Monthly Archives: October 2013

Can you be offside in chess?

the-football-players-1908(The Football Players by Henri Rousseau)

Two people are arguing; one insists that you can score a drop goal in football, the other that you can’t. Eventually it emerges that the first is talking about rugby football, gaelic football and Australian rules; but the other means only association football.

So who is right? Once we know the context, that question no longer makes sense – we can say that if by ‘football’ you mean these particular codes, then it is right to say that you can score a drop goal; but if you mean only association football, then that is not the case. So what about the original question – can you or can’t you score a drop goal in football?

There is no absolute sense of ‘football’ in which the question makes sense, though it can at least be resolved; but if you asked ‘can you score a drop goal in chess?’ or ‘can you be offside in chess?’ it would be clear that you didn’t know anything about chess (you might be a foreigner who knows it is the name of a game and is trying to work out what kind of game it is).

Wittgenstein uses the terms ‘game’ and ‘way of life’ a lot in his discussion of language, and in particular of meaning. His central contention is that words have meaning only in context, only as part of a larger whole in which they stand in relation to other things; hence his dictum that ‘in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use in the language’.

To get the full force of what Wittgenstein is saying, you need to consider the position he is arguing against, which is that ‘meaning’ is something which the speaker imparts to a word by some kind of mental process, that when I make an utterance like ‘it is raining heavily’ there is some sort of parallel mental process that accompanies (and possibly precedes) my words. I suppose this arises from the idea that language is the expression of thought, which conjures an image of my thoughts forming a sort of mental cloud inside my head and my words having some correspondence to them, as if a line ran from each word to something in my mind.

(It is interesting, in passing, to see the spectre of Cartesian Dualism haunting that particular image)

But Wittgenstein’s argument is that this picture is simply mistaken and misleading and in fact unnecessary – we can explain how words mean perfectly well, indeed rather better, without having recourse to it. Meaning is a property, not of individual words, but of language, and not of some single over-arching language (an absolute ‘football’ in the terms of the argument above) but of a language made up of many different ‘codes’ or ‘games’ or ‘ways of life’.

A good dictionary illustrates this point, though at first sight it might seem to support the idea that words have fixed meanings in themselves. While a cheap dictionary will simply cite a single meaning, or a range of meanings if you are lucky, a dictionary like the OED will furnish a dated quotation to illustrate the earliest known occurrence of each particular meaning in use.

One of the earliest things you learn in studying philosophy is to define your terms; and this generally takes the form of the philosopher’s favourite statement, ‘it depends what you mean by…’ . Thus, in the argument above, one could say ‘It depends what you mean by ‘football’’ and that could quickly bring the argument to a happy resolution – but not necessarily.

This is where another of Wittgenstein’s ideas comes into play. If I was asked what makes Wittgenstein a philosopher of the first rank, I would point to his wonderful ability for quietly upsetting apple-carts – in other words, his breathtaking capacity for demolishing received ideas of central importance without making any fuss about it. In this case, the received idea is the notion of ‘essence’, which goes back to Aristotle.

Again, this is something you learn early in philosophy, and it can be a powerful tool in argument: that whatever is called by a particular name has an essence, some quality or set of qualities that makes it what it is, a defining character which entitles it to that name, and excludes other things from having the same name applied to them.

The whole system of classification from general to specific, which we also owe to Aristotle, depends on this concept: that all the members of a particular class have something in common that makes them members of that class. This is such a powerful and useful tool, with such a wide application, that we can overlook the fact that it is only a tool and (mis)take it for an actual description.

Wittgenstein, without the least fuss, demolishes the concept of essences, offering instead two other ways of looking at it: family resemblances, and strands in a thread. He uses the first in relation to games, then the second as a development of that, in relation to number:

‘Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”… what is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘there must be something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ but look and see whether there is anything common to all.

[he cites board games, card-games (including patience), ball games (including a child throwing a ball against a wall) and even ring-a-ring-a-roses, then concludes]

And the result of this examination is: we see a  complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterise these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’

(Philosophical Investigations I,  nos 66 & 67)

This for me is a very liberating step, though perhaps that is only for those who have been in thrall to philosophy in the first place, in particular philosophy descended from Aristotle and Plato. It seems to me that as long as you have the concept of essence you are driven to the chimerical notion of some single order of reality at the back of everything which it then becomes the task of the philosopher to discover: the equivalent, in the argument we open with, of trying to find a single definition of ‘football’.

To dispense with, at a stroke, a single scheme of things into which everything must fit and replace it with a whole family of such schemes none of which can make an overarching claim seems to me a very healthy development and one that defuses a great deal of argument and eases a lot of tension. And there is another aspect of Wittgenstein’s concept of meaning that strikes me as potent and fruitful.

It occurs to me that there is a strong parallel between the concept of meaning defined by context and that of a character in a story, and that the two point to a third thing about our own ‘meaning’  as individuals in the world.

Meaning is not the property of a word; it is something that a word derives from the context in which it occurs, the language-game of which it forms a part, the way of life in which it is used, to use the Wittgensteinian terms. Similarly, a character in a story does not have a separate existence in his (or her) own right, but is defined in relation to the other characters and the action of the story – the story is the thing, if you like; the character is only a part.

(Of course you can play literary games and have Hamlet put in an appearance as Bertie Wooster’s house guest, but all you are really doing is inventing another form of football, as it were – you now have a third story, which features one character also found in Shakespere and another in Wodehouse; but you don’t reason from that that Hamlet and Bertie exist independently apart from the places where we find them)

Is it too bold a step to see ourselves in the same light? That our ‘meaning’ is derived from being part of a greater whole, rather than something we possess absolutely as of right? How compatible or incompatible would such a position be with other world-views, religious and otherwise? (I sense that the most strenuous objection would come from those who make a cult of individualism and advocate extreme self-reliance; from the wide range of others, not so much)

An interesting consideration, not least for the prospect it opens on the subject of personal boundaries and the limits of the self.

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Four Myths

Rousseau la reve

(picture: ‘la reve’ by Henri Rousseau,  Museum of Modern Art,  NY)

I have touched elsewhere on our ambivalence about stories and story-related words, in particular that we use a range of them as synonyms for lying and falsehood. The word ‘myth’ falls into the same category, except that its case is perhaps more extreme: for the majority of people now, the primary sense of ‘myth’ is probably ‘something people believe that isn’t true’ or ‘a false, unfounded or mistaken belief’. The TV format is familiar: some statement is trotted out – ‘red wine causes cancer/cures cancer/makes you live longer/improves intelligence’; evidence is presented (or not); an ink-stamp comes down across the screen labelling it ‘fact’ (probably in green) or ‘myth’ (red, certainly).

The blame for this debased usage can be laid largely at the door of the tabloid press, which probably does more than any other organ to promote false, mistaken or unfounded beliefs, not from malice so much as stupidity, its relentless pursuit of circulation which means that every story is sensationalised, so that a sober piece of scientific research which draws tentative conclusions – ‘moderate red wine consumption associated with statistically significant increase in life expectancy’ becomes a blaring, oversimplified, thoroughly misleading headline: WANT TO LIVE FOREVER? DRINK RED WINE!

The pity of this is that a much more valuable and interesting idea of ‘myth’ is being lost, one that tells us a great deal about ourselves, and also frees our minds from the kind of rigid thinking that is increasingly prevalent.

A myth, in this more valuable sense, is a story we tell ourselves about how we choose to see things, how we choose to think of our situation (and that element of choice is important: we are not deluded, we do not deceive ourselves – we choose to see it this way because it works for us). It is, in a strict sense, an act of comprehension, a taking-together of certain features of experience to make a pattern, to impose an order that is useful to us.

Our dominant modern myth is the myth of progress, which sees human existence as a tale of continuous improvement in which the later state is always better than the earlier one: ‘things can only get better’ as the song has it. There is a strong link between this myth and economic growth, so it is no surprise in these times when growth is faltering (and its sustainability is increasingly questioned) that belief in this myth is faltering somewhat too: can we go on living the way we do? or does our way of life not harbour the seeds of its own destruction?

The antithesis of the myth of progress is the myth of the Golden Age, which takes various forms but expresses the same single idea, that once upon a time we enjoyed an ideal state from which we have declined steadily ever since; we were happy once, but now we’re not. The familiar version from the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall.

Two further myths can be added to make up an interesting quartet: one is the myth of recurrence, the idea that life and human existence is a perpetual cycle: birth, growth, maturity, decay, death, rebirth; spring, summer, autumn, winter; what goes around comes around; all things perish, all things are renewed.

The last is an odd one, another antithetic myth, the myth of stasis or immutability, the idea that Reality – the true state of things – is unchanging, in contrast to deceptive Appearance, which is in a state of constant change and flux; so that it is, in a sense, the antithesis of recurrence. One of its most famous expressions is in Plato’s theory of Forms (or Ideas) which envisages a timeless world of unchanging forms apprehended only by the intellect (and not the despised senses, which are thirled to the deceptions of Appearance). But there is also an element of the myth of stasis in various views of the afterlife, nicely summed up in the Simply Red lyric, ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’.

The psychology of these myths is interesting and there is a case to be made that we probably subscribe to all of them (or at least the first three) at various times and in various states of mind. One notable feature is that although they are more often presented as historical myths, i.e. stories that try to comprehend the full sweep of human history, all of them (even the last) are strongly rooted in personal experience.

The myth of progress corresponds to our experience (or expectation) of the greater part of our lives, at least till middle age and probably beyond. As a rule, we progress physically for something like the first twenty or so years of life – every year we get bigger, stronger, more capable; and commensurate with this progress we have a development in mental capacity, education, responsibility and independence. Beyond our twenties the structure of our society (in the ‘west’ at least) still allows for a continuance of progress, chiefly measured by earning capacity and social status; it is only at retirement (well into the sixties now) that the possibility of such progress is halted.

Yet at the same time, as we take on more responsibility and independence, as we move from being an observer of the world from the relatively powerless position of youth to being a participant in it, we may well experience anxiety, disillusion and disappointment (in the words of another song lyric – Peggy Lee this time – ‘Is that all there is?’ ) and look back on our childhood as a golden age when we were happy in our innocence and did not realise what life was like and hoped it would be better than we find it.

Meanwhile, the sense of recurrence is never far away, with the turning of the years and the passage of the seasons, but it comes more to the surface with such things as parenthood, when you experience a sudden shift of perspective and see your children as your own parents must have seen you; and as you grow older and see the span of generations – the new-born baby in her great-grandmother’s lap – and realise that you are progressing through the various stages represented by different people in the room, from very young to very old, the sense of life as a perpetual cycle is very strong.


(‘Evie and the Bear’ – photo by Kate Ward – all rights reserved)

And the myth of stasis? That is an interesting one. It can seem both childish – like wanting the sweet in your mouth to last forever – and unimaginative – is that really the best you can think of, to do the same thing forever? and that perhaps reflects its negative aspect: it is bound up with the fear of loss, the sense that nothing lasts, that ‘here is no abiding city’, that nothing can be relied on – if only we could arrest time, hold the moment –

The thing about eternity is that it does not go on for ever: it does not go on at all – it is not in time; and that makes it unimaginable, since all our imaginings are time-bound. So we experience it as a paradox, a nonsense: making the moment last, stretching it out, alters its fundamental character – it is no longer a moment; it has endurance; we can, as it were, get out and walk around it, look at it from every side, measure it up, quantify it, fit it in to our scheme of things –

and that is to miss the entire point, because such glimpses give us a sensation of something that is not in our scheme of things, something we struggle to express, by saying it is beyond or outside or elsewhere, something we can only approximate to by saying that it is like the very best thing you can think of, forever – which always falls flat because of its inherent contradiction; and yet for all that, we know it when we see it, and we do glimpse it now and then:

‘for most of us, there is only the unattended

moment, the moment in and out of time,

the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,

or the waterfall, or the music heard so deeply

that it is not heard at all, but you are the music

while the music lasts.’

– TS Eliot The Dry Salvages V, from Four Quartets.

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One way of thinking about it


For some time now I have been trying to pin down a thing that troubles me about language – to be exact, the relation between its literary form and speech, and my sense that our perception of how they stand to one another is out of kilter.

Here’s a way of thinking about it that occurred to me on my Autumn walk today, in the pleasant environs of Kinnoull hill, where you can see this fine (if rather alarming) giant squirrel:


Consider a stream or river, flowing vigorously down from the hills. By exercise of our considerable ingenuity, we can dam the stream and create a vast reservoir which has enormous potential – we might use it to power industry, directly by water wheels or indirectly by generating electricity; we might irrigate the land; we might supply many households with water – indeed all of these things together. Naturally doing so would entail considerable specialist skill and knowledge and people who had such knowledge would be rightly respected.

And yet there are two things that we must not overlook: the first is that the reservoir remains ultimately dependent on the stream that feeds it – if the source dries up, then the reservoir will eventually be exhausted; the second is that, for all our ingenuity, we have merely harnessed the water, not added to it: its power and properties are exactly those of the river, and indeed in order to be of use it needs to resume its form as a flowing stream.

There is a parallel here with language: however much we order it and standardise it, by giving it a written form, a fixed spelling, a system of punctuation, a systematised grammar, we are still only harnessing the properties of speech. True, a whole set of skills must now be acquired to master the language in its literary form, yet ultimately these are all secondary and derivative: you could have speech, full and flowing in all its power, without its literary form, but without speech, the literary form would not exist in the first place, and (as is the case with Latin, say, or Ancient Greek) once speech dies out and there are no native users who learn it at their mother’s knee, the language dies, though its literary form may continue for a time artificially sustained by some conventional use, as when Latin became the language of both church and university.

This is something you should call to mind the next time you hear someone pontificating about spelling or punctuation, and making a fetish of grammar. These things have their place, to be sure, but in the right order of things it is always a subordinate one: speech has primacy, and the language learned at our mother’s knee and spoken in the home and street is the vital source and origin, not to be disparaged but rather revered and respected.

So there.

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Means and ends, motes and beams

‘O wad some power the giftie gie us

tae see oursels as ithers see us!

it wad frae mony a blunder free us,

an foolish notion.’

– Burns, ‘to a Louse’

The end does not justify the means: you may not do evil that good might come; you may not violate your principles in defence of them. If I had to select a single axiom that we in the ‘West’ would do well to think deeply about, it would be this, because it is under attack from every side. It is not an easy principle – profound truths rarely are – but it is a vital one, in the precise meaning of that term – our very lives depend on it.

Terrorism, of course, rests on the inversion of this principle: for the terrorist, the end does justify the means; he (or she) may do anything, commit any atrocity, to further the cause; for the terrorist, the cause – whether that is national freedom, a political or religious ideology – justifies any act done to further it. In short, it is the essence of terrorism to believe that you may do anything to achieve your end, that the end justifies the means.

In other words, it is this principle that distinguishes us from terrorists.

That is a crucial point: it is not that the terrorists are wrong and wicked and we are right and good. Terrorists are not comic-book villains who do evil for the sake of it: no-one fights for a cause believing it to be wrong or wicked; on the contrary, it is because they are convinced of the justice of their cause that they are prepared to do anything to further it (it was Martin Scorsese, I think, who remarked, talking of the Mafia, ‘they call themselves the good people’ – everyone thinks of himself as one of the good guys).

This morning on the news we hear that the agents of a foreign power have seized a citizen by force in his own country in broad daylight, kidnapped him, and taken him out of his country. The state responsible, far from denying it, makes a boast of it, and justifies the breach of national and international law and the violation of individual rights on the grounds that this man is a terrorist and was guilty of acts which showed no regard for the law, national or international, or individual human rights. In other words, he’s a bad guy; we’re the good guys; that makes it ok.

Last night I watched a new British TV series called ‘By Any Means’ which centres on a special unit operating independently within the police force to bring wrongdoers to book ‘by any means’. Whenever the chief character is asked ‘are you police?’ he responds with what the writers doubtless hope to make a catch-phrase, ‘it’s a grey area.’ The programme is a species of comedy drama, very much along the lines of ‘Hustle’, in which a lovable band of con-artists used their remarkable talents in Robin Hood fashion to give villains their comeuppance. Now ‘Hustle’ was fine entertainment and this new version shows signs of being the same, but the premise on which it is founded is disturbing.

In ‘Hustle’ there is no question that our heroes are operating outside the law; they fall into the category of ‘lovable rogues’ and reflect that curious ambivalence that we have in our attitude to criminals, especially those that are audacious and intelligent; but that is matter for another day. In ‘By Any Means’, however, the heroes are an irregular unit of the police force operating with official sanction, not from their senior officers (to whom they are invisible) but from that mysterious place, ‘higher up.’

It is all very high-minded, of course: their targets are invariably villains of the deepest dye whose guilt is unquestionable but who have somehow evaded justice; the justice system, it is implied, is not fit for purpose – smart lawyers exploit well-intentioned but ill-considered legislation to ensure that criminals walk free. This is by no means a new theme; it is certainly present in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is ranged against a City Hall that is seen as self-serving, corrupt and weak, hindered by political correctness; though the second in the series, Magnum Force, does go some way to examine the dangers of vigilante policing implied in the first.

There have been real-life irregular police units that operated independently of the main force with sanction from ‘higher up’, but they were not lovable high-minded fellows with a twinkle in their eye: the reality of ‘By Any Means’ is the Esquadrão da Morte or ‘Death Squad’ of Brazil, off-duty policemen funded by business interests who ‘cleaned up’ criminal activity by extra-judicial killings (of street children among others) with the support of some members of the judiciary and some politicians.

On Saturday night I watched ‘Taken’ in which Liam Neeson plays a man whose daughter is kidnapped in Paris by Albanian sex-traffickers; but he also happens to be a retired ‘black-ops’ agent, effectively a one-man army trained in every lethal art. Having spoken to his daughter’s kidnappers on the phone (and we of course have witnessed her kidnap in harrowing detail as she is dragged from her hiding place under the bed) and told them that he will hunt them down and kill them, he proceeds to do just that, leaving a trail of carnage and destruction as he chops, stabs, shoots and tortures his way across Paris. At one point he kidnaps one of the gang and wires him up to the mains electricity, explaining that he used to do this ‘professionally’ as it were, though that tended to be in countries where the power supply was unreliable, which here in France it is not. Having broken the man’s resistance by a few applications of current he then leaves, but not before switching the current on again to ensure his slow and agonising death – because his crimes merit that, of course: he is a bad man, and Liam Neeson’s character’s cause is just.

The French police are of no use in the matter, and would sooner deport Neeson than attempt to save his daughter; in fact, they are worse than useless, they are actually corrupt, and turn a blind eye to the traffickers in exchange for cash. Though this film is French in origin (directed by Pierre Morel, produced and co-written by Luc Besson) and police corruption is a staple of French movies, it is notable that it dates from a period of US disenchantment with the French government over the Iraq war, when a US politician famously branded the French ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and patriotic American restaurateurs were renaming ‘French Fries’ ‘Freedom Fries’.

And the nationality of the villains is interesting – the Albanian sex-traffickers sell the daughter on, because she is a virgin, and in the subsequent auction which Neeson’s character gatecrashes, the successful bidder is an Arab sheikh. In the short-hand of Hollywood cinema, Albanians – like Eastern Europeans generally – are ruthless criminals, while Arabs (especially wealthy ones) have been a by-word for concupiscence since Rudolph Valentino first donned a burnous in The Sheik.

After driving at high speed the wrong way along that road by the Seine that all the foreign agents drive along the wrong way at high speed, Neeson’s character leaps from a bridge onto the sheikh’s barge and proceeds to slaughter everyone on board, aided by the fact that his enemies have – in the usual Hollywood manner – inexplicably loaded their machine-pistols with special ‘no-hit’ bullets, while Neeson’s deadly-accurate gun has the usual inexhaustible magazine, in the great tradition of white-hatted cowboys whose six-shooters went on shooting well into double figures without being reloaded.

And the justification for all this? well, of course, it is to save his daughter – his virgin daughter – from ‘a fate worse than death’: what man who calls himself a man would do otherwise? In presenting it in these personal terms, as a man fighting to save his family, the film recalls the classic question that was put to conscientious objectors in the First World War – ‘and what would you do, if a German soldier was ravishing your sister?’ – in other words, if the national conflict could be recast as a personal one, wouldn’t you see it as justified then? 

Are there not some things that every one of us would be prepared to do anything to protect?

In other words, is there not for all of us some particular end that justifies the means?

That is a hard question, because perhaps everyone can imagine being in a situation where someone we love is threatened and we like to think that we would do all that we could to protect and save them, regardless; and that is why we do well to be deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to recast the actions of a state in such personal terms – ‘we are doing this to defend your homes and families and all you hold most dear.’ ‘Taken’ can certainly be seen as a metaphor for a particular strand of American foreign policy, whether or not that was its makers’ primary intention.

Why do we have judicial processes? Why do we not allow the police to be also, like Judge Dredd, judge, jury and executioner? It is because, down the centuries, we have acquired some small wisdom with regard to the limitations of our human nature: things are not always what they seem; it is wise to have a presentation of evidence, and a consideration of it by disinterested parties, who have no stake in the outcome; it is wise to have a balance between expert knowledge and the common sense of the community, so that a verdict, when it is arrived at, has public confidence. And we do things this way not because it is infallible – it certainly is not – nor because it is efficient – it is laborious and time consuming and costly – but because it the best and fairest way we have been able to evolve. As such, it has become part of our way of life: this is how we do things.

And an important part of that way of life is that we stick to our principles: we do not violate them out of fear or from political expediency. Again, this is hard-learned wisdom about human nature – once you start making exceptions, once you allow the law to be bent ‘in certain circumstances’, you play into the hands of the rich and powerful, who will always be more persuasive than the poor and weak. Being fair to everyone, in practice, does not mean treating everyone equally – it means taking special care to protect those who cannot stand up for themselves, those whose weakness leaves them prey to the strong – ‘the widow and the orphan’, if you like.

Something that has a bearing here – perhaps an unexpected one – is the parable of the mote and the beam. It presents, in vivid and comical terms, a particular human failing – our tendency in judging to magnify the faults of others while diminishing our own: we draw our brother’s attention to the speck of dust in his eye, while ignoring the dirty great plank that is in ours.

The parables, for all their apparent simplicity, are very subtle forms of story telling; a key feature of many of them is their tendency to wrong-foot the listener. There are generally two parties – which do we identify with? Is it the prodigal son who wastes all his substance on liquor and women, or his hard-working brother who did all the right things? Is it the labourers in the vineyard who toiled all day in the heat, or the johnny-come-latelies who were hired at the eleventh hour? is it the Pharisee or the publican?

The invitation is to identify ourselves with the sinner; our tendency is to sympathise with the righteous. You could say that the message of the parables is that ‘the danger starts with seeing yourself as the good guy’. We see the beam in the other’s eye readily enough, though this is actually the opposite of what the parable tells us.

Just so with the terrorist: the beam in his eye is that he is willing to inflict appalling atrocities on the innocent, do monstrous injustice to further the cause that he thinks just and right – and by doing that, he surely undermines any rightness or justice his cause may have had; we see that plainly enough though he does not perceive it.

But what is the beam that the terrorist sees in our eye? Is it not something surprisingly similar? That for all our talk of fairness, justice, democracy and the rest, our way of life rests, not on these fine principles, but on our capability and willingness, if challenged, to defend it with overwhelming force? That our pre-eminent position in the world is not owing to our virtue but our might?

Of course, that’s not how we see it. These occasional blemishes – like inventing special categories of prisoner to get round the Geneva Convention, like ‘special rendition’, like farming out torture to folks who do that kind of thing, like maintaining at colossal expense a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying all human life – these are just specks. What we stand for, that’s the important thing. Our cause really is just. After all, we’re the good guys, aren’t we?

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