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This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

Michael Puett, the professor who is featured in the article, is a friend of mine.  He is a mesmerizing speaker; audiences are glued to his every syllable and glance.  If his course is changing students' lives, how so?  For the better?  Has Michael Puett become a guru?  A missionary?  Something more than a mere college professor of ancient Chinese thought?  Is ancient Chinese thought, in and of itself, so powerful that it can transform people who are exposed to it?  Or does it have such a profound effect chiefly because of the skillful spin that Professor Puett puts upon it?

I do not intend to answer any or all of these questions, but leave them to Language Log readers who are familiar with ancient Chinese thought or who may have chanced to hear a lecture by Professor Puett.  Rather, I would like to concentrate on a problem raised in this key sentence from the section of the article titled "Decisions are made from the heart":

Americans tend to believe that humans are rational creatures who make decisions logically, using our brains. But in Chinese, the word for "mind" and "heart" are the same.

What can we say about this identification of "heart" and "mind" (xīn 心)?  In what way is true?  In what way is it misleading?

Because of uncertainty over how to translate xīn 心, whether as "heart" or "mind", some scholars have taken to rendering it as "heart-mind" or "heart / mind", while others feel that it should be translated as "heart" or as "mind" depending upon the context.  It becomes problematic when one insists on translating it either as "heart" or as "mind" in all cases.

I asked a number of specialists in Chinese philosophy and related fields what they thought about this conundrum of the xīn 心.  All explanatory and amplificatory notes within square brackets have been added by VHM.

Steve Angle:

I learned at my teacher's knee that, indeed, xin unifies cognitive and conative.

Scott Barnwell

…xin is the organ of thought and feeling. It seems to be used that way. The heart signific begins to appear in jinwen [bronze] script (with De 德 ["virtue"] being one of the first) to identify a number of concepts related to the “inner life.” On a related note, I’ve often wondered about the word si 思 ["think"]: that is apparently a head/brain along with the heart. When did they realize we think with our brains? [VHM: we shall take up this question below]

Bryan Van Norden

I've always thought of XIN, in its earliest philosophical use, as straddling the supposed dichotomy between emotion and cognition that became enshrined in post-Enlightenment Western thought.   So it is something like the "heart," as the seat of the emotions and desires, and something like the "mind," as the faculty of perception and cognition.

Edward Slingerland

My current primary work in progress is an academic monograph with the working title Body and Mind in Early China: Beyond the Myth of Holism, an article-length version of which was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

"Body and Mind in Early China: An Integrated Humanities-Science Approach," Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2013), pp.1–50. [pdf]

Arif Dirlik:

Did they really think they were thinking with their xins and xin'ing with their minds! If it was such a reductionist equation, why would they make such a fuss over Wang Yangming vs. Zhu Xi?  At least your friend seems to be pushing Zhuangzi rather than old Kongzi!

John Lagerwey

The word xin, heart: as I am preparing the next set of volumes on Chinese religion (Song-Yuan), I am confronted with the frequently encountered but really quite offputting heart-and-mind translation of this apparently simple word. The Buddhologists, without hesitation, translate "mind", and the Daoxue people get all tangled up with the heart/mind problem. I wrote to them to point out that, in the Bible, too, so far as I know, the heart is the thinking-and-emoting organ, but no translator of the Bible throws heart/mind at us. It says "heart", so they translate "heart"

I guess that's why the Buddhologists opt for "mind" even when it says guanxin "observe the heart". And of course Zhuangzi already said clearly that the heart was the lord of the body, so there can be no doubt that, for the Chinese, in Chinese, xin means heart and it does all the jobs we associate with cognition. This is why, in the end, the Chinese prefer, epistemologically speaking, intuition and synthesis to analytic logic and deductive thinking.

I usually avoid "heart-mind" because I think it's too clunky and not accurate in most instances.  When the text says xin, I normally go for "heart" because that's what it is.  Only when the text is talking about mental processes do I use "mind".

Robert Eno, writing informally with spontaneity unencumbered by responsibility:

…I’ve also been reading neuroscience for the past few years to look for non-facile ways to relate Confucian ideas to features of the human brain/body, so I’m sympathetic to some of the sort of shopworn observations the Atlantic article points towards on that front.

I think the heart/mind cliché is unproblematic if you point out to students that English uses of those terms often conflate cognitive and affective features as well, although our theories of the two lexical items distinguish them (there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Her mind quickly grasped the horror of the situation,” meaning that she was struck emotionally and not that she reasoned it out; we say it because “grasp” is a powerful word that has been built into the rhetoric of cognition). Don Munro analyzed the cluster of terms used for “know” in Classical and Mandarin Chinese and concluded that four dimensions are conflated (he was most interested in evidence that use of the terms usually denoted dimensions of approval and dispositions to act in accordance) – something I think is also often true of English equivalents in use, though not in lexical theory, and something that I think points to much more interesting features of Chinese thought.  See See The Concept of Man in Contemporary China. Chapter 2 is where Munro comes up with his analysis of “clustering” in the verb 知 ["know"].

But while I really don’t think the lexical issue of xin is of particular interest (I used to teach it as a point students would encounter and that I’d be flagging routinely in translations, but that I wasn’t going to spend time on), the cliché is useful for highlighting the different epistemological centers of “philosophy” in early Chinese and European contexts.

Peng Hsiao-yen

The most noteworthy debate on heart (feeling) and mind (reason) started in Rousseau's time, during the European Enlightenment. David Hume says, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." Chinese philosophy, which teaches the unification of feeling and reason, and subject and object, has been used by contemporary European philosophers to critique Western philosophy since Descartes's time that has led to the separation of heart and mind, subject and object.

Think about the Frankfurt school philosophers such as Adorno, who criticized Enlightenment rational thinking. What about Foucault's thinking about the "unthought" (non-pensée), or Deleuze's affect theory?

I nudged another group of specialists on language and thought to consider when the Chinese started to conceive of the xin as an organ of thought.  And when they began to think of "thought" at all.

Scott Cook:

I guess it depends on what you mean by "thought," exactly.  But certainly at least by the time of Meng Zi [Mencius], no?

Christoph Harbsmeier

Quite early, I should say. Very early. But they were so very late to find a term that distinguishes the intellectual/reflexive part from the emotional/attitudinal part of the "thinking process, I should say….

Matt Anderson

…As to xīn as an organ of thought…  that's a hard question.  The graph is used in OBI [oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest stage of Chinese writing, ca. 1200 BC during the Shang dynasty], but it doesn't ever seem to write the word xīn (in the sense of 'heart' or any derived meaning), so Shang inscriptions aren't very helpful.

Xīn definitely means something like 'will' or 'aspiration' quite early (as well as 'heart' in its metaphorical sense), but it doesn't necessarily follow that it means 'an organ of thought' (though even Schuessler, in his early Zhou dictionary, defines it as "heart, mind" [VHM: more on this below]).

From the Pan Geng II 盤庚中 section of the Shang shu:

汝萬民乃不生生,暨予一人猷同心 [Rǔ wànmín nǎi bù shēngshēng, jì yǔ yīrén yóu tóngxīn]

If you, the myriads of the people, do not attend to the perpetuation of your lives, and cherish one mind with me, the One man, in my plans… (Legge's translation)

From the Pan Geng III 盤庚下 section [ibid.]:

式敷民德,永肩一心 [Shì fū mín dé, yǒng jiān yīxīn]

Reverently display your virtue in behalf of the people. For ever maintain this one purpose in your hearts. (Legge's translation)

From Qiao yan 巧言, from the Xiao ya section of the Classic of Odes:

他人有心,予忖度之。[Tārén yǒuxīn, yǔ cǔnduó zhī.]

What other men have in their minds / I can measure by reflection. (Legge's translation)

From the Jin yu 4 晉語四 section of the Guo yu 國語:

同姓則同德,同德則同心,同心則同志 [Tóngxìng zé tóng dé, tóng dé zé tóngxīn, tóngxīn zé tóngzhì]

If they have the same surname then they have the same dé, if they have the same dé then they have the same xīn, if they have the same xīn then they have the same will. (my quick rough translation)

All of the above could mean 'organ of thought' (or an extended meaning related to thought or mind), but something like 'will' or 'aspirations' or 'heart' could be intended instead of something related to 'thought' in these cases.

These examples are the ones in which it seemed most conceivable that xīn meant something along the lines of 'mind'—in the great majority of the examples I found, it very obviously did not mean anything like 'mind'.  But I agree that, even for those cases, something along the lines of 'will' fits better.

By Mencius, though, it does seem to have some connotations of 'thought':

From Gaozi I 告子上 [chapter of the Mencius]:

心之官則思,思則得之,不思則不得也 [Xīn zhī guān zé sī, sī zé dé zhī, bù sī zé bùdé yě]

To the mind belongs the office of thinking. By thinking, it gets the right view of things; by neglecting to think, it fails to do this. (Legge's translation)

It definitely meant 'brain' by the Warring States at least, but I can't find any real connotation of 'thinking'….

From "Zhang Yi wei Qin po cong lianheng wei Yan wang" 張儀為秦破從連橫謂燕王 from the Yan I 燕一 section of Zhanguo ce:

廚人進斟羹,因反鬭而擊之,代王腦涂地 [Chú rén jìn zhēn gēng, yīn fǎn dòu ér jī zhī, dài wáng nǎo tú dì]

The kitchen worker entered to pour the stew, and as he turned over the ladle and struck him, the Dai king's brains splashed on the ground.

The Shuo wen defines it as the 'marrow (or essence) of the head', or something like that:

匘(腦),頭髓也。[nǎo, tóusuǐ yě.  This is clearly the physical brain, not the thinking brain.]

The Chunqiu yuan ming bao 春秋元命苞 has the passage:

人精在腦 [Rén jīng zài nǎo]

The essence of the human is in the brain.

But that still doesn't have anything to do with thought.

In Lu Ji's 陸機 "Yu Changsha gu mu shu" 與長沙顧母書 from the Jin 晉 dynasty, nao is interestingly connected with xin:

痛心拔腦,有如孔懷 [Tòngxīn bá nǎo, yǒurú kǒng huái; "grieved at heart and vexed in brain, as though mindful of one's brother" — the idea of "mindful" is not explicit in the text, but is only present through allusion]

and also, Han Yu writes in "Chaozhou cishi xie shang biao" 潮州刺史謝上表:

聖恩宏大,天地莫量;破腦刳心,豈足爲謝。[Shèng ēn hóngdà, tiāndì mò liàng; pò nǎo kū xīn, qǐ zú wèi xiè; "the capaciousness of sagely (i.e., imperial) grace is beyond measure in heaven and earth; smashing my brain and ripping out my heart would be insufficient to convey my gratitude"]

But again, that's only an indirect connection with thought.

I haven't looked very hard, but the earliest example I can find (it's in Hanyu da cidian) that clearly links nao with thought is from Honglou meng, long, long after the arrival of Western learning:

林姑娘是個有心計兒的;至於寶玉,呆頭呆腦,不避嫌疑是有的。[Lín gūniáng shìgè yǒuxīn jì er de; zhìyú Bǎoyù, dāitóudāinǎo, bù bì xiányí shì yǒu de; "Miss Lin is calculating, but Baoyu seems dull-witted and makes no attempt to avoid suspicion"]

What does the graph used to write xīn ("heart / mind") represent?  It has traditionally been thought that the old Chinese graph for "heart" (xīn 心) depicts the physical organ, with some authorities even claiming that it showed the atria and ventricles.  I've always been suspicious of such explanations of the graph because I doubt that the people who devised and used this character over three millennia ago had sufficient anatomical knowledge to accurately delineate and describe the physical heart as a whole, much less details of its inner construction.

On his "Chinese Etymology" website, Richard Sears explains — with visual examples — the oracle bone form of the graph as depicting the human torso.

While Sears' explanation may seem rather fanciful, it's as convincing to me as the notion that the oracle bone form of xīn 心 is an anatomical drawing of the physical organ.

When it comes to the etymology of the Sinitic root for xīn, Axel Schuessler's research indicates that its earliest attestations already conveyed the meanings of both "heart" and "mind", while its apparent Tibeto-Burman cognates signified "breath; life; soul; spirit; mind; thought", and Mon-Khmer has a similar word meaning "breath; heart; mind".


A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese, p. 683ab

ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p. 538

Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese:  A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, p. 368 (38-31 K663).

Brendan O'Kane has a few thoughts that are suitable for wrapping up this long post by bringing us back to the The Atlantic article with which we began:

Interesting — I'd seen people sharing this article, but hadn't read it until now. I'd be interested in knowing more about the course, since a lot of the content here seems to be journalistic filler. (The mention of brain scans and popular neuroscience sets off alarms for me.)

 From what's here, it sounds like Puett is presenting an idealized form of Confucius and company as personal philosophers. He wouldn't be the first: Yu Dan, at Beijing Normal University, had a huge hit with 论语心得 — subsequently translated into English as Confucius from the Heart, though to me it'll always be Chicken Soup for the Confucian Soul.

 Regarding XIN and thought: is this a case where argument from graphs/望字生意 might work?

So, we've covered a lot of ground in this inquiry, from the heart to the mind to thought and the mind-body problem.  But where in all this is the self located?  When it comes to the self, there was little hesitation among premodern Chinese in locating it in the nose.  Indeed, the early forms of the graph for zì 自 ("self") depicted a nose.

My wife (and many other Chinese friends and acquaintances) actually emphatically pointed to her nose (placed the end of her index finger on the tip of her nose) when she would say, "Wǒ zìjǐ 我自己" ("I myself").

For traditional Chinese, the mind may have been in the heart, but the self was in the nose.

[Hat tip Ben Zimmer: thanks to Daniel Gardner, John Didier, Stephan Stiller, Allen Chun, Paul Goldin, and all those who are quoted or cited above]


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 2:17 pm

    One of the reasons the heart=mind thing superficially seems all exotic and mystical and Orientalistic is that for the last couple centuries Western culture has been conventionally "cephallocentric," i.e. everyone "knows" without being an actual trained scientist or philosopher that the "mind" is specifically located in the brain or at least somewhere within the skull (I think Descartes' theory was the pineal gland, specifically). But it was not always thus. Going back to the Greeks, the cephallocentric view had battled in Western thought with the rival cardiocentric (= "mind is in the heart") view, with such thinkers as Aristotle (not reputed to be much of a down-on-Western-style-rationality mystic . . .) usually being assigned to the cardiocentric camp, and no one knowing quite how to settle the issue definitively for many many centuries.

  2. julie lee said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    I too dislike the translation "heart-mind" or "mind-heart" for Chinese XIN, literally "heart". So I was very glad to see the great modern Chinese philosopher Mou Zongsan translate XIN as "mind" (when XIN meant mind), and did not translate it as "heart-mind".
    I do also wonder if the Chinese long ago thought the heart is the organ of thought. After all, it seems impossible to separate the emotions from one's thoughts. The heart's pulse is sensitive to thoughts and the comcomitants of thought—emotions such as happiness, sadness, joy, anger, envy, jealousy, fear, shock, disappointment, and so on. Even if you are thinking a math problem and completely without emotion—if that is possible— that is reflected in the calmness of the heart. So I can see how early man would conclude that the heart did the thinking.

  3. Scott Barnwell said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

    In a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Chinese language and Chinese thought— or, How different is Chinese," Bill Baxter writes that "Cognates in Tibeto-Burman languages are sometimes verbs meaning ‘to think’, sometimes nouns meaning ‘spirit, breath’ or the like" and concludes that "Probably the original Proto-Sino-Tibetan word ancestral to 心 xīn ‘heart’ was not the word for the ‘heart’ as an organ." He also writes "I suspect that 身 shēn represents the original Sino-Tibetan word for ‘heart’, replaced in Chinese by 心."

    As a parallel, he observes "The Romanian word for ‘heart’ (the organ) is inimă, which is descended from Latin anima ‘air; breath of life; soul’" and suggests "meanings can change from abstract to concrete, not just concrete to abstract."

  4. Scott Barnwell said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    @ Julie Lee
    But early peoples must also have noticed that a blow to the HEAD could severely affect thinking, (and personality) permanently.

  5. AntC said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    Are there distinct words for the heart as an organ for pumping blood (only); and for the brain as the grey mass inside the skull? Is this the same for all Sinitic languages? (In English, 'brain' doesn't carry the same connotation as 'mind'; but there isn't a corresponding distinction for 'heart'.)
    It seems to me not necessary that the blood-pumping organ should be identified with feelings. (Why not observe that those with serious head injuries get feeling impairment as well as cognitive impairment, despite their hearts continuing to function?) That the heart is so identified in so many languages must (presumably) be something very ancient in metaphors(?)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    From Stuart Souther

    It might interest you to know that touching (or nearly touching) the tip of the nose as a gesture meaning "me" (or "you mean me?") is quite common in Japan as well. I still find myself doing this from time to time here in Vermont, to the general bewilderment of my audience.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    I think the ancient Chinese might well have had a fair idea of the anatomy of the human heart, since animal hearts are a tasty and boneless kind of meat, and I doubt there's much difference at the level of character writing.

  8. S Frankel said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

    Why wouldn't people three thousand years ago know the anatomical structure of a heart? They cut them up all the time – not human ones, presumably, but cow and pig and sheep, at least. And duck and chickens as well. I'm rather fond of them, and don't think it's possible to cut very many of them up without noticing some basic principles of their anatomy.

  9. Eidolon said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    @Scott Barnwell asking why ancient peoples did not empirically deduce the brain-mind equation is akin, I think, to asking why the scientific revolution occurred so late in history. Just because rational thinking occurs so naturally to us today does not imply that it has ever been this way.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    I once did an analysis of how On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur /It is only with the heart that one can see rightly was handled in something like 48 Chinese translations of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince).

    I found that 33 of those translators translated coeur/heart as 心, 19 translated it as 心灵/心靈.

    One skewing factor is the fact that 用心 (as a translation of avec le coeur/with the heart) can also mean 'diligently, attentively, with concentration'. This could have brought about a higher occurrence of 心灵/心靈 than would normally be expected.

    What was puzzling is that translations direct from the French were more likely to use 心 (20:6 in favour of 心) than translations that appeared to be from the English version (12:13 split).

    All 15 Japanese translations of the book used 心 kokoro.

  11. bks said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    ITYM heart-mind-gut or maybe heart-gut-mind

  12. Elessorn said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    I get the feeling (feeling-thought?) that our reasoning is taking some leaps here. The difficulty experienced when translating "xin" into English or other Western languages is eminently a practical one: neither "heart" nor "mind" could be chosen consistently without clashing up against natives' intuitions of idiomatic use. But I think we should be careful not to read too much into this. Objectively all we can say is that English here makes a distinction which Chinese does not. Skipping on to say Chinese "combines" or "unites" the two halves of that distinction is at best imprecise, depending entirely on the Western perspective to even make sense. And running ahead to say that "xin" actually fuses whole the opposed thought-traditions we evoke with "heart" and "mind" seems clearly false.

    The objection is not to the manner of speaking per se–fuses, combines, etc.–but to the normalization of the Western concepts as obvious. Chinese encephalic consciousness-metaphors surprise us as undeveloped. Chinese cardiac consciousness-metaphors strike us as overextended into what seems to us clearly encephalic territory. Fair enough, if we remember it's all relative. But it's a big flying leap to conclude from this sense of overlap that Chinese cardiac metaphors must thus emcompass everything that Western encephalic and cardiac metaphors have come to anchor for us over at least two millennia of paganism, Christianity, and rationalism. Especially since we're well-aware that the heart-mind difference would have been described differently by Westerners at every milestone along the way.

    That said, it's not fair to judge Professor Puett's teaching oeuvre by any single line. And he must be an amazing teacher. But the difficulty of picking a translation shouldn't just hint that Western concept pointers might be arranged differently–or worse, that the Chinese case represents one such arrangement of them. It should rather, or at least also, one thinks, suggest to students that these concepts, so natural to them, have no natural necessity of existence at all. Do I go too far in thinking that it's on the other side of this where real understanding of China begins?

  13. Chris Kern said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 8:33 pm

    This is very similar to the word "kokoro" in Japanse, which of course is represented by the same graph 心. Any meaning of "kokoro" is probably affected by the strong influence of Chinese philosophy from the earliest time of Japanese writing.

    Evidence of "kokoro" referring to a specific body organ is fairly slim; there are words like "kokoro itashi" which mean your kokoro is in pain, but I don't know that this necessarily suggests there was a specific organ in the body that the word referred to. I know there are theories that the word's etymology involves the organs of dead animals but that also doesn't necessarily mean a specific organ.

    But other people probably have more knowledge than me about this.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

    From John Lagerwey (quoted above in the original post):

    I have long been convinced that comparing Chinese philosophy with Greek leads to mutual incomprehension because the center of the human being is not in the same place (heart vs mind). For there to be dialogue between us, we must start from our Hebrew half, where the heart is also at once the thinking and the feeling organ.

    In the book about to come out on religion Song-Yuan, I invited participants to reflect on the issue of the translation of xin. It came down to Buddhologists using only "mind", while neo-Confucians wanted flexibility (heart sometimes, mind others, heart-mind at still others). But a heart is a heart is a heart…

  15. julie lee said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 12:31 am

    @Scott Barnwell

    Yes, but a blow to the head does not always stop thought or change personality. What about a stab to the heart? Loss of blood and pain can also stop thought. Great anger or sorrow , with heart-beat very fast or very slow or irregular, as the case may be, can also change personality and muddle thought and speech, or give a heart attack, arresting thought. I'm trying to imagine how early man saw it, and how xin心"heart" came to be "mind". But you do have a strong point. I'm only trying to figure out why "xin, heart" acquired the meaning of "mind".

    A common phrase for psychosis (gone mad) in Mandarin is "xin shen sang shi 心神喪失(literally, "heart-spirit/soul lost and gone") . No mention is made of the brain. @Bathrobe mentions above that xinling 心靈 (literally "heart-soul/spirit") was the favored Chinese translation for "the heart (that sees)" in the quoted passage. So it seems xin "heart" was thought to be the seat of the soul. And "mind", "soul", "spirit" seem to have been the same thing (as in the German word "Geist"; and German "Seele" is also "soul, mind, spirit, heart").

  16. Bart said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 3:29 am

    In Indonesian the word for 'heart' in its metaphorical sense is 'hati', which anatomically is 'liver'. 'Sakit hati' might mean 'diseased liver', but much more often means 'sick at heart'.
    I don't suppose this is a unique phenomenon. Any other parts of the body used in other languages?

  17. Bill Benzon said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 5:17 am

    Fascinating post, Victor.

    On the nose and the self, I believe that the rhinencephalon ("nose" brain) is the phylogenetically oldest part of telencephalon, the embryonic structure that matures into the cerebrum, consisting of the cortices. It's worth noting that the sense of smell looms larger in the sensorium of most animals than it does in ours and that it is through smell that animals identify individual conspecifics. That, presumbably, is why our canine friends can be used to track us individually when we escape from prison. I've read of experiments in which mothers can identify by smell diapers than have been on their infants, though I have no citations to offer. So I'd say that locating the self in the nose is a pretty shrewd move.

    More generally, the mental body and its organs do not, of course, have external physical manifestations. We can't see and touch them. So figuring out just what and where they are is no trivial matter, which is why modern govenments are investing billions of dollars in neuroscience.

    I echo J. W. Brewer's thoughts on the ancient Greeks. Just what Plato in fact knew of his nervous system isn’t quite clear. But he certainly didn’t have anything approaching a contemporary understanding. We know that he believed humans to be animated by three souls, one located in the head and concerned with reason, another in the breast (“midway between the midriff and the neck”) and concerned with the passions, while the third was located in and about the liver (“between the midriff and the boundary of the navel”) and concerned itself with physical appetite (Timeus 69d-71b). We now know that control of all of these functions is located in the brain, which is located in the head.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 5:42 am

    From Michael Puett:

    Many thanks to Victor for alerting me to his post. But I should immediately clarify what may be a misunderstanding. I most certainly do not teach my students that the early Chinese assumed that cognition and emotion are one and the same. On the contrary, when I discuss this topic I try to introduce students to the intense debate that existed in early China (very much as it exists in every major philosophical tradition) about the proper relationship that should hold between these. I always teach students to question arguments that run along the lines of contrasts between “Western” assumptions and “Chinese” assumptions (in this case, that “Westerners” assume a separation between cognition and emotion and that “Chinese” assume they are the same), and instead try to introduce students to the debates that have always animated these philosophical traditions. Claims about the proper relationship between cognition and emotion should be read as just that — as claims within a debate, not as assumptions

  19. Matt said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    On the topic of the native Japanese word assigned to 心, "kokoro", I think it's very telling that the vast majority of references to Natsume Soseki's book "Kokoro" just transliterate the title. Neither "The Heart" nor "The Mind" seem enough (and in this context "The Heart-Mind" is just a monstrosity).

    Chris: I agree that the nonphysical/metaphorical meaning of "kokoro" is much more prevalent throughout Japanese literature, but it turns out that the connection of the word to the physical heart is at least as old as written Japanese itself. The 日本国語大辞典 cites this poem in the Kojiki:

    御諸の 其の高城なる 大猪子が原 大猪子が 腹にある 肝向ふ 許許呂(ココロ)をだにか 相思はずあらむ

    Which Gustav Held translates:

    "By the mighty sanctum,/ near its high hold,/ lies Great Boar Field,/ whose great boars,/ in their bellies,/ facing the liver,/ have a heart; there, at least,/can we two be together?"

    This I think is pretty unambiguously physical. But it is in the minority; the Kojiki is also full of 心s that can only be nonphysical/metaphorical (like "然者汝心之清明 何以知" = "If that is so, how am I to know your intentions are pure and clear?" – Held again). Plus, in the Man'yo shu we find the word "kokoro" represented by characters like 意, 情, and even 神, none of which as far as I know are identified with any particular organ.

  20. Jayarava said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    In Sanskrit (Old Indic) there are many words for emotions, often many synonyms for each emotion. But emotions are not collected into a separate category from thoughts. In effect while there are words for emotions, there is no word equivalent to the category "emotion". Emotions are a form of "citta", which is most often translated as 心 in Buddhist Chinese works. Citta includes sensations, perceptions, cognitions, motivations, and memories. It is any process within the human being which is not primarily physical (kāyika) though arguably emotions are as much felt as thought.

    Can't help but wonder what Ben Whorf would have said about this…

  21. Chris Kern said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 9:04 am

    Matt: It's physical, but does it necessarily point to a specific organ, like the 心臓?

  22. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    From a specialist on Pali Buddhism:

    I have studied "citta", "vinnana", and "mano" in my dissertation way back when. Hardly anyone translates "citta" as heart, but if vinnana is something like "consciousness" and mano is something like "mind", then to me citta is something like "heart" or the affective aspect of the mental life. "Purification of the citta" is not I think a matter of straightening out the rational mind.

  23. GH said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    I found the article somewhat confusing because it doesn't seem to clearly distinguish between the literal and the various metaphoric meanings of "heart" in English. Given that the association of the heart with feeling (but not rational thinking) is rather arbitrary and in fact medically incorrect, it should not be surprising that the Chinese would have attributed other functions to this particular physical organ.

    That this associated function should apparently be a concept of "mind" that does not adhere to the reason-emotion dualism of much modern Western thought is a separate matter; it has very little to do with the word also having the literal meaning "heart," except so far as the differing connotations make translation difficult.

    On the other hand, isn't it fascinating that the word apparently started out as an abstract concept, and only later got applied to the physical organ? (And apparently sometimes to the brain as well, which seems like it would be confusing.) Even with the Romanian parallel, that strikes me as a very unexpected development.

  24. Jayarava said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    Regarding Pali words for mind: citta, viññāna and manas. (from √cit 'to think'; vi√jñā 'to distinguish' from √jñā 'to know'; and √man 'to think'). They are used indiscriminately as exact synonyms in many texts. Another term which is sometimes synonymous is saññā. In other texts the words are used as technical terms with specific senses, but each with multiple senses: citta for the flow of "mental" events or each mental event as it happens (synonymous almost with dhamma qua mental event); viññāna for the cognition of sensory data, or for the general sense of consciousness, or even for vehicle of rebirth; and manas as the sense faculty that does these mental tasks, and even later as the source of the subject/object duality.

    Citta in Pali, as in Sanskrit, is not "heart" per se but cetiyā (cognitive and intentional) events are contrasted with kāyikā (bodily) events. The word for "heart" is Skt hṛdaya or Pali hadaya. Sometimes, in later texts hṛdaya it is synonymous with manas suggesting that Indians saw the heart as the locus of thought/emotion. If one translates citta as "heart" how is one to translate the word for "heart"?

    Purification of the citta means eliminating greed, aversion and confusion. All three terms take in what we would call cognitive, and hedonic or affective as well as intentional senses.

    In this worldview and associated languages, one simply cannot separate thoughts from emotions.

  25. Suburbanbanshee said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    A lot of times, mens and cordis are pretty much the same. I suspect this was influenced by the Bible, but there are certainly plenty of examples in pagan Roman literature.

  26. Scott Barnwell said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

    Donald Harper, author of Early Chinese Medical Literature, would probably have some insight into this matter of the heart-mind. Is anyone here an acquaintance of his?

    BTW, I believe the early Chinese believed the seat of the various emotions were located in various internal organs. I believe this to be a development long after the xin was associated with the emotions.

  27. Matt said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    Matt: It's physical, but does it necessarily point to a specific organ, like the 心臓?

    It's not as much of a slam-dunk as we might like, but all the Kojiki commentaries I've seen interpret "in their bellies/ facing the liver/ have a heart" as referring to the actual four-chambered physical heart; in fact I've never seen any raise the possibility of a metaphorical or other-organ interpretation. So we can at least say that this has always been the standard understanding.

    (There are a couple of poems in the MYS too that have the phrase "kimo mukapu/ kokoro", so apparently "kimo mukapu" was an established epithet for "kokoro" even in cases where it wasn't physical, e.g. "kimo mukapu/ kokoro kudakete" in IX/1792 – this is unlikely to refer to a physical heart shattering…)

  28. Rubrick said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    Clearly the key to understanding Western thought lies in the fact that our word for "the part of human anatomy containing the skull" and "the end of the penis" are the same.

  29. the other Mark P said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    Scott, English still uses "bile" as a term for a particular emotion and "melancholy" (from Greek "black bile") for another. So the belief that emotions can be driven from organs outside the heart and brain was common.

  30. GH said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 2:21 am

    Also "lily-livered," "spineless," "having the stomach/balls for sth.," "strong/weak nerves"… The number of organs implicated in bravery/cowardice (including the heart, of course, as in the word "courage") is impressive.

  31. Roger Tucker said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 6:45 am

    I received this piece from a linguist friend. I know little about ancient Chinese anything – but I'm a buddhist and find it interesting that there is a Chinese word that means heart/mind. That's exactly what the sanskrit word "citta" means. If the Chinese equivalent is less than 2,000 years old they probably got it from India.

  32. Malcolm McLean said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 7:15 am

    "This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts."

    A post that you wanted to write (hence did not yet exist) got lost in the shuffle?

    Not only that, but you caught the same non-existent post in the act of going through your old drafts?

  33. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    @Malcolm McLean

    It's not so hard to understand. About a year ago, I assembled a lot of material for this post in the "drafts" section of my e-mail system, but didn't have the opportunity to return to completing the draft until a few days ago.

    I think that a lot of my colleagues here at Language Log operate the same way. I know that Mark Liberman does. In fact, we have lots of old drafts hanging around. Some we never get to, and they just die a natural death after years of lingering in our draft box.

  34. Bathrobe said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    To add another language to the mix, Vietnamese has not one but two words that appear to be borrowings from Chinese 心. It seems likely that the two words were borrowed at different times, although I don't know the exact times.

    Tim generally refers to the physiological heart, equivalent to Chinese 心臟, although it can also refer to a more metaphysical heart as well (e.g., tận tim đen 'in the inmost recesses of one's heart'). It can also mean 'centre'.

    Tim appears to be perceived as a native Vietnamese word. While it can, it seems, be written 心 in the old Chu Nom script, the more common Chu Nom character appears to be the flesh radical (⽉) plus 心. However, Chu Nom was never standardised so there are also other Chu Nom characters for it.

    Tâm is the Sino-Vietnamese word corresponding to Chinese 心. It occurs in a large number of compound words borrowed from Chinese, such as tâm lý 心理 'mental habit, psychology', tâm sự 心事 'intimate feelings, secrets of one's heart', tâm niệm 信念 'wish, thought', etc.

    Since it is used in the Vietnamese equivalents of Chinese compound words, tâm can also appear in words relating to the physical heart: tâm phòng 新房 'ventricle', tâm bệnh 心病 'heart disease', etc. (Actually, a dictionary I have gives: tâm bệnh [心病] 'psychosis, mental disorder', and tâm bệnh học [心病学] 'cardiology'.)

    In Chu Nom it is commonly written with the Chinese character 心.

    What this seems to suggest is that the earlier borrowing tim relates primarily to the physical heart, while the later borrowing tâm, overtly identified as a borrowing from Chinese, follows whatever meaning is expressed in Chinese compound words.

  35. Eidolon said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    @Roger Tucker It is older than 2,000 years, but not older than 3,000 years. However, see the post from Jayarava for why citta is not necessarily translated 'heart/mind.'

  36. J. F. said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    The Buddhologists, without hesitation, translate "mind"

    Except in the case of the "Heart Sutra" (心經).

  37. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

    From John Lagerwey:

    Huanjing bunao, return the essence to repair the brain. The phrase is found already in the Baopuzi and prefigures, if it does not presuppose, the idea of three centers dantian in the body. So here we have vital (internal) energy (the id?) being recycled up the spinal column in order to repair the brain (the superego?). The head becomes man's Heaven, the trunk of his body his Earth, and in Song texts like the Lingbao bifa, you have first to transform the body's energies before, at last, you can recycle the bodily energies to repair the brain and then allow your spirit to travel outside the body. Images of visualization (dates?) show clearly it is the brain doing the imagining, and communication with heaven takes place through the fontanelle, I suspect by the fourth century already, if not before. The heart in all this is the heaven of the torso, the southern trigram li (as opposed to kan) for the energy center of the northern kidneys. It might be thought of as the ego, but it is no longer the focus or even the center of the human being, as it is in Zhuangzi, say. No, attention has moved to the head, the brain, and its capacity to imagine/visualize and thereby go

  38. Jason said,

    October 1, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    @Scott Barnlow

    But early peoples must also have noticed that a blow to the HEAD could severely affect thinking, (and personality) permanently.

    Which is indeed precisely the argument that Alcmaeon of Croton used in the 5th century BCE to challenge the then-orthodox position that the seat of the mind was the heart (the carodiocentric theory), introducing the craniocentric theory instead.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    From John Lagerwey:

    Some further thoughts on this morning's post:

    In Zhuangzi, the heart is clearly designated as the "sovereign" (jun) in the body (also in Neiye etc.), meaning there is no such Heaven/Earth brain/body distinction as in the post-Han immortality texts. So in the Zhuangzi there is still a basic, almost pre-analytic sense of the unity of the human person. It is with the development of visualization techniques (as of Wangzi Qiao followers meditating on Taiyi) that the analysis of the human person into a heavenly and an earthly component occurs. As such, this analysis therefore represents the "progress" of patriarchy and masculinized rationality–and is therefore quite naturally much closer to Plato and his sense of epistemological incarceration in the body, while the Ideas were in Heaven. What is interesting is that the Platonic focus is on Ideas, that is, pure rationality, while the emerging Daoist modes (as in Shangqing) is on Images and the imagination. So even when the mind/brain is isolated as the "best" part of the human being, it is being used for very different things.

  40. Scott Barnwell said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    I would question John Lagerwey's comments about the Zhuangzi: "In Zhuangzi, the heart is clearly designated as the "sovereign" (jun) in the body (also in Neiye etc.), meaning there is no such Heaven/Earth brain/body distinction as in the post-Han immortality texts."

    The heart is not clearly designated as the sovereign. I am assuming he is referring to this passage from chapter 2: 百骸、九竅、六藏,賅而存焉,吾誰與為親?汝皆說之乎?其有私焉?如是皆有,為臣妾乎,其臣妾不足以相治乎。其遞相為君臣乎,其有真君存焉。如求得其情與不得,無益損乎其真。 which Victor Mair translates as "The hundred bones, the nine orifices, and the six viscera are all complete within my body. With which am I most closely identified? Do you favor all of them equally? Or are there those to which you are partial? Assuming that you treat them equally, do you take them all to be your servants? If so, are your servants incapable of controlling each other? Or do they take turns being lord and subject among themselves? If not, do they have a True Lord (jun) over them all? Whether or not we succeed in specifying His attributes has neither positive nor negative effect upon the truth of the Lord."

    Now, the "heart" (xin) is an important topic in the Zhuangzi, to be sure, and in a text with multiple authors there is certain to be multiple viewpoints. Shen "spirit" is often taken as the ruler of the body in texts like the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi.

    Paul Goldin has also pointed out some mind-body dualism in the Zhuangzi in his "A Mind-Body Problem in the Zhuangzi?" paper in Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi, one example being Zhuangzi talking to a disembodied deceased person via a skull he found. Edward Slingerland has also written recently about this sort of dualism in early China as well.

  41. Avery said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    "In what way is it misleading?"

    Having read the post and the comments, I would rather ask: in what way is your question leading?

  42. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 5:23 pm


    "in what way is your question leading?"


  43. Matt said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

    Except in the case of the "Heart Sutra" (心經).

    Touche! But this is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. The "heart" in "Heart Sutra" corresponds to Sanskrit hrdaya [please pardon lack of diacritics throughout here], cognate with hadaya in Pali. Unlike citta, vinnana, or mano, hadaya refers to the physical heart specifically (with metaphorical extension, yes, but I learned that the physical meaning was primary). The Heart Sutra isn't a "sutra about the heart/mind", it's a "sutra elucidating the heart (= center, core, essence — not mind) of the perfection of wisdom teaching".

    There is an extensive discussion of this issue and the words involved by V. A. Gunasekara here. His example contrasting citta and hadaya in Pali actually has a Chinese parallel, so I'll throw it in here:

    Sūcilomasutta: Pañhaṃ taṃ, samaṇa, pucchissāmi. Sace me na byākarissasi, cittaṃ vā te khipissāmi, hadayaṃ vā te phālessāmi, pādesu vā gahetvā pāragaṅgāya khipissāmī.

    (Translation by Bhikkuni Uppalavanna from here: "Recluse, I will ask you a question, if you fail to explain it, I will confuse your mind, or split your heart or taking you by the feet will throw you to the other bank of the of the river.")

    箭毛: 今有所問,當為我說,能令我喜者善,不能令我喜者,當壞汝,裂汝,令汝熱血從其面出,捉汝兩手擲恒水彼岸。

    So citta = 心 (big ball of wibbly-wobbly hearty-mindy stuff), while hadaya = 胸 (chest, breast). I'm not sure whether 胸 was the standard translation for hadaya or whether it was forced because 心 had already been used, but even in that case it's telling that the translators went for a very physical word as substitute.

  44. Zhiqiang Li (Andy Lee) said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 10:03 am

    In ancient Greek language, there are several words meaning "heart" and "mind". They are φρήν(phrene),ψυχή(psyche),和καρδία(cardia). In Homeric Epic,φρήν means the "heart or the residence of the heart". And it also means "the place where the wisdom or ration is generated". ψυχή also has the meaning of "heart, soul and spirit", though its original meaning is "breath or the essence of life". καρδία generally was used to refer to "the organ of heart". There is difference between these three words when referring to 心. However, I found that, in the tragedies of Aeschylus, they are sometimes interchangeable or close in meaning. For an example,
    Libation Bearers line 1025,
    Φέρουσι γὰρ νικώμενον
    φρένες δύσαρκτοι: πρὸς δὲ καρδίᾳ φόβος
    ᾁδειν ἕτοιμος ἠδ᾽ ὑπορχεῖσθαι κότῳ.

    For my ungoverned wits are whirling me away overmastered,
    and at my heart fear wishes to sing and dance to a tune of wrath.
    –translated by Herbert W. Smyth
    Here the φρένες is translated into wits and καρδίᾳ into heart while in Libation Bearers, line 512,
    τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλ᾽, ἐπειδὴ δρᾶν κατώρθωσαι φρενί,
    ἔρδοις ἂν ἤδη δαίμονος πειρώμενος.

    As for the rest, since your heart is rightly set on action,
    put your fortune to the test and get to your work at once.
    –translated by Herbert W. Smyth
    φρενί was translated into "heart".

    This means that ancient Greek writers didn't make clear distinction between mind and heart.

  45. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    A bit off topic, but I've long wondered, is φρήν cognate with "brain"? One more complication.

  46. Kevin McCready said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

    In teasing out emotion/reason, an understanding of brain function might help.

    The Capgras Delusion, when it arises from a brain lesion, shows that the emotional and rational functions of the brain are separate (Capgras delusion: a person is convinced their loved ones are imposters because the person suffering the delusion can account in no other way for the lack of emotion they feel towards the "imposters").

    When humans are convinced about something there must be an emotional element, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to be being purely rational at the time.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    Hebrew notions of body and soul:


    The site looks a little gaudy, but the information seems good.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    From John Lagerwey, commenting on the previous comment:

    You will see: they explicitly reject Platonic dualism. Here is a quote from Curie Virag's essay on Neo-Confucian self-cultivation in the forthcoming Brill book:

    In one passage, Zhu described the emptiness of the xin by way of the literal image of the physical heart, making a striking reference to the hearts of chickens and pigs that one might find on one’s dinner plate:

    Everything possesses a heart and the space within this heart must be empty. This is like a dish containing chicken hearts or pig hearts. Once you cut into it you can see them. The human heart/mind is also like this.

    30 Zhang Zai ji, pp. 63–64.

    Self-cultivation As Praxis In Song Neo-confucianism 1205

    But this empty place still encompasses and stores the many moral principles 道理 that fill Heaven and Earth and embrace past and present.

    凡物有心而其中必虛, 如飲食中雞心豬心之屬, 切開可見. 人心亦然. 只這虛處,便包藏許多道理,彌綸天地,該括古今.31

    The potency of the heart/mind lay in its “wondrous emptiness” 虛靈, not in its containing things, as in the Han and Tang storehouse image. Indeed, Zhu insisted that there were no things in it at all:

    Wondrous emptiness is the original substance of the heart/mind; it is not that I am able to make it empty. As for the seeing and hearing of the eyes and ears, that by which one sees and hears is the heart/mind. How can there be forms and images in it? Nevertheless, when the eyes and ears see and hear, then there are also forms and images. As for the wondrous emptiness of the heart/mind, how can there be things at that level?

    虛靈自是心之本體, 非我所能虛也. 耳目之視聽, 所以視聽者即其心也. 豈有形象? 然有耳目以視聽之, 則猶有形象也. 若心之虛靈, 何嘗有物!32

  49. Richard W said,

    October 5, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    My wife (and many other Chinese friends and acquaintances) actually emphatically pointed to her nose (placed the end of her index finger on the tip of her nose) when she would say, "Wǒ zìjǐ 我自己" ("I myself").

    Here's a photo illustrating that gesture:

    It's from a recent news article. The photo caption reads: "Demonstrators argue with each other outside the central government offices in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg"

  50. Victor Mair said,

    October 5, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

    @Richard W

    Thanks for the great photo!

    Yep! That's exactly what my wife would do.

  51. Cudy said,

    October 9, 2014 @ 7:15 am

    May anyone show me learn-by-HEART vs. learn-by-MIND
    which one is "CORRECT" ? and logically explain why?
    Thank you.

    PS: My native language is Vietnamese.

  52. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2014 @ 8:12 am


    That's a great question!

    We always say "learn by heart", not "learn by mind". Since we're storing the information in our mind, logically we should say "learn by mind". I think that we probably say "learn by heart" because the rote memorization this expression implies involves a non-rational, almost emotional, component.

  53. Richard W said,

    October 9, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

    The expression "by heart" goes back a long way. In the 14th century, for example, Chaucer wrote "She told ek al þe prophesies by herte." I don't know what concept of "heart" people had hundreds of years ago, but I wonder if the mind was conceived of as something that has *fleeting* thoughts wheras the heart was regarded as something central to one's being and less subject to change. Perhaps the mind was associated with consciousness, and the heart with stored memories. If so, then "learn by heart" makes sense.

    The expression "come to mind" is also very old.* If a memory "comes to mind", where does it come from? Presumably, not from the mind.

    * "And every word gan up and down to wynde That he had seyd, as it com hire to mynde." (Chaucer again)

  54. Alon said,

    October 13, 2014 @ 6:30 am

    @ Rodger C: I've long wondered, is φρήν cognate with "brain"? One more complication.

    Nope. Brain is a complicated beast, but it's only attested in West Germanic, and is perhaps a doublet of bran that coexisted and eventually displaced the Norse borrowing harn (a cognate of cranium).

    It's true that the regular development of PIE *gʷʰren- would have yielded something like PGmc *brīn, but that would be incompatible with the attested OE brægen and its Frisian and Low German cognates.

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