Saturday, September 18, 2021

 520. Dichotomies, polarities and language.

 Taoism opposes dichotomies , such as true versus untrue, between which you have to choose, and sees them as polarities, where you can choosee a position in between. Not black or white but shades of grey. This is part of a wider stance of getting away from rules (wu-wei) and preconceived ideas, to ‘think out of the box’. Fox (2015: 65) uses an example of traffic lights. They used to be red or green depending only on duration. Now they depend also on the time of day, the length of queues and the weather However, rules are never complete, and depend on circumstances. When a car in the line breaks down. the ordering fails. The point is that one should always keep an open mind. to a different ordering.

 This is also needed in communication, to understand, with the aid of metaphor, the different perspective of someone else, whose values and ideas will always differ.Zuangzi talks of ‘goblet words’ that empty themselves in order to refill themselves (Fox, 2015: 66). Metaphor is seeing something in terms of something else, i.e. the other’s perspective.

 Taoism is skeptical, at best ambivalent, concerning language. Porat (2015) traces this to the simple fact that language creates our view of reality, and does so by cutting it up, dividing it, with words putting things into boxes, categories, while reality is an indivisible whole , and thus cannot be put into words, is indescribable.

 Here, I want to connect this issue with existing ideas concerning language from Western philosophy of language. There one finds the hermeneutic circle , which professes a circular to-and-fro between a paradigmatic axis and a syntagmatic axis. Hermeneutics means interpretation of a text, called after the Greek god Hermes, who was the god of commerce, travel and communication. The paradigmatic axis is composed of the generalised concepts, of a cat, for example, and the syntagmatic axis of particular uses of the concept in specific contexts, in sentences, this particular blue-grey striped cat on the mat. A dominant view is that meaning can always be reduced to a general concept, the paradigm. The general concept may be seen as having a variety of possible particular meanings, in things it may refer to. I associate the notion ‘cat’ with my particular tabby, with blue-gray stripes. Particular things may be odd, exceptional in some way, but remain seen to belong to the concept, and may in their peculiarity shift the concept, in being included in the general notion, or may constitute a new notion. This sounds like the idea, in Taoism, of a ‘goblet word’ (Fox 2015).One misconceives the world if adhering to the paradigmatic axis with its fixed categories, neglecting the fluidity, transformation, on the syntagmatic axis. The goblet is continuously emptied and refilled

 The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called the generalised inter-subjective order of language langue and the individual subjective meaning parole (Saussure, 1979). In the hermeneutic circle, general, public meanings or langue lie along the paradigmatic axis, and particular, situation-specific meanings or parole along the syntagmatic axis. A general concept, taken from the hermeneutic axis is inserted in a sentence, the syntagmatic axis, in a specific action context, and becomes a particular. Langue becomes parole. In interpretation, the langue of a text is interpreted in terms of the parole of the reader or speaker. A cloud of potential reference condenses into a rain of particular ones. In the sentence the concept can adopt new associations, which when adopted by others turns into an expansion or shift of the general meaning, and is adopted in the public meaning along the paradigmatic axis. Reading and interpretation can become creative. This is a model of how one can go from order (langue) to disorder (parole) and back again, in an ongoing development. Openness to this process is the ‘fluidity’ that Taoism aims at. General concepts change in the long run. Order regulates disorder, but is shifted in its practice.

 Thus, I do not reject generalised, intersubjective meaning, as Taoism seems to do, but propose it as the freezing of a Taoist process of a variety of different individual, context-specific meanings that shifts public meaning. It is still wu-wei in rejecting existing meanings and ideas as fixed, but adds the role of shared meaning in communication.

 Fox, A.2015, ‘Zhuangzi’s weiwuwei epistemology seeing through dichotomy to polarity’in: in: New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.

 De Saussure, F. 1979, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris: Payot.

 Porat, R. 2015, ‘Layers of ineffability in the Zhuagzi: Why language shoud not be trusted’in:. New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.


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