Cognitive Science / Layers / Neuroscience / Philosophy

Clay Tablets

The man is taking a small piece of clay from a larger clump. He is kneading it, testing if it has the right consistency. Then he is forming it into a roughly rectangular, flat shape. With a stylus, he is then starting to make groups of little wedge-shaped dimples, arranging these into sequences. His mouth is silently forming words “…lugal kurkura …”.

What the scribe is doing, on the surface of it, is just changing the shape of a piece of clay. His muscles are moving, changing the angle of the stylus to the clay tablet. With his other hand, he might be turning the tablet a little bit to give it the right angle. He is pressing the stylus into the clay or dragging its tip over the surface to form a line.

But this physical description of what is going on is missing something. For us outsiders who don’t know the Sumerian language or the cuneiform signs, there are only these dimples in the clay. If we study them, we might realize that there are similarities between some of them. If the scribe is looking at the tablet, however, he will see words. He will identify certain groups of dimples as signs. These signs stand for words and these words have a meaning. The tablet might be a list of items on a transport, or a record of an astronomical observation or a letter to a king or to a general or the draft of a historical text to be hewn into a stele. It might be a legal text or a decree, a contract or a prayer. It might be a mathematical calculation or a section from a poem or epic story.

The tablets are getting this meaning only if somebody is reading them. Otherwise, they are only pieces of dried and perhaps baked clay lying somewhere between remains of old buildings in the desert. When they were made, they were part of a network of cultural processes, during which they were read by people and influenced what these people were doing, what they were thinking, how they were looking at the world, an what their world was consisting of.

In this and some of the following articles, I am intending to investigate these topics: the semantics of language and signs and the ontology of the world as it looks from the point of view of the people using these signs. I want to look at it from the outsider’s point of view (where all you have is a piece of clay with dimples in its surface) as well as the insider’s view. The world that is shaped by the semantics of the language and the sign systems looks different and contains different objects from the world as seen by the outsider, who is looking at it in an “autistic” way and only seeing the material phenomena. I am interested in both the semantics (how does the sign system work) and the ontology (what kinds of objects exist – from the respective observer’s point of view).

If we look at the scribe on the physical level, we could describe him as a system of nerves, muscles etc. We could describe what is going on as causal processes inside his brain and body. But the scribe himself would not describe it this way. From his point of view, there are arms and fingers and a mind, there are words (like “lugal”, meaning something like “king”), there is a stylus, a clay tablet and a text. If we describe the process on the physical level, we are missing what is going on even if we describe it completely. We have to change our level of description to understand the process on the ontological level of the scribe and his culture.

There are dimples in the clay. These dimples scatter the light of the sun or of an oil lamp, resulting in an image on the reader’s retina. There are changes in the way neurons and their dendrites and axons are distributed and there are changes in the distribution of proteins or other molecules in the neurons. On the physical level, there is a physical object (the brain) undergoing changes of its physical state. We can describe all of this on the level of physical processes, even without introducing a concept of information. But this low-level description does not carry us very far. If we describe the process on a level of symbols and meanings etc., the question can be asked how these different ways of description are connected. How is the process, as described in terms of words, signs, meanings, intentions, actions, etc., implemented in terms of the physical process. I am assuming a non-dualist approach here: the world of cultural and mental phenomena is implemented in terms of physical phenomena. How does that work? I don’t have a finished theory but I am going to circle around this question in some of my next articles. So this is work in progress, or a look into my philosophical workshop, with unfinished pieces lying around.

We cannot look into the scribe’s head so easily. So for the moment, I am entering my time machine again and fast-forward into the present (at another time, I will come back and even travel further back in time, before the invention of writing and maybe even to the time when language was invented).

What I am planning to do next, however, is to look at how files and file systems are implemented in computers, so my next article about this project is going to be a little bit technical, although I will be trying to write it in a way that everybody can understand it. In the computer, some of the processing has been taken out of the brain and into the machine, giving us the possibility to look at these processes, to see how the semantics of file systems is implemented and how the ontological transition from one level to the other is working. But that is the topic of another article.

As we are leaving him, the scribe is putting the tablet into the sun to let it dry.

(The picture is from

5 thoughts on “Clay Tablets

    • I am still thinking about what to write next. The problem is not really the content, but how to divide it into small pieces (the more than 1000 words of this article are already far too much, a good size for a blog article is maybe 300 to 500) and how to write it in a way that is interesting. I have in mind to take concepts from computer science and use them in philosophy. The problem is doing it in a way that is not too dry. I am not sure that is possible. I don’t want to drive my readers away 🙂

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