‘Fog’, where ‘Fog’ means Fog.

Via the Facebook feed of Squiffy-Marie von Bladet, I bring you Michael Frayn’s “Fog-like Sensations.” It begins:

(According to some sympathisers, the reason why drivers on the motorways failed to slow down in thick fog recently, and so crashed into each other in multiple collisions of up to thirty vehicles, was simply because the authorities had failed to provide illuminated signs explaining that the fog was fog. This is a situation on which Wittgenstein made one or two helpful remarks in a previously unpublished section of Philosophical Investigations.)

694. Someone says, with every sign of bewilderment (wrinkled forehead, widened eyes, an anxious set to the mouth): “I do not know there is fog on the road unless it is accompanied by an illuminated sign saying ‘fog’.”

When we hear this, we feel dizzy. We experience the sort of sensations that go with meeting an old friend one believed was dead. I want to say: “But this is the man philosophers are always telling us about! This is the man who does not understand—the man who goes on asking for explanations after everything has been explained!”

(A sort of Socratic Oliver Twist. Compare the feelings one would have on meeting Oliver Twist in the flesh. “And now I want you to meet Oliver Twist.”—“But…!”)

695. Now I feel a different sort of excitement. I see in a flash a thought forming as it were before my mind’s eye—“This is at last the sort of situation which philosophers have always waited for—the sort of situation in which one as a philosopher can offer practical help!”

It becomes ever more baroque and funny. At the end, Steve Petersen (who posted it at his site) says “Also see Jerry Fodor’s spoof, inspired by Frayn.” The word “spoof” ordinarily suggests humor, but Fodor did not get even a smile out of me. That’s the difference between a writer and a philosopher, I guess.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I have always supposed that the illuminated signs reading “POOR DRIVING CONDITIONS” which I encounter all too often on our local motorway are for the benefit of blind drivers.

  2. I on the other hand suppose that the signs are so that the motorists who crash in the fog cannot sue the highway authority on the grounds that they were not warned.

    As for the spoof of LW, I think it must be funny only to those who have already broken their heads on the real writings.

  3. I will speak out as someone who an illuminated sign may in fact help. A couple months ago it was very cold out and I was driving to work. I could see snow on the ground, but the road was black and wet looking rather than frost colored so I figured it wasn’t too dangerous. There was some old grandpa going 40 mph in front of me so I whipped around the guy so I could go sixy and make it to work on time. My car was acting a little funny; instead of going where I pointed it, it seemed to be slipping back down into the ruts. The third curve I come to the car continues to turn to the right even after the road has straightened out, so I yank it to the left. The car goes to the left, so I yank it back to the right and drift gently off the road with my nose pointed back the way I came. At this point I realize. “OH! this must be BLACK ICE”.
    The point is, you can recognize something as existing without recognizeing that it requires a different behaviour.

  4. The motorist notes that red lights are more visible in fog than green lights. Therefore, if you don’t see a light, it is green.

  5. I am not sure I’ve ever seen motorists on local or otherwise motorways, but highway drivers are known to be convinced about slipperiness of the road by a certain number of well positioned car crashes along their ways, organized by some earlier drivers who happened not to have such visual aids. I call it community spirit.

    I didn’t read LW (leafed through some pages). Does he sound like that? Not very German.

    Went for some quotes. Found these pearls: a new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion; the face is the soul of the body; uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination; our greatest stupidities may be very wise; the human body is the best picture of the human soul; knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement. There were others too, so it’s unlikely they’ve mixed him up with Kozma Prutkov.

  6. Is this the reason why they write “POLICE” on police cars?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    “I am not sure I’ve ever seen motorists on local or otherwise motorways, [but highway drivers …]”

    They’re one of our quaint local customs, like the Morris dancing and the POOR DRIVING CONDITIONS. We also wear our suspenders below our knees, which probably explains a lot.

  8. My father treasures a photo he once took of a road sign in France. “Arbres!” it says. It stands right in front of a row of trees.

    I’ve always chuckled at “Watch for Wind Currents!”

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Michael Flanders talks somewhere about travelling to an airport past a sign saying “Beware Low-Flying Aircraft.”

    “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it. Take your hat off?”

  10. In hilly areas fog can collect in dips and valleys. If you’re driving in the dark, your headlights light up the road directly in front of you and you can see other cars’ taillights well ahead, and in the middle there’s a patch of thick fog that you really don’t see until a second before you’re in it. This has happened to me in central Pennsylvania, and boy is it scary.

  11. January First-of-May says

    A few years ago, when I went to Bulgaria with my mom (and younger brother), we took a taxi from the airport in Varna all the way west to our hotel in Veliko Tarnovo.
    The roads were often heavy with fog in the pre-dawn morning (a few times we could actually see the fog in the dips ahead), but our taxi driver kept on going just under the speed limit, which is to say, at 138 kilometers (86 miles) per hour.
    It really was extremely scary.

    Ironically, the last leg of our flight to Varna was on a turboprop plane (ATR-72, I think), which made my mom really worried because she thought the plane must have been really old (it wasn’t, but I didn’t know that at the time either), and maybe would break apart or something.
    I told her that planes were actually pretty safe, even the ones with propellers on them, and that there was a much higher chance of something happening on our upcoming taxi ride, anyway.
    I had no idea about the fog… when that happened we both agreed that it was much scarier.

  12. @Deb a road sign in France.

    Yes the French seem to have a certain élan with road signs. My favourite “trous en cours de formation.”

  13. @D.O. Does he [LW] sound like that? Not very German.

    Remember there were at least 3 Philosophers named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who were unrelated except for being spatio-temporally contiguous.

    The first couple of paragraphs sound plausible as translations of TLP. That whole era of British Philosophy has been much spoofed. There’s David Hare’s “Jumpers”; Alan Bennett’s Russell & Whitehead’s bowl of apples; Tom Stoppard anon.

    The Frayn really is very funny. I fell off my chair at this:
    We might understand this as a request for practical information, and try to answer it by showing him the definition of “fog” in the dictionary. To this he might reply: “I can’t see ‘fog’ for the fog.” We respond by putting the dictionary an inch in front of his eyes. Now he says: “I can’t see the fog for ‘fog’.”

  14. “Beware Low-Flying Aircraft” means “When 100 tons of aluminum crosses this road at a height of 10 meters accompanied by a very loud noise, please do not experience this as unusual and most importantly, do not crash your car at the side of the road and have it catch fire as this will only serve to annoy the passengers on the flights that will be delayed as a result of such a brash course of action.”

    You must admit that the version on the sign is shorter.

  15. Years ago I was driving through Arkansas (or possibly Oklahoma) and was puzzled by signs on the highway that said “Do Not Drive into Smoke.” I could only assume that Arkansans (or possibly Oklahomans) had a strange habit whereby if they were driving along the road and saw smoke in the distance somewhere, they would reflexively point their trucks and four-wheel drives toward it and make a beeline across the fields to get there.

  16. @Hat Fodor did not get even a smile out of me.

    Indeed. His piece is very flat, especially given he had the Frayn as a model. There’s a few ‘in jokes’ on the more notorious sphinx-like statements in TLP. But even those he doesn’t really ‘work the material’.

    The LTP original’s “… thereof one must be silent.” is preceded by a gag about climbing a ladder. Surely Fodor could manage to lose a ladder in the fog.

    (That said, Frayn could have done better with a lion speaking in the fog.)

    [Gratuitous comment] I’ve never been impressed with Fodor. I remember in undergraduate days his Chomsky-approved theory of semantics (with Jerrold Katz) we referred to as ‘Cats and Fido’. It was impossibly naive. I was much surprised Fodor billed himself as a Philosopher. Had he read nothing about theory of meaning?

  17. I’ve never forgotten that weather god sitting on a mountaintop and thundering from on high.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    My conscience is troubling me over this Ludwig-bashing. I’m a Wittgenstein groupie (there – outed!), and feel somewhat craven in not speaking up in the man’s defence (not that he himself would have been bothered in the least, of course.) Trouble is, I’m not remotely qualified to do the defending, and won’t even try after assuaging my guilt herewith …

    For what little it’s worth, I’d say that because W just assumes that you are already concerned with the philosophical problems he’s addressing, he doesn’t fill in any of the blanks. Unless you know already what the issue is in any particular case and are fairly familiar with the prior art, reading the Philosophical Investigations is rather like listening to just one half of a telephone conversation, and produces a rather similar feeling of irritation.

    The disturbingly fragmented impression the work gives is an inevitable part of what he supposes himself to be doing; basically tearing down the Tractatus and all other beautifully consistent and fundamentally mistaken Answers to Everything. He’s trying to think up to the very edges of the thinkable; it can be exhilarating and also can produce motion sickness.

    As far as his German style is concerned, I’m even less competent to defend him, but David M’s comments are interesting.

    There *are* funny philosophers (though not LW, admittedly.) Probably more of them than funny neuroscientists, at any rate.

  19. Arbres

    I have never seen this sign in France, but for many years I have not travelled widely in the country. Was it a regular road sign (same colour and design as others), or one which appeared to be made locally? I could think of two explanations: – the sign dates from the time young trees were planted and were hard to see from a distance, and they are now much bigger; – the sign refers to a tree grower (?) business abutting the road. Also, depending on the design of the sign, the word could be the name of the village or hamlet!

    Do Not Drive Into Smoke

    Many years ago some friends and I decided to drive from Vancouver (BC) to California. We went down the coast on the scenic (and scary) route, but to save time we returned through the less picturesque interior. As we reached the plain in Central Oregon we started to see enormous, very high black clouds in the far distance, which turned out to be smoke emanating from fields covered with a black, foul-smelling substance, perhaps some kind of tar. Someone explained to us that farmers were burning their fields after the harvest, the usual practice in the region. Perhaps the warning sign referred to this sort of event. I think that if there was a high wind pushing the smoke towards a road it might be dangerous to drive “into the smoke”.

    LW humour

    I have not read much Wittgenstein but I had a quick look at the Fodor piece and indeed it left me cold. It seems that humour is best when it is unexpected. A few years ago I bought a book by a linguist I know slightly, I forget the title but it is something like “Language and Laughter” – at least the word “laughter” is in it. After several chapters categorizing various types of language-based humour, there was a final section consisting mostly of examples, which instead of a culmination was a letdown. Most of the examples were mildly amusing, but there were none of a riproaring nature. I thought that the author must have collected examples that he had heard and that he found very funny, not only on the spot but in recollection, but when put on paper without a context of performance they lost most of what made them funny, somewhat like how a joke ceases to be funny when it is explained. A humorous writer can sometimes make you burst out in irrepressible laughter even if you are alone, but a scholar writing about what they find humorous can be quite boring.

  20. “a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes

  21. Raymond Smullyan, who died a few days ago aged 97, definitely counts as a humorous philosopher, and some of his books do consist entirely of jokes. (Only today did I discover that his surname is trisyllabic.) There is also Sidney Morgenbesser, whom we’ve discussed before.

    Perhaps the smoke in question is the kind emitted in large clouds by badly tuned diesel engines. If you drive into such smoke, you may well rear-end the truck.

  22. @David E I’m a Wittgenstein groupie …

    But you can’t be! (Unless you’re going to keep having monumental arguments with yourself.) And as I read further you aren’t: you’re an Investigations groupie. Well I am too, and no shame in that.

    The style of the Investigations is a whole lot less declamatory than TLP,less programmatic, less certain, more puzzled/surprised/bemused about how language works. So entirely suitable for a language-focussed blog.

  23. In San Francisco you sometimes see a sign “HILL” which people joke is for the benefit of tourists from the midwest who wonder why the front of their car is suddenly higher than the back.

    They opened up a new stretch of freeway a few years back, and on the first day people slowed down to look at the nice flowers planted by the roadside and caused a traffic jam. So they put up a sign “LANDSCAPING AHEAD”.

    Depending on where “DO NOT DRIVE INTO SMOKE” was seen, it might refer to burning stubble. However I have on a few occasions driven through forests that were on fire, and driving into smoke that you couldn’t see through could be extremely dangerous.

  24. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never forgotten that weather god sitting on a mountaintop and thundering from on high.

    Turns out I had forgotten about the black clouds… 🙂

    As far as his German style is concerned, I’m even less competent to defend him, but David M’s comments are interesting.

    Oh, I haven’t actually read any Wittgenstein except for a few quotes. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Investigations sound totally different from the Tractatus.

  25. @Marie-Lucie: I haven’t seen the photo of the sign for years, but as I recall it was a standard sign, not locally-made.

    My thought is that perhaps the trees are hard to see at night, so the sign is warning night-drivers not to swerve onto the shoulder.

    In France are road-side trees painted with a white band so that they’re visible in the dark?

  26. Having grown up in Oregon, when field burning was common, I can attest that Marie-Lucie is exactly right about why there are “DO NOT DRIVE INTO SMOKE” signs.

  27. Alan Bennett’s Russell & Whitehead’s bowl of apples

    I associate that with Jonathan Miller. Did he take it from Bennett?

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought it was Moore in Bennett’s sketch?

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah yes; both right. Moore and Russell, Bennett and Miller:


  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Both right (I triggered moderation retribution by adding a link after the original post.)

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    (I mean GE rather than Dudley …)

  32. Moore and Russell, Bennett and Miller

    Thank you all for the collective corrections. Here’s Miller as Russell doing the monologue Zwicky quotes


    And here’s Bennett and Miller, with a cameo from Dudley Moore

  33. marie-lucie says

    Deb: In France are road-side trees painted with a white band so that they’re visible in the dark?

    I can’t remember. When I go to France to visit my family (about once a year), my sister is the driver and we rarely travel at night. A driver and a passenger do not pay attention to the same things!

  34. Von Bladet of the Desert, NM says

    I often[1] holiday in the abundant French countryside of France, with a car[2]. Don’t recall seeing any white bands on trees. (I don’t do much driving there at night, but also more than none.)

    [1] “Often” as in “in the summers of many years”, not “many times in for example a given year”.
    [2] And a trailer tent and a family but that’s not important right now.

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