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Tallis in Wonderland

Don’t Tell Him, Pike!

Raymond Tallis from the home front in the war of words.

I’m watching the classic BBC sitcom Dad’s Army. It is 1940, the hour of maximum danger. The survivors of a sunken German U-boat have been picked up by a fishing vessel and taken to Walmington-on-Sea, where the Home Guard, under the leadership of Captain Mainwaring, are to hold them until a proper military escort arrives. The U-boat captain, undaunted by his situation, demands Mainwaring’s name so that he can put him “on a list” for when the war has ended with victory for the Axis. Private Pike, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, defiantly sings a song which describes Hitler in terms the Führer might not approve of. The U-boat captain demands his name too. Captain Mainwaring jumps in: “Don’t tell him, Pike!” It’s one of those lines that make you laugh however often you hear it – but, since you are a philosopher, it also invites you to think, in this case about proper names, and perhaps about the profoundest of all mysteries – the relationship between words and the world.

At first sight, proper names seem the most straightforward of all grammatical forms, and hence philosophically the least interesting. They are certainly less baffling than common nouns such as ‘dog’ or ‘table’, or general terms such as ‘truth’ or ‘virtue’, which have prompted some of the profoundest philosophical investigations in the 2,500 years since Plato tried to make sense of them. This is ‘the problem of universals’. Plato’s way of dealing with the mystery of generality in a world of particulars – by creating another world accessed by our intellect and not by our senses, composed only of general meanings which he called ‘Forms’ (or ‘Ideas’) – has been bitterly contested. But no-one has come up with an entirely satisfactory way of making sense of the generality of general terms. And as for ‘grammatical’ or ‘function’ words such as prepositions and articles and conjunctions – well, they are even more challenging. How do they work? More to the point, how do they work together with other words in expressions, utterances, and all those long and short emissions that come out of our mouths, pens and word processors?

So proper names seem like a good place to start. You don’t have to dream up a Platonic heaven to house their meaning. Hereis the word – ‘Pike’; and there is the object – Pike. The object is not only the referent of the word; it is also the meaning of it. Thus proper names would seem to support the much-scorned “Fido”-Fido theory of language, which claims that the meaning of the word is the object to which it refers. Alas, scorn is justified even here. If the meaning of ‘Pike’ were Pike himself, then the term would lose its meaning when Pike ceased to be. And words that referred to non-existent objects would also be meaningless – semantic bouncing cheques. Yet manifestly they are not: ‘unicorn’ and ‘squared circle’ are not meaningless. Besides, objects and the meanings of words are not really the same kind of thing. If you don’t believe it, try getting Pike into a sentence about himself.

Even so, there does appear to be something very basic about proper names. I could put it technically by saying that they access their referents immediately rather than by going through a more general sense. That is, when I talk about ‘Pike’, I seem to home directly on the item in question; but when I talk about a ‘man’, I access any actual man only indirectly, through a general category which then has to be supplemented with other specifying terms. I can of course bring the general category down to particular earth, and fasten the word to a singular thing by talking about ‘ this man’, as it were verbally pointing to the person in question. However, the use of demonstratives (like ‘this’ and ‘that’) in this context is extraordinarily complex, as philosophers of language have found to their cost.

We might instead specify what is distinctive about proper names by saying, as John Stuart Mill did, that they have ‘denotation’ without ‘connotation’: that is, they mark out something without implying any significance or personal interpretation to me. And, because proper names do not rely on connotations to carry them to their objects, they are highly arbitrary: Pike could just as well have been called ‘Jones’. This is my excuse when I forget the name of someone who could reasonably be offended at my having done so, thinking that my amnesia signals that I don’t care for them. In fact I have mislaid only an arbitrary denotation; meanwhile, all that I (of course) cherish them for – their connotative aura – glows undiminished in my mind.

Notwithstanding Mill’s perceptive observation, it should now be obvious that there’s nothing primitive about proper names – nothing, anyway, that should enable them to work by mere mental association, so that the name acts as proxy for the object – as a psychological stand-in for the thing itself. And the highly-charged exchange at Walmington-on-Sea confirms this. It shows that we employ proper names not only to denote people, but also to tie them into all sorts of other discourses. Our name is the primary tag for our identity. Via the tag ‘Raymond Tallis’ I am located on endless documents, registers, and lists (including, who knows, perhaps the kind of list on which the U-boat captain wished to include Private Pike) recording my characteristics, curriculum vitae, attendances, absences, entitlements, obligations, criminal record, blood potassium levels, and so on. My name, and nowadays, my e-name, give me a presence and identity that far exceed anything I could imagine. That I, Raymond Tallis am ‘Raymond Tallis’ is both a truism and untrue. Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful little essay ‘Borges and I’, begins by noting that “The other one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” At any rate ‘Raymond Tallis’ has a life on papers and computer screens and in the minds of those who read them that I would hardly recognise.

A proper name, then, is a hook that links our living flesh and its life to the larger human world – to an infinite nexus of discourses. It is the means by which others get hold of us. Hence the urgency of Captain Mainwaring’s self-cancelling instruction to Pike to withhold his name.

Name Calling

When we seek someone’s name, we ask what they are called, as if the essence of a name is a handle by which we can grasp them. Wittgenstein once observed what a strange thing it was to call someone by their name. Animals may call to each other, but the summons is not mediated via names: beasts do not linguistically recognise each other’s singularity. It is our names that acknowledge us as subjects and as ‘subjected subjects’ – ‘abjects’, as the paranoid French philosopher Louis Althusser once argued. The world that gets hold of you by using your name as lexical tweezers also has your number, as it were. It may assert power over you – the power to tie all those little knots that might Gulliver you to the common ground. Which is why, Private Pike, there are as many reasons for withholding our names as for introducing ourselves by offering them along with our outstretched hand. We can even assert our power over others by the tone of voice in which we utter their name, or by employing a surname rather than a first name, by omitting titles, or by inflicting an unchosen abbreviation or unwanted nickname. The ultimate denial of equal subjectivity is to replace someone’s name by a number: one’s uniqueness is reduced to the merely objective singularity of occupying a place in a series of units like yourself.

And names may be used to direct commands to their targets, of course. Since sounds promiscuously enter all ears within earshot, a spoken instruction does not necessarily single out its intended recipient. When the skull of the commanded is thought to be somewhat dense, the command may need to be spiked with the recipient’s name to ensure that it penetrates a burqa of inattention. Pike’s own name was, Mainwaring thought, such a necessary poke – hence “Don’t tell him, Pike.” Of course Mainwaring didn’t mean to utter Pike’s name as a piece of information. Yet, alas, it was inescapably both poke and information. There could be no more striking tribute to the complexity of proper names than this moment, in which a name participates simultaneously in two different speech acts, one intended and the other unintended. Captain Mainwaring was caught up in the pragmatic contradiction of revealing what was to be kept under wraps to the very person from whom it was to be hidden, as a result of specifying the person who was to keep it under wraps. This is how he tripped himself up and made us laugh 35 years ago, and laugh again now.

Mainwaring’s ‘Pike!’ is a reminder that proper names are a special form of reference by which that which is referred to is caught hold of. No wonder we are prone to magic thinking, believing that names may invoke things. This kind of thinking may also spread to certain very emotive general terms: obscenities and oaths. What would be the point of obscenity if referring to certain parts of the body did not seem to bring them, wobbling and dangling, before our eyes, or if the action of the two-backed beast was not somehow made present by the f-word? And what of our imprecations to the gods? Their systematic absence is alleviated a little bit when, in our agony of loss, or when we bark our shins, we believe that saying ‘Christ!’ somehow causes to materialise that which is spoken of.

The intimate relation between the proper names and the existence of their deity is brilliantly dramatised in Arthur C. Clarke’s Nine Billion Names of God. A computer programme is designed to test the claim that, once all the names of God have been spoken, the universe will come to an end. When the programme finishes churning out the list, the scientists, disappointed that there is no Apocalypse, look up at the sky, and see the stars going out one by one.

Our names are strange possessions by which we are also possessed until death, when, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, one discards “one’s own name as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.”After that they continue without us, glimmers on others’ memories, perhaps chiselled on memorials, as something that ‘liveth forever’ (sort of).

Thus are we reduced to the seemingly most straightforward of all words reminding us, via Captain Mainwaring’s gaffe, that no word is at all straightforward. Forgive me if this philosophical autopsy of a delicious joke removed the smile from your face. The DVD will put it back again!

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

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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