Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

The MWS Podcast 121: Igor Grossmann and Robert M Ellis on the Four Factors that Foster Wisdom

We welcome back to the podcast ,Igor Grossmann, who is Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Wisdom and Research Lab based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. His main research interest is the complex processes that enable individuals to think and act wisely. He has also done pioneering work on the development of wisdom in different cultures. Dr. Grossmann was named one of the 2015 Rising Stars in the field of Psychological Science.He’s going to be joined in discussion with a regular guest on the podcast, the philosopher Robert M Ellis, who is the chair of the Middle Way Society and author amongst other books of the Middle Way Philosophy series. Igor recently published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science entitled Wisdom in Context in which he puts forward 4 main Factors that foster wise thinking and this the topic that we’ll be discussing today.

MWS Podcast 121: Wisdom in Context as audio only:
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Chinese characters and embodied meaning

Students_learning_in_China_Thomas Galvez CCSA 2-0

To the vast majority of Westerners, including me until recently, Chinese characters are just squiggles. But I have recently begun the study of Chinese, in preparation for a period working in China that should begin in a couple of months’ time, and found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the characters. If I had an expectation about learning the characters, it was that it would involve hard graft, trying to remember the relationships between random squiggles and meanings. But instead, if anything, it seems more like play, because it recapitulates the gradual assemblage of meaning we go through in childhood. Instead of graft, it involves a development of meaning connections that are accompanied by something more like delight. My progress has also been greatly aided by a delightful book called Chineasy, first created by a graphic designer called Shao Lan to help her children learn Chinese characters.

Shao Lan’s book makes clear how Chinese characters have developed out of what she calls ‘building block’ characters (which are not quite the same as the more commonly known ‘radicals’). These building block characters have all developed out of stylized representations of everyday, concrete things; the kind of things you would expect the ancient Chinese to represent first. These include terms like person, tree, fire , water, weapon, sheep, horse and tiger. Here are some examples: Chinese kou mouthon the left is the character for ‘mouth’ (kou), which looks a bit like a mouth except that it’s been squared off; on the right theChinese mu tree character for ‘tree’ (mu), which looks like a simplified tree with spreading branches and roots; and on the left the character for ‘person’ (ren), which you could think of Chinese ren manas a stick figure minus the head and arms. Some more examples of ways that modern characters have developed from early pictograms are given in the table at the foot of this blog.

These basic building blocks are then extended to produce graduallyChinese ben origin more abstract terms. For example, put an extra root on the ‘tree’ character and you get the character for ‘origin’ (ben) – see left. The idea of an origin is a metaphorical developmentChinese ti body of ‘root’. Combine this character with an abbreviated person to the left of it and you get the character for ‘body’ (ti) – see right. The body is the root of the person.Chinese pin quality Put three mouths together (presumably all offering different opinions), and you get the character for ‘quality’ (pin) – see left.

It didn’t take long, as I began to engage with this learning process, for it to suddenly dawn on me that the composition of Chinese characters graphically illustrates the development of embodied meaning as explained by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson – a theory that has had a huge influence on Middle Way Philosophy as I have developed it in my books (especially Middle Way Philosophy 3, which is all about meaning). Lakoff and Johnson offer a radically alternative understanding of meaning to the mainstream ‘representationalist’ view that is still assumed in much philosophical and scientific thinking: one in which meaning is not based on a relationship between words and symbols on the one hand and some sort of assumed ‘reality’ on the other, but rather one in which we build up meaning through the links we make in our brain as we learn from early infancy, connecting words and symbols with embodied experiences. Their explanation begins with what they call ‘basic level categories’ and ‘image schemas’ – basic building blocks of meaning in which a particular common experience becomes associated with either a word itself, or an implicit connection between words. It then explains how these building blocks of meaning gradually get elaborated through metaphorical extension into more abstract terms. Crucially, to understand even very abstract ideas, we draw on our earlier layers of meaning-linkage: so, for example, to understand the concept of an academic field I draw on my understanding of ‘literal’ fields or other bounded ‘containers’, which connects this abstract idea to my most visceral, infantile experiences of putting things into other things that contain them (including my own body). This reflects what Lakoff and Johnson call the container schema.

Lakoff and Johnson’s theories are explained and evidenced in some detail in their works, but (although they give a range of examples) I have long felt the lack of some kind of ’embodied meaning dictionary’ which might assist one in working out how a particular word, symbol or term developed out of basic level categories and image schemas. Of course, there are also a number of possible problems with such a project. One is that there are probably no definitive answers as to how meaning developed in each case, just a range of plausible explanations – the main point of the theory being just to show that it must have developed in that way in general rather than to prove any specific example. Another problem is that the basic level categories, image schemas and metaphors obviously vary enormously in different linguistic contexts. Perhaps even the same or a similar term may have a different embodied sense for different people, depending on what the basic level categories were, how they have interacted and how the metaphors have developed.

But Chinese characters seem to offer a kind of graphic record of this process of meaning development. The ‘building block’ characters can be readily identified with basic level categories: not necessarily our basic level categories, or even those of modern Chinese people, but those of the ancient Chinese who developed the characters. The associations between these characters that allow them to develop also depend on image schemas that allow connections of meaning  between basic level categories in a particular embodied situation. If I’m an ancient Chinese person, I won’t just passively appreciate a ‘tree’ as a separate object, but probably chop it down and build a house out of it, creating a set of associated meanings that combine associationsChinese oracle bone tiger hu of timber, origin, foundation, and home. I won’t just contemplate a tiger as an object (early ‘Oracle bone’ version on right), but rather I’ll associate it with the bodily experience of fear, allowing the creation of characters that develop ‘tiger’ into words that refer to danger, as they do in modern Chinese. I’ll also combine the basic level building blocks in ever more complex ways dependent on metaphor, as in the development of ‘quality’ from ‘mouth’.

It has to be stressed that embodied meaning is our meaning as individuals, so this cultural record is only an approximation of the process by which meaning develops in an individual. Nevertheless, the parallels are striking, and seem to offer evidence in support of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s whole way of thinking. The relationship also offers much potential for improving language education so as to take into account the way in which we process meaning. A Ph.D. thesis by Ming-San Pierre Lu shows that this kind of approach leads to much more effective learning of Chinese.

In some ways the same development can be traced in the phonetic scripts that most of the rest of the world uses (such as the Roman script I’m writing in now), except that a disconnection obviously occurred early in the development of phonetic scripts, when pictograms began to be used to represent sounds. For example, the capital letter A still looks a bit like an upside-down ox, reflecting its origins in a Sumerian pictogram that then came to mean the initial sound used in the word rather than the meaning of the word itself. Since the relationship between sounds and meaning is largely abstract and conventional (except for a few onomatopoeic words), it’s very easy to lose any sense that the letters we use depend in any way on a base of embodied experience. That can happen in Chinese too, of course, where the characters are highly conventionalized, and doubtless the experiential basis rarely reflected on in practice. If a Chinese symbol only means an abstraction to a particular individual, its past historical development will make no difference. It’s learners of Chinese, probably much more than proficient users, who have the privilege of reconnecting with that experiential basis.

So how does this all relate to the Middle Way? Embodied meaning is closely related to the Middle Way, because acknowledging it can be a very useful element in practising the Middle Way and avoiding absolutisations. You can only make and believe an absolute claim if you assume that the language you use represents the world in some way, and that the claim you are making can thus be ‘true’ or ‘false’, rather than helpful or unhelpful in relation to experience. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that users of Chinese are any less prone to absolutisations than other linguistic groups. I have no evidence for that. I’d only suggest that they have a very helpful tool in their hands to help them reflect on the embodied roots of the language they are using. For me, learning Chinese also seems potentially to be a helpful practice in freeing up my remaining tendencies to implicitly think of language as having solely representational meaning (as well as other integrating effects, such as leading me to re-examine my beliefs). But in terms of my proficiency in Chinese, I have a very long way to go indeed. This is merely the first report of an intrigued learner!Evolution of Chinese pictograms

Picture: Students learning in a mountain village in Xijiang, China, by Thomas Galvez CCSA 2.0

Table of pictograms and individual characters from Wikimedia.


The MWS Podcast 120: Lisa Miracchi on Yoga & Philosophy

Our guest today is Lisa Miracchi. Lisa is a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania . She’s presently teaching a seminar entitled “Yoga and Philosophy’ in which she argues that yoga is philosophy in physical form and this will be the topic of our discussion.

MWS Podcast 120: Lisa Miracchi as audio only:
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Answering like a robot

Berlin, Roboter mit seinem ErfinderThe last few weeks have seen substantial election coverage in the UK. What that most often means is journalists asking questions to politicians… and politicians not answering them. I was particularly struck by this example today, from a journalist of the Plymouth Herald interviewing Theresa May:

The Herald: Two visits in six weeks to one of the country’s most marginal constituencies –  is she getting worried?

May: I’m very clear that this is a crucial election for this country.

TH: Plymouth is feeling the effects of military cuts. Will she guarantee to protect the city from further pain?

M: I’m very clear that Plymouth has a proud record of connection with the armed forces.

TH: How will your Brexit plan make Plymouth better off?

M: I think there is a better future ahead for Plymouth and for the whole of the UK.

TH: Will you promise to sort out our transport links?

M: I’m very clear that connectivity is hugely important for Plymouth and the south-west generally. 

May clearly has this down to a fine art. In each case, she says something that is supposed to be positive and reassuring, and that has some thematic connection to the question asked, but does not involve claims that might possibly offend any voters, and does not imply policy commitments that might be quoted back at her in five years’ time when she’s failed to fulfil them.

There have been two questions I’ve been asking myself about this. One is “Why does it seem so offensive?” May has been widely accused of behaving like a robot. The other question is, “Is there anything to be said for it?” After all, there are some respects in which these responses seem to be agnostic. If the politician isn’t in a position to make concrete promises, and a strong stance might be misleading, surely they are right to resist the media’s pressure to take stances and make promises? Could May even be said to be taking a kind of Middle Way on whether, for example, Brexit will make Plymouth better off?

Let’s start with the first question. I suspect the main reason why I and others tend to react so negatively to it is that it interferes so much with the expected course of human discussion. If we ask a question, we expect our interlocutor to answer it. Not doing so is rude and disrespectful, because it doesn’t recognise the equal humanity and point of view of the person asking the question. When a politician fails to answer the journalist’s question, we, the listeners or readers, tend to feel offended too. The ‘robot’ jibe is presumably due to a highly predictable left-hemisphere response from May, as when people react to us in that kind of ‘stuck’ way (disengaged bureaucrats or bosses obsessed with targets offer further examples), we tend to feel that they are not meeting us as a person.

However, let’s face it, journalists’ questions are often based on absolute either/ors: ones that they may share with the readers or listeners, but that are quite reasonably not shared by the politicians. There are some examples in the interview above. If May had admitted to being worried about the Conservative performance in Plymouth, she would probably have been criticized for weakness, and if she had said the wasn’t worried at all, she would probably have been accused of complacency. If she guaranteed to protect Plymouth from the pain of further cuts she might end up not being able to meet other important policy objectives that required her to cut the military, but if she said that unfortunately there were further cuts on the way that might turn out to be untrue as well as alienating. If she promised a new transport link for Plymouth it might then prove to be unaffordable, whilst if she denied one it would make her unpopular with the people whose votes she wanted. Politicians have to make decisions in an uncertain, probabilistic world, but one in which the people unfairly demand certainty, and blame them for ‘lying’ if they don’t fulfil their commitments.

Theresa May’s situation here is thus in some ways similar to that of someone who’s asked one of those badly-formulated, misleadingly dichotomous questions in other areas of life. Does God exist or not? Is evolution proven or was the world designed by God? Is your mind just a brain or do you have a soul? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or are things intrinsically beautiful? If I refuse to answer such questions in the simplistic terms in which they are asked, am I rude? Should I give Theresa May answers? “I’m very clear that lots of people feel strongly about God’s existence”. “I’m very clear that the beauty we experience should be appreciated”.

But the difference is surely about what we do with those situations. When people approach you with unhelpful and simplistic models, do you try to help them see that they are slightly more complicated, or do you just try to see them off? There may be many situations when people just will not listen to any kind of complexity, and insist on an instant answer, like those journalists who think they are doing the public a favour by badgering the politician for a ‘yes or no’ answer’. In those sorts of circumstances journalism is really starting to have a negative effect and to just entrench people in delusions, rather than accepting any sort of responsibility to inform. The politicians and journalists just end up in a mutual closed feedback loop of non-communication. But there are also lots of circumstances where either the politician or the journalist can push things a bit more to get beyond these dichotomies. It’s then that the politicians become a bit more worth supporting and the journalists a bit more worth listening to or reading.

In this election campaign, I’ve found Jeremy Corbyn generally far more impressive from this point of view. When interviewed on TV by an abysmally rude Jeremy Paxman, who was stuck on the idea that there was something wrong if everything Corbyn personally believed wasn’t in the Labour manifesto, Corbyn just kept gently questioning this assumption, and pointing out that the manifesto wasn’t just the result of his personal decisions. When given the opportunity, he will try to point out why he can’t answer the question in the terms set. He doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, but rather dares to hope that they will respond to a manageable injection of complexity. It’s not that May never does this, but pre-formulated ‘robotic’ responses too often seem to be a substitute.

The politicians who help society seem to be the ones that can cope with all this, by not responding to the media’s imposition of absolutes with frustration or stonewalling but with gentle and equitable pushing. Whether or not it wins elections, this is surely the strategy that will help to create more positive and creative responses in the electorate, and help them to start recognizing the complexity of what politicians have to cope with.

Picture: Bundesarchiv: 1930 robot and its inventor


Poetry 144: This is the Place by Tony Walsh

This video shows the poet, Tony Walsh, reading his powerful poem out at the vigil for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack.  The vigil was held on 23rd May 2017, the day after 22 people were killed (and many more injured) by a suicide bomber, as they left the venue following a pop concert.

This weeks poem was suggested by Barry Daniel, who is himself a ‘Mancunian’.  If you would like to suggest a poem for inclusion in this series then please email Richard Flanagan at richard@middlewaysociety.org.