Po Mo No Go

by Denis Robinson

Some philosophers I know seem to be engaging in a “this is what I work on in no long words” meme game. I’m retired and I don’t think I could have done it anyway. But in 2005 there was a wee game of that ilk, in which the aim was just to write some philosophy in words of one syllable. I wrote some thoughts I had had: short words but a long piece. I’ve taken this opportunity to make a couple of improvements I’ve long thought of. Here is the whole thing:

Some say it’s all just text and what it means must be as may be, no neat or sharp thoughts or claims which mean just what they say, no grand tales we can know to be true, just a mix of words which shift as we look at them or speak them or hear them some way or not, say “yes” or “no” to them, or play our word games with them just as we play our life games, fight our word wars with them as we fight our life wars, and so on and on and all this and that. If it takes text to say what text means, and then yet more text to say what that text means, and so on, how can it end but in text? At least in France.

But I say this. You can think of words as like tools.

So let’s think of tools for a bit. Stone age folks had a few rough tools, which would do a few rough jobs – split a rock, or a tree, or a skull, crush a nut, spear or skin a fish or a deer, store an egg or some seeds, light a fire, but all no more than fair for what few things they had to do. You might think a lot of rough tools could just make more rough tools at best. Not so. We now have lots of good fine sharp tools, which cut and draw and rule straight and true, we can make a neat screw bolt with a nut to fit tight on it, we can weigh a small wee bit of an ounce or a gram, we can build a plane or a ship or a great big house or mall or hall or bridge, we can see things much too small for the eye to see on its own, we can make small hard drives which store gigs and gigs of stuff, we can surf the net and phone some place on the far side of the world while still on line. We have tools which each do their own jobs well, just as we wish them to, more or less, and each new lot of tools lets us make the next lot yet more fine and use them for yet more things.

I say, so it went with words. It may be that once we had just rough blunt words as tools to speak our speech and think our thoughts. It may be that back then our thoughts, or at least our words and what they meant, were vague, not clear, a mix, like things seen in dreams. Our words would not add all that much to our ways of life, just help us share a bit, work a bit, play a bit, each with each, but all vague, each like a broad dim patch, not a bright spot or dot in the great field of things we might think or mean. But just as you can start with blunt tools and make tools that are sharp, you can start with dim thoughts and make thoughts that are clear, start with vague words and make words that mean things sharp and true, words that do well to state just what you mean and such that each one who knows those words knows what you mean when you say them.

That’s where we are now, when we want to be. We can still play with broad brush strokes in our own tongues, we can paint strange half thoughts with odd strings of text which might mean all or none of what they make us think or half think. But that’s by no means all of it. When the time is right and the need is there we can say what we mean and mean what we say. Which is damn good. At least, it makes me glad.

And just as a world of nowt but tools would be but a part world – for from what would the tools be made, and for what, and how, would we use them? – so a world just of text would be less than a dream not dreamt or a thought not thought, it would be no world at all. We shake the air or scratch the slate: we make texts from sounds and marks, with our chins and teeth and tongues and lips and lungs, and our pens and black and white boards and all such things.

If a time had not come when we had all those things, there would still have been no texts or words at all. We live in the world, and we use words to help us do things to and say things of all the bits of that world we live in (not just the words). It’s true we say things of, and think thoughts of, things not of the real world, too. But it’s not all like that: no world but text means no text, and no work for text to do. It’s not all text. Praise the word! But praise the world too.


Denis Robinson is an Australian citizen who is a permanent resident of New Zealand, living in Auckland. He loves, and is disturbed by, both countries, in different ways. After multiple childhood moves around Australia’s rural South East, he spent his teens and some ensuing decades in Melbourne, which he regards as his “home” city. He began studying science at the University of Melbourne, but switched to philosophy, which he studied at Melbourne, Oxford, and Monash Universities. After junior appointments at the University of Melbourne, he taught for over three decades at the University of Auckland. His research interests spread from the metaphysics of matter and identity, to personal identity, philosophy of mind, and some brief excursions into the borderlands of meta-ethics. Now in retirement, his chief creative outlet is photography. For non-academic purposes he often uses the short name “Den Rob”, specially on Facebook, and on Flickr, where some of his photographs can be seen.