Category: Linguistics

LANGUAGE & ANARCHY IN THE DAODEJING

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Throughout the Daodejing there is a sustained suspicion of language.  Chad Hansen has even characterised this text as being fundamentally “anti-language.”  In describing the evolution of Daoism, Hansen suggests that “Since language is an instrument of social control, we should avoid it – and everything that goes with it.”  One point that Hansen is making here is well taken: “Trained discriminations are not a constantly reliable guide to behaviour.  Culturally motivated preferences based on those distinctions are, on the whole, unreliable.  And they control us in insidious, unnatural ways.”  But it might be a case of throwing out the baby with the befouled bathwater to extrapolate from the entirely reasonable claim about Laozi’s Daoism that “as anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority” and then to infer that this means “the way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language.”

While we might find a palpable irony in one of the world’s literary classics offering a critique of the language in which it is written, it is undeniably the case that a major theme of the Daodejing is that an uncritical use of language can lull us into a distorted understanding of the nature of the world in which we live.  That said, language also has an important function for Daoists who rely heavily upon oral transmission to pass on their ideas to subsequent generations.  Broadly speaking, in the absence of the divorce between philosophy and rhetoric that occurred in classical Greece, there is an appreciation in the classical Chinese tradition of performative and perlocutionary power of language that not only describes a word, but more importantly, commands a desired world into being.  The Daodejing is not an exception to this sensibility.

What then is the Daoist reticence in the use of language?  The Daodejing is not a discursive, expository Aristotelian treatise that, in a linear and sequential way, sets out to explain the way the world is.  Rather, it is a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition.  Michael LaFargue offers an alternative reading strategy for the Daodejing in suggesting that, rather than anticipating some literal, univocal interpretation for each passage, we ought to search the text empathetically for the point that it is trying to make relative to concrete life situations.  After all, even though empirically the claim that “a watched pot never boils” is demonstrably false, that does not diminish the saying’s psychological insight for those people who are given to watching pots.

The philosophical problem that provokes the Daoist mistrust of language lies in the possibility that a misunderstanding of the nature of language has the potential to promote the worst misconceptions about the flux and flow of experience in which we live our lives.  There is an obvious tension between the unrelenting processual nature of experience and the function of language to separate out, isolate and arrest elements within it.  To the extent that it is the nature of language to arrest the process of change and discipline it into a coherent, predictable order, there is the likelihood that an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character that it really is.

The assumption, for example, that there is a literal language behind the metaphorical can introduce notions of permanence, necessity, and objectivity into our worldview that can have deleterious consequences.  Corollary to such notions are dualistic categories, such as reality and appearance, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, reason and rhetoric, that encourage a finality and thus a kind of dogmatism in our judgements about the world.  Such assumptions in parsing our experience lead to the exclusionary prejudices familiar in foundational ways of thinking.

Of course, the alternative to this “myth of the given” foundationalism is not its twin: a divisive and intolerant relativism that promises a different yet equally final judgement for each discrete person or community.  In the Daoist processual worldview, there are not the gaps in experience that would permit either an exclusive foundationalism or an equally exclusive relativism.  The ethos of the world is not a given, but an ecological achievement that is increased or diminished by human participation and behaviour.  Morality, then, is an ongoing negotiation in which some consensual and thus appropriate good can be produced by considering the needs and possible contributions of all things concerned.

Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, A Philosophical translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant.

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LOGOS AND DAO: A NON-METAPHYSICAL INTERPRETATION

Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.

One may say that Heidegger was trying to think in a non-metaphysical way in reaction to the dominant metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy, but the fact that Zhuangzi was thinking in a non-metaphysical way did not arise out of a genuine need to overcome a metaphysical opponent. Both thinkers are after a way of thought that is squarely located in this world, opposed to dualism, and that has no need for metaphysical principles. Heidegger argues that Heraclitus was not a metaphysical thinker in the first place, since the particular form of metaphysics that we are discussing did not arise until Plato.

There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change.

Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signaling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. As Heidegger says: “Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being”. Both the Daoists and Heidegger are extremely aware of the shortcomings of their respective societies’ current views of language, and both try to redirect us toward a different understanding of language that would take us closer to our world.

Both Heidegger’s Heraclitus and Daoists, then, suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. Such a form of responsiveness that Heidegger and Zhuangzi proclaim is not devoid of meaning, but is ultimately a form of responsibility: to follow the injunctions to let things be as they inherently are.

There is no real creator entity in classical Chinese thought, and metaphysical notions of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’ are largely absent as well. The assumed equivalents you and wu rather mean ‘present’ and ‘absent’, or ‘having’ and ‘not-having’. Most of the classical Chinese assumptions fit in more with a process-oriented worldview than with one that is based on a metaphysical and onto-theological one. As such, we would be well off to be more careful when interpreting concepts such as dao in familiar metaphysical ways. Maybe a non-metaphysical reading is more relevant to classical Chinese philosophy, and such considerations can also lead us, like Heidegger, to reassess our own most important notions, like logos, and, equally important, might give us resources to understand better the Chinese philosophical tradition, which is generally conceived as non-metaphysical.

Burik, Steven.  Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation
(Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 23-41)
Read the whole article here

PHILOSOPHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS

We experience objects as colored in themselves, even though it is now known that they are not. The neural system responsible for the internal structure of our color categories also creates for us the experience of color.

We experience space as structured by image schemas (as having bounded regions, paths, centers and peripheries, objects with fronts and backs, regions above, below, and beside things). Yet we now know that space in itself has no such structure. The topographic maps of the visual field, the orientation-sensitive cells, and other highly structured neural systems in our brains not only create image-schematic concepts for us but also create the experience of space as structured according those image schemas.

We experience time in terms of motion and resources, even though neither of those is inherent in time itself. Our metaphors for conceptualizing time in terms of motion not only create a way to comprehend and reason about time in terms of motion but also lead us to experience time as flowing by, or ourselves as moving with respect to time.

We experience the imbalance of an unrighted wrong. Yet the notion of justice as Balance is not part of an objective universe. The Moral Accounting metaphor not only provides us a way to conceptualize justice in terms of balance but permits us to experience unrighted wrongs as imbalance and the righting of wrongs as recovery of balance.

Our experience of the world is not separate from our conceptualization of the world. Indeed, in many cases (by no means all!), the same hidden mechanisms that characterize our unconscious system of concepts also play a central role in creating our experience. This does not mean that all experience is conceptual (far from it!); nor does it mean that all concepts are created by hidden mechanisms that shape experience. However, there is an extensive and important overlap between those mechanisms that shape our concepts and those that shape our experience.

There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is.

We have evolved so that the hidden mechanisms of meaning produce a global experience for us that allows us to function well in the world. Our preponderance of commonplace basic experiences-with basic-level objects, basic spatial relations, basic colors, and basic actions leads us to the commonsense theory of meaning and truth, that the world really, objectively is as we experience it and conceptualize it to be. As we have seen, the commonsense theory works very well in ordinary simple cases precisely because of the nature of our embodiment and our imaginative capacities. It fails in cases where there are conflicting conceptualizations or worldviews, and such cases are quite common.

Because the mechanisms of conceptualization are hidden from us, those mechanisms are not included in our commonplace understanding of truth. But truth for a language user, in fact, is relative to our hidden mechanisms of embodied understanding.

A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be.

What the classical correspondence theory of truth misses is the role of human beings in producing the human notion of truth. Truth doesn’t exist without (1) beings with minds who conceptualize situations and (2) a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations. Those conceptualizations required to produce the very notion of truth are themselves produced by the hidden mechanisms of mind. To understand truth for a language user, one must make those mechanisms of conceptualization visible. That is one of the central enterprises of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.

This becomes especially clear in the case of metaphorical thought. The embodied correspondence theory of truth for language users allows us to understand what we ordinarily mean by truth in cases where metaphorical thought or a particular framing is used to conceptualize a situation. As we saw, when we conceptualize time as a resource-and live by this metaphor-then we experience time as limited resource that can be wasted or saved or squandered or used wisely. If we conceptualize a situation in terms of Time As A Resource, then it might be true that I wasted a lot of your time or that you squander your time, even though time independent of the metaphor is not in itself a resource.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

THE REMARKABLE CATEGORY OF BEING

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“Being” is, on the face of it, a very odd category indeed. In order for people to get along in life they need to be able to identify things like chairs, people, light switches, friendships, political institutions, and harmful objects. They also need to have a great deal of basic knowledge about these things, if they are going to survive and flourish. But it seems extremely odd to say that they need to identify and have knowledge of “Being.” And yet this is what metaphysics defines as our most noble philosophic task.

We have been suggesting that Being, like every other basic philosophic concept, is a human category, the very articulation of which depends on a cluster of common folk theories and conceptual metaphors. Being, regarded as the fundamental ontological category, emerged historically, as we have seen, in pre-Socratic philosophy and was given an elaborate articulation and refinement in Plato and Aristotle. We have argued that Aristotle was able to create the field of metaphysics only by adopting and adapting these shared folk theories and metaphors. The logic of Plato’s and Aristotle’s doctrines of Being, and indeed their entire philosophic positions, are significantly based on metaphorical concepts and are made possible by folk theoretical assumptions.

Many of these folk theories and conceptual metaphors are so deeply rooted in our Western philosophical tradition that they may seem to us not to be folk theories or metaphors at all. Many people, for instance, take it as a self-evident metaphysical fact that things consist of matter organized by form, or that everything has an essence that makes it the kind of thing it is, or that reality is organized in a hierarchy of categories, with the category of everything that exists at the top.

Many people think it obvious that the world must consist of basic substances that underlie the properties we experience. But there is nothing ontologically absolute about either the form/matter distinction or the idea of substance/attribute metaphysics. Many philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, Whitehead, and, more recently, Rorty, have shown that the form/matter model is only one possible way of understanding things, and a mostly distorting way at that. Likewise, the idea that substance must be the ontologically basic entity is today almost totally discredited by a large number of philosophical traditions.

Nevertheless, the quest for Being goes on, and it is still regarded in many quarters as the ultimate philosophical project. The metaphysical impulse remains strong because the metaphors and folk theories defining it are so deeply embedded in our shared cultural understandings. As long as we believe that the world consists of general kinds of things defined by essences, that essences are the source of all natural behavior, that the world is intelligible, and that there is an all-inclusive category also defined by an essence, we will continue the search for Being.

The search for Being is for many people the search for God. The issues surrounding the quest for Being have always been at the center of Western theology and are still there today. God is widely regarded by theologians and laypeople alike as the ultimate causal source and sustainer of all that is, as the ultimate source of all that is good, as present in every existing thing, as having a plan that gives purpose to the world and meaning to human beings, and as being not merely all-powerful but also all-knowing. Most of these are the properties of Plato’s Idea of the Good, that is, of the essence of essence. This is no accident. Most of the medieval conceptions of, and arguments for, the existence of God stem directly from Greek metaphysics, partly from Plato’s Idea of the Good, but especially from Aristotelian views of causation and change.

The forms of thought that we saw as emerging in the pre-Socratics and finding their most sophisticated expression in Plato and Aristotle are thus anything but quaint and archaic. They exist not only in contemporary philosophy and theology, but they lie at the heart of Western science. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World is a precondition for any form of rational inquiry. The Folk Theory of General Kinds is required in order to state any generalizations at all. Otherwise, all knowledge would be utterly specific and could never be projected to new cases. The Folk Theory of Essences is commonplace in virtually every science, because science is always looking for the properties of things that make them what they are and explain their behavior. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is present in every mode of scientific explanation that seeks ever more comprehensive explanations to cover ever greater ranges of phenomena, for example, theories of everything in physics and theories of life in biology.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.

CONCEPTS OF CAUSALITY

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The Overall Philosophical Consequences

We began with a cognitive semantic analysis of the concepts of events and causation. If one accepts that analysis, a great deal follows. Given that causation is a multivalent radial concept with inherently metaphorical senses, the theory of the one true causation becomes not merely false, but silly. Once we know that it is multivalent, not monolithic, and that it is largely metaphorical, it turns out not to be the kind of thing that could have a single logic or could be an objective feature of the world. Since the concept of causation has ineliminably metaphorical subcases, those forms of causation, as conceptualized metaphorically, cannot literally be objective features of the world. There can be no one true causation.

That does not mean that causation does not exist, that there are no determining factors in the world. If one gives up the correspondence theory of truth and adopts the experientialist account of truth as based on embodied understanding, then there is a perfectly sensible view of causation to be given. We do not claim to know whether the world, in itself, contains “determining factors.” But the world as we normally conceptualize it certainly does. Those determining factors consist in all the very different kinds of situations we call causal.

When we see or hypothesize a determining factor of some kind, we conceptualize it using one of our forms of causation, either literal or metaphorical. If metaphorical, we choose a metaphor with which to conceptualize the situation, preferably a metaphor whose logic is appropriate to the kind of determining factor noticed. Using that metaphor we can make claims about that determining factor. The claims can be “true” relative to our understanding, which itself may be literal or metaphorical.

This does not eliminate all problems of truth with respect to metaphor. It moves many of them to another place, but a more appropriate place. It leads us to ask, “When is a metaphorical conceptualization of a situation apt?” Is it an apt use of metaphor to apply the metaphor of Causal Paths to democracy in the arena of foreign policy? Only relative to a decision concerning the aptness of the metaphor can we draw conclusions on the basis of the Causal Paths metaphor. Continue reading

MORE IS UP

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Brains tend to optimize on the basis of what they already have, to add only what is necessary. Over the course of evolution, newer parts of the brain have built on, taken input from, and used older parts of the brain. Is it really plausible that, if the sensorimotor system can be put to work in the service of reason, the brain would build a whole new system to duplicate what it could do already?

From a biological perspective, it is eminently plausible that reason has grown out of the sensory and motor systems and that it still uses those systems or structures developed from them. This explains why we have the kinds of concepts we have and why our concepts have the properties they have. It explains why our spatial-relations concepts should be topological and orientational. And it explains why our system for structuring and reasoning about events of all kinds should have the structure of a motor-control system.

It is only from a conservative philosophical position that one would want to believe in the old faculty psychology-in the idea that the human mind has nothing about it that animals share, that reason has nothing about it that smells of the body.

Philosophically, the embodiment of reason via the sensorimotor system is of great importance. It is a crucial part of the explanation of why it is possible for our concepts to fit so well with the way we function in the world. They fit so well because they have evolved from our sensorimotor systems, which have in turn evolved to allow us to function well in our physical environment. The embodiment of mind thus leads us to a philosophy of embodied realism. Our concepts cannot be a direct reflection of external, objective, mind-free reality because our sensorimotor system plays a crucial role in shaping them. On the other hand, it is the involvement of the sensorimotor system in the conceptual system that keeps the conceptual system very much in touch with the world.

Our subjective mental life is enormous in scope and richness. We make subjective judgments about such abstract things as importance, similarity, difficulty, and morality, and we have subjective experiences of desire, affection, intimacy, and achievement. Yet, as rich as these experiences are, much of the way we conceptualize them, reason about them, and visualize them comes from other domains of experience. These other domains are mostly sensorimotor domains, as when we conceptualize understanding an idea (subjective experience) in terms of grasping an object (sensorimotor experience) and failing to understand an idea as having it go right by us or over our heads. The cognitive mechanism for such conceptualizations is conceptual metaphor, which allows us to use the physical logic of grasping to reason about understanding.

Metaphor allows conventional mental imagery from sensorimotor domains to be used for domains of subjective experience. For example, we may form an image of something going by us or over our heads (sensorimotor experience) when we fail to understand (subjective experience). A gesture tracing the path of something going past us or over our heads can indicate vividly a failure to understand.

Conceptual metaphor is pervasive in both thought and language. It is hard to think of a common subjective experience that is not conventionally conceptualized in terms of metaphor. But why does such a huge range of conventional conceptual metaphor exist? How is it learned and what are the precise details? What is the mechanism by which we reason metaphorically? And which metaphors are universal (or at least widespread) and why?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the flesh : the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.