Tag Archives: Wittgenstein

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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In the beginning was the word… or was it?

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Reflecting on the origin of words leads us into interesting territory. I do not mean the origin of particular words, though that can be interesting too; I mean the notion of words as units, as building blocks into which sentences can be divided.

How long have we had words? The temptation is to say ‘as long as we have had speech’ but when you dig a bit deeper, you strike an interesting vein of thought.

As I have remarked elsewhere [see ‘The Muybridge Moment‘] it seems unlikely that there was any systematic analysis of speech till we were able to write it down, and perhaps there was no need of such analysis. Certainly a great many of the things that we now associate with language only become necessary as a result of its having a written form: formal grammar, punctuation, spelling – the three things that probably generate the most unnecessary heat – are all by-products of the introduction of writing.

The same could be said of words. Till we have to write them down, we have no need to decide where one word ends and another begins: the spaces between words on a page do not reflect anything that is found in speech, where typically words flow together except where we hesitate or pause for effect. We are reminded of this in learning a foreign language, where we soon realise that listening out for individual words is a mistaken technique; the ear needs to attune itself to rhythms and patterns and characteristic constructions.

So were words there all along just waiting to be discovered? That is an interesting question. Though ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ effectively mean the same, etymologically (both have the sense of ‘coming upon’ or ‘uncovering’) we customarily make a useful distinction between them – ‘discovery’ implies pre-existence – so we discover buried treasure, ancient ruins, lost cities – whereas ‘invention’ is reserved for things we have brought into being, that did not previously exist, like bicycles and steam engines.  (an idea also explored in Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms)

So are words a discovery or an invention?

People of my generation were taught that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, though even in my childhood the theory that the Vikings got their earlier had some currency; but of course in each case they found a land already occupied, by people who (probably) had arrived there via a land-bridge from Asia, or possibly by island-hopping, some time between 42000 and 17000 years ago. In the same way, Dutch navigators ‘discovered’ Australia in the early 17th century, though in British schools the credit is given to Captain Cook in the late 18th century, who actually only laid formal claim in the name of the British Crown to a territory that Europeans had known about for nearly two centuries – and its indigenous inhabitants had lived in for around five hundred centuries.

In terms of discovery, the land-masses involved predate all human existence, so they were there to be ‘discovered’ by whoever first set foot on them, but these later rediscoveries and colonisations throw a different light on the matter. The people of the Old World were well used to imperial conquest as a way of life, but that was a matter of the same territory changing hands under different rulers; the business of treating something as ‘virgin territory’ – though it quite plainly was not, since they found people well-established there – is unusual, and I think it is striking where it comes in human, and particularly European, history. It implies an unusual degree of arrogance and self-regard on the part of the colonists, and it is interesting to ask where that came from.

Since immigration has become such a hot topic, there have been various witty maps circulating on social media, such as this one showing ‘North America prior to illegal immigration’ 2gdVlD0

The divisions, of course, show the territories of the various peoples who lived there before the Europeans arrived, though there is an ironic tinge lent by the names by which they are designated, which for the most part are anglicised. Here we touch on something I have discussed before  [in Imaginary lines: bounded by consent]  – the fact that any political map is a work of the imagination, denoting all manner of territories and divisions that have no existence outside human convention.

Convention could be described as our ability to project or impose our imagination on reality; as I have said elsewhere [The Lords of Convention] it strikes me as a version of the game we play in childhood, ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ – which is not to trivialise it, but rather to indicate the profound importance of the things we do in childhood, by natural inclination, as it were.

Are words conventions, a form we have imposed on speech much as we impose a complex conventional structure on a land-mass by drawing it on a map? The problem is that the notion of words is so fundamental to our whole way of thinking – may, indeed, be what makes it possible – that it is difficult to set them aside.

That is what I meant by my comment about the arrogance and self-regard implied in treating America and Australia as ‘virgin territory’ – its seems to me to stem from a particular way of thinking, and that way of thinking, I suggest, is bound up with the emergence of words into our consciousness, which I think begins about two and a half thousand years ago, and (for Europeans at least) with the Greeks.

I would like to offer a model of it which is not intended to be historical (though I believe it expresses an underlying truth) but is more a convenient way of looking at it. The years from around 470 to 322 BC span the lives of three men: the first, Socrates, famously wrote nothing, but spoke in the market place to whoever would listen; we know of him largely through his pupil, Plato. It was on Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, that Dante bestowed the title ‘maestro di color che sanno’ – master of those that know.

This transition, from the talking philosopher to the one who laid the foundations of all European thought, is deeply symbolic: it represents the transition from the old way of thought and understanding, which was inseparable from human activity – conversation, or ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as Wittgenstein would say – to the new, which is characteristically separate and objective, existing in its own right, on the written page.

The pivotal figure is the one in the middle, Plato, who very much has a foot in both camps, or perhaps more accurately, is standing on the boundary of one world looking over into another newly-discovered. The undoubted power of his writing is derived from the old ways – he uses poetic imagery and storytelling (the simile of the cave, the myth of Er) to express an entirely new way of looking at things, one that will eventually subjugate the old way entirely; and at the heart of his vision is the notion of the word.

Briefly, Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas can be expressed like this: the world has two aspects, Appearance and Reality; Appearance is what is made known to us by the senses, the world we see when we look out the window or go for a walk. It is characterised by change and impermanence – nothing holds fast, everything is always in the process of changing into something else, a notion for which the Greeks seemed to have a peculiar horror; in the words of the hymn, ‘change and decay in all around I see’.

Reality surely cannot be like that: Truth must be absolute, immutable (it is important to see the part played in this by desire and disgust: the true state of the world surely could not be this degrading chaos and disorder where nothing lasts). So Plato says this: Reality is not something we can apprehend by the senses, but only by the intellect. And what the intellect grasps is that beyond Appearance, transcending it, is a timeless and immutable world of Forms or Ideas. Our senses make us aware of many tables, cats, trees; but our intellect sees that these are but instances of a single Idea or Form, Table, Cat, Tree, which somehow imparts to them the quality that makes them what they are, imbues them with ‘tableness’ ‘catness’ and ‘treeness’.

This notion beguiled me when I first came across it, aged fourteen. It has taken me rather longer to appreciate the real nature of Plato’s ‘discovery’, which is perhaps more prosaic (literally) but no less potent. Briefly, I think that Plato has discovered the power of general terms, and he has glimpsed in them – as an epiphany, a sudden revelation – a whole new way of looking at the world; and it starts with being able to write a word on a page.

Writing makes possible the relocation of meaning: from being the property of a situation, something embedded in human activity (‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’) meaning becomes the property of words, these new things that we can write down and look at. The icon of a cat or a tree resembles to some extent an actual cat or tree but the word ‘cat’ looks nothing like a cat, nor ‘tree’ like a tree; in order to understand it, you must learn what it means – an intellectual act. And what you learn is more than just the meaning of a particular word – it is the whole idea of how words work, that they stand for things and can, in many respects, be used in their stead, just as the beads on an abacus can be made to stand for various quantities. What you learn is a new way of seeing the world, one where its apparently chaotic mutability can be reduced to order.

Whole classes of things that seem immensely varied can now be subsumed under a single term: there is a multiplicity of trees and cats, but the one word ‘tree’ or ‘cat’ can be used to stand for all or any of them indifferently. Modelled on that, abstract ideas such as ‘Justice’ ‘Truth’ and ‘The Good’ can be seen standing for some immutable, transcendent form that imbues all just acts with justice and so on. Plato’s pupil Aristotle discarded the poetic clothing of his teacher’s thought, but developed the idea of generalisation to the full: it is to him that we owe the system of classification by genus and species and the invention of formal logic, which could be described as the system of general relations; and these are the very foundation of all our thinking.

In many respects, the foundations of the modern world are laid here, so naturally these developments are usually presented as one of mankind’s greatest advances. However, I would like to draw attention to some detrimental aspects. The first is that this new way of looking at the world, which apprehends it through the intellect, must be learned. Thus, at a stroke, we render natural man stupid (and ‘primitive’ man, to look ahead to those European colonisations, inferior, somewhat less than human). We also establish a self-perpetuating intellectual elite – those who have a vested interest in maintaining the power that arises from a command of the written word – and simultaneously exclude and devalue those who struggle to acquire that command.

The pernicious division into ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’ denigrates the senses and all natural instincts, subjugating them to and vaunting the intellect; and along with that goes the false dichotomy of Heart and Head, where the Head is seen as being the Seat of Reason, calm, objective, detached, which should properly rule the emotional, subjective, passionate and too-easily-engaged Heart.

This, in effect, is the marginalising of the old way of doing things that served us well till about two and a half thousand ago, which gave a central place to those forms of expression and understanding which we now divide and rule as the various arts, each in its own well-designed box: poetry, art, music, etc. (a matter discussed in fable form in Plucked from the Chorus Line)

So what am I advocating? that we undo all this? No, rather that we take a step to one side and view it from a slightly different angle. Plato could only express his new vision of things in the old way, so he presents it as an alternative world somewhere out there beyond the one we see, a world of Ideas or Forms, which he sees as the things words stand for, what they point to – and in so doing, makes the fatal step of discarding the world we live in for an intellectual construct; but the truth of the matter is that words do not point to anything beyond themselves; they are the Platonic Forms or Ideas: the Platonic Idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘Horse’. What Plato has invented is an Operating System; his mistake is in thinking he has discovered the hidden nature of Reality.

What he glimpsed, and Aristotle developed, and we have been using ever since, is a way of thinking about the world that is useful for certain purposes, but one that has its limitations. We need to take it down a peg or two, and put it alongside those other, older operating systems that we are all born with, which we developed over millions of years. After all, the rest of the world – animal and vegetable – seems to have the knack of living harmoniously; we are the ones who have lost it, and now threaten everyone’s existence, including our own; perhaps it is time to take a fresh look.

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The Lords of Convention

‘The present king of France is bald’ seems to present a logical problem that ‘the cat is on the table’ does not – there is no present king of France, so how can we assert that he is bald? and is the sentence true or false?

But I am much more interested in the second sentence: ‘the cat is on the table’ – what does it mean?

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(‘Cat on a Table’ by John Shelton, 1923-1993)

Can it mean, for instance., ‘it’s your cat, I hold you responsible for its behaviour’?

Consider:

Scene: a sunny flat. A man sprawls at ease on the sofa. To him, from the neighbour room, a woman.

Woman: The cat is on the table.

(Man rolls his eyes, sighs, gets up reluctantly)

Should you want to grasp the difference between the philosophy of the early Wittgenstein, as expressed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and his later philsophy, as expressed in Philosophical Investigations (and I accept that not everyone does) then this example epitomises it. It also pins down – or at least, develops further – thoughts I have been having lately about meaning, objectivity and the impact of the invention of writing on thought.

The form of the question in the second paragraph above is curious: ‘what does it mean?’ – where ‘it’ refers to the sentence. The clear implication is that meaning is a property of the sentence, of words – an assertion that may not strike us as strange, till we set it alongside another that we might ask – ‘what do you mean?’

I would suggest that the first question only becomes possible once language has a written form: before that, no-one would think to ask it, because there would be no situation in which you could come across words that were not being spoken by someone in a particular situation – such as the scene imagined above. Suppose we alter it slightly:

Woman: The cat is on the table.
Man: What do you mean?
Woman: What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean the cat is on the table.
Man: What I mean is, the cat is under the sideboard, eating a mouse – look!

The words spoken here all have their meaning within the situation, as it were (what Wittgenstein would call the Language Game or the Form of Life) and the question of their having their own, separate meaning simply does not arise; if we seek clarification, we ask the person who spoke – the meaning of the words is held to be something they intend (though it is open to interpretation, since a rich vein of language is saying one thing and meaning another, or meaning more than we say – just as in our little scene, the line about the cat is far less about description of an event, far more about an implied criticism of the owner through the behaviour of his pet – which in turn is probably just a token of some much deeper tension or quarrel between the two).

Only when you can have words written on a page, with no idea who wrote them or why, do we start to consider that the meaning might reside in the words themselves, that the sentence on the page might mean something of itself, without reference to anything (or anyone) else.

This relocation of meaning – from the situation where words are spoken, to the words themselves – is, at the very least, a necessary condition of Western philosophy, by which I mean the way of thinking about the world that effectively starts with Plato and stretches all the way to the early Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus can be viewed as a succinct summary of it, or all that matters in it;  and perhaps it is more than a necessary condition – it may be the actual cause of Western philosophy.

The crucial shift, it seems to me, lies in the objectification of language, and so of meaning, which becomes a matter of how words relate to the world, with ourselves simply interested bystanders; and this objectification only becomes possible, as I have said, when speech is given an objective form, in writing.

If you were inclined to be censorious, you might view this as an abnegation of responsibility: we are the ones responsible for meaning, but we pass that off on language – ‘not us, guv, it’s them words wot done it.’ However, I would be more inclined to think of it as an instance of that most peculiar and versatile human invention, the convention. Indeed, a convention could be defined as an agreement to invest some external thing with power, or rather to treat it as if it had power – a power that properly belongs to (and remains with) us.

(The roots of convention are worth thinking about. I trace them back to childhood, and the game of ‘make-believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’ which demonstrates a natural facility for treating things as if they existed (imaginary friends) or as if they have clearly defined roles and rules they must follow (the characters in a game a child plays with dolls and other objects it invests with life and character). Is it any wonder that a natural facility we demonstrate early in childhood (cp. speech) should play an important part in adult life? In fact, should we not expect it to?)

It is convenient to act as if meaning is a property of words, and is more or less fixed (and indeed is something we can work to clarify and fix, by study). It facilitates rapid and efficient thought, because if words mean the things they denote, then we can, in a sense, manipulate the world by manipulating words; and this is especially so once we have mastered the knack of thinking in words, i.e. as a purely mental act, without having to write or read them in physical form.

We can perhaps appreciate the power of this more fully if we consider how thinking must have been done before – and though this is speculation, I think it is soundly based. I would argue that before the advent of writing no real analysis of speech was possible: we simply lacked any means of holding it still in order to look at it. An analytic approach to language sees it as something built up from various components – words of different sorts – which can be combined in a variety of ways to express meaning. It also sees it as something capable of carrying the whole burden of expression, though this is a species of circular argument – once meaning is defined as a property of words, then whatever has meaning must be capable of being expressed in words, and whatever cannot be expressed in words must be meaningless.

Without the analytic approach that comes with writing, expression is something that a person does, by a variety of means – speech, certainly, but also gesture, facial expression, bodily movement, song, music, painting, sculpture. And what do they express? in a word, experience – that is to say, the fact of being in the world; expression, in all its forms, is a response to Life (which would serve, I think, as a definition of Art).

Such expression is necessarily subjective, and apart from the cases where it involves making a physical object – a sculpture or painting, say – it is inseparable from the person and the situation that gives rise to it. Viewed from another angle, it has a directness about it: what I express is the result of direct contact with the world, through the senses – nothing mediates it  (and consider here that Plato’s first step is to devalue and dismiss the senses, which he says give us only deceptive Appearance; to perceive true Reality, we must turn to the intellect).

Compare that with what becomes possible once we start thinking in words: a word is a marvel of generalisation – it can refer to something, yet has no need of any particular detail – not colour, size, shape or form: ‘cat’ and ‘tree’ can stand indifferently for any cat, any tree, and can be used in thought to represent them, without resembling them in any respect.

‘A cat sat on a table under a tree’

might be given as a brief to an art class to interpret, and might result in twenty different pictures; yet the sentence would serve as a description of any of them – it seems to capture, in a way, some common form that all the paintings share – a kind of underlying reality of which each of them is an expression; and that is not very far off what Plato means when he speaks of his ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ (or Wittgenstein, when he says ‘a logical picture of facts is a thought’ (T L-P 3) ).

While this way of thinking – I mean using words as mental tokens, language as an instrument of thought – undoubtedly has its advantages (it is arguably the foundation on which the modern world is built), it has been purchased at a price: the distancing and disengagement from reality, which is mediated through language, and the exclusion of all other forms of expression as modes of thought (effectively, the redefinition of thought as ‘what we do with language in our heads’); the promotion of ‘head’ over ‘heart’ by the suppression of the subject and the denigration of subjectivity (which reflects our actual experience of the world) in favour of objectivity, which is a mere convention, an adult game of make-believe –

all this points to the intriguing possibility, as our dissatisfaction grows with the way of life we have thus devised, that we might do it differently if we chose, and abandon the tired old game for a new one.

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The Mechanism of Meaning (it’s all in the mind)

Meaning matters. It is bound up with so many things: understanding and misunderstanding, doubt and certainty, to say nothing of philosophy, poetry, music and art; so it is worth considering the mechanism by which it operates. ‘Mechanism’ is a useful image here: when mechanisms are hidden – as they generally are – their effects can seem mysterious, even magical (as in the marvels of the watchmaker or the stage magician); yet when they are revealed, they offer reassurance: the point of a mechanism is that, unless it is impaired or interfered with, it will go on working in the same way.

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The problem with the mechanism of meaning is that the popular notion of it is misleading: we speak of meaning as something conveyed, like a passenger in a car, or transmitted, like a radio message; we also speak of it as being embodied or contained in things that have it, whether they are sentences, poems, works of art or the like. These two usages combine to suggest that meaning exists independently in some form, and that the business of ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ consists of inserting it into and extracting it from whatever is said to have it. That seems like common sense, but as we shall see, when scrutinised it proves problematic.

Wittgenstein points us in another direction with his observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ which he uses alongside ‘language game’ and ‘form of life’ when discussing meaning, to denote the (wider) activity of which language forms a part and from which it derives its meaning.

It strikes me that the basic mechanism of meaning lies in connection : meaning is only found where a connection is made, and that connection is made in the mind of an observer, the one who ascribes meaning. In other words, meaning is not a fixed property of things: a thing in itself, on its own, does not have meaning. But we must be careful here: this is a stick that some will readily grasp the wrong end of – to suggest that a tree or a person (say) ‘has no meaning’ is liable to provoke outrage and earnest outpourings about the inestimable value of trees and people. That is because ‘meaningless’ is a pejorative term, properly used in cases where we expect meaning but do not find it; it might be compared to our use of ‘flightless’ which we apply to certain birds that are exceptions to the general rule; we would not apply it to pigs or gorillas.

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We can gain some insight into how meaning works – its mechanism – by considering an allied concept, purpose. Let us suppose some interplanetary traveller at a remote time of a quite different species to ourselves. Somewhere on his travels he comes upon this relic of a long-lost civilisation: a rectangular case constructed of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, which opens to disclose a cellular array – there are some twenty-four rectangular cells of the same organic material, each containing an identical object, rounded, hard and smooth to the touch. He is quite excited by the find as it reminds him of another he has come across – again a cellular array in a case of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, and again each cell containing a smooth, hard, rounded object, though there are differences of detail both in the shape of the cells and the objects. He may submit a learned paper to the Integalactic Open University speculating on the purpose of these strikingly similar discoveries; he is in no doubt that they are variants of the same thing, and share a common purpose, on account of the numerous points of resemblance.

Were we at his side we might smile, since one is a packet of lightbulbs and the other a box of eggs; it is likely that the resemblances that strike him as the best clues to their purpose might elude us altogether, since we would dismiss them as irrelevant – ‘that is just how they happen to be packaged, for ease of transport or storage: it has no bearing on what they are for. As to the slight similarities of shape and texture, that is mere coincidence. These objects are entirely unrelated, and could not be more unlike.’

577e028b29cf98908190de258ad90d73 light-bulb_1467547c

It is worth considering the key difference between us and the interplanetary traveller that allows us to smile at his ill-founded speculation. These are familiar objects to us, and we can connect them at once to a context or situation in which they belong, where they fit in and have purpose; our ‘reading’ of them is entirely different from the alien traveller’s – we disregard all that seems to him most striking, because we know it is of no significance. We see that the apparent similarity has nothing to do with the objects themselves, but the fact that they are both in storage, awaiting use; neither is ‘active’, i.e. in the situation or context where they are used and have purpose.

crack_eggs_1Mains_powered_electric_Lamp

How far an examination of the objects in detail might allow our traveller to deduce, on the one hand, a national grid for distributing electricity from power stations to homes and workplaces rigged with lighting circuits, and the delights of omelettes, fried, poached and scrambled eggs on the other depends on quite how alien he is – if he a gaseous life-form sustained by starlight, he is unlikely to penetrate far into their mystery. On the other hand, if his own existence has ‘forms of life’ or activities similar to ours, he might make much better and even surprisingly accurate guesses.

That, after all, is how we ourselves proceed if we come across artefacts or objects that are unfamiliar: we guess at their purpose by thinking of the kind of the thing they might be, the sort of use they might have, by analogy with our own activities or ‘forms of life’ (and it is no accident that truly mystifying objects are often tentatively described as having ‘possible religious or ritual significance’ since in our own experience this is where many things are found whose use could not easily be guessed; and in this connection consider the use made of everyday objects in burial rites – offerings of food put alongside the dead, or cooking or eating utensils for use on the onward journey).

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I would suggest that, as far as the mechanism by which they operate goes, ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ are the same, since both are defined in the same way, viz. by placing the thing in question in relation to some context, situation or larger activity where it has a place, where it ‘makes sense’, if you like;  (imagine our alien traveller’s reaction to being shown the circumstances in which a lightbulb is used – the mystery of the object disappears once the connections are made – literally, in this case).

This brings out important aspects of meaning that are often overlooked, not least because – as I observed at the outset – they are contradicted by most popular accounts of what meaning is. The first aspect is that meaning is not inherent: no amount of studying or dissecting the object in isolation will discover it – I emphasis ‘in isolation’ because discovering, say, the filament in the light bulb and how it is connected to the fitting at the base will advance our understanding only if we can relate them to other things: if we have no notion of electricity, or that it will make a wire filament glow brightly, then they will tell us nothing.

The second aspect is slightly trickier to explain but of greater significance. If we agree that meaning is not inherent, not something that can be found simply by examining the object no matter how minutely, then we can reasonably ask where it is located. One answer, from what we have said, is that it lies in the relation or connection to the context, situation or ‘form of life’; but I think that is not quite right.

Rather, it consists in being related to, or being connected with – in other words, it exists as the result of an action by the onlooker, and where it exists – where it means – is in that onlooker’s mind. This is not the usual account that is given of meaning, which is generally more like this, from Wikipedia:

‘meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.’

At first sight, this might not seem significantly different – we have relation to context, we have a process of inference; the main addition appears to be that the source or sender is taken into account, as well as the receiver. However, there is one slight-seeming but important difference, which is the notion of the meaning as something which retains its identity throughout, and which exists prior to the communication taking place and survives after it – the model that springs readily to mind is the letter, which the sender puts in the envelope, which is then conveyed to the recipient who takes it out and reads it.

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The analogy with the letter is probably what makes this seem a ‘common sense’ account that most people would agree with, but the logic of it gives rise to problems. If we picture the process of sending a letter, we might start with the sender at her desk, pen in hand, poised to write; she puts the message on the page, folds the page and seals it in the envelope then sends it off; at the other end the recipient takes it out, reads it, and ‘gets the message’. What is the difficulty there, you might ask?
It begins to emerge if you try to make the analogy consistent. At first glance, it seems that

meaning=letter
message (that which conveys the meaning) = envelope

But there is a problem here: the message is in the letter, rather than the envelope; in actual fact, the envelope is superfluous – the message could be sent without it, by hand, say, simply as a folded note. Still, that seems trivial – the sender puts her ideas into words, the receiver reads the words and gets her ideas: isn’t that just the same?

Not quite. The question is whether the meaning (or the message) exists before it is put into words; and if so, in what form? Again, this may seem unproblematic: of course the message exists before she writes it down; and indeed she might change her mind and instead of writing, making a phone call and say what she means instead, directly, as it were.

But we must be careful here: the question is not whether the message exists before she writes it down – or even before she speaks it – but before she puts it into words. This is where the image of  the letter in the envelope is at its most misleading: isn’t the meaning just something we put into words, in the same way we put the letter in the envelope?

That is what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language’ argument – the notion that my thoughts are in my head in some form to which I have privileged access, and which I could choose to give public form if I wish, thereby making them accessible to others. Though this again seems like common sense, when examined closely, it is problematic. It forms the basis of popular notions of telepathy, but trying to imagine what such ‘direct transmission’ would actually consist of highlights the difficulty.

If you convey your thoughts to me, what do I experience? Do I hear your voice speaking in my head? if so, we are back to ‘putting things in words’ and no nearer any prior form our thoughts might take. The temptation is to fall back on images, as if these were somewhow more immediate (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all) but what would they be images of? And how, having received them, would I be able to infer your thought from them? A more illuminating (but no less problematic) possibility is that we might hear your thoughts as a musical phrase which we intuitively understand.

This works to some extent because we are accustomed to the idea that music can consistently evoke definite feelings in us – ‘that passage always makes me feel this way, invariably calls this to mind’ – though we have no idea how: ‘it just does’; so that seems consistent with our finding in it something that someone else has put there; but it still leaves the question of what happens at the other end – how would such a musical message originate?

The options here would seem to be either that the message is originally in some other form which I then embody in the music – which takes us back to where we started: if it’s comprehensible to me in that form, why can’t I convey that directly instead of ‘translating’ it into music? – or else we have to accept that only in expressing it do I find what I am thinking; what we experience prior to that is an urge, a sort of pressure which can only be relieved by giving it expression in some way – whether it is an inarticulate cry of rage, a musical phrase (the terrifying opening of the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem, for instance), an image (Munch’s The Scream, maybe) or the words ‘I am very angry about this!’

The Scream

This brings us by a roundabout route to something I have been trying to articulate for a while  – the key distinction between language as the instrument of thought and as one means of expressing experience; but that is a subject for another article. In the meantime, I would conclude by saying that, if this account of the mechanism of meaning is accurate, then it has some interesting implications. It suggests, for instance, that meaning (like beauty) is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder; that it is not fixed, but variable; that it is impermanent; and – perhaps most importantly – it is inseparable from its context, the ‘form of life’ or wider activity of which it forms a part and on which it depends.

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Storypower: Quigley’s Ineffable Escapade

under a twilight canopy

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

That remarkable book, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, is to my mind a work of genius, but that is by the way. An episode from it came to mind just now when I was reflecting on the Wittgenstein quote above that I used to close my previous piece, though it resonates even more strongly with another, the one that closes the same work:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (Tractatus, 7 )

Quigley’s Balloon

(to set the scene, this converation takes place between the nameless narrator and the sergeant of police, who are inspecting the scaffold on which the narrator is to be hanged:)

Up here I felt that every day would be the same always, serene and chilly, a band of wind isolating the earth of men from the far-from-understandable enormities of the girdling universe. Here on the stormiest autumn Monday there would be no wild leaves to brush on any face, no bees in the gusty wind. I sighed sadly.

‘Strange enlightenments are vouchsafed,’ I murmured, ‘to those who seek the higher places.’

I do not know why I said this strange thing. My own words were also soft and light as if they had no breath to liven them. I heard the Sergeant working behind me with coarse ropes as if he were at the far end of a great hall instead of at my back and then I heard his voice coming back to me softly called across a fathomless valley:

‘I heard of a man once,’ he said, ‘that had himself let up into the sky in a balloon to make observations, a man of great personal charm but a divil for reading books. They played out the rope till he was disappeared completely from all appearances, telescopes or no telescopes, and then they played out another ten miles of rope to make sure of first-class observations. When the time-limit for the observations was over they pulled down the the balloon again but lo and behold there was no man in the basket and his dead body was never found afterwards lying dead or alive in any parish ever afterwards.’

Here I heard myself give a hollow laugh, standing there with a high head and two hands still on the wooden rail.

‘But they were clever enough to think of sending up the balloon again a fortnight later and when they brought it down the second time lo and behold the man was sitting in the basket without a feather out of him if any of my information can be believed at all.

‘So they asked where he was and what had kept him but he gave them no satisfaction, he only let out a laugh and went home and shut himself in his house and told his mother to say he was not at home and not receiving visitors or doing any entertaining. That made the people very angry and inflamed their passions to a degree that is not recognized by the law. So they held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public apart from the man himself and they decided to get out their shotguns the next day and break into the man’s house and give him a severe threatening and tie him up and heat pokers in the fire to make him tell what happened in the sky the time he was up inside it.

‘But between that and the next morning there was a stormy night in between, a loud windy night that strained the trees in their deep roots and made the roads streaky with broken branches, a night that played a bad game with root-crops. When the boys reached the home of the balloonman the next morning, lo and behold the bed was empty and no trace of him was ever found afterwards dead or alive, naked or with an overcoat. And when they got back to where the balloon was, they found the wind had torn it up out of the ground with the rope spinning loosely in the windlass and it invisible to the naked eye in the middle of the clouds. They pulled in eight miles of rope before they got it down but lo and behold the basket was empty again. They all said that the man had gone up in it and stayed up but it is an insoluble conundrum, his name was Quigley and he was by all accounts a Fermanagh man.’
(The Third Policeman, pp137-9, slightly abridged)

This sent my thoughts on two different tracks: the first was an idea that I expressed in an earlier piece on the notion that we have devised a carapace that protects us from direct experience of reality:

‘The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are.’

The term ‘life-changing experience’ is rather bandied about these days, and can seem no more than the tag-line for a holday advert, but if an experience is truly life-changing, then we cannot expect to return from it unscathed; and it is in the very nature of such experiences that they may be incommunicable to those who have not shared them – if your complete frame of reference is altered (or exchanged for another) then on what basis can you communicate?

The second line of thought was that the O’Brien piece is yet another demonstration of the power of story (and poetry likewise) to convey what would be considered difficult and complex ideas if expressed in standard philosophical language in an easily accessible (and vividly memorable) form (‘Quigley’s balloon’ would make an excellent picture book, or equally (and most appropriately, given its theme of ineffability) a short and wordless animation)

We should not wonder at that, of course: we have only been expressing ourselves in philosophical terms for some 25 centuries; 25 millennia would not be even half the time we have been using stories (and their central method, metaphor) – which, as a way of thinking about things, are probably as old as humanity itself.

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The Exploration of Inner Space II : by way of metaphor

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In a recent piece, prompted by Eliot’s line
‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’
I suggested that we have constructed a carapace that protects us from Reality much as a spacesuit protects an astronaut or a bathysphere a deep-sea explorer.

This in itself is an instance of how metaphor works as a tool of thought and I think it is worth examining. There is, as I have discussed elsewhere  a certain hostility to metaphor and this should not surprise us, since metaphor – ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’ as Aristotle defines it – effectively violates at least two of the three so-called ‘Laws of Thought’ that underpin rational argument:

Identity – ‘A is A’ (metaphor asserts that A is B)
Contradiction – ‘A is not not-A’ (again, metaphor asserts that ‘something is what it is not’)
(The third law, Excluded Middle, states that where there are only two choices, there is no third possibility (so ‘A or not-A’) That may also be violated, but let’s not go into that now.)

Yet despite that – in fact, I would assert, because of it – metaphor is a key tool for thinking about the world and how we are situated in it.

There is no mystery to its mechanism, as I think can be illustrated from the particular case we are discussing. The essence of metaphor is ‘seeing as’ – considering the thing we are trying to understand in terms of something we already understand. In most cases, what we are invited to see is a set of relations – ‘x stands to y much as a stands to b.’ So, in this case, I say that we should think of ourselves standing in relation to Reality as someone who is protected by a carapace or intervening layer that comes between them and their surroundings.

This, of course, is to do no more than unpack what is already implied in Eliot’s line and to reinforce it by concrete imagery: we understand the importance of the spacesuit and the bathysphere, so we are being invited to see our experience (by which I mean ‘what it is like to be alive and conscious’) in terms of being surrounded by an environment from which we must protect ourselves by interposing some mediating layer since we cannot cope with prolonged exposure to it.

There will be people who view this sort of talk with some degree of hostility and scepticism, and it was to forestall them that I modified my earlier expression ‘thinking about the world and how we are situated in it’ to ‘our experience’ as a signal to step back from conventional terms which could be misleading. This is because we are not looking down a microscope here, at something (e.g. plant cells) whose place in a particular scheme of things is already agreed; we are taking a step back to where the ‘schemes of things’ are dreamed up in the first place, namely ‘inside the head’ (or inner space, if you like): we are operating in the realm of the imagination, attempting to disentangle problems of thought.

This highlights a difficulty inherent in philosophy, which someone once described as ‘a kind of thinking about thinking’: how do you get back to the starting point and avoid being ensnared by preconceived ideas? How do you use an existing way of thought to think about a different way of thinking? It is a kind of paradox. Wittgenstein touches on it in the Tractatus (6.54):
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

Descartes was trying to do the same thing in his Discourse, where he aimed to get back to some bedrock of which he could be certain, to use as a foundation on which to build a system of thought, and came up with his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (some thousand years after Augustine had said the same thing). It is in that wanting to be certain that Descartes goes wrong – in the territory where we are operating, nothing is certain, everything is provisional; the question is not ‘what can I be sure of?’ but rather ‘how can I see this?’

Thus (to return to the matter in hand, our metaphorical carapace) we proceed obliquely, by suggesting ‘ways of seeing it’ that coincide or seem complementary. It should be no surprise that the first is yet again drawn from poetry, since that is where metaphorical thinking is at home:

detail of Averkamp's Winter Landscape(Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape (detail))

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

That is WB Yeats’s poem, The Cold Heaven. As Seamus Heaney observes (in his brilliant essay ‘Joy or Night’ in The Redress of Poetry)

‘This is an extraordinarily vivid rendering of a spasm of consciousness, a moment of exposure to the total dimensions of what Wallace Stevens once called our ‘spiritual height and depth.’ The turbulence of the lines dramatizes a sudden apprehension that there is no hiding place, that the individual human life cannot be sheltered from the galactic cold. The spirit’s vulnerability, the mind’s awe at the infinite spaces and its bewilderment at the implacable inquisition which they represent – all of this is simultaneously present.’

I was strongly reminded of Yeats’s poem, particularly the lines

I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

when I came across a deeply moving account by a mother of life with her daughter. This is an extract – I urge you to read the whole piece here – a terrific piece of writing.

‘I have had to learn to do these things quietly because my daughter needs me to.  She is seven; bright, super funny, articulate, thoughtful and loving.  She also has autism spectrum disorder.  If you saw her on a good day, you’d maybe think she was a little shy and kooky.  You’d maybe wonder why I am letting her wear flip-flops in the winter rain.  You’ll never see her on a bad day as she can’t leave the house*.

She has severe sensory processing difficulties.  A normal day exhausts her and when she feels overwhelmed, even a gentle voice trying to soothe her with loving words can be too much to process, making her feel crazy.  She describes walking into a room of people as “like staring at the sun”. She’s incredibly empathetic but you may not realise as she feels her own and others’ emotions so deeply she can’t bear it, and so sometimes she has to just shut down. ‘

(that asterisk, by the way, links to this footnote:
‘*3 months of non-stop bad days and counting, not left the house since December 3rd 2014’ – the blog was written on 3 March)

I apologise for appropriating another person’s anguish to use as an illustration but I hope I do not do so lightly. I have my own experience of the pain that results when someone you love cannot cope with the world and I am increasingly convinced that a great deal of what we term ‘mental illness’ – particularly in the young – has to do with their difficulty in reconciling Reality (or Life, if you like) as they experience it with the version that those around them seem to accept – it is a learning difficulty or impairment; they just cannot get the hang of how they are ‘supposed to’ see things.

In fact, ‘supposed to’ is just the right idiom here, for the subtle nuances it has in English:

‘that’s not supposed to happen’
‘you’re not supposed to do that’
‘it’s supposed to do this’
‘because that’s what you’re supposed to do!’

– it conveys not only a divergence between how things are and how they are meant to be – the infinite capacity of life to surprise us, the inherent tendency of all plans to miscarry (‘the best laid schemes o mice an men gang aft agley’) – but also the tension between social constraint and the individual will: ‘you’re not supposed to do that!’ is what the child who has bought into the conventions early on (that would be me, I fear) squeals when his bolder companion transgresses (and that squeal is followed by an expectant hush during which the sky is supposed to fall in, but doesn’t).

The world is not as we suppose – or perhaps it would be better to say that it is ‘not as we pretend,’ since that brings out the puzzlement that many – perhaps all – children experience at some point, that the adult world is an elaborate pretence, a denial of the reality that is in front of their noses.

Here is Eliot again, from Murder in the Cathedral:

Man’s Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children’s party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration,
All things become less real.

fredwcat1909

the hollowness of achievement and the emptiness of success is a commonplace of adult writing, and it complements a central theme of much children’s writing, that the world is a marvellous and enchanting place full of magic and wonder (and terror) – but adults, as a general rule, cannot see it (which has just this instant reminded me of a favourite and curious book of my childhood, The Hick-boo**. about a creature only children could see – the adult exception being an artist).

And that is a hopeful note to end on, for now: that there may be a better way to mediate Reality than the conventional carapace, namely Art (in its most inclusive sense – painting, sculpture, poetry, storytelling, music, dance). That is something I shall come back to.

**to be exact, ‘The Hick-boo, a tale of a tailless transparent goblin’ by MH Stephen Smith (Hutchinson 1948).

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For us, there is only the trying

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One thing that being a writer brings home to you is the tentative nature of all writing: it is always an attempt to say something – one that can be more or less successful – and it is always a struggle. And the more difficult the matter, the greater the struggle, because we are conscious of how imperfect our expression is, how far short it falls of what we are trying to say. And what is it that we are trying to express? That is a form of every author’s favourite question, the one that is sure to be asked: ‘where do you get your ideas from?’

The best answer is a vague one: our ideas, our Art – by which I mean stories, music, poetry, painting, dance, whatever we use as modes of expression – are our response to being human, to finding ourselves here and wondering at it. Art arises from what I think of as an ‘internal pressure’ : from time to time there is something ‘inside’ that we want ‘to get out there’ in the sense of giving it a public form that we and others can consider.

But we should not be misled into thinking that we have privileged or prior access to what we express; that is a version of what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language argument’ where we suppose that we know what we mean ‘in our heads’ and then translate it into words, as if it existed in two forms, a private internal one to which we alone have access, and a public form that we give it. What Wittgenstein contends is that there is only public language, an unruly body of material that we hold in common (and master only in part), which is the only available stuff we have for verbal expression; we have to make the best of it, hence the tentative nature of all utterance and the struggle it involves.

This notion of the struggle to express is a central theme of TS Eliot’s East Coker the second of his Four Quartets.

Eliot speaks of ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ and observes that
‘every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’
and that
‘each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating’
Furthermore,
‘what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate’
and he concludes,
‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
– which should, I think, be every writer’s (and artists’s) motto.

Eliot’s words connect in my mind with something I heard the estimable David Almond say recently on the radio: ‘Every time a story’s told, it’s for the first time; every time that Orpheus goes down into the Underworld, it’s the first time’. (Almond’s latest book, ‘A Song for Ella Grey’ is inspired by the Orpheus myth (the original title, I believe, was ‘Eurydice Grey’) and of course Orpheus’ descent to the underworld is a potent image of the artistic enterprise, a dangerous delving into the dark mine of the imagination – cp. the ‘Door into the Dark’ in Heaney’s poem ‘The Forge‘)

For me, this notion of the tentative nature of all writing and the perennial nature of storytelling combine to shed light on an area where there is much misunderstanding today: the idea of the sacred text.

To say that all writing is tentative is to assert that there are no privileged texts: none is exempt from this character of being a struggle to say something. So what of texts that are said to be ‘the word of God’ or to have been ‘dictated by angels’? Such expressions must be seen as part of that struggle: they are attempts to express the sacredness of the text, to convey its importance in the scheme of things. One way of putting this is to say that we do not call a text sacred because it is the word of God or was spoken by angels, we call it the word of God (or say it was spoken by angels) because we consider it sacred.

This is a point worth untangling because it can help dispel a great deal of misunderstanding and arid controversy in the matter of religion and belief.

To avoid controversy, let us take a remark that is variously attributed to the theologian Karl Barth and the musicologist and Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein (not to be confused with Albert) : ‘In Heaven, when the angels play for God, they play Bach; when they play for themselves, it is Mozart.’

Now, we might imagine a would-be plain-speaking, blunt common-sense fellow in the style of the Today programme’s John Humphrys butting in at this point to demand, ‘And was this man ever in Heaven? Has he heard the angels playing for God? Was he there when they played for themselves?’ In saying this, he might fancy that he is demolishing the credibility of the statement, but a more reflective listener would incline to think he was missing the point.

For of course this is not a statement about heaven, the angels or God, and does not require a belief in those things for its understanding; it is a statement about the music of Bach and Mozart, and how they stand to one another and to all other music (it is saying that both are paramount, but that while Bach is the more glorious, Mozart is more joyous – or something like that; – for of course that is just my own attempt, my own struggle to convey what is meant here). You cannot controvert it by saying ‘But there is no God! there is no Heaven! There is no such thing as angels!’ but you might challenge it by pressing the claims of some other composer, such as Arvo Part, Josquin des Prez or Hildegard of Bingen.

Sacredness is not an intrinsic quality of anything, be it object or text; rather it is a status we confer on it, a place we give it in a ‘form of life’. (‘Form of life’ is one of the terms that Wittgenstein uses in his discussion of meaning, in particular the meaning of words – the other is ‘language game’. A ‘form of life’ is the context or activity in which a word or expression is used, the place where it has meaning. Religious worship is one instance of a ‘form of life’ – the words and gestures of the Mass, for instance, have a meaning there which they would not have in other circumstances)

By way of illustration, imagine that some explorers come on a curious stone deep in the forest. Subsequent examination shows it to be of extra-terrestrial origin, the remains of a meterorite. A great deal might be determined about its chemical composition and even its place of origin but you could discover nothing that showed it to be sacred.

Then, some time later, the site where it was found is cleared and the remains of ancient buildings discovered. These resemble other buildings known to be associated with religious ceremonies and this is borne out by the discovery of wall-paintings and scrolls which depict an object much like the meteorite at the centre of a cult: it is carried in procession, elevated on a pillar, enclosed in a special building, has sacrifices offered to it and so on.

At this point you might feel confident in asserting that the meteorite was a sacred object, and indeed this could be corroborated by natives of the country, who produce a traditional tale that speaks of a time when the people were in great trouble and saw a brilliant light fall to earth from heaven and so discovered the sacred stone, which then became the object of veneration and the centre of a religious cult.

Some people might conclude that this offers a paradigm for our religious belief: that although we couch it in terms of the sacred and supernatural, it can be shown to have its origin in natural phenomena. ‘These primitive folk had no understanding of what a meteorite was and were profoundly impressed and frightened by it, so they thought it was a sign from God. Of course we know better now.’

But do we? I think conclusions of that sort are flawed and arise from a misplaced application of causality: ‘the spectacle of the meteorite and the awe it induces are the cause; their subsequent religious practice can be seen as the effect.’

To reason thus is to overlook the fact that the story does not start with the meteorite: it starts with the people’s being ‘in great trouble.’ Of course I have just invented that by way of illustration, but the point is valid: we can imagine that there were plenty meteorites shot across the skies before this, but this one came at an opportune time. In other words, it came into a story that was already going on; it was incorporated into a pre-existing ‘form of life’, to use Wittgenstein’s term: what made it a sign was the fact that the people were looking for one; they felt the need of it.

In other words, unlike the mammoths (say) which we can imagine grazing placidly, oblivious, as meteorites blaze across the sky, these people already had the habit of storytelling, of making things up to explain their situation to themselves. It is important to see that, fundamentally, they are in control: it is the people who choose to make the object sacred, to see it as a sign – they confer its status on it by incorporating it in a story. There is no necessity of the kind we normally look for in cause and effect, like the explosion that follows the lighting of a match in a gas-filled room; this is more an instance of what I have elsewhere called ‘elective causality’ where we choose to make something the ground or cause of our subsequent actions.

So am I saying that religion (of whatever kind) is ‘just a story we made up’?

Well, yes and no. When that assertion is made nowadays – as it often is – it is generally by people who mean to dismiss religion as something unnecessary, that has no place in modern society; something we have grown out of. And when that assertion is vehemently denied (as it also is), it is by people who insist on the central importance and continuing relevance of religious belief and practice. Yet in this particular argument both are mistaken, I think.

Let us start by dispensing with that word ‘just’: to say that something is ‘just a story’ or ‘just made up’ is to prejudge the issue; you are signalling from the outset that you consider stories and making things up to be trivial activities, unworthy of serious consideration. That is not the case.

The next thing to consider is whether by saying that something is a story or is made up we devalue it or detract from its credibility. I would say, emphatically, that we do not. Storytelling, and making things up generally – which I take to encompass everything we call Art – is an important human activity, perhaps the most important; and certainly the most characteristic.

Yet it is the case that the same terms we use for these praiseworthy and admirable activities – ‘telling stories’ ‘making things up’ and indeed the whole vocabulary of fabrication – are also used in a pejorative sense to mean ‘telling lies’, a confusing ambivalence I have remarked on before, here.

The fact that it is possible to make false allegations or give a false account of something – to represent the facts as being other than they are – should not mislead us into supposing that the paradigm for storytelling is the news report, the veracity of which is judged by measuring it against external circumstances – if its content corresponds to those circumstances, then it is true and accurate.

Far from being a paradigm, the news report is a special case, a relatively recent development in which the age-old techniques of storytelling – which are as old as humankind – are applied to the particular (and peculiarly modern) activity of news-gathering and journalism (which is why news-editors always want to know ‘what is the story?’ )

The majority of stories are not of this sort. Though the temptation is to suppose that they are stories ‘about something’ (or paintings and photographs ‘of something’) and so must be judged in relation to that ‘something’, they should in fact be judged on their own merits: it is what is in them that makes them good, not how they stand in relation to something else. (We find this easier to grasp in relation to music, which we do not expect to be ‘about something’: the form of stories and pictures misleads us into looking for correspondence with external circumstances).

‘Truth’, when we apply it to art, is something that we ‘get’ and we respond by drawing others’ attention to it: ‘read this, look at that, listen to this’, we say, because we expect them to ‘get it’ too; and when they do, they smile and nod in agreement. No words need be spoken; explanation is superfluous, and indeed largely impossible: if the person does not ‘get it’ then you will not persuade him by reason: the best you can do is ask him to look or listen or read again.

(And of course this ‘truth’ can be faked, too, as happens when someone copies what someone else does, usually for gain (though we can also copy in order to learn). In this case the story (or painting, or piece of music) is ‘unoriginal’ in a very precise sense: it does not originate, or have its source, in the person who created it: it is not the expression of what they think or feel; it did not result from the ‘internal pressure’ I spoke about above; the ‘struggle’ that we started out discussing is absent.

Of course we all copy, and quite legitimately, when we are learning – ‘playing the sedulous ape’, as R L Stevenson called it – but we hope to arrive at a point where our own voice emerges, and our work ceases to be purely derivative and has something of ourselves in it, bears our stamp, has its own character, not someone else’s.)

So when I say that religion is a story, something we have made up, I do not mean to demean or disparage it, but rather to say: this is how it works (and how we, as human beings, work); if you want to understand it better, you need to think about stories and storytelling, how they work, how they express meaning. Read the stories; don’t go looking for the remains of the Ark (or indeed of the True Cross). These are not ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ any more than a photo of the baby Jesus in the manger would be evidence of the Incarnation. If you want to understand the Incarnation, you have to ask, ‘what on earth could someone mean by that, ‘God became Man’? What were they trying to say?’

The tentative nature of every utterance must always be the starting point: ‘this was written (or painted, or composed) by someone like me, another human being, so I should be able to arrive (though not without effort) at some understanding of what it was they were trying to express, what internal pressure caused this outpouring.’

That is why, as we grow older and our life experience – of both good and ill – becomes richer and more varied, that we find ourselves understanding what eluded us before; why we can suddenly say ‘now I see it!’ with absolute conviction; it is also why some things that impressed us in our salad days, when we were green in judgement, no longer satisfy – we see through them; they no longer ring true. And the big, mysterious things – the ineffable – if we engage with them honestly (and don’t start by thinking we already know), then we will be drawn to what has been said and done by those who have engaged in the same struggle – and may find comfort there.

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