Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter reflections

'Is it winter ?' Dylan asked as we walked to school this morning.

'Almost,' I replied.

'But there's no snow and it's Christmas after 14 sleeps.'

'Yes but it's December and winter sort of starts in December.'

'What do you mean, sort of.'

Like father; like son, I thought.

Philosophers like their definitions to be complete - preferably encompassing what is necessary and sufficient. For example,in defining the requirements for a glass of orange squash we might identify three elements: water, orange cordial and a glass of some sort. Each of these is necessary but none is sufficient without the other two. A glass with water is, well, a glass of water; much the same for a glass filled with cordial; and water with cordial but no glass is ...

This approach works well for glasses of squash, but things get tricky when we use the same technique to define less tangible concepts. For example, a definition of art might view it as representation, or emotional response, or formal structure or historical concept. And what of the line between art and craft, or art and nature?

Sport is similarly difficult to define. Is mountaineering a sport? And why does the Olympics include archery, but not ballroom dancing? When I was involved with Sports Council Wales they refused to recognise darts, regarding it as a pastime. We all have our prejudices: personally I'd disqualify any sport that uses an engine.

One way round this problem is to say that ideas like art are simply, whatever we consider them to be. In other words they are relative to our culture and thinking. I find this unsatisfactory; imagine a culture which considered the moon to be a work of art - does that mean it is really a piece of art? I say it's a natural object which orbits the earth and is no more art than the soil in my garden; others would disagree.

An alternative, and to mind more satisfactory approach, is to acknowledge this as a problem of language. Some terms and concepts are not amenable to strict definition - it is better to think of them as having a family resemblance. Walking to school with Dylan I can usually recognise other children's mums or dads, it is more difficult when it come to Grandma of cousins. Perhaps our understanding of what makes art or sport is a bit like this. We can all agree on the core family members (athletics, football, rugby) but views begin to differ as the family tree spreads out and new generations replace the old (bungee jumping, hare coursing, shooting).

These are interesting questions or pointless ramblings, depending on your point of view. But be aware that definitions matter. Jane's mother was taken into hospital this week with a heart problem; last year, at around the same time, my father died of cancer. The NHS judged my mother in law to be worthy of treatment; not so my father. Ultimately, similar categorisation will affect us all.

So what of Dylan's question? As the world gets warmer is it winter in Britain in December? Is snow necessary or indeed sufficient - or is there a Rubicon date beyond which we are in its grip, whatever the weather?

For me, winter begins with the nativity plays and ends as the crocuses push through my lawn - the quicker the better; the sooner to start afresh.


  1. Try from winter solstice to spring equinox! And then embrace the opportunity for a lesson in astronomy. He might never ask a question again mind!

    How words are delivered and how they are received can often be quite different too. One person's perception of the term 'art' will be differnt from another's like you say.

    I think different interpretations can start wars - battles at least! Further communication, patience and clarification of intention is needed when there has been a misunderstanding.

    I will stop there...or I'll be off on one!

  2. I enjoy a good question and answer session with a child. Here's one I had today with a five year old.

    Child: Jesus is dead now isn't he?
    Mum: Yes, but he lived a very long time ago
    Child: When Grandad was first born?

    I'll be sharing that one with Grandad next time we speak!

  3. "the quicker the better; the sooner to start afresh." Aye... I'll drink to that.

  4. As humans we do need to classify, sort, label define and have rules. The patterns on which our brain depends to make us sure of our place in it all. I always felt happy with a definition of Art based on its intention. The maker thought it art therefore it is.

  5. My mother-in-law died on Christmas Day 2008. My husband's father is coming up to spend Christmas Day with us. Christmas is many things to many people. Joyful and full of grief. I feel honoured that he wants to spend the day with us. Classification - in a way. Merry Christmas, Mark, hope it brings to you and yours...all that you may wish!

  6. I think children can have the most interesting questions and logical thought process. Love the picture too.

    Kate xx

  7. sorry to arrive a bit late.

    I've got to say that I always read your posts twice - thef first time to appreciate the language you use and the second time to try and understand the essential message.

    It is very difficult to categorise things - from people needing medical attention to whether or not synchronised swimming is a sport. These things seem to be such grey areas. My mum at 75 - in a coma on Christmas Day was not deemed worthy of a brain scan, yet my dad - at the age of 90 was given one.

    Weird times we live in

  8. I love these philosophical discussions.
    Perhaps we should not label anything.
    Just ask does it move me? Then it is art. What else is there?
    Children are wise beyond their earth years, still fresh and tainted from whence they came.

  9. I am hopeless with philosophical discussions!! For me, winter starts when I can see the cloud my breath makes in front of me and ends when the flowers start budding!!

    Sorry to hear about Jane's thoughts are with you both.

    C x

  10. I always enjoy your posts. It seems to stimulate discussion.