Tag Archives: verbs

Link: ‘The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?’

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.

Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

So many stories, fiction and non-, seem to take a moral stance, to teach a lesson, as if character or person gets what one deserves. But when my dad’s life story ends with his being killed as a passenger in a car accident, it doesn’t seem like there was anything he did to deserve that outcome. Perhaps what some stories teach is that the world is an arbitrary place. Perhaps what I learned from my dad’s story is that stories fail to explain real events. [17 August]

Why should I get the fun and satisfaction of writing and then hope/expect others to do the less-satisfying reading of what I’ve written? Maybe the reason one writes is just to write, and readers are missing out on that fun. And what if readers don’t want all the stories writers might want to tell them? [18 August]

Narratives could be conceived as a way of picking pieces out of experience in order to find a bigger pattern. But that pattern itself has little connection to physical reality, or perhaps there’s no connection. At its core, a narrative is a cause-effect relationship (an effect without a cause, like my Dad’s death by car accident, isn’t a satisfying story), but so many aspects of one’s life-experience aren’t cause-effect. [19 August]

In the first page or two of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the clause “[the] hill curves up.” But this is a metaphorical verb, because the hill isn’t doing anything. The only one doing anything is the human narrator whose mind is perceiving the a curve — which is a noun — but the mind interprets that visual as an action, “curving.” Perhaps many — or all? — verbs are metaphors, or are, at least, interpretations by the observer or storyteller. Even to say “See Dick run” is to gloss over the particular muscle contractions, body movements, and forward motions that are what running physically is. [19 August]

After school, as the cross-country squad at the school where I teach got on its bus to a meet, I heard the coach say to a student, “No, you can’t go with us ‘cuz you’re not on our team.” [19 August]

Reading parts of a Tomas Tranströmer poetry book (I think it was The Great Enigma), I’m almost a little angry that these poems are so vague and dull, going nowhere — maybe they sound cooler in Swedish and I can just blame the translator. But why would any poem need to be so ponderous? Why wait until there’s some intersect with Meaning to elevate some lived experience? Why not just write our concretenesses? At least Charles Olson’s “Maximus Volume 3” is weird. [20 Aug.]

To use (refer to, etc.) Hemingway as some ur-writer, as some model of The Writer, is to flatten down what he was into a role we in culture at large need to be filled. “Hemingway,” then, becomes a common shorthand (in that it may seem clever to use a particular name) for The Writer: the most-respected, well-known, etc., writer. I recently read someone say that something similar is happening to the reputation of David Foster Wallace, that who he was is losing nuance as his name starts to refer to him as an icon. [20 Aug.]

I don’t think the book I’m teaching to sophomores, Of Mice and Men, is racist and sexist — though of course, the racist and sexist words and descriptions the book uses to show certain characters’ racism and sexism are racist and sexist. But my question is, why make a book with such bad characters? Why would I want to spend time with these rude idiots? I suppose the book could be said to be depicting conditions of certain people in a particular setting, but how are readers to react to this? If a book is claiming that these particular characters represent people generally, that claim can’t be believed, and if a book is claiming that these particular characters are just reprehensible, then why would I bother? There’s no doubt ugliness and beauty that could be found anywhere, so why choose to prioritize the ugly? In other words, why would a read a book with a sad ending? I tend not to enjoy crying. [21 Aug.]

Of Mice and Men is like a snow globe: when we start reading, there’s a past already in place, then the author repeats it (Lennie grabbed a woman in Weed, then in the story he grabs Curley’s wife), like shaking a snow globe and letting the snow fall once again. It’s a closed world, with the setting of a ranch that seems closed off from the world once George and Lennie arrive. George reacts to what Lennie does, but never really tries to intervene to try to get Lennie some appropriate mental health treatment. So it seems that George and the other characters are content to let the set-up play itself out. And so it goes. Perhaps a fiction like this book recreates a scene so as to relive it, to study it, so as to make meaning? In real life, whenever I’ve had to make a tough decision, as George does at the end of Of Mice and Men, (though I’ll admit that I’ve decided to shoot a man in the back of the head), I don’t go back to dwell on that moment as being special. But I might tell a brief story about the decision afterward. [21 Aug.]

The value and fun of having one’s own ideas rather than reading someone else’s ideas! How strong and fresh seem the ideas we ourselves come up with! [21 Aug.]

I’m skeptical of any text assigned in a class. I feel a need to not-affirm, to question, any claim asserted by Of Mice and Men. Today I told my students that it’s a “weird book”: Curley’s keeping his hand soft for sexing up his wife, George praising whorehouses, Curley’s wife not even getting a name, Crooks being called the n-word, all these brusk, brute characters. I hope I’m teaching my students to be skeptical. It’s even valuable to be skeptical of my own ideas, as fun as it is to have new ideas. [21 Aug.]

Maybe it’s kinda weird that teachers direct students to read books that the students may not care about. I’ve told my students that we have to read the books in the curriculum, but that I hope my students question the claims that these assigned texts make. Maybe the skills students learn from analyzing literature can also be applied to analyzing any claims they hear in their lives. [24 Aug.]

I wouldn’t want Joan Didion’s career (not that anyone’s offering it to me). It’s lame to write about other people (and by “lame,” I don’t mean only “uncool,” but also “lame” in the sense of “not whole, not in working order”). All definitions of others, fiction or nonfiction, are, at least potentially, condescending — maybe in the basic idea of thinking that any person can be adequately represented by another person. Fiction writers can imagine and describe characters that are very unlike the writers themselves — but as a reader, I’m under no obligation to accept these characters as real or as representative of real people. Joan — well, all nonfiction writers who propose and try to defend theses, claims about the world, do something that may not need doing. Even scientists, who try to model the physical world in concepts, are doing something that seems too limited to me. Can’t there be a writing that’s not judged merely on the correspondence of its claims? Why does fiction, an endeavor defined as factually false, need to have realistic characters? Not all fiction is, of course, but why is “I don’t believe a real person would act like these characters” a legitimate criticism of fiction? Can there be fiction without characters acting like they have human consciousness? Or do we readers tend to equate willful agents with humans? A counter example would be the novel Wild Season, where animals are doing animal things rather than doing human things. [26 Aug. and 27 Aug.]

Why tell stories portraying other people (who aren’t like you) when you could tell your own stories with new forms? [27 Aug.]

There’s so much repetition in Of Mice and Men, as if Steinbeck were trying to teach something instead of just telling a story. Steinbeck is treating us as if we’re simple, or as if he’s giving us a speech and we’ll quickly forget what he’s said, with this repetition. Perhaps, like patterns in music, repetition (motifs, symbols, foreshadowing) in fiction is satisfying, but in this book, at least, it’s too simple to be deeply satisfying or intriguing. [27 Aug.]