Metaphor is a Problem

Wittgenstein asked ‘Why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep?’. It was rhetorical, it was by way of revealing and enlightening what he was saying. But, since theories of meaning within language diverge from likelihood in inverse proportion to their departure from the general realm of the aforementioned writer’s contentions, I have one ill-favoured notion to advance by way of reply.

Tedious, bloodless analysts would have us believe meaning derives from truth, and draw up tables showing statements, or propositions, matching their factual counterparts to show how a statement, or proposition, means what it does. However, I may say ‘hello’; I may write “hello”; or I may wave my hand. What meaning inheres in them all? The first two are easier. Examples invented to vary from the general practices therein sound artificial. But the third? Hello, or goodbye, or good lord this wasp is keen?

My point, nodding to Wittgenstein, is that meaning is contextual, dependent upon and derived from usage. Semantics lodges mostly within words, but also within actions, ritual or bodily etc. and makes sense, means something, only within its practical adherents, even if it cannot work in every case, given the nature of its users. I say that last because ‘we’ philosophers often take individual failures as disproof of a general principle.

So. Metaphor. How does a truth-condition favouring philosopher of language account for this? The truth is a shining sword, after all. I’d love to say I have made sense of how they do. But I have not.

And so I wish to stress context. And banality, or, as you know it most, life. You describe a chilly temperature as ‘sharp’. Why? Because it cuts you? Like a blade, which cuts more obviously? No. It is an adaptation. A sliver of moving air seems appositely described thus. But we have heard this before, and the more we do the closer it comes to something like love as warmth, and the sense of metaphor is hidden.

All words, all usages of words, are advancements upon their earlier usage. The more common, the venerable, the entrenched, are accepted as commonplace, no matter their derivation. The newer, the expressions that stretch accepted meanings, the ones which make us imagine, picture, which entice our cognition to work in order to grasp meaning… which, sadly, you often get in poetry, or, better, in wit, is often metaphor.

How much more beautiful, and sensible, to understand this concept this way? And this answers the initial rhetorical question: when a joke is not merely transmitted via language, but itself plays with the vehicle in which it inheres, we again work harder than the rote apprehension of language which typifies most exchanges. We touch upon the rich complexity of language so easily lost through inurement and, briefly, wonder.

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The Wages of Grin

Is it not an incontestable idea that the cultivation of happiness within oneself and amongst others should be the highest aim of humanity? The short answer is ‘no’. The medium length answer is as follows:

Let us not quibble over what is meant by ‘happiness’ here. There is no unit of happiness, and why would there ever be an everlasting consensus on what it is to be happy within one person, let alone across us all? Yet we somehow manage day to day without using the word as if it were foreign terminology.

You see, I have my axe to grind, which may or may not yet be apparent, and I am tired of certain routes to happiness being held up as standards of truth or reality. The most common is being told how a faith, a belief in something more, can even be statistically proven to improve mood, health and life expectancy. Statistics. That’s almost maths, if not quite science.

So, I am often told, belief in meaning to life beyond human exigencies, a plan, or a reward system, including, but not limited to, eternal incorporeal joy; reunion with departed loved ones; possibilities of forgiveness or repentance or expiation; renunciation of pain, and trial, as ephemeral, even transcendent; a system of rules to live by, a caste of helpful, if surprisingly privileged and fractious, fellows to interpret those rules by, sparing our wayward little heads the trouble of doing it ourselves; all this can lead to reduced levels of worry, and perhaps free one from the anxieties that may otherwise plague us and foreshorten out mortal existence.

I nod sagely, wondering if perhaps my standards of truth are too high. Did I abandon mathematics before truth equalled whatever we wanted to believe? Of course, I do not nod sagely, I, in fact, nod off. Happiness is a noble wish, but what price if bought with wide-eyed delusion? We want so much to believe those things that please us, but could anything be more dangerous?

The most useful child of scepticism is: test your beliefs, wage war on them, denounce them from every angle, flay their skins and split their bones. If they yet stand, if they do not melt beneath your withering contempt, then perhaps they deserve a place in a foundation of your happiness. It is no fault of mine if hovels are all that stand upon them.

Water Water Everywhere….

This is not a blog piece about drought and famine but about how water has affected Britain in the past and how it could hypothetically affect our futures.   The thinking behind this came from my spending a glorious Sunday in Bath and then pondering on the continuing importance of water to this spa town.  How many tourists still pay good money to take the waters there; a small amount of digging suggests that the site has over one million visitors per year (despite in all likelihood the fountain is powered by the tap in the kitchen of the Pump Room restaurant?!).  But, I digress.  This is one of many European towns that rely on water to stay afloat.  In Germany for example, any town boasting the word Bad in the title has been granted permission to promote itself as a spa town.

Back to Bath, this history of which stretches further back than is possible to detail in one blog piece and has already been the subject of much research.  The eighteenth century however, witnessed resurgence in the flow of people to the town hoping that the waters will wash a multitude of illness away.  As the town became part of the fashionable route, more visitors came along with their bulging pocketbooks, passions and vices.  My undergraduate research into female gamblers often lead back to Bath which apparently despite Beau Nash’s attempts at civilising it, was still a den of iniquity.  It seems that some sins cannot be washed away.  Beau Nash himself, the MC of Bath as his plaque in Bath so helpfully details was Master of Ceremony and not local DJ.  His name to me conjures up a glorious dandy with perfect hair and teeth but someone you would not want to get on the wrong side of.  Of course, I know very little about the man and wouldn’t at all like to speculate about his appearance.

On our amblings around the town, I spotted an inscription on the side of a yellowed building citing that there formerly stood the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases or Mineral Water Hospital (the ‘Min’) in 1738/9.  Pleasingly, the same institution continues to promote the healing benefits of mineral water.

But, you ask – wasn’t there a lot of illness about and a large part of it water-borne throughout history?  Well yes kids there was a lot of cholera and typhoid around and  whilst the warm geysers of the Roman Baths would have provided some form of sanitation, many would still probably have come out worse than when they went in.  A peek in the Cathedral will reveal hundreds of non-Somerset citizens that have perished in Bath throughout the centuries.  It made me want to examine more closely the death rates of this town compared to other of a similar size but different role to see how much the dying flocking to a place burdened the town itself.  Imagine so many thousands of people descending suddenly now on a relatively sparsely populated town and perishing; I bet their taxes were disproportionately high.

A final thought that came to me was what would happen if we weren’t so fond of water resorts.  Would Bath rename itself with a less soggy name if the fountains dried up or would it become ironic?  And the seaside towns like Brighton and Bournemouth that have been packed over the weekend; what would they look like?  Actually, probably a little more like Blackpool in the winter, or summer…..But, where would people go instead if not to these places?  That is something I will have to give a little more imaginative thought to.