Ox bones being cut up with a clever.

Language cuts nature at her joints

That...enables us to separate a general idea into its subordinate elements, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, and not attempting to break any limb in half, after the fashion of a bungling butcher.

Plato (370 BCE)

Plato’s metaphor is tempting. Our words must have evolved to fit the world if they are to work. A tree is denoted by a word. So the structure of our language mirrors the structure of nature. This would be fine if the objects of nature were sitting waiting independently of ourselves, then language could indeed to be mapping ‘that world’. However, ‘that world’ is more a system of conventions linked to sensations which construct our objects, and it is those conventions that produce the good fit we witness, and not nature. Nature has no joints. It is thought that creates joints in its attempts to grasp the infinite seething dynamism with which it is faced. And the joints language might be seen to cut are those of thought.


The quotation from the Phaedrus is here taken from the J. Wright translation of 1888 published by Macmillan & co. 265e. Different translations use different words: carver/butcher, joints/parts, hack off/cut. Quite where the expression “Language cuts nature at her joints” arose is not clear. The image shows my friend Lợi cutting ox bones to make the daily stock for the Phở produced in the cafe.


Saturday 16th November 2019

Murphy on duty

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