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Getting the point of pointing
on 21 May 2010
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.