More thinking about thinking

As I remarked elsewhere, a lot of my own thinking might be described as ‘subvocalisation’, i.e. speaking without voicing the actual words. Even as I am typing this, I am constructing the sentences ‘in my head’ – though I would not say that I hear them: this is not someone else’s voice, it is mine, and though I do hear my own voice when I speak, I am stopping short of speaking here (though since I do occasionally break into actual speech, it is evidently the same process).

This stopping some way short of action might be a useful model for thought, and also offer an explanation of how it becomes progressively ‘internalized’ so that eventually it is considered a (purely) mental process.

Let us imagine a man who comes into clearing in a woodland. He considers the trees around him, then focuses his attention on a couple of them. These he examines in more detail – they resemble one another, each having branches of similar girth and shape. These branches he gives particular attention, eventually confining himself to just one of them, which he looks at from various angles, stroking it, following the sweep of it with his hand, and so on.

We would not have to watch him long before saying ‘this man has something in mind’ (though we might equally say, ‘he intends something’) and we would not be at all surprised to see him return later with tools to saw off the chosen branch and start to work it into some sort of shape.

So how much more is there to this than meets the eye? Is there an ‘interior’ process that accompanies the various gestures and movements, the looking and touching and so on, and does this constitute ‘what the man is (really) thinking’? And does that same process recur when the man is actually sawing off the branch, stripping it of its bark, etc?

We do, I think, feel less need of it in the second case – after all, the man is now actually doing something – we might even say ‘he is putting his thoughts into action’.

Take another example: a young woman looks at a climbing wall. Her eyes range over the whole of it, then begin to plot a particular path. Along with the direction of her gaze, her hands and feet rehearse certain movements, as if she is working out a sequence to go with the route her eyes are mapping out. What is the ‘accompanying internal process’ here?

Is there anything more to it than ‘looking with intent’, i.e. rehearsing the actions you intend to perform, but stopping short of performing them fully? (When a bowler in cricket goes through the action of bowling before he actually does so, or a golfer rehearses a stroke, what (if anything) is ‘going through his mind’?)

And what does ‘intent’ consist of? Need it involve visualising images or supplying a commentary of some sort on what you intend to do? We do not, after all, give ourselves instructions in this way when we perform an action, yet we clearly understand the difference between a deliberate, voluntary action and an involuntary one – even where the deliberate action is also instinctive (walking, running or catching, for instance).

Indeed, it occurs to me that in the days when I aspired to be a bowler, I found that the best results came when I focused my attention on the stump I wished to hit: it was as if by directing my gaze I was also directing my actions. I am also reminded that very young children just learning to walk will often seem to be ‘drawn’ by their gaze – they look at a target and totter-stumble towards it, arms outstretched, but always with their ‘eyes on the prize’.

The position I am moving towards is that what we consider ‘thinking’ might (in some cases) be better termed ‘willing’ or ‘intending’. The sort of ‘thinking in speech’ that I have described above as ‘subvocalisation’ is a special case in one sense that may mislead us – it has a content that we can identify and describe, namely words. In intending to speak (or as is the case now, write) words, it seems to me that I form those words ‘in my head’ just as if I were going to say them, only I do not say them. However, I am quite clear that I do not hear them spoken (I am listening to the football commentary on the radio at the moment, and that is quite different in kind to the parallel process of forming these words I am writing now).

What misleads here is that unspoken speech still has the recognisable form of speech, but we do not have a description for unperformed action; yet there must surely be an equivalent. I am loth to take the easy route of borrowing from information technology (which can mislead in its own way) but surely there is the equivalent of a program here? Must not all deliberate action be programmed, in the sense of having a set of instructions which our nerves transmit and our muscles execute, even if we have no conscious awareness of it? Is such a program not what presents itself to our consciousness as ‘the intention to do something’? So is it not likely that we rehearse our actions by running that program without executing it, and this is what thinking – in the sense of envisaging a future action – consists of?

Points worth pondering, at least.

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A penny for them…

‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking.’
– Eliot, The Waste Land

‘He’s the sort that you never know what he’s thinking’ defines a recognisable character but carries a curious implication. There is a strong suggestion of duplicity, of inner workings at odds with outer show. Even among long-time married couples you will sometimes hear it said (in exasperated tones) ‘all these years we’ve been married and I still have no idea what goes on in that head of yours’.

But that exasperated tone indicates the same curious implication of the first case – namely, that we expect to know what people are thinking; that not to know is what is considered remarkable, the exception that proves the rule. C.Auguste Dupin, a notable precursor of Sherlock Holmes created by Edgar Allan Poe, makes a striking demonstration of this in The Murders in the Rue Morgue:

‘One night we were walking down one of Paris’s long and dirty
streets. Both of us were busy with our thoughts. Neither had spoken
for perhaps fifteen minutes. It seemed as if we had each forgotten that
the other was there, at his side. I soon learned that Dupin had not
forgotten me, however. Suddenly he said:
“You’re right. He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and he would
be more successful if he acted in lighter, less serious plays.”
“Yes, there can be no doubt of that!” I said.
At first I saw nothing strange in this. Dupin had agreed with me,
with my own thoughts. This, of course, seemed to me quite natural.
For a few seconds I continued walking, and thinking; but suddenly
I realized that Dupin had agreed with something which was only a
thought. I had not spoken a single word.’

Dupin’s explanation of his apparent mind-reading runs to another page and three-quarters [you can read it here] and though something of a virtuoso performance, it is based on sound principles – Dupin observes his friend’s actions and expressions closely, and is able to follow his train of thought by skilful inference, both from what he sees, and what he already knows.

The incident starts when, in evading a hurrying fruit-selller, his companion stubs his toe on an ill-laid paving stone:

‘You spoke a few angry words to yourself, and continued walking. But you kept looking down, down at the cobblestones in the street, so I knew you were still thinking of stones.
“Then we came to a small street where they are putting down street stones which they have cut in a new and very special way. Here your face became brighter and I saw your lips move. I could not doubt that you were saying the word stereotomy, the name for this new way of cutting stones.’
‘Later I felt sure that you would look up to the sky. You did look up. Now I was certain that I had been following your thoughts as they had in fact come into your mind.’
‘I saw you smile, remembering that article and the hard words in it.
“Then I saw you stand straighter, as tall as you could make yourself. I was sure you were thinking of Chantilly’s size, and especially his height.’

Two things are worth noting here, I think. The first is Dupin’s attention to such things as the direction of his friend’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his whole bodily posture, all of which he reads as indicative of thought – I was going to say ‘accompaniments of thought’ but that would be the wrong word, I think, for reasons I will come to presently. The second thing is one particular detail – ‘I saw your lips move’ – and the observation the narrator makes at the end of the episode – ‘Dupin was right, as right as he could be. Those were in fact my thoughts, my unspoken thoughts’.

These highlight two important points about thought that are often overlooked: that it has a physical aspect, and that it is closely connected to speech. We use the expression ‘difficult to read’ of people like the man cited at the start, the ‘sort that you never know what he’s thinking’, and this reminds us that we do rely to a great extent on non-verbal physical indications of ‘mental’ activity.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider just how contrary to everyday experience is the notion that mental activity and thought are hidden, private processes that take place ‘in our heads’ so that only we ‘have access to them’. I put those expressions in quotes because I think they are misleading, in the same way that it is misleading to speak of facial expression etc. as ‘accompaniments’ to thought – I would say they are better considered as an integral part of thinking. We see this from the expression ‘I learned to hide my thoughts’ which is connected with controlling – indeed, suppressing – these external manifestations of thought.

The fact that we must make a conscious effort to conceal thought suggests that it is far from the ‘hidden process’ it is often supposed to be and calls into question the whole range of terms we use that suggest it is – such as the notion of thoughts being ‘in our head’ and our having ‘private access to them’ alluded to above. The implication there is that the head (or brain, or mind) is a sort of space in which our thoughts are stored (and where other mental activity takes place); furthermore, it is a private space, a sort of secret room to which we alone have access. (In this connection, consider the various fictional representations of telepathy and mind-reading, which often involve clutching the head, pressing the temples etc., either in an effort to keep its contents from being rifled, or in the attempt to pilfer them – thoughts are seen as something contained which can, by certain means, be extracted)

In St Ambrose’s day (c340-397) it was considered remarkable that he could read without moving his lips, from which we infer that most people then did so. I believe that this is now termed ‘subvocalisation’ and it appears to have been studied extensively in connection with reading but less so with thought. I am conscious that a great deal of my own thought consists of articulating sentences ‘in my head’ a process that I consider the same as speaking in all but the final act of voicing the words aloud (an interpretation supported by the fact that sometimes I do actually speak my thoughts aloud) – hence my interest in the expression Poe uses above, ‘my unspoken thoughts.’

It would be interesting to know whether the late Romans of St Ambrose’s day moved their lips when thinking, or indeed habitually spoke their thoughts aloud, openly or in an undertone. Even now, this is more common than we might suppose – people often blurt out their thoughts without meaning to, and most of us are familiar with the expression ‘did I just say that aloud?’ (and the feeling that accompanies it) when we say what might have been better kept to oneself. There are also people who have the habit of framing their thoughts as spoken questions, which can be disconcerting till you realise that they are not actually seeking an answer from you, personally: it is just another form of saying ‘I wonder if…’.

So it would seem that, just as we have we have learned for the most part to read without moving our lips, so we have also gradually shed (or learn to suppress) the more obvious physical manifestations of what we now consider ‘mental’ activities, such as thinking, imagining, remembering etc. though my guess (as with subvocalisation in relation to reading) is that there is probably still a fair bit that could be detected in muscle movement, brain activity and the like (though it would be an interesting experiment to see if these too – the brain activity in particular – can be controlled).

From the effort we must make to conceal thought, and our varying success in doing so, it is reasonable to infer that the ‘natural’ mode of thought is holistic, involving the body (at least) as much as the brain: consider, for instance, two rather different examples. One is the domestic cat, and how it is transformed on spying a bird that might be its prey or an intruder on its territory: its intentions can be read very clearly from its bodily posture and movement. The other is the recent emergence in sport – particularly at the highest level – of the practice of ‘visualisation’, which is rather more than simply picturing what you want to happen; it is a full-scale physical anticipation of it, typified by the rituals with which Jonny Wilkinson used to precede his kicking attempts in rugby.

It is interesting to set all this alongside the long-standing tradition in philosophy that regards mental activity as private, personal and inaccessible to others, which has led some to the extreme of solipsism, the doctrine that your own self is the only being you can confidently believe to exist. Much blame for this can be laid at the door of Descartes, often seen as the herald of the modern era in philosophy, though the mind-body dualism generally attributed to him can be dated back to Plato (much as his most noted dictum, cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – can be traced back to St Augustine a thousand years before). Descartes makes the classic error of supposing that because we are deceived in some cases, it is possible that we might be deceived in every case – overlooking the fact that such a state of affairs would render ‘being deceived’ and its allied concepts of mistake, illusion, hallucination and the like incomprehensible: if we were deceived in all things, we would not be aware of it; the fact that we have a word for it demonstrates that, in most cases, we are not deceived, and that we also recognise the special and generally temporary circumstances in which we are.

If we go back to Plato, I think we can find the real root of the notion that thoughts are private. It is bound up with what I consider the relocation of meaning that takes place around the time of Classical Greece, about 25 centuries ago, and is made possible by the invention of writing. Only once a word can be written on a page does it become possible to consider it apart from the milieu in which it naturally occurs, human activity involving speech. Such activity (what Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’ and ‘language games’) is the ultimate source of meaning (cp. Wittgenstein again, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’). Prior to the invention of writing, there was neither the means nor indeed any reason to consider speech apart from the larger activity of which it formed a part; indeed it is doubtful whether people would even have the concept of words as components of speech, which presents itself as a rhythmic flow, rather than a concatenation of smaller elements.

With writing, all that changes. For the first time, language can be studied and analysed at leisure. A sentence written on a page is comprehensible in itself, or so it appears, without reference to who wrote it or in what context. From this it is an easy step to the notion that meaning is an inherent property of words, rather than situations (what we overlook in this, of course, is that we are able to supply the context in which the words have meaning; but as such instances as the Phaistos Disc remind us, that ability can be lost, so that the marks we see have no more meaning for us than if they were random scratches made in  play).

Screenshot 2015-04-21 13.12.20

This relocation of meaning is fundamental to Plato’s Theory of Forms (or Ideas) in which he argues that the senses are deceived by the world of Appearance and that only the intellect can apprehend the true nature of Reality, the transcendent and immutable Forms. As I have argued elsewhere there is a strong case to be made that Platonic Ideas are in fact words – specifically, general and abstract terms – so the Platonic Ideas of ‘Cat’ ‘Table’ ‘Justice’ and ‘Good’ are the words cat, table, justice, good which stand for these ‘things’ (i.e. the general idea of ‘cat’, the abstract idea of ‘justice’) just as a specific name stands for the actual thing it denotes. (Though Plato pictures the words pointing to the transcendent Form or Idea, in actual fact the words themselves, allied to the use we make of them, are all that is needed)

It is this objectification of general and abstract ideas that leads to the notion of mental processes as private and inaccessible to others. We can point to something as an act of justice or goodness, but once we acquire the notion of justice as an idea, we introduce a new class of objects, those which can be apprehended only by the intellect. Strictly speaking, ‘object’ is used metaphorically here, but with Plato’s insistence that the Forms are the true Reality, this gets overlooked, and we start to think of thoughts, memories, ideas, impressions and the like as ‘mental objects’ that exist ‘in our minds’ or our ‘imaginations’ which we conceive as a kind of space, a sort of private viewing room.

The point to note here is that the metaphor preserves the Subject-Object relation, which is easily grasped in relation to physical objects – I know what it is to look at a tree, a cat or indeed another person: I am here and it is there. However, a degree of mystery seeps in when this is extended to ideas, thoughts and suchlike, particularly as philosophy develops the account it gives of them. Thus by Hume’s time we no longer simply see a tree: we form a mental impression of one, of which we can then make a copy, which he calls an idea – and this copy is what we use in remembering or imagining a tree, ‘calling it to mind’. This development clearly goes hand in hand with a growing understanding of light and optics and the physiology of the eye, but it is facilitated by having the notion of ‘mental space’ and regarding ideas as objects.

However, what is of most interest is how this alters our view of the Subject. From being a holistic notion which makes no distinction between mind and body – ‘I am this person looking at that tree’ – the subject begins to retreat in what becomes an infinite regress: the tree that we see out the window becomes a representation of a tree – to use Schopenhauer’s term, or the impression of a tree, to use Hume’s – which is now ‘in the mind’ but is still, somehow, seen. And if we have memory of that tree – an idea, to use Hume’s term – or the thought of a tree, or the mental image of one, then that, too, seems to be an object which we somehow apprehend – so the seeing, knowing or thinking subject – ourself – is forever edging out of the picture, never able – as subject – to become itself the object of consideration.

This is what leads the earlier Wittgenstein to suppose, in the Tractatus, that the subject is the boundary of experience, that it does not exist in the world but somehow outside or on the edge of it. Others have suggested that the Subject is a temporary manifestation generated (not unlike an electrical charge) by the combination of our brain and body and nervous system: it exists while we are alive (perhaps only when we are awake) and simply ceases when the physiology that generated it dies.

Yet all this, I would argue, is simply the result of philosophy’s having painted itself into a corner by adopting the way of thinking about the world that starts out with Plato. By dismissing the objects of sense as mere Appearance, and substituting the objects of intellectual apprehension as Reality, we reduce the Subject from an active participant in the world to a passive, detached observer: Wittgenstein’s boundary of experience. Reality is redefined as solely objective, and there is no room in it for the subject: ‘objectivity’ is praised while the subjective (often qualified by ‘merely’) is dismissed as unreliable, partial, mere ‘personal opinion’.

But let us step back, go back indeed to where we started, with Dupin, and the notion of thinking as a holistic activity which involves us as a totality, which is both physical and ‘mental’ (if indeed that distinction can be made at all). The view mentioned earlier, that the Subject (which can be identified with consciousness) is a kind of transitory by-product of our physiology seems to be supported by the latest developments in brain-imaging, which allow us to observe electrical activity in the neural networks of the brain: there is a correlation between certain activities and the part of the brain that ‘lights up’ when we are engaged in them. This has even led some to say that what brain imaging shows us are our actual thoughts – that all they are is these patterns of electric activity.

But I wonder. It has been demonstrated that people can lower their blood pressure aided by an index of it in the form of a display; likewise, people can be trained to suppress the physiological symptoms which polygraph tests – so-called ‘lie detectors’ – depend on for their evidence. It would be interesting to see if the lighting-up of neural networks is something that can be similarly controlled or disguised – for if we can learn to ‘hide our thoughts’ by controlling outward appearances, why should we suppose that we cannot do likewise with other physical manifestations of them, once we are aware of them?

It is illuminating to look at this from the other side: not only can we suppress or disguise the physical manifestations of thought, we can also imitate them – that is what actors do. And of course a standard acting technique is to have a store of memories that move us, which can be called to mind when the requisite emotion is called for – so if I wish to portray a character stricken by grief, I conjure a memory when I myself was grieved and my outward aspect will conform, much as does the player’s in Hamlet, who

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit
Wittgenstein asks somewhere how we know that we are imitating someone’s expression, and adds that it is not by studying our face in a mirror. Our response to a smile, from a very early age, is a smile; but we are not imitating what we see – after all, we do not know what our own face looks like. What guides us is rather the feeling that goes with the smile. The best way I can think to put this is that, as human beings, we know what an expression feels like from the inside.

And I would add a note of caution here: do not import the model of cause and effect that we use in analysing the objective world. The joy we feel within does not cause the smile; it is not prior to it – the two are aspects of the same thing. I am reminded of an expression I learned as a boy doing my catechism – ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. There are a range of things that we know, not through becoming acquainted with them, but by doing them, by being them. And although we speak of ‘seeing’ ‘hearing’ and the rest of the senses separately, we cannot actually turn them on and off, but do them all at once and all the time; what we vary is the attention we give each one, and for most of us, sight predominates. with hearing next and the rest a good way behind, except when they force themselves on our attention.

What we actually experience, unanalysed, is not simply ‘the world’ – that is only half the story; what we experience is ‘being in the world’. All experience has this dual aspect: we know it from the inside and the outside at the same time. That is what makes communication possible, what understanding, properly understood, consists of. It is what in art, in all its forms – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance – enables us to ‘get it’: by considering the outward sign, we experience what it is like from inside, we recognise the feeling it expresses as something we, too, have felt.

The clever model that Plato and Aristotle invented, that underpins all Western thought, has enabled us to achieve remarkable things, but only at the considerable expense of ignoring one half of our experience and pretending that it does not matter.

Perhaps what Descartes should have said is not cogito ergo sum, nor even sum ergo sum (since it is not something we know by deduction) but simply sum – I am.

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Who’s got the idea?


Suppose you catch me at my usual philosophical musing, mooning about and muttering to myself. I chance to say aloud, ‘I wonder when people first developed the idea of language?’ Being a practical sort, you say ‘Come with me. I happen to have brought a time machine and no end of wizard gadgetry, so we can go and have a look.’

In less time than it takes to get there (because we are going backwards, of course) we are hovering, cloaked in invisibility, over the grassy plains of Africa. The dial says it is about 200,000 years ago and here is a group of Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors, all talking away.

You observe them for a time with your gadgets, making notes and taking measurements, and then say, ‘Well, these are not just grunts associated with exertion, or cries of alarm or excitement. There is rhythm and pattern there, and a clear sense of exchange, of going to-and-fro. This certainly looks like conversation, and if I feed the results into my analyser, I’m sure we’ll be able to say a bit about the grammatical rules they’re following and probably have a crack at the syntax and maybe even define a few of the words in their vocabulary. So I think you can say with some confidence that these ancestors of ours have the idea of language.’

But I am not so sure. I think that what you have demonstrated is that you have the idea of language. You are the one who has turned up with, so to speak, an annotated diagram, and been able to look at this new thing to see the points of resemblance it has and conclude that it belongs to the same class as other things you call ‘language’. You are the one who has brought his box already divided into labelled compartments, into which you can put the bits you call ‘grammar’ ‘syntax’ and ‘vocabulary’. And till these chaps on the plain start doing the same thing, then I do not think you can say they have the idea of language: they may talk, though I think if you take off your spectacles of preconception, you will see that they do a great deal else – facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement; only you haven’t come equipped with the box to put those in.

Having the idea of something consists precisely of being able to do this kind of thing – identification, classification, analysis – in short, fitting in to a pre-existing scheme (and having that scheme to start with). It’s the sort of scheme we can carry about ‘in our heads’ but don’t be fooled into thinking that any special merit attaches to this as a mental activity: that division is not important. We can think aloud, give voice to our words, or even think with a pen and paper, drawing diagrams and writing words. It just so happens that we have also learned the trick of forming words without speaking them aloud, and that is what we do, mostly, because it is convenient.

You might want to say that you are finding something that is there though the speakers are unaware of it – that their language is the first instance of the idea of language, which is something that transcends time and space, of which all our specific languages are mere instances – and that would be rather Platonic of you.

Which is why I would suggest that if you want to find when and where people first had the idea of language – indeed, the idea of ideas – you should set your time machine forward from the plains of Africa and head for classical Greece about two and a half thousand years ago, there to eavesdrop on Plato and his pupil, Aristotle.

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The trees they grow high, the leaves they do grow green: out on a limb with Schopenhauer

10446266_10152497452088603_5642669257220306397_oWell now. Suppose a leaf comes to consciousness. Does it say, ‘I am a leaf’?

Looking around, does it say ‘I am one leaf among many’?

Does it reflect on the fact that the lot of a leaf is to flourish briefly, wither and die, while the tree just keeps on growing, putting out more leaves, generation after generation?

Does it think, ‘what a cruel irony to be conscious of being a small part of an otherwise blind and unconscious process’ ?

That, in effect, is Schopenhauer’s position: looking outward, I see the world, the objective world, as it is presented to me by my senses; looking inward, I know my will, my subjective self, and recognise it not as an individual, separate will but as a single tendril, as it were, of the blind will of the world to exist; hence the title of his major work, the world as will and representation.

But why should the leaf consider itself unique in being conscious? (it does not matter if it is a solipsistic leaf which supposes itself the sole conscious leaf on the tree, or one that consider all leaves to be similarly conscious)

Why should it not suppose that, rather than being so singularly endowed, the consciousness it has might be shared by the tree?

Indeed, might it not be wiser to suppose that, rather than thinking of the tree as sharing its consciousness, it would be better (and certainly humbler) to suppose that it had a share of the tree’s consciousness, and that in accordance with its capacity as a leaf, which in all probability is only a fraction of the tree’s?

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The Real Enemies of the People

‘This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill

Results of the EU Referendum:

Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%)
Total Electorate: 46,500,001
Turnout: 72.2%
Rejected Ballots: 25,359

Given that this is a consultative exercise, ‘which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions’ what inferences can be safely drawn from the result regarding the opinion voiced by the electorate, and how should policy be guided by them?

First, the bare facts are these:

a minority of the electorate – 37.5 % – favour leaving the EU;
a smaller minority – 34.7% – favour remaining;
a considerable majority – 62.5% – did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted to remain plus those who did not vote)

What inferences can be drawn from this, with regard to influencing policy?

  1. The clearest inference is that the electorate does not speak with a single voice on this matter; on the contrary, it is deeply divided – the 52/48% split among those who voted reflects this.
  2. There is not an overall majority of the electorate in favour of leaving.
  3. No inference can be safely drawn about the views of those who did not vote; however, in the context of a decision that will affect the entire country, the fact of their number – 12.9 million – cannot be ignored.

Beyond these immediate inferences, some wider conclusions can be drawn. From inference (1) above, it is clear that there is no warrant for talking in terms of the ‘express will of the British people’. It is not only the voices of the 17.4 million who voted to leave that must be heeded, but also the 16.1 who voted to remain and the 12.9 million who did not vote, for whatever reason. This is not a game show where the winner takes all: it is an instrument for shaping policy for the entire country.

It is evident that some of those who voted may have been under the misapprehension that the result of the referendum would be legally binding. However, anyone who had sufficient interest or was obliged by their position to inform themselves and others about the issue could have been in no doubt that the type and purpose of the referendum was as clearly stated in the Commons Briefing paper quoted at the head of this article, which was published on 3 June 2015 and freely available.

A numerous group of people including all MPs and parliamentarians, News Editors, political journalists and public commentators had either a sworn duty or a serious responsibility to acquaint themselves with the content of Commons Briefing Paper 7212 and therefore to know that the referendum was consultative and not legally binding.

It follows that anyone in that group who implied otherwise, by action or inaction, acted reprehensibly, mischievously, dishonestly and irresponsibly.

Much blame must attach to the previous Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, whose conduct in this matter can only be described as reckless and irresponsible throughout, since he repeatedly used a matter of grave import to the whole country as a party-political tool.

His initial inclusion of the referendum as a manifesto promise appears to have been intended primarily to stem the haemorrhaging of Tory support to UKIP and there are strong grounds for supposing that he did not expect to have to implement it, since he did not think he would be elected outright and would be required to jettison it as part of any coalition deal.

His failure on taking office to make clear the status of the referendum is reprehensible and negligent. He then aggravated matters by embarking on a process of renegotiation with the EU prior to the referendum. This was completely wrong-headed and appears once more to have been motivated by his own political situation. It is evident that he hoped to use the threat of the UK’s possibly voting to leave as a means of pressing the EU for concessions which he hoped would sway the referendum outcome in his favour, i.e. a vote to remain.

However, since the express purpose of the referendum was ‘consultative, [to enable] the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions’ it is clear that its proper use should have been to form the basis of any renegotiation of membership – that is the very policy which it was intended to influence.

Had the actual result (i.e. a vote in favour of leaving) been put to its proper use, the Prime Minister would presently be engaged in renegotiation of our membership (and reform of the EU as a whole) in good faith but with a strong hand since the option of leaving would remain a possibility if the results were not to our satisfaction. It is hard to see that this would not be better, from everyone’s point of view – leavers and remainers alike – than the situation we now find ourselves in, having closed down our options and effectively resigned all influence by a premature (and unnecessary) commitment to leave.

For that, Mrs May is to blame. Mr Cameron’s abrupt departure (his final irresponsible act) may have pitched her into a situation that was more febrile than it need have been but she came in with a clean slate. The opportunity was there for her to show leadership but she has failed to take it.

She has never challenged what she knows to be the mistaken assumption that the referendum result commits the government to leave the EU. She could have done so and defied contradiction since every other MP, parliamentarian, News Editor and political journalist knows it as well as she. Instead she has confirmed the error by her frequent reiteration of the idiotic mantra ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and aggravated it by challenging the High Court’s decision that sovereignty of parliament cannot be circumvented in this matter – something which she and all these others know very well.

It should not have been left to the courage of a private citizen to have the courts reaffirm what every parliamentarian not only knows, but has a duty to uphold, namely the sovereignty of parliament. They should have been foremost in asserting it, not shying away and attempting to deny it.

The response of certain newspapers to the Court ruling was disgraceful. The fact that we expect little better from the British press does not exonerate the editors from blame. They know that they have been instrumental, from the outset, in encouraging their readers in the false belief that the referendum binds the government to a course of action, whereas – as they know perfectly well – ‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented.’

We are now in the ridiculous and entirely avoidable situation where a large minority of the populace believe erroneously that they have been given (or won by their vote) the right to compel the government to do their will and take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. This misapprehension has now been suffered to continue uncorrected so long, and indeed been reinforced by the ill-judged actions of such a number of people, that any attempt to remedy it will probably result in considerable civil strife and violence, since it will be seen as the ‘Establishment’ attempting to thwart the will of the people and deprive them of what is rightfully theirs.

Who is going to have the courage to stand up and state the facts, and defy anyone to contradict them?

Here they are, once more:

The referendum was consultative and did not bind the government to any course of action.
It was intended to ascertain the voice of the people, in order to influence policy. It is evident from the result that the people have not spoken with a single voice and do not have a settled will in this matter. The nation is divided. There is no majority in favour of leaving the EU. A large minority wish to do so; a similar but slightly smaller minority wish to remain. A further group, nearly 13 million people, did not express a view. The majority of the electorate did not vote in favour of leaving.

The situation, though dire, is not irrecoverable. Probably the most honest course would be to admit that almost everyone concerned, across all parties and on both sides of the debate, has created an unnecessary and dangerous mess, call a general election, and let the people decide.

In the meantime, there is an onus on those who have contributed to the creation of this dangerous situation to do their best to defuse it, by speaking calmly and honestly and confining themselves to the facts. A collective act of contrition on their part would be a good beginning. They have deceived the people and endangered the country.

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The Games We Play

Things we do early are of great interest. Where we show a natural propensity to do something – if we seem, so to speak, programmed to do it – the inference is that the behaviour is both ancient (to have become so ingrained) and important (to have persisted so long). The obvious example here is speech, though I think ‘expression’ would be a more accurate description of that instinct.

A less obvious one is playing games. Not all play amounts to a game, but there is a large area of overlap; the game, if you like, is the complete expression of play. We shall come to a definition of ‘game’ presently.

There is a considerable obstacle to seeing game-playing as an activity of fundamental importance: though tolerated, even encouraged to some degree in children, in adult life it is permitted only as ‘recreation or sport’. Notwithstanding the fact that it can be pursued professionally (and there it is a form of entertainment for a mass audience) – it is regarded as essentially pointless, frivolous, unserious. In adult form it tends to be codified and regulated and exhibits great variety, from field sports such as the various forms of football, cricket and golf to board games such as chess and draughts and nowadays that interesting development, computer games.

(Indeed, such is the variety of the things we call ‘games’ that Wittgenstein doubted if they were capable of a common definition in terms of characteristics which they all shared, and suggested instead that they might resemble one another as members of a family do, some alike in this respect, others in that; a gentle grenade lobbed into an apple-cart that philosophers had been trundling since Aristotle’s day, the notion that whatever had the same name shared the same essence or set of defining characteristics that made it what it was and distinguished it from what it was not; but that is by the way)

I think that games are at their most interesting and revealing in their primitive form, when they are nearest to being a natural, instinctive behaviour, and there I think we can identify common characteristics, not so much in the content of the game as in the behaviour it involves.

Although games are regarded as frivolous, idle, fundamentally unserious, ‘just for fun’, the most striking thing about children is how seriously they play: what they do is done in earnest, and adults who join in but do not show the appropriate commitment will be reproved for ‘not playing properly.’

This earnestness shows chiefly in the degree of absorption in the activity: the child will be described as ‘in a world of his own’ ‘lost in the game’ and so on. The utter solemnity with which children conduct themselves in play can strike adults as amusing (though it can also wring the heart) and it is worth asking why that should be so. The answers are often given in terms of a contrast with ‘real life’ – the child can (briefly) enjoy the pleasures of play, but all too soon he will learn that ‘life isn’t like that’ and the time will come, as St Paul has it, ‘to put away childish things’.

We will come back to the relation between the world of play and ‘real life’ presently. In the meantime, I would like to consider what I think are three fundamental characteristics of playing games as a natural or instinctive activity. All three are related, and could indeed be seen as different aspects of the same thing, but I will separate them for ease of consideration.

One is that the game occupies its own space, not just physically, but as a plane of existence. There may well be actual boundaries – ‘a field of play’, if you like – but these are the embodiment of an idea, the idea that ‘in the game’ identifies a space or plane of existence where things happen differently than outside  or ‘not in the game’.

Within this space, objects and actions are invested with a significance which they do not have elsewhere. For instance, when children play indoors, they will often commandeer the furniture to play some part in their game: a line of kitchen chairs can be a train, for instance; the space under the table, a cave; a rug can be a raft on the carpet sea, an armchair a ship, and so on. The child is perfectly able to distinguish between what any of these objects is in itself and what it is ‘in the game’ – there is no confusion or delusion, a point to which we shall return.

The final feature, alongside having its own space and investing objects or actions in that space with significance, is the idea of giving oneself a rule to follow. The game consists in doing things in a particular way. The thing to grasp here is that this rule is self-imposed, which is a kind of paradox: you are free to do it any way you like, but you act as if you have to do it this particular way. There is no concept of cheating in this primitive stage, for the simple reason that the game is to follow the rule; ‘winning’ (insofar as the concept can be applied) is following the rule successfully; not following the rule is, literally, ‘not playing the game’. (Again, adults who join in and make a false move will be told ‘you can’t do that’).

Trying but failing to follow the rule may be attended by penalties, but again these are self-imposed, and operate ‘in the game’. So, bears will eat you if you step on the cracks in the pavement; if you fall in the carpet  sea, or down the chasm that you were trying to leap across, you will die – but only in the game; and in the game you may have several lives, which permit you to start again. (If the rule proves either to difficult or to easy, it will be adjusted, which again shows an implicit understanding of the dual worlds of ‘in the game’  and outside it, and the dual role that implies – the child is both the game-maker and the game player.)

The language that is used is interesting. In the case of a game that evolves spontaneously, a group of children may be milling around, each doing his own thing, but as their activities begin to converge, someone might say ‘let’s make it that you have to -‘ and will add some activity that then becomes the game. ‘Let’s make it’ casts the players in the role of legislators, defining what has to be done; ‘that you have to’ brings out the sense of agreeing to be bound by the self-imposed rule.

‘Acting as if’ goes to the heart of playing games and it is a concept worth examining in detail because it sheds light on our curious reluctance to accept this ancient instinctive behaviour as serious and important, our insistence on classing it as frivolous.

The adult observer of a child at play may say things like ‘it’s as if she’s in another world’ or ‘it’s as if he really believes he’s driving a bus – he’ll talk to the passengers, take their fares, then drive off to the next stop.’ We may picture the child as being assisted in this by various props – the sofa may be the bus, with the driver’s seat a kitchen chair at one end; the passengers might be various toys.

‘As if’ carries an implication of pretence, that what is deemed to be happening is not actually happening, is not real. it is worth examining the viewpoints involved in this, though it can become difficult, because we may find language working against us.

The first thing to say is that the judgement about what is real matters much more to the adult than it does to the child. Some adults worry themselves quite seriously about the status of ‘imaginary friends’ because they seem so vivid to their child; they may engage in conversations to lead them to the view that Mr Wotsit ‘isn’t really there (like mummy and Daddy are’ that he is ‘just pretend’ and ‘just in the game’ – to which the child will probably assent quite happily, if only to reassure their anxious parent.

Play does not involve delusion – believing something to be other than it is – and I think the difference is easily demonstrated; but the root of the problem is that the adult’s conceptual framework lacks the flexibility to describe the child’s behaviour accurately.

If we consider the theatre – one area where ‘make believe’ is allowed in adult life – at no time in the performance of Hamlet does the audience actually believe itself to be in the royal court of Denmark, nor that David Tennant (or better still Maxine Peake) has ceased to exist and has become, for the time, the eponymous melancholy Dane; nor for that matter does Peake or Tennant think this either. Notwithstanding, people will say things like ‘Maxine Peake is Hamlet’ and ‘for three hours, we were transported to Elsinore’ – but these are just attempts to express the power of the performance,  not factual descriptions.

There is a type of confidence trick that employs a similar set up to the theatre – there is a set to be dressed (perhaps a vacant country house) a cast of players (in character, perhaps in costume) and action (a party, perhaps, where the rich and famous discuss matters of high finance and good investments). The difference is that (for the con to work) the intended audience – the ‘mark’ – must take what he sees at face value, must believe it genuine; in other words, he must be deluded, in a way that the theatre audience is not.

It is worth examining the two different kinds of belief  we encounter here. There is ‘believing something to be the case’ which we encounter in the con: the mark believes the party etc. to be genuine, while in reality it is a set-up. That defines ‘delusion’ – believing something to be other than it is.

But the child does not believe himself to be a bus-driver in this sense, nor his toys to be passengers, any more than David Tennant or Maxine Peake believe themselves to be Hamlet. People will talk of ‘belief’ and ‘believing’ here, but it is in a subtly different sense.

Wittgenstein somewhere observes, in discussing scepticism, that if you want to know what a man believes, you should observe what he does, rather than heed what he says – he may profess doubt as to the reality of the world of appearance, yet he will still sit in chairs without a qualm,  cross floors without fear of plummeting into some abyss, go through doors in the expectation of finding himself in the next room and so on; in other words, he behaves as if the world exists, even if he claims to doubt it.

‘Behaving as if’ is at the heart of play whether it is playing Hamlet or playing at being a bus driver. It is the sincerity of Maxine Peake’s performance that brings Hamlet to life, just as it is the earnestness of the child’s play that makes the adult say ‘he really believes he’s a bus-driver.’ Peake’s performance is done with conscious skill, though I think it draws on the same natural instinct that the child demonstrates; the one is a studied and refined version of the other. It is worth considering them side by side.

As I have remarked elsewhere, there is a deep-rooted ambivalence in our attitude to Art in almost all its forms, illustrated by our use of the same language to describe telling stories and telling lies. Art seems indistinguishable from lying, since both involve representing something as other than it is. It is a problem that has troubled philosophers since Plato’s day; and indeed it surfaces in Hamlet, in respect of the counterfeiting of emotions that acting seems to involve:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

No-one would accuse the child of insincerity or counterfeiting when he is playing at being a bus-driver, yet the same child may well counterfeit emotions if he thinks he can get his own way by it, so the distinction exists even at that level – and it shows our confusion that such behaviour  – crying to get sweets, say – may well be described by the parent as ‘just play-acting,’ meaning that it is insincere.

How is this puzzle to be resolved?

I think we need to consider two things that we have already touched on: our notion of being ‘in the game’, that the game is on a separate plane of existence, and the nature of belief. In the theatre, as in the bus-driver game, the planes of existence are separate and distinct. What happens on the stage, with the actors in costume, may occupy the same space as the set and messrs Tennant or Peake and the rest of the cast inside their costumes, but the action of Hamlet is understood to happen in Elsinore and to involve Hamlet, Horatio and the rest, not the actors who play them. Likewise the bus-game occupies the same space as the living room furniture, but in a different plane, where the sofa is a bus and the assortment of soft toys are passengers.

The con, on the other hand, whether it is counterfeit tears for sweets or a grand scam involving a dressed set and a cast of players, succeeds when it is thought to be taking place in the same plane as the observer: i.e. he thinks this is an actual country house party, that this is genuine grief and real tears.

There is an implication here that is not immediately obvious but is profoundly important: the planes of existence are equal. Whether they are equally real or equally fictitious is unimportant, no more than a manner of speaking. To put it another way: there is not one game being played here, but two; but one of the games – ‘the game of Real Life’ – is accorded special status. If you want to be the only game in town, you dissociate yourself from all the rest and either ban them or banish them to some lowly status. So it is part of the Game of Life that it is not regarded as a game, and that the concepts of ‘being real’ and ‘existing’ are restricted exclusively to it and are not allowed in any other game.

So the ‘bus’ is really a sofa, the ‘passengers’ are really soft toys and the ‘bus-driver’ is really a wee boy called Hamish who is nearly 3. It is at this point that Language becomes a serious obstacle, for the good reason that Language is instrumental in giving the Game of Life its special status. However, let us make the attempt.

The argument I am trying to construct can be illustrated again with reference to Hamlet, where there is at one point a play within the play. In regarding Hamish at his bus-driver game, we think ourselves like the audience in the theatre, and his game the action on stage; but I am saying that we are actually the players on stage, and his game the play within the play. The question then becomes what is the third thing, the reality in which these two games are played, the equivalent (in our illustration) of the theatre?

We can come at it by an oblique route. As I have discussed elsewhere, the distinction we customarily make between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ is that favourite term of the philosophy student, a false dichotomy. Most of what we consider ‘real’ are works of the imagination. If you look around you, how much do you see that does not owe its existence to having passed through the human imagination? I can see trees and a hill that might be exempted, though the trees are still where someone chose to put them (and may even have been bred by some human effort) while the hill has certainly been shaped by human thought. But the houses, indeed the whole city in between, with its infrastructure of roads and railways, watersupply and drains, all that – real as it is – was first an idea in some human mind.

The succinct way of putting this is that you can have the plans without the house, but not the house without the plans. What we call ‘reality’ is in most cases a degree of embodiment: the architect’s vision, the detailed plans he draws and the completed building are different versions of the same thing.

We have imposed our imagination on this planet to an extraordinary degree: quite apart from the physical embodiment of our ideas in various forms, there is the map we have overlaid on the planet, dividing it into various territories, and within those territories a highly complex structure of custom, law, industry and so on. While the general inclination might be to suppose that the child playing with model figures on the landscape of the floor is imitating these larger entities – ‘the real world’ – I would suggest that the reverse is nearer the truth: the great world we have built around us is a development of the same imaginary powers that have their first expression in creating other worlds on the floor, in the living room or in the garden. The difference is in scale and degree of realisation, not in kind.

The ‘third thing’, our actual situation, the default position if you like, is immediate experience. Again, language is an obstacle here, because it mediates experience, interposing a picture of objective reality and ourselves as detached observers who exist in that world objectively, as individuals. But our immediate experience is subjective and involved: we find ourselves here (wherever ‘here’ is and whatever ‘ourselves’ are) and the rest is invention – a word which, neatly, can mean both ‘making what was not there before’ and ‘discovering’.

On the matter of belief, we need to distinguish between the common but rather narrow sense of ‘believing something to be the case’ and the wider sense of ‘having confidence or trust in’. The injunction ‘do it with belief‘ (which we hear as advice to performers of various sorts – singers, actors, even footballers) relates to the second kind of belief, not the first. To do it ‘as if you really believe in it’ is not an injunction to counterfeiting and hypocrisy, which it seems to be if we understand ‘belief’ in the first sense, since ‘as if’ implies that we do not actually believe it to be the case; rather it is to do it seriously and earnestly, to recapture the commitment of the child to his game, to do it properly, as if it matters.

And that is the secret: by doing it as if it matters, we make it matter: we invest it with importance and meaning. Ritual has no intrinsic value or meaning; that is conferred on it by our performing it meaningfully, seriously, as if it matters.

This sheds an interesting sidelight on Existentialism,  which was first explained to me in Sixth Year, when we were reading Camus’ L’Etranger: ‘Life has no meaning save what we bring to it,’we were told. It seemed to me then a grim and depressing philosophy; now I find it a hopeful one. I still think L’Etranger a bit grim, but Beckett makes me laugh and gives me hope. I rather like the idea that our participation is necessary to give life meaning, that we invest life with meaning by living it earnestly, wholeheartedly, as if it matters – by becoming, indeed, like little children.





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An Age without a Name, 2: Progress or Digression?

Myths are stories we tell to explain how we see ourselves and our place in the world. One of the dominant myths of the current age is that of progress, which sees the human story as one of continual improvement over time, with that tendency accelerating in recent centuries, particularly the last. (It is worth reminding ourselves that technically ‘progress’ is a neutral descriptive term: it simply means to go forward, or go on; and since that is something we have little choice but to do, you could argue that the positive charge we have given ‘progress’ is a case of making a virtue of necessity).

An illustration of human progress might look like this, presented in the style of a contour profile:

DSCF5149 (1)

C is the beginning of history, which starts with the possibility of written records, some 5,500 years ago – a date that is much the same as our invention of metallurgy. D is the start of the Classical Period in Greece, some 2,500 years ago. The dip about a thousand years later is the Fall of Rome, the beginning of the Dark Ages, though the dotted line reminds us that the Dark Ages were a local phenomenon – the level of civilisation attained in Classical Greece continued in the Eastern Roman Empire and was maintained by the Golden Age of Islam, while Western Europe was in the darkness of ignorance.

Point No.1 at the right is the beginning of the agrarian revolution some three centuries ago, driven very much by notions of ‘improvement’ in agriculture, land management and animal husbandry as age-old practices were superseded by a modern, rational approach born of the Enlightenment.

Point No. 2, some two centuries ago, is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which transformed society, starting in Britain and Western Europe, and spreading worldwide.

Point No.3 is simply the start of the twentieth century, which has eclipsed all others in terms of technical progress and has largely shaped what we consider the modern world. The gradient here should undoubtedly be much steeper: a century that started without heavier-than-air flight, with much sea-cargo still carried by sail, with few motor cars and newspapers the medium of mass communication, cinema and telephone communication in their infancy and gaslighting the norm, has transformed into the extraordinary world of space travel, nuclear power, the world-wide web, social media, mobile phones and all the rest.

Only the right-hand end of my diagram sounds an ominous note, one touched on in the previous article on the Anthropocene, namely the fear that we may be headed for disaster, a precipitous fall as human impact on the environment – particularly biodiversity and climate change – threatens not only our way of life, but all life on the planet.

This is where the limitations of diagrams like the one above become evident: what is the alternative to continued upward progress? The problem is that even to slacken the rate of ascent looks like abandoning the course that has taken us so far so rapidly; to flatten out looks like stagnation, and anything else is pessimistic decline.

Perhaps the time has come to try another map. I would suggest this one:


Version 2

The first thing to note is that the scale here is very different: the span from left to right is 60,000 years. The second thing is that this is not a contour profile, but an aerial plan, much like a conventional map. The blue line is human progress; the green line running parallel to it is the generality of life on earth.

Point B, some 10,000 years ago, is the beginning of a significant divergence between the two lines: it marks the point where we began to live in a new way, in fixed settlements supported by agriculture, instead of the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life we had followed since the dawn of humanity. This is the beginning of civilisation, and has been suggested as a suitable start for the Anthropocene, the Epoch of Human influence, that was the subject of the previous article. Yet it is worth recalling that we are still in prehistoric times and indeed the Stone Age – we have to get to point C, which also appears on the first diagram, to arrive at the invention of writing – and so the beginning of history – and the discovery of metallurgy, between five and six thousand years ago.

Point D also appears on the first diagram: it marks the start of the classical period in Greece, the point in time when the invention of writing really began to have an impact on human expression. For the first few millennia it has been a useful method of storage, akin to the dehydration of food: it allows unmemorable but useful information to be preserved. Its role in the transmission of culture – all the things people regard as sufficiently important to pass on to succeeding generations – is minimal. It takes about a thousand years from its first invention for anyone to use writing for something that we might call literature.

This tardiness in realising its potential in this respect can best be understood with reference to the point marked A, some 40,000 years ago. This is the date of some cave-paintings, sculpture and musical instruments that we have discovered. It does not, of course, mark a beginning, but rather a continuity – we have every reason to suppose that the aesthetic impulse, the human urge to give external expression to our feelings, dates much further back than that – singing, dancing, storytelling leave no lasting mark on the environment, but we know that, even today, they are human activities strongly associated with gathering round a fire – and current estimates suggest that the controlled use of fire by humankind dates back at least 400,000 years.

The implication of this is that we had evolved distinctive means of transmitting our culture effectively, that did not involve writing but did involve aesthetic expression,  by 40,000 years ago and quite probably ten times longer ago than that. The continuance of our race in itself attests that humans were able to transmit their culture effectively for tens and indeed hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of writing; and the practice of cave-painting seems to have died out about 10,000 years ago, though it survived later in some places. In other words, we were cave painters for two or even three times as long as we consider ourselves to have been civilised. And of course all these means – art, music, poetry, storytelling, dance, theatre – still play a central role in transmitting culture even today – they have never died out, though the conditions under which they operate have altered drastically.

Where that alteration begins is shown on the second diagram at D, which marks the point where we began thinking and looking at the world in a different way. That is why I have shown it as a right-angle digression from the course which we had followed from time immemorial, a course that till the advent of civilisation some ten thousand years ago, ran in parallel and in harmony with the rest of life on Earth. That is a supposition, but an entirely reasonable one: we are one among many forms of life on earth, and for most of our time here, we have lived interdependently with nature, relying on its bounty for survival, but also conforming our way of life to its demands, just as every other form of life on Earth has had to do.

I would argue that, rather than adopting the idea of the Anthropocene discussed in the previous article – which finds evidence of human influence in the environment – we should look instead at the points where we ourselves changed our relationship, our attitude, to the environment. While the first of these is arguably our adoption of agriculture, of far greater significance is the change that began some two and a half thousand years ago in Classical Greece. I would say that is the beginning of the Age of Language, which I would contrast with the preceding Age of Expression, which stretches back to the beginning of humanity.

I maintain that Language as we know it, and the way of thinking it makes possible, is of relatively recent origin, the accidental result of the invention of writing and its impact on human expression generally and on speech in particular. That impact could be described as the disintegration of expression and the isolation and elevation of speech to an eminence it had not previously enjoyed.

Prior to the invention of writing, I would argue that human expression was broader in range and integral in character – speech was one mode among many, not the most important, and it was not regarded as distinct from facial expression, gesture, and bodily posture as immediate physical modes of expression, nor were these distinguished from more developed modes of expression such as song, dance, music, painting, sculpture, storytelling, poetry or ritual behaviour combining all or any of these. Where the Age of Language – our current age – is characterised by the intellectual apprehension of the world through the medium of language, specifically words, and could be described as rational, objective and detached; in the former Age, of Expression, people responded to the world made known by the senses through their feelings, which found expression in the range of modes noted above; it could be described as intuitive, subjective and emotionally engaged.

One way to put this is to say that Writing pulls down the edifice of Expression that has stood since time immemorial, but drags Speech out of the wreckage, and the two set up in a new (but unequal) relation (a notion examined here in fable form: Plucked from the Chorus line).

I will lay out the detail of how this revolution was effected in a third article, and will also discuss the different principles or mechanisms by which thought operated in the Age of Expression and our current Age of Language. For the present, I would like to conclude by explaining how I can presume to make claims about how people thought in a different age of the world. My case rests wholly on what is demonstrated by point A on the diagram above, namely the great age of the aesthetic impulse, which is not merely ancient, but primal – and still very much survives.

A key aspect of my theory is that although Language and the characteristic way of thought that goes with it dominate our Age, they do so much as a conquering power rules a country it has colonised: though the old regime is overthrown, and the new one brings in new laws and customs, the old way of doing things does not disappear, but persists in new guises, often in the face of official disapproval, and subject to official control and authority. Everything that we now term Art, in its broadest sense – not simply painting and sculpture, but music, dance, theatre, poetry, storytelling – is a survival of the Age of Expression and works on the same intuitive, subjective and feelings-based principles. These two elements are in tension because one (Language, Reason) claims the whole territory of thought and judgement for itself, yet the other – Art – seems better able to express what people feel is most important to them.

(it might be thought that I am here rehashing CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument, but although there are superficial similarities, the differences are profound and fundamental. Snow’s argument is essentially one about the content of English education – put crudely, that it gives too much weight to the Humanities, in particular, the Classics, over the Sciences; he cites other systems (e.g. the German) that have a better balance. The argument that I am putting forward here is not about the content but the basis of Education (by which I mean all ‘Western’ Education) – namely that it is, fundamentally, Platonic – by which I mean that it disparages the senses, devalues feelings and vaunts the intellect and language as affording the only ‘correct’ perspective of the world – in effect, substituting an intellectual construct for the Reality that we all experience)

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