Archive for Language and philosophy

(T)horny Platonists

From Bryan Van Norden:

There is a funny story about a recent publication of mine.  The Chinese translation of my essay, "Why Are Platonists So Horny? What Murdoch’s 'The Nice and the Good' Can Teach Us" just came out.  However, my hard-working translator mistakenly rendered "horny" in my original title (sèmí 色迷) as "thorny" (jíshǒu 棘手)! I told the translator, and he said that he will fix the mistake, so in case it is changed soon online, a screenshot of the original is copied below.


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Data, information, knowledge, insight, wisdom, and Conspiracy Theory

The relationships among these different types of knowing has always been something that intrigued me.  Now it's all spelled out diagrammatically:

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Confucius didn't mean that

We often encounter fake "Oriental wisdom" that purports to come from the ancient sages.  So much of it clogs the internet that it is very hard to keep track of what is genuine and what is false.  And then there's the (in)famous pseudo-linguistics of the "Crisis = danger + opportunity" trope which has captured the occidental imagination.

Another type of distortion and misinformation concerning Chinese thought are actual quotations of an ancient sage's words that are misused and misinterpreted to imply something other than what was originally intended.

In "Things Confucius Never Said", The World of Chinese (10/9/21), Sun Jiahui has assembled a group of five such abused quotations attributed to Confucius.  Since she has done such a superb job of presenting them, I will make only minor adaptations in giving them here.

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Judo: martial arts neologism or ancient philosophical term?

The term "judo", which sport / martial art ("as a physical, mental, and moral pedagogy" [source]) was only created in 1882 by Jigoro Kano 嘉納治五郎 (1860-1938).  What I find amazing is that jūdō / MSM róudào 柔道 ("soft / flexible / gentle / supple / mild / yielding way") comes right out of the Yìjīng 易經 (Book / Classic of Change[s]).  Of course, traditional Japanese scholars have always been learned in the Chinese classics, so it shouldn't be too surprising that they would draw on the classics for terminology and ideas that had great meaning for them.  But I'm curious whether Jigoro Kano explicitly referred to the Yìjīng in any of his writings about jūdō 柔道.

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Om, sumo, and the universality of sound

From Zihan Guo:

A Japanese expression I came upon in a reading from Takami sensei's class reminded me of the "om" you mentioned weeks ago in our class.

阿吽の呼吸(aun'nokokyū あうんのこきゅう)
 
It refers to the synchronization of breathing of sumo opponents before a match. I read about this in an article about an interview with a sumo wrestler. But the "aun あうん" part lingered in my mind. Then I realized that it was the Japanese transliteration of the "om" that you were telling the class that encompassed all sounds:  "a" and "un" signify the beginning and end of the cosmos respectively, or so wikipedia explains. The Japanese phrase means a harmonious, non-verbal communication.

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Graphic forms for wú ("none; no; not") and qì ("vital energy") in ancient Chinese texts

[This is a guest post by Denis Christopher Mair]

Regular character versions of the Yijing (Classic / Book of Changes) use the character 旡 instead of 無 for wú ("none; no; not; nothing; nihility"). So 旡 is not really a simplified character. I have seen 旡 in Daoist contexts. The character 旡 evokes an atmosphere of antiquity. Some Daoist texts have two different words for qi/ch'i ("vital energy"). One is written 氣, and the other is written with 旡 over a four-dot fire radical. (Some Daoist texts use 炁 wherever the context is about internal disciplines.) This distinction is sometimes explained by saying that 氣 is "acquired" (hòutiān 後天) energy, and 炁 is "innate" (xiāntiān 先天) energy. In Tiāndì jiào 天帝教 ("Lord of Universe Church," a religious organization in Taiwan), the phrase qì qì yīnyūn 氣炁氤氳* sometimes comes up: "the intertwining of acquired and innate energies," which is something that happens in meditation. Sometimes it is fancifully likened to ground mist mingling with low clouds.

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Absence of metaphysics

[The following is a guest post by Zihan Guo in response to this article by Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese politician and political philosopher, who asserts, among other things, that China lacks metaphysics because of the nature of its language (i.e., script):  "The Black Box:  A Theory of China", World Game on Substack (12/25/20) — excerpts below.]

I can hear Zhuangzi chuckling.

For me, the charm of a Chinese word is its ability to conjure up images beyond its denotational meaning. The word shānshuǐ 山水 ("landscape") does come from shān 山 ("mountain") and shuǐ 水 "water"), but it connotes much more than that. What immediately comes to my mind is Chinese landscape painting, where an infinitesimal figure (a being) plods along the trails leading up to an insurmountable cliff. To my amateurish eyes, those painters are not just depicting empirical reality. There is meaning behind the surface representation.

Asking Zhuangzi "what is red?", Zhuangzi might also ask "what is not red, what is redder, what is less red, why does it matter?" The Chinese answer with a collage of red objects can go through a similar philosophical rumination just as the scientific Western definition. If "red" can be represented by many different things, its concept becomes unstable and ambiguous. Cherries are red, but roses might be redder, so which is the "true" red? One sees that redness as phenomenal keeps changing and that one's own perception of reality can be deceptive. I believe Zhuangzi probes into similar questions as well as the eventual question of whether there is something unchanging beyond all phenomena.

I think the author is more interested in modern Chinese politics than the idea that Chinese script is purely physical. His ending note about Xi feels rather sarcastic.

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Ambling, shambling, rambling, wandering, wondering: the spirit of Master Zhuang / Chuang

All the talk of moseying and ambling propelled me into a customary mode of mind.  Those who have taken classes with me know that, though I may start at a certain point in my lectures, it is difficult to predict how we will get to our intended destination, though we are certain to pass through many interesting and edifying scenes and scenarios along the way.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, my favorite Chinese work of all time is the Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu 莊子 (ca. 3rd c. BC).  The English title of my translation is Wandering on the Way.  The publisher wanted something more evocative than "Master Zhuang / Chuang" or "Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu", so I spent a couple of days coming up with about sixty possible titles, and they picked the one that I myself preferred, "Wandering on the Way", which is based on the first chapter of the book:  "Xiāoyáo yóu 逍遙遊" ("Carefree wandering").

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Thought process

I just watched a video of a man interviewing people in Washington Square Park, New York.  He asked each of them a series of leading questions about why they were still wearing masks outside when it was so hot and they had all been vaccinated, and some of them had even contracted the disease and developed immunity to it, plus even the government and the New York Times said there was no longer a need to wear the mask under such conditions.  When many of the people being interviewed said they were going to continue wearing a face mask nonetheless, his next question was "What's the thought process there?"

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The vocabulary of traditional Chinese thought and culture

I recently got hold of an electronic copy of this book:

Zhōngguó chuántǒng wénhuà guānjiàn cí (Hàn Yīng duìzhào) 中国传统文化关键词(汉英对照) (Key Terms of Traditional Chinese Culture / Key Concepts in Chinese Culture [original English title] [Chinese-English])

Beijing:  Wàiyǔ jiàoxué yǔ yánjiū chūbǎn shè 2019 外语教学与研究出版社 2019 (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2019)

Here is a one-drive link to the whole book.

It has been scanned by OCR, so the entire contents can be searched by simplified Chinese characters, but accuracy is not guaranteed.

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Indo-European religion, Scythian philosophy, and the date of Zoroaster: a linguistic quibble

On September 23, 2020, Christopher Beckwith delivered the following lecture at  Indiana University:

Scythian Philosophy
So, Was There a Classical Age of Eurasia After All?

Christopher I. Beckwith
Sept. 23, 2020, 12:00 noon

In the middle of the first millennium BCE philosophy appeared in several ancient cultures. Its most prominent early practitioners were Anacharsis (‘the Scythian’, fl. 590 BC), Zoroaster (whose texts are in a Scythian dialect, fl. 620 BC), Gautama the Buddha (‘the Scythian Sage’, fl. 490 BC), and Laotzu (*Gautama, fl. 400 BC). They use logic to pose the metaphysical-political problem of polytheism versus monotheism, the ethical problem of achieving happiness or equanimity, and especially the epistemological problem of categorization. This talk examines their ideas and builds on the latest advances in Scythology to address the much-avoided question in the subtitle. 

C.I. Beckwith, Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, is author of Greek Buddha (2015), Warriors of the Cloisters (2012), Empires of the Silk Road (2009), etc., and The Scythian Empire (ms. Nearing completion).

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Tilting vessel

Earlier this year, we had a post about a fascinating new Wikipedia article on "Goblet word" (5/30/20).  That post was about a vessel that served as an analogy for a rhetorical device called zhīyán 卮言 ("goblet word").  Now we have another magisterial Wikipedia article by an anonymous master of Chinese esoterica.  It's about another name for a similar type of vessel called qīqì 欹器, "tilting vessel".

The qīqì (欹器, "tilting vessel" or "tipping vessel") was an ancient Chinese ceremonial utensil that automatically overturned and spilled its contents once it reached capacity, thus symbolizing moderation and caution. Both Confucian and Daoist Chinese classics include a famous anecdote about the first time Confucius saw a tilting vessel. In the Confucian tradition (e.g., Xunzi) it was also named yòuzuò zhī qì (宥座之器, "vessel on the right of one's seat"), with three positions, the vessel tilts to one side when empty, stands upright when filled halfway, and overturns when filled to the brim—illustrating the philosophical value of the golden mean. In the Daoist tradition, the tilting vessel was named yòuzhī (宥卮, "urging goblet" or "warning goblet"), with two positions, staying upright when empty and overturning when full—illustrating the metaphysical value of emptiness, and later associated with the Zhuangzian zhīyán (卮言, "goblet words") rhetorical device.

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"Gold" as element and "gold" as substance — as conceived by Mendeleev

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

Your wonderful arabesque on the world of 'kedi'* (and the disappearance of cats for a time — perhaps to a different planet, because they had grown weary of trying to school us humans?) reminded me that you are a connoisseur of languages plural, not just Chinese. In that connection, you might find my 2019 article** on Mendeleev interesting.

 
[**"Mendeleev’s Elemental Ontology and Its Philosophical Renditions in German and English", HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 25 (2019), No. 1, 49-70.]

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