mark

February 6, 2021
Simon Cook

mark heading a title indicates a post discussing the mark chalked on the door of a house in a story in the Arabian Nights.

These posts respond to a series of videos on The Hobbit that I made with my children in the days before the pandemic. On reflection, the limitation of those videos was conceptual, arising because I had not sufficiently thought through the significance of the analogy derived from the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ by the great Victorian philosopher, John Stuart Mill.

So, mark-posts clarify what is ultimately an introduction to a reading of The Hobbit, but as such refer to that story and its author only in passing to illuminate my primary theme, namely J.S. Mill’s peculiar reading of the chalk mark on the door in the story in the Arabian Nights.

My posts assume familiarity with the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’. The original story is in French. In the story the door is actually twice marked by two different robbers, but aside from the colour of the chalk the circumstances are identical. To refresh your memory here is the background, told (except in parentheses) from the point of view of the 40 Thieves:

Discovering a burglar caught in their cave (Cassim, brother of Ali Baba), the 40 Thieves cut him into four parts. On departing and returning to their cave they find the four parts have disappeared and infer a living man knows the location of, and the magic password that opens the hidden door to, their cave. The Chief-robber dispatches one of the 40 Thieves into town to track down this nameless man (Ali Baba). As luck would have it, the robber strikes up a conversation with the cobbler, Baba Moustafa, who recounts how he was recently paid to walk blindfold to an unknown house, inside of which he sewed together the four parts of a man (so he might be decently buried). The robber gives the cobbler more coin to put on another blindfold and retrace his steps…

… Le voleur qui avoit son mouchoir prêt, les lui banda, et il marcha à côté de lui, en partie en le conduisant, en partie en se laissant conduire par lui, jusqu’à ce qu’il s’arrêtât.

«Il me semble, dit Baba Moustafa, que je n’ai point passé plus loin.» Et il se trouva véritablement devant la maison de Cassim, où Ali Baba demeurent alors. Avant de lui ôter le mouchoir de devant les yeux, le voleur fit promptement une marque à la porte avec de la craie qu’il tenoit prête; et quand il le lui eut ôté, il lui demanda s’il savoit à qui appartenoit la maison? Baba Moustafa lui répondit qu’il n’étoit pas du quartier, et ainsi qu’il ne pouvoit lui en rien dire. (Galland’s original text of Les Mille et Une Nuits, 1704–1717.)

… the robber tied his handkerchief over his eyes and then walked by his side, partly leading him and partly guided by him. “I think,” said Baba Mustapha at length, “I went no further,” and he stopped directly at Cassim’s house, where Ali Baba now lived. Before taking the handkerchief off the old man’s eyes, the thief carefully marked the door with a piece of chalk, which he had ready in his hand, and then asked if he knew whose house that was: to which Baba Mustapha replied, that as he did not live in that neighbourhood he could not tell. (W.H.D Rouse’s edition, 1863, pp. 217-18)

The passage of the robber, half-following, half-leading a blindfolded man to an unknown door he then marks, I find strangely evocative. It has long struck me as an image of a dream of the mind in the act of thinking. And I think it so struck Mill nearly two centuries ago. I must confess, however, it would never have occurred to me to carefully consider the chalk mark were it not for my happening upon a passage of two paragraphs in the second chapter, ‘On Names’, of Mill’s System of Logic (1843). For ease of reference, I distinguish the paragraphs A. and B. and divide both into two numbered parts:

(A.i.) 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 this 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.

(A.ii.) 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.

(B.i.) When we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object.

(B.ii.) … [Ha! This second part of the second paragraph concerns only the logical account of a proper name - Mill has passed beyond his analogy. This fourth part of the passage is given in the conclusion, below.]

Mill’s attempt at a literary analogy is preposterous. I am convinced that this passage has much to teach us. But it is hard to even arrive at what Mill knew himself to be saying, let alone what he did not know he was saying, when his analogy so confuses and distracts. This post attempts to clear the ground by voicing three main criticisms: (i) Mill makes a model out of a failed mark; (ii) where the story-picture promises a person Mill delivers a house; and (iii) he makes ambiguity by not noticing that a visual analogy of a mental mark invokes (the complex question of) writing. By way of a philosophical postscript, in conclusion I mark the besetting sin of the robber, Mill, and also myself, namely the abstraction of a picture that presents a detail out of context.

A Failed Mark

First and foremost, the robber is a bad candidate for the role of a model namer. This is not because he is of dubious moral character but because, in the story, his mark fails (as does the mark of the next robber - both are executed by the Chief-robber for having failed). As Mill says, on spotting the mark, Morgiana, the bold and cunning slave-girl of the household of the late Cassim, guesses mischief and foils the plan of the robber by chalking the same mark on the neighbouring houses.

The 40 Thieves are brutal numbskulls. Carelessly disclosing the magic password to their own cave, having (three times!) had the good fortune to encounter Baba Moustafa, the blindfolded cobbler, none has the gumption to draw a map as they follow him. A map would have been a cunning plan, the right way to employ written marks - meeting the need for identification of the house without alerting Morgiana. But no, two robbers in succession stick the proper name of the house not on a map but on the house itself!

Recall how Mill qualifies his literary analogy as only “in some degree analogous”, because: when we impose a proper name we “put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object.” Quite. With some exceptions (a game show or a conference, a ship or a station) slapping a proper name onto a person or an object is a stupid thing to do. Yet this is precisely what a robber planning nefarious deeds does on the house of the recently butchered Cassim, where (the no doubt already on edge) Ali Baba and his wife as well as Morgiana and the widow of Cassim now reside; if his chalking had been captured on camera and put online today the robber would be nominated for a Darwin award.

The moral of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ seems to me that the traditional magic of the folktale that Ali Baba lucks into - the cave in the forest with a magic door opening onto great treasure - is matched on its own turf by the urbane, cosmopolitan market-craft of Morgiana the town dweller. Such a moral is quite in keeping with what we know of the author, Hanna Diyab, a Maronite Christian from Syria telling his tale in eigtheenth-century Paris, expressing the prejudices of an educated Aleppo merchant class who despise the illiterate peasant-bandits who rob their caravans - may boiling olive oil be poured on their miserable heads!

When we examine the chalk mark within the context of the story (as opposed to a detail abstracted from it) its significance is surely the very opposite of what Mill takes it to be. Revealing a stupidity in the making of his mark, the robber provides a model case, if you will, of how not to make a mark and, by analogy, how not to impose a name, proper or otherwise.

Unfulfulled Promise

When the robber puts the mark on the door in the story he is putting a mark, so to speak, on Ali Baba - the 40 Thieves are closing in on the man who burgled their cave. In the robber’s mind, however, Ali Baba remains a nameless thief. When Mill suggests that the chalk mark is like a proper name, a reader of the fairy story may be forgiven for imagining that he intends the chalk mark as a token of a nameless man, from out of which he will ingeniously pull a notion of his proper name. Actually, what Mill has in mind is that the robber is giving a proper name to the house.

It took me a long while to find my way into how Mill was reading the story. At first glance his suggestion that the robber is doing something like naming the house seemed as silly as the inference that, by writing a proper name on a piece of paper, I am so naming that piece of paper. On second glance it seemed too mundane a reading, as if Gandalf, in scratching a queer sign on the round door of a hobbit hole, is doing no more than naming the hole ‘Bag-end’. Nevertheless, Mill’s account of the robber’s intention is cogent and has the virtue of precisely formulating the robber’s action.

What Mill says is that the robber’s (sole) purpose is identifying the house on his return - to which end he alters its apperance by giving to it a distinguishing mark (A.i.). This is surely correct (just so long as we keep in mind what Mill abstracts from, namely that identification of the house is a means to the end of murdering the nameless thief who burgled the cave).

Once we accept Mill’s reading we can - at last - glimpse what he is trying to say. And his philosophical ideas are not without interest. For example, through the analogy he makes the subtle point that, just as the appearance of the house is altered by the chalk mark, so our idea of an object is altered by the imposition of a name. I’ll return to this point in the conclusion. What I want to observe here, however, is that not all professional philosophers have been able to keep the proper name of Ali Baba out of the picture:

Mill compares the imposition of a proper name to the marking of Ali Baba’s house by the robber in the ‘Arabian Nights.’ But the chalk-mark affixed to the house in order to distinguish it from the other houses in the row did not represent a mere ‘that.’ It was a sign which meant ‘The house of Ali Baba’, and to this extent it stood for and signified what was the object to which it was attached. It therefore cannot be regarded as ‘an unmeaning mark’. (W.R. Boyce Gibson, The Problem of Logic (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1908), pp. 81-2)

Boyce Gibson’s remark is barbarous nonsense, betraying ignorance of the niceties of the story. He declares that the robber’s chalk mark means ‘The house of Ali Baba’. But the mark is chalked on the door of the house of the late Cassim, whose widow and slave Morgiana still reside in it, while Ali Baba and his wife also moved in after the death of Cassim. Without inquiry into Arabian social custom (of the kind provided by William Lane and discussed in a later post), it is not possible for us to say for certain whose house this is; although after the death of Cassim, Ali Baba is perhaps, as they say in Hebrew, the baal ha’beit, the master of the house. Yet the comparative customs and legal systems of East and West, whilst illuminating the art of the storyteller - who knew just how to make an ‘Oriental story’ - are hardly here the point, which is that all these proper names are unknown to the robber, who has yet to make the acquaintance of the bearers of any of them and does not know the proper name of the man he is seeking. So in terms of his intentions, which is where Mill draws his analogy (B.i.), the robber cannot possibly have meant by his chalk mark: ‘This is the house of Ali Baba’.

And yet, his barbarous nonsense notwithstanding, Boyce Gibson does seem to share my sense that a reading of the chalk mark should really have something to say about Ali Baba (as also, I would add, about the fact that not even the cobbler knows who he is).

(Here, by the way, is where I suspect Tolkien came in, deeply immersed as he was with the reading of the Old English Beowulf, which begins its third part with the tale of a nameless thief who wakes a dragon’s wrath by stealing a cup from his treasure-filled barrow. From the point of view of both Smaug the Dragon and the 40 Thieves, both marks on the door designate a nameless burglar.)

The Sight of Sound

So bound up is Mill with the terms of the problem he sets himself, imagining a mark he might make on a house he actually walks past so as to illustrate his idea of a mark with no meaning, that it does not seem to occur to him that a visible mark is also a sign. The distinction he is working with is teased out of the sonorous definition of a name given by the English Civil War philosopher Thomas Hobbes, which Mill quotes at the opening of his chapter ‘On Names’.

‘A name,’ says Hobbes, ‘is a word taken at pleasure to serve for a mark, which may raise in our mind a thought like to some thought we had before, and which pronounced to others, may be to them a sign of what the speaker had before in his mind’. (Logic, 1846 edition, p. 16)

Mill commends this simple definition of a name as a word that serves (as he puts it) “the double purpose, of a mark to recall to ourselves the likeness of a former thought, and a sign to make it known to others”. When he writes a few pages later of the “purpose” of the chalk mark and then frames the act of naming in terms of himself marking a London house so to recognize it again, he is framing the former purpose. Mill so takes the chalk mark as a visible manifestation of a mental mark without appearing to consider what it means that it is - simply by virtue of being public - also a sign.

Mill’s conviction that the purpose of the chalk is to make a mark rather than a sign is read into not out of the text of the story:

Avant de lui ôter le mouchoir de devant les yeux, le voleur fit prom ptement une marque à la porte avec de la craie qu’il tenoit prête ; et quand il le lui eut ôté, il lui demanda s’il savoit à qui appartenoit la maison?

Before taking the handkerchief off the old man’s eyes, the thief carefully marked the door with a piece of chalk, which he had ready in his hand, and then asked if he knew whose house that was…

The storyteller does not say the robber’s intention - maybe he had in mind that the chalk mark would serve as a sign to the other 39 Thieves? Nevertheless, I think Mill on the right track. At the least, his reading underlines the stupidity of the maker of the mark: the robber makes a private thought public, Morgiana sees it, and he loses his head. But by setting up his analogy he re-enacts this stupidity, opening the door to any reader to throw a spanner in his works by turning his psychological image of a proper name into a contested exhibit in a discussion of systems of writing. Here is the earliest printed rejoinder to Mill that I have found:

This example proves exactly the opposite of what Mr. Mill lays down. The robber did not mark the house for future identification, as a police official numbers the houses in a new street; on the contrary, when he marked it his concept of it was, that it was the house where the cobbler had sewn together the four quarters of a man, and to him that attribute of the house was connoted by the mark. The mark was a stenographic sign or cypher for that many-worded name. (Thomas Shedden, Elements of Logic, London: Longman, Green, 1864, p. 17. Cf. Latham.)

(Shedden’s reading is constrained by Mill’s framing of the chalk mark: Shedden reads the concept only in terms of the robber’s conversation in town, not of the mission his Chief entrusted him with. If we follow Shedden’s road all the way to the cave (as a philosopher should), the concept in the mind of the robber is surely the many-worded name here-is-the-abode-of-the-nameless-man-who-burgled-our-cave or, more colloquially, the single-word name, of which the chalk mark is a cypher, burglar.)

Shedden’s argument is foreshadowed in the writing of James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, on whom Hobbes’ subtle distinction between signs and marks was quite lost. In ‘Naming’, the fourth chapter of his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829), James Mill gives a general account of language as “the great business of marking”. Beginning with the idea of a noun as a simple mark, and silent as to any meaningless marks, he gives us verbs and adjectives as “marks put on marks”, and then turns to writing. James Mill sets down that alphabetical writing, in which the letters are marks of the spoken sounds, is a deployment of “secondary marks”, while the spoken words are the “primary marks” of the inner mental idea. Accepting his usage of mark, this distinction between alphabetical script and spoken words makes sense. However, he also mentions a different system of writing, namely hieroglyphics, in which the figure stands directly for the mental mark, as does the spoken word. Because he deems hieroglyphs primitive and unworthy of consideration, James Mill does not bother to classify them in relation to either primary or secondary marks. These unclassified marks are a problem for his son, whose whole argument that the chalk mark is a meaningless mark is undermined by the undeniable - if unverifiable - possibility that the chalk mark is not a meaningless mark but a cypher or hieroglyph.

As a matter of fact, and as I’ll outline in another post, the two or three printed sources of the Victorian era that concern the marking of doors and houses all read such marks as hieroglyphs and secret cyphers (said to be employed by Oriental lovers and tinkers who sell buttons at your door). The Bible, however, tells other stories.

A philosophical analogy should illuminate, but Mill’s lands him in ambiguity. He strangely fails to consider that declaring the chalk mark ‘meaningless’ may sidestep but does not refute the reading of it as a secret sign - a reading perhaps invited by the Oriental flavour of the story. An analogy that should illuminate the mind by a simple picture draws a distracting inquiry into the place of a meaningless mark in the evolution of writing.

A Conclusion

At the end of the day, nothing can be said in mitigation of my first criticism - the robber is a numbskull, a bad model for a namer. Indeed, I feel in my bones that Mill knew in his heart that Morgiana should have supplied his model - but her mischief did not quite fit his purposes. I think Tolkien had the right of it when (wittingly or not) he suggests that, if you want to see a mark working (as well as the mischief they can make), a different story may be called for. The only question here, and it is a real question, is how Mill could have been so unwitting a wanderer in a fairy story as to put himself into the shoes of an idiot who loses his head?

As for my third criticism, the lesson seems straightforward. Most of the commentary on Mill’s passage that I have dug up, at least that which mentions the chalk mark, follows Shedden in reading it (only) as a sign, thereby disposing of it without actually considering Mill’s suggestion that it is an image of a meaningless mark in the mind. But the ambiguity that allows these arguments about signs need not shut down Mill’s strange vision of a mental mark chalked on a house in town - a queer imagination, and perhaps for that reason alone worth pursuing.

What of my complaint that reading the chalk mark as the proper name of the house rather misses the point of the story? My charge of unfulfilled promise has a philosophical postscript. In the early twentieth century, four decades of teaching Mill’s Logic at the University of Cambridge culminated in a professional restatement of the logical account of proper names. This was given by Mill’s godson Bertrand Russell, who did not promise more than he delivered, and delivered hardly anything at all.

A name, in the narrow logical sense of a word whose meaning is a particular, can only be applied to a particular with which the speaker is acquainted, because you cannot name anything you are not acquainted with. You remember, when Adam named the beasts, they came before him one by one, and he became acquainted with them and named them. We are not acquainted with Socrates, and therefore cannot name him. (Russell, ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’, 1918)

The argument flaws most of the discussion of proper names that surrounds Mill’s analogy. For example, Mill had no more made the acquaintance of Sophroniscus and Socrates than we him and his father. Russell suggests that when we use such so-called ‘proper names’ we really mean some identifying description. To give a homely example, a hobbit who had never met the wizard but said Gandalf might mean: “the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs” or “the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks!” Henceforth, when the logician pronounced upon (logical) proper names there was no pretense that what was said had anything to do with the proper names borne by the likes of you, myself, Ali Baba, and Bilbo Baggins.

Interestingly, Russell’s argument does not flaw Mill’s analogy. Indeed, it begins to make sense of Mill’s stilted reading of the chalking as naming the house and not the person. In fact, Russell’s point is indicated at the very tail of our passage, the concluding section of which I now give (with my emphasis):

(B.ii.) A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object. Not being attached to the thing itself, it does not enable us, as the chalk did, to distinguish the object when we see it; but it enables us to distinguish it when it is spoken of, either in the records of our own experience, or in the discourse of others; to know that what we find asserted in any proposition of which it is the subject, is asserted of the individual thing with which we were previously acquainted.

So, what if we were not previously acquainted with the object? Mill leaves a red thread dangling from his account of proper names, which Russell pulls to unravel Mill’s claim that what holds for a robber, a piece of chalk, and a house holds also when he talks about Sophroniscus, Socrates, and John Nokes. And yet pulling the red thread does not unravel the analogy, which comes into view as tailor made to illustrate Russell’s point.

A distinctive feature of Mill’s analogy is that it concerns not the use of a word but its imposition. For a long time I wondered why this was so. The answer seems to be that, while the point of a name is that it can be used at a distance, imposition revals the underlying relationship of name to object (as Mill conceives it). For both Russell and Mill (if only in his analogy), we find a picture of a name as a relationship between a mind, an object, and a mark, and though for Mill what is marked is the idea of the object, it is marked with the object itself before the eyes.

This is what is pictured in Mill’s analogy: an individual first makes the acquaintance of an object and, deeming that object naked, unadorned, and nameless, then negates these attributes by marking his idea of this object.

Before taking the handkerchief off the old man’s eyes, the thief carefully marked the door with a piece of chalk, which he had ready in his hand, and then asked if he knew whose house that was…

We have already seen that Mill reads a private purpose into this sentence (which is also supported by the fact that the robber makes the mark before he removes the blindfold from his guide). I now tease out the moment of acquaintance: As he walks with the blindfolded cobbler, the robber has already formed his intention of marking the house they arrive at - he has the chalk ready in his hand. The interval in which the cobbler has come to a halt but remains in the dark suffices for the robber to make his mark, but within this interval is a first moment when the robber apprehends the naked house. This interval within an interval is sufficient, for Mill as for Russell, for acquaintanceship to be made. Now, and only now, is the ground prepared for the act of imposition of a mark - be it on idea or object itself.

Mill’s vision of a meaningless mark comes into view when we compare the ideas of the object before and after the act of naming - the idea is changed by the mark, only the difference appears to be meaningless… Yet a marked idea indicates an individual released from the prison of the nameless or (depending on one’s point of view) colonized by a naming mind. The mark on the idea tells the thinker that this individual object has, so to speak, been domesticated.

(What would we make, one might ask, of someone with a magic ring of invisibility in his pocket? Like a good burglar, he might be impossible to name, if he wished not to make our acquaintance. But this entrance of the nameless into the realm of the named is another story.)

This philosophical postscript points to a mistake I have made in my attempt to read Mill’s analogy, namely: construction of a picture by abstraction of a detail from its context. In the first instance, Russell’s criticism suggests that Mill’s analogy is not an illustration of his model of a name but the model itself - a picture (like that Rusell drew out of Genesis) of a sequence involving mind, object, and mark. In the second, it indicates that this model is not consistently applied in the surrounding discussion of proper names, is not in harmony with its immediate context. But once this is recognized the question arises: well, in what ways is the picture in harmony with the less immediate context of Mill’s thought?

Just as the robber on Mill’s reading is so wrapped up in his own private purpose that he does not consider his wider surrounding, and just as Mill reads the intention of the robber solely in terms of recognizing the house again and not at all in terms of the wider story, so I have failed to consider how the analogy might read from Mill’s point of view.

Suffice it here to note two elements of this wider context. Firstly, Mill’s Logic was intended to ground the methods of scientific inference. Secondly, some 15 or so pages after the analogy, and in the same chapter ‘On Names’, Mill explains in what way bodies are nameable things. According to the best opinion, he explains, bodies are the hidden cause of sensations (pp.38-41), which is to say that inferences, many habitual and below the threshold of our awareness, stand behind our vision of a body. For example, and as Mill argued in a periodical review of 1842, while “the distance of an object from us is really a matter of judgment and inference, we cannot help fancying that we see it directly with our eyes” (Mill CW, 11: 29). In other words, the moment of acquaintance with a naked, unnamed object (say, a house), which is the precondition of naming, is itself dependent upon mental inference.

This context is already sufficient to illuminate how Mill makes his analogy from the story. Recall that the sentence of the story that tells of the mark concludes the evocative image of the journey of unknowing robber and his half-knowing and blindfolded guide, each leading the other, to the house - which the robber then marks. Mill’s psychological theory of inference, which may be habitual and unconscious as well as a machinery of scientific thought established by the Logic suggests to me that when he composed his analogy he had in mind also this queer journey, which he took as a metaphor for the work of the mind in assembling a clear vision of a house (a body, or object, that is in reality hidden to him) out of a stream of sensations. This is my guess, because of course Mill in his analogy puts himself into the shoes of a robber who has already seen the house and now acts to recognize it again.

Another way of putting this is to consider Mill walking down the street thinking about nameable things. The bodies he passes he deems the cause of his sensations, but his vision of these bodies he knows to be in part a work of his own rapid mental inferences. He would not deny that these other bodies likely also contain minds, but his sole attention is paid to the working of his own mind in relation to the raw sensations given to it through his senses. His definitions of the nameable things Body and Mind thus concern, respectively, the bodies of others that he infers cause his sensations but are hidden to him, and his own mind. Like the occupant of the house he imagines himself marking, the minds within other bodies are of no concern to him.

When we so read the analogy in this context, we see that Mill is not denying that the chalk mark might in some way point to Ali Baba - rather, he is simply unconcerned with the body in the house. Inference to an object, in this case a house, and naming of that object is sufficient, for the sequence would be the same were the object a house or a passerby.

So, I’m reading two silences differently. On the one hand, though Mill jumps into the story only once the robber stands before the house, I’m suggesting that Mill liked this story-detail especially because of the dream-journey of robber and blindfolded cobbler, which was for him a metaphor of the inferences that gave rise to his acquaintanceship with a body. On the other hand, he is silent about any relationship between the chalk mark and the peson of Ali Baba because he has no interest in hidden causes that are not bodies, and so the house will do as well as the person.

This second feature of Mill’s empiricist philosphy results in his simply stopping his reading of the chalk mark at the house, which makes much mischief for readers because what he presents is a truncated account of the story that thereby distorts the original.

If his being a philosopher explains his truncated reading of the story, which stops with the mark on the house and is silent as to any further possible inference as to the occupant within, it also invites some self-criticism. Specifically, my third criticism, while valid, nevertheless overlooks Mill’s intentions.

Mill does not point out that the private mark of the robber is also a sign, nor that this is a blunder by the robber. That Mill does not say this is a blunder also on his part, because it invites a digression on signs. Nevertheless, Mill is aware that this chalk mark is also a sign, e.g. to Morgiana (a sign of unspecified mischief). What has looked to me a failure to distinguish mark and sign is actually something else. Taking his father’s analysis of the human mind as given, Mill uses this psychological foundation to commence his study of logic by showing the private, mental origin or foundation of public language.

Mill pictures naming as a private communication between an individual mind and a nameless object with which it has become acquainted - no other minds need be present, and the marks are in the first instance purely private. Criticism of my third criticism brings into view an intellectual faultline that separates Mill from us. Simply put, his very idea that a public sign is in origin a private mental mark is almost unfathomable to me. But fathom it I must if I am to understand (and not simply criticize) Mill’s vision of the chalk mark.

The great challenge here is to re-enact Mill’s thinking, as he attempted to do the robber, without thereby making the same stupid mistake a third time!