The Opaque Window: a fable

People live beside an ancient wall. In the wall is an aperture, a window, which has great cultural significance for them. Many of them gather regularly to stare at the window, an odd practice, as all the panes are opaque; you can see nothing through it, though it does, to a very slight degree, admit light, at certain times.

These are the times when the people most like to gather at the window, because it glows dimly in a mysterious way which they find profoundly moving – they tell themselves and each other that this is why the window is revered as the foundation of their culture.

A strong tradition has grown up of drawing life-lessons from the window in the form of stories or sayings; they are the sort of thing the people take comfort from when they are troubled or perplexed or grieved.

The window itself is sacred: you have to be specially ordained to be allowed to touch it, and even then it must be done with the utmost reverence – this applies particularly to the glass panes. The frame, which is said ‘once upon a time’ to have been very plain, has over the years, as an expression of people’s piety and reverence, become increasingly ornate, decorated with carvings and gilded with real gold leaf.

(This practice occasionally causes friction among the faithful, and from time to time a puritan party holds sway, and they insist on getting everything back to its original unadorned plainness, though this only lasts for a time before it begins to accrete new ornament)

One night, when no-one is around, a young child rubs one of the sacred panes with a wet finger and creates a streak in the age-old layers of dirt. Through the streak he glimpses a sliver of light. Fascinated, he carries on till every pane is clear as crystal and he sees through them against a background of velvet darkness the slender crescent of the moon and a myriad stars.

He gazes in wonder till he feels sleepy and goes off to his bed.

Next morning, the people gather and gaze through the window in utter astonishment at the sun rising on a beautiful landscape. Their understanding of the window and their culture is transformed.



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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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The Partygoers


[This story was originally published in 2014 by the Sarob Press, in The Book of Shadows 2, their second anthology of MR James sequels by various hands. This version has been slightly modified to make it easier to read aloud. There is a link to a spoken version, and some notes at the end reflecting on the ‘morality’ of the story. My thanks to Katie Pamment for the slightly sinister picture of me at the Edinburgh Bavarian Christmas Market in 2012 that provides the heading]

[Here is a link to a spoken version of the story]

Had I been another sort of man, I would have laughed in his face; it might have been better if I had, for both of us.

Professor Bentley was a rackety sort: he occupied the chair in Paranormal Studies which no one with any reputation would touch with a bargepole. The chair had been funded with a bequest from a notably eccentric alumnus, quite possibly as a joke, but the Vice-Chancellor was unwilling to turn it down, though many of us protested that he should. It had done the University’s standing as an academic institution no good at all – “laughing-stock” was a term frequently employed – but as the Vice-Chancellor was keen to remind us, it brought “much-needed income” and “a significant boost to student numbers” .

Bentley’s students, I have to say, were among the silliest young people I have ever encountered. An unusually high percentage of them were nubile young women whose chief attributes were giggling, squealing, and showing their magnificent teeth – which was not unconnected with the fact that Bentley ran a TV show as part of his course. This went out on one of the higher-numbered channels and consisted of visits to supposedly haunted sites by a crew consisting of Bentley, a number of squealing students, and a monosyllabic cameraman given to outbursts of foul language at moments of excitement. It was mostly filmed using night-vision equipment so that everything was tinged with ghastly green. It purported to be ‘a serious attempt to document any sites in England associated with paranormal activity.’

Of course everyone in the College watched it, though few would admit to it. Nonetheless, I was surprised when Bentley turned up in the School of Mediaeval Studies, asking for me by name. I would not call him an attractive man: he walked with a stoop and had lank dark hair that fell over his face so that he was always having to brush it away. His students credited him with “an intense stare” which I suspected was augmented by coloured contact lenses. He had a nervous manner and an odd way of speaking, very precise and clipped.

“I’m just working out next year’s schedule,” he told me, “and I wondered if you could point me in the direction of any likely mediaeval sites.”
“Do you want ones that come with any particular history?”
“Preferably not – even if there is, I’d rather not know it. We want to go in clean, without any preconceptions. More scientific that way.”
That was the point where I should have laughed, I think. It would have saved us both a deal of trouble.

My difficulty was that I didn’t know what to make of Bentley. He seemed so devoid of any sense of irony that I thought it must be a pose – that while we took him for a fool, he was really making fools of us. That was the certainly view of my colleague Cusiter, a profound cynic: “you may well mock Mr Bentley,” he told a young man who was doing just that, “but if you ask me, he does very nicely out of it.”

The notion that Bentley was a consummate charlatan, a species of satirical performance artist sending up the pomposity of academia, was certainly more entertaining than the possibility that he might actually be as he seemed. He claimed never to have read any book of fiction – “and certainly not ghost stories” – and to have been raised by parents whose scientific materialism denied the young Bentley not only the consolations of religion, but anything at all that in their opinion smacked of “fantasy” – which is to say, about ninety percent of the standard adolescent diet. In consequence he was – or claimed to be – wholly without imagination.

“Might I ask why you are particularly interested in old sites?” I enquired.
He looked at me with some surprise.
“Why, because they are the most likely to be haunted.”

I should add, at this point, that Bentley’s approach – on the evidence of his TV programmes – was conventional to the point of stereotype. Ghosts were sought in graveyards, old houses and picturesque ruins, or else in natural sites that had some ancient pedigree – the Druids, the Romans, or Bronze-age settlements. A key concomitant of ghosts, evidently, was their antiquity (It was, as the cynical Cusiter observed, “Just the sort of thing the Americans lap up”).

“I suppose,” I said, “that you expect these places to be haunted by ancient ghosts?”
“I try to keep myself free from expectations,” said Bentley, primly. “But it would be logical to expect ancient ghosts in ancient places.”
“So where do the modern ghosts go?”

I will admit I said this out of mischief, purely for the sake of observing Bentley’s reaction. He cocked his head to one side, then to the other, as if to convey that he was considering the matter from every angle. An odd look of rapture crept over his face that put me in mind of Keats: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken”.

Modern ghosts?” he breathed. “Do you know, I really hadn’t thought about that – where do they go, I wonder?”

And I wondered, not for the first time, how I could possibly take this man at face value – he must be having me on; the alternative was too depressing to contemplate. So I did what one does in these circumstances: I joined in the game. With an equally straight face I said:

“M.R. James had some ideas on that, I think.”
“M.R. James?”
“A fellow mediaevalist. He wrote ghost stories as an entertainment, but I think he must have known about it from personal experience. Listen to this…”

I made a long arm and reached down my edition of James’s Collected Ghost Stories, and read out a passage from “After Dark in the Playing Fields”:

“I find I do not like a crowd after dark – for example at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see – no, you do not, but I see – such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as if they were searching for someone – who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him. ‘Where do they come from?’ Why, some, I think, out of the water, and some out of the ground. They look like that.”

I fixed him with a gaze that I hoped matched his own in intensity.

“That has the authentic ring, don’t you think? That change of person… ‘You see – no, you do not, but I see’ – it has the effect of a mask slipping momentarily, does it not? And the tone of it is quite different from the rest of the piece, which is a jokey sort of thing, not even a proper story. It’s very much ‘tacked on’, as if James felt compelled to say it, regardless of how it fitted – he even makes a point of separating it in the text. It is like some truth blurted out unintentionally.”

Bentley gave a low whistle: I could see he was impressed, or pretending to be. Just for the fun of it, I pushed things a little further.

“James’s thesis is more credible than the conventional one, I think – after all, why would the dead haunt deserted places, ruins and the like? Would they not be much more likely to seek the company of the living? Especially random crowds of strangers where they might pass unnoticed?”

Bentley nodded his head excitedly. I felt the urge to keep going.

“And here’s another thought – have you ever considered the custom of issuing formal invitations to parties? Where does that come from, I wonder?”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that immemorial tradition of the threshold as a barrier which spirits cannot cross – they have to have been invited in. And a party is just the sort of miscellaneous gathering the dead might be drawn to – lots of ‘life energy’ as you might say – intimacy among strangers. You go to parties to meet people, don’t you? Perhaps in former times they were more alive to the possibility that the wrong sort might get in – hence the practice of issuing formal invitations.”
“I’d never thought of that – it’s entirely possible!”

I’ve often found that flights of fancy flourish where there is a receptive audience.

“Then there’s that passage in the Gospel,” I found myself saying, “ – I don’t suppose you’re familiar with it, with your upbringing?”

He shrugged; I searched behind me for a New Testament.

“Here it is: ‘And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ The savage hostility of that! It’s really chilling, when you consider that only a few minutes before he was issuing a generous invitation to all comers. Clearly there were some guests that were not welcome under any circumstances.”

I don’t know what I hoped for: in a curious way, it was a kind of flirting – you know, when you’re both talking about one thing and meaning another. If Bentley had been a woman, I’d have looked for something in the eyes, some signal in his look that contradicted what his lips were saying, reinforced, perhaps, by a twitch at the corners of the mouth – a mutual recognition that we were playing a game. At the very least there would have been some ambiguity in his response that hinted at more than was actually being said – but there was nothing. He stayed resolutely in character, the unimaginative man surprised by a new idea.

“You really have given me a lot to think about! Thank you!”
“Well, let me know how you get on,” I said. “Perhaps we should start going to the same parties?”

But even that parting shot elicited nothing more than a smile and an enthusiastic nod.


By an odd coincidence, the next time I saw Bentley, it was at a party. He was unusually animated, as if drink had loosened his tongue. He was deep in conversation with some three or four others I didn’t recognise: I don’t think they were students – certainly they were not the usual sort that Bentley was seen with. They seemed to take a great interest in what he was saying, stooping down and looking up into his face. The posture was oddly familiar, but it took me some time to recollect where I had seen it before: a teacher, a woman, talking to a pupil who was intent on avoiding eye-contact – whenever he fixed his eyes on the floor, she would hunker down and look up into his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. There was an element of coercion in it.

I did not see Bentley leave. Neither, it appears, did anyone else. The police questioned everyone who had been at the party; everyone they could find, that is. Bentley they found in a drainage ditch, face down in a foot of water. No one could account for his being there: it was some way out of town and entailed a journey of at least three miles to reach it, across rough terrain. I told the police about the people I had seen with him at the party, but I could not pick them out from any of the pictures they took of those attending. The verdict when it finally came was misadventure: there were no signs of violence and the alcohol levels in the body, though high, were not excessive. Aside from the central mystery of how he got from the party to the distant field unobserved by anyone, and why on earth he was there at all, there was no reason to think it other than an unfortunate accident.

I saw no cause to mention to anyone the conversation I had had with Bentley, and once I had overcome the initial shock of his death I persuaded myself that there was no reason for me to make any connection between the two – in any case, what connection could there be?

I did not think I had let the incident affect me unduly till one day, shortly before Christmas, a colleague asked if I would be attending a seasonal gathering that evening. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you at anything this term – have you become a hermit?” I mumbled something about being absorbed in research, but once I was alone I reflected that – without any conscious decision – I had indeed avoided all but the smallest, most intimate gatherings since Bentley’s disappearance; certainly I had gone to nothing where I could not be sure beforehand whom I might meet. That evening’s gathering, which followed on from a carol service, was of quite the opposite kind: anyone could go and many would, since the standard of hospitality was excellent. I saw that there was no avoiding it: to do so would be to open the door to the irrational.

The carol service, in the college chapel, affected me unexpectedly. I am used to the warm fuzzy feel-good sentiment that goes with candlelight and gothic vaulting and soaring boy sopranos in white surplices transforming banal lyrics into heart-stirring sound, but this was quite different: for the first time in my adult life, I desperately wanted it to be true that the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light. Looking at a wavering candle, I recalled St John: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it – but even as I thought it, the flame guttered and went out.

When the service drew to a close I felt a great reluctance to leave; but the throng pressed about me and I was carried out into the dark. A voice spoke at my elbow and, looking sharply round, I was relieved to see the colleague who had spoken to me that afternoon.

“You decided to come after all! I’m so glad. Remarkable crowd in tonight – the season draws them, I suppose. And the promise of free drink, of course.”

I heard myself laugh and make some fatuous rejoinder. After all, why should I not enjoy myself? ’tis the season to be jolly: nothing banishes morbid fancies like a glass or two of good wine in convivial company. I brushed away all thoughts of Bentley and the yearning I had felt in chapel and set my face firmly to make the most of the evening. What nonsense it all was, I told myself, catching sight of one of the Fellows, a prominent secularist, in jovial conversation with the chaplain, a glass of wine in one hand, the other gesturing extravagantly with a mince pie: there was a man whose example I would do well to follow.

“There’s a man who knows how to enjoy himself,” someone said, right at my ear, but I could not see who had spoken – the way he seemed to voice my thought gave me a momentary qualm.

I reached for a second glass of wine but the tray was whisked away; as I turned in annoyance a man beside me said, “Here, let me offer you this,” and held out a large glass of dark wine. I took it and drank gratefully, aware at once that it was something out of the common run. “Remarkably good, isn’t it?” said the man. He turned to someone at his side and said, “I was just introducing our friend here to this remarkable vintage”. The man nodded and held up his own glass in toast. “To the pleasures to come!” he said.
“That’s a fine toast,” said a third voice, at my shoulder. “I’ll drink to that!”

The volume of sound in the room had increased, so that I was aware of the conversation going on around me, but could not make out the detail of it: when I felt that words were addressed to me, I made what I thought was a suitable reply, though I could scarcely hear myself speak. In any case, it hardly seemed to matter – my new companions, who evidently knew one another, were engaged in that sort of swift flowing exchange where the topic is batted back and forth, skilfully caught and passed on to the amusement of all; only I felt a little left out, being unable to follow exactly what was being said, yet glad to be included in the general bonhomie. It was like being swept along on a powerful tide.

I came to myself on the brink of a dark drop. Half a step further and I would have fallen into a deep canal lock. It was sheer-sided and ill lit. I doubt if I should have managed to get out of it. There was no one with me, and the only sound was the fall of water leaking from the lock-gates. It was an utterly deserted spot. How I came to be there, I have no idea.

I would like to interpret the fact that I was left on the brink of the water and not in it as a warning, rather than a foretaste of what is to come. I remain watchful and avoid gatherings of any sort; I am careful whom I invite to cross my threshold – but I fear it is only a matter of time.


Here is a link to a spoken version of the story

A Note

[What prompted me to print this story was coming on this note, while searching for something else – I think I must have written it soon after I finished the tale:]

Reflection on ‘The Partygoers’ – it had not struck me how important to the story is the fact that the narrator thinks he is just making something up when he pulls together the idea of invitations, the wedding garment, and so on – he gives his imagination free rein, and does so also with a mischievous and mocking purpose – his impulse to laugh in the man’s face reveals an unpleasant streak, and what he actually does is also unpleasant, though with some excuse – he thinks Bentley must be ‘taking the piss’, so resolves to do the same – but Bentley is actually an innocent, not so much a dimwit as a man blinkered by an undeveloped imagination; and the narrator exposes him to danger…. there are actually two kinds of ‘inviting in’: the narrator, in giving free rein to his imagination, and for no good purpose, allows in those things that can be pictured as prowling around outside, seeking entry – and that is repeated in the party, where we have an enactment of what the narrator has imagined: the ones against whom the door should have been barred have been allowed in, and wreak havoc.

There is sin – transgression – on the part of the narrator, and as a result, the innocent suffer, and we must suppose that he will too… what is his transgression? It is twofold, I think: there is a want of charity in his treatment of Bentley, to whom he attributes the same base motive he finds in himself – he mocks where he should help, or at least be kind. Yes, I suppose that is it, really – at the heart of the tale is his unkindness: by attributing a doubtful motive to Bentley, he gives himself licence to treat him unkindly – so we have to wonder how far he is genuine in suspecting Bentley, and how far he is simply looking for an excuse to be mean to him. I was going to say that his free imagining is the second fold, but I see now that that is the equivalent of the door opening downstairs in Casting the Runes – the process has already begun.

This foreshadowing of the event strikes me as important – sin, perhaps, is an inviting-in of what we should keep out; and the ideas that come to the narrator’s mind (he feels inspired, remember – as if it is coming from elsewhere) when he starts being unkind to Bentley are the means by which entry is gained…

Now, I did not think of any of this in writing the story, and indeed the ideas and connections (between the James paragraph, the notion of invitations, and the wedding garment) came to me unbidden, much as they did to the narrator (I can only plead that my motive was not unkindness) and if you had asked me at the time I might have thought it something of a weakness – these were things I wanted to get in to the story, but had not supplied a satisfactory mechanism to explain them (one could imagine a more studied version, in which these are actually furnished, like the James quotation, from books – i.e. not the NT (as happens in the story) but rather someone who connects the wedding garment with the idea of invitations, and has put all that in a book) – but such an explanation would weaken the story, and to some extent diminish the narrator’s culpability – it is he who makes the connections, and effectively conjures up the partygoers – and in fact I now realise that the ones James encounters on the playing fields are looking for just such as the narrator – they are seeking ‘a way in’, looking for someone susceptible, someone who will let them in…


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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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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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