Jessica asked me to talk a little more about my thesis topic for my Philosophy major. I’m one to oblige all requests, especially if they involve me talking at great length. This particular request is helpful, because as I type out this elaboration I am refining my thoughts concerning my thesis in my own head (something I have not done yet). Spoiler: some esoteric knowledge and grammar will be necessary, but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum.
Wittgenstein, like Nietzsche and Schopenhaur before him, wrote his greatest work in the form of aphorisms (I refer to his Philosophical Investigations). There is something about the idea of a self-contained thought which really speaks to my way of thinking. Contrary to thinkers such as Plato, Wittgenstein and others labored to make their most profound philosophical insights easily digestible. By ennumerating his thoughts, Wittgenstein made his work (in my mind) much easier to comprehend, but also much more subtle and complex than it first lets on.
The other major thinker who wrote in a similar manner is Confucius; it would be a misapplication of words to ascribe the Aphorism to his way of writing–it seems that much of what he has authored was simply sayings copied down by disciples. I think that what is interesting about both sets of thinkers, though, is that they used a self-contained and highly individualized dialectic to put forward a system of philosophy that is holistic. In Wittgenstein’s case, it means that he believed that there is no concrete meaning behind any word. He was the first radical advocate of meaning holism, and possibly the last strong defender of it. It’s a wonder, then, that he falls into the analytic tradition of thought; his philosophy was non-essentialist to the core. He believed that any word which has a meaning derives it from similar words; but that these meanings change with context and cannot be pinned down and defined. Wittgenstein said: “Interpretations themselves do not determine meaning.” (Investigations, §198)
My thesis (broadly construed), is going to concern itself first of all with a philosophically adequate study of the differences between contemporary English and Chinese grammars. An example of how these differences can amount to interesting philosophical insights is the unique Chinese device of measure words. Many nouns in Chinese contain an accompanying ‘measure word’. This measure word often has to do with the shape or kind of noun that is being mentioned; oftentimes it has to do with the noun’s meaning or relationship with other words. For example, “一张桌子” means “a table”. However the “张” in that phrase means little else than “flat”. But it is by very dint of this word that the word for table (“桌子”) is placed into a category with ‘flat things’. If we place this in contrast to English grammar, some interesting things can be seen: Starting with Aristotle, the Western world has gone about studying the natural world by isolating an object of study from its surrounding area. A bug’s choice of habitat or the climate a tree grows in is not figured into the primary characteristics of the object, because these factors are seen as secondary to, say, the physical makeup of the organism.
So far I have only used examples from the physical sciences, but I think that the most salient debate that a study of these differences will give rise to is the different notions of mind and self that can be found in Eastern and Western societies. It is not coincidental that the West has evolved atomistic notions of medicine (isolation-based treatment), physics (atomism), and politics (individual agency more important than collective mandate). These things may or may not have evolved from differences in language, but they certainly evolved from the different ways that Chinese and Western thinkers have apprehended the world.
This, in short, is my thesis topic. If you’ve made it this far, you’re either a philosophy major, or are a masochist. I’ll type up some more when I have the free time (tonight’s potential for Chinese study was instead squandered on episodes of Mad Men and this post).