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A dead-end design and a template for the future

In 2009 the British Steam Car Challenge vehicle Inspiration set a new World Land Speed Record for a steam-powered car. The team behind it were awarded the Simms Medal by the Royal Automobile Club, named for its founder Frederick Simms, intended to recognise ‘a genuine contribution to motoring innovation by individuals or small companies that also exemplify the spirit of adventure.’

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The citation by John Wood, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club’s Awards Sub-Committee, is interesting:

“No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the “spirit of adventure”? Unquestionably! And that is why the British Steam Car Challenge Team, in memory of the late Frank Swanston, has been awarded the Simms Medal 2009.”

There is an implicit admission here that the award is not actually merited: while the courage, gallantry and dedication of the team cannot be questioned, the other criterion for the award has not been met. This was not a ‘genuine contribution to motoring innovation’ .

In the words of the citation, ‘a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity.’ The scale of both the improvement and the complexity we will consider shortly, but first we need to look at the value (or otherwise) of land speed records.

For some, travelling supremely fast is an achievement in itself, but the main justification for trying to go as fast as possible has always been that the technical development it entails has a broader application that can be of general benefit. Creating a car that will travel safely at tremendous speed challenges engineers and designers on every front and the solutions they come up with, whether in terms of materials, streamlining, or the design of the engine and ancillary systems can often , within a few years, find their place in mainstream manufacture.

Conversely, if they remain ad hocsolutions for the sole purpose of record breaking, their value is questionable – for instance, the use of jet propulsion may have raised the absolute LSR to supersonic levels ( 763 mph in 1997) with the ultimate aim of attaining 1000mph in the near future, but it is difficult to see what practical benefits this will bring – no-one considers jet propulsion as suitable for cars, and in any case, the cutting edge of jet propulsion is in its aeronautical applications, which already exceed anything that might be attempted on land. While there might be some peripheral benefits (in terms of materials and tyre technology, say, though of course the tyres are not driven) much of the technical effort, somewhat perversely, is directed to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for this application.

Against this background, let us consider both the ‘enormous complexity’ of Inspiration and the ‘relatively small improvement’ won by it.

Inspiration weighs in at a hefty 3 tonnes. It is 7.66 m long by 1.7m wide and 1.7m tall. It is powered by a two stage turbine rotating at 13000 rpm for which steam is generated in 12 watertube boilers with 3km of tubing. This requires 3 Megawatts of heat from Liquid Petroleum Gas burners, enough to heat 1500 kettles or make 23 cups of tea per second. This complexity is clad in a combination of carbon composite to the front and and aluminium panels to the rear.

Generating a relatively modest 360bhp, the car had a design top speed of 170 mph (for comparison, the Bentley Continental GT, a luxury production car, produces 626 bhp and is capable of 207 mph)

In the event, it took the record with a run of 139.843mph for a measured mile, subsequently raised to 148.308mph in two runs over the measured kilometre.

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The previous record stood at 127.659 mph. It was set in 1906 by the redoubtable Fred Marriott driving the Rocket, a modified version of the production Stanley Steam Car. Its two-cylinder double-acting steam reciprocating engine generated around 150bhp and required 350 revolutions to travel a mile – so that 350 rpm would be a mile a minute, 700rpm would be twice that – 120 mph – and the record would require 740 rpm (for comparison, this equates to the typical idle speed of an internal combustion engine – 600-1000rpm – at which it generates sufficient power to run smoothly and operate various ancillaries like pumps etc. but not enough to move the car).

Rocket weighed in at 1675 lbs, with the entire power plant – boiler, engine, burner and firebox, pumps, tanks etc – contributing just under half the total (835 lbs). Its body was, in effect, an upturned canoe, consisting of canvas stretched over a cedar frame. It was 16′ long and 3′ wide and was made by a noted Boston canoe builder. The car was steered with a tiller.

Unlike Inspiration’s, the record set by Rocket was absolute – Marriott was the fastest man on the planet, by any means. The following year, he went faster still, but the car crashed when it hit two ruts in the sand at Florida beach. At the time of the crash, he is conservatively reported as having reached a speed of of between 140 and 150mph, though Marriott himself – who survived the wreck – said that it was timed at ‘a hair under 190 mph’. 


A couple of decades later, in 1925, the young Howard Hughes reportedly drove his Doble E20 roadster at 133mph. Hughes’s car was no record-breaking special, but a lightly modified standard production car in full road-going trim, with a huge flat condenser at the front, which can hardly have contributed to its aerodymaics. It is still on the road today, in the care of Jay Leno

My point is a simple one. As with the jet-powered. Bloodhound SSC, much of the design effort in the British Steam Car Challenge Inspiration was devoted to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for its intended purpose. Steam turbines are best suited to running at constant high speed under heavy load, which makes them ideal for marine propulsion and generating electricity but ill-suited to use in cars. Although Rover experimented with a gas-turbine car in the fifties, no-one to my knowledge had successfully put a steam turbine in a car before Inspiration.


On the other hand, the one proven aspect of Rocket was the power unit. The motor-car was in its infancy but steam had been around as a motive force for nearly two centuries and by then drove shipping, railways, pumping stations and power plants. The steam reciprocating engine was well understood, simple and robust – the Stanley boasted a total of thirteen moving parts and its relatively low running-speed meant that it was unstressed and highly durable.

It was at its zenith in that first decade of the century when the motor-car was still a rich man’s plaything, so that the superior smoothness and quietness of the steam engine outweighed its expense both initially, in running and in maintenance; the fact that it took a good half-hour or so to raise steam mattered little if you could pay a chauffeur to do that for you. By the time Abner Doble had overcome most of these difficulties in the 1920s, it was too late: Henry Ford had already established the internal combustion engine as reliable, robust and cheap to run.

Nonetheless, the advance in performance and design that Doble’s car demonstrated in rather less than twenty tears surely make it a far better template for a record-breaking car than the one chosen by the British Steam car Challenge. And while Inspirationis a dead-end, as far as practical application goes, a Doble-based car that took advantage of the advances in design and materials in the last ninety years could be just what the world is looking for.

Many countries in Europe have already fixed dates for the end of internal combustion as a motive force in cars, and most people think that the future lies with electricity. But with improvements in burner technology, sustainable fuels, economic high-pressure steam generation, ultra-low friction engine materials (such as ceramics) and improvements to condensers and autonomous systems, a strong case could be made for steam.

It is certainly an experiment worth trying.


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A man deceiving himself in the hope of deceiving others

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This curious speech by Alistair Darling bears listening to twice. If you wish to have the text in front of you, here it is:

‘I do not believe there will be another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, the public don’t want it. Most of the British public, never mind the Scottish public, are heartily sick of referendums. They divide, they turn people against each other – the scars are deep, they’re still there in Scotland. And people don’t want to go through that again.

Secondly, the emotion of what happened in 2014, it’s still there, but the economics have got worse. Oil prices are a case in point. It’s interesting that the nationalists now openly talk about the virtual fraudulent nature of the document they produced in 2013 which set out the economic case. None of them will stand by it now, yet there’s another one coming out on Friday. What seems to be different is we’re now going to have a Scottish pound: sharing the pound is off the agenda. They’ve probably noticed that if you spend a lifetime abusing the people that you don’t like and then you break away and say, now can we have a close relationship with you, it doesn’t somehow work. Look for example at what’s going on at the present time. But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

I used to like Alistair Darling well enough; I even met him once, in a surreal moment at the height of the economic crisis in Autumn 2008, when he as Chancellor of the Exchequer was for some reason touring the BBC in Glasgow, where I was part of a group of writers learning about writing for radio.

But I do not believe, on the strength of that speech, that I will be able to trust Alistair Darling, now or in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, he equates democratic debate with civil war: here we have a politician asserting that people do not want to have their say on matters that concern them, that they are fed up with being asked, because it just provokes strife. It is assertions like this that distinguish the career politician from the genuine democrat, the time-server from the public servant. I wonder which the people of the Balkans would have preferred – a divisive referendum on the future of Yugoslavia, and the figurative scars that went with it, or what actually happened to them?

Secondly, the dishonesty that was there in 2014, it’s still there, but it’s got worse. Oil prices are a case in point: at the very time Mr Darling was giving this speech, oil prices were at the highest they have been for four years, and are set to rise still further . Yet he implies the opposite. I am not aware of any nationalists talking openly about the ‘virtual fraudulent nature’ of their 2013 document [what does that actually mean? that it wasn’t fraudulent? that it wasn’t an actual document?] but I certainly don’t hear Mr Darling acknowledging the blatant dishonesty of his own campaign – that Scotland would be left without a currency, that Scotland would have to leave the EU unless it voted ‘No’ (how did that one work out, Alistair?).

At the very time the pro-union coalition were asserting that they would never enter a currency union, each of them knew that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the first thing that would happen would be a round-table negotiation on that and related matters – that, after all, is how politics works.

(In fact, it was the sheer ineptitude of the ‘better together’ campaign – fronted (one can hardly say ‘led’) by the same Mr Darling – that led me to shift from an initial ‘No’ to an increasingly certain ‘Yes’ as time went on:

(And while we’re on the matter of currency unions between countries where one breaks away after a long history of friction and indeed open rebellion, we might ask if Alistair has any knowledge of our financial relations with the Republic of Ireland – Eire –- from its inception in 1937 as successor to the Free State. The Irish Pound, which was tied to sterling for 40 years – how did that work out, Alistair?)

Finally, there is the strange incoherence that lies below the polished rhetoric: which referendum is he actually talking about? From the initial conflation of the British public with the Scottish (but never mind them) through his reference to deep, scarring division, to that curious statement about wanting a close relationship with people you have broken away from having spent a lifetime abusing them and the invitation to ‘look… at what’s going on at the present time’ it is almost as if he had forgotten the intended subject of his speech and switched to talking about Brexit instead.

And what on earth is he trying to say in that final paragraph?

‘But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

From emphatically telling us at the outset that no-one wants to talk about independence, let alone be asked to vote on it, he now makes the astonishing concession that ‘there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action’ (and let us remember that ‘core’ means ‘heart’) and furthermore ‘if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

And there, if you like, he lets the cat out of the bag. He senses (as I do) that in the wake of Brexit – where Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain* only to be told that they must accept the desire of a large minority of the British electorate (17.4 million out of 46.5) – there is a growing feeling that we would be better not shackled to an England heading resolutely in the wrong direction, trying to revive an idea of itself as a major player on a world stage that has changed out of all recognition (do not forget that we joined the EEC precisely because the old order had changed).

I think that Darling senses, as I do, that the Scottish people would rather like to revisit the question of independence, not because they are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists – I certainly am not – but because they would prefer to be a small nation acting in concert with our neighbours in the largest trading bloc in an interdependent world than part of a larger nation pursuing a solo course with neither economic nor strategic power to sustain it.

I may be wrong, of course; but I would be perfectly happy to ask the people again what they think now, on both matters – Scottish Independence and Membership of the EU. Isn’t that how democracy is meant to work?

Never trust a politician who says that people do not want to be consulted on matters that concern them.

*interestingly, the Scottish vote exactly mirrors the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted remain plus those who did not vote) to those who voted to leave – 62% to 38% in both cases.




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The (limited) meaning of existence

Never mind God – do I exist?

I don’t mean that feeling – familiar enough to some of us – that you have somehow become invisible to those around you, nor am I suggesting that I might be a figment of your imagination (a kind of reverse solipsism) – rather I am concerned with the scope and application of that often-used term ‘exist’.

‘Existence’ is generally coupled with ‘reality’ – what is real is what can be said to exist, and vice versa; the branch of philosophy that deals with these matters is called ontology. Before we go into philosophy, though, let us tarry a moment with commonsense. Dr Johnson may not have understood what Berkeley was talking about , but his memorable refutation is interesting  – ‘he struck his foot against a rock with such force that he rebounded from it and said, ‘I refute it thus”.

What interests me here is that the commonsense definition of reality – the conviction that something is real – is a feeling : specifically, the feeling we get when we encounter something solid, as when we strike our hand upon the table or our head against the wall, or as Dr Johnson did, our foot against a stone. Real is real for us – which, ironically, is just what Berkeley was arguing with his esse est percipi.

The aim of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as he states in his preface, is

‘to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts’.

Here is what he has to say on the matter of the subject (in the philosophical sense of what is denoted by the pronoun ‘I’– as opposed to ‘me’, which denotes my objective aspect: what I see in the mirror is not I, but me):


Here is the section that precedes it:


It is interesting to compare Wittgenstein on the Subject with Hume on the Self:

‘I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’
(A Treatise of Human Nature, sect VI, ‘of personal identity’)

Are Wittgenstein and Hume saying the same thing? It may be a matter of where you put the emphasis – is it ‘there is no such thing as the subject’ or ‘there is no such thing as the subject’? (the latter allowing that there may be subjects, but they are not things).

Of course we find that language is against us here: if what we are talking about is no thing, then it is nothing, surely? And if it is nothing – well, it is simply nothing, an absence, a non-entity.

Not necessarily: it may be that the coverage that language provides is not universal – it does not cover all there is  – and that calls to mind the final section of the Tractatus:

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’

It might be that there is a process of mutual reinforcement (or indeed validation) going on here – if language stands to the world as a picture does to what it pictures – which is what Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus* – then the content of the one is the content of the other; so that once we move to a general level, things (or reality, which means the same) are what exist, and what exist are things. Whatever falls outside the sphere defined by language is nothing: it does not exist.

However, it may be that Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it: you can find things by looking, but what if what you seek is not a thing?

This puzzle becomes clearer if we go back, via Descartes, to S. Augustine. Descartes, seeking for some certain foundation on which he could build, asserts cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – making it seem a logical deduction; Augustine, over a thousand years earlier, observed that ‘the man who says ‘I know that I am alive’ can neither be deceived nor lie.’ (meaning he could neither be mistaken about it, nor pretending) – which makes ‘being alive’ seem a matter of knowledge.

However, my being alive is not something I know; it is not something I discovered as the result of research, after a period of doubt, nor is it subject to any verification**; rather it is what I am. Indeed, my being alive is surely the ground of my knowing anything. Likewise, to take the Cartesian formulation, we do not deduce from reflection that we are – we simply are; and our being is a prerequisite for any deduction. Wittgenstein says ‘you do not see the eye’ but he might equally have said ‘you do not see the ‘I’ ‘

This relation, the subject-object interface, is a problem for philosophers; it does not trouble commonsense, as the Johnson story I began with illustrates. And like many philosophical problems, its root can be traced back to Plato, whose discrediting of the senses is equally a discrediting, marginalisation and suppression of the Subject, which henceforth is regarded by philosophers as an obstacle to be overcome, preferably by discounting it altogether, particularly when it comes to rational thought – consider the pejorative sense that ‘subjective’ has in any discussion in that field: to say that a viewpoint is ‘subjective’ is to brand it partial, biased, distorted by personal considerations and generally not worth heeding: it is involved, rather than detached (a telling distinction).

I think the time has come to rehabilitate the subject.

It is, as I said above, the ground of our knowing anything (and that resonates interestingly with a definition that some theologians – including Hans Kung, if I remember right – use of God: ‘the ground of our being’). I would suggest the model below to express the relationship between the subject and the world of  ‘independent objective reality’ (a treble redundancy, since ‘reality’ in its philosophical use carries with it the notion of being objective and independent, though it does not in its commonsense or Johnsonian one):
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I think the implications of this model are worth unfolding, and I will return to it in a later article. For the present I will say only that Language (in its philosophical sense) operates only in the red area; Art operates in the blue (which is the universal set, and contains the red).

*though he later abandoned the picture theory – where meaning is a correspondence between words and a state of affairs in the world – for the idea that meaning is the use of a word, a shift of the most profound significance.

**this in fact is the theme of Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty



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Eight questions

My estimable friend Jackie Morris, artist and illustrator, writer of books, friend of bears, has some questions she would like us to answer (you can find more details here – – including the prospect of prizes if you so incline).

Here are the questions:

  1. If you could see through someone else’s eyes who would that be?
  2. If you could see something one more time, what would that be?
  3. If you could make something, anything, what would you choose to make?
  4. How would you describe your desire?
  5. Do you make wishes?
  6. Do you dream?
  7. If you could develop a skill before you die what would you choose?
  8. Do you have any regrets? if the answer is no please move to question 8a.

8a. What are your regrets?

I  like 8a. Honesty is the best policy (apart from outright brazen lying)

My first reaction was to feel sad and think that I could not really answer any of those questions. Then I decided I would try anyway.

So, first question, through whose eyes would I see?

an albatross, I think. I like the idea of that lone cruising

‘Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.’

as Mr Eliot so admirably puts it.

Next, what something would I see again? ‘Something‘ excludes people, and a host of bittersweet possibilities; so I would say – what? I do not know. Perhaps I do not believe you can see anything again – it will always be different. As Heraclitus observed, you cannot step in the same river twice.

What to make? I have lately become enamoured of the whole process of making books, having recently made one hundred of my own (see here: Making McAvinchey) So, something possible and specific – a hydraulic printing press like this one:

How would I describe my desire?

Not fervent enough, alas, but I will try to burn hotter.

Do I make wishes?


Do I dream?

yes, both waking and sleeping.

What skill would I develop? Letterpress printing or working a lathe.


That I did not do more; that I held back and lacked courage; that I thought too much and felt too little; that I did not love enough.




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The Bonfire of Responsibility


The thing about systems is that they are designed to work as a whole, each component interacting to produce the desired effect. To interfere with one part is to throw the whole out of kilter.

If it is your job to make hard decisions it is wise to consider and indeed consult the opinion of those who will be affected by them; but making the decision still remains your job, not theirs.

That goes to the heart of the awful slow-motion train-wreck that we in Britain are presently witnessing, where a government, shamefully aided and abetted by the leader of the Opposition, is in the process of railroading through both Houses of Parliament a bill which, given a free vote, they would certainly reject.

At this point, we might expect the comic figure of Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg to pop up and start trumpeting about ‘the will of the British people’ and how it ‘must not be thwarted’.

A compounding factor in this disaster* is the inability of people like Mr Rees-Mogg to tell the truth. Each time he or anyone, in discussing the European referendum, utters the phrase ‘the will of the British people’, he should be gently stopped, and told to say instead ‘the will of a large minority of the electorate at a time when the majority did not vote to leave Europe (and those who will be most lastingly affected – the 16-18 year olds – were excluded from the process).’

I grant it is neither as catchy nor as resounding as ‘the will of the British people’ but it does have the advantage of being an accurate statement of the truth, which ‘the will of the British people’, in this context, is not (something that Mr Rees-Mogg and his like know perfectly well – hence their unwillingness to discuss the point).

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, like Mr Punch, is not easily suppressed. Up he pops again and tells us that the government agreed that it would be bound by the result of the referendum, so it is a matter of honour, of keeping one’s word, of honouring a pledge made to the British people (and so on, and so on…).

But it is none of those things: it is, on the contrary, a complete abnegation of responsibility – shirking, in plain terms. To begin at the beginning: a thing is either binding or it is not; if it is not, no amount of saying that it is will make it so. ‘Binding’ in this case means ‘having the force of law’ – in other words, you would be breaking the law to go against it.

As was made plain in the House of Commons Briefing Paper (no. 7212) that set out the scope and powers of the European referendum, ‘The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland’. To have such a binding referendum would require new legislation : Parliament would have to pass a law to make it so; that is how the system works.

It does not work by the government saying (as it has done here) ‘this does not have the force of law, but we will treat it as if it does.’ You cannot treat something as a law: it either is or isn’t.

The reasoning that underpins this is worth examining. While the laws of physics – gravity, for example – have actual force and cannot be defied, the laws of the land are conventions – they only have such force as we agree to allow them (which is why they have to be backed by sanctions with a police force and courts to enforce them).

This act of endowing the law with compelling force is really a transfer of responsibility, largely for practical purposes: it saves us making our mind up in every case individually if we have a rule that we agree to apply in all such cases. Naturally, we want to think carefully before transferring power to an order of words in this way, which is why we have a system of parliamentary scrutiny before any legislation is passed.

And this means that, where something is not the law, the responsibility for deciding what happens in that case must lie elsewhere. In the matter of the European referendum, that responsibility lies with parliament, which has a duty to take full cognisance of the result and act accordingly, in the best interests of the whole country, now and in the foreseeable future (that’s their job, what we elect them to do). Yes, I know – tedious, boring, grown-up. But this is not a game show.

To put it in terms that even Jacob Rees-Mogg can understand –

A harassed mother of seven children, at the end of her tether because they are all squabbling as it is raining and they were going to have a bonfire, says ‘Right! we’ll have a vote – whatever the majority of you want to do, that’s what we’re going to do, all right? Only no more squabbling!’

Two of the children (twins) gaze round-eyed but say nothing. Two vote to watch telly and have the bonfire another day. The remaining three vote to have the bonfire now, indoors, on the living-room carpet.

Hands up all those who think mum is obliged to start gathering combustible material on the carpet?

*and with the continuing rise of Marine le Pen towards the presidency of France and the hitherto-unthinkable possibility that one of the two main foundations of the European Union will be removed (with others surely following), I grow fearful that it will be disastrous, not only for us, but Europe and ultimately the world. I hope I am wrong.

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Who’s got the idea?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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