Shengren – Chapter 2.5 – Philology, The Supreme Discipline

The power over another people’s languages and names is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Any language has the potential and capacity to dominate and to direct the history of thought. It is about the people in control of that language; are they actively pursuing dominance? Do they want to dominate?

The philosopher Christian Wolff was the initiator of German language scholarship during the 1730s and 1740s. Before him, Latin had been the language of instruction in German universities. Latin, of course, was [and still is] the language of the Catholic Church. In 1721, Wolff came across a Latin translation of the Confucian Classics by French missionary François Noël. He made the following note:

After carefully study of the classical books of the Chinese nation, I was convinced that the ancient Chinese, in particular Confucius, had the same conceptions [as I do].[1]

That day was probably the secret birthday of German philology, but first things first: Wolff’s assertion, technically speaking, was absurd, if not hilarious; First, he did not study the Classical works of the Chinese nation; he only read a Latin translation of what – allegedly – were the ‘classical books’ of the Chinese nation. To make a point: which singular ‘classical books’ would Ku Hongming have to read to be able to make a similar claim of confidence about the European tradition? Did Ku not master the English and German language, and read hundreds of European books? Second, Wolff’s conviction that the Chinese conceptions of the Chinese nations and Confucius looked similar to the conceptions he himself held, amounts to a tautology: Latin ‘hominum naturae’ looked like a ‘hominum naturae’ in Chinese; it was after all a Latin book (and Noël its author, not Confucius), and Wolff was a Latin-speaker. For the insanity of it: a Chinese ‘hominum naturae’ was now made look identical in letters to a Germanized Latin: ‘hominum naturae;’ does this mean that the Chinese know anything about Latin and German ‘conceptions?’ The reverse: Latin is/was the language of Catholicism. Are the Chinese ‘Catholics’ not knowing it? What Christian Wolff had in mind when saying that he shared the ‘same conceptions’ as Confucius does, was possibly that he shared similar ideas about practical philosophy which in Wolff’s time amounted to moral philosophy; or at least shared similar ideas with François Noël who after all was a Jesuit [Catholic] missionary who invested himself in his Latin translation. It is a true game of ‘Chinese whisper’, is it not? Every scholar retattles what he thought he might have understood from the previous translator. It certainly helped Wolff to discover the same ‘conceptions’ as the Chinese did, that Noël was a missionary and had produced a Latin copy that used familiar biblical vocabulary that Wolff had grown up with from childhood. About China, the Chinese text, the original Chinese, the Chinese terms, Wolff knew nothing. He was misappropriating Confucianism for his Bible studies.

Philology is the study of language, and Wolff’s philosophical approach exemplified the way and general European attitude toward languages: language was a tool, not a truth. Most Europeans are Christians yet have never read The Bible in its original, in its language(s) of origin, Greek and Hebrew, next Latin; they most likely have only read a paperback edition, revised and shortened, of a copy of the Lutheran German translation of a Latin translation of other obscure translations of the (unknown) original. No surprise that nothing of eternal value is ever attached to languages in Europe, otherwise they would be crying a thousand years for all the tongues forgotten and all the languages shattered. No, to them words are just vehicles, little carriers that transport meaning, but could easily be replaced by another carrier, or even transport another meaning.

This linguistic mess is probably not how the Europeans liked or preferred it, but more how they had to accept the fragility of their own languages after several histories of conquest. For example, Rhodes of Greece had a Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Italian, and Modern Greek period. Languages come and go. And if a new conqueror arrived tomorrow, he would try to replace all local names. Western perception of history as a linear process inhibits strong feelings about things lost or left behind: Those tongues were probably unfit, is a common rationale. [The ancient Etruskers are ususally cited as an empire that disappeared without a linguistic trace.] Language ‘reformations’ were announced under the pretext of progress or making writing easier. In reality, a new master or foreign force was asserting itself. Hence Leibniz’s condemnation of foreign terms: ‘As to the foreign and Unteutsch words, the biggest question existeth whether and how far to tolerate them.’[2] The true question: Do you want your words in print or that of your competitors?

And Confucius believed in God;[3] Tian was the Christian Heaven,[4] or God;[5] China had ‘the true knowledge of GOD;’[6]Fo is religion and philosophy, but without reason;[7] Laozi’s dao is similar to the ideas of Rousseau and Spinoza, and a bit like Hegel’s, too.[8] All the while the Chinese characters play the West for a fool – there is no ‘philosopher’ in 圣sheng, and there is no 圣sheng in Europe, we cannot find a single instance. But who cares, we must not tolerate foreign words.

From the point of view of aesthetics, words in European languages are quite ugly and constantly morphing and changing their form (in what we call inflections, vowel alterations, conjugations, slang and dialects). Words convey and transport meaning, so say the linguistics, but have no meaning in themselves. Instead, words are Lautschrift of a sound. Consider: An ‘m’, an ‘ea’, an ‘n’, an ‘i’, an ‘n’, and a ‘g’—‘Meaning’. You have been cheated, conditioned, by sounds, a string of sounds, a sound in your heart. Now consider this Chinese character that is often translated as meaning: 意 yi. It is a pictogram of 音and 心… ‘the sound in your heart’.

Which leads us again to the European liberty toward form: Take for instance the following European words all roughly connotation to a ‘thinker’ –Denker, penseur, Tænker, pensatore, and pensador. There is indeed an insatiable thirst for word variation and manipulation in Europe. This leads to competition. Every nation-state wants to literally own the world. Dictionaries emerge. Totally fixed, correct ‘spelling’ is made compulsory. Education is made compulsory. The simple secret to Empire: Army and Schools. No Academy of Sciences in Berlin, no Prussian Empire. No Oxbridge, no British Empire. No Ivy League, no American Empire. They are marching for the ‘sound of the heart’ and the ‘thinking man’ to be written their way.

By comparison, the hundreds if not thousands dialects of Greater China all have the same characters for thinker: 思想家sixiangjia –a person of images and imaginations in his heart.

If form is indeed contested Europe, a European language speaker could care less about the ‘sacred’ original words in The Bible –Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Dutch, German, whatever letter salat: Ideally, we wants to write his own Bible. It’s a metaphor. He wants to write his own everything.

Christian Wolff was considered the first true China expert in Germany. He could not read a single Chinese character. Most German philosophers could not read the languages of the cultures they wrote their dissertations about; thus the problem was not an individual one, but indicated a flaw (or liberty, depending) in the system: The European orientalists started to latinize Asian names. Fair enough. But from the point of a view of a future computationalist, lazy Latinization is going to look primitive. Here is why: Instead of learning the fifty-one letters of the Sanskrit [Devanāgarī] alphabet and be able to read… I don’t know… perhaps 10, 20, 50 million books, scrolls, poems, conversations… and actually understand (today’s) one billion Indians, this is what the orientalists did: they transliterated the Devanāgarī script into Roman letters. So ingenious, isn’t it? No, actually, not: It is a master scheme. Because only the orientalist saw the original and promptly codified it. Why, it is not with the interest of the readers in mind. It is self-interest and job-preservation. The orientalist has no inclination to teach you how to read all the Hindu scripts for yourself. He wants to be your guardian. To be dependent on what he translates, when he translates, what next he translates. He and his department. He, his department, and his sponsors. Thus, the British owned India… the British couldn’t read Hindi script.

The European scholars did the same with the Japanese script (which is part Chinese script, kanji, and part Japanese alphabet, hiragana and katakana), Tibetan script, Hebrew, and Arabic script. Now that so many languages could be compared phonetically (as they were all expressed by Roman letters), it was only logically to invent a vertical history of languages. The Comparative Method was born, which allowed the re-construction of languages, even languages that were never written, like Proto Indo European (PIE). The Comparative method was once described by the linguistic Calvert Watkins as the ‘reconstruction of grammar, sounds, forms, words, sentences […] before the human race had invented the art of writing.’[9] All the same, a ‘reconstructed proto-language’ was not very different from the newly constructed Wales-Giles or Pinyin Mandarin: a ‘glorious artifact’ indeed.[10] Humanists have long accepted the reality that not only engineers build new machines that did not exist before, but that the humanists too create new social realities that did not exist before. Transliterations are a case in point, proto-languages are another.

Transliterations do not make to study a foreign language faster; on the contrary they slow the study of a foreign language like Hindi down, because the learner will now have to memorize a ‘language in-between,’ an artificial construct: The Latinization of Hindi language. European commentators justified transliterations as a means to describe foreign phonetics, but, technically, that is an excuse. The target language’s letters function as phonetics just as well. What is more, in stark contrast: When learning Indo-European languages, Chinese students do not use any ‘go–between’ transliteration; instead they learn the pronunciations of Hindi or English from the get-go.

The following example shall demonstrate this. The next sentence did not exist in Sanskrit and India before the Europeans arrived (the Devanāgarī letters were replaced by Roman ones): ‘Hastadirbhadeva bahuprakarah yathaikah parinatyaniyah tatha jagad bhinnamabhinna duhkh-sukhanmakam sarvamidam tartheva.’ This is how British students of Sanskrit learn Sanskrit. As an experiment of thought: If all the other cultures on earth decided to invent a lautschrift for English, the number of languages (transcripts) of the world would artificially double overnight. And although this is in principle the socialist solution to human language, it is against the limitedness of our brain undoable. So, we rather would prefer rare, exotic, beautiful, potential, and often arbitrary words.

Foreign loanwords are commonly picked from the go-between, artificial languages, or lautschrift like Japanese zen or Chinese dao, not the original language 禅 (ぜん) or 道. The Chinese very own phonetic script is cheerfully called ‘Po-po-mo-fo,’ or ‘Bopomofo’ or, more technically: 注音Zhuyin. This Chinese phonetic script or lautschrift, Zhuyin, is modelled after the Buddhist/Sanskrit alphabet, so it isn’t arbitrarily: s, t, u, v, w… but t, th, d th –according to sound categories. In addition, some consonants fell away. The Chinese ‘alphabet’ today is still four-partite like the Buddhist original, and starts like this: b, p, m, f

d, t, n, l,

g, k, h, j…

As Zhuyin is superfluous, much like European lautschrift [those pesky phonetic letters [ᴁ] [ᴔ] [ᴉ] and so on, say: huge / [hju:dᴈ], it is hardly used on pupils. Instead, primary school students throughout mainland China learn the [original Buddhist] Chinese alphabet straight with basic characters to their initial sound. So: d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j…. And this is before and apart of tones and radical tables. The unifying ‘standard’ pronunciation is actually a communist project: It is called Putonghua or Mandarin, and it uses pinyin, really anglicized Roman letters, as a pronunciation guide, even though anglicized Roman letters are not pronounced like Zhuyin. So, pinyin ‘q’ is pronounced [tᶝ´].

Transliteration may be an artificial language, but it is the letter source for Chinese loanwords. The power of it is immense. See the difference between translation and transliteration:

Will Durant:


The Superman of Confucius is composed of three virtues […]: intelligence, courage, and good will.[11]
Rodney Taylor:


Confucius qualifies the chün-tzu with three virtues: jen (humaneness), chih (wisdom), and yung, or courageousness.[12]

Christian Wolff in the 18th century still read the Confucian Classics in Latin; later the Germans read French and English and finally German translations, and by the time of the 21st century, the language of the Confucian Classics became English. In the process of textual transmission, the Chinese texts ere only relevant once: for the translator during the process of translating. The German translators between the 18th and 21st centuries, lest they felt how far Germany was lagging behind the British Empire, understood the power of translations extremely well. It was also a short-cut to dive into ‘academic’ work without wasting ten or more years for studying Hanyu. These half-illiterates were particular eager to translate the Oriental languages and foreign texts like you and I would, perhaps, build a publishing house or a themed library: big titles first, followed by agenda-fitting, esoteric stuff (preferences of the directors), almanacs, and encyclopedias. Historiographies emerged, which are collections of selected classical text that connect philology to history. Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, the German historisches Bewußtsein articulated: the idea that history has a conscience and purpose, that is progressive, and that it favors the Germans.

Friedrich Humboldt, the Reformator, had ordered the universities to dissect and analyze all foreign culture, and to incorporate them into world history [Einbinden aller Völker in the Geschichtsprozess]. The Germans furnished their world with ever new foreign material, new German vocabulary, and new theories. The German cause thus became a creational force in itself and had to come to love and embrace philology –academia’s most powerful tool. Philology is the supreme discipline of the humanities [like mathematics is to science]; it is philos (love) for logos (words). Now that a Bürgertum [middle class] emerges that actually reads, the Biedermeier and the Romantic epoch [around 1800] representative, artists and writers and scholars see themselves as ‘creators’ of worlds. They discover genius. Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, and Friedrich Nietzsche become representatives of genius –philological genius. They have in common an excessive mental fluency and capacity for words. Philology is not just the administration and economy of vocabularies, it is conquest, it is renaming the names, it is a guru career, is obscene control and power, languid opportunists as civilizational intermediaries and mediators. And like all culture, it is pure invention.

[1] Wolff, 1721

[2] Leibniz, 1677, p. 547

[3] Haas, 1920, p. 21

[4] Legge, 1893, 7.22

[5] Wilhelm, 1914, 7.22

[6] Taylor, 1691, p. 8

[7] Hegel, 1919, p. 332

[8] Durant, 1976, p. 655

[9] Watkins, 1985, p. xiii

[10] Ibid., p. xiii

[11] Durant, 1976, p. 669

[12] Taylor, 205, p. 133

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York

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