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?


(‘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’?


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.

Not One of the Herd

My entry for the 2016 Pitlochry Festival Theatre Winter Words Festival ‘Fearie Tales’ competition – unsuccessful, alas, for a second year! My early success (here and here)seems a distant memory – but judge for yourself:

‘So, Reverend Sheila, does the Devil go about like a roaring lion, as the good book says, seeking whom he may devour?’

‘I believe it’s actually the lionesses who hunt, and it’s pretty stealthy work – not much roaring involved. It’s only the ones on the edge of the herd – the weak and vulnerable that can’t keep up – who fall victim; tough luck for them, of course, but good for the lion, and good for the herd too, I suppose. I wonder if the others even notice. Perhaps if you surveyed wildebeest about their belief in lions, you’d get the same sort of answers people give about believing in demons – that it’s the sort of thing parents tell their children to keep them from straying – ‘don’t wander off or the lions will get you’ – but not something any self-respecting twenty-first century wildebeest could believe, grazing peacefully with ten thousand of his fellows.’

‘It sounds to me as if your sympathies are with the lions – and the (uh!) demons!’

‘I only meant that if there are such things, they must have their place in the order of creation, just as lions do. Perhaps it is their job to single out and deal with the souls that the herd would be better off without.’

‘I have a feeling that one might be directed at you, Mr Jowell.’

‘Because I’m a successful businessman – sorry, a ‘ruthless capitalist’ – you mean? That’s just the sort of Marxist-feminist claptrap and New Age nonsense I’ve come to expect from the clergy these days. With all due respect to the Reverend Sheila, I am not a wildebeest – in fact, if I can say so without sounding arrogant, I’ve never considered myself to be one of the herd.’

‘And on that note, we must end our discussion for tonight, ‘Ghaisties and Ghoulies in the Twenty-first Century’. My name is Tam McLinn and you’ve been listening to the Highland Heartland Radio Hour – Good night!’

The Reverend Sheila McCabe, a local woman, was glad to stay behind and share the hospitality offered by her hosts – not for nothing did they style themselves ‘the little station with the big heart’. Mr Jowell, however, excused himself, saying that he had to get back to the city, by which he meant Edinburgh, the centre of his extensive business operations.

To tell the truth, he felt that he had rather wasted his time – he had been in town for an earlier meeting and had found himself on the radio programme through some whim of his Personal Assistant’s, who had thought it would be good publicity; he would have to speak to her about that: he doubted if the total audience for the programme ran to double figures.

To add to his annoyance, he realised that he had not paid sufficient attention to where he had left his car: only when he was out in the radio-station’s unlit car-park – which was commensurate in scale with its importance, having spaces for some half-a-dozen vehicles (only one of which was occupied) did he recall that he had in fact walked there from his earlier meeting; his car must still be in town.

But that brought a further problem – or challenge, he corrected himself, automatically. Where, exactly, was here? This was not the angle from which had approached the radio station, small as it was, and now, in the dark, it seemed wholly unfamiliar. The car park was bounded on two sides by trees; beyond them, he thought he heard the sound of water running. He recollected vaguely that a river ran through the town, but not centrally, more as a boundary on one side, though there were buildings on the opposite bank; but the bulk of the town, he felt sure, was on this side, so his car must be somewhere hereabouts.

Walking determinedy – it had begun to rain, an annoying cold smirr that a cold wind drove into his face – he made his way round the angle of the building onto what should be the front; his recollection was that he had walked some distance uphill to get there, which had made him rather hot. No danger of that now, he thought, drawing his coat closer about him.

McCracken’s Bakery! That had been the name of the premises across the road from where he had the meeting; he remembered noticing it out the window, and wondering briefly if the proprietor might be someone of the same name he had known at school. So all he had to do was find the main street (where the bakery was bound to be, since it was not a town of any size) and his car should be there. Heartened by this recollection, he pressed on.

It annoyed him that he should have forgotten where exactly he left his car: it made him feel inept, even helpless, which was not at all the way he was accustomed to see himself. He began to realise that, for all he made fun of it, the experience of being live on radio had affected him rather more than he cared to admit. He could recall clearly what he had been thinking about on the way to the radio station – much as he would with any business meeting, he had rehearsed possible lines of argument, trying to anticipate any traps he might blunder into, though the novelty of the situation had given it an added edge; what he had paid little heed to, however, were his surroundings, which now in the darkness were even less familiar.

In the absence of any other guide, he stuck to his notion of going downhill, keeping his eye open for anything at all that might trigger a memory, but instead he only noticed how strange and old-fashioned the buildings seemed, with their tiny windows and little doors, often below the level of the street, as if they had been there so long that the town had risen like a tide about them; and those curious gargoyles, more like something you would see in France than Scotland: surely, if he had come this way before, he would have noticed them? But of course he had been preoccupied, he told himself.

At length he emerged into a sort of square, or rather oblong, of a kind that is typical of many Scots towns, with a Tron at one end and an area given over to flowerbeds and parking in the middle, with a roadway on either side and shops giving onto it. In the old days, it would be where the market was held; and the Tron – really the public weights-and-measures office – would have doubled as Town-house and jail; nowadays, it was most likely the Tourist Information Office.

The only trouble was that he had no memory of having seen such a square when he was here earlier – yet surely his meeting had been in the town centre? He looked in vain for McCracken the Baker’s, gazing all around, peering in the poor light (the feebleness of the street lamps was worsened by a thin veil of mist creeping in from the river). He reflected how empty of life the whole place seemed, already shut up for the night; it had an unreal quality, like a stage-set. He was brought up short by the realisation that he was not alone: from within the shadow of the Tron, two indistinct figures were watching him. Doubtless it was a trick of the light, but they seemed oddly-proportioned, curiously tall and spindly.

He had a sudden vision of himself as he must appear to them, an evident stranger gawping about him, with no notion of where he was; he might as well be holding a placard proclaiming ‘I am lost’. Feeling embarrassed – and, if he was honest, somewhat vulnerable – he strode decisively and with an air of purpose towards the nearest opening at the side of the square.

However, no sooner had he reached it than some trick of the acoustic filled the street with the noise of rushing water; he must be heading towards the river. That, he was sure, was not the way he wanted to go, but he was reluctant to turn back directly and expose his indecisiveness again to the watchers by the Tron. Instead, he continued down towards the water’s edge, reasoning that he could make a succession of right turns and find the square once more; he was now convinced that his meeting of earlier in the day had been somewhere on the far side of it.

When he reached the riverside path he was surprised by the nearness of the water: it came high up the bank and flowed at great speed, with that ominous smoothness of surface that rivers in spate can have. Had it been raining while he was in the studio? He was nearly sure that it had been dry as he walked up from his meeting. Still, this was steep country, he told himself: it would not take long for a cloudburst in the hills to show its effects here.

After walking further than he thought he would have to, he came in sight of a bridge across the river, an elegant wrought-iron affair painted white, probably Victorian; the water was well up the slender columns that supported it, only a foot or so below the walkway. What troubled him was that he recognised it: of all the things he had seen, it was the first that was at all familiar – had he not, in fact, crossed it at some point? – yet he felt sure his meeting had been on this side of the river.

Determined to pursue this conviction, he turned right, taking the road that led away from the bridge to what should be the Tron square, but again he found himself walking further than he expected. Surely he should be on the square by now? But at least the surroundings were familiar – he felt a growing certainty that he had come this way before; why, there was that little cobbler’s shop with a boot hung outside which had caught his attention earlier and made him wonder what sort of trade a cobbler could do in this day and age in a little town like this.

He had overshot the square by now, he felt sure, so he took the next right, and reckoned he was now running parallel to it on the other side, and to his relief it was a broad street of the sort where many businesses might be housed; and there about half-way down was a sign with a wheatsheaf – had he noticed that before? what an old fashioned place this was! He almost hurried towards it, and found to his delight that the sign on the shopfront said McCracken’s bakery. Delight was no exaggeration: he laughed aloud, and turning, was pleased to spot the premises where his meeting had been earlier. He was surprised at his own elation: he had not realised quite how anxious he had become about the whole thing.

But where was his car?

His first thought – his immediate thought – was that it had been stolen, and he felt a sudden surge of anger and reached for his phone, wondering whether he should report it to the police first or use an App to try and find the nearest acceptable hotel. Then a wave of doubt swept over him: he was not in Edinburgh, where the theft of a large and powerful car like his might happen; this was a douce Scots market town, little more than a village really, already shut down for the night – hardly the happy hunting ground of the opportunist car thief; a car like his would stick out a mile, and besides, it was rated among the most secure on the market.

Then he remembered: of course, he had arrived earlier than he thought, and had actually parked on the far side of the river, which was nearer the main road, thinking to stretch his legs and catch a breath of fresh air before his meeting: it had been a pleasant sunny morning. His smart-phone had assured him of the location of his meeting, but what he had not allowed for was the fact that, by the time it was done, it was easier to walk the short distance to the radio station than go all the way back to the car-park and find his way from there.

Shaking his head at his own foolishness – I’m getting old, he thought, I can’t keep up – he headed down a side street and back to the Tron Square. Here he was surprised to find a bus, brightly lit and laden with passengers – the last of the drinkers, he supposed, or whatever else passed for entertainment here. It was in the act of departing and even as he watched, the last few revellers squeezed boisterously aboard, the door slid shut, and it rumbled off. The revelation that there were others here beside himself but that now they were going away left him feeling strangely bereft: he wished he could have been among the colourful press of humanity squeezed onto the brightly-lit bus, amid a clamour of overloud voices and an atmosphere of alcohol-laden breath, instead of alone in this deserted square.

Or not quite deserted: a glance across to the side street he had taken earlier, now filled up with river-mist, showed the elongated silhouettes of two figures, back-lit by a streetlight. Of course he had no reason (apart from their odd proportions, doubtless an effect of the mist-diffused light) to suppose them the same as he had seen earlier, lurking in the shadow of the Tron, and even if they were, no reason to think ill of them, but all the same he headed round the flank of the Tron building (which was indeed, as he now saw, the Tourist Information Office) and sought a lane which he hoped would take him back to the road he had followed up from the Victorian bridge.

His surmise was correct: he saw the cobbler’s shop with relief, and set off down towards the river, aware of a mounting anxiety as he approached the bridge. What did he fear? that it might be shut? surely the water could not have risen so much in so short a time? But no, the bridge was open and empty. He quickened his pace towards it.

As he passed onto it he did not look directly but registered out of the corner of his eye two figures approaching along the riverside path to his left; with a fear he could not account for, he hastened his step till it was almost a jog; he found himself searching his pocket for his keys. There they were! he took them out and held them ready. As he neared the end of the bridge, a change in the vibration underfoot told him that someone had stepped onto it behind him. He did not look back, but strode up the deep lane with ivied banks on each side and overhung with dripping trees.

The car park entrance was near here, surely? he could not have missed it. With rising panic, he hurried on. Then, much to his relief, he sensed rather than saw an opening to his left and plunging through it, found himself in a slick-shining tarmac space occupied by a solitary car – his own. With an anxious laugh, he pointed his key-fob and clicked: to see the lights flash on in response was like being greeted by an old friend.

In a moment, he was inside, surrounded by the luxury of walnut and leather, strapping on his seatbelt, turning the key in the lock and pressing the starter button. The engine gave a muted snarl and he sprang away with a squeal of tyres and a spray of water, but by the time he had reached the exit he was laughing at himself. A glance in his mirror told him that the car park was as empty as before; his fancied pursuers had been no more than a pair of late-night friends going home, most likely a courting couple.

He swung the car out into the road, surprisingly relieved and light of heart: he told himself that he was getting past the age for late-night travelling. The powerful beams picked up the road ahead as he swept along; he turned on the radio, but could not get reception, so switched to the CD player. It had been an interesting day, he conceded, but not one he would like to repeat: he no longer felt equal to the demands of going to strange places; he preferred to stick with what was familiar. And that woman minister with her absurd talk of lions and wildebeest! It had unsettled him more than he cared to admit.

It was some time before he glanced at the mileometer (he always made a point of checking how far he had travelled, to claim it as an expense). He saw to his surprise that he had already gone much further than should have been necessary to reach the main road; somehow, though he could not account for it, he must have missed his turn. Looking ahead, he saw that the road had narrowed: indeed, it seemed little more than a track. He slowed down. He would have to find somewhere to turn: he had clearly come the wrong way, and was now in the middle of nowhere without the least idea of how he got there.

Then he looked in the mirror, and saw the lights of a car coming swiftly up behind.