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The Unmarked Font of Metaphysics and Truth: Helvetica and Belief


The Metaphysics of Fonts

My last post on the documentary Helvetica (2007) had me musing deeply today. Not only does one suddenly begin to notice fonts used in public signage, in omnipresent fashion that invokes thoughts of Ideology (a cultural perspective taken that must be taken for things to be seen clearly, coherently) – “No Parking” and “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” are two interpellative Helvetica commands I pleasingly read today, but one begins to think about metaphysics itself, the way in which metaphysics attempts lay hold of the very invisible, or largely unseen normative rules and restrictions which essentially condition our capacity to make sense of the world and others, as they are. In distinction from Ideology, Metaphysics is trans-historic, or aims to be. Can Helvetica and its largely ubiquitous, in-visible presence in Western Cultural centers of political command and commercial invitation, give us some clue or evidence towards bothMetaphysical aims, and Ideological functioning (with the understanding that Metaphysics and Ideology bear some relationship to each other)? And, in looking at the dominance of Helvetica, is there a metaphysical/epistemological position that may more coherently than others help us make sense just what is going on in Political imperative and Commercial invitation?

Now surely many others have written on Helvetica with far more erudition and historical knowledge, as the profound thoughts offered on the font by various designer/philosophers in the documentary reveal. These are merely the application of other thoughts I have thought in other contexts to the phenomena of Helvetica as social phenomena, as a point of musing. I have no special insight here, and would enjoy others bringing to my attention any studies/theories that would collaborate or counter my line of thinking.

What comes to mind though when one gazes at the clean, tailless, space-embraced lettering of Helvetica that in the 1950’s swept away so many inconcordant typefaces in both advertisements and eventually government documentation, is the fundamental distinction between the Marked and the Un-marked. An Un-marked element is one whose input or information passes relatively cleanly through it. It stands as clean of any distinction that would draw undue attention to its form (any sub-element that would be read as “marked” would direct the mind at least in part to the consideration of the making of the form itself, a looking into its own history which may or may not comment upon the substance of its report…to use an obvious example, drunken scrawl left from the night before might markedly direct one’s attention to suspicion about the accuracy (or alternately, inspiration) of the content.

The Marked and Un-Marked: Turning One’s Gaze

The concept of Marked and Un-Marked goes a very long way of giving us an epistemic, though non-essential, binary which may help explain why in Western Culture things like White and Non-White, or Male and Non-male, or Citizen and Non-citizen have such wide-spread and organizing determinations. The Un-marked allows information/content to pass rather cleanly through. The Marked causes us to pause, inspect and ultimately judge the worth of value of the report (and this rather inevitably seems to direct us to the bodily, affective realities of the Marked thing, ultimately viewing the report under an affective, imaginary register). Helvetica, as it’s cultural place has come to evolve and entrench itself in many modern, Political/Commercial, Western contexts, has become a near definitive Un-marked font. 

Now let me deviate for a moment so to pass back into metaphysics and an interesting disagreement that arose in succeeding generations in the mid 17th century, newly modern Dutch Republic. Descartes was all the rage, presenting to forward thinking persons of nearly every ilk, a remarkably clean, efficient, and decidedly mechanistic view of the world. As we all well know as inheritors of the Cartesian mindframe, the world was made up of two Substances, one of which was that of Extension, by which we could view everything as operating as a kind of machine of causes. The other was that of Soul, and the problem was in articulating how the one connected to the other. For Descartes, imbued with a Christian view of the world, a most required connective part was the Will (voluntas), a faculty of judgment with operated upon passive and effortless human perception and its ideas, actively assessing out from neutrality both those which were true, and those which were false. (In this neutrality, perhaps you get the first glimpse of where I am going as per the neutrality of Helvetica as a font.)

Descartes on the basic distinction between comprehension and assessment: 

“All that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive, without affirming or denying anything, the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments”

“That we have power.., to give or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us”

But, perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the next generation, the outcast Jew and microscope maker Baruch Spinoza, had a radically different correction to offer to Descartes’ idea of judgment.

The Elder, Truth

Though Truth and Falsehood bee Neare twins, yet Truth a little elder is.

–John Donne

Spinoza denied altogether the basic distinction between acts of comprehension and assessement, denying in fact the Cartesian freedom of Will. This is more than simply a perverse or subversive denial of free volitions as they seem to be to us most obviously. Rather it is part of a very different conception of Mind, and how it operates:

E2p49 – In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.

Or, as James later will sum of Spinoza:

All propositions whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.

The above citations and framing of the question is drawn from one of the more interesting Spinoza-influenced articles I have read in my now growing years of reading Spinoza literature: “How Mental Systems Believe,” by Daniel T. Gilbert (Feb 1991, American Psychologist). [Click Here for Download]. The article covers the consequences of an elementary disagreement between Descartes and Spinoza, a forgotten disagreement. Gilbert argues that the loss of the disagreement has lead AI designers, who have largely inherited the Cartesian view of mind, to build cognitive models (at least up to the ’90s) on an unquestioned comprehension/assess distinction. This is how the author opens the essay, in the broadest of terms:

Everyone knows that understanding is one thing and believing is another, that people can consider ideas without considering them so, and that one must have an idea before one can determine its merit. “Everyone knows the difference… between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (James, 1890, p. 283). Nonetheless, this article suggests that what everyone knows may be, at least in part, wrong. It will be argued that the comprehension and acceptance of ideas are not clearly separable psychological acts, but rather that comprehension includes acceptance of that which is comprehended.

The psychological tests the author appeals to in support of a Spinoza epistemology may very well have been superceded by others after it. I have not seen the direction of research that has followed. What is memorable about the article, and why I strongly recommend it, is that it helps to concretely explain a very fundamental difference in theory that may have quite lasting and rippling effects, not only across cognitive science, but also perhaps within social criticism, as I am attempting to draw forth in the example of the Helvetica font. It gives a sense how a rather arcane sounding distinction made in the 1600s may have a lasting effect on the powers of our present day descriptions.

The Library of Knowledges: Fiction and Non-Fiction

But let me press on. Gilbert by way of an expert analogy shows us just what the difference between a Cartesian and a Spinozist cognitive system is. He asks us to imagine a vast library into which new books are continually being introduced (generally, in the human mind perceptions and ideas). There are two main ways new books can be coded as fiction or non-fiction (true or false ideas), what he calls the “tagging system” of each…

Imagine a library of a few million volumes, of which only a small number are fiction. There are (at least) two reasonable methods by which one could tag the spines of books so that fiction could be distinguished from nonfiction at a glance. One method would be to paste a red tag on each volume of fiction and a blue tag on each volume of nonfiction. Another method would be to tag the fiction and leave the nonfiction untagged. Either of these systems would accomplish the goal of allowing a librarian to distinguish fiction from nonfiction without necessitating that he or she actually reread the book each time such a discrimination needed to be made.

It is only a mild oversimplification to say that Descartes considered the mind to be a library of ideas that used something akin to the red-blue tag system. A new book (new information) appeared in the library (was represented in the mind), its contents were read (assessed), and the book was then tagged (recoded or rerepresented)as either fiction (false) or nonfiction (true). New books unassessed ideas) lacked a tag, of course, and thus were not identifiable as either fiction or nonfiction until they had been read. Such new and unread books were “merely” represented in the library.

Spinoza, however, argued that the mind was more like a library that used a tagged-untagged system. In Spinoza’s view, books were represented before they were assessed; but because of the particular tagging system that was used to denote the outcome of that assessment, a new book that appeared without a tag looked exactly like a work of nonfiction. In a Spinozan library, a book’s spine always announced its contents; no book could be “merely” represented in the library, because the absence of a tag was itself informative (or misinformative) about the content of the book. Analogously, ideas whose truth had been ascertained through a rational assessment process were represented in the mind in precisely the same way as were ideas that had simply been comprehended; only ideas that were judged to be false were unaccepted, or given a special tag.

The author passes through a variety of comprehensive though anecdotal evidence that the Spinozistview is correct, credulity, initial correspondence of belief withcomprehension is supported by a child’s gullibility, which only latter grows discerning with experience and the suseptability to suggestion when persons are fatigued or purposivelytortured. (In fact it is with a view towards an economy of processing powers that Gilbert argues that the human mind evolved to believe first, and deny later.) Of interest for our examination of the font Helvetica is his solitation of marked and un-marked words, how the Un-marked term is conceptually more basic than its marked counterpart:

Unmarked terms are thought to describe operations that are more conceptually basic than their marked counterparts. The Spinozan hypothesis states that unacceptance is a more complex operation than is acceptance and, interestingly enough, the English words that indicate the acceptance of ideas are generally unmarked with respect to their antonyms. Thus, people speak of propositions as acceptable and unacceptable, but (unless one is a neologizing psychologist) not as rejectable and unrejectable. One’s statements may be true or untrue, but they may not be false and unfalse. People hope their ideas are correct, accurate, and credible rather than incorrect, inaccurate, and incredible, but they cannot grammatically wish to be unwrong. Indeed, people even speak of belief and disbelief more naturally than they speak of doubt and undoubt. To the extent that one’s words for mental processes do reveal something about the processes themselves, the structure of the English lexicon suggests (as did Spinoza, who wrote in Latin) that the rejection of false ideas is more complex than the acceptance of true ones.

For Gilbert, and I may well agree, there is an essential and operative binary here, in which initial embrace, belief-as-comprehension precedes the counterpart of negation. This allows him the conclusion that all sentences are coded as true until further critique is to be done on them. It is here that I want to depart from Gilbert’s paper which goes on to speak of experimental evidence for the Spinoza hypothesis (again, evidence that science may or may not have suprassed at this time). I want to turn to, in fact involve, this essential dichotomy of marked and unmarked to consider again the powers of the Helvetica font in our society.


The Powers of Helvetica

As I pointed out in my last post, there is much mystery about the lasting power of Helvetica, not to mention its strongly persuasive effects in both the political and the commercial realms. From the above description I feel it is safe to say that the sans-serif font Helvetica has come to be the Un-Marked font of both of these domains. And while it seems most likely that it would have been a sans-serif font that would become the un-marked term, there does seem something quite gridlike and balanced in the Helvetica that further enforces its unmarked status.

If we grasp Spinoza’s assertion plainly, we understand that the unmarked term/idea/concept/sentence is the one already believed in its very comprehension, a belief that might be equated to the powers or failings of children. When we read Helvetica, we partake not only in a certain kind of neutrality, but it is a neutrality of affirmation. What is printed in Helvetica by its very form is already a form of belief, we can say. And certainly there are other fonts in other conditions which are the unmarked form, for instance the serif Times New Roman is the glassy clear in textbooks or newspaper publications. Yet, Helvetica, as it stands towards all other fonts which we experience, perhaps because of its dominance of the most significant organizing spheres of our persons (political and commercial power), is Un-marked beyond all.

So, is Helveticaa kind of metaphysical font, a communication of the very weft and woof of perceptions, beliefs and truths? I think we can contingently go in this direction. Wittgenstein in his rejection of metaphysical speculation wanted to turn the most mysterious seeming statements like “All rods have a length” (withsome reference to Kant), into simple grammatical statements. The great truths of philosophy are just sentences which show how we use words, with nothing profound beneath them. For instance “All rods have length” just shows us how we use the words “rod” and “length” and no amount of experience withrods and length will give us evidence to falsify the claim. Grammatical statements are those which cannot be negated, not for mysterious reasons, but because negating them would end up producing nonsense.

As an appreciator of Spinoza you can tell that I cannot fully embrace Wittgenstein’s position, but it does do something to reveal the nature of Helvetica commands or invitations for purchase. In a sense, Helvetica has become the aesthetic manifestation of something close to the Grammatical Statement. Not only as an Un-marked form of a dominant sphere of social organization, and as such by default believed, the form itself induces a Grammatical Statement like bind wherein one can only deny the truth of the belief at some cost of coherence. The truth of the Helvetica-expressed idea, at least at this point in time, has a lasting, affective ballast, which I believe remains even after its negation or disbelief. Contingently a Helvetica expression may be false, but coherently it is true. In our society this is the two pronged force of the Law, and I believe it is Spinoza’s Marked and Un-marked conception of the Mind that points us to this realization.

It remains to be decided just how ideological and how metaphysical these effects are. That is to say, Do the powers of Helvetica participate in, not just historically contingent hegemonic organizations of persons and affects, but also within a more profound potentia  of belief? When Spinoza laid out his claim against the foremost philosopher of his Age, denying a fundamental freedom of the Will, grounding comprehension and perception itself in belief itself, he saw all belief to be an activity, an affirmation of one’s body in a very real and concrete sense. When we perceive we affirm our flesh under a certain degree of power. And we are only made more free through making more powerful affirmations of ourselves. If this is so, the very Un-marked clarity of Helvetica points a kind of absolute relation, a stream of power unto which we are forever orienting ourselves. And it is up to us to separate out our imaginary relations that for instance impell us to buy The Gap clothing out of its very Helvetic form, and the absolute value of the Un-marked itself. Or, to put it another way, we must see that Un-marked categories/terms/concepts/forms are not just devices of control, but also powers that derive their potency from a greater univocality. And it is the Marked term, in all of its developmental and expressive quality, that causes us to realize this.  

What we recall is that these issues and determinations are not those of armchair philosophies, of rare disciplines or their categories, but the very lived realities of experiential Marked and Un-marked Reals. Helvetica speaks metaphysical truths. And we daily read it. This makes room for both the grasp of and resisitance to, Helvetica.

A Look Back for a Moment, The Hole of Spinoza’s Vision

Right now I’m busy composing my Cabinet article, a result of this width of research I have done. Part of this process is looking back at my various conclusive essays to see where I have gotten. There is one that really struck me as a signficant reduction of the kinds of philosophical conclusions that can be drawn from my study of Spinoza’s optical endeavours, in particular pointing out how deeply he diverged from Descartes who preceded him. I repost it here for anyone else’s pleasure, for I read it again this morning and was really moved by its import (sometimes it is like that, one forgets what one wrote):

here: “The Hole at the Center of Vision”

Comments are of course appreciated


Davidson, Spinoza, Aristotle: Veridicality and Organs

A ruminating thought floats behind these considerations.

Is there a connection between a). Davidson’s world thought to be the cause of our beliefs which assumes an inherent verdicality of belief, making of a triangulating community of language users a kind of organ of truth, b). Spinoza’s (proposed) expectation that interactions with his Ethics, that would cause increases in our power to act along a vector of Joy, the proofs of which serving as organs of mental perception, within a cohering affectively bonded sociability, c). and Aristotle’s functional defintion of the products our sense organs as incorrigable.

Further, aside from any imposed normativity, projected upon funcationality, such and organ bound communication of veridicality would open the question up along biological valences of affect and power. Organs can open up to an analysis of the Body Without Organs. Communicated action across functionality.


Secondly, perception of special sensibles is incorrigible for Aristotle because it is constitive of the very notion of veridicality. Vision under optimal conditions is the only criterion we posses by which to judge whether something has a particular colour: for example to view something under optimal conditions is to meet all the relevant conditions by which colour is determined. On this account, to distinguish between something really being red, and just looking red to someone with excellent eyesight who views the object under optimal lighting conditions, would simply make no sense…This is not an epistemological account of perception, in the sense of an account that tells of how the veridicality of our knowledge of the natural world can be secured…it is not just that the proper use of our sense organs automatically gaurentees the verdicality of what we perceive, but rather that, given their proper use (i.e. the proper use of normal sense organs operating under optimal conditions) the question of our being mistaken simply makes no sense (159-160).

– Intellectual Biography 159 – 160)

Aristotle, De Anima Book II Part VI (418):

In dealing with each of the senses we shall have first to speak of the objects which are perceptible by each. The term ‘object of sense’ covers three kinds of objects, two kinds of which are, in our language, directly perceptible, while the remaining one is only incidentally perceptible. Of the first two kinds one (a) consists of what is perceptible by a single sense, the other (b) of what is perceptible by any and all of the senses. I call by the name of special object of this or that sense that which cannot be perceived by any other sense than that one and in respect of which no error is possible; in this sense colour is the special object of sight, sound of hearing, flavour of taste. Touch, indeed, discriminates more than one set of different qualities. Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

A Spider about

William of Auvergne’s Spider, 13th century, cause and belief

Thus the apprehension, as I said, of the spider with respect to the capture of the fly, is occasioned by the motion or concussion of a thread in his web, but it is effectively or efficiently caused by an innate light, or by an art naturally implanted in the spider. Just as you may see reminiscences and recollections issue forth from the habits of the sciences, and the virtues and vices, by the lightest stimuli of external occurances. This is seen in the example which Aristotle of the mental aptitude (solertia ), i.e., of the man who sees someone talking with the money-changer, and from this concludes that he wishes to get some money changed by him. Here this sight gives the occasion to the quick-witted mind, so that out of comes this thought, or suspicion. However, it is manifest that the view itself could not in itself be, in any way, the cause of this opinion or suspicion; on the other hand there is no doubt that there is something of an occasion, and that as a kind of help (adminiculum ) it favors the formation of the opinion. But the quick-witted is in itself the cause of the formation of the thought, which issues forth from it like an overflow, or like a stream from its source (trans. Moody).

De Universo

Eric Schwitzgebel’s Splintered Mind

The Splintered Mind is a surely recommended philosophical blog:

Eric Schwitzgebel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside. As he has archived it, his weblog and work focuses on The Stream of Experience, Moral Psychology, Inner Speech, belief and self-knowledge.


A Spoonful of Ought

Some Thoughts on the Is-Ought Distinction










Hume famously said that he noticed something very peculiar in the arguments of those making moral arguments. They would always conducted this curious kind shift, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. This is how he put it:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

– A Treatise of Human Nature

At first this seems quite formidable, for there does seem some kind of slippage. Suddenly one kind of thing seems to be talked about, and then another. And the assumption here is that these are really two kind of mutually exclusive things, that one really can’t go from one to the other. That is, one is really reefed on the one side of “is”, getting a glimpse of the sandbar of “ought” but just can’t agumentatively swim the distance.


But to change the metaphor (always exciting to mix metaphors, it makes the world turn), this apparent insolution is based a bit on a fork in the road, the so-called “Hume’ Fork”. He puts it this way:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.  

– An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Moral “oughts” just don’t have place in this dichotomy of “objects”. There are, by his assertion, no “moral objects”. One can see floating behind such a fork the Analytic truths distiction which Quine worked to undo. The question is, if this strict and categorical distinction is not maintained, can the from is-to-ought (and from ought-to-is ) prohibition be maintained? Is there really such a fork in the road? As a side note, Wittgenstein went far in this direction turning “Relation of Ideas” into the “grammar” of words but also relatedly, the realm of criteria referring reasons, but was this When one starts treating the grammatical or criteria as if one is treating “facts”, Wittgenstein wants us to see that one approaches a kind of non-sense. But I would like to keep my eye upon the is-ought distintion.

I would say that what one has to understand is that this difference between “is” and “ought” is not a matter of deduction, that is, one can differentiate claims into kinds, but not make them mutually exclusive. That is, again, knowledge is not something that we “get” from an environmental “is” which then we do stuff to (empiricism). No sense data enters into our brains, which then gets mashed up into different forms by ideas and concepts, which eventually gets transformed (appropriately, or inappropriately) into “oughts”. If this were the case, this would be an empirical picture of the world, and in such a picture one can get the sense that is and ought do not coincide. But because the analytic (saying something about ideas alone) and emprical (saying something about the world) distinction does not strictly hold (beliefs and criteria must always be included in statements of fact about the world), the normative cannot be categorical excluded from any “is”. Further any “is” statement, pulls along with it a communitarian inforcement quite related to “ought”.


To show this conceptual inter-relationship: “That is a ‘cat’.” (A simple ostensive defintion), is certainly differentiatable from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'”. But the second form is wrapped up in the first. I certainly can tell the differences between them, but I can also see that the two are intimately related. Now, there is a very long way from “You ought to call that a ‘cat'” to “You ought not to murder”, but the essential, thought-to-be-unbreakable transition is already there. Prescription lies at the heart of description.

As one employs these ostensive, and otherwise established criteria, to describe the world, the normativity of use is subsumed in the process.

To argue the length of it, from the one (of use) to the other (of murder) is a perhaps worthy but lengthy task. One that I would not readily engage in this particular post, under this particular question. If one wants to get a taste of it, one can visit Spinoza’s Ethics. One can, as I have done elsewhere, put his “imitation of the affects” principle which governs sociability and conflict,

If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

Spinoza, E3, Proposition 27:

in close relation to Davidson Principle of Charity and Triangulation (more on this in essay “Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification“). If one does, I believe they will see that because the Principle of Charity is not a wise adage, but a componented part of all interpretability and sense making, any description presumes a prescriptive. Any communicability of what “is” draws in with it the normatives of community, which enable it. The Deontic is a folded into the Ontic, so to speak. First at the level of performative force, secondly at the level of affective binding. The mistake is, of course, to think that any ONE prescriptive has deontological standing, which cannot be violated (this was Kant’s mistake of universal law-making). Just like beliefs where any particular belief can be false, but all beliefs cannot be false, any one rule can be broken, but not ALL rules can be broken, and one still remain a describer of the world.

Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

 The Mystery of the word Understands

Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

This is the fairly concise wikipedia summation of his argument, taken from the second chapter of his Proslogion:

Anselm presents the ontological argument as part of a prayer directed at God. He starts with a definition of God, or a necessary assumption about the nature of God, or perhaps both.

“Now we believe that [the Lord] is something that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
Then Anselm asks if God exists.

“Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not?”
To answer this, he first tries to show that God exists “in the understanding”:

“But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying-something than which nothing greater can be imagined-understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding, and another to understand that a thing is.”

Anselm goes on to justify his assumption, using the analogy of a painter:

“For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.

“Therefore, even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because, when he hears this, he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.”

Now Anselm introduces another assumption, which some authors have argued to have introduced a new version of the argument:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater.”

“Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be.”

Anselm has thus found the contradiction from which he draws his conclusion:

“There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”

Anselm responds to Guanilo’s critique of this so-called Ontological Proof of God with a metaphor of the sun, and the sun’s light. In a Plotinus-like analogy, he says that though we may not be able to look directly at the sun, that does not mean that we do not see the sun’s light, when we look at things in the world,

Do you not believe that the being of which these things are understood can be thought about or understood or be in the thought or understanding to some extent? For if he is not, then we cannot understand these things about him. If you say that he is not understood or in the understanding because he is not fully understood, say as well that one who cannot look directly at the sun does not see the light of day, which is nothing other than the light of the sun. Certainly “a being greater than which cannot be thought of” is understood and exists in the understanding at least to the extent that these statements about it are understood.

If you recall, Guanilo rebutted Anselm’s idea that merely because we can conceive of something perfect, does not mean that such a thing exists, hence imagining a perfect island does not mean that a perfect island exists. But Anselm wants Guanilo to see that thinking of a perfect island is not anything like understanding the concept of God, for God is not a “thing”, but really the condition for things to be things, the maximalization of all thought. One could say, without much distortion, that God is understood by Anselm to be the Principle of Coherence. And he is arguing that if indeed you understand what coherence is, you cannot argue against its existence. Apart from the meritoriousness of such an argument, what is key to seeing why Anselm is so convinced is that the argument trades upon the notion of what “understands” means.

It is for this reason that Anselm presents his “proof” not in syllogistic form, but in the narrative of an actual person engaging in the thought of God. He wants to question how someone can really understand something, and yet still deny it, an act that makes such a person a “fool”. This is how he frames it:

Chapter 4: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought How in the world could he have said in his heart what he could not think? Or how indeed could he not have thought what he said in his heart, since saying it in his heart is the same as thinking it? But if he really thought it because he said it in his heart, and did not say it in his heart because he could not possibly have thought it – and that seems to be precisely what happened – then there must be more than one way in which something can be said in one’s heart or thought. For a thing is thought in one way when the words signifying it are thought, and it is thought in quite another way when the thing signified is understood. God can be thought not to exist in the first way but not in the second. For no one who understands what God is can think that he does not exist. Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all. For God is that greater than which cannot be thought. Whoever understands this also understands that God exists in such a way that one cannot even think of him as not existing.


If one examines his words closely, one can see that he says that there are two ways of thinking the words that are in your heart. The first is when the words themselves that are doing signifying, are merely thought. This has been translated to be something along the lines of “concieved”. The second is when the signified itself is understood (intellectum). In the second case, to deny this understanding is the sign of a fool. It is for this reason that the crux of his proof is put particularly in those terms, the terms of understanding:

Why therefore did the fool say in his heart “there is no God,” since it is so evident to any rational mind that you above all things exist? Why indeed, except precisely because he is stupid and foolish?

Chapter Three, Proslogion

Either the fool does not understand in the first place the concept of God, or, rather more absurdly for Anselm, he understands the concept, but still denies it. If we allow the transformation, something akin is in play in so many skeptical views towards knowing: if one understands what coherence is, it is absurd to deny that there is coherence.

I have great favor for critiques of coherence, either as an absolute, or in its concrete examples. The worlds of Derrida, Lacan and Adorno play with the light and dark possibilities of sense. But I think we are forced to engage Anselm’s analysis, to some degree, on its own ground.

R. W. Southern locates the precise fulcrum of Anselm’s argument in his debate with Guanilo. It is that for Anselm “understanding” is both ontological and experiential. Understaning the signified of God is a shift in ontological status in the thinker, and this shift is experienced in a direct way.

Southern writes,

[Anselm thinks] “if God exists, there must be a level of experience at which it is impossible to think of God as not existing”. So it is nearly beatific experience.

Responsio editoris 9, 138, 13-4.

As Eileen C. Sweeny observes, Anselm believes that if someone disagrees with his argument, he simply does not understand it. Besides the happenstance that this pretty much how all of us feel when others do not agree with us, because Anselm is dealing with the very limits of thought, (a thing which no greater a thing can be conceived and with coherence itself), one must ask, is there something to this notion of “understands” as experienced.

Wittgenstein’s Lion

There is a very different, in appearance, use of “understands” many centuries later that perhaps sheds light upon what Anselm is trying to say. It is in Wittgenstein gnomic and tantalizing reference to a lion imagined to speak:

If a lion could talk we could not understand (verstehen) him (Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, p. 190).

This is a poetic and interesting thing to say, but what does it mean? Wittgenstein is said to be drawing out just how much the meanings in our language are dependent upon our “forms of life”, and he is suggesting that a “form of life” (its concerns and practices) maybe so divergent of our own that we could not understand whatever such a lion would mean. Quite unlike Anselm’s notion of “if you understand me, you will agree with me,” does it not rely upon a particularly opaque use of the word “understand”? For instance, an ethologist in Africa we would say “understands” lions, in a way that the average urban person does not, (as does perhaps an experienced lion tamer). So certainly the use of the word “understand,” even when there is no strict “talking” present, has meaning in the context of lions. One would imagine that given the addition of speech, such specialists indeed would only “understand” them better. Now why, on principle, would a lion imagined to speak then be incapable of being understood? What would be the measure of “understanding” be? Fluency?

My suspicion is that there is something in this analogy which is confessional, that is, Wittgenstein as a brilliant, German Jew, was a kind of un-understandable “lion” among the carefully kept minds of the English at Cambridge, as can be seen in the paragraph preceding the citation, where he speaks of “transparency” in the context of coming to the customs of a foreign country:

We also say of people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given the mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand (versteht) the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them (ibid).



Taken together, it would seem that Wittgenstein would like to say, “We would not be able to understand a lion if she could speak, that is, we would not be able to ‘find our feet with her’, but we would be able to know what she is saying to herself”. There would be a degree of separability which would not be conceptual. We may be able to read someone’s thoughts, but not their intentions (seen in the paragraph that follows).

When considering “real” lions (and does not Wittgenstein always want us to return to the concrete circumstances of communication), this seems like an odd thing to conclude, for it is really that ethnologists (and lion tamers), indeed do well predicting intentions (actions), and one would imagine that this would only be facilitated by the capacity for speech. After a few brief observations which speak to the community of knowledges, Wittgenstein ends up making a point about the instrumental “foundation” of predictions of behaviors. A third person pov has a different foundation for his prediction of my behavior, than I do:

Two points, however, are important: one, that in many cases someone else cannot predict my actions, whereas I foresee them in my intentions; the other, that my prediction (in my expression of intention) has not the same foundation as his prediction of what I shall do, and the conclusions to be drawn from these predictions are quite different.

I can be as certain of someone else’s sensations as of any fact. But this does not make the propositions “He is much depressed”, “25 x 25 =625” and “I am sixty years old” into similar instruments. The explanation suggests itself that the certainty is of a different kind.–This seems to point to a psychological difference. But the difference is logical (logischer) (ibid).

What began as a meditational approach to cultural (and perhaps even species) estrangement, the lack of understanding has dissolved into a point “logical”, the differing of “instruments”. What has happened to the claim that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him? If we accept Wittgenstein’s story of alienation and “not getting our feet” with someone (anyone?), understanding itself, as it is experienced, remains in tact. The instruments work together. Transparency, as he named it, exists, if only in degrees. And no one who can be said to communicate is utterly opaque, or what Wittgenstein calls a “complete enigma”. Instead really, it is against the backdrop of understanding that any failure to understand, takes place.

I believe here, in the very experience of understanding, of coherence, as it presents itself, that Anselm’s experiential proof lies.


Donald Davidson’s Unquestionable Belief

The last stop in the tour of understanding is philosopher Donald Davidson’s rebuttal of the skeptic who claims that it is possible that all our beliefs are false. Davidson’s reply, in short, is much like Anselm’s. If indeed the skeptic, or anyone else, understandswhat a belief is, he must understand that beliefs are by the very nature both veridical, and holistic in nature. Any doubt of a particular belief precludes the doubt of all beliefs.

This is the core of his argumentation:

What is needed to answer the skeptic is to show that someone with a (more or less) coherent set of beliefs has a reason to suppose that his beliefs are not mistaken in the main. What we have shown is that it is absurd to look for a justifying ground for the totality of beliefs, something outside this totality which we can use to test or compare with our beliefs. The answer to our problem must be to find a reason for supposing most of our beliefs are true.that is not a form of evidence.

My argument has two parts.First I urge that a correct understanding of the speech, beliefs, desires, intentions, and other propositional attitudes of a person leads to the conclusion that most of a person’s beliefs are true, and so there is a legitimate presumption that any one of them, if it coheres with most of the rest, is true. Then I go on to claim that anyone with thoughts, and so in particular anyone who wonders he has any reason to suppose he is generally right about the nature of his environment, must know what a belief is, and how in general beliefs are to be detected and interpreted. These being perfectly general facts we cannot fail to use when we communicate with others, or when we try to communicate with others, or even when we merely think we are communicating with others, there is a pretty strong sense in which we can be said to know that there is a presumption in favor of the overall truthfulness of anyone’s beliefs, including our own. So it is bootless for anyone to ask for some further reassurance; that can only add to his stock of beliefs. All that is needed is that he recognize that belief is inherently veridical…

…Take for example the interdependence of belief and meaning. What a sentence means depends partly on the external circumstances that cause it to win some degree of conviction; and partly on the relations, grammatical or logical, that the sentence has to other sentences held true with varying degrees of conviction…it is impossible for a speaker to understand a speaker and at the same time to discover the speaker to be largely wrong about the world. For the interpreter interprets sentences held true (which is not to be distinguished from attributing beliefs) according to the events and objects in the outside world that cause the sentences to be held true….

…What stands in the way of global skepticism of the senses is, in my view, that fact that we must, in the plainest and methodologically most basic cases, take the objects of a belief, to be the causes of that belief. And what we, as interpreters, must take them to be is what they in fact are. Communication begins where causes converge: your utterance means what mine does if belief in its truth is systematically caused by the same events and objects…

…All beliefs are justified in this sense: they are supported by numerous other beliefs (otherwise they wouldn’t be the beliefs that they are), and have a presumption in favor of their truth. The presumption increases the larger and more significant the body of beliefs which which a belief coheres and, there being no such thing as an isolated belief, there is no belief without a presumption in its favor.

“A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”

Much like Anselm’s notion of understand, Davidson argues, though in a different fashion, for the logical coherence of beliefs, such that the very nature of beliefs precludes their global falsity. Because beliefs are an explanatory attribution (we atttribute them to explain the rationality of behavior) and do not exist apart from any such explanatory apparatus, it makes no sense to say that all our beliefs might be false. To put it another way, with each “might be false” that is added to the last “might be false”, when attending to beliefs, there is an geometric descrease in likelihood of falsity. At the lower end of any such approach to a “completely false” totality of beliefs, these simply are no longer beliefs. They would not longer be functioning as the explanation of behavior taken to be rational.

The skeptical problem arises in thinking that one belief can be held up to the world, and compared, in isolation from all other beliefs, and still remain a belief. It arises from thinking of correspondence as the determination of the “truth” of belief. Beliefs are something we do, and not merely have.

In a certain sense, to use a mechanical analogy, any one part of a machine could be broken (let us say, if it is not functioning up to par, but still functioning quite well), and there is even a possibility that this part is broken, and that part is broken, and that part too is broken. But the entire process of diagnosis which involves checking parts (like checking beliefs) would be meaningless if you therefore concluded “Hey, ALL parts might be broken”. This would change the notion of what a part is, and what broken is.

(This is why Spinoza, when taking up the possibility, changes the notion of “know” and says that falsity is only a privation.)

I believe that something of Anselm’s experiential, even beatific, foundations for conviction of coherence (God), and Davidson’s logical argument for the essential veridicality and coherent nature of belief, is what brackets what “understanding” means. Despite Wittgenstein’s claim about his lion, (and we all have experienced those that mystify us, with whom we can never get our feet), in principle, not only must a speaking lion be understandable, but she also must be predictable, for the very nature of understanding is that it provides prediction.

And though Wittgenstein would like to argue for a differential “foundation” for the prediction of behavior, where in you, “in many cases” are not able to predict what I will do while I seem quite privileged in the fact, because of a more ubiquitous quality to understanding, we each can become alienated from ourselves, saying nothing of customs, strange lands, and traditions, wherein the “foundation” of the observations of others can prove better able to predict our actions than we.