Monthly Archives: June 2017

The MWS Podcast 122: Bernardo Sorj on Humanism without Hubris

Our guest today is Bernardo Sorj. Bernardo is a Brazilian social scientist, retired professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is Director of The Edelstein Center for Social Research and of the Plataforma Democrática Project. He has published 30 books and more than 100 articles, on Latin American political development, international relations, the social impact of new technologies, social theory and Judaism and in 2005 was elected Brazil’s Man of Ideas. He’s here to talk to us about ‘Humanism without Hubris’.

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How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of

The trouble with toilets

As soon as I spotted the headline in the paper I felt a flush of vindication: I was right! I knew it all along! At the bottom of page six of the Times, the environment editor Ben Webster topped his short article with the following: ‘Water-efficient’ loos leak millions of litres every day.

File_000My prejudice against the so-called water-efficient toilets was seeded about two years ago when we moved from a one-lavatory house to a three-lavatory house – yes, that meant one lavatory per occupant. The big surprise on moving in was that the small outhouse on the back of the building contained a functioning old-style high-cistern pull-chain siphon-flush toilet, with panoramic views of the garden. This WC remains a little-used curiosity, and the outhouse is mainly used for storage now (or for posing in – see the photo on the right).

However, inside the house the other two lavatories were identical modern drop-valve dual-flush models, and both of them had the same problem: they leaked. It wasn’t really something that I noticed during the busy-ness of the moving-in process, but when I was lying in my new bedroom at night I could definitely hear the slow plink-plink-plink of dripping into the toilet bowl coming from both the upstairs and downstairs toilets. At frequent intervals this was drowned out by the sound of the partially drained cistern re-filling. Best of all the downstairs toilet featured a small sticker that said ‘Leak tested’ to which the previous tenant had added (in biro) NOT!

At what was a particularly stressful time of my life, the problem of the toilets that needed attention seemed significant and insurmountable. Of course eventually I just got to it and googled the problem, wrestled with the contents of the cisterns to determine what needed doing, ordered the replacement parts online and then spent even longer wrestling with the flush mechanisms to fix them. And through it all the thought was in my head: “These new style dual flush toilets are crap. The old siphon toilets never had this problem. I hate dual-flush toilets.

File_000 (9)That wasn’t the end of it though. When we moved in we were told by the letting agent that the house was not on a water meter – ‘Great!‘ I thought, ‘it won’t cost us if the toilets keep leaking‘. That turned out to be wrong, a letter arrived from the water company telling us that we did in fact have a water meter. Not long after that the flush mechanism in the upstairs toilet malfunctioned and I replaced it. A few months later the dripping began again and, much more quickly this time, I ordered the new washers and sorted it out. And this pattern has repeated, the toilets requiring regular minor maintenance leaving me wondering if I could bulk-order the replacement washers (see the photo on the right).

So, when this week I saw the headline in the paper I felt a sense of ‘I told you so!’ The dual-flush toilets are a false water economy! We were better off with the old siphon mechanisms! The only person nearby to tell was my son, but he didn’t care… and so this blog post started to take shape in my mind. It started with recognising the rush that accompanies Being Right (confirmation bias: I wouldn’t have paid the article much attention if I didn’t already think that dual-flush toilets were a false economy), was fed by the desire to explain the mechanics of toilet flush mechanisms (remember, I’m a physics teacher too) but ended up with me considering the complicated tangle of trying to make a difference for the better in the world.

Now that I’ve declared my interest (or prejudice) I can outline the shape of the rest of this article. In it I describe the difference between the old and new toilet flush technologies, with particular reference to their advantages and disadvantages with regards to water efficiency. I then discuss the context in which the old technology was superseded by the new, and why this supposed change for the better may have turned out to be a colossal mistake. I finish by considering where the toilet water-efficiency problem may go from here – what are the possible solutions, what are the ideologies within which the solutions will be conceived, and who is responsible for sorting this problem out?

In this article I will be assuming that improving water efficiency (by reducing wastage and demand) is a desirable thing: that it is morally good. I won’t be providing much justification for this, suffice to say that water is a renewable but finite resource and that here in the UK (where fresh water is rather abundant) we devote a lot of other finite and non-renewable resources to treating water for mains supply. I am also assuming that it is worthwhile to attempt to improve water efficiency by specifically focussing on the issue of flushing toilets – it may be in practice that any savings there are insignificant in comparison to other wastage in the system (for example, leaking supply pipes), and I’ve not investigated the figures for comparison. I do not suggest non-WC alternatives such as composting and ‘wild weeing’.

Right… are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Toilet technology
It is not completely impossible for a traditional toilet to leak, but due to their design they are very unlikely to leak. In a traditional toilet the water in the cistern must first flow upwards before it can flow downwards into the toilet bowl. Water will not flow uphill without assistance (as I’m sure you’re aware!) and your push on the handle provides the necessary lift to get the flush going. Once the flow has started the water will continue to siphon out until the cistern is empty.

This explains why siphon-based flush mechanisms are considered to be wasteful of water – every flush completely drains the cistern, whether or not that much water is actually needed to do the job. It also explains why they are so robust against developing a leak into the toilet bowl, simply because water cannot travel uphill unaided. On the rare occasions when I’ve experienced these toilets leaking it was down to a fault in the re-filling mechanism, and the dripping was from the overflow pipe on the outside of the building.

File_000 (10)In order to achieve variable-volume flushing the designers of modern ‘dual flush’ toilets have done away with the cistern-emptying siphon mechanism. Instead, in the common ‘drop valve’ design, when the flush buttons are pressed a plug is yanked out of a plughole in the bottom of the cistern and the water drains down into the toilet bowl. One of the flush buttons yanks the plug a long way out of the plug hole, so that the entire cistern drains before it falls back in to seal it up again. However, the other flush button only yanks the plug out a little way, and it drops back in when only a fraction of the water in the cistern has escaped.

The dual-flush design has the flexibility for toilet-users to choose to use an amount of water that is appropriate to the job. However, in order for the water to remain in the cistern between flushes the fit of the plug into the plughole must be perfect – if there is the slightest imperfection in this seal then the pressure from the water in the cistern will force water to leak down into the toilet bowl. Under the real-life conditions of bargain-basement manufacturing, inexpert installation and frequent flushing the flush valves rarely work perfectly for long, and as a consequence millions of litres of treated fresh water quietly leak uselessly through the toilet when it isn’t in use.

Lavatory legislation
The leak-proof design of the traditional toilet siphon was the primary reason why they were the only legally permitted style of lavatory design in the UK. However, in the early 1990s – against a backdrop of water industry privatisation, greater awareness of environmental issues and a spate of hotter, drier summers – public concern about water efficiency grew. Simple measures to reduce flush volumes were suggested, such as putting a brick into one’s toilet cistern, but this approach was limited by the fact that the siphon mechanism allowed a relatively low flow rate and so a large volumes of water was needed for a flush to shift solids into the sewers.

The law was changed in 2001 to allow non-siphon lavatories to be installed in the UK. To politicians in the late 1990s this must have seemed like a ‘no-brainer’. The dual-flush design promised huge improvements in water efficiency: they had a higher flow rate than siphon toilets, so less water was needed to shift solids from the bowl, and they also gave toilet users an obvious option of using a shorter flush when they were disposing of urine. Toilet users were able to feel environmentally virtuous every time they opted for the short flush – which would be many times per day –  and it’s not like they were doing it in order to save money, as few households at the time were on a water meter.

gabor-monori-2199So 16 years later, and the traditional siphon flush lavatory is an endangered beast. The dual-flush design is now far more popular, having been the installation of choice in new-builds since 2001. This is a long enough time for the drawbacks of this new technology to become apparent, and for not-for-profit bodies like Waterwise to investigate and report on the false economy of switching from siphon flushers to valve mechanisms. It makes for a satisfyingly ironic headline in the news: “So-called water-efficient toilets leak millions of litres every day”, but perhaps it is better seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of introducing what seemed like common-sense changes.

To use a particularly inappropriate metaphor, it seems as if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in the aftermath of the change of legislation in 2001. In the name of ‘water efficiency’ leak-less siphon toilets have been displaced by the leak-prone dual-flush toilets. The problem is not insignificant: Waterwise claims that 4% of UK toilets leak from the cistern, and the average one leaks 215 litres a day. Total UK toilet leakage amounts to 400 million litres per day, which accounts for 5% of clean water consumption.

What went wrong?
So, were the benefits of the siphon flush mechanism under-rated when the changes to toilet legislation were being made in the late 1990s? The leak-proof design perhaps was not fully appreciated by those who had grown up with it in the background of their lives because it was just so good at invisibly and silently doing its primary job (from a water-efficiency perspective): not wastefully leaking water between flushes. The billions of litres of water per week that were not leaked by siphon toilets over the century or so of their prevalence could not be seen, or easily appreciated.

When dual-flush toilets were first introduced they made the siphon toilets look, by comparison, poor at performing their secondary job of flushing waste into the sewer using the minimum amount of water.  The key thing to note here is that the major benefit of the siphon toilet was inobvious to toilet users, but the major drawback was completely obvious: in a more water-efficiency conscious time the toilet user potentially had to face up to their guilt about wasting water every time they flushed a siphon toilet. Switching to a dual-flush was a noticeable change for the better – the cisterns were significantly smaller, and one now had the ability to easily choose a short or long flush, appropriate to the occasion.

The problem that cancelled out the gains in water efficiency only became obvious once the change-over was well under way. Presumably the early models were of sufficiently high quality that their drop valves did maintain their integrity for the required 200 000 flushes under laboratory conditions. In real-life conditions though, the drop valve toilets did not perform as well. Poor installation of the toilet could result in leaks. Debris introduced to the cistern during installation could get stuck in the valve, resulting in leaks. In hard-water areas limescale could similarly affect the valve, resulting in leaks. And when the leaks happened at first they would have been very hard to spot, with the water quietly and continuously seeping into the toilet bowl.

Perhaps, most significantly, the nature of the free market in bathroom supplies meant that consumers would opt for the cheaper models – especially landlords of rented properties and businesses – and in the race to produce the cheapest flush mechanisms the quality of the early models was not maintained. In order to keep my own dual-flush toilets in leak-free order I have to replace the rubber washer on the drop valve every six months or so. That’s not a problem for me, but then I’ve got the money to buy the spare parts and the skills and confidence to do the maintenance myself – but I don’t think I’m particularly representative of a typical toilet-owner, and the old siphon toilets didn’t require such regular servicing.

Where do we go from here?
The conservative lament that “we should never have messed with it!” is not particularly helpful, and if rejection of innovation was absolutely applied we’d still be squatting in the bushes when nature called. “If it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” is a slightly more refined argument, but it is only with hindsight that the siphon toilet doesn’t appear to be broken. There is some wisdom in being aware of our tendency towards neophilia, the love of new things simply for the sake of their newness: expect it, and challenge it – especially when it is coupled with the desire to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing.

Another point to be taken from this story is it that it is wise to accept the results of laboratory testing provisionally, and with caution: lab testing is unlikely to reveal the flaws that become apparent when the technology is used in the messy, complex real world. This also reminds me of the precautionary principle: when a new technology is proposed then the burden of proof that the technology will not cause more harm than good is on those proposing the change to the status quo. Simple arguments (like ‘dual-flush toilets use less water than siphon toilets, therefore we ought to replace siphons with dual-flushers’) are usually deceptively simple, masking the complexity of the issue. Our desire for straightforwardness and certainty when making decisions means that we are reluctant to think critically about what is being proposed.

In trying to improve the water-efficiency situation there is the danger of adopting an absolute scientistic view: that the sustained use of science and its application (technology) will fix the problem. I’ve already mentioned above the problem with over-reliance on the results of laboratory testing, and another aspect of this is the belief that the technological problem will be solved only by more technology – better toilets, more efficient flushing mechanisms, the integration of computer processors, sensors and actuators into the lavatorial arena. In this way we can end up overlooking simpler, more obvious, more universally applicable solutions (remember the large proportion of humans that don’t have access to even the most basic toilet technology).

school-toilet-209058_1920There are cultural factors at play here too, ones that are often difficult for us to appreciate because they are part of our own conditioning. One very simple innovation that greatly improves water-efficiency is the urinal, especially the waterless variety. However, when was the last time that you saw a urinal in a domestic setting? And, ladies, when was the last time you saw an (appropriately designed) urinal in a public lavatory? There are not really any material barriers to installing urinals in homes, or to widespread installation of female urinals in public toilets, so what’s stopping us? With the increased technology surrounding the business of urinating and defecating the subject has become closer to taboo in society – I don’t know how exaggerated the reports are, but consider the technological lengths employed in urban Japan to cover up the embarrassment that comes with the fact that humans need to urinate (musical toilets and so on).

Finally, there is the question of responsibility: who will take responsibility for improving water efficiency? We have to be careful of polarising the issue here: it is not entirely the responsibility of the government, neither is it entirely the responsibility of individual toilet-users. The government has and can play a part: regulating the manufacture and installation of lavatory technology, and legislating for increased use of water metering by the (privatised!) water supply companies – metering and creative tariffs are a way of introducing a financial incentive for end-users to improve their water efficiency. Personal responsibility could be as simple as applying this lavatorial heuristic: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Good luck discussing that with your co-habitants.

Further reading and resources

Image credits

  • Photograph of me sitting on the outhouse toilet: own work (c) Jim Champion
  • Photographs of dual flush button and drop valve washers: own work, licence CC0 Public Domain
  • Photograph of happy WC: downloaded from
  • Photograph of urinals: licence CC0 Public Domain, downloaded from

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.

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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.