Matt Perryman

Furious Austrian insults harmless street sign

By Matt Perryman

Set the scene: You’re out on a hike in a forest path. You reach a fork in the trail. Where the trail splits, there’s a wooden post in the ground with an arrow pointing to the left.

Which way do you go?

The answer is obvious.

At the same time, the answer could not be more obscure.

-How do you know this is an arrow?

-Why do you believe the arrow is pointing?

-Why wouldn’t it point you in the other direction, away from the narrow end?

These are questions worth asking, and yet they’re dumb.

Everybody knows what an arrow is. Everyone understands that an arrow points in the direction of the pointed end.

Anybody that’s ever spent an hour on a trail in the woods has seen sign posts and understands that they direct you where you want to go.

Stupid-simple stuff.

But consider how it works. When you come to the arrow, you don’t hit pause and think about it. There’s no consciously reasoning about what you see.

When you see it, you just see it. Bang. In flash. No thinking involved.

You understand what the arrow means because you were taught to understand arrows as a certain kind of symbol, that plays a certain role, in certain activities that humans do together.

The same wood, in the same shape, would mean something entirely different as a fence-post in front of a house, in a lumber yard, or holding tent stakes in the ground.

If you follow me, you’ve just understood a key piece of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

Nothing “makes” the arrow into an arrow, or a sign post into a sign post. It isn’t the wood, or the shape, or even some private thought inside your mind.

It’s the situation that makes it so.

Culture provides the context of meaning.

Most things that we “know” are like this. We don’t consciously know them. They hang there in the background like the frame around a photograph.

The meaning of a sign depends on the location. Not only the time and place, but as Seth Godin likes to say, how we do things around here.

It’s worth remembering that most things you treat as unchanging facts and universal truths are products of a culture. They’re signs in a context.

Context can be changed.

Matt Perryman 

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