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. 

Words, Emotions, Meat Markets, Philosophy, and Hamlet

Does language have anything to do with emotions? Well, we certainly do feel something when particular words are used, both when we use them and when we hear them. (It’s not just the words themselves, of course, but also how they are said that can incite or influence emotion. But let’s stick to words for this post.) 

Butcher Shop–or whatever you want to call it.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, a butcher shop could also be called a meat store, a premium deli, a meat market, or even a slaughterhouse. Each of these words makes us feel a certain way. The words connote something different, and my own acts of naming, as well as the store owner’s acts of naming, would reveal an attitude or an emotion towards the subject in question or the thing being defined. Depending on how we feel towards the subject we’ll use a different word to describe it. If I’m a meat-lover, I’ll call it one thing (“Paradise” or perhaps even “Heaven”), but if I’m a vegetarian who’s interested in animal rights, I’ll call it something quite different (perhaps “Hell”). The same strategic name-calling is true from the perspective of the owner. The owner wants people to come to the store, so of course he or she is not going to call it a slaughterhouse, unless of course it’s October and Halloween is just around the corner–because the word slaughterhouse is attractive to certain kinds of people at that time of year.

So what I’m curious about is, is there really a non-emotional language, a language free from passion and attitude? Or does all language necessarily have some kind of emotional baggage? And isn’t this one of the things Solomon was getting at in The Joy of Philosophy, especially in his “Afterthought” at the end of the book when he talks about the “non-emotional” philosophical jargon of contemporary analytic philosophy?
Solomon’s metaphors at the beginning of his essay “On the Passivity of the Passions”  in his book Not Passion’s Slave make me wonder about another related idea. After asking several questions about the nature of emotion, Solomon offers a few questions of his own:

[I]s controlling an emotion like controlling one’s thoughts, one’s speech, one’s arguments, putting them into shape, choosing one’s mode of expression as well as one’s timing? . . . Or is it like coordinating one’s actions through practice, like riding a bike, which may be “mindless” . . . but is nevertheless wholly voluntary and both very much within one’s control and a matter of continuous choice? (195)

Is learning to “use” emotions similar to using certain words? Well, it can’t be that easy, but words and emotions have a metonymic relationship to one another? Might one be a type or shadow of the other? I mean, what about actors in movies and television? How do they train themselves to have particular emotions at particular times if emotions merely happen to us?

Interestingly enough, at the end of his The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin quotes the following passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where an actor has just wept while quoting a passage from a play. Hamlet wonders how it is possible, if the play is just a play and the actor is just an actor:

A classic scene from the classic play.
Art by Eugène Delacroix, 1839.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in ‘s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! (Hamlet 2.2.522-528)

Solomon ends his “On the Passivity of the Passions” with these words: “The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. And in our taking responsibility we learn to recognize the responsibilities we have, including responsibility for our own emotions” (232). Part of being responsible adults (or “Big Babies,” as Mark Johnson calls us in his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding) includes what we do with language, both when we speak and when we listen.

Seeing and then Hearing Odysseus

He stands to speak. With a staff in his hand held straight and stiff, he stares at the floor and looks like he doesn’t know a thing about what he’s about to say. Those who looked on at him ready to listen to his speech thought he looked like a fool. But when he began to speak, things changed. The poet Homer describes the scene using these words:

Then in his turn the great tactician rose
and stood, and looked at the ground,
moving the staff before him not at all
forward or backward: obstinate and slow
of wit he seemed, gripping the staff: you’d say
some surly fellow, with an empty head.
But when he launched the strong voice from his chest,
and words came driving on the air as thick
and fast as winter snowflakes, then Odysseus
could have no mortal rival as an orator!
The look of him no longer made us wonder.
(Illiad 3.212-24)

When the speaker opened his mouth, his words changed the way the audience saw him. They listened. They no longer questioned his intelligence. And the words he spoke changed the way he appeared to them. The hearing of his words somehow affected their seeing of his character. Almost as if the words or the sounds had an effect on the listeners’ eyes.

Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here’s what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju’s mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju’s mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju’s mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom’s family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju’s mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can’t describe the expression on Ju’s mom’s face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn’t understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A’s experiences and person B’s experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We’re all human beings here. And we don’t have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.