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Tallis in Wonderland

Some Points About Pointing

Raymond Tallis shows that the gesture is not so obvious.

A few years ago I published a book, The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, which identified the opposable thumb as one of the main drivers of humanity to its uniquely self-conscious state. Full opposability not only made the hand more versatile, but for a variety of reasons changed the hand into a proto-tool unlike any other organ in the animal kingdom. It was this that awoke the sense that humans have of being conscious agents and set them on a direction away from the condition of organisms which merely live, to that of embodied subjects who lead their lives.

There was nothing particularly original in identifying the hand as the key to the exceptional nature of humans: Anaxagoras, Aristotle, Kant, Erasmus Darwin, had preceded me, to name just a few. What originality my thesis had lay in the details of my argument and the precise way in which I linked the hand to Man the Toolmaker, and, though this, to the development of a true sociality. This sociality is based upon what I characterised as ‘the collectivisation of consciousness’, from which emerged the community of minds that is the human world.

Some years after I had published this book, I received a fascinating letter from a reader. While accepting the main thrust of my thesis, they argued that I had overlooked the importance of another feature of the human hand: the relative freedom of the index finger. This observation fell on fertile ground. For many years, I have been fascinated by one of the primary functions of the index finger: pointing. Up in the loft I still had a manuscript, abandoned in 1973, called Studies in Pointish. Clearly the time had come to re-visit the manuscript and the topic. The result is a work in progress – Michelangelo’s Finger – and a good deal of fun.

One of the joys of philosophical thought is that it requires no equipment or any particular occasion. The necessary materials are always to hand – in the case of meditating on pointing, literally so. Something apparently trivial, if examined in the right spirit, can become a glass-bottomed boat, giving us access to the near-fathomless depths upon which everyday life floats. It was Wittgenstein who pointed out (the phrase is inescapable but I shall try not to use it again) that there is nothing obvious about pointing. It is not, for example, self-evident that the direction of the pointer is from the shoulder to the finger tip and not vice versa. It takes a Martian or genius to notice that (and Wittgenstein was of course both). In fact, the rules of basic pointing turn out to be quite complicated. This nails the mistaken belief that pointing is a natural sign – that it is transparent and requires no interpretation. It is highly conventional.

The frustration in trying to show a dog where its ball has gone by pointing in the direction of its disappearance is enough to demonstrate the conventional nature of pointing. The dog just doesn’t get the point and you end up retrieving the ball yourself. In fact, no animals point as humans do. Primatologists used to think that chimpanzees understood pointing and that they used this gesture to communicate the whereabouts of objects. More recently, observers such as Daniel Povinelli have shown that chimps’ apparent comprehension of pointing is due to poor experiment design. If a chimp goes to an object that is pointed to, it does so not because it understands the referential nature of pointing but because it goes to the object nearest the experimenter’s finger-tip.

We are the sole pointing animal because of profound differences between us and all other sentient creatures. Firstly, the use of the index finger to point presupposes a special relationship to a part of one’s body. This deliberate use of the finger builds upon the sense of one’s self as an agent, and the parts of one’s body as explicit tools, which ultimately originates from the sense of the hand as a tool. It is tempting to conflate pointing with forms of behaviour that are widely distributed through the animal kingdom and which seem to involve communication through display of part of the body. But this would be mistaken. Unlike these other communicative modes of bodily display, pointing is discretionary, and, being conventional, has to be learned. (Humans, by the way, are the only animals who explicitly teach their young: who demonstrate and point out things to their offspring.) This sense of a piece of one’s body as an object, as a sign, and as a means of signification which will focus the attention of another on something or other is remarkable, and says a lot about our complex consciousness of our bodies. But utilising one’s body in this self-conscious way is built on something else: the sense of others as self-conscious creatures like one’s self.

My pointing something out to you is a request for joint visual attention to the same object. It is based on a highly explicit general sense of the kind of creature you are: unlike other creatures, (most) humans have an unequivocal sense that others have minds. On top of this, there is a specific sense of your knowledge being defective compared with mine, based on my observation of your (literal) point of view. We are reminded just how remarkable this is when we encounter human beings who lack this sense: people with autism who have no integrated sense of themselves, and no sense of other’s sense of themselves. A poignant early sign of autism is the failure to point – a gesture which usually appears towards the end of the first year of life, before the emergence of language. Pointing, in short, is a potent testimony to the infant’s sense (again unique to human beings) of living in a shared, common world, a public reality, and of its communicative urge.

Pointing is pre-linguistic, but it is important not to exaggerate the sense in which it is proto-linguistic. Individual words belong to systems of signs and make sense only as part of such systems – as loci in semantic fields stitched together by grammar. By contrast, the field of pointing is the visual field, and its grammar is almost non-existent. St Augustine’s notion that parents teach their children to speak by pointing at objects and uttering their names was brilliantly criticised by Wittgenstein in the opening pages of Philosophical Investigations, and led to some of his most famous theories about language. Reflecting on the modest role played by pointing as a bridge from babbling to speech awakens one’s sense of the mysterious nature of language. Investigating the scope and limits of ostensive definition – defining words by literally pointing out their objects (eg “That’s ‘vermilion’”) – casts an interesting light on the nature of linguistic reference, of universals, and of the very complex relationship between the arrays of material objects that surround us and the world as it is captured in spoken and written discourse.

The spoken world is a constant reminder of the existence of a reality beyond the bounds of our current experiential field. Under certain circumstances, pointing is an intermediary between the immediate world of experience and the world of discourse, largely hidden from the senses. Thus it is the first step in a process by which reality becomes disconnected from the body. Imagine a pre-linguistic world – the world of hominids [proto-humans] before language, or the world of the infant. Person A sees something Person B cannot see. A points to it, and as a result B is in some sense aware of it. What he is aware of is whatever B is pointing to, but partially generalised – it takes the form of an explicit but incompletely defined expectation, and is in no definite relation to B’s body. This is the seed of that collection of expectations and rumours related to no particular body – nobody in particular – which is the shared world in which we live our distinctively human lives: a world sustained in words and images and a torrent of symbols and signs. Pointing awakens and enlarges the sense of possibility, the sense of the hidden.

This is why I have called my book-in-progress Michelangelo’s Finger. In Michelangelo’s fresco The Creation of Adam on the roof of the Sistine chapel, God and Adam are linked by index fingers. One interpretation of this is that the index finger is the source of our primordial sense of transcendence. Theologically more literate people than myself have suggested that this is merely fanciful. Be that as it may, the transcendence that grows out of the tip of the finger may loop the world and cross centuries.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by Millais’ famous picture The Boyhood of Raleigh. His eyes hanging out on stalks, Raleigh is listening to the stories of a Genoese sailor. The sailor is pointing to the horizon, to the beyond. The economic consequences of the horizon-fever of sailors such as Raleigh and Drake were astounding. Their semi-piratical activities paid off the national debt and laid the foundations of England’s prosperity. From this, a new, fabulously wealthy merchant class had the leisure to carry out or support the scientific investigations which contributed to the scientific revolution in which other, equally piratical European superpowers participated. This in turn opened the way to the Industrial Revolution which, for all its horrors, eventually made mass affluence possible. In its wake came the resources to permit even the children of comparative peasants, such as myself, to be educated. The finger of the Genoese sailor pointing to the horizon returned 400 years later, after an extraordinary journey through space and time, and pointed to me, sitting in the classroom, entranced by the picture.

I have said nothing about the extraordinary development in the creation of artificial pointers, such as road signs that speak to us collectively about things that are, at present, hidden. Or about pointing which points to the pointer herself – starting with the raised finger which puts what a speaker is saying in italics, commanding you to mark her words. But I hope I have said enough to excuse, and indeed explain, my 35 year fascination with a gesture which may seem of little account.

Yes, the index finger is pretty small, but in this as in other respects, size is not everything. It’s how you use it and the human context in which it is used. There is nothing so trivial as it cannot form the basis of philosophical inquiry. All that is necessary is to break the habit of taking for granted, and prepare to be astonished.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2008

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.

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