Why Writing is like a Playtex Bra

‘It lifts and separates’ is a slogan that will be familiar to those of my generation – it was advertised as the chief virtue of the Playtex ‘cross-your-heart’ Bra. However, it also serves as a memorable illustration of my theory concerning the origin of what we think of as Language.

The conventional account presents Language, as we have it now, as evolved speech, i.e. its origins go back to our first utterance, with the acquisition of a written form for transcribing it a logical development that occurs in due course – around five thousand years ago – but only after speech has held sway as the primary means of human communication for a couple of hundred thousand years.

However, I think that is not what happened; in particular, the notion that speech was the original and primary means of human communication, occupying a position analogous to what we call Language (both spoken and written) today, is an erroneous backwards projection, based on the status that speech only now enjoys.

The conventional account could be summed up briefly thus: ‘First, we learned to speak, and that is what made us human and marked us out as special; then we learned to write down what we said in order to give it permanent form, and that enabled us to store the knowledge and wisdom which has enabled us to achieve our present pre-eminence.’

However, there are good reasons to suppose that the eminence currently enjoyed by speech actually results from the invention of writing and its impact on human expression – what I would call the Playtex Moment, because the effect of that impact was to lift speech above the rest of human expression, and separate it.

Prior to the invention of writing, and indeed for a good time after it, since its impact was far from immediate, speech was, I would say, simply one aspect of human expression, and by no means the most important. By ‘human expression’ I mean the broad range of integrated activity – facial expression, gesture, posture and bodily movement, and a range of sounds, including speech – which human beings use to express their thoughts and feelings. Bear in mind that up to the invention of writing (and for a good time after it) speech was always part of some larger activity, to which it contributed, but did not (I would assert) dominate.

My ground for supposing this is that it is only through the effort to give speech a written form (which probably did not start to happen till writing had been around for a thousand years) that we come to study it closely, and to analyse it. I suggest there are two reasons for this – the first is that it was not possible to study speech till it was given a permanent, objective form; the second is that the need to analyse speech is part and parcel of the process of giving it written form. Crucially, it is only in writing that the notion of the word as a component of speech arises; speech naturally presents as an uninterrupted flow – rhythm and emphasis are of significance, but word separation is not. Word separation – which not every writing system uses – is a feature of writing, not speech.

In the same way, the whole analysis of speech in terms of the relations between words – grammar – arises from writing (for the good reason that it is only through writing that we can become aware of it). It is the understanding of Language that arises through the development of writing as a tool to transcribe speech that elevates and separates speech from the other forms with which it has hitherto been inseparably bound up.

The notion that we invented writing expressly to transcribe speech does not bear examination*: it was invented for the lesser task of making lists and inventories, as a way of storing information. It was only very gradually that we began to realise its wider potential (the earliest instance of anything we might call literature occurs a good thousand years after the first appearance of writing). Rather than writing being a by-product of speech, speech – as we now know it, our primary mode of communication and expression – is a by-product of writing.

And that is why writing is like a Playtex bra: it lifts and separates speech from all the other forms of human expression – but also (to push the analogy to its limits, perhaps) offers a degree of support that is only bought at the expense of containment and subjugation.

The interesting corollary is that if our present mode of thinking is Language-based – in the sense of ‘Language’ that is used here, a fusion of writing and speech – then that, too, is a relatively recent development**; however much it might seem second nature to us, it is just that – second nature: our natural mode of thought – instinctive and intuitive, developed by our ancestors over several hundred thousand years – must be something quite other, with a different foundation (which is, I would suggest, metaphor).

*if you doubt this, examine it: ask how such an idea would first have occurred, that things should be written down and given a permanent form – to remember them? people had been remembering without the aid of writing for thousands of years – why should they suddenly feel the need to devise an elaborate system to do something they could do perfectly well already? Ask also why, of all things, they would select speech as the one thing to make a record of – only if it were the sort of speech we have now – very much formed and influenced by writing – would it seem the obvious thing to record. Finally, ask how they would go about it – devising a script for the purpose of recording speech requires the sort of analysis of speech we can only acquire through already having devised such a script.

**do not underestimate what I mean by this: it is more than using words to think with. It is the complete model of the world as an objective reality existing independently and governed by logic and reason and all that stems from that; all that can be shown to derive from Language, which in turn arises from the impact of writing on human expression, a process that is initiated about two and a half thousand years ago, in classical Greece, by Plato and Aristotle.

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Liars in public places

‘die breite Masse eines Volkes… einer großen Lüge leichter zum Opfer fällt als einer kleinen’ – ‘the broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.’ (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

‘These are people who are bent on trying to reverse the substance of Brexit and if we finish up with Brexit in name only there will be a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’ (Bernard Jenkin MP, broadcast on the Today programme, 7 July 2017)

As big lies go, it would be hard to find a more consummate piece of public dishonesty in recent times than that.

The country voted overwhelmingly to leave

Did it really, Mr Jenkin?

I do not think that (not quite) 52% to (slightly more than) 48% can be construed as ‘overwhelming‘ in any sense of that word; furthermore, a total of 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million is 37.4%: that is a considerable minority, not an overwhelming majority; an overwhelming majority would be something like 62.6%the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave the European Union.

But you know this, Mr Jenkin. You know that every time you make claims like this you are deliberately misleading the public and fostering a lie, just as Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg does when he speaks of ‘the will of the British people being thwarted’ if people have the temerity to  speak against leaving the EU.

Yet you do it, day in and day out. You try to silence your opponents by what the psychologists call ‘projection’: attributing to others the very faults of which you yourself are guilty. Thus, anyone who dares raise any difficulty that Brexit might entail (and as you know full well, there are many) is said to be advancing phony arguments for an ulterior motive; their real intention is to ‘reverse the substance of Brexit’, and that will incur ‘a terrific backlash in the country because the country voted overwhelmingly to leave.’

The truth of the matter – as you know – is that it is your arguments that are phony, and that you are determined to hustle the British people into accepting the views of a vociferous minority despite the fact that an overwhelming majority do not agree with them.

There will be a terrific backlash: but it will be against you and your like, the liars in public places, and against the craven parliamentarians and ineffectual journalists who meekly accepted your lie and did not robustly challenge it every time you uttered it.

Shame on them, and shame on you.

 

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The Actual Colour of the Sun

‘The sun is actually white, it just appears yellow to us through the Earth’s atmosphere.’

This is a line that appeared on Facebook a while ago, courtesy of my friend Else Cederborg, who posts all sorts of curious and interesting things.

It is a common form of argument that most will readily understand and generally accept without thinking too hard about it. Yet the sun is not actually white, nor does it just appear yellow, facts you can easily check for yourself.

Depending on the time of day and the atmospheric conditions, the sun is variously deep blood red, orange, dusky pink and (behind a veil of mist or thin cloud) a sort of milky white; much of the time it has an incandescent brilliance which can hardly be called a colour since we cannot bear to look at it directly. Though it may appear yellow, the usual place to encounter a yellow sun is in a representation of it: a child’s drawing, for instance (against a blue sky above the square white house, surrounded by green grass, with its four four-paned windows and red triangular roof with single chimney belching smoke) or else in the icons used in weather forecasting.

How we come to accept an argument that runs counter to all experience, and perversely insists on a condition for actuality (being seen outside the Earth’s atmosphere) which few of us will ever experience, is a case worth examining.

At the heart of it is that curious human thing, a convention (I say ‘human’ though it might be that other creatures have conventions, but that is for another time). A convention, effectively, is an agreement to treat things as other than they are – it is a form of pretence. This definition might seem surprising, since what is usually emphasised in conventions is their arbitrary character – the typical example being which side of the road we drive on, which varies from country to country.

However, what makes the rule of the road a convention is that we endow it with force, a force that it does not actually have: we say that you must drive on the left (or the right); that you have to – even though any one of us can show this not to be the case. Of course, if you engage in such a demonstration, you might find yourself liable to a range of legal sanctions, or worse still, involved in an accident. The fact that the rule has to be backed by force proves that it has no intrinsic force; on the other hand, the risk of accident shows that the pretence is no mere whim, but sound common sense: conventions are there because they are useful.

A great deal of human behaviour is conventional if you look at it closely: things are deemed to be the case which are not, actually (international borders is a good example – again, these are arbitrary, but it is the power with which they are endowed that makes them conventions). In this regard, it is worth recalling a remark that Wittgenstein makes somewhere (Philosophical Investigations, I think) to the effect that ‘explanation has to come to an end somewhere’. In other words, despite what we tell children, ‘just because’ is an answer. Conventions are so because we say they are so.

So what colour is the sun?

That takes us to the boldest and most fundamental of conventions, the one that underpins our standard way of thinking about the world, for which we have Plato to thank. Plato insists at the outset on discrediting the senses, saying that they deceive us, giving us Appearance only, not Reality.

This is a move of breathtaking boldness, since effectively it dismisses all experience as ‘unreal’ – as a starting position for philosophy, it ought to be quite hopeless, since if we cannot draw on experience, where are we to begin? If reality is not what we actually experience, then what can it be?

However, there is a different angle we can consider this from, which makes it easier to understand how it has come to be almost universally adopted. What Plato is proposing (though he does not see this himself) is that we should view the world in general terms: that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the individual and particular, but should see things as multiple instances of a single Idea or Form; or, as Aristotle develops it, as members of a class which can be put under a single general heading: trees, flowers, cats, horses, at one level, plants and quadrupeds at another, and so on.

Implied in this is the elimination of the subject: the world is not as it appears to me or to you or to any particular individual (since particular individuals exist only at the specific level) the world is to be considered as objective, as it is ‘in itself’, i.e. as a general arrangement that exists independently of any observation.

This is a very useful way of looking at things even though it involves a contradiction. Its utility is demonstrated by the extraordinary progress we have made in the 2.500 years or so since we invented it. It is the basis of science and the foundation of our systems of law and education.

Effectively, it starts by accepting the necessary plurality of subjective experience: we see things differently at different times – the sun is sometimes red, sometimes pink, sometimes incandescent; different people have different experiences: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In the event of dispute, who is to have priority? That problem looks insoluble (though the extent to which it is an actual problem might be questioned).

So, we must set subjective experience and all that goes with it to one side, and rule it out as the basis of argument. Instead, we must suppose that the world has a form that exists independently of us and is not influenced by our subjective observation: we posit a state of ‘how things actually are in themselves’ which is necessarily the same and unchanging, and so is the same for everyone regardless of how it might appear.

This is how we arrive at the position stated at the outset, that the sun is ‘actually’ white, and that its ‘actual state’ should be taken as ‘how it appears from space,’ even though we live on earth and seldom leave it.

There is a confusion here, which has surfaced from time to time in the history of philosophy since Plato’s day. The strict Platonist would dismiss the whole question of the sun’s true colour in terms akin to Dr Johnson’s, on being asked which of two inferior poets (Derrick or Smart) was the greater: ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.’ Colour belongs to the world of Appearance, not the world of Forms or Ideas.

However, as the insertion of the argument about the earth’s atmosphere shows, we feel the need of a reason to dismiss the evidence of our own eyes (and this is where that little sleight-of-mind about ‘just appearing yellow’ comes in – so that we are not tempted to look too closely at the sun as it actually appears, we are fobbed off with a conventional representation of it that we have been accepting since childhood). The argument is that the atmosphere acts as a filter, much as if we looked at a white rose through coloured glass and variously made it appear green or red or blue: so just as we agree the rose is ‘actually’ white, so too the sun’s ‘actual’ colour must be as it appears unfiltered.

This, however, is specious. Leaving aside the fact that the rose is certainly not white (as you will soon discover if you try to paint a picture of it) at least our choice of default colour can be justified by adding ‘under normal conditions of light’ which most people will accept; but ‘as it appears outside the earth’s atmosphere’ can hardly be called ‘normal conditions of light.’

What has happened here is that the subjective ‘filter’ which Plato wished to circumvent by eliminating the subject – ‘let us ignore the fact that someone is looking, and consider only what he sees’ – has reappeared as an actual filter, so that the whole appearance/reality division has been inserted into the objective world by an odd sort of reverse metaphor. The need to give priority to one of the many possible states of the sun is still felt, and it is solved by arbitrarily selecting ‘the sun as it appears from space’ as its actual state, because that seems logical (though in fact it is not).

The subjectivity of colour in particular, and the subject-dependence of all perception in general, is like a submerged reef that appears at various periods in the sea of philosophy. Locke is troubled by colour, which he wants to class as a ‘secondary quality’ since it evidently does not inhere in the object, as he supposes the primary qualities – solidity, extension, motion, number and figure – to do. Colour is ranked with taste, smell and sound as secondary, which is just a restatement of Plato’s rejection of the senses in other terms.

Berkeley, however, sees that this is a specious distinction and gets to the heart of the matter with his axiom esse est percipi – ‘to be is to be perceived’. Everything we know requires some mind to perceive it: a point of view is implicit in every account we give. There can be no objective reality independent of a subject (as the terms themselves imply, since each is defined in terms of the other).

The response to this is illuminating. Berkeley’s dictum is rightly seen as fatal to the notion of an objectively real world, but instead of accepting this and downgrading Plato’s vision to a conventional and partial account employed for practical purposes, every effort is made to preserve it as the sole account of how things are, the one true reality.

Berkeley’s own position is to suppose that only ideas in minds exist, but that everything exists as an idea in the mind of God, so there is a reality independent of our minds, though not of God’s (a neat marriage of philosophy and orthodox christianity – Berkeley did become a bishop in later life. The Californian university town is named after him).

Kant’s solution is to assert that there is an independent reality – the ding-an-sich, or ‘thing-in-itself’ but logically it must be inaccessible to us: we know it is there (presumably as an article of faith) but we cannot know what it is like.

Schopenhauer’s solution is the most ingenious, and to my mind the most satisfying. He agrees that we cannot know the ding-an-sich as a general rule, but there is one notable exception: ourselves. We are objects in the world and so are known like everything else, via the senses – this is Plato’s world of Appearance, which for Schopenhauer is the World as Representation (since it is re-presented to our minds via our senses). But because we are conscious and capable of reflecting, we are also aware of ourselves as subjects – not via the senses (that would make us objects) but directly, by being us. (To put it in terms of pronouns: you know me and I know you, but I am I; I am ‘me’ to you (and in the mirror) but I am ‘I’ to myself)

And what we are aware of, Schopenhauer says, is our Will; or rather, that our inner nature, as it were, is will: the will to exist, the urge to be, and that this is the inner nature of all things – the elusive ding-an-sich: they are all objective manifestations of a single all-pervasive Will (which happens in us uniquely to have come to consciousness).

This idea is not original to Schopenhauer but is borrowed from Eastern, specifically Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, which belongs to a separate (and possibly earlier) tradition than Platonic thought does (it is interesting to note that a very similar way of looking at things has been likewise borrowed by evolutionary biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, with the notion of ‘the selfish gene’ taking the place of Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ as the blind and indifferent driving force behind all life).

I find Schopenhauer’s account satisfactory (though not wholly so) because it is a genuine attempt to give an account of the World as we experience it, one that reconciles all its elements (chiefly us as subjects with our objective perceptions) rather than the conventional account of Plato (and all who have followed him) which proceeds by simply discounting the subject altogether, effectively dismissing personal experience and reducing us to passive observers. Although the utility of this convention cannot be denied (in certain directions, at any rate) its inherent limitations make it inadequate to consider many of the matters that trouble us most deeply, such as those that find expression in religion and art; and if, like those who wish to tell us that the sun is ‘actually’ white, we mistake the conventional account for an actual description of reality*, we end up by dismissing the things that trouble us most deeply as ‘merely subjective’ and ‘not real’ – which is deleterious, since they continue to trouble us deeply, but that trouble has now been reclassified as an imaginary ailment.

*perhaps I should say ‘the world’ or ‘what there is’. There is a difficulty with ‘reality’ and ‘real’ since they are prejudiced in favour of the convention of an objective world: this becomes clearer when you consider that they could be translated as ‘thingness’ and ‘thing-like’. The paradigm for ‘reality’ then becomes the stone that Dr Johnson kicked with such force that he rebounded from it, i.e. any object in the world, so that the subject and the subjective aspect of experience is already excluded.

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‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.

[curtain]

But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘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’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.

 

 

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The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.

– Wikipedia

ToomTabard

(David Mundell – photo from BBC website)

As Secretary of State for Scotland at a time when we have our own devolved government, David Mundell is a worthy inheritor of the title Toom Tabard, originally given to John Balliol, whose claim to the throne of Scotland was dependent on his being vassal to Edward I of England. ‘Toom Tabard’ means ‘empty coat’ and signifies one who has the trappings of power without the substance.

Mr Mundell, never a man to shy away from a cliche when it presents itself, today delivered this curious pronouncement:

“The people of Scotland sent Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP a very, very clear message in last week’s general election – with the cataclysmic performance of the SNP compared to the 2015 general election. They want that threat of an independence referendum taken off the table.
“Nicola Sturgeon should not be in denial about that. She should wake up, smell the coffee and be absolutely clear with the people of Scotland, as now members of her own party are indicating, and take that threat off the table.”

As others have pointed out, an election result that leaves you with more seats than all your opponents combined (nearly half as many again – 35 to 24) is the sort of cataclysm any party would gladly suffer.  In the five elections prior to 2015, the SNP won 3 seats in 1992, 6 seats in 1997 and 5 in 2001 (all from a total of 72 contested) then 6 seats in both 2005 and 2010, when the number contested was 59. If Mr Mundell is looking for a realistic baseline to measure from, then the low single figures of that 18 year span are surely more indicative than the astonishing 56 out of 59 seats the SNP won in 2015. The only cataclysm in recent elections in Scotland has been the collapse of the pro-Union vote.

(In the interests of historical accuracy, it should be remembered that the ‘union’ referred to in the titles ‘Scottish Unionist’ and ‘Scottish Conservative and Unionist’ is the Irish union of 1800, not the Scottish Union of 1707: it was Irish Home Rule that the Unionists opposed – so it is better to call the Scottish anti-independence parties – Tory, Labour and Liberal – pro-Union rather than Unionist)

It is against that background that we should consider Mr Mundell’s bizarre notion that an independence referendum constitutes a ‘threat’ – to what, and to whom?

The Conservative election campaign in Scotland was, to say the least, peculiar. It was led by Ruth Davidson and consisted entirely of the repeated assertion that the SNP were only interested in a second Independence Referendum, which they were ‘always banging on about’, to the extent that they were ‘neglecting the day-job’ of running Scotland. The campaign’s actual policy content was zero.

The oddnesss of this is worth dwelling on: Ruth Davidson, technically, had no involvement in the General Election, since she is not a Westminster MP but leads her party in the devolved parliament in Holyrood. Likewise, the ‘day job’ of running Scotland falls to the devolved government and has nothing to do with Westminster; finally, the question of a second independence referendum was not an issue in the General Election: it had already been voted on by the Scottish Parliament on 28 March, with MSPs voting by 69 to 59 in favour of seeking permission for a referendum before the UK leaves the EU.

To reiterate: the Conservative campaign was exclusively concerned with a matter that was not at issue in the election and had in any case already been settled by the legitimate authority. This suggests that if there is an obsession with the independence referendum, it is on the part of the Conservatives rather than the SNP (who, incidentally, made no mention of a second referendum in their campaign).

And the obsession is not with winning a second referendum, but with preventing it from taking place. The logic of this is worth examining. The position of the Conservatives (and indeed the other pro-union parties, who largely parroted the Conservative campaign) is that it would be better for us all if the question of independence was off the agenda for at least a generation. That, of course, is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint, whether one agrees with it or not.

Now, if a second independence referendum repeated or indeed enhanced the result of the first in 2014 (55% No, 45% Yes) it is clear that the matter would be settled for a generation: none of the present pro-independence politicians would feel there was much credibility in going to the country a third time having lost twice.

The inference to be drawn from that is that if the Conservatives and their pro-union allies were confident that a second referendum would deliver the same result as the first, or better (from their point of view), then they would be keen to have one, since it would deliver exactly what they want: the removal of independence from the political agenda for the foreseeable future, with accompanying discomfiture of the SNP.

But, as we have seen, they are not keen: in fact, they are pathologically opposed to having a second referendum, to the extent, as we have seen, of making it the sole focus of their General election campaign, even though it was not an issue. What inference can be drawn from that?

Logically, there is only one: that they fear the Scottish people have changed their minds since 2014 and that a second referendum will reverse the decision of the first. On the evidence, that fear is well-grounded.

In the 2014 referendum, Scots were assured that if they wished to remain part of the EU, they should vote No, as (it was claimed) a Yes vote would jeopardise Scotland’s membership: they would have to reapply, with no guarantee of being admitted. In the 2016 EU referendum Scotland voted by a substantial majority (62%) to remain (as did Northern Ireland, by a smaller margin – 55%) but the UK vote overall was to leave (though only 17 million out of an electorate of 46 million voted to do so – 16 million wished to remain and 13 million did not vote).

Furthermore, as the results of the 2015 and 2017 elections, measured against the baseline of the five previous elections, suggest, there has been a sea-change in Scottish politics: the great majority now favour a party whose principal aim is Scottish independence.

In other words, since 2014 there have been two substantive changes: the UK government is committed to a course which the Scottish people have emphatically rejected; and from having minimal support, the pro-independence party has risen spectacularly to a position of dominance which, even at its reduced 2017 figures, any of the pro-union parties would give their eye-teeth for, and probably sell their own grandmothers into the bargain.

Add to this that a minority Conservative government is now seeking alliance with the DUP, who are simultaneously asserting that they will pursue ‘the interest of the people of Northern Ireland’ (who voted to remain in the EU) yet will support Brexit on the grounds that, as a Unionist party, they must follow what the UK as a whole voted for, and you have a situation which is confused, to say the least.

The paradoxical Mr Mundell views the SNP’s continued electoral dominance as a cataclysmic failure, and grounds for their abandoning a second independence referendum (which has already been democratically decided on), yet seems unable to draw any similar conclusions from his own party’s having called an election expressly to strengthen their hand in Brexit negotiations only to lose their majority. In fact, we are being told that it is the country’s best interests not to have another election soon.

This is projection, in the psychological sense, as defined at the top of this article. When Mr Mundell says that the Scottish people do not want another referendum and the Tory press tell us that the country has no stomach for another election, what they really mean is that the conservative party has no stomach for either because they fear to lose both.

Of course, there is no guarantee that they would. A second independence referendum might repeat the result of the first; a further general election might give the conservatives the majority they seek: neither is a result I would welcome, but as a democrat I feel strongly that it is a matter for the people to decide.

I do not view democratic processes as a threat. I am suspicious of politicians who do.

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St. Anselm and the Blackbird

 

2017-05-23 15.17.35

Blackbird

Its eye a dark pool
in which Sirius glitters
and never goes out.
Its melody husky
as though with suppressed tears.
Its bill is the gold
one quarries for amid
evening shadows. Do not despair
at the stars’ distance. Listening
to blackbird music is
to bridge in a moment chasms
of space-time, is to know
that beyond the silence
which terrified Pascal
there is a presence whose language
is not our language, but who has chosen
with peculiar clarity the feathered
creatures to convey the austerity
of his thought in song.

– R.S. Thomas

St Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury and lived from 1033 to 1109 at the start of the intellectual renaissance that the High Middle Ages brought to Western Europe. It was a period of great intellectual ferment, an Age of both Faith and Reason, when the best minds of the day applied with passionate curiosity the learning they were rediscovering to the big topic of the day: God.

It takes some effort of the imagination in this secular age to realise that for the mediaeval mind, Theology was the Queen of Sciences, as exciting in its day as quantum physics is now. ‘What is God?’ is the question that the greatest of the mediaevals – one of the greatest intellects ever, Thomas Aquinas – asked at an early age and pursued the rest of his life.

The learning they were rediscovering had two principal strands, both of which had been kept alive elsewhere, since the Eastern Empire, centred on Constantinople, continued after the Western one, centred on Rome, had fallen, though increasingly encroached upon latterly by a new intellectual and religious power to the East and South: Islam.

The most immediately accessible strand, because it was written in Latin, was the neoPlatonism of the late Roman period, whose most notable exponent was Augustine of Hippo. Platonism, with its notion of a transcendent Reality composed of eternal, immutable Forms and a vision of Truth as a brilliant sun that is the source of all wisdom, is a good fit for Christianity – so little is needed to reconcile them that Plato (with the Christ-like Socrates as his literary mouthpiece) can seem almost a pagan prophet of Christianity.

The second strand was more difficult, because it took a circuitous route from the Greek-speaking Eastern empire through the Arabic of Islamic scholars (Avicenna and Averroes, principally) before being translated into Latin where the two cultures met in Spain. This second strand centred chiefly on the writings of Plato’s pupil, one of the greatest minds of any age, Aristotle.

It was Aquinas who met the challenge of reconciling this new influx of pagan (and heretic) thought into catholic teaching and did so with such effect that he remains to this day the chief philosopher of the catholic church, with his Summa Theologica his principal work*.

This period marks the second beginning of Western thought; its first beginning had been some thirteen centuries previously with the Classical Age of Greece, and the two giants, Plato and Aristotle. It is important to realise that what might seem at first glance a recovery of ancient wisdom was in reality nothing of the sort: it was the rediscovery of a new and startling way of looking at things, one that displaced and subjugated the traditionally accepted way of understanding our relation to the world that had held since time immemorial.

What made this new way of thought possible was the written word. For the first time, it was possible to separate one of the elements of human expression, speech, from the larger activity of which it was part, and give it what appeared to be an independent and objective form. This did not happen at once; indeed, it took about three thousand years from the invention of writing, around 5500 years ago, to the realisation of its potential in Classical Greece.

The word written on the page is the precondition of the relocation of meaning: from being a property of situations, inseparable from human activity and conveyed by a variety of methods, such as facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, with speech playing a minor role, meaning now becomes the property of words, and is deemed, by implication, to exist independently and objectively, and to be more or less fixed.

This one change is the foundation of modern thought: it is what allows Plato, with breathtaking audacity, to reverse the relation between the intellect and the senses and proclaim that what the senses tell us is mere Appearance, and that Reality is apprehended by the intellect – and consists of the world viewed from a general aspect: effectively, through the medium of language. It is the beginning of a world-view that casts us as detached spectators of an independent objective reality, a world-view that cannot be acquired naturally and instinctively, but only through a prolonged process of education, based on literacy.

When, some thirteen centuries later, Anselm devises his ‘ontological proof’ for the existence of God, it is squarely within this intellectual framework erected by Plato and Aristotle:
[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.’

This is straightforward enough, if you take your time and attend to the punctuation: the expression ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is Anselm’s definition of God; and even a simpleton, he says, can understand it; but to exist in reality is better than to exist merely in the imagination, so a God that exists in reality is greater than one which exists only in the imagination, so if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then God must exist in Reality (Because that leaves no room, as it were, to conceive of anything greater).

Much has been said and written about this argument since it was first made over 900 years ago, but I want to concentrate on a single aspect of it, which is the continuity it implies between the human understanding and reality. To use an image, if we conceive the intellect as a skyscraper, then by taking the lift to its utmost height and climbing, so to speak, onto the roof, we arrive at Reality, the only thing that is higher than the height of our understanding.

This is what leads us to suppose – via the notion that we are created in the image and likeness of God – that God must be the perfection of all that is best in us; and if we esteem our intellectual faculties above all else (as, in the ‘West’, we seem to do) then God must be the supreme intellect.

This presents a problem, one that has considerable force in arguments against the existence of God: though a lesser intellect cannot fully comprehend a greater one, they share a great deal of common ground, and the greater intellect can certainly attune itself to the capacity of the lesser: this is a familar case (though not always!) between adult and child, teacher and pupil. Why, then, does God not deal directly with us at our intellectual level? Why doesn’t God speak our language? He surely would, if he could; yet he must be able to, since he is God – so the fact that he does not makes him appear either perverse (like a parent playing a cruel sort of game where he pretends not to be there, and does not answer when his child calls out to him, though he may do something that indirectly suggests his presence, like throwing a ball or making the bushes move) or absent, since he would if he could, but does not.

Thomas’s poem is an answer to this conundrum, though it is not a comfortable one. Perhaps our assumption that reality is at the top of the skyscraper is an error: maybe it is outside, at ground level. Maybe God speaks to us all the time, but we do not recognise the fact, because ‘God’ is quite other than we suppose, and cannot be contained in the intellectual framework that Plato and Aristotle have bequeathed to us.

This would explain on the one hand why religion – in its broadest sense – is bound up with immemorial ritual (which belongs to the world before Plato and Aristotle) and on the other, why, in an age that puts it confidence in intellect and reason – the ‘new thinking’ that Plato and Aristotle invented, not so very long ago in terms of our earthly existence – God is proving increasingly difficult to find.

*in the context of this piece, it is worth recalling that Aquinas on his deathbed said that his work now seemed ‘all so much straw.’

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Expressing conviction

the-gospel-according-to-st-matthew4

In an earlier piece (‘For us, there is only the trying‘) I observed that one of the insights that come with being a writer is the tentative nature of all writing, that it is always an attempt, and to that degree, never certain of success.

I have been considering the implications of this insight since. One way of looking at it is that whatever you may read has originated in the same way as what you are reading now – that is to say, at some point, someone has engaged in what Eliot terms ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ in order to express some thought, idea, insight, revelation or vision.

In other words, whatever extraordinary experience may have led up to it, and however singular the mind seeking to express itself, the piece itself – the text, the writing that others read – passes through the same door, as it were, as every other text, however humble or exalted, to come into existence.

This has a particular bearing on what we call sacred texts, not least because a different account is often given of their authorship – they are said to have been ‘written by no human hand’ to emanate directly from God or from angels. It is important to see that such attributions are not descriptions but part of the attempt to express the fundamental importance that these texts are held to have: to put it succinctly, we do not value texts because they are sacred, we call them sacred because we value them.

That might seem at first sight no more than a playing with words, but it makes a crucial distinction which I will try to elucidate in the remainder of this piece – briefly, that sacredness is not an inherent quality, but a judgement we make by relating the thing in question to a wider narrative, fitting it into a story we already know.

Let us consider two scenarios. In the first, we are asked to represent (for a film, say) the creation of some sacred text. To avoid controversy, we can make it a fictional sacred text: let us suppose that it is a book said to have been written ‘without human agency’ and held to contain the guiding wisdom of a particular people or culture.

How this is represented will vary according to the skill and imagination of the film-maker: the end result might be ludicrous or awe-inspiring: we can picture shining figures or disembodied fiery hands that inscribe the text with a finger, or we might have the text appear letter by letter on the blank page, with or without an attendant laser-like ray of light; doubtless there will be sound effects or music to accompany the process.

All this, as I say, may be more or less well done: a real artist might have even unbelievers saying that they found the representation persuasive – ‘I don’t believe it, but if I did, I could picture it like this.’ (In this connection, we could consider Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St Matthew’ the work of a (presumed) atheist, yet praised by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano as ‘the best film on Christ ever made’).

The second scenario is a real-life encounter with an incident such as the one discussed above: one day, by chance, we enter a room, let us say – or better still, come on a stone table in open moorland under a clear sky (so no scope for any concealed mechanism) and there (with others) we witness a text appearing in a mysterious way that seems to involve no human agency.

What are the similarities here, and what the differences? We have the same sort of event, but crucially there is a context for the first: it is part of a story we are already familiar with, and we are also familiar with the notion of sacred texts and divine messages (regardless of whether we actually accept the verity of them). By way of illumination, we can imagine someone without that background (from a non-literate culture, say) and ask how much (or how little) they would take from the same scene.

The fact that it is a fictional sacred text does not matter, either: we understand it as a sacred text in the story, because we know about actual texts that are regarded as sacred; we are familiar with the concept. If we did not have that concept, it would probably be puzzling, though we might gather that a marvel of some sort was intended (and the role of marvels, a staple of stories yet (by definition) seldom encountered in life, should be borne in mind here). In any case, as the film proceeded, we could see the role played by the text, and make inferences from that, though again they would draw on our familiarity with human culture and religious practices. In short, we would read the creation of the text as part of a story, one we were already familiar with: we would know where it fitted in.

In all of this, the content of the text would be taken for granted: we could suppose the kind of thing it might say, not least because the major human religions have a similar core, centred on compassion, seeing oneself in the other.

Now consider the ‘real-life’ incident. What inferences would we be prepared to draw solely from the manner of the text’s appearance? Certainly, our curiosity would be piqued: we had witnessed something marvellous, not easy to explain; doubtless we would be very keen to read the text and see what it contained.

However (and this is the crucial point) I think that whether we were sceptical or inclined to believe, we would agree that the actual content of the text was what mattered, rather than the manner of its appearing – its content is what we would use to form a judgement and reach a conclusion.

Now add a further refinement – let us suppose that the text is a bald and unequivocal instruction to slaughter all the members of some rival sect or group with which we have had uneasy relations in the past, occasionally spilling over into violence.

How would that be received?

Doubtless there would be the enthusiasts who are always keen to be licensed to do something terrible – that, I fear, is a strong streak in human nature. However, I like to think they would be in the minority, not least because this is not the sort of thing that sacred texts typically enjoin: it does not fit the familiar narrative. Interestingly, there is a ready-made counter, available from within the familiar narrative itself, to those who point to the marvellous circumstances of the text’s appearance as evidence of its divine origin – might it not be diabolical in origin instead?

And here, if you like, the devil comes into his own, or rather, we see the genuine usefulness of the concept of an enemy (which is all that ‘Satan’ means), a contriver of snares to lead us astray, one always seeking to turn our good to ill – within the narrative where God might speak to us directly through signs and marvels, it allows an escape clause; ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ as Shakespeare reminds us – not every voice that impresses us as supernatural is divine.

My point is this: the marvellous circumstances, though they might impress us and incline us to a particular view, are not in themselves conclusive: no certain inference can be drawn from them – and that goes for any signs and wonders. Taken in themselves, they prove nothing; it is only as part of a greater narrative that they have meaning.

(Consider here Jesus’s response to the disciples of John (Luke Chapter 7, Matthew 11) who ask him, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ Jesus answers, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’.

Though this might seem a mere catalogue of marvels – ‘look at the amazing things I have done! Is that not proof enough?’ that is not the point of it at all: rather, it is Jesus placing himself in context, connecting his actions to the earlier scriptural narrative, chiefly Isaiah, which would be well-known to John’s disciples and the whole community, in which the signs that will herald the messiah are described; it is not the marvels in themselves, but their connection to the story that matters, the fact that they can be seen as the fulfilment of scripture.)

The point is not ‘I am the messiah because I do miracles’ but ‘I am the messiah because I fit into the story’ – and implied in that, of course, is an acceptance of the story. It is similar to the two scenarios discussed above: the film representation is one that we can readily contextualise – even if it is presented as fiction – because we know the kind of thing it is, we are familiar with that sort of story; without that knowledge we are at a loss how to interpret it.

Another angle that might occur to us in the second ‘real-life’ scenario brings us back to my central point. We witness, on the open moorland under a clear sky, the mysterious writing of the text without human agency. A question that might reasonably be asked, once we have overcome our initial amazement, is why God would choose to communicate with us in this way. It seems a very human bit of stage-setting – like something out of a story, indeed. If God truly spoke to us, why not simply evince in us a firm conviction that something is the case?

Might I not – in a variant of the second scenario – go walking with a group of friends on a fine day and at a particular spot – an old stone table, say, on open moorland under a clear sky – be suddenly overwhelmed with a conviction of the unity and goodness of all things, that we are all united by a common humanity, that each of us is as the other, that you are me and I am you, and that all are part of the great scheme of things that we call Nature, the World or the Universe?

And all I would have to do then is cast about for suitable words or images to express this conviction, to convey what I feel to be its fundamental importance.

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