Michelangelo's Finger, By Raymond Tallis

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The Independent Culture

Raymond Tallis is that rare thing: a genuine polymath. A former GP and specialist in gerontological medicine, he is also a highly regarded poet and literary critic. Michelangelo's Finger, his latest book, is an elegant philosophical essay that argues for the "supreme importance" of an apparent trifle: the peculiar movement of the human index finger in the act of pointing.

Pointing is the key to what Tallis calls "everyday transcendence"; it reveals an awareness of something beyond the circumstances of human beings' immediate sensory experience, setting us apart from other animal species. (Not even chimpanzees point.)

He explores the role of pointing in language acquisition, and examines how other thinkers have treated the significance of the hand in human cognition, quoting Wittgenstein and Heidegger with authority.

The tone can be a little self-satisfied, and Tallis's fondness for puns – "pointing points to something deep in us"; animals "don't get the point" – becomes tiresome. But this is, for the most part, a diverting and enjoyable book, carried along by the author's amiable wit and endless intellectual curiosity.