Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts

07 October 2016

Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II)

Part II of a V part essay. Begin with Part I.

"The central span on the bridge from physics
to society is collective intentionality."
- John Searle

Stipulating the nature of functions, we now need only add one more ingredient to begin to see how social reality is constructed. This is collective intentionality.

As with my essay on Searle's philosophy of mind, we need to be clear about what this word intentionality means. The word comes from a Latin verb tendere 'to be tense' (probably cognate with Sanskrit √tan, whence tantra). With the prefix in- it comes to mean 'directed at'. "In medieval logic and philosophy, the Latin word intentio was used for what contemporary philosophers and logicians nowadays call a ‘concept’" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). A conscious state is intentional if it is directed at or to objects and states of affairs in the world. Sensations like pain are not usually thought of as intentional, but thoughts about being in pain could be. The phenomena of intending is only incidental to this usage; it is only one kind of intentionality and not definitive.

Searle notes that we humans and many animals do things together. For humans to cooperate requires that we have conscious states which are intentional in the same way, i.e. states refer to the same objects, and to the same goals, at the same time. Suppose that a group of builders are going to build a house. They all have to look at the plans and understand how they map onto the site. They all have to look at the project and know what stage it is at. They must coordinate their activities so that everything that is required (drainage, utilities, foundations, walls, roof, etc) is included in the project and at the right time. They have to cooperate on some tasks to make them happen. This requires that they have common reference points, common understanding, common knowledge, and common motivations. Thus we can say that there is collective intentionality.

A lot of philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, focusses on individuals. But humans are social and any philosophy of mind in which this commonality is not an obvious and significant feature is just not interesting.

Collective intentionality allows us to agree to refer to some object or person as performing some function. And by function here I mean specifically function as defined in the preceding part of this essay. The screwdriver is a rather trivial example, that helps to establish the idea. As I said, the function of screw driver is an observer relative feature of the object. A naive observer could not the intrinsic features of the object and not think of it as serving the function of turning screws. The function requires intentionality. Social reality requires collective intentionality.

Money is a more compelling example. Money can only function as money if we all agree that it is money and act as though this agreement holds. Nowadays the function of being money is almost unrelated to any intrinsic feature of the objects that serve as tokens of money. We require our monetary token be durable, distinctive, and difficult to copy, but it is not intrinsically valuable. Paper money is almost worthless as an object. However, money as such is an abstraction that need not have any physical representation. Money is a symbol: it performs the function of symbolising wealth.

Another apposite example is government. Being a ruler, despite what rulers themselves have said down the ages, is not an intrinsic quality of a person. It's a function that requires collective intentionality. We all have to agree to the leader being the leader. A leader may not even be very good at leading. No one ever said of a water molecule that it wasn't very good at being wet. Leaders cannot lead if followers do not consent to follow. The British political landscape is replete with examples of leaders who the people, party, or government would not follow. 

Searle has created a shorthand for functions:

X counts as Y in C

C here stands for context; the conditions which much hold for us to agree to the imposition of the function. The relation is that there is agreement under certain circumstances to impose the function Y on object/person X. X carries out the function of Y, in a particular context. For example a £5 note counts as money in the United Kingdom if it is issued by the UK government (or certain Scottish banks) consistent with the relevant laws. Barrack Obama counts as "Mr President" for a limited period in the context of having won election to the office and having taken the oath of office. I count as Dharmacārin Jayarava in the context of the having been ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order by Nāgabodhi on my ordination retreat in 2005. I also have the function of son, i.e. I count as a son of Peter and Durelle, in the context of my family; and because they had other sons, I count as brother to them.

Society can be described in terms of rules taking this form. However, keep in mind that rules and collective agreements by themselves don't make a society. Later (Part IV) we will see that Searle does not believe that we follow rules per se, but that rules shape dispositions so that we behave in ways that are consistent with rules, without necessarily referring to them consciously or unconsciously.

As an aside, compare this with Lakoff and Johnson: "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (2003: 5). Metaphors allows us to think about a target domain, as if it were the source domain. In other words, in the context of a metaphor, the target domain counts as the source domain. Once I map the idea of an object onto thoughts, I can verbally apply to thoughts, any action that is relevant to objects. This looks like the same relation as being described by Searle. Can we then say that the nature of Searle's relation is essentially metaphorical? A £5 note is money. Theresa May is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. No statement of this form is true because of some external reality, but only because we ascent to X counts as Y. This probably requires more thought, but I think there is potential for some synthesis here. I may be the first person to notice the similarity, because I don't see any other discussion of it.

Coming back to the main point, money only works because we collectively agree on it. When we stop agreeing, as sometimes happens in countries with hyper-inflation for example, then money stops working. Even officially issued tokens cannot function as money if people lose confidence in them. When a central bank starts issuing 100 trillion dollar notes, as happened in Zimbabwe, you stop taking them seriously and start using something more stable as money or you go back to bartering. Money is a fact, in the same way as the screwdriver was a fact. Money is defined socially by collective intentionality rather than by any appeal to ontology or reality. Searle calls this an institutional fact.

Modern money has no basis in physical reality whatever. It is entirely based on ideas and symbols of wealth; where wealth is itself an abstraction from concepts of value; and value is a concept combined with an emotional response. Money per se is therefore ontologically subjective. However, if I pull out a fiver, i.e. a £5 note, the note itself, the paper/plastic and ink, does physically exist. A £5 note is ontologically objective (the only people who doubt this are philosophers) even though the function and the value of the note are ontologically subjective. As above, the brute physical facts of the note are more or less unrelated to its function as money. Whether made of paper or plastic, for example, a fiver is a fiver. There is no doubt that a £5 note is money and we know it is money, and we know that the value of a £5 note is £5. These facts are epistemically objective.

This differentiation of facts is really very important. We can and do have facts that are not ontologically objective and not in any way related to brute physical facts, not based on reality, but which are still unequivocally facts. Despite not being real in the widely understood sense, such facts are never-the-less true. It is straight-forwardly true that a £5 note is money in the UK and yet this statement has no basis in reality. A £5 note is only money because of the collective agreement that it counts as money. And this relation is true of government, schools, hospitals, roads, clubs, associations, families, parties, playgrounds, traffic lights, etc.

Next time you step out of your house imagine what your world would be like if everyone simply withdrew their consent to follow these rules. Almost everything we see in the world around us functions as it does only because we agree that it does. Almost everything could go the way of the Zimbabwean Dollar. Imagine if we had to consciously decide what was what, and negotiate every detail of every interaction with every person we met. It would be chaotic. The fact that our Western Industrialised world works at all is remarkable, let alone that it works well.

This observation about the nature of social facts has far reaching implications. There is an the argument that because consciousness is subjective, that it does not exist or is an illusion; or another argument that because of the ontological subjectivity of consciousness, that we can never have objective knowledge of it. The same arguments are clearly false when applied to money or any other facet of our social worlds. So why do we treat these arguments as true when applied to consciousness? However, I'm going to leave this question hanging and continue on.

Society would not work well if anyone could declare anything to be money. Money must have some relation to wealth. If there is more money than wealth, then money is devalued.  If money is worth less, it buys less, and we get price inflation. Price inflation devalues many forms of wealth (such as savings or fixed assets). Deflation is also problematic. Managing the supply of money is an important role of government, even though banks create by far the great majority of all money through issuing debt. A government can create more money simply by allowing banks to create more debt - the 2008 financial crisis was underpinned by banks issuing too much debt. For a bank, a debt they issue generates income in the form of interest payments. In economics this is a form of rent (a form of wealth accumulation that requires no effort or labour, but relies on appropriating the wealth of others). So-called "quantitative easing" is sometimes called "printing money", but in fact it involves the government buying debts from banks. This frees the banks to issue more debt, thereby increasing the supply of money. A government does this when inflation is too low and there is a risk of deflation. In deflation prices fall and consumers defer purchases in anticipation of getting a bargain. The lack of demand further depresses prices. Both inflation and deflation are susceptible to positive feedback. There are many historical examples of runaway inflation or deflation wrecking an economy. This whole set up is ontologically subjective, but none-the-less we can have epistemically objective knowledge about it.

We collectively impose the function of managing money on government, which largely exercises this function though regulating banks. We elect the government and thus impose the function of member of parliament (or whatever title our country uses) on those we elect. Government imposes the function of central bank on the Bank of England. The Bank of England has a governor who oversees and implements the functions of the bank, one of which is regulating and over-seeing the behaviour of banks. And so on. Such functions are iterative. We can diagram this iterability like this:

Y1 in context C1 becomes X2 in context C1,2. I've tried to show that the context aspect of this model is cumulative. In line two, the context in line 1, C1, is still important. Hence the notation C1,2. In this case we can see that the relation X1 counts as Y1 is part of the context C2. So not only is the structure of these relations iterative, it is also interconnected. Society is based on a network of interconnected, iterated relations of this kind.

Something else happens when we impose a function on an object or person. With the function comes a status. In order for X to act as Y, we have to treat X as if it is Y. X has to have a change of status consistent with the imposed function. Status and function coexist. As Searle puts it:
"Collective intentionality assigns a new status to some phenomena, where that status has an accompanying function that cannot be performed solely in virtue of the intrinsic physical features of the phenomenon in question." (46)
"Collective agreement about the possession of the status is constitutive of having the status, and having the status is essential to the performance of the function assigned to that status." (51)
In assigning a status to X than enables X to count as Y, we can say that X is empowered to count as Y. The imposition of the function is thus both an act of power and an empowerment to act. So the rules governing institutional facts involve: functions, statuses, and powers. Neither function, status, nor power are related to the intrinsic physical properties of the object or person they apply to; they rely only on the collective intention that X counts as Y. Indeed it is quite possible to appoint X as Y, only to discover that X is not a very good Y. But not being a very good Y, does not stop X from counting as Y, until the collective intentionality is withdrawn.

We now need to look more closely at the issue of empowerment and power.

~ Status and Power ~

When we impose social functions, at the same time we impose a social status on the object or person who carries out the function. The example of money can illustrate this process. A £5 note counts as money. This imposes the function of money on the paper/plastic and ink of the note. By general agreement (i.e. collective intentionality) the note is money. The £5 note has the status that comes with being money. It can be used for all transactions where money represents wealth or value. In the American phrase it is "legal tender for all debts public and private". Status in he human world often comes with a label or title: mother, father, mayor, Prime Minister, priest, cab driver, etc. In some cases, having the status requires some kind of indicator. Examples include a wedding ring, a soldier's uniform, a bishop's mitre, and so on. Other status functions merely require general acknowledgement.
"Where the institution demands more of its participants that it can extract by force, where consent is essential, a great deal of pomp, ceremony, and razzamatazz is used in such a way as to suggest that something more is going on than simply acceptance of [the institutional fact]." (Searle 1995: 118)
The social status associated with the function is important in understanding social reality because status exists in a hierarchy. Human societies, like most primate groups, are constituted as loose, nested, hierarchies. Our position in the hierarchy is to some extent defined by the functions we carry out. And the functions we carry out are largely those imposed on us by collective intentionality. In other words our overall status in any social group is also determined by collective intentionality, more than by features which are intrinsic to us.

At least as important as the bestowal of status along with a function is that "in general the creation of status functions is a matter of conferring some new power" (95). Several different kinds of power may be involved in conferring status-functions: symbolic, deontic, honorific, or procedural. I'll deal with symbolic power here and deontic power in the next essay. For the others see Searle (1995).

The symbolic function refers mainly to powers that we impose on verbal phenomena. Some noises we make with our mouths are count as words; some collections of words count as sentences. In other words language is a power that we humans collectively impose upon our own utterances. Language is not intrinsic to any utterance and many utterances are not language. Without collective intentionality language could not work. The rest of this essay is about language in this sense and how it contributes to social reality.

~ Language ~

Some people invested with a status-function are empowered to authorise new institutional facts, which they may do by making a declaration. A declaration is a particular kind of speech act, i.e. something that we do with speech, rather than something we mean by it. This is the essential distinction between pragmatic and semantic approaches to language; a distinction that Searle was instrumental in establishing. When the Governor of the Bank of England declares, this £5 note is legal tender (by having "I promise to pay the bearer the amount of five pounds" and the signature of the Chief Cashier "for the governor" printed on the note), it becomes, in fact, legal tender. As above this fact is epistemically objective, but ontologically subjective. One of the paradigmatic examples of this kind of declaration occurs in a marriage ceremony.

A modern marriage ceremony has two parts: verbal and written. Typically the couple each declare their willingness to marry, recite vows outlining the duties and responsibilities that each undertakes. If the marriage celebrant is satisfied they then say - "I now pronounce you to be spouses". In days gone the marriage would be a fact at this point. However, nowadays governments wish to regulate marriage so they have imposed a layer of bureaucracy. So once the traditional ceremony is completely, the celebrant, couple, and witnesses have to sign the marriage licence, which is a legally binding contract whose terms are dictated by state law. The signature is another type of declaration - it symbolises ascent to taking on the legal obligations of marriage as defined by the state. Signing the licence is a declaration that one accepts the legal contract. It is only once the paperwork is filed that the state recognises the change in legal status of the individuals and starts treating them as a couple. The declaration of willingness and vows are often felt by the couple to be significant moments in their life. But if they should decide to separate the legal contract dominates the proceedings. Rich folk try to get around state laws by having pre-nuptial agreements that allow one or both spouses to contract out of their rights under state law.

Declarations can be explicit verbal statements like "I do" or printing "this note is legal tender" on money. Or they can be implicit statements. Sometimes a lack of any specific gesture or statement. The English habit of lining up at bus stops on a first come, first served basis is only ever commented on if someone tries to jump the queue. Silently agreeing to line up, without in any way acknowledging any of the other passengers, is a declaration that one accepts that such a queue counts as fair. It is one of the few areas of English society where there is no deference to status indicators such as pin-striped suits. Many of us simply acquiesce to the rules of the society we are born into; a few want to question every rule. 

Language itself only works because of collective intentionality, i.e. we all agree that certain verbal sounds count as words; that certain words count as representing concepts; that certain combinations of words count as sentences, and so on. So language is itself an institutional fact. But language is also special because, according to Searle, all institutional facts must be declared in some form, whether verbally or symbolically (e.g. a signature on a marriage licence); explicitly or tacitly. Language is thus constitutive of society, because it is constitutive of institutional facts. Without language we could not have society. For Searle, language underpins all other institutional facts because they require that some authority declares that X counts as Y, one way or another.

I want to take a brief digression to raise a quibble about this definition. For example, the institution of alpha-male in chimpanzee groups has the same structure. Drawing on an example from Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man: [The Chimp called] Mike counts as the alpha-male of the Gombe Stream troop in the context of having won the charging display through judicious use of empty kerosene cans which make a loud noise when knocked about (this was captured on film and featured in a National Geography documentary t=14:00). Mike becomes the alpha-male and is acknowledged as such by the others in the troop. Therefore the chimps display collective intentionality with respect to Mike. Furthermore this relationship takes the form of a Searlean institutional fact: X counts as Y in context C, but in a non-linguistic setting.

Chimp and bonobo researcher Frans de Waal recently mentioned in an interview on BBC-Radio4 that although chimps can be aggressive, they also actively reconcile after conflicts (peace making) and also console others who came off worse in conflicts (empathy). He notes that even a small male may become the alpha-male if he can form the necessary coalition. And if he does he is expected to reciprocate with offers of food, and allowing confederates a chance to mate with females, etc. In other words the alpha-male gets privileges, but must also share them. Female chimps also play active roles in supporting candidates for alpha and helping to build coalitions. All of this is rather different from the popular emphasis on testosterone laden males fighting it out for dominance. In fact the group has to reach a consensus on the candidate and the role has a good deal of reciprocity built into it (there is a deontological element to the role of alpha-male, a subject I will return to in Part III). This is even stronger evidence of collective intentionality in chimps. I'll be returning to the work of de Waal on the evolution of morality very soon. He has shot to the top of my non-fiction reading list.

So at the very least for chimpanzees, language per se is not essential to institutional facts. There still has to be a "declaration". The alpha male has to put on a charging display; other chimps, especially large males, have to acknowledge the alpha as alpha, and he in return must carry out the obligations of alpha. However, beyond being member of the troop, some family relationships, and alpha-male, chimp society can sustain no other social institutions. Language is what makes complex human societies possible by allowing us to make a large number of status-functions into facts through declarative speech acts representing our collective intentionality.

I noted that these status-functions confer authority for making declarations on those upon whom they are imposed. This suggests that there is a deontological element to status-functions. This turns out to be a characteristic of status-functions. Status-functions impose rights, duties, and obligations on those who carry out the functions. And deontology is the subject of the next essay in the series.


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online:

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur".

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

24 October 2014

When Did Language Evolve?

This question is one of the most interesting and most difficult to answer of all the interesting questions that scientists seek answers for. Language is one of the defining characteristics of humans. Yes, some animals do have relatively sophisticated signs they use with each other, but language in all it's glory – phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar – is something that sets humans apart. Robin Dunbar's recent book Pelican Introduction to Human Evolution (2014) has a nice little essay on the subject (235-244) that I'll attempt to précis here.

In fact the question when did language evolve devolves into two questions:
  1. When did humans evolve the capability for language?
  2. When did humans begin to use language. 
Before we examine the evidence we need to quickly outline Dunbar's main themes. The book draws on two main fields of research other than anthropology and paleo-anthropology. Dunbar's main work is on what he calls The Social Brain Hypothesis. Dunbar found a correlation between the ratio of neo-cortex to brain size (volume) and the size of groups in social animals. Taking certain other factors into account, the correlation allows Dunbar to accurately predict the average group size for any social animal. In fact social animals occupy the centre of a series of concentric groups of increasing size. For humans it turns out that the numbers are (approximately): 5, 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500. These numbers correspond to structures within human groups. The community has 150 and this is the most famous Dunbar Number. 150 is the mean size of communities in the Doomsday Book for example. (see 70-71 for a range of other correlations). The SBH says we can only keep track of the business (mates, kin, alliances etc) of about 150 other people. We might know 500 by name and 1500 or more people by sight, but we won't know about their likes and dislikes or their relationships with other group members. Chimpanzee's by contrast live in communities of about 50 and don't have the larger groupings. Using this correlation Dunbar is able to calculate what size of groups our distant ancestors lived in. And this leads to the second field of research. 

Social animals have an extra time pressure that solitary animals do not. As well as feeding, resting and mating, social animals have to socialise, or put effort into maintaining social links. Primates do this primarily by grooming each other (though bonobo chimps also use sexual activity). Grooming causes both partners to produced endorphins, thus creating a sense of well-being. By studying living primates we can see how much time they spend doing various activities and build up models called Time Budgets. In groups of 150 there is simply not enough time to do everything. In order to maintain these large groups we need to do more than eat raw vegetation and pick fleas of each other. Dunbar explores how we might have responded to the time pressure of larger groups. For example cooking food increases the calories available and decreases the amount of time needed for feeding. Singing and dancing together also create a sense of well-being in a group, and do so far more efficiently than one-to-one grooming.

Some physical changes associated with language use occur at the same time as changes in our brain size that coincide with living in larger group sizes. So there is no doubt that language use is correlated with changes in the brain, but we're not sure yet whether it was causal and in which direction.

The Evidence

Dunbar considers a range of evidence in trying to answer the question of when humans began to use language. Some of it does not tell us much in the long run. For example the lateralisation of the brain—into left and right, with the left side slightly larger—was once seen as an important development. However, it's not language specific. For all we know it might be related to right-handed spear throwing (in humans) and in fact the same lateralisation is present in prehistoric sharks. The emergence of symbolism—as in cave painting and grave goods—has also been seen as significant. The use of symbolism starts around 40,000 bp which is interesting, but post dates some of the other developments (below) very considerably. 

There is also genetic evidence. But again the genes cited—FoxP2 and MYH16—lack specificity. Because mutation in FoxP2 is associated with speech and grammar difficulties, it's still sometimes called "the language gene". However, for example, mice were recently implanted with the FoxP2 gene and did not start talking. What they did do is learn better, in particularly they found " easier to transform new experiences into routine procedures." FoxP2 is now known to be shared with Neanderthals and thus to be at least 800,000 years old (the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and Archaic Modern Humans). MYH16 is even older at 2.4 Million years. Inactivation of MYH16 decreases the size of the jaw and associated muscles. The argument being, though this cannot be substantiated, that it made speaking possible. Thus the genetic evidence is also, to date, inconclusive. Language use being such a complex task suggests that no one gene is going to be more than a tiny part of a larger story.

In terms of anatomy we can look at the thoracic nerves, the hypoglossal canal in the skull, the position of the hyoid bone, and the ear canals. Thoracic nerves control the chest and diaphragm and since breath control is required for speech we expect to see significant enlargement of these nerves in modern humans. The hypoglossal canal is where cranial nerve XII, which "innervates the tongue and mouth" emerges from the skull. Both are significantly larger in modern humans than in apes. Sketchy fossil records suggest that Homo Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and Archaic Modern Humans (AMH) all had human-like values for these nerves. The hyoid bone connects the base of the tongue to the top of the larynx and in humans is positioned low allowing us to make certain sounds, particularly the vowels. Neanderthals also seem to have had low hyoid bones. Finally the ear canals, as well as providing us with balance also allow us to hear. We know that chimp and human canals differ in ways that affect how we hear speech. 500,000 year old AMHs had similar ear canals to humans. 

The physical evidence suggests that many of the key anatomical changes were in place for humans (and Neanderthals) to start speaking roughly 500,000 years bp. Dunbar notes that this coincides with when the time demands for grooming would have risen above 20% of available time. 
"it is very likely that a more complex vocal repertoire evolved quite early on in hominin evolution in response to increasing group size." (241).
In fact we see parallels in the complexity of some bird calls (chickadees). There is also direct evidence that primate facial and gestural repertoires increase in complexity with increasing group size (241). 

A key ability some social animals have is the ability to form impressions of the intentions of another animal. This is called mentalising. Social animals need to know the disposition of the other members of their community and have developed the ability to infer this from clues such as posture, facial expressions and tone of voice. One of the main things we do with language is report on other people. If I tell you "Brian likes Mary" you must understand your own mind, my mind, and Brian's mind: that's 3rd order mentalising. No doubt you'd probably wonder whether Mary knows that you know that I told you that Brian likes her, and how she would respond to this and that's 4th order. Humans average out at being capable of 5th order mentalising. This ability to mentalise bares "an uncanny resemblance to the embeddedness of clauses in the grammatical structure of sentences" (242): e.g. Shakespeare attempts to have us, the audience, believe that Othello thinks that Iago is telling the truth when he says that Desdemona returns the love that Cassio has for her. Understanding this play requires the audience to use 5th order mentalising. Shakespeare is revered as a story teller partly because he must have been able to sustain 6th order mentalising. He must have been able to see the 5th order story from our point of view. 

It turns out that we can estimate mentalising capability from neuro-imaging studies of various primates. We think that Australopithecus would have managed 2nd order mentalising on average. Homo erectus and heidelbergensis averaged 3rd order, but certain members might have reached 4th order. Neanderthals averaged 4th order, but some individuals reached 5th order. And modern humans average 5th order and some reach to 6th order. So it's possible that Neanderthals had language, but it would not have been as sophisticated as ours. We also know that Neanderthals had large brains, but their increase in brain size was mainly in the occipital lobe concerned with eyesight (and their eyes were also larger than ours), whereas as Homo sapiens' increase in brain size was more in the frontal lobes, so Neanderthals may not have been capable of quite the same levels of abstraction as modern humans, but could see well in low light levels. 

Putting it all together.

It seems that by 500,000 years ago we had all the physical and mental equipment for using language in place. Archaic humans and (probably) Neanderthals, were anatomically capable of using language. Physical evidence suggests language use at least by 40,000 years ago. Language being a complex phenomenon, we must look for complex conditions related to its evolution. Michael Witzel's study in comparative mythology (See: Origins of the World's Mythologies) suggests that story telling and mythology dates from at least 70,000 ybp. By the time modern humans left Africa they had well developed mythic narratives which involved abstractions and metaphors. I think this points to Modern Humans (ca 250,000-100,000 ybp) using speech in symbolic ways from very early on.

Some suggest that language developed alongside hunting of large animals, but just because we hunted together does not mean that hunting was a driver of language, as Dunbar points out: many animals hunt as packs without language. Wolves, orca, humpback whales, and dolphins all use sophisticated, coordinated hunting strategies without the need to sit down and explain everything first. More likely is that complex tool making and use was accompanied by more sophisticated communication, if not fully developed language. 

We might also usefully consider work by George Lakoff into the nature of metaphor and abstraction. Both are rooted in our experience of interacting physically with the world. I think, but cannot prove, that our hand gestures as we speak are related to the metaphors of interaction we are invoking, that is to say our hands act out the interactions underlying our abstractions and metaphors. Gesture can be powerfully communicative as anyone who knows sign language will attest, and infants can learn to communicate with gestures long before they learn to speak (though the jury is still out on whether this facilitates later language development). The way signers convey metaphors also gives us potential insights into the process of using language to communicate. Language is not simply or only speech. The nature of it must be understood within paradigms of the embodied mind. Presumably at first we talked mainly about our physical interactions with the world and each other. Then we discovered the use of similes: "the man can run fast, like a cheetah"; and then the use of metaphors: "the man is a predator". This progression is creatively explored in literature in China Miéville's novel Embassytown. Presumably this all took a long time. Along with mentalising, this ability presumably also evolved in sophistication over time producing changes that any one generation might not have noticed. 

Finally out of left field I would like to highlight research into "conversational grunts", these are the non-language sounds (mmm, uh, huh, ah, etc) that we make when we listen to others speaking to let the talker know we are listening. We can actually signify a great deal simply by intonation of a sound like /mmm/: affirmation, disagreement, disapproval, happiness etc. Other research into this kind of area, e.g. sound symbolism, show that communicating, especially our emotional state (and this is extremely important in socialising) can be done without semantics. 

Language is not simply about communicating abstracts, though fully fledged language has this facility. Through language we communicate our disposition and socialise more effectively: language use allows us to use our time more efficiently. Language seems to have evolved alongside our larger brains and group sizes; alongside tool use and other indicators of increasing sophistication of our minds. It seems the capability was anatomically in place long before we began to use it. The communication of even archaic humans was likely a good deal more sophisticated than modern day apes.

Once language did evolve note that it constantly and rapidly changed. Language was almost certainly never a universal. Each language group (unconsciously) adapted language to reinforce group membership and identity. In the extreme we find 1000 of the worlds 7000 languages on the island of New Guinea. Language differences make inter-community communication difficult. Until the advent of civilisation language would have been a defining feature of one's identity. And this might explain why some languages developed very complex grammar that is difficult to learn except from growing up with it. Some of the changes in grammar might be explained by expanded worldviews. Trade links and the possibility of travel outside the range of one's tribe made possible by civilisation and empires, exposed us to strangers. It's worth reading Dunbar's theoretical book in conjunction with something like Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday which describes the day-to-day reality of hunter-gatherer life.

Dunbar's book is unique in its approach to human evolution. The combination of the Social Brain Hypothesis and Time Budget modelling allow Dunbar to draw a compelling picture of how our distance ancestors might have lived and also when they might have adopted new technologies like fire for cooking, and of course language use. A good deal of the time he is drawing directly on his own research or research conducted by members of his research group at Oxford. While we will only ever be able to infer how pre-historic humans lived from such evidence as has survived the millennia, Dunbar shows that we can obtain much more detail than before. His book takes us from SVGA to HD. Language use is in fact only a small part of the book, but it highlights the kinds of inferences that can be drawn, and of course language use is iconically human (Koko et al notwithstanding). Understanding where we came from and how we developed over time is a key task for understanding who we are now.


08 November 2013

Moral Metaphors

George Lakoff
From time to time I mention the work of George Lakoff. He is primarily a cognitive linguist, but applies linguistics to a broad range of domains. Lakoff is particularly known for his work on metaphors. His book, co-written with Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By is on my list of non-fiction books everyone should read. Lakoff, like another well known linguist, Noam Chomsky, has ventured into the world of politics. He is perhaps less successful in this, though also less trenchant and less controversial. One of his important contributions is to analyse the linguistic frameworks that politicians of the left and right (or liberals and conservatives) use in their rhetoric.

Lakoff is a liberal and is concerned that conservatives have stolen a march on liberal politicians, especially in the USA. Part of the problem seems to be that liberals don't understand that they are often debating on and in conservative forms which only serves to reinforce conservative norms. A similar thing has happened in the UK. Lakoff's analysis is set out in various publications, but an easily accessible and apoposite version can be found in:
Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. (1995).
In this essay I want to outline the basic framework of morality that Lakoff presents because I think it offers general insights into morality, but also specific insights into Buddhist morality. Part of my project with respect to Buddhist morality is to examine the claim that Buddhist morality is substantially different from other forms of morality. I've been attempting to undermine this idea in a desultory way for a few years now. In particular I have sought to show that karma is distinct as an agent of morality only in that it is not personified. I've also tried to show that post-mortem judgement and reward/punishment is a feature common to various forms of morality including both Christian and Buddhist. The function of karma is just the same as moral gods, it's only the user-interface that is different. Lakoff's moral framework shows this in greater relief, but it also gives a sound basis for thinking about morality. 

In Lakoff's account of metaphor there are two important concepts:
  1. consciousness is embodied
  2. the experience of embodiment provides the source domain for most metaphors
Embodied consciousness is fast becoming the consensus view of consciousness. It argues from a variety of viewpoints that what we call consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the maintenance of bodily states in the brain through layered models that are used primarily to regulate and optimise both internal states and external behaviour. Lakoff and Johnson have argued for this view from language and philosophy, Thomas Metzinger, Antonio Damasio and many others from neuro-scientific evidence. This view is radically non-dual in the sense that the mind/body duality is completely broken down - the mind is embodied, embodiment is a necessary condition for having a mind (though we must keep in mind that there are powerful reasons that naive realists do believe in disembodied consciousness - such as the classic out-of-body experience). 

Lakoff takes experience as the source domain for metaphor and abstraction. So whereas philosophers will often discuss causality in abstract terms, Lakoff looks to the experience of an infant gaining control of their limbs and becoming able to move things about according to their conscious will. In this view causation as an abstract metaphysical notion is rooted in the domain of willed actions. Those interested in Kantian accounts of causality may find this interesting since it may well account for a priori structuring of knowledge as well (I don't know this branch of Lakoff's work well enough to comment: see Philosophy in the Flesh).

Such conceptual metaphors are central to Lakoff's account of morality. A conceptual metaphor is:
"an unconscious, automatic mechanism for using inference patterns and language from a source domain to think and talk about another domain."
In his discussion of morality Lakoff highlight's two metaphors
  • well-being is wealth
  • moral arithmetic
In the former the source domain is wealth. Wealth is something which can be gained or lost. Wealth is also involved in transactions - I can give something of value to enrich you, or take something from you to impoverish you. I can also give something of negative value which impoverishes you. Clearly wealth is itself a metaphorical concept. If I can give and take it, clutch it and hoard it, make it, lose it etc., then we are employing a more fundamental metaphor that wealth is an object (that can manipulated with (metaphoric) hands). Other metaphors help to structure the concept. For Lakoff, our abstract thought is structured by a series of interdependent metaphors that are rooted in our experience of being embodied and our physical interactions with the world. This ability to think of one domain in terms of another (i.e. to use metaphors) makes our thinking very flexible and adaptable.

In this view metaphors of wealth and wealth transactions can be applied to the domain of well-being (so that by association we may treat well-being as a object as well). Thus by making noise I can give you a headache and undermine your well-being. By giving love I can make you happy, though this may require an exchange of tokens. Many events can rob us of our well-being, none more so that any kind of physical assault. With respect to wealth one must acquire a certain level of wealth in order to have well-being. We're using wealth in a very general sense here, not necessarily as an economist might define it. And we are not placing restrictions on the kinds or number of metaphors that relate to well-being. The selected metaphors are only one dimension chosen because they highlight a facet of morality.

Morality then, is, at least in part, the book-keeping of such transactions; or what Lakoff calls "moral arithmetic". The ancient Egyptians conceptualised judgement in the afterlife as a weighing up of good and bad deeds. This notion of a final reckoning (i.e. tallying or counting up) is widespread. The tally maybe kept by a god (such as Anubis, Ahura Mazda, Mitra, or Jehovah) or in the case of Buddhism it may be a natural law (karma, dharmatā), but fate is seen as hanging in the balance of actions with a moral dimension (i.e. good and bad). In Indian terms if the accumulation of merit (puṇya) outweighs the accumulation of evil (pāpa) then one goes to a good destination (sugati) and if not then one goes to a bad destination (durgati). The very word for friend in Sanskrit (mitra) originally meant "contract". A contract sets out the expectations of two parties in a transaction, whether substantial or abstract. If the consequences of actions are minimal we say someone "got off lightly"; or if caught out, a judge may "come down hard". Buddhists use this bookkeeping/balance metaphor in terms like 'weighty karma'.  

The moral accounting scheme operates on several main principles.


If I give you something of positive value then you owe me something of equal value. There is an element of obligation here that Lakoff does not discuss, but which I think was especially important in the ancient world. The Indian word mitra now means 'friend' but was originally both a contract (which spells out obligations) and a god, Mitra, who oversaw the fulfilment of obligations. Mitra's counterpart Varuṇa had a similar but broader purview in that he oversaw the obligations of the devas to maintain the cosmic order, ṛta. Even now people can be reluctant to accept help for the obligation this places them under. If my well-being  is enhanced by your actions there is often an expectation of quid pro quo. Two principles of morality emerge (and here I extent Lakoff's definition a little):
1. Do no harmMoral (in the positive sense of good) action is (willingly) giving something of positive value or (willingly) taking something of negative value; immoral action is giving something of negative value or taking something of positive value, in both cases against the will of the recipient.   
2. Debts must be paid. Failure to pay debts is immoral. Thus if a criminal is deprived of liberty for a period, they are said to have "paid their debt to society". We always want to repay kindness. Revenge is payback.

Retribution or Revenge.

Harm is a reduction in the wellbeing of the recipient. Either something of negative value is given (e.g. a disease; a blow, an insult); or something of positive value is taken (e.g. prestige; property). In the case where harm is done a dilemma is created in the application of the principles of reciprocation.

On one hand we might insist that the first principle dominates. So if I harm you settlement of the debt, then on balance I have not acted morally because causing harm is not moral.

On the other hand we might insist that debts must be paid no matter what. Thus if you harm me, then it is immoral not to harm you back in some way to settle the debt, even though causing harm is immoral.  

Lakoff calls the first position the Morality of Absolute Good and the second the Morality of Retribution. With respect to the death penalty, for example, liberals tend to adopt the Morality of Absolute Good (the principle of the debt must be paid cannot justify the immoral action of killing as retribution); while conservatives tend to adopt the Morality of Retribution (the repayment of the debt over-rides the immorality of killing). In Christian terms we obviously also have a contrast between New Testament Morality ("turn the other cheek") and Old Testament Morality ("an eye for an eye"). 

We see that the same set of metaphors are used, but they are employed in different ways. In my own account of morality the different aspects of the metaphor are given different salience by different people. For liberals it is more salient not to do evil; for conservatives it is more salient to pay off debts. 

A feature of both Buddhist and Christian morality is the principle of passivity. In Christian terms "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12.19)". Buddhists texts argue that we should never react to harm. "Anger is never soothed by anger." (Dhammapada 3-6). If we genuinely believe in karma then all actions will be paid out according to their deserts and no further action is required when someone harms us. Indeed the worse the harm the more horrific the consequences for the person doing the harm. Retributive action on our part will only cause more harm, since the principle of paying off debts is taken out of our equation. The Buddhist moral imperative is to focus on our own actions and to purify our motivations so that we ourselves do not cause harm. 

In a Buddhist world where we do not believe in karma there is a reversion to the moral principles we were raised with, which often tends to be the Morality of Retribution. In fact I think we can say that most Western Buddhism is underpinned more by Christian morality, as echoed in our laws and social rules, than by Buddhist morality. 


In the retributive model of morality we aim to balance things out: good for good and harm for harm. But it's possible to create balance by offering positive to counteract the negative, that is to make amends or restitution. In my early research on Buddhist morality I showed that making amends is not possible in the early Buddhist ethos (See Did King Ajātasattu Confess To The Buddha?). Since the consequences of any and all actions must be experienced, making amends cannot change the balance retrospectively. Or in other words karma cannot be wiped out, though it can be mitigated by conditioning oneself to bear painful vedanā (through learning to bear small discomforts, one can bear greater discomforts equanimously). Of course this changed and Buddhists soon began to allow for making amends to karma through rituals and purification (which is the subject of a forthcoming article). However even this was abstract and unrelated to making amends to the person harmed by our actions. The sense of Buddhist texts is that Buddhists are expected to live in isolation until they are able to operate skilfully in the world. Buddhist (monastic) morality is focussed on restraint, guarding, controlling and protecting the sense faculties so as not to stir up negative emotions.

We often hear about Buddhists 'burning up karma' but this is not a feature of early Buddhism. It is a feature of early Jainism. The Jains practiced painful austerities in order to balance the moral ledger. If pain is the result of bad actions, then by pursuing painful sensations one pays off the debt incurred. This principle was also taken up by Buddhists though they still had an effective injunction against the extremes of asceticism, they invented ritual ways of counteracting bad karma.


Altruism is a special case amongst the other forms of moral accounting. Altruistic behaviour seeks to do good without creating a debt, i.e. with no expectation of a return. Cancelling debts in this way, though builds up "moral credit" [Lakoff's term]. In Buddhism we call this moral credit puṇya. Of course we do benefit from altruistic behaviour because everyone benefits. Generosity is often repaid with generosity, even when, or especially when there is no obligation.

Lakoff separates out the other side of the altruism coin - cancelling a debt created by harm - calling it "turning the other cheek". But I think that structurally it belongs with altruism. 

Cancellation of Debts

One aspect of morality that Lakoff doesn't mention is the scapegoat, which is a special form of debt cancellation. The scapegoat was an old Jewish custom which we can see as relieving the tension that can be created by the build up of moral debts. Each year a sacrificial goat was consecrated and imbued with all of the moral debt for that year. It was then sent out into the wilderness, that is banished from the tribe, which in that climate meant certain death. It reminded people that they needed each other to survive and that allowing moral debts to build up or remain for long periods of time tended to divide loyalties. At the same time another goat was sacrificed to God to reinforce the moral covenant. 

Now "scapegoating" has largely negative connotations these days - blaming someone else for our misdeeds. But in essence it involves ritual forgiveness of moral debts. Interestingly the Jews also practiced the cancellation of financial debt every fifty years (known as a jubilee) for just the same reasons. Allowing financial debt to continue building up indefinitely seriously weakens a society. Many economists argue that private sector debt, especially household and non-finance sector debt, was at the root of the global financial crisis initiated by the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Bank in 2008. 

Forgiving debt, whether financial or moral, is an emotive issue in the West and I don't think we'll see any change away from the gestalt in which paying debts over-rides doing harm, even though great harm continues to be done by the unwise build up of financial debt. However one of my economic inspirations, Ann Pettifor, successfully led a campaign to have billions of dollars worth of debt in Africa to be forgiven in the Jubilee 2000 Campaign. That debt was never going to be repaid anyway. It had been imposed on poor African countries by the IMF and World Bank in an ideologically driven fervour and simply created the conditions for ongoing misery. I'm an advocate of a modern debt jubilee, as proposed by Professor Steve Keen. But perhaps we need to think in terms of moral debt jubilees as well? 


This, then, is how I see Lakoff's metaphorical approach to morality. I find it an elegant and useful approach because it allows us to get beneath the trappings of morality in various settings and see the mechanisms - i.e. to see the way our thinking is structured by metaphors. In particular it shows that the mechanisms are similar in most cases. While groups might evaluate the salience of the various aspects differently we can see that the same principles apply across a wide spectrum. 

My case that there is nothing very special about Buddhist ethics is advanced. The distinctive features of Buddhist ethics are on the surface. Beneath the surface we see the same currents moving: i.e. concerns with group membership and group norms; narratives which ensure compliance with norms (especially post-mortem judgement); metaphors such as wellbeing = wealth and moral accounting; and preventing attempts to balance the moral books tearing a society apart by placing the balancing in the hands of an impartial supernatural accountant (e.g. Anubis, Jehovah, Varuṇa, Ahura Mazda). Many societies separate the metaphysical 'judiciary' from 'punishment and corrections', but some combine them, along with legislative and executive branches in what I have called a "swiss-army-knife god". Where rules directly affect the physical survival of individuals or the group they will tend to be the same since humans have fundamentally similar requirements for survival; and where they are concerned with local conditions and etiquette they will tend to be different. 

Of course Buddhists will say that morality has a higher purpose in Buddhism - it forms the foundation for transcendent knowledge gained via meditation. In Lakoff's terms such knowledge seems to have the main effect of removing a person from the necessity of moral accounting. The adept is characterised as a person who only acts for the good. Attenuating or eliminating self-preoccupation changes the equation - we may act and be acted on without any need to reciprocate (śīlapāramitā and kṣantipāramitā?). If we do not incur moral debts or hold others indebted to us, then the principle of do no harm comes to the fore in all relationships. We see here that behaviour is both the foundation for liberation, but also the most obvious sign by which we perceive someone as liberated. One who is liberated from greed and hatred must perforce operate with a different set of moral metaphors, but seen in terms of the standard metaphors they ought to exemplify morally good behaviour. 

I haven't gone further into Lakoff account of the political spectrum because it is less relevant to discussions of Buddhist ethics and would have taken too long. But I do recommend reading the essay referred to above, or Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant. Even if it does nothing to change your political sympathies, it is as well to understand the other point of view a little better. For a good summary of left and right values as they manifest in various spheres of life, I recommend the infographic by David McCandless.


29 March 2013

Finding Easter Eggs in Pāli Texts

I've been studying the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) for some time now. We are fortunate to have three extant versions of the text: Pāli (KP), Chinese (KC), and Sanskrit (KS). KC is from one of two Chinese Saṃyuktāgama translations (Taisho 2.99, no.301) related to the Sarvāstivādin School and was translated in the mid 5th century CE. The original language was probably a Sanskritised Prakrit aka Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.  KS is from a cache of texts in Turfan from a manuscript copied in the 13th or 14th centuries. There is presently no published English translation of the Sanskrit (a situation I hope to rectify).

The text seems to have been quite important as it is cited directly by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK 15.7); and indirectly in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Laṅkavatāra Sūtra. It's also likely that Chandrakīrti who commented on MMK had a different Sanskrit version that the Turfan Ms. 

In this essay I want to explore a single passage which contains an elaborate play on words that gets lost in translation. I call this passage paragraph 5c:
  • KP: Tañcāyaṃ upayupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti ‘attā me’ti.
  • KS: etāni ced upadhyupādānāni cetaso ’dhiṣṭhānābhiniveśānuśayān nopaiti nopādatte nādhitiṣṭhati nābhiniviśaty ātmā meti |
  • KC: 若無此取者,心境繫著使不取、不住、不計我
  • KP: And that obstinate tendency of the mind to attachment and grasping this [noble disciple] doesn’t approach, doesn’t hold, [he] doesn’t insist on ‘the self is mine’.
  • KS: And [they] don’t hold this obstinate tendency of the mind to grasp and cling, they don’t accept, [they] don’t insist on or have a tendency to say: ‘this is my self’.
  • KC: Not seizing those, they don’t have the obstinate mental state of attachment; they don’t insist on, or think wrongly about ‘I’.”

Buddhaghosa’s commentary on KP throws light on this passage. He says
Tañcāyanti tañca upayupādānaṃ ayaṃ ariyasāvako. (SA 2.33)
'Tañcāyaṃ' means that attachment and grasping, and this noble-disciple.
This makes it much easier to unravel the syntax by supplying a subject who does not insist on the statement ‘the self is mine’, without whom the sentence is puzzling since on the face of it the subject who doesn't hold the wrong view is the same subject as the one bound by attachment and grasping (which is caused by wrong views). The reference to self is part of the oft repeated formula found in Early Buddhists texts regarding wrong views about the self, namely:
rūpaṃ etam mama, eso'ham-amsi, eso me attā ti samanupassati
he regards forms: this is mine, I am this, this is myself.
The formula is repeated for each of the skandhas, and in each case the assutavant is incorrect, where as the sutavant ariyasāvaka knows that it is not true.

What I particularly want to draw attention is a form of syntax which is unusual in English. We can for instance say "I sing a song" but not "I work a work" or "I talk a talk". Mostly this kind of idiom doesn't work in English but it is common in Pāli and Sanskrit. We have several examples here, though in the negative. The Pāli has (with the verbal root of the two words in parentheses):
upayaṃ na upeti (upa√i) - he does not attach the attaching
upādānaṃ na upādiyati (upa√pad) - he does not cling the clinging
adhiṭṭhānaṃ nādhiṭṭhāti (adhi√sthā) - he does not insist the insisting
Compare the Sanskrit:
[upayaṃ]* nopaiti  (upa√i)
upādānaṃ nopādatte (upa√pad)
adhiṣṭhānaṃ nādhitiṣṭhati  (adhi√sthā)
abhiniveśaṃ nābhiniviśati (abhi-ni√viś) he does not tend the tendency
We can see that where KP has upaya, KS has upadhi. This is difficult to explain because upadhi means ‘addition, attribute, or ‘condition, support’; so it might mean ‘tendency to grasp at supports where upadhi refers to dvayaṃ niśrito ‘based on a duality’. BHSD s.v. upadhi suggests that S. upadhi = P. upadhi (upa √dhā) ‘foundation, basis’; or upādi = upādāna. So KS could be intending upadhi as a synonym of upādana. However upadhi doesn’t seem to fit here, and from the Pāli we would expect to see upaya. What's more the play on words breaks down with upadhi. So it seems that upadhi is a substitution, though it does occur twice in the text.

Other features of the syntax hide the play on words to some extent. The nouns are all given in advance and some are compounded: upayupādānaṃ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesānusayaṃ. We are left wondering about the role cetaso (a past participle in the genitive or dative case). My translation above takes things as they come, but here I'm exploring an alternate possibility. If we take the nouns to go with the matching verbs then we might rearrange things like this:
Tañ ca ayaṃ upayaṃ na upeti, upādānaṃ na upādiyati adhiṭṭhānaṃ nādhiṭṭhāti abhinivesaṃ [abhinivisati] cetaso ānusayaṃ 'attā me’ti.
And he does not grasp the grasping, cling to the clinging, insist on the insisted, incline the inclining, this tendency of the mind [i.e.] 'this is my self'.
Clearly this doesn't work so well in English and there are strong arguments for not trying to use Pāli syntax for English translations. How might we improve it then?
And he does not grasp, cling to, insist on, or incline to this tendency of mind [i.e.] 'this is my self'.
I have taken a liberty here. KS completes the pun by including abhiniviśati where Pāli lacks the parallel. Given the structure I believe it was intended to be included and that the Pāli scribes left it out in error. It completes the picture and it's hard to imagine the author of this play on words missing the opportunity. So the Sanskrit is not an interpolation.

Now one test of this is to look at how the Chinese translators handled it. In Chinese we would expect a phrase like 'he does not cling the cling' to be confusing because the two words would likely be represented the same character.

KC 若無此取者 is literally ‘if not a seizer of those’ (i.e. existence and non-existence). It corresponds closely to KS. etāni ced upadhyupādānāni, but is similar to KP. Tañcāyaṃ upayupādānaṃ when it is read in the light of Buddhaghosa’s commentary. This confirms that Buddhaghosa’s reading is the correct one.

KC 心境繫著使 breaks down as: 心境 ‘mental state’ which renders S. cetaso; 繫著 ‘to be bound, attached’ seems to correspond to KP adhiṭṭhānaṃ abhinivesa and KS adhiṣṭhānābhiniveśa, where abhiniveśa means ‘obstinate or tenacious’; 使 renders S. anuṣaya ‘bias, proclivity, tendency’.

不取、不住、不計 are clearly the equivalent of P. na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti. For 不住 compare P nādhiṭṭhāti (i.e. na adhiṭṭhāti) ‘does not insist’ where adhiṭṭhāti (Skt. adhitiṣṭhāti) is from adhi+√sthā. the character 住 means ‘stopping, settling, staying’ which is Sanskrit √sthā 'stand, remain', so I have read it as Sanskrit adhitiṣṭhati. Re 計 DDB includes the notions of ‘discriminating, construing, and positing’ so there has been a slight reinterpretation here from nādhiṭṭhāti ‘attā me’ti (doesn’t insist on 'this self is mine') to 不計我 ‘does not construe a self’. While a self (P. attā, S. ātman) is not explicitly denied in Pāli Nikāyas, thinking in terms of a self is discouraged in the strongest possible terms. The attitude seems to be that a self is not relevant. However it seems that as Buddhist philosophy moved towards more ontological thinking that the denial of the existence of a self seemed a natural progression from warnings not to think in terms of a self.

This passage in particular shows up the way that an Indic original helps to makes sense of the Chinese. A problem discussed by Bucknell (2010). By contrast previous translators, apparently relying on the Chinese alone have rendered this passage as:
“Suppose one is without this grasping, not grasping at a mental realm which causes suffering, not dwelling, and not discerning a self.” Lapis Lazuli (2010)

“In one who has no such attachment, bondage to the mental realm, there is no attachment to the self, no dwelling in or setting store by self.” Choong & Piya (2004)
Some of the nuances get lost. Clearly “grasping at a mental realm” or “bondage to the mental realm” is far less satisfactory than “mental state of attachment” in Buddhist doctrinal terms.

So the Chinese does not pick up on this elaborate pun that we see in the Indic texts, and lends weigh to my first translation. However the nature of the play on words gives the sentence an added and ingenious structure. We can see that the structure has been marred in both the extant Pāli and Sanskrit, which are, of course, both translations. However the structure gives us what is called a checksum in computer jargon: a way of assessing the fidelity of transmission. Metre is often able to alert a read that a passage has been altered. For example the last verse of the Kāraṇiya Mettā Sutta is in a different metre from the other nine verses suggesting perhaps that it was added later. The structure here allows us to see how the sentence was originally constructed and what it meant. Of course we do not know when or where this sentence was composed, nor by whom, but they were more than averagely clever in this instance. 

When a computer programmer leaves a little message, or even small application that performs simple and usually benign functions, hidden in their code it is called an Easter egg. It is something for later generations of programmers or users to discover and delight in. Here the early Buddhist author has left us an Easter egg, and if one appreciates the subtleties of Indic grammar it is quite delightful. 


KP: Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka. Version 4.0. 1995. Vipassana Research Institute 
KS: Tripāṭhī, Chandra. (Ed.) (1962). 'Fünfundzwanzig Sūtras Des Nidānasaṃyukta' in Sanskrittexte aus den Turfanfunden (Vol. VIII). Edited by Ernst Waldschmidt. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962. [Includes translation into German]: 167-170. 
Bucknell, Roderick S. (2010) ‘Taking Account of the Indic Source-text,’ in Translating Buddhist Chinese: Problems and Prospects. Konrad Meisig (ed.). Harrossowitz Verlag. 
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16 September 2011


Music of the Spheres
music of the spheres
FIRST USED IN ENGLISH in 1570s the word phenomenon is traced back to the Greek phainesthai 'to appear, to seem' from phainō 'to show, to bring light'. For instance in The Odyssey, when marking the start of a new day, Homer often used the lovely phrase: phanē rhododaktulos Ēōs "Dawn's rosy fingers appeared". Phainō can also mean 'to make known' via the metaphor 'to see is to know'.

From the Greek come such words as fantasy, fancy, phantom, emphasis, and diaphanous. The PIE root is *bhā 'to shine'. Via Germanic cognates we get words such as banner, beacon, berry. In Latin a phantasma is the name for an apparition or spectre. Also via Latin we get epiphany, sycophant, hierophant. The root goes into Sanskrit as bhāsati 'to shine' and prabhā 'shining' and vibhāta 'shining forth'.

In English the meaning of phenomenon varies according to the context but basically it refers to the something known through the senses rather than by the intellect or reason. It can also mean any kind of observable event. Of course a Buddhist definition of phenomena, would include objects of the mind and observable mental events (not all such events are observable from within).

Phenomena are sometimes contrasted with noumena (from Greek noeō 'to perceive, to observe, to notice'; probably from a non-IE source since there are no other attested forms, and no PIE root). Before Kant philosophers took noumena to be synonymous with Plato's ideal forms. Plato likened human perception to seeing shadows cast on the wall of a cave, suggesting that we don't ever see the things that cast the shadows, i.e. the ideal forms (this gives us the label 'Idealist'), or presumably the light which illuminates them. In Kant's philosophy the appearance of thing (phenomenon) is contrasted with the 'thing in itself' (German Ding an sich) or noumenon, and, according to Kant, noumena are not directly perceptible, we can only intuit their existence from appearances - hence his philosophy is called Transcendental Idealism. Other philosophers hold that noumena can be perceived by the intellect, or pure reason, which might appear to make them akin to the Buddhist notion of the mental sense objects (dharma), however the differences are great enough to warn us off suggesting noumena as a translation. Although most Buddhist traditions would deny the possibility of noumena outright, some Buddhists find it hard to let go of the notion that there is something beyond phenomena, a transcendental reality, which can be experienced "directly".

The adjective noumenal (related to noumena) is sometimes conflated with the adjective numinous, though the latter is from a different root. 'Numinous' is mainly used by theologians to suggest the felt presence of God. This word comes from the Latin numen 'divine will'. Ultimately we can trace it to the PIE root *√neu "to nod"; and it suggests ascent by a nod of the head. A related English word is innuendo.

Because dharma/dhamma is often used in the sense of an object of the senses, particularly the mind-sense (manas), and because it can mean 'a thing', or 'an item' we often translate it as 'phenomenon'. The fit is not exact however. Dharma comes from the root √dhṛ 'to hold, to support'. There is a word which would be well translated by phenomenon and that is vedanā. The root of this word is √vid 'to know, to find' and is regularly used in words to do with knowledge such as veda 'sacred knowledge' and vidyā 'secret knowledge'. We often translate these Indic words with English from the same root, i.e. wisdom 'experience and knowledge combined with the ability to judiciously apply them'. Vedanā then is 'the thing known', in effect it is 'what appears', i.e. the phenomenon. Though again Western thinkers don't typically include mental objects under the rubric of phenomena.

Vedanā is often translated as 'feeling' because in Buddhist doctrine it is associated with pleasure and displeasure (sāta/asāta or sukha/dukkha), leading to attraction and repulsion. I tend to translate 'sensation' because 'feeling' allows for vedanā to be confused with emotions which are colloquially also called 'feelings'. We could say that emotions have a felt component, and a cognitive component. A feeling without a corresponding thought process is possible, but it is usually hard to know what to make of it. In modern terms the feelings of pleasure and pain associated with sensations are part of our internal sense network which includes proprioception, the inner-ear balance organs, the viscera and digestive tract, and other sources of information from within the body itself. We sometimes talk about 'raw sensations' in Buddhism, but this is a bit of a misnomer because even in Buddhist psychology a lot of complex processes have to be active in order for us to become aware of a sensation. What in effect we mean by raw sensation is the vedanā before it gives rise to craving or aversion. To experience this we have to be relatively detached from pleasure and pain.

From the Buddhist point of view one of the important things about vedanā is that it arises in dependence on conditions. It is said to arise when there is contact, and contact occurs when sense faculty meets sense object giving rise to sense consciousness - and the three together constitute the condition for the arising of vedanā. We see a crucial difference in the Buddhist and Western approaches here. The Western intellectual tradition sees our internal world as subjective, as synonymous with the subject. Buddhists see this as a mistake. The subject is involved in creating experience, but only in active interaction with the object. Experience itself then is neither subjective nor objective; it is not a function of either alone, but of the interactions of the two together. I have observed before that this technically means that early Buddhist thought is dualistic - it acknowledges that subject and object are two different things. This is a metaphysical position, and it has wide ranging implications should we choose to follow them up, but the authors of the suttas never did.

Buddhism in the West is still in the process of settling on terminology. Perhaps for the first time in history a culture is having to deal with multiple competing forms of Buddhism which are using radically different oriental vocabulary e.g. Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean. Of these languages only Japanese and Korean are even remotely related (and the relationship is remote in this case). Phenomenon and it's counterpart noumenon are widely used, but the discussion about suitability has yet to really take place. I'm reasonably well versed in Indian Buddhist terminology, but I find I cannot read books on Tibetan Buddhism because they use another set of terms with may neologisms that I don't understand. Similarly I often flounder when reading about Japanese Buddhism. Buddhist jargon is often impenetrable, even to Buddhists.

I'm all in favour of just ditching traditional jargon and Buddhist Hybrid English (English vocabulary with Sanskrit syntax) that doesn't make sense. Perhaps it is time to drop all the words and have a new attempt at describing the procedures of Buddhism, and the experiences that result? A word like phenomenon shows that it won't be easy, because words come with baggage. On the other hand we are constantly redefining words: think of terrific (i.e. terrifying OEtD), or silly (originally 'happy, blessed' OEtD). It suggests that there will be a role for philologists—those people who tell us what words mean, and why they mean that—in Buddhism for a long time to come.