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How signs and writing systems help us think

HAN ZHEN | 2021-01-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An exhibit of an oracle bone inscription at the National Museum of China in Beijing in Oct, 2019 Photo: XINHUA 

The ability to think and reason is the measure of a man, distinguishing humans from other animals. Though also an animal species, humans can think logically: they are sapient. The belief that humans are able to think and reason because of self-awareness is commonly held. The main bone of contention here is how exactly human awareness evolved from animal consciousness. 
Prelude: linguistic signs 
To be sure, human consciousness and animal consciousness are not entirely disconnected. Mankind is, after all, an animal species. Human evolution was a process from animality to humanity. However evolved we may be, humans will never be able to abandon our roots. 
Throughout the lengthy process of human evolution, what watershed moments helped humankind become more than animals? The answer lies in the application of symbols. Humans' capacity for language enabled our ancestors to think more deeply, with the help of symbols. By symbolizing their consciousness step by step, human beings marked and identified their desires, emotions, impulses, and imaginations. With these symbols, humans were able to integrate their fragmented thoughts and start to think in a systematic and unimpeded way. 
In the animal world, deer only see grass as their food, be it alfalfa or wild chives, while tigers only see deer as their prey. In contrast, ancient humans began to name the grasses "alfalfa," "chives," or their joint name - "grass." The terms helped people mark, identify, and understand all types of different grasses, deer, and tigers. Apparently, in humans' consciousness, our direct link with the world has been weakened and even lost. As a result, we developed abstract thinking, which is the ability to consider concepts beyond what we observe physically, which enabled us to think deeper and more broadly. 
It is thus not hard to understand that the world is an objective reality in the eyes or consciousness of an animal. An animal sees its food, water sources, mates, or natural enemies. Whereas a human eye sees not only the objective reality, but also what humans created subjectively. Through deciphering symbols, humans have built an inner world of concepts in our consciousness. The concepts include our imagination of ghosts and gods, the meanings we find for our lives, our sense of value, and expectations for the future. Gradually, we developed a series of ideas, notions, visions, morals, and abstract thoughts. The existence of these conceptual "meanings" indicates not only how we interpret our lives, but also how we see the objective world. That is to say, the process of producing linguistic signs has affected the way we perceive the natural world. For example, the ancient Chinese had the theory of Wu Xing (Five Elements) and the ancient Greeks had the Theory of Ideas and an atomic theory to explain natural phenomena. These "rules" and common sense were replaced by natural sciences in modern times. 
Accelerator: writing systems 
At the outset, humans created abstract space in their minds based on vocal symbols. Throughout the long arch history, the thoughts and ideas of humanity were passed down orally, from speaker to speaker, generation to generation. Shorter overall lifespans also made it more difficult for ancient people to accumulate knowledge and ideas. What's worse, a lot of the hard-earned knowledge and thoughts were lost as wise individuals passed away. To preserve the most important memories of one's life, ancient humans began to make marks on rock surfaces, or kept records by tying knots. However, most of these marks were gradually worn away over time, leaving only a few rock paintings for later generations to decipher and imagine the days long gone. Still, through rock art and knots, ancient people moved one step closer to developing signs. These could be the foundations of words. 
The invention of writing systems thrust humanity into a phase of rapid development of cognitive ability, and made great thinking possible. For a few million years, throughout the timeline of human evolution, humanity had only vocal languages. Writing systems have only been around in the most recent five to six thousand years. Nevertheless, it only took a few thousand years after the invention of writing for many great thinkers to appear, such as Laozi (? – ?), Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE), the Buddha(c. 563 BCE/480 BCE – c. 483 BCE/400 BCE), and Thales of Miletus (c. 624–620 BCE — c. 548 – 545 BCE). The creation of systematic thinking systems profoundly changed humanity, and walked human race from barbarism to civilization. In another two thousand years, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were born. With natural sciences, they brought human civilization to the next stage. 
Why were writing systems an accelerator of humans' knowledge production? 
Words, once written, are recordings of certain thoughts and knowledge. They are like ladders with which humans are able to climb towards higher levels of thinking, so that humans think deeper and further develop knowledge. Words help us identify their corresponding meanings, so we are able to think more easily. We become travelers with a map, which help us locate our position and directions ahead. Just as Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 — 1951) said, "reality (the world) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language." 
Even when the wise pass away, their thoughts and knowledge are still available in the form of text for others to read, interpret, and reactivate. As long as the language that they spoke is still in use, future generations are still able to access their knowledge. Even "dead languages" can be deciphered. That's exactly how we learn about many ancient civilizations, including the Babylonian civilization, the ancient Egyptian civilization, and the Mayan civilization. 
Since writing facilitates thought, it is natural that different writing systems influence thinking in different ways. For instance, Chinese calligraphy has fundamentally changed Chinese people's spiritual world. The square-shaped Chinese characters look completely different from alphabets in the West, whose writing systems are more phonetic. In this sense, it is not hard for us to see why Jacques Derrida criticized the "phonocentrism" throughout the history of Western philosophy. This may also explain why Westerners value logical reasoning while Chinese value imagination and perception. That is to say, when trying to decipher the meanings behind the signs, one should put oneself in the framework of its source language, and read with the mindset that matches the linguistic form of the text. This allows us to better observe and understand the world depicted in the text. 
Reading: a boundless world 
Of course, any text on its own, either written in phonetic languages or Chinese characters, cannot be called "thoughts" without a live human brain trying to understand it. Words are signs that enable humans to understand the thoughts of previous generations, which makes reading a tool that allows us to travel through time and space. Reading helps us appreciate gems of wisdom of our ancestors, such as the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, and the Han Feizi. What's more, we can also enjoy the works of great thinkers on the other side of the world—Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas, and Richard McKay Rorty. The power of reading will always enable us to enrich our minds and our spiritual world. As Wittgenstein put it, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world." It is also fair to say that the books one has read are the limits of one's spiritual world. A Chinese saying also goes, "Wisdom in hold, elegance in mold." It is reading that broadens our minds and cultivates our inner world. 
Since philosophy is the essence of humanity's exploration of the law and structure of thought, it can also be described as thoughts about thinking. The spiritual world inside our minds constantly accumulates knowledge and upgrades itself. Classics of philosophy can become the North Star on our journey towards greater thinking. These classic works can also become pillars supporting the palace of our minds. Philosophy classics are windows towards the starry sky of great thinkers’ minds. Reading engages the reader in a dialogue with the writer, which helps them explore the boundless world of thought. These works hold important concepts and terms that function as milestones to help others think deeper and climb higher on the mountain of knowledge. 
Reading is not for us to blindly accept others' conclusions, but to activate our brains with others' thoughts, so that we could develop our own thoughts on the basis of their achievements. The brainstorms and clashes of ideas are able to generate more colorful concepts, which never cease to widen the boundary of humanity's world of thought. Again, thoughts do not exist in the symbols on pages, but inside the brains that try to decipher them. To a brain that does not think, any language would be a dead language, or an objective existence. In this sense, we are not the possessors, but explorers of truth. That is why we must keep reading, and keep thinking. 
Han Zheng is a professor from the Institute of Foreign Philosophy and Culture at Beijing Normal University. 
Edited by WENG RONG