A Few Pointers

Commuting days until retirement: 342

Michaelangelo's finger

The act of creation, in the detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling which provides Tallis’s title

After looking in the previous post at how certain human artistic activities map on to the world at large, let’s move our attention to something that seems much more primitive. Primitive, at any rate, in the sense that most small children become adept at it before they develop any articulate speech. This post is prompted by a characteristically original book by Raymond Tallis I read a few years back – Michaelangelo’s Finger. Tallis shows how pointing is a quintessentially human activity, depending on a whole range of capabilities that are exclusive to humans. In the first place, it could be thought of as a language in itself – Pointish, as Tallis calls it. But aren’t pointing fingers, or arrows, obvious in their meaning, and capable of only one interpretation? I’ve thought of a couple of examples to muddy the waters a little.

Pointing – but which way?

TV aerial

Which way does it point?

The first is perhaps a little trivial, even silly. Look at this picture of a TV aerial. If asked where it is pointing, you would say the TV transmitter, which will be in the direction of the thin end of the aerial. But if we turn it sideways, as I’ve done underneath, we find what we would naturally interpret as an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. It seems that our basic arrow understanding is weakened by the aerial’s appearance and overlaid by other considerations, such as a sense of how TV aerials work.

My second example is something I heard about which is far more profound and interesting, and deliciously counter-intuitive. It has to do with the stages by which a child learns language, and also with signing, as used by deaf people. Two facts are needed to explain the context: first is that, as you may know, sign language is not a mere substitute for language, but is itself a language in every sense. This can be demonstrated in numerous ways: for example, conversing in sign has been shown to use exactly the same area of the brain as does the use of spoken language. And, compared with those rare and tragic cases where a child is not exposed to language in early life, and consequently never develops a proper linguistic capability, young children using only sign language at this age are not similarly handicapped. Generally, for most features of spoken language, equivalents can be found in signing. (To explore this further, you could try Oliver Sacks’ book Seeing Voices.) The second fact concerns conventional language development: at a certain stage, many children, hearing themselves referred to as ‘you’, come to think of ‘you’ as a name for themselves, and start to call themselves ‘you’; I remember both my children doing this.

And so here’s the payoff: in most forms of sign language, the word for ‘you’ is to simply point at the person one is speaking to. But children who are learning signing as a first language will make exactly the same mistake as their hearing counterparts, pointing at the person they are addressing in order to refer to themselves. We could say, perhaps, that they are still learning the vocabulary of Pointish. The aerial example didn’t seem very important, as it merely involved a pointing action that we ascribe to a physical object. Of course the object itself can’t have an intention; it’s only a human interpretation we are considering, which can work either way. This sign language example is more surprising because the action of pointing – the intention – is a human one, and in thinking of it we implicitly transfer our consciousness into the mind of the pointer, and attempt to get our head around how they can make a sign whose meaning is intuitively obvious to us, but intend it in exactly the opposite sense.

What’s involved in pointing?

Tallis teases out how pointing relies on a far more sophisticated set of mental functions than it might seem to involve at first sight. As a first stab at demonstrating this, there is the fact that pointing, either the action or the understanding of it, appears to be absent in animals – Tallis devotes a chapter to this. He describes a slightly odd-feeling experience which I have also had, when throwing a stick for a dog to retrieve. The animal is often in a high state of excitement and distraction at this point, and dogs do not have very keen sight. Consequently it often fails to notice that you have actually thrown the stick, and continues to stare at you expectantly. You point vigorously with an outstretched arm: “It’s over there!” Intuitively, you feel the dog should respond to that, but of course it just continues to watch you even more intensely, and you realise that it simply has no notion of the meaning of the gesture – no notion, in fact, of ‘meaning’ at all. You may object that there is a breed of dog called a Pointer, because it does just that – points. But let’s just examine for a moment what pointing involves.

Primarily, in most cases, the the key concept is attention: you may want to draw the attention of another to something,. Or maybe, if you are creating a sign with an arrow, you may be indicating by proxy where others should go, on the assumption that they have a certain objective. Attention, objective: these are mental entities which we can only ascribe to others if we first have a theory of mind – that is, if we have already achieved the sophisticated ability to infer that others have minds, and and a private world, like our own. Young children will normally start to point before they have very much speech (as opposed to language – understanding develops in advance of expression). It’s significant that autistic children usually don’t show any pointing behaviour at this stage. Lack of insight into the minds of others – an under-developed theory of mind – is a defining characteristic of autism.

So, returning to the example of the dog, we can take it that for an animal to show genuine pointing behaviour, it must have a developed notion of other minds, and which seems unlikely. The action of the Pointer dog looks more like instinctive behaviour, evolved through the cooperation of packs and accentuated by selective breeding. There are other examples of instinctive pointing in animal species: that of bees is particularly interesting, with the worker ‘dance’ that communicates to the hive where a food source is. This, however, can be analysed down into a sequence of instinctive automatic responses which will always take the same form in the same circumstances, showing no sign of intelligent variation. Chimpanzees can be trained to point, and show some capacity for imitating humans, but there are no known examples of their use of pointing in the wild.

But there is some recent research which suggests a counter-example to Tallis’s assertion that pointing is unknown in animals. This shows elephants responding to human pointing gestures, and it seems there is a possibility that they point spontaneously with their trunks. This rather fits with other human-like behaviour that has been observed in elephants, such as apparently grieving for their dead. Grieving, it seems to me, has something in common with pointing, in that it also implies a theory of mind; the death of another individual is not just a neutral change in the shape and pattern of your world, but the loss of another mind. It’s not surprising that, in investigating ancient remains, we take signs of burial ritual to be a potent indicator of the emergence of a sophisticated civilisation of people who are able to recognise and communicate with minds other than their own – probably the emergence of language, in fact.

Pointing in philosophy

We have looked at the emergence of pointing and language in young children; and the relation between the two has an important place in the history of philosophy. There’s a simple, but intuitive notion that language is taught to a child by pointing to objects and saying the word for them – so-called ostensive definition. And it can’t be denied that this has a place. I can remember both of my children taking obvious pleasure in what was, to them, a discovery – each time they pointed to something they could elicit a name for it from their parent. In a famous passage at the start of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein identifies this notion – of ostensive definition as the cornerstone of language learning – in a passage from the writings of St Augustine, and takes him to task over it. Wittgenstein goes on to show, with numerous examples, how dynamic and varied an activity the use of language is, in contrast to the monolithic and static picture suggested by Augustine (and indeed by Wittgenstein himself in his earlier incarnation). We already have our own example in the curious and unique way in which the word ‘you’ and its derivatives are used, and a sense of the stages by which children develop the ability to use it correctly.

The Boyhood of Raleigh

Perhaps the second most famous pointing finger in art: Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh

The passage of Augustine also suggests a notion of pointing as a primitive,  primary action, needing no further explanation. However, we’ve seen how it relies on a prior set of sophisticated abilities: having the notion that oneself is distinct from the world – a world that contains other minds like one’s own, whose attention may have different contents from one’s own; that it’s possible to communicate meaning by gestures to modify those contents; an idea of how these gestures can be ‘about’ objects within the world; and that there needs to be agreement on how to interpret the gestures, which aren’t always as intuitive and unambiguous as we may imagine. As Tallis rather nicely puts it, the arch of ostensive definition is constructed from these building bricks, with the pointing action as the coping stone which completes it.

The theme underlying both this and my previous post is the notion of how one thing can be ‘about’ another – the notion of intentionality. This idea is presented to us in an especially stark way when it comes to the action of pointing. In the next post I intend to approach that more general theme head-on.

One thought on “A Few Pointers

  1. Pingback: Read All About It (part 1) | Duncommutin

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