Tag Archives: language

Determinism and relativity

1.
Think about it. If your language determines your thought entirely then the entire population of speakers of a language would all think in exactly the same way. Variation of thought exist within a language/culture. Otherwise we would not need to vote in elections, have different types of cereal or have genres or music. Relative to other languages your language influences somewhat the range of your thought.

The English grammar distinguishes singular and plural. Arabic grammar distinguishes singular, dual and plural. And Japanese grammar does not distinguish number. By being forced to think about and encode number in English and Arabic, and not needing to encode in Japanese will influence your thinking.

Japanese tend to encode plurals poorly in English as a second language. More than likely, Arabic learners of English will find it easier to produce the grammar for plurality.

2.
Like bat-and-ball sportsmen who tend to pick up other bat-and-ball sports quickly, language learners from related languages also acquire the second language faster. In applied linguistics this is called positive transfer. It makes sense that transfer can be applied to other skills like sport as well. But this does not mean a sportsman cannot become good at a dissimilar sport. If things were (pre)determined then we will never need to try because there is only one outcome – failure. Language learning is partly nature, and partly nurture. Both are necessary. It is not either/or but and.

But history may proof that nature and nurture may be misnomers which have ultimately influenced our way of thinking all along.

Nature includes us

There is an excellent account of the word “nature” in Raymond Williams’ book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (page 219). Three definitions of the word were listed.

  1. the essential quality and character of something
  2. the inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both
  3. the material world itself, taken as including or not including humans beings

Example sentences of these respectively could be, for example:

  1. “The nature of the crime was too gruesome to describe.”
  2. “Nature will dictate our planet’s future.”
  3. “Man and nature have achieved harmony.”

While the oldest usage is that 1 it is used more now as 2 and 3 where differentiation is difficult between the the latter two. What is important is the inclusion and exclusion of human beings. One is to equate nature with God with a capital G (as noted by Williams). Thus 3 is close to the physical reality when man is included, but only the natural world apart from human being and human culture.

Personally, I believe nature includes us (meaning 3). Nature made us to develop ideas which includes ideas about God, nature, and culture. There is a role for the idea of exclusion as well as inclusion. We have the capacity to think and express either. The ground of battle is not in God, nature, or culture but the nature* of language itself.


*First meaning was meant and unavoidable.

Type/token

A type is a word who’s general meaning is derived from its sum token usages. Types are similar to universals and innate ideas which seemingly have a stable unchanging meaning when in fact they are derived categorisations of concepts. This error in understanding has been the root of the problem with Western philosophy from the very beginning. The ground of contention is in thought which is grounded in language. The nature of meaning, form, thought, and communication has to clear in order to understand the problem at hand.

The editorial error that became “metaphysics”

Did you know that the term “metaphysics” came about through an error by an editor? Not only that, but the entire project of trying to find the nature and origin of being and the universe is based upon this error.

The “meta” in metaphysical had meant “after” or “beyond”, which led it to be interpreted as meaning “beyond the physical world”. No such meaning was there, however, because the editor had only wanted to denote use the term to mean the chapter after the chapter on ‘physics’. So Western Civilisation has been chasing after God and the soul for over two-thousand years because of an error.

What should we believe in?

Perhaps you are wondering how I can be a Buddhist and not believe in a god. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English religion is defined as “a belief in one or more gods”. Few would argue with this definition.

I said few.

There are thousands of religions out there. If Justine religion does not include a god or gods within it, then, the definition fails. And Buddhism is one such religion. (Another is Jainism.)

Buddhism is atypical of religions in that it rejects the worship of gods. Buddha is not a god and had never said he was. It should be noted it was those who came afterwards that added the gods, perhaps incorporating aspects of the local culture.

But far from rejecting existence of a god or gods it is, in my opinion, far healthier to accept the concept of a god or gods as part of what it means to be human.

Human/Animal

The advantage of being human is that we can group things easily by convenience of language. Take the word “human” for example. The term means us the single species of animal that is contrasted with all other animals. The opposite of human is “animal”. It also denotes us as different (when we are not) from other animals by putting everything into the container of “animal”.

This is how anthropocentric we are.

We must, at all times, be careful with and be aware of the nature of language. To think that language is natural and error-free is to not understand its nature. For it is wholly artificial, reliant upon the tools, the limited mechanics, we call the “body” that is available to us.

Define the system and its range

All systems are necessarily closed. It has a range and limit. Everything within the system will define each and every other object within the system.

The English alphabet is one such system. There are 26 letters. each and every one of those letters contrast to each other for not being one another. Within the confines of these 26 letters all combinations of words are made. Saussure called this the system of difference. For the signifier this is difference is easy to understand. Together with the signified the story becomes less clear. Since the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary this means a signified can take any signifier. Up to a certain this can be true. However, the reality is that some signified meanings take on certain signifiers in the form of polysemy. Other forms of dictatorial tendencies may be seen in onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration. In other words there is both arbitrariness and systematicity at work in the relationship between form and meaning.

To me, the implications of this is important to our understanding of the nature of language, and ultimately to the nature of thought.

God/Metaphor

God is a metaphor. 

Why people misunderstand the Buddhist concept of karma?

You often hear people say in English things like, “He will get what he deserves”, or “What goes around comes around”. And often you hear these same people say, “He has bad karma”. But that is not what is meant by karma, at least not in the Buddhist sense.

Firstly, karma (or kamma in Pali) which means ‘work’ or ‘deed’ in sanskrit should not to be confused with kama (as in The Kama Sutra) which means ‘desire’. They are not variant spellings of the same word but two separate words with separate meanings. Furthermore, the concept of kama is related to Hinduism and not Buddhism.

Secondly, it should also be understood that karma is a term used in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, with all three religions having different meanings for the term. In Hinduism accumulation of karma is important in order to reach liberation. In Jainism the soul is surrounded by karmic “dirt” which “clings on to souls” which attract it. In Buddhism all production of karma – whether good or bad – through one’s actions is to be avoided. Thus the interpretation varies according to religious tradition which is reflected in the ways to attain their goals. In Buddhism it is awakening or bodhi. In Hinduism and Jainism it is liberation or moksha, though again the meaning of these terms are different for each religion. One should be aware that the word is only a “container” and not its “content” or meaning.

So in Buddhism if by avoiding karma we are to be awakened then how can one talk about anything that has to do with deservingness or merit. In Buddhism we do not talk in this way for this very reason. Merit of deed is wholly an English language convention and concept attached to the word karma by mistake.

 

Do countries that speak English have a higher probability of success in business because of the English language’s framework, structure, and words?

The probability of you having a higher income, education and lifestyle is greater if you live in an English speaking country.

That can be shown by economic statistics. The chances of you being in the lower income, education and lifestyle brackets are much lower if you live in these countries. 

But whether it is the English that you speak that allows this is a problematic question. One can argue that the dominance of English as a world language has contributed to this and I will agree with that argument. 

Francois Lyotard called these grand-narratives where a dominant discourse shuts out other arguments. The best example is Communism. But also English as a world language and the promotion of that ideal is also a subtle and hidden shutout of all other arguments as well. 

I will say this though: English is only guilty because of its position as a world language. If it were another language, say, French (which had also vied for the same status as late as the late 20th century) the same grand-narrative posturing would occur. 

There can be no neutral world language. If there were someone somewhere would eventually find a way to use it to their advantage.

Nature, Darwin, natural selection

1.
I’d like to begin this three-section mini-essay with the concept of nature. If we think about it nature, by our misconceived conception, really is a space where things interact without the human intervention or existence. Thus the definition is one of absence of the human. It is also one of binary and opposition. In this sense, then, to be human is to be unnatural. But at exactly what point does the nature end and the human begin? To be more precise this is not a question of where but one of when.

Some time in history, or rather existence, we became aware of ourselves and began to define the self as apart from nature. Thus definition of nature and man came into being simultaneously. What once was one entity is now two by the act of defining, and no more.

2.
It would not have been easy for Charles Darwin to have decided to publish Origin of Species. He would have had the entire history of The Christian West to contend with. Even his family particularly his wife harboured doubts even though she was supportive. This proposal would not and could not have been taken lightly. The suggestion that humans are related to chimps and apes when until then we are said to have been the creation of the Creator, a discourse which unequivocally left little room for alternative possibilities. Such was Darwin’s time.

In essence Man (and it was mostly the male of the species who controlled the discourse) was the force behind the artificial rhetoric. This still-very-lost-gender of this species spends most of its time coming up with new versions of the story, the new paradigms. And this continues even today. For stories are necessary. The space must be filled, so to speak, with something other than a void.

3.
The story of Nature, then, is one in which we are still separate from. But if we are indeed the continuation of the long march of evolution (note: another story) then we must be the part of The Story of Nature. Thus the destruction we reek upon the place we call home, the place we share and interact with the other life forms is as natural as it is possible. The story must mean we are like a cancer (more: another story) killing off what is weak only to make the system a stronger more resilient one for the future, whatever it may be.

The Printed Word

“Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.”

Carol Burnett

Sounds like good advice for Right Speech.