The True Source: a companion piece

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

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

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

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

weasel 3

(source of mug: Celestine & the Hare)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 Comment

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One response to “The True Source: a companion piece

  1. Elaine stonebraker

    Wonderful! Abstraction can be a useful tool… or something that alienates us from each other. Thank you again for this timely thought gem.

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