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.

‘With shabby equipment, always deteriorating…’

We live in an age of infrastructure: we take for granted an underpinning layer of nigh-magical technology, much of it electronic, on which our day-to-day lives rely; occasionally we are visited by anxiety lest it should fail – as the result of a solar storm, perhaps, such as a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event was noted mainly for its marvellous effects (it produced aurorae so bright that one could read by them, and some people thought it was morning) though it did cause a widespread failure of the telegraph system, which must have resulted in considerable disruption in Europe and North America; but considered against the effect of a similar storm today, its impact was minimal.

The reason is simple, yet striking: though the world of 1859 was (in parts) recognisably modern in a way that the world of a century before was not, it was a world lit by gas, fuelled by coal and powered by steam – electricity had yet to be harnessed, and the main supply of oil was obtained, not by drilling through rock, but by harpooning whales.

Whaling

This brings home to us the astonishing fact that, however transformative our present-day technology may be, the greatest transformation of human society by far – the Industrial Revolution – was wrought with implements of almost primitive simplicity: hand tools, pick and shovel, human muscle and (actual) horsepower.

This thought occurred to me when I was meditating on that most transformative of all things, the human imagination, and its principal instrument, language.

You could probably say that language and humanity are coeval: it is language that makes us human, that has enabled us to do all the marvellous things we have achieved in the brief blip of geological time we have existed for – language underpins it all; it is our ultimate infrastructure, if you like.

Yet it is still pick-and-shovel technology: though capable (in the right hands) of expressing great complexity of thought, the mechanisms it relies on to do so are few and simple, and the chief of them, as I have said elsewhere, is metaphor.

Metaphor works by using a structure or set of relations that is already familiar to give us a way of thinking about something new that we are trying to understand. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is something puzzling in this: if the only way we can come at the unknown is by expressing it in terms of the known, how do we progress? if we describe  what we do not understand in terms of what we do, how is our understanding increased? It can seem like an increasingly elaborate structure built on a narrow foundation that never widens – which is what troubled me when I was young and thought (wrongly, I believe) that all our metaphors relied ultimately on spatial relations, and that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, which must necessarily have a limiting effect on what we could think.

These days I see it from a different perspective: I find it reassuring that language is always being strained to breaking point whenever we try to think of difficult things or big ideas – as Eliot has it in Burnt Norton :

Words strain,

crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

will not stay still.

and, later, in East Coker :

each venture

is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

with shabby equipment always deteriorating

so that we arrive where we do by a kind of sleight-of-mind trickery, such as Wittgenstein describes in proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus:

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.)

As I say, where once I found this worrying, I now find it reassuring and indeed exciting – it means that our knowledge – particularly of the large and important things – is much less certain, much more provisional than we pretend.

Consider, for instance – as I mean to do in another post – a distinction we probably think clear-cut, between what is real and what is imaginary – is that something we can be sure about?