What Speech Reveals, According to a Chinese Philosopher and a Few Rhetoricians

Kung-sun Ch’ou asked Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, how he was better than Kao Tzu, another Chinese Philosopher. 

Mencius said, “I understand ‘what can be put in words.’ I am adept in the cultivation of the ch’i.

But this answer didn’t satisfy Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he said, “Might I ask what you mean by ‘the ch’i’?” Then Mencius replied,

It is difficult to express in words. The ch’i [often translated as “physical vigour” or “passion-nature”] in this sense is the greatest, the most durable. If it is nurtured by rectitude it remains unharmed and permeates the entire universe. The ch’i in this sense is the fit recipient for Justice and the Way. Without it, man is ill-nourished. It is begotten of the sum total of just deeds. It is not to be seized and held by incidental just deeds. If an act of ours does not meet approval with the heart, then [the life force] is ill-nourished. That is why Kao Tzu has never understood Justice. He thinks it is external to man. One must render service to it; one must not regard it as an objective criterion. The mind must never let it out of its sight, but we must not try to make it grow. Let us not be like the man of Sung who, worried that his young plants were not growing, tugged at them [to help them grow]. He returned home, full of fuss, saying, “What a busy day! I have been helping my plants to grow.” His son hurried out to the fields to look, but the young plants had withered already. There are few men in the world today who are not “helping the plants grow.” Some neglect their plants, thinking it useless to weed them. Some help their plants by giving them a tug. But this is not merely useless; it is actually harmful.

But this somewhat cryptic answer still wasn’t enough for Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he asked what Mencius meant when he said that he “understood what can be put into words.” Then Mencius responded,

I understand what hides the other half of a half-truth. I understand the pitfalls that lie beneath extravagant statements. I understand the emptiness that lies behind evasive statements. Engendered in the mind, they cause harm to government. When they result in governmental action they cause harm to public affairs. If a Sage were to rise again he would agree with all I have said. (Mencius 2.1.2.11-17)

Stephen Owen has interpreted Mencius’ statement this way,

Mencius’ knowledge of language is a knowledge of what the words reveal about the speaker, what they make manifest. . . . Words become only a surface whose shape reveals what lies within. Mencius’ list of different kinds of language shows that the trained listener can make fine discriminations. Most important, what the speaker reveals in his words is involuntary–perhaps not at all what he would wish to have revealed. Error and deception are not autonomous categories here, but are subsumed under understanding the person: they are nothing more than manifestations of ignorance or the desire to deceive and as such become important pieces of evidence for us when we listen to someone speak, recognizing the truth or accepting error, being deceived or not being deceived rest with the capacities of the listener. (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 1992)

In other words, speech is a subset of action. Ways of speaking are ways of acting, and speech patterns reveal thought patterns. All of this suspiciously sounds like Isocrates, who wrote in his Nicocles that “We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind . . . and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul” (171). 

That capacity that Owen reads into Mencius–the capacity to listen well and to listen responsibly–is what we as human beings all strive towards. Wayne Booth, at the end of his book that was subtitled The Quest for Effective Communication, wrote that the quality of our lives–not just individually but also collectively–largely depends on the quality of our capacity to listen and respond, in short, our capacity to actually communicate (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 171-172).

But there is a difference between actually communicating and merely thinking that we are communicating. Actual communication does not happen between beings who do not try to listen with their hearts as well as their heads. Listening is more than merely hearing words, and understanding another human being is more than simply getting enough information that will make me sound cool when I open my mouth.