Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Indo-European Languages

In Is There life On Other Worlds? (New York, 1963), Poul Anderson argues that the Indo-European linguistic structure of nouns, adjectives and verbs imposes an unreal distinction between things, qualities and actions:

" if 'heaviness' had some existence apart from the class of heavy objects." (p. 148)

Yes, Plato thought that reality comprised timeless Ideas: heaviness, largeness, goodness etc. An Idea was not an abstraction from many instances but the reality of which the instances were copies.

I used to think not that the properties were independent of the object but that the object had some reality independent of its properties, thus that it possessed them, not that it was them. However, when all the properties have been listed, there is nothing left over to comprise the object. We were taught that bread and wine miraculously became flesh and blood because the substance changed even though the "accidents", i. e., the sight, taste etc remained the same. But, again, a full list of its "accidents" comprises bread as against flesh or vice versa. This formulation was unnecessary. A ritual can be performed reciting the words of the Last Supper without trying to explain a miraculous transformation philosophically.

Indo-European language speakers thought that, if a scientific theory implies an action, then it also implies an acting substance or thing. Thus, electromagnetic undulations, describable by wave mechanics, must be undulations of an omnipresent ether and it became difficult to see how this "ether" differed from the space that it was believed to fill. However, space and time were considered substantial only because "space" and "time" are nouns, furthermore distinct nouns. If Newton and his immediate successors had been able to realize instead that space-time is a single set of relationships or interactions, then they might have been able to formulate relativity, thus possibly initiating an earlier development of non-Euclidean geometry, quantum mechanics and atomic energy.

Anderson points out that the Chinese developed civilization but not science and that Oriental scientists usually write in a European language because, despite their imperfections, these languages do reflect enough of the cosmic structure to allow for scientific thinking. What I am not clear about is: what is the structure of non-Indo-European languages? Do they not have nouns, adjectives or verbs?

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

Your comment about the "unnecessary" analysis of the Eucharist reminded me of Orthodox complaints that we Latin rite Catholics were being too Aristotelian, minutely analyzing what ultimately remains a MYSTERY of faith. Christ commanded his Apostles and their successors to celebrate the Mass, that he woud be truly and mysteriously present after the Consecration by a valid priest.

And your comments about how Far Eastern scientists tend to write in Indo European languages interested me as well. It makes me wonder if that might have been simply because the Roman alphabet is more convenient for scientific work than the complex pictographic writing systems used in China and Japan. But I don't know enough on this point to do more than speculate.