Some Points About Pointing

“A few years ago I published a book, The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being, which identified the opposable thumb as one of the main drivers of humanity to its uniquely self-conscious state. Full opposability not only made the hand more versatile, but for a variety of reasons changed the hand into a proto-tool unlike any other organ in the animal kingdom. It was this that awoke the sense that humans have of being conscious agents and set them on a direction away from the condition of organisms which merely live, to that of embodied subjects who lead their lives. There was nothing particularly original in identifying the hand as the key to the exceptional nature of humans: Anaxagoras, Aristotle, Kant, Erasmus Darwin, had preceded me, to name just a few. What originality my thesis had lay in the details of my argument and the precise way in which I linked the hand to Man the Toolmaker, and, though this, to the development of a true sociality. This sociality is based upon what I characterised as ‘the collectivisation of consciousness’, from which emerged the community of minds that is the human world.

Some years after I had published this book, I received a fascinating letter from a reader. While accepting the main thrust of my thesis, they argued that I had overlooked the importance of another feature of the human hand: the relative freedom of the index finger. This observation fell on fertile ground. For many years, I have been fascinated by one of the primary functions of the index finger: pointing. Up in the loft I still had a manuscript, abandoned in 1973, called Studies in Pointish. Clearly the time had come to re-visit the manuscript and the topic. The result is a work in progress – Michelangelo’s Finger – and a good deal of fun.

One of the joys of philosophical thought is that it requires no equipment or any particular occasion. The necessary materials are always to hand – in the case of meditating on pointing, literally so. Something apparently trivial, if examined in the right spirit, can become a glass-bottomed boat, giving us access to the near-fathomless depths upon which everyday life floats. It was Wittgenstein who pointed out (the phrase is inescapable but I shall try not to use it again) that there is nothing obvious about pointing. It is not, for example, self-evident that the direction of the pointer is from the shoulder to the finger tip and not vice versa. It takes a Martian or genius to notice that (and Wittgenstein was of course both). In fact, the rules of basic pointing turn out to be quite complicated. This nails the mistaken belief that pointing is a natural sign – that it is transparent and requires no interpretation. It is highly conventional.”

(via Philosophy Now)


  1. Unless I missed something, exactly no references to sign language are found in the original article. Not uncommon but always disappointing when an article that could build on the research into sign language fails to do so.

  2. It’s a truism that animals don’t understand pointing, but it still frustrates me no end when my cat looks at my hand instead of what I’m pointing at.

  3. maybe your cat is fucking with you

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