In an essay at The New York Review of Books, writer Perry Link questions whether Western languages’ emphasis on using nouns over using verbs perhaps contributes to, or even creates, philosophical problems.
Link begins by explaining that:
Indo-European languages tend to prefer nouns, even when talking about things for which verbs might seem more appropriate. The English noun inflation, for example, refers to complex processes that were not a “thing” until language made them so. Things like inflation can even become animate, as when we say “we need to combat inflation” or “inflation is killing us at the check-out counter.” Modern cognitive linguists like George Lakoff at Berkeley call inflation an “ontological metaphor.” (The inflation example is Lakoff’s.)
When I studied Chinese, though, I began to notice a preference for verbs. Modern Chinese does use ontological metaphors, such as fāzhăn (literally “emit and unfold”) to mean “development” or xὶnxīn (“believe mind”) for “confidence.” But these are modern words that derive from Western languages (mostly via Japanese) and carry a Western flavor with them. “I firmly believe that…” is a natural phrase in Chinese; you can also say “I have a lot of confidence that…” but the use of a noun in such a phrase is a borrowing from the West.
Link points out that how we talk about things can shape our thinking. If we label something with a noun, that might lend some sort of existence to that something:
Ancient Chinese philosophers did discuss “being,” but to do it they used the words you, “there is,” and wu, “there is not,” both of which are fundamentally verbs. By contrast ancient Greek thinkers often conceived their puzzles in terms of nouns: What is “justice”? “Beauty”? “The good”? And so on.
I wanted to see whether “assuming that things exist just because nouns that refer to them exist” might cause problems for serious Western philosophers. I read Colin McGinn’s book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World about the “mind-body problem”—which, briefly put, is the problem of how “mental substance” and “physical substance” can affect each other. Although a major problem in Western philosophy since Descartes, the question has scarcely been noticed in the history of Chinese philosophy. I much admire McGinn’s writing; I chose him purposefully as a powerful representative for the West.
At one point in his book, McGinn focuses on the curious fact that our perceptions of the world are often perceptions of things in space, and yet the perceptions themselves occupy no space. He writes:
Consider the visual experience of seeing a red sphere two feet away with a six-inch diameter. The object of this experience is of course a spatial object with spatial properties, but the experience itself does not have these properties: it is not two feet away from you and six inches in diameter. …When we reflect on the experience itself, we can see that it lacks spatial properties altogether.
For me, the crucial phrase here is “the experience itself.” Is there such a thing? The noun “experience” exists, but that is not the question. Does the experience exist? We might feel intuitively that it does. But does that intuition arise, in part, from the grammatical habit of using nouns like “experience” and assuming that they refer to things? Classical Chinese poets see, hear, and feel in all sorts of ways—they have no trouble “experiencing.” But they find no need to talk about “experience” as a noun. The modern Chinese word jīngyàn, “experience,” was invented to accommodate Western language.
Link also points out something that I’m often arguing to my students, that numbers and ideas — “mental things” — don’t need to exist:
McGinn goes on to point out that numbers, like the experience of red spots, do not occupy space. “We cannot sensibly ask how much space the number 2 takes up relative to the number 37,” he writes. “It is hardly true that the bigger the number the more space it occupies.” Then he writes:
To attribute spatial properties to numbers is an instance of what philosophers call a category-mistake, trying to talk about something as if it belonged to a category it does not belong to. Only concrete things have spatial properties, not abstract things like numbers or mental things like experiences of red.
In my imagination an ancient Chinese philosopher might well accept McGinn’s point, but then ask him: why do you talk about “mental things”? Is that not also a category-mistake? If I see a red spot, do I not simply see a red spot? The red spot, yes, is a thing, but “I see” is not a thing. I see is I see. If you change it into “my sight” or “my experience of seeing,” you are performing a grammatical act, but that grammatical act has no power to change the way the world is. Your perplexity about how two “things” relate comes only from your grammar.
Link concludes thus, focusing on language contexts of philosophical problems:
Once one enters an Indo-European language, the mind-body problem indeed is hard, and I had not been trying to solve it on that turf. At most, I have discovered only a question: are people who think in Indo-European languages better off because their languages lead them to clear conceptualization of an important puzzle, or are thinkers in Chinese better off because their language gets them through life equally well without the puzzle?
After reading this, I wonder whether Link’s point applies not just to philosophy but also to Buddhist ideas about seeing what things are real.
It makes sense the language of the thoughts limits the thoughts themselves. In a language without corners, it’s hard to think in spheres.
That being said, I’d argue the English we speak now is not like any language spoken in Descartes’s time–not French, not Spanish, not English even.
These are new times. New times indeed. I argue that reality itself has shifted. The spectrum has been stretched. Or, at the very least, more points of possibility have been revealed. It requires new language and new thought.
It would be disappointing if in 4,000 years from now, people still referred to Buddhists and the Greeks as the heights of all philosophy.
Are we so blind the foresight of the ancients betters our eyes? Do they really describe our reality better than we do, despite the fact this is an utterly different world?
Intriguing comment — I wonder how you’d describe the differences between English now and English 400 years ago. No doubt we have some different words, but the fact that we can still read Shakespeare suggests that not all that much in the language itself has changed. Or are you suggesting we use the language for different purposes now?
And I also wonder in what fundamental ways the “new times” are different from the old. I like the part about “more points of possibility,” if it refers, as I think it does, to the fact that more people from more backgrounds and cultures are allowed to contribute to the overall culture. But most of these new perspectives still lie within the framework of English terms, English grammar, English sentence structure, etc., so if language shapes perception and thought, then we aren’t all that different from Descartes et al.
For the purposes of brevity…I’ll be brief.
I could spend a lifetime exploring this topic, and I probably should. After writing thousands of words, though, I figured I need get more organized. It’s not fair to BLEH! my disorderly thoughts all over your comment section. I will have to think longer and deeper before I can respond with something succinct and persuasive.