Ghost Signs

Wittgenstein wrote of thinking that one cannot see one’s way around, saying ‘We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers.” And while on the topic of philosophy in general and Wittgenstein’s philosophy in particular, I should like to take this chance to pass on a piece of advice that I have kept in mind throughout the writing of this book, remembering it as his on one of the two occasions when he took part in a public discussion in Oxford. Wittgenstein interrupted a speaker who had realized that he was about to say something that, although it seemed compelling, was clearly ridiculous, and was trying (as we all do in such circumstances) to say something sensible instead. ‘No,’ said Wittgenstein. ‘Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on.’ The suggestion that in doing philosophy one should not try to banish or tidy up a ludicrously crude but troubling thought, but rather give it its day, its week, its month, in court, seems to me very helpful. It chimes of course with Wittgenstein’s idea that in philosophy it is very difficult to work as slowly as one should. 

From the introduction to Phillipa Foot “Natural Goodness”

I took these photographs in Bath today as we went in search of the original signage for Hand’s Cafe in the Abbey Square, which I wanted to insert in yesterday’s post to try to illustrate the usefulness of stretching the meaning of “Palimpsest” to include wildflowers that once signified whole industries – now largely forgotten.

That said, I have always been attracted to these so-called ghost signs because they have the effect of situating you in two places at once; the here and now, and the past. The idea of being in two places at once is both difficult and troubling because there seems no way of explaining, even to a sympathetic listener who may well believe what seems to be self-evident – that each moment in time passes by as if caught in the flow of a river – is false.

Just as one example – each time I find a plant that I’ve previously identified, and especially if naming it was particularly difficult, I inwardly relive the moment of discovery, the place, the weather, the exact setting and mood of the place as if I were still there in the past ‘though I know I’m in the present.

I remember once standing at one end of Damery Lake on a packbridge and being overwhelmed by the presence of a young officer in the thick of a First World War battle, standing with me and harnessing my imagination to recall a happy moment in his own past, fishing in the lake. It was all over in an overwhelming moment of intense introspection. I cite this not to push a non-existent reputation as a psychic; but because I don’t understand it and can’t explain it.

If we’re going to develop any kind of Green Spirituality or ethic we have to find a new framework for understanding ourselves which will undoubtedly feel difficult, perhaps insane, to someone steeped in the Cartesian dualism that’s still the dominating culture of our time. So this will be hard – which is why I find Phillipa Foot’s recollection of Wittgenstein so encouraging. Be crude and then we shall get on, and never be afraid of sounding like a fool. Don’t tidy up ludicrously crude but troubling thoughts but give them all the time they need.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: