To Be Or Not To Be

One of the biggest benefits of learning another language is the strong realization that language might limit our ways of interpreting the world.  And that there certain ways of discussing the world or expressing oneself that may only be possible in certain languages and basically impossible in others (or the construction would be so stilted as to lose the original, intended meaning.)  A recent article in the New York Review of Books discusses how Indo-European language’s emphasis on nouns creates certain problems related to what things do and do not actually exist, while the Chinese language’s emphasis on verbs avoids those problems:

A deeper kind of worry about our fondness for nouns occurs to me: does it happen, perhaps, that speakers of English are drawn to believe that certain things exist because nouns that serve as their labels exist? Might it be only the labels that exist? I read the anthropologist Hoyt Alverson who, in a good book on how time is conceived in English, Chinese, Hindi, and Sesotho, writes that the “ontogeny” of time is indeterminate. He explains “ontogeny” as meaning the “character” of something’s “being.” We have, then, the proposition that the character of the being of time is indeterminate. Do the nouns in this proposition refer to things that exist? In addition to time, is there a “being” of time? And if there is, is that being the kind of thing that can possess something else, as here it is supposed to possess a “character”? These problems are by no means Alverson’s alone; he writes in a way that is common in English. In Chinese, though, it is almost impossibly awkward to say “the character of the being of time.” A literal translation is opaque and would signal to a Chinese speaker that “this phrase came out of a Western language and you might well go there to figure out what it is supposed to mean.” 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.

To Be Or Not To Be

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s