18 September, 2007

Koto ba

Heidegger's late book, On the Way to Language (1959), opens with a philosophical dialogue on the nature of language, between Heidegger himself, identified only as 'Inquirer' (though explicit reference is made to Heidegger's academic life and previous works), and an unnamed Japanese interlocutor, apparently based on Tomio Tezuka, who met Heidegger in 1954. Their conversation overtly centres on one of Heidegger's old students, Count Kuki Shuzo, who died in 1941, and his analysis of iki. In the middle of this dialogue comes the following exchange:
I: What is the Japanese word for “language”?

J: (after further hesitation) It is “Koto ba.”

I: And what does that say?

J: ba means leaves, including and especially the leaves of a blossom-petals [sic]. Think of cherry-blossoms or plum blossoms.

I: And what does Koto say?

J: This is the question most difficult to answer. But it is easier now to attempt an answer because we have ventured to explain Iki: the pure delight of the beckoning stillness. The breath of stillness that makes this beckoning delight come into its own is the reign under which that delight is made to come. But Koto always also names that which in the event gives delight, itself, that which uniquely in each unrepeatable moment comes to radiance in the fullness of its grace.

I: Koto, then, would be the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace [das Ereignis der lichtenden Botschaft der Anmut].

J: Beautifully said!
My bullshit-detectors were, at this point, raging out of control. (I concede the possibility—certainly not the likelihood—of this passage being less stercorine in the original German.) So I pulled out the resources of my address-book and asked Gawain and Steve Languagehat (who in turn asked his friend Matt, of the excellent Japanese-studies blog No-Sword) if there was any validity to the claims Heidegger here makes about koto ba. I was relieved to discover, first of all, that koto ba (or kotoba) is in fact one of the Japanese expressions for language. It's a start! Kotoba seems to be the everyday word, with a semantic range from 'word' and 'speech' through to 'language' itself; it contrasts with the more technical term gengo, used in linguistics. Steve and Gawain were unanimous on this point.

But what is the origin and analysis of kotoba? Matt writes that 'in an earlier period, there were two phrases: "koto-no-ha" (言の葉,"leaves of words/speech") and "koto-ba" (事端, "tips of speech")'. The former referred to 'refined, artistic things like poetry', the latter to 'regular speech'. However, the two words were so similar that they 'proceeded to merge into one'. For this theory, he helpfully cites a number of sources: an 1835 book called Meigentsu, Ōtsuki Fumihiko's Daigenkai (1932-37), and Ōno Susumu's dictionary of Old Japanese (2004 edition). (Can you imagine Heidegger being this pragmatic and concrete?) Matt notes the older theory, that kotoba itself (and not koto-no-ha) means 'word-leaves', but observes that the latest source for this is the 18th-century Wakun no Shiori, and that it has since been discredited. Despite this, Matt thinks it remains a popular etymology, given the superficial identity of ba ('leaves') and the ending of kotoba: 'If you asked the average Japanese speaker (native or otherwise), they would probably give the "word-leaves" definition'. By contrast, Chris Drake, on this 1998 thread, writes that 'even if you personally interviewed 130 million Japanese, very few of them. . . would give 'word leaves' as the primary meaning or consider kotoba vegetative, although more people may have made the association during the period nationalism of the 30s and 40s'.

Gawain gives us some different information. He writes that 'in oldest Japanese (pre-Nara times), as far as we know, koto meaning "business" or "affairs" or "Things" was used interchangeably with the koto meaning speech or words'. [Incidentally, it fascinates me that koto should exhibit the same semantic development of affair to thing as English thing (cf. Old Norse Thing, German Ding) and Latin causa (case, affair) > French chose, Italian cosa.] So we a dichotomy between koto (thing) and koto (word). In fact, Tomio Tezuka himself recalls part of his conversation with Heidegger about the word kotoba, thus (cited by Drake):
I think that the koto is connected with koto [meaning "matter"] of kotogara [meaning "event" or "affair"]. . . the koto of "language" and the koto of "matter" are two sides of the same coin: things happen and become language (kotoba).
Drake adds that this connection of the two kotos 'isn't accepted by any historical linguist I know of; it resembles more of a pun'. Gawain, likewise, remarks that
there is no reason to think that "koto" meaning things and "koto" meaning words are actually the same word; they are written with the same ideogram, but ideograms have sometimes been used purely phonetically.
Perhaps Heidegger would praise Tezuka's remarks, in his own words, as 'playful thinking that is more compelling than the rigor of science'. Gawain also draws a similar distinction to Matt's, between koto ['meaning somehow important speech (sayings, teachings, possibly also magical formulas?)'] and kotoba ['meaning "stuff you said"']. Gawain, like Chris Drake, admits that he doesn't know when kotoba came to mean 'language' in general, although Drake speculates:
Up until 1868, a variety of characters were used, although kotoba was often simply written in hiragana or katakana phonetic scripts. A wild guess would be that the 'word-leaves' combination was chosen to become the official standard because of its elegant courtly heritage by Japanese modernizers and supporters of the imperial system sometime between 1868, when Japan definitively began to "modernize," and the end of the 1880s, when mass literacy (and universal conscription) and a "rationalization" of the language were in full swing.
So this is where Heidegger got his account of ba as 'leaves'. But where does this leave us with regard to the 'appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace'? Not very far. Gawain was sceptical from the outset: 'if it's Heidegger, then it is almost certainly mumbo-jumbo'. When I gave him the koto definition, he quipped that it 'sounds like a Chinese menu in Phoenix, AZ'. (He is referring to this sort of thing.) Steve, meanwhile, called the koto definition 'what you call a load of bollocks over there on your side of the Channel'. Matt, finally, admits:
it sounds like nonsense to me. I suppose it depends on if he's already set up definitions for "appropriating", "lightening", "message of grace", etc. If they're all in place, then it might make sense on its own terms, but then it would mostly be about his definitions rather than the Japanese itself.
Heidegger's project, in this book, and this dialogue, is to come to terms with (or at least address) the alterity of Japanese thinking, and consequently of its language. This was a hot topic in the mid-century, when Whorf was still all the rage, and not yet dismissed as a charlatan. It is still a hot topic, and psychological experiments are still being performed, as you can read in Nisbett's The Geography of Thought (2003). But Heidegger's real project is to make strange even Western thinking and language. He has not set up, in any serious way, definitions for the terms listed by Matt. And so we are left with the result that Heidegger's gloss on a supposedly arcane Japanese word is far more arcane, or, less charitably, far less coherent and meaningful, than the word itself. When it comes to Japanese words that few of his readers are likely to know, and still fewer likely to know the history of, Heidegger is apparently quite happy with any old 'playful thinking'.

Heidegger here defines iki as 'the pure delight of the beckoning stillness'. Wikipedia articulates the word's meanings with the adjectives 'simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous'. One can only conclude that there are few minds less iki than that of Martin Heidegger.

(With thanks to my contributors, Gawain, Steve and Matt.)

Update: Gawain has more to say about koto ba. Steve links, requesting more information on the mysterious Sei Shonagon and her putative rivalries. I admit to being much delighted by Steve's description of the Varieties as a 'philosophitorium'—first Google hit! I like to think that he reserves this on-blog approach to words for references to me, but that is probably unsupported by the data. The Laughing Bone links, and tells a cannibal joke.

Update 26/07/08: Peony links, refuting me. To others, my use of the word stercorine seems to be causing problems. One commenter on del.ici.ous wonders what it means; another glosses it with '[sic: better, stercorous]'. I like this! That 'better' is the language of the editor or lexicographer, for instance the OED, which glosses acheilous with 'better achilous'. As for stercorine, the OED doesn't have it, though it does have stercorous, stercoreous, and stercoraceous. For me, the suffix of stercorine has the pejorative connotation of a saccharine, a bovine, or even an anodyne. So I invented it.


Sir G said...

Well, I am touched by your holding me up as a sufficient authority with which to whip Heiddegger, but i'd like to disclaim any responsibility. I just dug things out from an etymological dictionary and cannot possibly pretend to know more than that. Having said that, old H did have a strong penchant for BS.

John Cowan said...

I started to read this post and immediately got tangled up in the first three words, not because anything is wrong with them, but just as a demonstration of where my head is this morning....

"Heidegger's late book": I immediately thought, What, is the book dead? What does he mean by that? Books don't actually die, though they may be lost, or (more mundanely) go out of print. So it must be some sort of metaphysical or moral or intellectual death that is meant, but in any case a metaphor.

Or perhaps it's a slightly tongue-tangled version of "the late Heidegger's book"? But is Heidegger really "the late" after being dead for thirty years? (I must admit, I was surprised to find out that he had hung on as long as 1976 when I looked it up: I always figured Heidegger for having pooped off some time in the early or mid 60s or perhaps even sooner, since I had never even heard of this particular 1959 work before.) In any case, I gave up on the question and went on reading the post.

Only at the end did I understand that it was a late book, late in the sense of late in his career. "The works of Henry James can be divided into three reigns: James I, James II, and the Old Pretender."

Lastly, I would point out that "Beautifully said!" is not inconsistent with disagreement, and in fact may come under the general understanding of praise in Japanese, namely that it is sarcastic. One politician's career was seriously damaged when his opposition made a point of singing his praises in public.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I should probably admit here that I don't have any hard evidence to support my theory over Chris Drake's -- just my personal observation that Japanese speakers are just as susceptible to seductive-yet-wrong etymologies (like "word-leaves") as English speakers, particularly when supported by plausible-seeming kanji. --Matt

Languagehat said...

I think a love for seductive-yet-wrong etymologies is one of the things that unites humanity.

Anonymous said...


I think the distinction "late" refers to the convention among Heidegger scholars to talk of early and late Heidegger (sort of like the difference between early and late U2 -- cool people prefer the early U2) divided by "the turning".


I'm not sure that Heidegger is torturing the Japanese language any more than he typically tortures Greek and even German. In other words, I don't think he is pulling a fast one because his readers don't know Japanese -- he is going for the deeper "poetic" etymologies -- which have a bullshit quality no matter the language he is trying to do it in.

Whether his etymologies are correct touches on a topic recently addressed here by Michael Drout, the point of which is that, actually, most popular etymologies are BS, and many scholarly ones to boot.

Probably the deeper question is why even proper word derivations should have any meaning for us. Psychologically, they clearly do -- but philosophically?

It comes from the same mindset that makes us believe that studying apes will tell us something about ourselves, or properly describing man in his natural state (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) is anything more than a game.

We might go one step further and ask if evolutionary biology -- clearly an aspect of the same game of origins -- truly breaks the mold or is just another iteration of divining by extispacy.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Matt: well, there's one (not very) easy way to find out...!

I'm vaguely surprised about the confusion over 'late'. No scholastic distinctions between Heidegger pre- and post-turn. It's just a book that comes late in his career. Simple!

John: "I would point out that "Beautifully said!" is not inconsistent with disagreement"

Perhaps, but, given the context, it's pretty unlikely. More of the exchange:

J. Beautifully said! Only the word “grace” easily misleads the modern mind. . .

I. . . . leads it away into the precincts of impressions.

So it sounds like 'beautifully said' is sincere, and the next sentence is a helpful caveat. Later, J himself defines koto as 'the happening of the lightening message of the graciousness that brings forth'.

Ziff: "Whether his etymologies are correct touches on a topic recently addressed here by Michael Drout, the point of which is that, actually, most popular etymologies are BS, and many scholarly ones to boot."

I don't actually think Drout or Shippey are correct when they say that 'we have a long way to go before contemporary English studies has advanced to the level of, say, the 1890s'. This is only true in the sense that etymology has mostly gone as far as it can go, and it was a very quickly-developing field, producing all the main results. We aren't less advanced than Skeat etc., just have less to do (in that field).

Also, I don't think 'etymology' really describes what Heidegger is trying to do, not even 'deeper "poetic" etymologies'. As my posts of last months demonstrated, I have no problem whatsoever with Isidorean etymologics, and the results of that inquiry can be poetic: beautiful, meaningful. But there is good poetry and bad poetry. Heidegger is like bad poetry. He makes no appeal to history or even 'etymology': he (in the guise of both I and J) purports to explain in Western terms the essence--not the historical origin--of terms like kotoba and iki. He writes that kotoba is 'a wondrous word, and therefore inexhaustible to our thinking'.

I dislike 'appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace' for the same reason that I dislike a lot of pseudo-mystical (and esp. Oriental and pseudo-Oriental) poetry. It isn't elegant, eloquent, or, well, poetic. It's dull, prosaic, and mystifying rather than suggestive.

liminalcriminal said...

Ziff I think is correct when he challenges etymological exegesis as specious philosophical-anthropology. Because a word's meaning-- in any language-- is determined (rather, underdetermined, over and over again) by its historical instantiations, its usages, official and subaltern, statified and poetic, documented and invisibly colloquial, it can't be fixed except in a vainly arbitrary and totalizing way-- moreover, the particular connotations that accrue around a word cannot be hierarchized into authentic and abberant or fallacious categories. Heidegger certainly possessed a certain lexical hauteur that informed all of his gestures of re-naming, re-defining, re-figuring-- this often makes him irritating, sweepingly gnomic and elusive, given to mystifying and so philosophically inert locutions. But I'm sympathetic also to that poeticizing impulse to the extent that it performs the plasticity of denotative traditions, supplementing the archival resonance of language through recontextualization and accent-- it's a practice that founders or titillates, depending on, among other variables, timing and elegance (but perhaps most crucially, on readerly generosity and explorative willingness, the cardinal prereqs of subtle textual appreciation). An ethereal phrase fails to be poetry to the extent that it refuses semantic/phonetic internal patterning which is, maybe, the same extent to which it avoids being true. Heidegger bothers me in the above excerpt less because he supplies a mystifyingly inexact and capricious definition for a word with a storied but not indefinite historical usage-- participating in the linguistic exoticism of lyrical superimposition overseas-- but because his fictive dialogue pretends to discover (rather than invent) some sensitive, aboriginal meaning of a word rooted to a culture whose tones and textures he has only the most parochial, academic conversance with (notwithstanding his seriously learned Japanese interlocutor).

Conrad H. Roth said...

LC, how do your phrases like 'linguistic exoticism' and 'most parochial, academic conversance' resonate with your earlier condemnation of the 'disingenuous assimilation of otherness'?

It seems that we are gesturing towards some very interesting issues about the function of historical (including etymological) exegesis. As you wrote in your last comment, 'Humanism is broadly understood as the study of artifacts AS humanly forged objects'. Vico would have agreed:

"Those truths are, indeed, human whose elements we fashion for ourselves, contain within ourselves and, by means of postulates, extend indefinitely: when we arrange these elements we make the truths which we come to know through this arranging; and because of all this, we grasp the genus or form by which we do the making." (from On the Ancient Wisdom of the Italians taken from the Origins of the Latin Language)

And where does Heidegger fit into this? His disciple Gadamer writes in the introduction to Truth and Method about the humanist project to understand objects not by logical analysis but by a historical account of how they came to be.

Feyerabend, curiously, says something similar about science, praising the doxographical tradition of Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius for preserving 'refuted' theories. But then Feyerabend also makes the provocative remark: "without a constant misuse of language there cannot be any discovery, any progress".

I have some sympathy with the above views. So I can't fault Heidegger for being strong with language, for his 'poeticizing impulse'. But his 'discovery' of Japanese meaning does not work for me, because I can't see that it leads to greater richness or complexity--in fact, the reverse: it seems to impoverish his own ideas by trying to find them in 'harmless' Japanese.

As you write,

"it's a practice that founders or titillates, depending on, among other variables, timing and elegance"

Which is equivalent, I think, to my view that Heidegger's writing is not 'elegant, eloquent, or, well, poetic'--that it is poetry, but bad poetry. 'Readerly generosity and explorative willingness' have to be earned.

liminalcriminal said...

Definately equivalent-- and I agree with your judgement of clumsy impoverishment (this happens a lot with quasimystical figuration, which attenuates the meaning it wants to enrich by nebulously abandoning reference). This is bad poetry, as you say.

Heidegerr's encounter with cultural alterity seems like more of a kind of inhabiting and usurpation than (even disingenuous) assimilation. From Being and Time onward I think he was enthralled by the thought of ontological Oneness, the being-in-the-world of Dasein that engulfs or annuls disparate subjectivities (and cultures?) and swathes the world in a phenomenologically unifying poetry ("language is the house of being")-- there's a process of levelling here that is inherently insensitive to historical, geographical, cultural differences and that, maybe, authorizes Dasein (as Heidegger) to swagger around his House of Being (which subsumes Japanese linguistic history), re-arranging at will. I'm being glib and lazy. He wrote movingly and incisively when he wrote about art and his critique of the Cartesian subject (and his engagement with the subject-object relation) is ingenious and enduringly relevant. Later he got glib and lazy. Your comment opened channels for me that remain open for another time-- for now, I'm comfortably inadequate.

Languagehat said...

Probably the deeper question is why even proper word derivations should have any meaning for us. Psychologically, they clearly do -- but philosophically?

It comes from the same mindset that makes us believe that studying apes will tell us something about ourselves...

I completely disagree. For me (as someone who has been fascinated by etymology all my life) it comes from the same mindset that makes me want to know how many planets there are, what Paris looks like, or how a name is pronounced: a desire to know how the world is. If I studied apes, it would not be to "tell us something about ourselves" but to find out what apes are really like. To some people, I'm sure, such desires are either boring (who cares how many planets there are?) or philosophically suspect (who can say what anything is "really like"?). I am impatient with both attitudes; if someone isn't interested in the world outside themself, I have too little in common with them to bother dealing with them, and philosophical cavils give me heartburn. But I strongly disapprove of categorizing the motives of others according to one's own preconceptions.

In short: if you care about "scientific truth" (what the world out there is like, insofar as we can grasp it with our senses and instruments), you should care about etymology. It's the same kind of study; it has nothing to do with speculation or poetry (though it can be used as a basis for either).

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, and I don't think motivations need be contradictory: I can enjoy etymology both from my deep desire to know 'scientifically', and from my delight in interpretation and exegesis. The two are quite in harmony.

What Ziff is (or would be) right to warn against is the popular equation of a word's etymological origins with its genuine meaning (or 'literal meaning'). I see this argument (mostly implicit now) all the time in old and modern books. That equation is at the heart of poetry, but is inimical to dispassionate or 'scientific' enquiry. One likes to know which one is doing... or rather, one likes to be honest.

Languagehat said...

I am in complete agreement.

Anonymous said...

If you only knew the things brazilian heideggerians pull...

Chris said...

Makes one want to crawl into some Wittgenstein, doesn't it?

Sir G said...


There is some argument, i think, that the study of apes is more useful than the study of etymology. But the usefulness of the argument depends on the situation in which it is employed. :)

Herr Ziffer:

Spot on. Heidegger was an equal opportunity misetymologizer.

Sir C:

I think you are wrong, Conrad, just plain wrong to suggest as you do at the end of your essay (if that's what you are doing) that the misetymologizing is somehow an example of what is wrong with the academic humanities. It seems to me that what is wrong with academic humanities -- what makes them so irrelevant to so many non academic humanists -- is *correct etymology which does not connect to anything useful in life in any way*. Correct, in other words, but -- irrelevant.

Heidegger's misetymologizing was not any different from Borges (and Lem) writing reviews of non-existent books, say, or biographies of non-existent scholars or authors. Yet, Borges and Lem are read and no one would suggest they were useless.

The problem is what H does with the misetymologizing. Here one could perhaps try to draw a distinction between the interest and usefulness of his ideas and the inscrutable language in which he put them. But the language, alas, is so inscrutable that it is hard to say whether the ideas are themselves interesting; and it is certain that (on account of the self-same inscrutability) they have not had much usefulness.

(I remember trying to plow through some Heidegger with parallel German, English and Polish texts, and not making any sense out of it. Several times on each page I was seized by the sensation that what I am reading is actually trivial BS put in some extraordinarily complex vocabulary. "But, I said to myself, this cannot be the case, this man is a great philosopher -- everyone says so. I must therefore be somehow missing what he is saying." And I ploughed on. Alas, 100 pages later there was no breakthrough and I decided to read some other dense philosophers instead).

Sir G said...

I give a little more detail over at my place concerning words and leaves. it all goes back to poetry, it turns out.

Sir G said...

Matt: the situation is worse. I think the Japanese have learned to dissumulate about their inscrutablity. They do this because it works. :)

Conrad H. Roth said...

"the misetymologizing is somehow an example of what is wrong with the academic humanities"

I don't think I do suggest that!

"Heidegger's misetymologizing was not any different from Borges"

One writes good poetry, the other bad poetry. When you write "The problem is what H does with the misetymologizing", I agree--H is passing off bad poetry for 'academic science'.

Sir G said...

i'm not sure that i'd call Heidegger a poet. what makes you say this? (is it in the same sense in which Chris calls me - and atheist - religous?)

Languagehat said...

There is some argument, i think, that the study of apes is more useful than the study of etymology.

I have always found arguments of that kind tedious and irrelevant.

It seems to me that what is wrong with academic humanities -- what makes them so irrelevant to so many non academic humanists -- is *correct etymology which does not connect to anything useful in life in any way*. Correct, in other words, but -- irrelevant.

I have no idea what this means, but I'm pretty sure I strongly disagree.

John Emerson said...

Just to start with, let me recommend Nishitani's "Religion and Nothingness". Nishitani was an actual student of Heidegger. He discusses Heidegger but prefers Nietzsche. (He also wrote "The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism", European intellectual history. Nishitani was not unsympathetic to Heidegger, but he left me satisfied that he had taught me as much as I wanted to know about the guy.

Fenellosa's "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium For Poetry" was highly influential among imagist poets (especially Amy Lowell, I think, and also Pound) and I think that some of that may have filtered over to Heidegger. Heidegger's fugue reminds me of the way Fenellosa built on a Japanese dilettante tradition of fanciful etymology. It's authentically Japanese in some sense, but more like a word-game or flower-arranging than scholarship.

In the exegesis of classic Chinese texts this kind of etymology is standard, and ranges from penetrating to fanciful. Some etymologies have become canonical, whereas some are identified with the individual originating them and are respected to the extent that the originator is.

Used with care this method can be valuable. If you look at the various interlocking definitions of "right", "true", and "just", for example, you will get some insight into what those words originally meant when used ethically and politically, and I don't think that the history of these words is irrelevant. (Also "cause", as Hans Kelsen has written about it). Another example, found both in Chinese and in English, is the complex "map, plan, project, scheme, design, sketch", all of which simultaneously mean "picture" and "intention for the future".

Hopefully more later when I can read the Chinese characters on Gawain's site.

John Emerson said...

There's a lot of Nishitani on Questia, which I don't subscribe to:


Sir G said...


"I have always found arguments of that kind tedious and irrelevant."

They are relevant within their specific context. Not in general - which unfortunately this discussion is... :) (er...)

"I have no idea what this means, but I'm pretty sure I strongly disagree."

How about -- instead of "irrelevant" -- boring? :) Can you agree with that or do we simply have to agree to disagree? :)

Sir C:

You say somewhere here that you find etymologies psychologically meaningful/effective. Do you? Really? How and when?

Also, you owe me a distinction between "explanation" and "expression" over at my place.

Languagehat said...

How about -- instead of "irrelevant" -- boring? :) Can you agree with that or do we simply have to agree to disagree? :)

But I don't understand why you want to frame your lack of interest as some kind of statement about the humanities. I have no interest in Heidegger, but I don't talk about Heidegger making academic study irrelevant, or whatever. I just say I have no interest in Heidegger.

I can agree (taking your statement of your interiority on faith) that you think etymology is boring, but obviously I'm not about to agree that etymology is boring. To me it's one of the most interesting things there is. I'd happily send all of Heidegger into the dustbin of history to preserve a good book of etymology.

Conrad H. Roth said...

G: what I wrote is:

"I have no problem whatsoever with Isidorean etymologics, and the results of that inquiry can be poetic: beautiful, meaningful."

When? When the etymological analysis is in the service of greater truths. To take an example from straight poetry: Milton constantly plays on words beginning 'dis-' ('Of man's first disobedience...'), to suggest Dis (Hell). Joyce, likewise, is always thinking of the etymology behind his words (he was using Skeat). More obscure examples can be found in the work of professional etymologists, notably Horne Tooke, Walter Whiter and so on, as described in my posts of last month.

Simply put: Etymological analysis is meaningful because it creates meaning: it creates 'dog's tail' from 'cynosure', when a normal reading would only create 'centre (or focus) of attention'. To me, the controlled generation of meaning is almost by definition beautiful, especially when it yields the concrete (dog's tail) from the abstract (cynosure).

If you are content to call (either poetic or genuine) etymological analysis 'boring', you are withdrawing to the statement that 'you are bored by etymology'. One could hardly argue with that! Actually, I can. I can quote you.

"In his post, Conrad Roth speaks about neologisms and ends the post like this:

“[In the light of the problem of neologism formation] language seems not so much a conventional activity, as a creative one; no longer a transparent vessel of meaning, it becomes thick, opaque, and fascinating—almost literally.”

He is clearly hoping we will look up the etymology of the word. We have:

Latin fascinatus, past participle of fascinare, from fascinum evil spell.

This is a really profound observation. Because, of course, what makes literature the joy it is – to me, anyway – is precisely the way it can fascinate us – put us under a mind-boggling, be-fuddling, stupefying spell."

So even you can find an etymological analysis 'a really profound observation'.

I call Heidegger a poet in the same way I call Borges a poet. I'm using the word 'poetry' much as Schlegel used the word Dichtung--to refer not to verse, but to a way of thinking. His etymologies may be, as Emerson claims, authentically Japanese: 'more like a word-game or flower-arranging than scholarship'--more like poetry.

John: I'd be happy to hear more about just how Japanese (and I readily believe it does) lends itself to the poetic etymology. Some languages, with special traditions (eg. Hebrew with numerical letter-values and hence gematria), give rise to especially interesting etymological methods.

John Emerson said...

I only know Chinese. Japanese probably has a two-layered Sino-Japanese system of etymological play, presumably including contact effects not present in either language when isolated.

One example is "ming", the root meaning of which is "bright" (now written sun + moon). In philosophy it can mean either "Prominent and splendid" or "Penetratingly intelligent". This is an active-passive pair which is common in Chinese, sometimes phonetically and/or graphically marked but in this case not. "Perspicuous" and "perspicacious" are a fairly apt English translation-pair.

"Name, word, term" also is pronounced "ming". Thus, names are ways of clearly and perspicaciously distinguishing the differently-named things from one another. The "Ming T'ang" [bright tower] was also the "Tower of names" or "Tower of distinctions".

Closely related words are "ling" "command" and "ming", "to give a command or to name something", and also "fate" (what heaven has commanded). So the ruler gives names, makes distinctions, and decides fates by giving commands.

The above are pretty well wired into Chinese philosophy and probably have some real etymological merit (with "ming" = "bright, penetrating, prominent" being one valid cluster, and "ming/ling" = "command, fate, name" a probably-etymologically-unrelated cluster which has become associated with it.)

But in commentaries I've also seen a different "ming" meaning "dim" dragged in, as well as a "ming" meaning "cry out, bird call". To me that's pure literary exuberance.

Sir G said...


Well, we were talking about justification of humanities -- i was pointing out reasons why some people may find them irrelevant. You think their opinions irrelevant but then I was not speaking about your opinions. :)

"I'd happily send all of Heidegger into the dustbin of history to preserve a good book of etymology"

Personally, I could not agree with you more.

Sir G said...

Sir C, John:

Introduction to Brower's "Japanese Court Poetry" is the best essay on the subject. (Brower was my teacher!)

Sir C:

I do not think I claim anywhere that etymology cannot be fascinating. Like everything else, some of it is fascinating, some of it is totally indifferent.

What I wanted to suggest (did i?), I believe, is that I don't find it terribly helpful. It seems to me that what matters for thinking (if you allow me to use this word instead of saying something like "search for truth") is how a given word is used today; or how perhaps it was used by a thinker you refer to (which may or may not be related to its etymology). That it is derived from an ancient Bulgar word for "cold sore" or some such thing is maybe interesting, maybe even fascinating -- sometimes -- but for thinking purposes, it is more often than not a kind of diversion. Sure etymology created a meaning -- 2000 years ago. (What the word means today may have nothing to do with it at all).

But you know me: I would not want to divide a man from his pleasure, whatever it is. As you know, I do a fair bit of spitting and catching over at my place.

Finally, about Mr H: there is a lot of this sort of thing in the academia (and out). We know now, for example, that in his essay on suicide Durkheim plain lied.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, thanks. I have actually read Fenollosa, many years ago, in a first edition (possibly of some worth) owned by a family friend. It was enjoyable at the time, on about the level that the kabbalah lectures in the film Pi are enjoyable for kabbalah newbies.

G: So it's 'fascinating', but not 'helpful'. Well, as for the latter, this is apparently just what Steve and I agreed on earlier (that a word's etymology is not its 'real meaning'). You say it is a 'diversion', but this is begging the question, isn't it? Maybe it is not a diversion but actually the essence of what we want--knowledge for its own sake.

Languagehat said...

for thinking purposes, it is more often than not a kind of diversion

For you; for your thinking purposes. Again, you are turning your own responses into universal truths. We all have our particular triggers for our thinking processes; the fact that so many different triggers are needed is part of what makes us such an interesting species.

Anonymous said...

it comes from the same mindset that makes me want to know how many planets there are


At last count, there were eight. Though this is a peculiar example of science. Once I found out that counting the planets was a semantic game rather than a mathematical one, it began to seem rather odd to me -- can you really define planets into and out of existence? This is a poetic act rather than a scientific judgment, isn't it?

Which as we all know is part of Heidegger's agenda - to bring into question the distinction that Conrad raises here between games and facts, phenomenology and the sciences (Husserl), descriptive psychology and genetic psychology (Brentano). Heidegger seeks to subsume the latter under the former.

I agree with many of the commentators that Heidegger is not always successful in doing this, and I gladly accept Conrad's judgment that he fails to do so in this late work -- but to be fair, he occassionally does it quite well. Being and Time comes to mind, of course, as do The Question Concerning Technology and What is Metaphysics? And there's the essay where he discusses Van Gogh's shoes and its relation to the Ding-ness of the world -- good stuff.

I'm able to deal with the strange etymology games by thinking of them as a form of transition, holding the same function as a well-placed anecdote, which gets Heidegger from one place to another. I'm not sure of a case where what he is trying to say actually falls apart if you remove the etymologies. They are merely a conceit. And where they grate, as they do for many readers, perhaps it is best simply to ignore them rather than become distracted by them.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I haven't read Heidegger's essay on Van Gogh and the 'peasant boots' ("The equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self."). But I have read Meyer Schapiro's rather amusing riposte to it, where he points out that the boots in question belong in fact to the painter, not a peasant. I haven't read Being and Time: at the moment it would be too much of a time-commitment.

"I'm not sure of a case where what he is trying to say actually falls apart if you remove the etymologies."

I agree with this: after all, as I wrote above, the analysis 'seems to impoverish his own ideas by trying to find them in 'harmless' Japanese'.

Sir G said...

"For you; for your thinking purposes. Again, you are turning your own responses into universal truths."

No, L, the opposite is true. You are doing this. Conrad and I seem to understand each other (somehow). You are the odd man out insisting that we must think like you. Not, mind you, that your thinking is invalid for you; i am sure it is. (And I am glad for you). But since we are discussing anxiety, which is something you do not have, your case seems a wonderful but -- er, should i say it? -- irrelevant exception? :)

(I am note sure whether you see this, but your case is a little like a sighted man turning up at a conference of the blind and telling them that there is no problem).

Warm regards. Thanks for the link, you are a prince.

Sir G said...

C, Ziff:

I did not think H's essay on peasants/painters boots was all that revolutionary. It seemed to me to rehash the standard romantic fare: "the artists is like a tunnel/conduit through which a work of art labors itself into daylight" etc.

It is not clear to me why everyone goes gaga about it. must be the same people who think Schiller was a great thinker.

or else it is just the old intellectual bluff which goes like this:

"since i am sure you have not read it, i can safely claim that i have; and by praising it as revolutionary/ groundbreaking perhaps convince you that since you have not read it, your opinions are less informed than mine and therefore and you should defer to me".

famous philosophical works can be famous for all kinds of reasons. :)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Actually, G, I think you have it wrong. You say etymology is irrelevant. LH says he doesn't find it irrelevant. You say it bores you. He says it doesn't bore him. You then say that LH thinks 'people who find the humanities irrelevant' are irrelevant. Obviously, LH never said this. You then go on to say that etymology is 'not terribly helpful'. LH and I don't particularly agree with this statement. LH quite rightly objects to your blanket use of 'thinking purposes'. He has not made any statement to the effect that you or I must think like him. Talk about pseudo-debate! As for this:

"(I am note sure whether you see this, but your case is a little like a sighted man turning up at a conference of the blind and telling them that there is no problem)."

Haven't you got the wrong post? Wasn't that a comment made to Chris and Lori at "Virtue of Anxiety"? After all, we're not really discussing anxiety on this post.

And, re Van Gogh, can we stop with the tired old 'intellectual bluff' argument?

Languagehat said...

Thanks, conrad. Dear gawain, I am baffled by your treatment of me as "insisting that we must think like you." I'm pretty sure I've never done this in my life.

Peony said...

Hi Mr. Roth,

Voltaire's salon led me to your place some time ago (last year to be exact).... Not long after I discovered your place, I was disappointed to learn you were packing it in; calling it quits on the blog business-- Did I mis-read? Well, I was really happy to see you are "back in business!"

I enjoyed your last post very much.

I realize I am coming in very late here, but honestly I think you might want to re-read Heidegger. I just do not think it possible to really understand what this essay kota-ba means unless you have read being in time, for as your friend Matt suggested all those other words *have* been defined.

You might be interested to know that Heidegger remains one of the most influential European philosophers in Japan-- having great resonance here. I guess what I am trying to say is that-- even more than Kant-- he is difficult to understand unless you really take the time to understand all the technical terms. One of the world's leading Heidegger experts, Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley has his famous Heidegger lectures available on iTunes. I am currently listening to them after a 20 year hiatus from Western philosophy-- and I can highly recommend them as excellent lsitening (esp. considering they are free!)

"iki" is perhaps the only word not previously defined that appears in the kotoba essay-- but that is the project of the last essay, of course. Whether he does it effectively or not, I still think it is a lot more than mumbo jumbo!! Finally-- just for fun, related to koto-ba; see koto-dama.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you Peony, and welcome back. I admit I will take a lot of convincing on Heidegger, but perhaps I will have a little listen to these Dreyfus lectures. This is not the first time they have been recommended to me.

Anonymous said...

As a feeble poet myself, I'd ask you to rethink Heidegger and free him from any joint associations. Has he recklessly repurposed koto ba? Maybe. But who cares? The man created an entire lexicon for himself in "Being and Time." If you've forgiven him that before, please do so again and give the entire book a fair read. And then read "Hundejahre" by Gunter Grass and have a proper chuckle.

Peony said...

Interesting Anonymous. I too remain perplexed at the treatment poor Heidegger received here! If you are interested, I responded to Conrad at length here

I am not sure what you meant by repropose-- but I agree that Heidegger has created a lexicon
and his thoughts (just like Kant's) need to be understood within the context of that lexicon.

I would be interested in talking about Heidegger's take on the ancient Greeks... though I haven't read his latter essays in years...