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Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence [Hardcover]

Raymond Tallis
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Feb 2010
The ability of the human index finger to point is truly unique in the animal world. In "Michaelangelo's Finger", Raymond Tallis shows just how central this seemingly insignificant difference has been in determining the amazing evolutionary pathway of the human being. In this startlingly original and persuasive book, Raymond Tallis shows that it is easy to underestimate the influence of small things in determining what manner of creatures humans are. He reveals that over time the repeated and multiple effects of the seemingly insignificant can make an enormous difference and argues that the independent movement of the human index finger is one such easily overlooked factor. Indeed, not for nothing is the index finger called 'the forefinger'. It is the one we most naturally deploy when we want to winkle things out of small spaces, but it plays a far more significant role in an action unique to us among primates: pointing. In "Michelangelo's Finger", Raymond Tallis argues that it is through pointing that the index finger made a significant contribution to hominid development and to the creation of a human world separate to the rest of the natural world. Observing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the hugely familiar and awkward encounter between Michelangelo's God and Man through their index fingers, Tallis identifies an intuitive indication of the central role of the index finger in making us unique. Just as the reaching index fingers of God and Man are here made central to the creation of our kind, so Tallis believes that the simple act of pointing is central to our extraordinary evolution.

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Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence + The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head + In Defence of Wonder and Other Philosophical Reflections
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (1 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848871198
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848871199
  • Product Dimensions: 16.7 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 618,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"'An amazing book about the human head, I've never seen anything like it... A very heady, heady experience... Thrilling' Lynne Truss, Sunday Times 'Fascinating... A wonderful treasury of stupefying facts, a sort of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" compendium... This is a wonderful book.' Michael Simkins, Mail On Sunday 'The pages burst with an entertaining mixture of intriguing facts and thought-provoking observations.' Andrew Robinson, New Scientist"

About the Author

Raymond Tallis was Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester until 2006. A poet, novelist and philosopher, he was listed by the Independent in 2007 as one of fifty 'Brains of Britain', and in 2005 Prospect magazine named him as one of Britain's leading Public Intellectuals. The Raymond Tallis Reader was published in 2000, Hippocratic Oaths in 2004 and The Kingdom Of Infinite Space in 2008.

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
3.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting the point of pointing 21 May 2010
By Sphex
For such an apparently simple and ubiquitous activity, about which there would seem to be nothing much controversial or challenging to say, pointing turns out to be quite an accomplishment and more than capable of triggering strong feelings. Parents are proud the first time their child points to a toy, an early sign of an independent mind. On seeing Alastair Campbell jab his index finger at the camera in defence of the Iraq war, many will share Tallis's own outrage ("it seemed to me that this single digit stood for all the arrogant, opinionated, moralizing, morally impervious people I have come across in my life"). In art, in imagining how a god might have created life on earth, a pointing finger is at the centre of Michelangelo's most famous fresco. In this tremendous book, Raymond Tallis shows how pointing can tell us something important about ourselves, about what it is to be human. He argues that we are "the Pointing Animal".

That "pointing is both universal in, and unique to, humans should alone make it worthy of study." This will strike some as speciesist, although Tallis would deny such a charge and the evidence is on his side. As a good Darwinian atheist he celebrates our connection to all living creatures and the fact that we evolved and were not made. He also makes a strong case for a clear line between human and non-human animals and explores how, "alone of all living creatures, we express the world we live in".

Pointing is not just a physical arrangement of the limbs: there has to be the right kind of mental activity going on as well. Those dog lovers who think Fido can point should try pointing something out and see if he understands what they're doing. Chances are, he'll look at you, adoringly, but won't follow your gaze or the axis created by your finger and arm.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Inspired Philosophical Anthropology 13 Mar 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Like Raymond Tallis' last work, 'The Kingdom of Infinite Space', this serves well as either a brilliant continuation of or an apt introduction to his philosophical anthropology trilogy: 'The Hand', 'I Am', 'The Knowing Animal'--all grossly underappreciated masterpieces. 'Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence' makes explicit the implicit extraordinariness concealed by the ordinariness of human being; that is, takes the seemingly banal to reveal the wondrous that is hidden by the normal. The index finger and its use as a pointer are shown to be an example of what we (as humans) uniquely are; self aware, other aware (communal) and, in an atheistic sense, transcendent.

Tallis' style is captivating; at one point employing a reverent accent for his subject matter, at another point making amusing puns. More than any other philosopher I have read he infects the reader with his own passion and humour. And equally impressive is his marshalling of knowledge; without straying towards the inaccessible or pretentious he can cite an array of authors to reinforce his arguments. Having previously wondered if there was any parallel between Popper's World 3 (the world of human knowledge) and what Tallis' often calls the community of minds I was particularly intrigued by his noncommittal use of Popperian Cosmology.

While the whole of the book is noteworthy the last chapter and, more precisely, the last section of the last chapter, is astonishing. It is amongst the best example of Tallis' writing. It is profound without loosing relevance, clarity or specificity. Here he describes the origins of the divine in human awareness transcending the particular. This all encompassing transcending experience is shown to be temporally bordered by mortality and arising from, only to escape, biological origins. I would contend that it is a book impossible to close without feeling awestricken.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Fun but insubstantial and ill-informed. 19 May 2010
Michelangelo's Finger is not a satisfying book. Good science writing can be clear and precise without being inaccessible. However, Tallis's philosophical claims are largely under-theorised and often conflate important differences. Additionally, his knowledge of the empirical studies relevant to his subject is very weak. Many of the empirical claims that he makes are straighforwardly wrong. Those with a serious interest in the role of pointing in the evolution of human culture communication would do better to read Mike Tomasello's more academic but still accessible 'Origins of Human Communication'.

For all its flaws, I enjoyed grappling with Tallis's book. He is passionate about his subject matter and writes with a contagious sense of intellectual curiosity. This, along with its wealth of interesting ideas, makes for a book that is fun. But it is certainly a missed opportunity.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars not for me 11 Oct 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have no time for this drivel, I bought the book and read it hoping it would be more than what it was, possibly other people may like it, but I dont think many will, it is a very good concept but falls away in execution, it is very boring, very predictable and says nothing new really.
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