Category Archives: language-related

St. Anselm and the Blackbird


2017-05-23 15.17.35


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


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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More thinking about thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points worth pondering, at least.

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A penny for them…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-04-21 13.12.20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

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

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

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

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

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

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Stone-sucking, or what matters

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If you read this page aloud it will strike you that there is nothing in your speech corresponding to the white spaces on the page that separate the words. Word separation is not a feature of every script – some Asiatic ones do not use it even now – and it has been accomplished in different ways at different times; the Romans used dots or points (puncta – the origin of ‘punctuation’) the Greeks I think used none originally, and even at one time wrote boustrophedon (literally ‘ox-turning’, or in the manner of ploughing a field) – i.e. the lines run alternately from left to right then from right to left, perfectly logical in terms of eye movement:

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Word division, then, is plainly an aid to reading, an adjunct of the written form, with no counterpart in speech; and this raises interesting questions about words themselves. We might incline to think that we need no word division in speech because we ‘already know’ how to distinguish words, because, well, we know the individual words, which are stored in our vocabulary (or word-hoard, as the Anglo-Saxons called it) like so many building blocks or components ready for use whenever we wish to construct a sentence.

There may now be an element of truth in that, because two and a half millennia of literacy (interrupted by the Dark Ages in Western Europe, but continuous further East) has schooled us – literally – in the ways of educated speech, which is heavily influenced and indeed dominated by the written form. We are used (or at least my generation was) to learning other languages in a way that brings out their rule-governed nature – we have verbs laid out in tables that show the variations from first to third persons, and from singular to plural; we analyse individual words into roots that remain the same and endings and beginnings – prefixes and suffixes, or inflections – which vary according to case and so on; we learn rules for the order of pronouns (me te se before le la les  before lui leur before  y before en before the verb, if I recall). And of course we accumulate lists of vocabulary, learning individual words and their particular meanings.

All of this encourages us to think of language as a system of building blocks or individual components – words – which can be assembled in a variety of ways according to certain rules – grammar. Yet a little reflection will tell us that this analysis only became possible – or indeed necessary – with the development of the written form.

When speech was – as I have suggested before [Plucked from the Chorus Line, The Disintegration of Expression] – only one mode of expression among many (and quite likely not the most important) – then we had neither the means nor the need to analyse it in the way we take for granted now. We did not have the means because there was no method of giving speech objective form so that it could be studied and analysed; that only comes as a by-product of the invention of writing [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment]. A by-product, because we must remember that writing was not primarily devised as a means of transcribing speech, a need which our ancestors would not have felt – after all, we had been transmitting our culture orally (and by other means of expression) since the dawn of time, for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

The accidental nature of the whole concept of a written language and all that it entails – literacy, books, systematic text-based education, the whole basis of our modern way of life – is worth emphasising, to remind us that we managed for a long time without these things and did not feel in the least deprived or impoverished: it is perhaps the most significant example of what I have called an ‘elective indispensable’ something we have managed very well without, then reoriented our way of life to make living without it inconceivable.

Before we were able to analyse language by studying its written form, we may have followed rules, but we did so unconsciously, by instinct, much as (say) indigenous Amazonian tribes will appear to observers to engage in rule-governed speech but would not (I guess) be able to say much about the rules they were following, or offer a grammatical analysis of their own tongue in the way that the observers (trained to look at things that way) could.

‘Trained to look at things that way’ is a key expression there. Do the observers see something that the native speakers overlook? That is a complex question, worthy of close attention. To walk with a trained geologist through a landscape is to see it with fresh eyes, and to learn a new and different way of looking at it; and to walk with an indigenous Australian through the landscape where he is at home would be similar, though the two would see quite different things. One way of putting it would be that they would see themselves as in two different stories about how they related to and understood the landscape; what strikes one as significant might be quite different from what strikes the other, so who is overlooking what?

What that comparison brings out is the extent that we bring things to our analyses, rather than finding them there. An analogy might be to going out equipped with a box divided into compartments of different shapes and sizes – the things you find to put in the different compartments are ‘already there’ but you have brought your system of categorisation with you; your principles of selection are decided beforehand. If you came instead with a number of equal-sized boxes but each lined with a different colour sample which you sought to match, you would end up with a wholly different selection and arrangement of things ‘already there’.

The underlying question is whether your system of categorisation corresponds to something objective, something we might be inclined to call ‘reality’. This seems to me a – or possibly the – fundamental philosophical question, and it reminds me of something that might at first seem wholly unconnected. I wonder if you will follow my leap?

What my mind leaps to – or leaps to my mind – is a passage from Samuel Beckett, in Molloy. I must thank my friend Stephanie Peppard (her blog, The Woman on a Yellow Bicycle, is worth a visit) for drawing it to my attention. I strongly commend reading it in full –

or indeed you can hear it here (in a slightly varied text):

The gist of it is that Molloy, on visiting the seaside, lays in a store of pebbles, which he calls ‘sucking stones’. He likes to suck each stone in turn and is considerably exercised by how best he should arrange them about his person in order to facilitate this. Having four pockets and sixteen stones, he first considers an equitable distribution of four in each, so that when he draws from his ‘supply’ pocket (which we can call the first) for a stone to suck, he transfers a stone from the next, second, pocket to make up the deficiency, and so on, with the sucked stone eventually taking its place to make up the depleted numbers in the fourth pocket.

However, he soon hits a snag:
‘But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.’

In order to guarantee his principle of sucking each stone in turn, he tries various permutations, only to find that he has to sacrifice another cherished principle, that of having the stones in balance across his pockets:

‘Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But
deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and forewards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be without. But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any. And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed …’

This passage strikes me as a profound – and profoundly funny – insight into human behaviour: it captures the absurd rigour with which we observe self-imposed conventions, while all the time being aware ‘deep down’ that none of it matters, or rather only matters because we choose to make it matter. That last distinction is important: to read this as a commentary on the pointlessness of human behaviour is, I think, too bleak; it is more that what we do is self-validating – it matters because we make it matter. The underlying message is not that nothing matters, but rather that something does – though what that is, exactly, we are not sure; which is why we go on searching – or just go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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‘These great concurrences of things’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Again, Haraldsen is deeply moved:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A subject to which I shall return.

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