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1st September 2006 | Draft

Handing Over

Handy metaphors for the communication of intent

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Abdication of responsibility: Disassociation and abandonment?
Proportion: Disproportion vs Appropriateness?
Transparency: Deceptiveness vs Openness?
Judgement and Culpability?
Involvement: Disengagement vs Engagement?
Justice: Unfairness vs Fairness?
Possession: Distribution vs Recuperation?
Application: Incompetence vs Competence?
Relationships: Conflict vs Care?
Transference and Transmission?
Mudras: an embodied pattern language for sustainability?
Finger signs and finger notation


It is curious how many processes within the international community are associated with the hand, gestures of the hand, or associated metaphors. Especially problematic is the combination of:

In discussing hand etymology, the Electronic Textbook of Hand Surgery notes that:

Words relating to hands are intertwined with an extraordinary number of phrases and descriptions in the English language. This makes it difficult to search the internet for hand related topics - a search for "hand" also retrieves handicap, handmade, handy, handbook, etc. The same ubiquitous multifaceted presence in English is true for each of these words: finger, thumb, nail, palm, hand, wrist, elbow.

The special interest of metaphorical use of the hand is the key role that it plays as an operational interface with reality (a perspective echoed in Hindu and Buddhist understandings of mudras). Metaphorically its uses explored below offer a unique sense of existential immediacy and intimacy (as familiar as the back of the hand) -- emulated to some degree by the widespread use of "virtual hands" in software applications. The experience of the subject, as controller and coordinator of the hands, is thereby centrally positioned in the moment.

This period is characterized by widespread conflict over geographical territory and zones of influence, as well as with respect to the territories of schools of thought and belief -- typically associated with various efforts to occupy the moral high ground. Of particular relevance is the tendency to grasp -- to "get one's hands on" -- the territory occupied by others, and then to be unable to hand it over, or hand it back, under appropriate circumstances. The action of the hands in grasping and failing to let go -- essential to the ability of humanity's ancestors to move through the trees -- offers an ideal simple model of the mental challenges of attachment and detachment necessary for humanity's ability to evolve any further..

Abdication of responsibility: Disassociation and abandonment?

The following two cases are illustrative of the ("buck passing") tendency to hand over responsibility to others, whether unnamed or unmandated -- otherwise termed the abdication of responsibility.

Recent examples of abdication of responsibility include Hurricane Katrina (cf Katrina: an abdication of responsibility, 2 September 2005), Dafur, and the Middle East conflict (cf Lebanon: the world dithers, Guardian, 18 July 2006; modified in the online edition to read "the world looks on"). Both hand-washing and hand-wringing tend to be accompanied by unctuous appeals for action by others made by those claiming moral authority.

Proportion: Disproportion vs Appropriateness?

Emphasis may be placed on contrasting responses to a problematic situation:

Transparency: Deceptiveness vs Openness?

Emphasis may be placed on the degree of transparency evident in any relationship or transaction:

Invisible hand: As a contrast to both the above, emphasis may be placed on an invisible or hidden hand, in three potentially benign variants:

In all such cases, any theories as to the operation of "the hand" rely more on hearsay, or an act of faith, rather than on rational explanation. Again responsibility is handed over to an intangible power.

Judgement and Culpability?

Beyond deception, as indicated in the case of under-handedness, notions of culpability and malicious intent may also be indicated through metaphors of the hand.

The use of "hand" has been important in naming covert terrorist organizations, possibly as an extension of its use in connection with "invisible hand":

Variant forms of culpability, and responses to it, are indicated by other uses of "hand":

Judgement of culpability or approval may be expressed through phrases such as thumbs down or thumbs up.

Involvement: Disengagement vs Engagement?

Extensive use is made of the distinction between "hands on" and "hands off" as an indication of degrees of involvement or detachment:

Emphasis may be placed on the "hands" currently responsible for a situation as in:

Especially controversial uses are to be seen in the following distinction, especially when the first is deliberately confused with the second (in so-called grooming processes):

Other symbolic uses of "hand" may be used to affirm or confirm a degree of engagement:

It is appropriate to note two quite distinct uses of "hand" that are considered symbolic of a form of disengagement:

Justice: Unfairness vs Fairness?

The pair of hands is variously used as a figurative indication of balance or justice, or their absence. This is most evident in the use of the term even-handed as an indication of appropriate balance -- implying justice dictated by reason, conscience, and a natural sense of what is fair to all.

In presenting significantly distinct alternatives, much use is made of "on the one hand", but "on the other hand". This is the subject of a well-known joke:

President Harry S. Truman once said he wanted an economist who was one-handed.  Why?  Because his economic advisors would typically give him economic advice stating, "On the one hand….And on the other...." (cf Jeff Thredgold, On the One Hand: The Economist's Joke Book)

As a substitute for "on the third hand", computer hackers may use the expression "on the gripping hand" -- a phrase derived from a well-known science fiction story.

In contrast use is made of cultural prejudices distinguishing the two hands:

A particular sense of unfairness is indicated by figurative use of the phrases:

Possession: Distribution vs Recuperation?

The ability of the hands to give and take is extensively used in a figurative sense:

Strategic initiatives may be designed in terms of getting hands on resources, as noted by Andrew Lawless (The Smoking Gun? Oil in Iraq as a motive for war, Three Monkeys Online, May 2004):

This level of profit brings out gigantic corporate greed. The companies are ready to go to virtually any lengths to get their hands on these resources.

Different connotations are associated with actual possession of an object:

Change of possession may be described as changing hands (cf Power changes hands in Italy, Guardian, 12 April 2006), whereas the locus of control may be defined in terms of having the whip hand (cf Whip hand, Guardian, 8 April 2006)

Ability to actually achieve or retain possession of an object may of course be severely constrained in the case of the handicapped with their inherent disadvantages. The appreciation of the object possessed or "handed out" (and of any associated act of charity) may be conditioned by whether it is second hand, namely pre-owned.

Application: Incompetence vs Competence?

Given the role played by the hands in tool-making, figurative use of "hand" is made with reference to the skill in performing a task:

Whether deliberately or inadvertently, with or without skill, situations may be significantly mishandled (cf Scott Atran, Mishandling Suicide Terrorism, The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2004; Laurie Mylroie, Mishandling Terrorism: the law-enforcement mistake, National Review Online, 23 January 2004)

Various expressions may be used to indicate application to a task:

Relationships: Conflict vs Care?

Given the role of the hands both in fighting and in protective care, their figurative use is not surprising

By contrast, the "hand" is also used as a figurative indication of care:

Such care may be extended to a description of collaboration:

As an exemplification of relationship, unquestionable agreement may be expressed with use of the phrase hands down -- in contrast to hands up as a symbol of disagreement and perceived threat. Also of interest is the suppression of meaningfully dynamic relationships under the influence of a dead hand -- whether an authority, tradition, or the past. A curious associated use mortmain (from Old French morte meyn, literally "dead hand") refers to land held by something other than a physical person (such as a corporation, church or foundation) implying an ownership free from the vicissitudes and limited duration of ownership by natural persons.


Given the emphasis in this exploration on the role of metaphorical use of the hand for the communication of intent, it is somewhat ironic that "handy" is a German pseudo-anglicism for a mobile phone.

The above examples all serve to demonstrate the intimate relationship between the physical uses of the hands in daily life and their cognitive significance in handling reality. Such a readily accessible link -- and handy reminder -- is consistent with recent work on the fundamental implications of metaphor (cf George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy In The Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought, 1999; Francisco Varela, et al. The Embodied Mind: cognitive science and human experience, 1991; D. McNeill, What Gestures Reveal about Human Thought, 1992; Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature -- a necessary unity, 1979).

Transference and Transmission?

Given the tendency to grasp and retain possession, notably signified by use of the hand, of particular interest is the manner of letting go -- or ensuring that possession is appropriately transferred to another, or effectively used by oneself. A traditional image is that of the monkey with its hand grasped around a desired object inside a jar, and unable to get the hand out with letting go of the "prize". Such possession may relate as much to tangible objects as to intellectual property, knowledge and know-how, mindsets or the upholding of values.

In both cases there is a degree of concern for the proper communication of intent -- whether that intent is finally respected or not. This concern is reflected in the significance attached to gestures of the hand in various religions. As noted by Weston La Barre, these range from the gestural system developed by the monks in Benedictine Monasteries (while practicing silent asceticism) to the sign language of Australian aborigines..

Mudras: an embodied pattern language for sustainability?

Use of the hands for communication is perhaps most notable in the mudras common to Hinduism and Buddhism -- and their variants across South-East Asia. Specific positionings of the fingers in one or both hands are there notably considered as a means to maintain the natural order and healthy distribution of the traditional "five elements" (pancha tatvas). Any disturbance, disorder or deficiency in these elements, or the consequent disease or imbalance, could thereby be rectified and cured by appropriate practice of suitable mudras (cf Some Yoga Mudras for Balancing the Five Vital Elements; Emma I. Gonikman, Taoist Healing Gestures for Self-Therapy, 2003). Ritual gestures are believed to engender a reaction in the mind of the practioner, evoking powers of a higher order in order to intensify concentration.

This points to the possibility of using a set of familar hand-related metaphors as a means of communicating a systemic sense of sustainability and its challenges -- with implications both at the individual and the collective level (cf Psychology of Sustainability: Embodying cyclic environmental processes, 2002). Metaphorically, the set of mudras is then effectively a set of "hand models" -- a personalized (and embodied) micro-mapping of sustainable system dynamics.

Mudras considered primary
(Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen )

Dhyani Mudra gesture of meditation
Vitarka Mudra teaching gesture
Dharmachakra Mudra gesture of turning the wheel of the teaching
Bhumisparsha Mudra gesture of touching the earth
Abhaya Mudra gesture of fearlessness and granting protection
Varada Mudra gesture of granting wishes
Uttarabodhi Mudra gesture of supreme enlightenment
Mudra of Supreme Wisdom  
Anjali Mudra gesture of greeting and veneration
Vajrapradama Mudra gesture of unshakable confidence

The popularity of any particular mudra tends to be region-specific. For example, the Vajra (or Chi Ken-in) mudra is popular in Japan and Korea but rarely seen in India; the Varada (Wish Granting) mudra is common among standing statues of the Buddha, particularly when coupled with the Abhaya (Fearlessness and Protection) mudra.

A traditional Kerala text, Hastha Lakshana Deepika, recognizes 24 basic mudras (chatur vimsathi mudras) and over 300 combined gestures used in Kathakali -- a form of Indian dance-drama (cf G. Venu, The Language of Kathakali: notations of 874 hand gestures, 2000). This rich and intricate gesture language of mudras is considered equivalent to speech. It forms a complete vocabulary common to any story and which describes concrete objects, expresses an emotional situation, or relates an incident in simple words (Marg Kathakali: The Aesthetics of Communication, 14, 1; Subashini Pathmanathan, The role of Muthras in Indian dances, 2004). The gesture language not only serves the purpose of communication, but also imaginatively interprets poetic meanings, sentiments and dramatic actions; it is believed to offer a mirror of the life, moods and passions of the gods and demons conceived in the human image [more | more]

There is an interesting possibility of a close relationship between the set of mudras (based on subsets of the 10 digits at the origin of counting and mathematics), combinatorics and number theory -- notably in the light of the primary role played in number theory by the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Of particular interest is the probability with which the primary mudras are identified in relation to those of lower probability -- or the relationship between sequences of mudras and interesting mathematical series of numbers. This suggests the possibility of a theoretical model of gestural communication as a structured coding system for insight. One approach to elaborating such a coding system for gestures is through the mathematical theory of permutations and combinations through which the number of subsets selectable from the configurations of a single hand can be calculated as: 1+10+10+5+1= 31.

Finger signs and finger notation

The relation between numbers and finger signs in many cultures is helpfully summarized by Claudia Zaslavsky (Excerpts from World Cultures in the Mathematics Class, International Study Group on Ethnomathematics (ISGEm) Newsletter, 6, 1, November 1990). Finger signs were necessarily vital to arithmetical calculation in antiquity -- from which the term "digits" derived (Eva Matthews Sanford, De Loquela Digitorum, The Classical Journal, 23, 8, May 1928, pp. 588-593) as well as finger notation (J. Hilton Turner, Roman Elementary Mathematics, The Classical Journal, 47, 2, Dec. 1951, pp. 63-74 and 106-108).

The transition to modern notation, the introduction to Europe of the Hindu Arabic positional decimal system for writing and manipulating numbers, as articulated in 1202 by Fibonacci (Laurence E Sigler, Fibonacci's Liber Abaci: a translation into modern English of Leonardo Pisano's Book of Calculations, 2002) and reviewed by Serafino Cuomo notes that:

Multiplication, and later division, require the "keeping in hand" of numbers (today's "carrying"); both come across as very physical operations involve memory, writing, and the fingers (which function as an extension of memory).... At the beginning Fibonacci refers to the subject at hand as a scientia, yet throughout the book he talks of ars. The scientia in question is in effect profoundly practical because it has to be achieved through exercise... "for science by practice turns into habit ; memory and even perception correlate with hands and figures, which as an impulse and breath in one and the same instant, almost the same, go naturally together for all; and thus will make a student of habit."

Given the possibility of extending the pattern language methodology of Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language,1977) to psychosocial patterns (cf 5-fold Pattern Language, 1984), the set of mudras is worth considering as a pattern language with the particular advantage of having been successfully adapted to popular dance and theatre -- itself associated with the dramatized martial art of Kalaripayattu in Kerala. Also of relevance is the two-person Pushing Hands variant of T'ai Chi Ch'uan and Pa Kua Chang, through which practitioners become acquainted with the principles of what are known as the "Eight Gates and Five Steps," enabling them to handle the variety of problematic situations involving an other. In the metaphysical vision of ancient Japanese esoteric Buddhism, mudras constitute the patterns of change, whereas mandalas define the essential structure (Thomas Kasulis, Japanese philosophy, 1998 Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In the rituals of Hinduism mudras are part of a system which employs both body and mind, and makes the former express and emphasize the intentions of the latter [more].

Also of potential interest is the relationship of mudras to "five-element theory" and practice (in China and Japan), as fundamental to an enhancing cycle, an exhaustive cycle, and a destroying cycle in feng shui, qi gong, medicine, acupuncture and the martial arts (cf The Book of Five Rings). It would be ironic if such five-foldness proved to be a cultural bridge between both seemingly disparate disciplines and between the seeming differences between East and West -- notably in the light of isomorphism between the hand, Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvium Man, and the problematic significance attached to the pentagram in esoteric traditions.

A number of these issues are brought together in an exploration by Dennis Goldwater (Evolution through the Dimensions of Time and Space, 1998-2005):

Our species understands the stages in the cycle of evolution as dimensions. Our species, with its 5 senses and its 5 fingers per hand, has evolved to the awareness of 5 dimensions of time and space.... The existence of each of the dimensions of time and space can be comprehended by the mind only in relation to a simultaneous awareness of the existence of a corresponding dimension of space or time. In other words, space and time are understood by the mind in terms of 5 dimensions, each of which is a dimension not of space alone or of time alone, but of space-time: We live in a world of awareness of 5 dimensions of space-time.

Because everything in nature follows the same cycle that is evolution, if we could discover any one avenue by which to better understand the stages in the cycle of evolution, we would better understand all manifestations of the cycle. I have developed an extremely simple, yet extremely powerful model of space and time, wherein I explore in detail two such avenues of understanding, the evolution of finger signs and the evolution of the languages of our species.

Finger signs are relationships among the fingers that mankind progressively recognized that enabled our species to become aware of and to symbolize the dimensions of space-time on the body. [emphasis added]

In his complementary exploration of language, Goldwater notes:

The grammar of Chinese guides its speakers to develop a single, unified model of nature, known as the Dao. The Dao is the Chinese model of the 5 stage cycle of evolution. Each of the stages of the Dao is explored in great detail, and is compared with the corresponding stage for the speakers of English. This includes the Chinese symbolism on the fingers of their awareness of space on the earth and time in the heavens (day, month, year) as their ancestors successively evolved to the awareness of each of the 5 dimensions in the cycle of evolution. The symbolism behind the concepts of the Dao, Yin and Yang, the Ba Gua, and the 5 Elements is discussed in great detail. [see also finger representation of Tao]


Hand gestures are of course a common support for dialogue -- and may even be a significant justification for face-to-face dialogue, especially as sign language between the hard-of-hearing. There is a strong case for reviewing which forms of interaction between people, or peoples, are conditioned by metaphors of the hand -- and which ones are not (and why). Given the challenges of meaningful communication in contemporary society, it is worth considering whether (in metaphorical terms) many are effectively "hard-of-hearing" and could indeed benefit from a sign language based more systematically on the hand.

The future of the planet is highly dependent on the ability of humanity to develop its skills in letting go and handing over -- in order to be able to hand down an enriched inheritance to future generations -- rather than an impoverished one (perhaps then to be described as a "pre-loved, hand-me-down planet" !). This skill is as necessary in relation to territory, to biodiversity and to cultural diversity, as it is in relation to acquired and traditional wisdom.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?
In a koan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the koan...
When one realizes ("makes real") this identity, then two hands have become one.
The practitioner becomes the koan that he or she is trying to understand.
That is the sound of one hand.

(G. Victor Sogen Hori, Translating the Zen Phrase Book, Nanzan Bulletin 23, 1999)


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