The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?

Edward Ruscha's <em>I Can't Not Do That</em> at Sotheby's, London, England, March 4, 2015
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Edward Ruscha’s I Can’t Not Do That at Sotheby’s, London, England, March 4, 2015

People who study other cultures sometimes note that they benefit twice: first by learning about the other culture and second by realizing that certain assumptions of their own are arbitrary. In reading Colin McGinn’s fine recent piece, “Groping Toward the Mind,” in The New York Review, I was reminded of a question I had pondered in my 2013 book Anatomy of Chinese: whether some of the struggles in Western philosophy over the concept of mind—especially over what kind of “thing” it is—might be rooted in Western language. The puzzles are less puzzling in Chinese.     

Indo-European languages tend to prefer nouns, even when talking about things for which verbs might seem more appropriate. The English noun inflation, for example, refers to complex processes that were not a “thing” until language made them so. Things like inflation can even become animate, as when we say “we need to combat inflation” or “inflation is killing us at the check-out counter.” Modern cognitive linguists like George Lakoff at Berkeley call inflation an “ontological metaphor.” (The inflation example is Lakoff’s.) 

When I studied Chinese, though, I began to notice a preference for verbs. Modern Chinese does use ontological metaphors, such as fāzhăn (literally “emit and unfold”) to mean “development” or xὶnxīn (“believe mind”) for “confidence.” But these are modern words that derive from Western languages (mostly via Japanese) and carry a Western flavor with them. “I firmly believe that…” is a natural phrase in Chinese; you can also say “I have a lot of confidence that…” but the use of a noun in such a phrase is a borrowing from the West.  

Wanting to test my intuition that classical Chinese was more verb-heavy than its Indo-European counterparts, I opened Confucius’s Analects and an English translation of Plato’s Apology of Socrates and counted nouns and verbs. Confucius uses slightly more verbs than nouns. Plato uses about 45 percent more nouns than verbs. In search of a more recent example (but still from before the major Western-language influence on Chinese), I chose at random a page from Cao Xueqin’s eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber and a page from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The Cao page had 130 nouns and 166 verbs (a 0.8 to 1 ratio), while the Dickens page had 96 nouns and 38 verbs (a 2.5 to 1 ratio). 

I wondered: in Western languages, especially in their modern versions, do we sometimes use nouns to conceive things when we don’t really need to? For example, when electrical impulses are speeding along neurons in the brain, might not a verb be best? Why do we create the noun “neural connectivity” and then refer to it as an actor: “neural connectivity makes it natural for complex metaphorical mappings to be built”? This sentence is from Lakoff, but similar examples are everywhere. A medical researcher at the University of California at San Francisco in 2003 discussed mad cow disease in terms of its “high infectivity.” Infectivity? Why not just say the disease spreads easily?

Next I wondered: does this question matter? Does unnecessary turning of verbs into nouns ever do any harm, or am I just fussing? 

Where it can cause trouble, I think, is at the point where people begin to assume that a noun somehow says something more than a verb or adjective does. “The neurons connect well” and “the neural connectivity is good” say the same thing, but I fear that people begin to suppose that “neural connectivity” somehow adds to “neurons connect” and becomes a “thing” in itself, not just a label for an action. We can, I’m afraid, be led into thinking that a mere tautology is intellectually significant. If I were to say, for example, “Her neurons connect well because she has good neural connectivity,” the emptiness of the explanation would be plain. Yet even an experienced writer like George Lakoff seems susceptible to the problem when he writes:

What gives human beings the power of abstract reason? Our answer is that human beings have what we will call a conceptualizing capacity [emphasis in the original].

Lakoff goes on to explain what he means by “capacity,” and his explanation, like the thing explained, is heavy with nouns. My point here is not to criticize Lakoff’s idea; it is to note that his thought, as he has expressed it, would need to be fundamentally restructured before going into natural-sounding Chinese. In Lakoff’s English sentence, people reason abstractly because they have something (an ability, a capacity, etc.); in Chinese it is more natural to say that people reason abstractly because they do something. 

A deeper kind of worry about our fondness for nouns occurs to me: does it happen, perhaps, that speakers of English are drawn to believe that certain things exist because nouns that serve as their labels exist? Might it be only the labels that exist? I read the anthropologist Hoyt Alverson who, in a good book on how time is conceived in English, Chinese, Hindi, and Sesotho, writes that the “ontogeny” of time is indeterminate. He explains “ontogeny” as meaning the “character” of something’s “being.” We have, then, the proposition that the character of the being of time is indeterminate. Do the nouns in this proposition refer to things that exist? In addition to time, is there a “being” of time? And if there is, is that being the kind of thing that can possess something else, as here it is supposed to possess a “character”? These problems are by no means Alverson’s alone; he writes in a way that is common in English. In Chinese, though, it is almost impossibly awkward to say “the character of the being of time.” A literal translation is opaque and would signal to a Chinese speaker that “this phrase came out of a Western language and you might well go there to figure out what it is supposed to mean.” Ancient Chinese philosophers did discuss “being,” but to do it they used the words you, “there is,” and wu, “there is not,” both of which are fundamentally verbs. By contrast ancient Greek thinkers often conceived their puzzles in terms of nouns: What is “justice”? “Beauty”? “The good”? And so on.

I wanted to see whether “assuming that things exist just because nouns that refer to them exist” might cause problems for serious Western philosophers. I read Colin McGinn’s book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World about the “mind-body problem”—which, briefly put, is the problem of how “mental substance” and “physical substance” can affect each other. Although a major problem in Western philosophy since Descartes, the question has scarcely been noticed in the history of Chinese philosophy. I much admire McGinn’s writing; I chose him purposefully as a powerful representative for the West.  

At one point in his book, McGinn focuses on the curious fact that our perceptions of the world are often perceptions of things in space, and yet the perceptions themselves occupy no space. He writes:

Consider the visual experience of seeing a red sphere two feet away with a six-inch diameter. The object of this experience is of course a spatial object with spatial properties, but the experience itself does not have these properties: it is not two feet away from you and six inches in diameter. …When we reflect on the experience itself, we can see that it lacks spatial properties altogether.

For me, the crucial phrase here is “the experience itself.” Is there such a thing? The noun “experience” exists, but that is not the question. Does the experience exist? We might feel intuitively that it does. But does that intuition arise, in part, from the grammatical habit of using nouns like “experience” and assuming that they refer to things? Classical Chinese poets see, hear, and feel in all sorts of ways—they have no trouble “experiencing.” But they find no need to talk about “experience” as a noun. The modern Chinese word jīngyàn, “experience,” was invented to accommodate Western language.

Is there a way we can test whether our intuitions are shaped by noun-habits in our thinking? The English word experience is perhaps not the best example for doing such a test, simply because it has the same form as both noun (“experience”) and verb (“experience”). “Feeling” might work better, because the noun (“feeling”) and the verb (“feel”) have different forms.  

To the experiment: in most cases, two statements of the forms “I feel X” and “I have a feeling of X” will not differ much, if at all, in meaning. But if we ask about “spatial properties” for the two cases, we get very different results. If I say “I feel X,” you cannot grammatically ask me in English “Does your feel have spatial properties?” You could ask, “Do you feel with (or in) length and color?,” but this question, although grammatical, does not “make sense.” No matter how you put them, questions about the spatiality of X are hard to phrase if you use the word “feel.” But if, on the other hand, I say “I have a feeling of X,” then the same question—“Does your feeling have spatial properties?”—does make sense. It not only makes grammatical sense but makes enough philosophical sense to get into the writing of an excellent philosopher like Colin McGinn. So we can see that from a starting point where there is no real difference in everyday usage (i.e., between “I feel X” and “I have a feeling of X”), the choice of whether to use “feel” or “feeling” can lead to (or perhaps create?) a philosophical puzzle if one goes one direction and no puzzlement if one goes the other.

McGinn goes on to point out that numbers, like the experience of red spots, do not occupy space. “We cannot sensibly ask how much space the number 2 takes up relative to the number 37,” he writes. “It is hardly true that the bigger the number the more space it occupies.” Then he writes:

To attribute spatial properties to numbers is an instance of what philosophers call a category-mistake, trying to talk about something as if it belonged to a category it does not belong to. Only concrete things have spatial properties, not abstract things like numbers or mental things like experiences of red.

In my imagination an ancient Chinese philosopher might well accept McGinn’s point, but then ask him: why do you talk about “mental things”? Is that not also a category-mistake? If I see a red spot, do I not simply see a red spot? The red spot, yes, is a thing, but “I see” is not a thing. I see is I see. If you change it into “my sight” or “my experience of seeing,” you are performing a grammatical act, but that grammatical act has no power to change the way the world is. Your perplexity about how two “things” relate comes only from your grammar. 

The first time I wrote down some of these thoughts, I showed them to a colleague in the philosophy department at Princeton (I was in the East Asian studies department). He said, “You haven’t solved the mind-body problem, you know.” I agreed with him; indeed I was a bit surprised at his impression of what I had been aiming to do. Once one enters an Indo-European language, the mind-body problem indeed is hard, and I had not been trying to solve it on that turf. At most, I have discovered only a question: are people who think in Indo-European languages better off because their languages lead them to clear conceptualization of an important puzzle, or are thinkers in Chinese better off because their language gets them through life equally well without the puzzle?  

Adapted from Perry Link’s An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics, published by Harvard University Press.