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

Chinese Geography

Frank Jacobs at New York Times has a great blog post about the long-dispute border area where China, North Korea, and Russia meet.

As I was reading the account of how the current border where the three countries meet came to be, I was reminded several historical features of China’s geopolitical that compare unfavorably with the United States comparatively boring position on the glob.  With the constant chatter of China’s ascendancy as a great power, it may reassure the U.S. that China’s geographic position match with China’s stated medium-term military and security interests.  China has repeatedly avowed that they are concerned only with power in their East Asian neighborhood, and are not interested in global power projection.  Besides matching China’s current military capability, their geography shows why China probably does not covertly seek to project power outside of their Asian neighborhood.

First, the dispute between Russia and China over the border point where they meet with North Korea was only resolved in 1992.  Likewise, on the opposite side of China, India and Pakistan has a long-standing border dispute.  All of the border disputes along China’s periphery force China to focus their resources, both diplomatic and military, on securing their claims along their periphery. 

Moreover, over the course of history, China has had a series of invasions from its neighbors across its borders.  To name just one: the Mongol invasion that ended in 1278 is probably the most infamous, although the invaders were quickly sinicized, leading to the Yuan Dynasty that lasted a century.

Finally, China in the 21st century is sandwiched between two other great powers: India and Russia, to the south and north.  Two other nuclear powers lie to the east and west: Japan and Pakistan.  The shift of capital from the West to the East is fueled by many fast-growing industrial states.  The power shift follows the capital, because of the large number of already powerful states.  China, in the center of East Asia, benefits enormously from its economic ties to states across the region.  That this same geographic position that bolsters its commercial interests comes with the price of increased security concerns is predictable yet also potentially troublesome.  China borders four nuclear states with a fifth across the Sea of Japan.

This history contrasts sharply with the superior security geographic position the United States occupies.  The United States borders two countries in contrast to the fourteen that border China.  Likewise, neither has ever been a political rival or had aspirations to great power status.  Neither country can change its geographic position, so these characteristics are structural, and something to keep in the back of your head when discussing U.S.-Sino power relations.

Chinese Geography

Another World Food Crisis?

Maybe:

The United Nations’ food agency issued an alert on Tuesday warning that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades, for national security reasons. Any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher than the record levels recently reached.

My biggest concern is that such droughts could trigger another world food crisis.  Of course, you can’t evaluate how likely that scenario is, because there’s no mention of the food crisis of ’07 and ’08.  People in the U.S. are more or less completely oblivious that for most of the developing the world, economic catastrophe started before the ’08 financial crisis.  The ’07-’08 food crisis is one of the biggest unreported stories of our times.  That’s not going to change anytime soon with our current media.

Another World Food Crisis?

Brazil Interested in F-18 Aircraft for the São Paulo

The government of Brazil is contemplating the purchase of 28 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Aircraft, to upgrade the fleet on their aircraft carrier, the São Paulo. (Brazil bought the São Paulo from France in 2000.) I think strengthening the US-Brazilian bilateral relationship is important and military cooperation is a part of that, but I have to wonder if Sino-Brazilian military exercises on the carrier is going to affect whether this sale could get approved by the Pentagon. It seems the chances of the Chinese looking under the hood at US military technology to be pretty high if they are training on a carrier stocked full with F-18s.

Brazil Interested in F-18 Aircraft for the São Paulo