Thursday, November 26, 2009

thinking from scratch

So, I woke up one morning thinking - or rather wondering - what kinds of scripts African cultures that had no readily identifiable writing systems when they encountered colonial traders would have had. Of course things like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Ashanti Adinkra symbols suggest that the systems would have been pictoral as opposed to abstract. Doing a bit of fine googling I came upon an article by Ding Xinghua [ ] that also leans towards that view based on the living habits of indigenous Africans, the deference for nature, the need-based analysis of things etc. (the article is about Chinese thought and science, but I felt it applied). Here is an extract:

Language can be regarded as the extension of thought. Man accepts, understands his surroundings or the world in terms of the mother tongue he was born with. The writing form of this tongue subliminally influences his mind. A nation's cultural psyche and thinking pattern can be found deeply rooted in the configuration of its writing system.

A number of scholars, like Logan (1986; 1995), Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964), have studied the impact of writing on thinking patterns, and agreed that each writing system is a great force in shaping the thought of its users.

The Chinese writing system has proved one of the most valuable assets in all of our cultures, yet we are blind to its effects and take its existence for granted. Science and technology in ancient China are literally the outgrowth of its culture which boasts of a history of thousands of years. A careful examination of the origin and structure of the Chinese writing system and its impact on Chinese thinking patterns reveals much in regard to China's systematic and theoretic science and technology.

I. Features of the Chinese Writing System

If we went back in time, we would find that Chinese written language, which originated in the drawing of objects, ideas, and images, was increasingly pictographic, ideographic and concrete, though its present-day counterpart is highly symbolic and abstract. The manner in which Chinese characters were created has been summarized in the popular book, Liushu, or Six Types of Writing.

The pictographic and ideographic nature of Chinese characters conduces to thinking in images, which, in turn, renders Chinese thinking, among other things,

1. analogical
2. nonlinear
3. concrete
4. holistic
5. intuitive
6. in harmony with nature.

A large part of the inventory of Chinese characters was created by analogy to physical or mental existence. In recognizing the characters, their users visualize the meaning without resorting to the process (intermediate phonological decoding) used in recognizing alphabetical writing. This visualizing has become so ingrained that it serves as an environment that allows the users of Chinese writing scripts unusual directness of thinking patterns. It is the most noticeable feature of Chinese culture for the Chinese people to think analogically, that is, to make advantage of correspondence or partial similarity between what is intended and what is conveniently available.

Western linear thinking, partly derived from alphabetic stress on sequence in their writing scripts, helped their users to develop the science of deductive logic, a most significant part of the foundation of modern science. In addition, the alphabetic sequence, in which meaningless individual letters are put together linearly to create meaningful semantic units, had provided the paradigm for the development of analysis by those cultures that used the writing scripts.

The scientific method succeeds by breaking down a system into its basic components and then narrowing the focus to one of those components so that a critical mass of research can produce a breakthrough or new paradigm.
Science analyzes systems into their basic components and deals with them one at a time in a linear fashion." (Logan, 1986:131)

But the Chinese writing script lacks this analytical nature. As a consequence, Chinese thinking patterns tend to be nonlinear and holistic, the opposite of those resulting from alphabetic writing. A holistic approach to nature is one of the most obvious characteristics of ancient China's scientific system.

When writing was invented, man "applied [his] mind to symbols rather than things and went beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations created within an enlarged time and space universe" (Logan, 1986: 46-47).

In the same vein, the phonetic alphabet allows its users to go far beyond the observable or concrete world than does the Chinese writing system, since alphabetic writing is utterly abstract, whereas the Chinese one is highly imitative of the concrete world, expressing things in terms of images. The directness, or the lack of abstraction, in Chinese character-formation shaped the Chinese thinking pattern in such a way that concreteness is the significant feature not only of Chinese civilization but also of Chinese scientific thought.

This feature also brought about the famous Chinese pragmatism with regard to science and its application. Logan reports a similar disregard for abstraction in cultures that had not yet adopted letters: "Abstract scientists will go out of their way to perform experiments to test the universality of their organizational structures, whereas preliterate cultures are content to describe nature as they encounter it. They also limit their studies of nature to that which is immediately practical to them." (Logan, 1986: 122)

To write and think with characters that preserve a very close analogy with what is in the physical world is to suggest continually that the user and nature inhabit the same close system; by contrast, alphabetic systems continually emphasize isolation of knower and known. As a consequence, emphasis on oneness of man and nature, or man's harmony with the nature, is a very important consideration in the Chinese approach to nature.

In sum, the impact of the Chinese graphic form on thinking patterns resulted in a comparatively more advanced development of the right hemisphere of its user's brain. By contrast, the Western thinking pattern, shaped by their phonetic-alphabetic literacy, is characteristically left-brain oriented. Such polarly different graphic forms and their subsequent impact on the mind are worth investigating.

You can read the full article here: