Monthly Archives: January 2014

What a wonder if my dogs could receive the gift of language for a day: I could explain to them why chasing cats is bad, how to approach roads, and the point of taking bitter pills. Man and dog have no magic to bridge the gap between their different minds and we have to make do with guesswork and persistence, unable to share each other’s outlook. Some time ago while reading J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I posted about Nagel’s essay on ‘What it is like to be a bat’, which I bought, skimmed through, and mislaid before I’d picked up the thread. As far as I remember, the bat question is just a foil to questions Nagel has about possible knowledge of other human minds: we will readily assent both to the unattainability of bats’ subjective experience, and the fascination it has, preparing the way to let go of some cherished intersubjective illusion. I lay these cards on the table in case of any resemblance beween Nagel’s argument and the insight that occurred to me when thinking about the intransigence of dogs — and people, too. If only they could see things from our point of view, difficulty and disagreement would melt away: loud music played by teenagers, conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, domestic discord, office politics. Through some one-off telepathic epiphany harmony and order would be instantiated. But this is not possible. Understanding comes from the effort of embodied communication through the Byzantine contrivance of words. The poverty of words allows them to bear your meaning and mine though we can’t enter one another’s minds. Their public, impartial flavour means they can be used as neutral tokens to negotiate a shared understanding that did not exist prior to them. Indeed, the game isn’t ever played fairly, but fairness is its regulatory ideal. (I’m thinking of Rawls’s prelapsarian colloquy on justice and Habermas’s uncompelled reasonable discussion.) As fairness recedes and the gloves come off, eventually the talking stops.

This suggests telepathy is impossible in the same way and for fundamentally the same reason as knowledge of what it is like to be another species. We cannot even know our own minds in that way. Mind is material, not in the sense of a reduction to grey matter, but because it can only travel when embodied acoustically in molecules vibrating in space and time — or of course markings inked on paper or gouged out of stone. From the necessity of embodiment follows the public nature of the tokens as well as the need to play out their exchange in real time, in the flesh. For ethological reasons, that generally feels most comfortable in gatherings small enough to fit round a table; the very fact that it takes a certain amount of time to walk out of the room affects the tenor of the conversation.