Fountain Pen Aesthetics (Part 2)

Today’s post is the second in a five-part series.

Thinking about my inability to understand my problem with the M805 — let alone explain it in a way that makes sense — reminded me of an old quote from my undergraduate days, from the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’. This seemingly-simple phrase couldn’t tell me what the problem was, but it went a long way towards explaining why I had a problem at all. 

In the late 1700s, the linguist Sir William Jones made the rather bold claim that a variety of global languages — including those derived from Ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit — had themselves derived from a common source. The claim meant that languages as distinct as English, Punjabi, Celtic, and Persian (amongst many others) were all cousins in a single family tree. Sir William based his conjecture on commonalities in the grammatical structure of the languages and the similarities of particular word roots, of an order too improbable to be random. There was no physical evidence for such a language existing — no engravings, tablets, pottery, or the like — which made the claim even more bold. Nonetheless, it is now widely accepted that Sir William was essentially correct; the language — now dubbed Proto-Indo-European — was used by a people who were probably settled somewhere on the Pontic steppe and later settled throughout Europe, western Asia, and the Middle East five to six thousand years ago (4000-3000 BC).

Far more interesting that the existence of a common ancestor tongue is how the language — reconstructed from the similarities Sir William identified — can tell us something about the world of those who spoke it: the fact that they had words for cattle, pigs, and cereal cultivation tell us that they were settled, not nomadic. They had words for the steppe and carts, but nothing about ships or open water, telling us that they could travel but were settled far inland. Although there was a word for a group of homes but nothing corresponding to what we would call a town or city, it seems likely that they settled in tribal communities. Intriguingly, there are words for gold and silver (potentially also for iron) but nothing to reflect any knowledge of smelting — suggesting that this was a society that traded with other, more advanced societies. 

Around 1500BC, one of the offshoots of Kurgan society migrated south, ultimately becoming the Mycenaeans and Achaeans that formed the subject of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. With this in mind, it’s hard to read the epics and not be struck by how the language has been so obviously adapted to describe phenomena that would have seemed new and inexplicable to the Mycenaeans: the sea and ships were were totally unfamiliar concepts, and could not possibly have been understood on their own. And from the oral tradition of Homer — story-telling through poetry — we can see that these people described the phenomena in familiar metaphors, explaining the sea as a vast watery steppe and ships as carts or chariots, transforming the unfathomable into the familiar.

The adaptation of Proto-Indo-European is perhaps the best illustration of Wittgenstein’s point: the limits of their language were the limits of their world. Those limits enable linguists to reconstruct their world, to identify the phenomena which they had (or had not) experienced. Even as their language evolved to include new phenomena (such as the sea), it still depended on established concepts to explain the new. Without those established concepts — ideas that were well-known and easily understood — there would have been no way for the new to be communicated or explained in an intelligible way. 

This is a problem we face in our own community (and perhaps also in many others): our shared language is too limited, we have not yet developed a way to communicate our feelings. I would argue that this is not simply a problem of communication: without concepts or words, we are unable to even comprehend the complex feelings that a particular pen might provoke. It is a problem of both articulation and communication. 

To reduce it to a phrase, you could say that the FP community is aesthetically illiterate: we are not ignorant of aesthetics but we are not able to comprehend or communicate our feelings about aesthetics in a meaningful, intelligible way. This is the problem that we experience when we look at a pen and find ourselves drawn to the design but unable to explain the feeling any deeper or more clearly than “I really like it,” or to articulate why it is so satisfying to find a pen and ink combination that works together. 

I find it interesting that this problem exists for the aesthetic aspects of pens while we have a well-developed vocabulary for the technical aspects. We may be aesthetically illiterate but we are technically literate: if you say a pen is unsatisfactory because the piston requires lubrication, it is an intelligible claim: most other FP users will understand the problem, your experience, your frustration, and even the solution. But when it comes to expressing aesthetic dissatisfaction, we lack even the most basic tools to understand the problem ourselves, let alone convey the problem to someone else in a way they can also understand. 

This may be a result of history: fountain pens have been around for perhaps two centuries and, for almost the majority of that time, they were a tool. Considerable energy was placed into improving and refining the technical aspects to maximise their effectiveness as a tool, and a vocabulary developed for those parts and the tool’s functionality. It is only in recent decades that pens have become a primarily aesthetic object, and so it stands to reason that our understanding of the aesthetic features is not as well developed as the technical.

I believe that we need to develop an understanding of aesthetics if we want to comprehend our feelings about pens and to be able to intelligibly communicate to brands the types of products that we like and why. In tomorrow’s post, I will demonstrate the effect that aesthetic illiteracy has on our communication and explore an example of a community which does not suffer from this problem.


Links to the series: