Language, the Mind, and the East vs. the West

Are we, in the West, overly consumed with creating validity through language? In other words, by naming something do we legitimize (or at least think we legitimize) something ie., eliminate the possibility of debate? 

I’m overly obsessed with language and the question of how it affects the way our mind functions analytically, so I was intrigued by Perry Link’s recent New York Review of Books blog post pondering the possibility that Western languages’ preference for nouns in contrast to Eastern languages’ preference for verbs, might lead Westerners to think something exists simply because a noun (label) for it exists. 

Link’s argument is more directly concerned at the end of the day with how this might affect philosophical argument, specifically philosopher’s parsing of the “mind-body problem,” the seemingly endless attempt to try to understand how to objectify mental experience, or at least if not objectify, relate it to physical experience. 

He spends a good deal of space pointing out the difficulty we have conceptualizing whether or not our experience of something is. He uses the verb and noun forms of feel, feel and feeling, to point out the difference between the phrases “I feel X” and “I have a feeling of X;” the former is not particularly inviting for argumentation while the latter is open to endless puzzlement. (To illustrate. Link points out responding to the former statement with a question like “Does your feel have spatial properties?” would make absolutely no sense while a similar response to the latter could prompt endless philosophical quibbling, admittedly only in the right setting and with the right people.)

I know it seems like a stretch, but I think on a more basic level, he’s on to something with ramifications far more relevant than he intended, specifically in two ways. 

  1. He’s asserting that Eastern languages do not waste time on what are essentially unknowable things, like attempting to definitively determine whether or not mental experience has concrete form. Instead they accept that what one sees is what one sees. No time is wasted comparing one person’s seeing to another. “I see” is simply “I see.” Why turn it into a game of semantics by talking of “the experience of seeing?” My psychology-trained sister pointed out that in counseling and therefore much of psychology the question of whether or not one’s experience of reality is actually reality, cannot be considered: since psychology is more action-oriented, the way one person sees the world must be accepted as that person’s reality and dealt with as such.
  2. Link is also in his piece alluding to the idea that our noun proclivity might hamper our reasoning skills; we could perhaps reach a point, following his line of argument, where-in we forget that just because something has been given a name, that doesn’t prove its existence. He cites several examples of prominent writers and thinkers who have fallen into the semantic trap of explaining a phenomenon with the word or phrase we’ve tapped to describe it. 

See, apparently, none of this is an issue for the Chinese who more or less accept certain sensory experiences as given for the individual who experiences them. Period. End of story.

This all reminded me of a gorgeous book I just finished by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below. It’s a book about our experience of art, illustrated by various people in various countries throughout the centuries. Krasznahorkai seems to be asking the question many of us ask in the 21st century; what is the meaning, the experience of art meant to be in a world without a god? How is one to be moved by art? Can one be? Is that the purpose of art at all?

I don’t know what the key to the book is or what the answer to the question is, I don’t think Krasznahorkai is the type of writer who would attempt an answer, but he seems to be pointing to Eastern cultures more ritualistic encounter with art as the key. Time and again his Western characters’ encounters with art are disappointing, full of tourists and other obstacles such as our obsession with the Artist. But his Eastern characters are never thwarted. Their relationship to their art is steady, based in ritual, not dramatic emotional experience. They don’t have an expectation that can be disappointed, they simply exist with the art, performing their role in a Noh performance, or in the ritualistic restoration of a temple Buddha. It’s not profound in the way we would think of profound, but in its simplicity lies a certain profundity really, intimating at a more authentic, intimate relationship with art on a spiritual level.

“He does not occupy himself with such questions as what is the Noh… he merely occupies himself with doing the very best he can within the limits of his abilities,” he writes in one vignette. 

Krasznahorkai’s characters are a different illustration of the East vs. West spiritual divide but one that seems to have a wider resonance than Link’s more obtuse philosophical pondering. His Western characters are obsessed with finding meaning, purpose, emotional response in art, while his Eastern characters just accept art for what it is and find enjoyment in that. Just as, according to Link, the Chinese simply accept seeing as seeing, instead of debating its validity.

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