Signposts and Words

Rafford 1⅝
Rafford Signpost
South of Forres, in north-east Scotland, this sign has been preserved (on a new post) by a benign local authority

Signposts guide us along our way, oiling our travels; they also act as useful metaphors. As signposts and metaphors go this is a good one. For the older generation it offers added information, although for younger people it may be cryptic. However, if the fractions are a mystery, they are a mystery of which we are aware, even if it is only as an irritation. If we know that we do not understand these fractions, they will not mislead us. Technical vocabularies can be like this. Reading passages about philosophical or psychological problems written for academics might leave us cold, but we would know that we did not know, and probably be able to specifically identify phrases that baffled us, just as the five eights might baffle us, but not the village name.

However, supposing we suspect that the high spirits of some young people have resulted in the arms of the sign being reversed? If we know that the sign has been tampered with, we would be forewarned, and could ignore the signpost completely, but what if there was no such suspicion in our minds, and it did not even occur to us that the direction was false, and we headed off to Lawrenceton when we wanted Rafford? Now the problem is rather different, it is that we do not know we have a problem.

All writers assaying abstractions become enmeshed with the verbal counterpart to this metaphor. If we manage to use words in a way which serves our desired communication, they are useful, like any signpost. If we make it obvious that we are using words in special ways, such as using a technical vocabulary, as with the fractions on the signpost above, then no harm is done to those who cannot follow the directions. Again if we know that the writer is adapting words to particular needs, then we may be able to avoid misunderstandings, but if we do not know, and fail to suspect that the words are being used in novel ways, then we do have problems.

A recent example which illustrates the way we may end up with a rich stew of words is Eckhart Tolle's 'The Power of Now." This book is an uneasy mixture of, on the one hand, deep and valuable insights into important aspects of our lives, and on the other, annoyingly meaningless claims that often rest on allowing words to point first one way and then another. It is sad if the annoyance (understandably) prevents you reading the book. This is the kind of objection to words that the Logical Positivists felt early last century, their discontent cast its net more widely as they hankered for a language in which words would behave not just as reliable signposts, but more like the terms of mathematical expressions, so that statements became like these expressions. The Positivists condemned much abstract writing including theology, metaphysics and fiction alike to silence, or at best entertainment.

The Positivists' reaction, even in the light of some rather undisciplined writings in the nineteenth century, was extreme. Since then we have remembered, not least with the help of Wittgenstein's 'Investigations' 2 that language is a rich and complex system. It is not like a machine with the specific jobs of signing, or meaning, or referring, but more like a living entity itself evolving and adapting to our needs. In this middle ground we need signposts that we can trust and there is nothing wrong with this desire, although it must be balanced against the right adolescents have to disrupt.

The western reaction to disruption is often to build stronger defences as when we cite a dictionary in support of our points. Such defences reach great heights of intricacy in both Romantic European writing and dense Indian philosophy, but further east the response has sometimes been to remove the signpost altogether, the removal of signs and symbols means they cannot be blamed for misleading, however, the substitution of concrete descriptions, which rely almost entirely on the power of metaphor, enhances ambiguity greatly. In China this use of concrete metaphor reached a high art in classical times, and did so again in the Haikus of Japan. Surface simplicity covers swirling depths of complex meaning, but at least we know that it is not the signposts that mislead us.

The sign-post metaphor might be stretched to introduce another problem. The problem of being misled by the written word, this difficulty is still acknowledged in the east, but rarely so in the west. It was introduced to us by Socrates. He suggested that writing encouraged uncritical passivity, and makes us prone to mistake being reminded of an idea for actually internalising it; we might say today that the attention demanded by verbal interaction helps our understandings. So in terms of the metaphor, signposts are aids if they can be rightly used, but it is far better to understand the geography of the location.

It is in the Phaedrus that Socrates expresses his unease over writing: Here is the Harold Fowler translation of the passage from Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates is uneasy about the use of writing. It starts in paragraph 274c:
Socrates said: "I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, ...was the god Thamus, ...(t)o him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. ..." Phaedrus first objects and then concurs with Socrates.

In our imaginations we can move even further from seeing words as friendly guides. David Hinton sketches an extreme, conjuring a poetess living in eighth century China, who makes poems by setting autumn leaves free to scrape their marks in the snow. Not so different maybe from the beautiful ice sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy, deliberately created to be ephemeral. This opens another argument for now that the words are gone, what meaning could reside in our transient perceptions of the images and sounds that are left?

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  • Goldsworthy, Andy (2016) Website about his works:
  • Hinton, David (2012) 'Hunger Mountain' Shambhala, London. (p 50)
  • Plato Trans. Harold N. Fowler. (1925) Cambridge, UK. (274c)
  • Tolle, Ekchart (1999) 'The Power of NOW' Hodder & Stoughton, UK
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1953) 'Philosophical Investigations' Blackwells, Oxford

  8th September 2014 ~ 27th July 2015