense of ‘those human achievements we value highly such as art, music, poetry’ – the diagram gives the lie to that, too – it is evident that all these things have their origin tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of years before civilisation came along.

But surely literature – as its very name suggests – belongs to the age of writing (and so of (later) civilisation)?

It is a point worth examining. While the discovery of ceramics was turned first to creative or aesthetic use, and only some thousands of years later to practical applications, the case of Writing is the opposite. It would appear to have come in as an adjunct of number, to enable lists to be made of the things that could be counted – such as the contents of warehouses and treasuries. It was also used for records, of reigns, battles etc., and the promulgation of laws. It took a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call literature.

Although there is a case to be made that the invention of writing marks the start of History, that is to suppose that History is merely record-keeping; however, it has a much wider sense, ‘the account that people give of who they are and where they came from’ and here it overlaps to a large extent with ‘Culture’, not in the narrow sense of ‘desirable attainments’ but the broader one of ‘the customs and traditions – the way of life – transmitted from one generation to the next.’

Look again at our diagram. The inference to be drawn from it is not that the people who lived in the time up to the blue line marked E had no sense of who they were or where they came from, but rather that they had a means of transmitting their Culture which had no need of Writing.

Which brings me at last to my somewhat controversial claim that the period up to the red line should be thought of as the Age of Integrated Expression, in contrast to what I have called the Age of Language.

My case is this: what we think of as ‘Language’ is not a continuum with its origin in the very beginnings of human time but actually a radical departure from that continuum, dating back some two and a half thousand years. The major obstacle to our seeing this is that ‘Language’ is, as it were, the lens through which we view the past: it colours how we think of it. (And a small evidence of this is seen in the effect of the words ‘Prehistoric’ ‘Stone Age‘ and ‘Civilisation’ noted above)

What characterises ‘Language’ and marks it off from what went before is its narrowness of focus: it is concerned exclusively with its written and spoken form, which interact yet are to some extent opposite (a point examined here ) Although Speech is far older and comes naturally to us, the dominant partner in this relationship is Writing, as can be seen from the great importance that we attach to formal grammar, standardised spelling and punctuation, all necessary adjuncts of writing (in fact, remedies for its inherent weaknesses) for which Speech has no need at all, though it now strives to conform to them – consider the notions of ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’.

(these are points I have discussed elsewhere here, here and here )

I would argue that the natural mode of human expression makes use indifferently of all the means we use to express ourselves – speech, certainly, but also facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement, rhythm, music, art, sculpture – a range that extends from our immediate selves out into our surroundings. I see no reason to suppose that Speech in particular was deemed any more important than the others: I think that is an illusion fostered by the disintegration which has taken place with the emergence of ‘Language’ which has seen Speech separated and simultaneously elevated in importance but subjugated to Writing, while the other modes are effectively conquered by division, being turned from natural human activities into areas of specialist skill: music, painting, sculpture, dance (and indeed literature).

This ‘Integrated Expression’, I would argue, is the natural vehicle of human culture, the means by which we transmitted our ideas of who we were and where we came from for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. If we were looking back at it through our ‘Language’ shaped lens, we would distinguish Dance and Ritual and Music and Storytelling and Poetry and Art, and doubtless see that they were associated with particular times of year (Solstices and Equinoxes, for instance) and certain places (painted caves, perhaps, or megalithic monuments – to say nothing of campfires). However, the key to grasping it is not separation and distinction but combination and likeness, synthesis rather than analysis – which is also the mechanism of metaphor, the key tool of this older way of thinking as reason and logic (both children of ‘Language’) are of the new.

And the hopeful conclusion is that, although the old way may have been superseded, it still goes on, albeit cloaked and disguised – indeed, a case might be made that all that is vigorous in our present culture stems from these ‘natural’ elements in their various guises – Music, Art, Poetry, Storytelling etc. – rather than from our present education system, chiefly designed as a means of transmitting literacy (and maintaining the ascendancy of the literate).

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