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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting the point of pointing
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...
Published on 21 May 2010 by Sphex

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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.
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...
Published on 19 May 2010 by Richard Moore


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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting the point of pointing, 21 May 2010
By 
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. Dogs, unlike humans, cannot adopt another's viewpoint and look at the world through another's eyes, which is what true pointing requires. Tallis is a puckish intellectual and he begins chapter three (which asks the question, "Do Animals Get the Point?") with a frank admission: "The previous chapters may have made some readers cross." (He continues in playful mood with a section concerning "the dog B" - a much-loved family dog that nevertheless lacked the "existential intuition" of humans, and so most definitely did not get the point.) In acknowledging the effect his words may have had on our psychological state and in imagining how we might be feeling, he is of course demonstrating the very thing he is writing about: our ability to go beyond what is immediately presented to our senses and to read the mind of another person.

"I shall argue that this voluntary displacement of the human subject from the material centre of his world is a first step in the growth of an important intuition: that one is part of something greater than one's self and greater than the parish uncovered by one's sense experience".

The significance of this, especially for humanists sick of being slandered as "less than human", is that it begins to reclaim ground so long occupied by religion. The nineteenth-century bishop of St Asaph, William Beveridge, is typical in contrasting the evidence of the senses (which can at best provide us with "the garish and seeming beauty of the world's vanities") with what is presented to the "eye of faith" - "the presence of what is absent". A similar phrase ("the presence of the absent") is used by Tallis in an entirely secular sense. He too thinks that we humans go "beyond mere sentience" but for him it is the "transcendence of ordinary perception" that enriches our lives and not the transcendent supernatural "realities" of religion. Daily, and in countless ordinary ways, when we perceive an object "we experience something that goes beyond what is currently appearing to us".

Getting back to pointing, the act itself is like a sign, but pointing involves more than acting like a fingerpost: it requires "an explicit awareness of one's own body and an explicit awareness of another's mind". That which is pointed to is "meant to be meant". With pointing "we move from the indexical to that deindexicalized realm in which we spend most of our conscious existence, related... to things we cannot see but can envisage." This is where it gets challenging for a general reader like myself, unfamiliar with the philosophy of language. As a regular user of language, however, I was intrigued and willing to stick with the argument. And as an atheist unwilling to accept the tired old dualism pitting the "physical" against the "spiritual", here was a sensible approach that promised meaning rather than mumbo jumbo. Our "human world has two profoundly different faces: that of a collection of material objects and that of an ocean of collectivized awareness gathered up in language."

Moving beyond our current sensory horizon involves making this crucial transition from indexical to deindexicalized awareness. This, for Tallis, is the only transcendence worth considering, and it's what allows us to go beyond our own individual resources to partake "of the power of all humanity". While Raymond Tallis may not quite have absorbed the whole of human knowledge, he's certainly ahead of many of us. This book took me on a journey of intellectual discovery and also told me something about how that journey is made possible.
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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
By 
Mr. RB FORTUNE-WOOD "Rowan" (UK) - See all my reviews
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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
By 
Richard Moore (Leipzig, Germany) - See all my reviews
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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
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This review is from: Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence (Kindle Edition)
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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14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Point Counterpoint, 23 Mar 2010
There were times as I read this book when I wondered if it was an attempt at parody, but the grotesqueries of the style of self-flattering linguistic mental meandering that this book charts are beyond parody and this book is without the redeeming feature of humour.
It is a great pity. The subject of the book is intensely fascinating, worthy of study and debate. What a pity that it fell into the hands of a man on a mission, and a man who either does not understand the purpose of language as a tool for communication or seriously overestimates his ability in the field.
At almost every turn, Mr Tallis fails his argument and the subject. It is quite astonishing how often one finds oneself saying "Go on, go on" as an interesting line of inquiry is raised only to find one's hopes dashed as yet another student-piece of philosophical jargoneering takes the place of compelling reason and evidence. Time and time again, Mr Tallis offers assertions that are either unfounded or just plain wrong outside of his head (example, in relation to signposts "... engagingly, the the gaze of the traveller passing from the beginning to the end of the token reproduces the trajectory linking his present position with his trajectory." Er, no, only in Western languages and then only when the sign is pointing right.)
This is poor stuff. A pity. A wasted opportunity.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting the point of pointing, 23 Oct 2011
By 
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. Dogs, unlike humans, cannot adopt another's viewpoint and look at the world through another's eyes, which is what true pointing requires. Tallis is a puckish intellectual and he begins chapter three (which asks the question, "Do Animals Get the Point?") with a frank admission: "The previous chapters may have made some readers cross." (He continues in playful mood with a section concerning "the dog B" - a much-loved family dog that nevertheless lacked the "existential intuition" of humans, and so most definitely did not get the point.) In acknowledging the effect his words may have had on our psychological state and in imagining how we might be feeling, he is of course demonstrating the very thing he is writing about: our ability to go beyond what is immediately presented to our senses and to read the mind of another person.

"I shall argue that this voluntary displacement of the human subject from the material centre of his world is a first step in the growth of an important intuition: that one is part of something greater than one's self and greater than the parish uncovered by one's sense experience".

The significance of this, especially for humanists sick of being slandered as "less than human", is that it begins to reclaim ground so long occupied by religion. The nineteenth-century bishop of St Asaph, William Beveridge, is typical in contrasting the evidence of the senses (which can at best provide us with "the garish and seeming beauty of the world's vanities") with what is presented to the "eye of faith" - "the presence of what is absent". A similar phrase ("the presence of the absent") is used by Tallis in an entirely secular sense. He too thinks that we humans go "beyond mere sentience" but for him it is the "transcendence of ordinary perception" that enriches our lives and not the transcendent supernatural "realities" of religion. Daily, and in countless ordinary ways, when we perceive an object "we experience something that goes beyond what is currently appearing to us".

Getting back to pointing, the act itself is like a sign, but pointing involves more than acting like a fingerpost: it requires "an explicit awareness of one's own body and an explicit awareness of another's mind". That which is pointed to is "meant to be meant". With pointing "we move from the indexical to that deindexicalized realm in which we spend most of our conscious existence, related... to things we cannot see but can envisage." This is where it gets challenging for a general reader like myself, unfamiliar with the philosophy of language. As a regular user of language, however, I was intrigued and willing to stick with the argument. And as an atheist unwilling to accept the tired old dualism pitting the "physical" against the "spiritual", here was a sensible approach that promised meaning rather than mumbo jumbo. Our "human world has two profoundly different faces: that of a collection of material objects and that of an ocean of collectivized awareness gathered up in language."

Moving beyond our current sensory horizon involves making this crucial transition from indexical to deindexicalized awareness. This, for Tallis, is the only transcendence worth considering, and it's what allows us to go beyond our own individual resources to partake "of the power of all humanity". While Raymond Tallis may not quite have absorbed the whole of human knowledge, he's certainly ahead of many of us. This book took me on a journey of intellectual discovery and also told me something about how that journey is made possible.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Digital mechanics, 16 Mar 2010
By 
K. J. Toner "Blaefangus" (Lancaster, UK) - See all my reviews
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Ray Tallis' book mixes science and philosophy to try to help define what makes humans human: Why we rose to our pre eminent position in the natural world. I can't say that I understood all of the philosophy but it is an engaging read that asks many questions and answers most of them. Ray Tallis points to the index finger as uppermost in the natural quirks that helped us climb out from the primordial soup while acknowledging the merits of the opposable thumb. Even if you don't agree with all the assertions, this book will certainly make you think which can never be a bad thing.
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