Friday, January 24, 2014

Fragment 2412014

In Qian Zhongshu's classic Chinese novel of 1947 Fortress Besieged the protagonist Hung Chien is teaching at a brand new university in the interior of China, far from the fighting. The university, with its admin and various departments, faculty and students, stands as a symbol of the Republic of China under KMT rule, especially during the period when Madame Chiang’s New Life Movement was in effect. Hung Chien has been appointed the lowly position of lecturer in Logic.

According to the school regulations, students in the College of Letters and Law had to choose one course among Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Logic. Most of them swarmed like bees to Logic because it was the easiest. – “It’s all rubbish” and not only did they not conduct experiments, but when it was cold, they could stick their hands in their sleeves and not take notes. They chose it because it was easy, and because it was easy they looked down on it, the way men look down on easy-to-get women. Logic was “rubbish”. 

Chinese logic is parodied mercilessly in several places in the text, not just the peasant logic of old saws and sayings; but in other ways: the library has no books on logic; Hung Chien is preparing his course – he has never studied logic himself- from an old copy of An Outline in Logicanother faculty member has given him. But the text also gives examples of logic put forward to justify social behaviour. 

Han Hsueh Yu, head of the foreign languages department, is married to a White Russian émigré he bumped into in Shanghai; he also has a fake Phd diploma he bought from a mail order catalogue in the US. He anxious to give everyone the impression that his wife is American Рa highly desirable commodity Рand his fake certificate a secret.

On the evening of July fourth, the last day of the final examinations, Han threw a big party for his colleagues with his wife’s name appearing on the invitation. The occasion was American Independence Day. This of course proved that his wife was indeed a genuine full-fledged American; for otherwise, how could she be always thinking about her mother country? Patriotism is not something that can be simulated. If the wife’s nationality were real, could not the husband’s academic credentials then be fake?

Now, this may appear to be only a sharp satire on academic behaviour, but Qian Zhongshu is on to something much more subtle and deeply buried here. This is an example of what we can call a Chinese Syllogism, which looks formally like a perfectly reasonable syllogism, but which differs from its Western counterpart essentially in that the terms of the syllogism need not bear any relationship at all to each other, or to reality. What matters most is the appearance of a logical structure, its conformity to a linguistic formula, a syntax, rather than its content or any relationship to reality per se. 

One can see how this works by splitting the language horizontally into two layers and removing the lexical layer, leaving behind only traces of the syntactical. 

If X then Y
X of course proves Y, for otherwise how could Z happen?
If X, then couldn’t it also be Y?

One can then replace the integers with any random vocabulary:

If I sneeze, then someone is thinking about me.
The fact that all foreigners have big noses of course proves that they smell, for otherwise how could it not be that we can all smell them?
If you have been abroad as foreign student and returned to China, couldn’t it also be that you are a suspicious character?

Whether we do this in English or in Chinese matters not a jot to the underlying point which is that the formal syntactical structure of the utterance matters more than the viability of its content. Its air of authority and the declarative way with which it is uttered forestalls any attempt at disagreement, while the crafty use of negative interrogatives ensures a positive answer, a confirmation of the absurd bias of the syllogism. 

Normal, natural, observable causality is thus utterly traduced in favour of an arbitrary causality simply imposed upon it. It’s as if the Daoist mindset, with its steadfast refusal –inability- to form categories as it perceives the world, when faced with the demand to suddenly do so, out of sheer inexperience lumps a few hastily gleaned facts of reality together and announces a causal relationship between them.

Towards the end of his sane life, Nietzsche was playing with the idea of critiquing causality. What he means is not the underlying causality of physics per se, but the underlying concept of causality, the syntactic syllogisms, both articulated and silent, with which we make sense of cause and effect in the world. He suspected that the notion of causality was something that had to be learned first, a habit of mind, such as the habit of seeing the world in terms of space and time, concepts like causality which also at some point in the development of human consciousness had first to be learned:

This belief in causality is erroneous: purpose, motive, are means of making something that happens comprehensible, practicable. The generalisation, too, was erroneous and illogical.

Notebook 34 1885

Like a child taking its very first steps, the Chinese Syllogism shows perhaps the trial and error involved in forming a useful concept of causality. It’s all a bit hit and miss.

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