Is the mind less puzzling in Chinese? July 8, 2016 Yes, suggests Perry Link at the The New York Review of Books.
Link raises an excellent question. I think he formulates it best at the end, where he seems to acknowledge that having the language necessary to articulate certain real or illusory problems may be worth the trouble of having the problems.
I don’t have a general view of why it might be better to have a higher or lower noun/verb ratio. But I have a suspicion on the subject, and a few other little things to say. I wish I understood the whole business much better.
The suspicion is that nouns make it easier to formulate complex ideas compactly. I don’t have a general argument for this, but consider Link’s example:
(If merely having an effect counts as being an “actor,” then how much worse if we multiply verbs! Are those electrical impulses “voyagers”?)
Link’s “electrical impulses are speeding along neurons in the brain,” is of course not a verb phrase; it is a complete sentence with three nouns and one verb. And does not begin to capture the idea of neural connectivity, though it is far longer. Better would be “lots of neurons are connected to lots of others.” But because that too is a full sentence, it is harder to combine with other ideas in a compact sentence. Try using it to make an equivalent for “across species, high neural connectivity correlates with better maze performance,” without significant losses in compactness and even clarity. Or take Link’s sentence “electrical impulses are speeding along neurons in the brain,” and try restating it using a verb instead of the abstract noun “electrical impulses.”
One could of course replace the noun phrase “neural connectivity” with a longer noun phrase: “how well or how much the neurons connect with each other” or “how many neurons connect with how many others as a proportion of the total number of neurons.”
A famous point in Anglo philosophy, that we might call a point about the advantages of nouns, is W. V. O. Quine’s proposal about ontology.
Ontology is the theory of what there is—of what kinds of things there are. Examples of ontological theories might be that everything is made up of yin and yang, or the four elements, or the five processes, or mind and matter; the game 20 Questions has associated with it the rough ontological assumption that everything is of animal, vegetable, or mineral.
The idea that our language determines our ontological assumptions is a familiar one, for which the philosopher W. V. O. Quine (in Word and Object, 1964) borrowed the slogan “ontology recapitulates philology.” The slogan is a reference to the longstanding commonplace in Anglo philosophy that what looks like a philosophical problem could turn out to be a mere illusion of language. The slogan is a jest; it’s a play on the old biological catchphrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”
Ontogeny is the coming-to-be of a thing, as when a rabbit develops in its mother’s womb; phylogeny is the coming-to-be of a species or group, as in the evolutionary process that produced rabbits. The biological theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is the theory that the developmental course of any fetus tends to reproduce the forms of the ancestor species in order. Link’s anthropologist Alverson is simply misusing the word ‘ontogeny’, confusing it with ‘ontology.’
Alverson defines the [ontology] of a thing as the character of its being. In other words, how would it be classified by ontology. The ontology of white piano keys used to be “animal”; now it’s usually “mineral”—unless we classify plastic as animal+vegetable on the grounds that it comes from petroleum. In Alverson’s phrase “the character of its being,” the “being” of a thing refers to the classification that a true ontology would assign to the thing, and the character of that classification would be its distinguishing features. The being of old white piano keys is animal, and the character of that is that it comes from animals. I mean – – – I don’t recall coming across language like “the character of its being,” but when I come across it here I think I understand the phrase.
Now, Quine (at least at some point in his career) thought the fundamental question of ontology, “What exists?”, is to be answered by working out the best theories on all the topics, reducing some theories to others where possible (as one might think chemistry is reducible to physics), and noticing what sorts of entities the best set of theories assumes. He put the last point this way: find out what sorts of entities the best theory quantifies over.
For when you have a noun that picks out a kind of thing, like ‘dog’, you can then use a certain kind of logical structure. You can say things like this:
All dogs are black.
There is at least one black dog.
No dogs are back.
If any dog is black, then that dog is loyal.
If any dog is loyal, then all cats are yellow.
If no dogs are black, then if some cats are yellow, no mice are dead.
Nouns allow for that kind of syntax. (Of course one also needs verbs, or predicates, such as “are black” or “are dachsunds.”)
Thus Quine was challenging a certain sort of question, saying it’s a pseudo-question. He was challenging questions like this: “Sure we find it theoretically handy to talk about ‘experiences’, to quantify over ‘experiences.’ But do they really exist?”
Perry Link seems in places to be pressing a question sorta kinda like that.
I wonder how much of what Nisbett seems to observe is due to Western languages’ being shaped to be effective tools of intellectual collaboration (debate) among strangers far apart.
What gets me about the mind-body problem is pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. Who has it? What has it? I don’t know how to defend my prejudice that only slimy things have it (humans, fish); dry rectangular things don’t. I can’t imagine an adequate test. But that sort of question looks very important.
Link writes, “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? ”
Can we rephrase Mencius’ idea of the four duan 端, or the Neo-Confucian reading of Youzi’s “practice of ren,” without using language that reifies?