Philosophy and Rhubarb

Written by Peter Allison

"In my youth when I indulged in amateur dramatics it was said that actors in crowd scenes would mutter "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb". I do not know if was true then and, if it was, whether it is true now.

Words do not have meaning. They have value, use, according to the situation in which they are which they are put. The first section deals light-heartedly with the development of language. The second illustrates how words attain their values. There follows in the third discussion on some basic so-called traditional problems indicating that they are meaningless. An appendix attempts to illustrate the barrenness of using words alone in solving troubles.

Section 1

The Beginnings of Language

Many thousands of years ago a group of hunter-gatherers were sitting round a fire eating some elk. I do not know how they got the fire started nor how the elk came to die. At some point one of the younger members made the sound - accompanied by the appropriate body language - "Ugh. Ugh Ugh. Ugh Ugh". In contemporary English this can be translated as: "I say, chaps, I'm fed up with all this Ugh Ugh Ugh business - let's invent language." Today we would call him a modernist. As they had enough elk to last them several days they saw a window of opportunity to take this initiative forward and formed a committee. How many thousands of years ago this was is complete conjecture. Some held that language arose some thirty thousand years ago. But as cave paintings can be dated from one hundred thousand years ago the cooperation involved must suggest vocal communication. ("Hold that torch steady, lad - this antelope will look more like a camel"). There are some artefacts on the shores of the Congo, which can be dated four hundred thousand years ago. The date of the start of language seems to recede further and further backwards. In the same region, incidentally, there's a specie of chimpanzee (one of our relations) which can make some thirty distinct sounds. Unhappily is it doubtful if they can join them up? (Danger, big danger, danger gone).

There are, of course, many theories of the start of language. Some would hold it began with the need for cooperation in hunting, (Desmond Morris once suggested the reason men have deeper voices than women is because such voices carry better in the hunting field), or warning shouts of alarm and defence, or the utterings of endearments - " Come over here darling, let's have a roll in the tundra". More latterly there is a suggestion that language came about as a bonding mechanism. Some animals groom each other and bond as a group in this fashion. This is a one to one device. With language a whole group can be addressed. It does not really matter at this point. It is readily agreed that of all the theories, which abound the one suggested above is the least likely. For whatever reason language came about, whether it started in more than one geographical area or which time:

They did not have Philosophers in Mind

Language arose for common everyday use. Put another log on the fire, I'm going for a swim, Get out of the way, When will this rain stop? There are no bison left hereabouts, it’s time we moved on. Certainly with this invention instead of jumping up and down and screeching someone could yell - "Look out Cedric, there's a sabre-toothed tiger behind you".

One beginning of religion

May we change the scene. If you are a primitive man and have, for example, a source of water in an area where water is short, you do not wish to sit around all day guarding it. You cannot protect it with razor wire still less install closed circuit television. Some bright descendant of Cedric, however, came up with an idea. In this well or spring, he claimed, lives a devil, a spirit, a djinn. If you take water from this well and then make a prayer to him (or an oblation - throw three coins in a fountain!) then you can drink happily or safely. Thus the visitor is less like to spit into the well - or worse - after his refreshment. Now it is not suggested that all religion came about in such ways but it is likely one of them.

Pre-Socratic tidy-up

Some thousand of years pass and along come the pre-Socratic philosophers. If there is a spirit in this river and another in that river - which is the chief one ? Which is the most powerful ? How were they born or how did they come about ? The position is altogether too fanciful, too bizarre, we've got too many spirits and gods about the place. Common sense dictates that we must do some downsizing. We must add reason and logic to the human condition. For political and social reasons - and unlike their Semite neighbours - what they did not do is reduce all the gods to one. They could perform an element of dumbing down but not go too far. They did, however, take much of the mystery and superstition from the feelings of the times. And what is more they could make a living out of it.

But... A Fundamental Error

Thus we have some bright spark (Heraclitus apparently) who says "We cannot step into the same river twice" (viz the waters will quickly pass us by and we are met with a new bucketful). Bully! How splendid to be a philosopher! Teach us more, Oh mighty one! What nonsense. The word river has a use (or many uses) indicating an area of land, lower than its surroundings, through which water normally passes. (Tautological but that's how the cookie crumbles.)

As professional philosophy unfolded undoubtedly a service was provided removing untruths in their systems and provided what we would call a civilizing influence. Unhappily in attacking the nonsenses which abounded this new semi-professional group failed to consider the tools which they were using. Language has been about for so long they thought of it as fixed in meaning, part of human personality, probably therefore a gift from the gods.

Unhappily this outlook was inherited by the great Plato himself. We have words and we use the same word in so many different situations, possibly each time with a slightly different value - so what does any one word really mean. Even if Plato was given to writing a dictionary he would not have been satisfied. There must be a true, everlasting, unique referent of each word, or more unquestioningly each noun we use. Thus there are many different tables about the place. (Philosophers are fond of tables). What or where is the real table ? What is it that each table has in common ? As the answer is not to be found here on earth the real table must be in the heavens. Somewhere up there (or down there, depending where on this planet you live) there is the table of all tables and all those on earth are merely copies of the form of table which exists elsewhere.

Of course this is a source of rich pickings for those who came after. Aristotle promoted the idea that you look at the characteristics of all tables and the sum of these qualities which exist in an object make that object a table. Much later Kant talked about the thing in itself. Others claimed that the definition of a word lay in its purpose. A table is something for laying objects on. Thus a stool could be used as a table - the supposition unfortunately being that somehow, somewhere, the stool copied the universal table.

Given that objects are only shady copies of the real things up there it is a short step to claiming that qualities have a true and absolute meaning. Thus goodness, righteousness, justice, love have real meanings and lead to the belief that experts in the field have insights and knowledge about them denied to us lesser mortals. It has given rise to the making of much fine gold and the acquisition of noble reputations.

Peter Abelard Spots a Difficulty.

Moving on a thousand years or so we come to Peter Abelard (P.A. for short) who said something like... 'Hold on guys. Just because we have a word for square or for hill or for chair or for anything else does not mean that they are anything but noises.'

The fact that the word exists does not mean that the object exists other than in the form to which is referred and that the link between that object and other similar objects is useful but does not imply that such a thing exists in an ideal form. We use the word matchbox and probably have a dozen similar matchboxes about the place but the noise matchbox is only a useful link. It does not imply there is some ideal matchbox in the heavens as Plato would have it. Nor is there any need for the Aristotelian dodge of taking the characteristics of the matchbox, comparing the characteristics of another and then claiming that any object with those characteristics could be entitled to name matchbox. So nominalism was born. Well done, Peter, we're getting there.

The word 'set' has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb and 10 as a participial adjective. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary 60,000 words to discuss them all. (Bill Bryson : Mother Tongue)

Of course safe guarding their trade philosophers cannot leave it at that. Kant wrote of the Primary and Secondary qualities that go to make up the object. Matchboxes coloured red or blue essentially have the same purpose. The secondary qualities do not over-ride the primary ones. What is a primary characteristic? The purpose for which the object is put, what it is used for, or its basic construction or something else. What is the thing in itself? The importance of nominalism is continually undermined by the metaphysicians and absolutists who continue to identify some entity as the referent of some particular word. Neglecting that the world is much, much greater than language.

Wittgenstein Puzzles

In the 20th. century philosophers did indeed start looking at language as a tool, led in many ways by Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein is the acknowledged leader who offered the notion that the cure for philosophy was more philosophy which is itself actually a series of language games. (Elegantly summed up by Robert Soloman and Cathleen Higgins in their 'Short History of Philosophy' ... no single definition of games, and no one thing all games have in common. (Some games do not have goals or end points. Some games are played alone. Some games are played without rules or with rules made up as one goes along. Some games are not (and are not intended to be) fun.))

Thus I flippantly cruise through the saga of language and the manner in which philosophers have treated it for over two and half thousand years. The contemporary conclusion lies in the detailed investigation of how words are used and their various meanings.

And this flippancy is tinged with enormous diffidence. Erudite and distinguished philosophers through the ages have included in their thoughts their attitude to language. Gobbets can be taken from practically any of them and, as always, going back to Plato. It is in the last hundred years, however, that specific attention has been paid to human communication. Whether it be semiotics, or how children learn a language or investigating the underlying accepted rules of language compared to what is actually spoken or, indeed, the importance of silence within communication.

Words are not perfect - Nor is anything else

But words are not universals. They are not absolutes in any circumstances. Examples : The perfect cylinder does not exist. The nearest we can get to one is as a mathematical formula, which itself (see the debate about number below) is itself imperfect. If one holds a pen parallel to the ground it will have one measurement. Hold it vertical and (in theory) it yields another. Although, of course the difference could not be measured. Or… It is stupid for some foreign national to say 'I hate America'. There is a body of land, a constitution, a number of people, a flag to represent the concept and all kinds of good and perhaps ugly things. But America there aint. The protesting national makes sense if he says 'I disapprove of the economic system' 'I dislike the can-do approach to life' but what he cannot meaningfully say is 'I hate America'.

We can take this further. There is no such thing as 'physics'. There are studies of the infinitely large and the infinitely small and lots of stages in between. The University Of Oxford has sixteen different departments of physics. And artificial intelligence….. viz the problems associated with the assumption that AI exists. Will we have AI in fifty years’ time? How can this question possibly be answered when there are so many facets and uses of the sound intelligence?

It might be objected that America, Physics, AI work in the same way as group names. A farmer owning fifty sheep in his field might sell the lot. In which case we can usefully say that he has sold his flock. But there is no such thing as flock itself. It is merely a useful way of pointing to a certain situation.

Certainly the physicists and astrophysicists have to think abstractly, away from words. Using symbols and equations which few of us understand. Then reducing their thoughts from these abstractions they come up with words like big bang, parallel universes, quarks. The rest of us play with these concepts and in consequence probably mislead ourselves in our interpretations. Fortunately they are just games to us and although they add to our sense of wonderment have little real effect on our lives. Few of us could recognize a few thousand miles let alone a million. A light year is a form of words, useful in drawing our attention to the vastness of things. But they don't butter no parsnips as grandmothers are alleged to say. (Mine never did as a matter of  no particular interest)

It is stated as a fact. Words by themselves have no absolute meaning. Their value lies in the character, state of mind, personality, experience of the sender, similarly of the receiver and the medium through which the words have passed.

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Words do not have meaning.

They are sounds with value according to the situation in which they are uttered. 


If words do not have meaning then how can we communicate at all?

Hold hard, it will be objected, if words have no meaning how can we successfully communicate at all? The clue is to be found in the committee founded by Cedric which continued long after he died.

(People turned up not because they were interested or had any special contribution; they had been elected to it and felt obliged to appear. Generations after it still met for no other reason than no one had the courage to question its existence. They had always had this committee and people continued being appointed to it. Dynamic modern management had yet to be founded.)

Compare the Number '1'

One of the topics was to question the 'meaning' of the number 'one'. No matter how hard they tried they were always faced with tautologies…….a single thing, something alone, the only object. By now their arithmetic had progressed far further than calculating how many elks it would take to satisfy a tribe of a hundred through the dark days of winter. They were counting the number of days it took to trace the moon through its cycle, how many moons there were in a year and were finding difficulty in the fact that using a cycle of twelve moons the year seemed to get shorter.

In the end they decided that they could not possibly find the definition of 'one' and by common consent agreed to let the matter lie. They had got on well enough without being able to define the concept and they all agreed to accept it without any further discussion. Some bright Cedric 15th pointed out that the same problem held with the concept of 'naught' and posed problems which thousands of years later faced the Romans. Nevertheless their happy agreement to dispose of the problem in this way was accepted by every other tribe in the whole world - for ever.

When, however, we all agree to 'know what we mean' by '1' and '0' we can build a whole system of mathematics.

The Inuit have words for wet snow, freezing snow. fresh snow and so on - up to perhaps fifty expressions. But no word for 'snow'. Similarly the Trobriand Islanders have a hundred words for 'yams', native Tasmanians can name every type of tree but they have no word for 'tree'. Would a little green man from Mars, therefore, assume there is no such thing as snow in the Artic and no trees in Tasmania. (Bill Bryson, again)

The concept of snow has use for us in more southerly climes and indeed we might talk about slushy snow, or white as snow but we have no need to differentiate as do our friends in the North. When we communicate 'snow' it represents our needs and values at a particular time. We have no need of a dozen expressions. Where there is a need the vocabulary accommodates so that the Laplanders have, I am led to believe, over four hundred words for 'deer'. What they would make of the word 'set' cannot be made clear anymore than we would recognize their words for 'deer.

It is, of course, in everyone's interest to maintain that words have meaning. Whether they be philosophers, theists or computer experts. (The latter have come a cropper when it comes to synthesizing speech. The famous computer Hal in the film '2001' is still decades away in practicality. For Hal to work it would have to have an intimate knowledge of the personality and experience of the person with whom it is attempting to communicate as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of its own).

Words are the tools of their trades and they can indulge in Wittgenstein's games. If there is flexibility of any kind they are doomed. They constantly have to define and having defined according to their expectations can propose, knock down and come up with what they believe to be answers.

Which one meaning does the little green man from Mars choose?  If he has a vast computer he might be right in his selection according to the circumstances but then he must be wary of Humpty Dumpty….. When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, - neither more nor less. (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carrol).

And Humpty Dumpty has a third of the case. The value of any word he uses depends on himself; h is background, his psychology. When we use any word we 'know' what it means to us. But this, of course, does not necessarily imply that it has the same value to an audience.

The Military Discover the Difficulty

There is nothing new in this. It derives perhaps from the Second World War when the armed services were concerned about messages sent by radio. Interference of such a degree was experienced that there was constant misinterpretation. (Although the old joke from the First War where the front line sent a runner with a message via Brigade to Army Head Quarters several miles back 'Send Reinforcements we are going to advance' became 'Send three and fourpence we are going to a dance' also has relevance).

Deliberate misunderstanding of words and terms is the essence of much humour. If you would like an even older old joke, dating from the Middle Ages, we have the one about the sewage workers. 'It may be shit to us but its somebody's bread and butter. A contemporary, perhaps more sophisticated joke going the rounds: Philosopher A: Have you heard that Smith has won a car? Philosopher B: In principle, Yes. But it wasn't a car, it was a bicycle. And he didn't win it, but lost it. And it wasn't Smith but Jones.

Intention of sender

The difficulty throughout, however, is that attention is paid to the sender and not to the medium or the receiver. How does the sender know that the receiver reacts to the message in the same way as is intended - or not intended? My Thesaurus lists some of the uses of language under the headings… uncommunicativeness, secrecy, concealment, falseness, exaggeration, deception, duping, will, willingness, unwillingness, resolution, perseverance, obstinacy, irresolution, tergiversation, caprice, impulse, avoidance, escape, abandonment, desire, eagerness, indifference, choice, rejection, necessity, prearrangement, custom, unaccustomedness, fashion convention, formality, informality, motivation, pretext, allurement, bribery, dissuasion, intention, plan and, of course, truth itself.

For the sender to step back and say 'But its in the dictionary' will not necessarily assist. The dictionary makers can only follow use and are not angels sent down by the Almighty or some being in outer space. Popper pointed out that during any discussion one of the parties might at some point say… but what I really mean by… but in which case we are sporting in an entirely new arena.

The Medium of the Communication

The second factor in communication is the medium through which communication is made (constantly remembering that language forms only a small percentage of our communication). Broadly speaking we talk of written and oral communication; but this is by no mean sufficient. Of the first the context has to be clear. A novel which starts with the word 'Hullo' is somewhat useless. There are a hundred ways of saying 'Hullo' varying from the utmost friendly greeting of two long lost friends, to surprise, to the kind of way some very superior arrogant being can greet a lesser mortal indicating that not only is he is superior but also extremely courteous in acknowledging our presence.

Please note the passage from "Yes Prime Minister" (Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay; BBC Books). Prime Minister Hacker when asked which was the last play he went to replied:

'Went to? Last play? Ah well. Probably Hamlet.'  'Whose ?' asked the plummy old fellow. 'Shakespeare's' said the Prime Minister with confidence.

Words in writing

If there were only one interpretation of Hamlet there would be no need for succeeding generations of actors to try. We could simply change the scenery occasionally. The written words themselves are not enough. They can be likened to the notes on a musical score compared with the actual sounds they produce. Even here there are interpretations of great pieces according to the conductor, the soloist or the singer. And this applies equally to classical music or the contemporary top ten.

Spoken words

Orally, of course, much depends on the situation. Whether we are drunk or sober, affectionate or distant, advising or instructing. How many of us have mastered the art of leaving a message on those telephone answering machines with warmth. In a telephone conversation we change our style when we know someone is listening even though the face is a thousand miles away.

The medium thus affects our words and the so-called meaning. But not nearly as much as the background, life style, character of those receiving the message. We might by chance overhear the word 'table'. We might think of the kind of table we have at home - a kitchen table, a dining table, the kind of temporary table off which we enjoy our TV. dinners. But supposing the conversation was about the water table, or mathematical tables - or even Table Mountain.

The Receiver

The value of a word or set of words depends as much on the appreciation of the word of the 'communicatee' as the communicator. Or as more generally used: Sender and Receiver. A receiver can only understand or accept the intention of the communicator if he is willing to do so or has the capacity to do so. The point need not be laboured. Most of our communication is readily accepted and is of the order of 'Do look where you are going' or with Wittgenstein's bricklayer 'Brick'. They need cause no offence depending on the circumstances and tone of the speaker.

The Problem Avoided by Politicians

Because they maintain their own professional interests and stances it can be seen how useless and arid are the conclusions at which they arrive. The practical conclusions are left to others - politicians and law ponders. The politicians have to come up with answers and they are answerable in turn to their electors. Occasionally, as leaders, their policies are way ahead of the electorate and they succeed. (Notice the current emphasis on spin whereby they put on an appropriate gloss to policy statements).

Sometimes they fail and pay the price of fading from governance.

And the Lawyers

The practice of law is yet more significant. Judges are obliged to come to a decision; they cannot go away saying. Sorry we are not sure. (Although Scottish judges can say 'Not proven'). They have weapons to assist them. They generally sit in odd numbers so that a majority finding can take place. They have the decisions of similar courts in similar cases to lean on their wisdom. There is generally some kind of appeal to check their findings. As a result if we seek to find out what is fair we do not look to professional ethicists but to judgments from courts of law? Ethicists can go away and write their books and wait in turn to be knocked down by their peers and successors knowing that no harm has been done.

(Try this one. a) A young man is driving down North Rd. and takes both hands off the driving wheel in order to light a cigarette. A policeman happens to see him and he is charged with careless driving. b) A very old gentleman is driving along South St., a wide thoroughfare with cars parked on the near side. It is a November night and the rain is viciously pouring down. He is certainly not breaking the speed limit. An old lady steps from behind a parked car and the driver knocks her down. He is charged with careless driving. If the average fine is fifty silver pieces what should the fine be in each case?)

(My answer: A sum rather less than fifty silver pieces in each case. The law says we may not drive carelessly. For these particular offences it is not concerned about the result of the careless driving only with the evidence of how the motorists were acting. The old gentlemen, given the state of the weather, was obliged to drive ultra-defensively and should have anticipated the foolishness of any pedestrian. The court would not know that the old lady was killed).

Section 3

But we can go further than that -

The physicists will tell us that objects in themselves do not have colour. Light is reflected form them into the eye - an extension of the brain - and the receptors discriminate amongst the spectrum. We can thus say the grass is green or whatever. It is our interaction within the rest of the world which makes us say so. But what colour is grass really? It might be asked. The grass is no more green in itself than the knife which cuts us feels pain. This is an example of assuming that the sound 'colour' has meaning. That somewhere in the ether there is an absolute meaning or referent to that word. In fact it is nothing other than a useful sound. It draws attention of human beings to other human beings of a certain set of qualities deriving from our senses. Our languages are constructed, have developed over the millennia, to communicate the idea that 'grass is green'.

And that's an end to it -for the overwhelming majority of us.

Thus the sound 'space'

For illustration… is there space on the shelf for another book? Is there space in this room for another chair. When it comes to… is there space in this new town plan for a park? We are moving further afield. To answer this question we should have to produce a plan. Going up in an aeroplane we would have a bird's eye view equivalent to a plan. The sound space is somewhat stretched away from the first two examples. When we use the sound space to apply to 'outer space' it seems that is the same thing. But this is entirely because we wrongly assume there is such a things as space. It is rather a useful sound which can be applied to particular situations - there is not enough space on my desk for a printer.

Because it has been assumed that the sound space has somehow a universal meaning philosophers have traditionally attempted to prove its tridimensionality. Thus, I am informed, Leibnitz pointed out that no more than three straight lines can intersect at right angles. Kant 'proved' that the operation of Newton's Inverse Square Law of Gravitation makes space three dimensional. But nowadays we know there is no such thing as a straight line. This is undoubtedly the key piece. We can have a straight line on this earth possibly by comparing the line to something else e.g. a beam of light. But outside this we now know that light bends on its journey through the universe. It is common place amongst physicists to write about parallel universes. Although these may be proved in equations they mean nothing to the rest of us. Outside our solar system there is no such thing as above/below, right/left, to the front/rear as there is on earth. Outer space sounds like space but is in fact, a different concept.

Similarly with truth

It is this kind of common acceptance which applies everywhere else in the concept of truth. There is only truth within a particular system. The system itself must have general acceptance as with the number '1'.

Or... where is here?

You might say it is true 'I am sitting here'. Undoubtedly this is the case - compared to the next person, or the room, or a building a hundred yards away or a point in Darwin, Australia. But if you take a point on some galaxy a thousand light years away from our own (and remembering that that point is itself moving) then 'here' is a different position than when the sentence was read a few seconds ago. Who cares? You might think of a dozen reasons why the sentence 'I am sitting here' might be uttered. (You are claiming a particular position with the emphasis on the 'I' or you might be assisting someone who is looking for you in a darkened room and so on).

But otherwise no one cares. I suppose if some malignant space warrior on a distant planet was going to zap you with his intergalactic ray gun then the concept of 'here' would take some computerizing and he  would have to calculate where 'here' was at a particular nano-second. But otherwise 'I am here' has use rather than meaning.
And general mortality

Thus there will be general agreement that it is 'wrong to steal'. Then we are faced with problems such as 'Is it wrong to steal the enemies secrets in time of war?' Or 'Is it wrong to steal the murderers weapon?' So we tend to go back to a more basic system. This might be 'It is wrong to perform actions which are against the interests of human society as a whole'. The question as to why the interests of society should be right has no answer. Language is based on the assumption that this is the case. It will not stretch far enough to deny the assumption. Such a question is therefore meaningless in that there can be no answer. It is of the order 'Why climb Everest?' and the reply 'Because it is there' is as far as we can get.


Broadly speaking pain is pain. We have few words to describe it just as we have few words to describe the sense of smell. (Presumably if dogs invented language, which have a sense of smell a thousand times more acute than that of humans, the vocabulary would be considerably richer). We might have a pain in the bones, or toothache. And thus there are aches. When there are injuries to the flesh whether it be in the legs or the arms the pain is the same. Obviously it can range from the merely uncomfortable to the suicidal. On occasion sudden pain is so intense it induces a heart attack with fatal consequences.

Insight, enlightenment, satori or whatever is not dissimilar. Such feelings sometimes have no apparent cause, sometimes they are the result of art or music, or alcohol or drugs, or holidays or the theatre or, so I understand, intense physical exercise. It is difficult to differentiate these pleasures or emotions from each other. Often after such pleasurable attacks they are seized upon by those versed in religion. As a result folk are 'converted' to a certain way of life. The difference, of course, is that when we intensely enjoy, for example, a certain piece of music we are anxious to share the experience with others. We will enthuse over the piece and encourage others to listen to it. But we will not say as a result of the experience you must not eat flesh on Fridays or any one of the thousand other practices religions propose. Many of these are harmless enough in themselves and bind together (religare - to bind) those following their several messiahs.  Others are not so harmless and have resulted and do result in maiming, torturing and killing folk in their thousands, or committing suicide for the cause

Further it is in accord with this piece to point out that language was not created to deal with blinding flashes of insight. When we enjoy - or suffer - them we can only express the experience in terms of analogy. Others, who have experienced them, as with pain, will understand. But language itself cannot communicate to others what that experience is.

The question, of course, is why those engaged in religion are anxious to exercise power over others by insisting on a certain way of life. Why they require their members to refrain from or curtail indulging certain human appetites. They install a sense of guilt on indulgence in what comes naturally. Some of their requirements have a naturalistic explanation. Indiscriminate sex might result in the spread of disease or the birth of unwanted children who have no parental support. It is noticeable that with advances in medicine and the availability of contraceptive devices recreational sex is nowadays almost acceptable by the majority. It has always gone on, of course, but in an underhand kind of way. This does not stop most religions condemning sexual activity. The grip on individuals, creating sensations of guilt can only add to the power of religious leaders.

It is a task of philosophy to analyse the reasons for various taboos and expose them for what they really are. Paraphrasing one axiom - 'We have but a small light to guide us in our darkness and religions misuse words in order to attempt to extinguish that light'.

Purposes of Philosophy

What is left for Philosophy?

As words do not have meaning why then should philosophy exist? Does it have a purpose?

1. First we must recognize that philosophy belongs to us all. Whenever we make a decision - even shall I take the dog for a walk - might have ethical undertones. (I need the exercise, the dog will enjoy it, it’s raining, I might miss that phone call).

The question of whether we make decisions or whether our lives are ruled by inevitability offers much profitable fun to thinkers over the centuries. The point, of course is, that language has come about and is used on the supposition that we have free will. It simply does not work in other circumstances.

2. That for every sphere of human activity - eating, sleeping, doing sums, whistling - there are specialists.

3. Philosophers must thus recognize that they are not alone but rather specialists in one human activity. The tasks, therefore, include:

3.1 Analysing the motivations of those unfortunate enough in having to lead us. What is it that politicians, religious leaders are trying to accomplish? (c.f. Nietzsche/Foucault : 'Not only is there misunderstanding there is also a hidden agenda - the goal of power'.

3.2 Producing alternative answers. Yesterday’s extremists (abolition of slavery, putting children to death, education for all ) produced policies now commonplace and generally accepted.

3.3 Paradoxically creating an element of stability - not over a period of months or years but from decade to decade. Placing problems in their perspectives, reminding other what happened in the last decade of the last century or the last millennium.

3.4 Analysing and evaluating starting points. E.g. arithmetic a/m on '0' and '1'. What is good for society.

3.5 Showing that emotive language is just that. (It is disgusting means I am disgusted).

3.6 Diverting attention away from those who are narrowly minded and enthuse over personal prejudices whilst maintaining a modus vivendi, a way of living in society.

3.7 And clearing up muddle and confusion which exists in argument and thought.

The Good Life

Given that Good does not have a universal meaning what is the Good Life?

Although this seems to be a realistic question it is quite unanswerable unless parameters are made about the word good. How long is a piece of string?

If it is claimed that all green men should be eradicated it would be right to train youth into methods of exterminating the green folk and those who did so successfully would undoubtedly claim to be living the 'good' life. In medieval Britain infant children were often mutilated and had their limbs broken by their parents. As they grew up they would thus make better beggars. Doubtless their mums and dads felt that they were doing their best for their progeny and giving them a 'good' start in life.

There has long been a movement to suggest that all ethical terms can, in the end be reduced to the word 'good'. (Thus it is wrong to steal i.e. it is not 'good' that theft can be tolerated). In the 19th century G.E. Moore held that 'good' cannot be defined. One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so. But surely if the word 'good' is indefinable then all the words leading up to it cannot be defined either. Obviously I would endorse such a statement.

One answer is to take the accumulated wisdom of mankind favouring for example those who keep promises, are charitable to the less fortunate. Our attitudes are reflected by the 'pro' words we use. 'Pro' and 'con' words were investigated by Nowell-Smith (Ethics 1954) illustrating general attitudes. (Sentences containing pro and con-words provide good, that is to say logically complete explanation of choice) Thus two newspapers in two countries might report: Journalists Murdered by Terrorists OR Spies Executed by Freedom Fighters - both reporting the same incident. As always with generally accepted wisdom there are difficulties in the specifics; (keeping promises to a murderer, stealing enemy secrets) which in certain circumstances damn the proposal.

Undoubtedly the question of good is the key question for future philosophy - as it has been for as long as people have been able to speak. The key, however is that there is no answer. It is not an answerable question - rather of the order why do you want to climb Everest.

The pragmatic approach of Russell and others - keeping a roof over one's head, having enough to eat, or the medieval answer of the complete well-balanced man, or the Greeks - nothing too much - is going to be as far as we can get.


The words should and ought exist (or indeed any other word), and because they exist it is generally reckoned they must mean something. Millions of words have been expended over the centuries discussing what this meaning is. But as with space existence of a sound does not imply absolute meaning. The sounds should and ought have use. Generally speaking they are understood in the situations in which they are used and analysis is not necessary. The use on the whole can be translated as 'it is recommended' although this is obviously tautologous. We must be aware of other uses one of which is 'I do not recommend it'. Take the statement 'It is in your best interests to… (and therefore you ought)… often means  I do not have time or inclination to deal with your problem and therefore you must take it elsewhere'. To undertake any analysis is usually unnecessary and in philosophy generally misleading. We can often ignore discussion on what X means when he uses the word ought. The question is how is it received. And what action results. We can, of course, debate the variables but there is no arbiter who can decide with authority.

In each of these examples the word 'should' sounds as if it means the same but, again as with space, it does not have the same value.

How should we live……what kind of life should we follow? Should we give to a particular charity? Should we take time off work when suffering from some minor ailment?

On occasion passing motorists outside my home ask for directions to Aberystwyth. (Pronounced Aberystwyth). Take in a quick stock of the driver I explain perhaps to a family going on holiday the simplest route. It is slightly further to travel than a second option intended for someone with a little local knowledge and a map by his side. There is one further route for perhaps a couple in a sports car who would like a scenic drive. (If the occupant is a philosopher I might well suggest that he should not start from here.) All these answers are correct according to the situation. They are all 'true'. The recommendation of the route that 'ought' to be taken is valid.

(For the sake of completeness we should remind ourselves that David Hume pointed out that IS does not imply OUGHT.)


In my earlier days in Further Education in discussing decision making I attempted to show that money could not be the measure of all things. On this there is little disagreement. How can one value a nature reserve, for example, when a new motorway is planned ?  The tendency might be to regard the nature reserve as having nil value on the grounds that it is inestimable. Or how does one value one's right   arm ?  It is rumoured that healthy folk in poorer nations sell one of their healthy kidneys for transplant purposes.  The Americans and their lawyers sue for astronomical sums when there is any kind of injury. Cost-benefit thus cannot apply in many aspects of decision making.

One method of assisting making a decision entails the decision maker using numbers instead of monetary units.

When there are two or more competing outcomes the factors or reasons for coming to a decision are identified. Some factors are more important than others and they are therefore placed on a numerical scale of importance.


Thus shall we go for a holiday in the Mediterranean or to Blackpool ?


1. Identify the factors:

Factors for the family concerned might be identified during discussion as:
Cost | Weather | Convenience

2. Weight the factors:

Create a scale, perhaps 1 - 10 (where 10 is the most important). Here they all like hot weather and this is rated as 10. Convenience is 5.

Apply the factors in each case - again choose a scale, perhaps 1 -20

For the Mediterranean the cost is highest - 20, Weather is guaranteed 20, Convenience 2

For Blackpool : Cost 5, Weather 2, Convenience 18

Multiply the factor weighting against the applications and add them up:

Factor Weighting  Mediterranean  Blackpool 
Cost  1  20 x 1 = 20  5 x 1 = 5 
Weather  10  20 x 10 = 200  10 x 2 = 20
Convenience  5  2 x 5 = 10  18 x 5 = 90
TOTALS  230  115

The Mediterranean thus wins hands down.

Of course this is extremely simplified. What does convenience mean? Travel times, quality of accommodation, food, they could all be broken down and given values and tabulated. Undoubtedly for most of us cost is the dominant factor and would be given a much higher rating. Other factors can be included - educational experience for the children, one family member is terrified of flying, some pop star is appearing in Blackpool. It could be extended with further options - Disneyland, Timbuktu.

It is possible, of course, to adapt this for much superior problems. Should some politician advocate a policy to decriminalize drugs? The arguments are well rehearsed but the chief factor in his case might well be would such a policy help me get re-elected or would it be political suicide?

You are invited to try a simple sample for yourself to get the idea. Many of my students did so with great imagination and flair. And undoubtedly when faced with a decision this method is of great assistance in analysing what is important to the decision maker.

The Trouble is it Never Works

I am never quite clear why this should be the case. Undoubtedly part of the answer must be that there is often an overriding consideration to which we cannot give proper weighting or to which we decline to give proper weighting publicly. But it is also something to do with the fact that our words do not adequately reflect our inclinations, motivations or 'the world outside us'. The game has only limited use. Similarly the traditional formal logic (All men are liars, Socrates is a man and therefore Socrates is a liar) has provided material for books and lectures and probably debates but has never had any practical use. The modern symbolic logic with its truth tables may help in solving mechanical problems as in electronics, but does not solve problems of everyday life nor those of international significance. We have a thousand books on 'Ethics' but rarely are we any the wiser when making decisions as to whether we should go to war.....or simply put the cat out. It might help to explain why societies outlined on paper never seem to work in practice. Christianity has never really been tried but attempts to do so by living a solitary or reclusive life or by retiring to monasteries or friaries or nunneries often seem to have little value. Even in those institutions we have the problems of status and power . denied in the book (until one ascends into 'glory'). On paper Marx's socialism is wondrous; in practice it caused misery for millions. And then there is the problem of distance. For most people family, friends, community, state have precedence in that order. But... we discover outside the building in which you are now sitting a destitute child who was losing her sight.  The condition could be cured by the expenditure of a hundred pounds (or dollars, or yen or euros, it does not matter). Each of us would move all in our power to raise the necessary cash. And yet... there are a thousand, ten thousand children in such a condition but they happen to live in a country far away.

On the construction of a motorway, for example, it might be that we offer all kinds of real and logical reasons why it should not be constructed but the real one is that it is too near our own property or that of friends of ours. (Or indeed that money has been offered to gain our support). Additionally we must remember that we use language not only to convey information and emotions but also to conceal them as is referred to earlier.

A current debate here is Wales is about the positioning of wind farms. Some argue that these environmentally friendly sources of power will destroy landscapes. Why cannot they be put fifty miles away - out at sea? The answer is that such positioning would cost too much. What value do we put on the pleasantness of the countryside? Is the extra cost involved less or greater than this value?

It also demonstrates that the complete and absolute dependence on words is full of pitfalls. Words are not all we've got. There are other means of communication....which often yield more productive and useful outcomes.

Peter Allison


Philosophy and Rhubarb was:

Originally published online in August 2002,

Redesigned in January 2003

Added permanently to SkillsYouNeed in January 2012

"I know very little about philosophy and indeed nothing I have written is original."



Peter Allison (1935 - 2004)