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Short Story

Making Up My Mind

Martin Lunghi gets into some strange tendencies with language.

Recently I’ve been noticing this sort of flashing and buzzing experience. Sometimes it seems to be related to things that are happening around me, but not always. Now that I come to think of it, I have the distinct impression that this has been going on for some time but I’m only now really noticing it. It wasn’t puzzling before, but now I’ve noticed it, it is distinctly puzzling.

I’ve noticed a few other things as well. For instance, I’ve observed that when it rains the water runs down the hillside nearby in a quite distinctive pattern, and that over a period of several rainy days this same pattern is constantly repeated. Admittedly not exactly the same, but as near as makes no difference. On thinking about this, I often found myself saying to myself, “When it rains, the water usually runs down the hill in this particular recognisable pattern...” Sometimes I used the word ‘generally’ instead of ‘usually’, but that seemed alright. And then the other day I described the water as ‘tending’ to run down the hill, and so on, and that seemed alright as well, even though it seemed a different sort of word from ‘usually’ or ‘generally’. Then something quite exciting happened, for I found I was able to describe the business with the hill and the rain in terms of there being a ‘tendency’ for water to run down the hill in that particular way when it rains. This was an odd sort of word, for it had a different feel about it; there was a sort of solid ‘thingyness’, an existential quality about ‘tendency’ that mere ‘tending’ lacked. So I’ve been using it quite a lot in order to get used to it. Then – maybe by mistake, I can’t quite remember – instead of saying “there was a tendency...” I described the water as “having a tendency to run down the hill...” Somehow in my thinking, the tendency had become that of the water rather than of the total rain-water-hill situation. I’ve not been entirely happy with this way of looking at things though. It seems to represent a bit of a conceptual leap, as though there were a gap between one idea and the next. I’ll have to be careful of that sort of tendency. But I have to admit that it makes sense – after all, the water is the active agent as it were: it’s what’s doing the behaving, while the hillside just sits there, more like a medium through which things pass or on which they act than an agent itself. So it seems only right that it’s the water which has the tendency. But then, I mean, who can say?

Then, the other day I was playing Scrabble with myself, and I realised that a ‘tendency’ draws all sorts of idea-relatives in its wake, for there was also a ‘disposition’ and an ‘inclination’ and a ‘propensity’, and who knows what else? It was, I confess, a little alarming, as though applicants for a position in a sentence were all jostling me crying, “Use me! Use me! I’m the best!” while more quietly whispering, “And I’ve got shades of meaning you’ve never dreamed of!” What could I do? I couldn’t use them all. And there was something strange, something extra about the whole lot of them which seemed to claim more than I thought I meant. For instance, I couldn’t swear to it, but there was just a hint of intentionality hidden somewhere in there... I think I’ve managed to ignore it though. Certainly, the water must be seen as behaving in a way which follows from the lawful regularities represented by the tendency. Certainly the tendency must therefore logically precede the water’s behaviour. The behaviour must also therefore follow from the tendency. One might almost say then that the tendency gives rise to the behaviour. That sounds alright; but I have this uncomfortable feeling about it all, as though there’s another gap between ideas here: as though I’d just been bamboozled by the sleight-of-hand of a street trader – myself! Hm!

I mentioned this to my friend Ug. Well, he’s not really a friend, just the only person I know – I really have to get out more. Anyway, he says that he’s been on to this for a while. Apparently he’s become quite in demand with people coming to him from all over the place wanting to know how come this? and how come that? – and he just answers that it’s because of this tendency, or that disposition, and so on. And they go away satisfied because they feel he’s explained something. In fact, he’s become so popular now that they’ve invited him to do a ‘chat’ at the local village. But I don’t know. All this explaining. It doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

The other day, at Ug’s place, I happened to sneeze, and Ug said it was a sign that I had a cold, because a cold creates a tendency to sneeze. I said, “So that’s why I sneezed, is it?” and he said, “Hey! Now you’re getting the idea!” and went off whistling Here we go round the mulberry bush.

It’s all very puzzling. Ug says that as soon as you decide that something which happens is an effect you’re sunk, because effects necessarily entail causes, and you get sort of locked into a particular way of seeing things. He reckons that effects don’t actually exist, but that sometimes it helps to pretend they do – but it helps more to know when to pretend, and even more to know when to stop pretending. He seemed to pass out after that with a silly smile on his face, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him about my flashing and buzzing.

Then one day I hit on a way of sorting out all the tendencies from the dispositions and inclinations. I just gave the behaviour of the water on the hill a name. That was very satisfactory. I decided on ‘waticity’, although I might change it later. But now I can simply account for the behaviour of water on the hill as following from, arising from, being due to etc, its waticity. Giving the tendency a name does seem to lend it an added substantiality, a sort of ‘thereness’, an actuality which gives credence to its action on water. Funny that. You wouldn’t think a simple label would make so much difference, but it does. It gives it an identity, and something with an identity has attributes and existence, so everyone feels so much more at home with it. However, in my quieter moments I’m still not sure exactly what ‘waticity’ is. I find myself wondering in quite what way it’s able to act on the water: what is the precise nature of this influence? How does ‘waticity’ have its power of agency and where could this be located? What is its origin and source? Ug told me that he invented the name ‘gravity’ to likewise explain why things fall when you drop them, and declared smugly that no one ever questions him further about it. So I suppose it’s alright to talk this way. He’s also been talking again recently about something he calls ‘causality’; but then he always winks and sniggers a bit, so I don’t take too much notice. He can be a bit of a wag sometimes.

Then I had this sort of insight. If the behaviour of water on the hill when it rains is due to its ‘waticity’, then it follows that all the other regularities I’ve been noticing would be due to their own corresponding tendencies, as yet to be excitingly named. The whole hillside, in fact would be alive with tendencies – accounting for the erosion of the soil, the growth of grasses, the movement of stones, and so on. Is it possible then that there is something somewhere that gives rise to all these tendencies, something which may itself be in need of a name?

This was quite a scary thought, and I had that feeling again that there was an ideas gap here. Perhaps though, since all these tendencies seemed focused around the hillside there might be at least some sort of unity amongst them, some umbrella thingy suitably descriptive of all the tendencies. Then I thought, I could name it. Perhaps with some friendly and reassuring name like ‘mother’ or ‘munchies’; but then again, something that would contain a hint of caution for people to mind all those possible ideas gaps… Well, of course. That’s it. ‘Mind’ would be just fine.

Things seemed to escalate a bit after that, for it followed that if my hillside had one of these ‘mind’ things then other hillsides might likewise have minds, as too might the woods and the fields, the rivers and the ravines. But then – wild thought – why not Ug, and why not me?

I had to go for a walk after that. I’m in the woods now, and it’s getting darker and darker. To tell the truth, I’m not sure where I am and I’ve forgotten how I got here. Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere – perhaps on account of my mind. I’m noticing that flashing and buzzing stuff again, and I’m just beginning to wonder if it mightn’t be something to do with my mind. It does seem sort of ‘mindy’… Perhaps the flashing and buzzing is a type of independent evidence for the existence of my mind. Well, it could be, couldn’t it?

© Martin Lunghi 2006

The author is a psychologist, slightly redeemed by philosophy and sociology. To his enduring embarrassment, he used to believe that the Ryle’n Wittgenstein of his early lectures was a Country and Western singer.

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