J. S. Mill’s mark

*Notare, to mark; connotare, to mark along with: to mark one thing with or in addition to another.

A footnote found in John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843): Book I, Chapter II, Of Names. Having languished since the Middle Ages, Mill reintroduced logic into Victorian public discourse. Here he resurrects a term of the medieval schoolmen: connotate. He argues that meaning consists of connotation and declares some linguistic terms “unmeaning marks.”

Mill’s analysis of names leads him to argue that the mark the robbers place on the door of Ali Baba does not connote, that is, does not convey information about any attributes of the house.  (Note, in conformity to modern analytical style I break up what in the original is one paragraph into three parts).

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning. The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty.

The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself. All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.

Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark.

Mill sees that the mark is an alteration of the thing that denotes but argues that as an element of language it is merely an “unmeaning mark.”

If Mill is correct then the ‘queer sign’ that Gandalf scratches on Bilbo’s door but the dwarves read burglar is different in kind from the chalk marks of the robbers. Mill would say that the wizard’s mark and the robbers’ chalked mark are different kind of names.

I submit that the only significant difference we are made aware of between the two story-marks-on-doors is that in the modern English story the meaning of the mark is subsequently read aloud (by Gloin, as: burglar). In neither story are we given any description of the mark, and the fact that the mark on Bilbo’s door connotes (as Mill would put it) opens the possibility that so does that placed by the robbers: are they using a felonious medieval Iranian version of hobo signs? We are not told and have no right to assume one way or another.

The opening chapter of The Hobbit thus calls into question Mill’s reading of the tale of Ali Baba.

‘An Unexpected Party’ is perhaps more faithful to the Arabian folktale than Mill’s exegesis. For a start, Tolkien retains the detail that the mark is made on the door (Mill just says house). More substantially, Mill talks of one robber who marks a house to know it again, and explains the marking in the first person:

I say to myself. All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others…

Mill has lost the plot, and all but one actor. Can we understand the story of the mark made by the robber without recounting first that of the blinfolded cobbler who repeats his first passage to the door? And is it correct to say that the robber makes the mark so that he will recognize the house and not so that the band of robbers he accompanies will know it?

Tolkien replaces the blinfolded cobbler with a magician who looks long at Bilbo Baggins with a wizard’s eye (as the Captain does the house) and then draws out the potential of a mark that others may also recongize.

But first and foremost, Tolkien returns us to where we are: a story. If I am walking with you down a suburban street and you stop and make a mark on the door of a house I will assume  you act with reason – there is a story behind your action. The idea of a person who simply marks a house at random so he may recongize it again is so odd it demands a story (Chesterton?). The robbers see the mark on Ali Baba’s door and it is for them more than a mere mark of identification – it says, Here is the house of the burglar we are looking for.

Mill’s logical analysis of an identifying mark may be correct but he is surely wrong when he says that the mark made on Ali Baba’s door does not connote: more than merely identifying a house it means something to the band of robbers, and to Morgiana.