Postscript on the “Elephant” in “Phenomenology”

(Posted by Keren Wang | Feb. 3, 2017)

Per Dr. Alan Sica‘s request, this post is written as a follow-up to a peculiar topic brought up during our Social Thought seminar yesterday — it concerns  the “Elephant ()” glyph in the Chinese term for “Phenomenology (现象学)”.

Long story short…

During our regular seminar discussion on the writings of  Maurice Merleau-Ponty (French phenomenologist) yesterday, Dr. Sica asked what is the Chinese term for “phenomenology“.

Luckily, there is an official Chinese translation available for this particular philosophical term  — 現象學 (pronounced “hsien-hsiang hsueh”). For easier viewing, please see the enlarged picture-file below, which also includes the standard phonetic notation for each character:

The facile explanation of phrase “現象學” is that it combines 现象 (hsien-hsiang, lit. “phenomenon, materialization”) + (hsueh, lit. “study, learning”). By “facile explanation”, I am referring to the fact that the Chinese writing system doesn’t follow an alphabet-word system, so any direct “word-to-word” translation between Chinese and English would be at best a “metaphorical approximation”. Unwilling to settle for the easy explanation, Alan of course pressed for more precise meaning of each individual character in 現象學,  and thus going further down the impossible linguistic rabbit hole…

So here’s when the “elephant” came in…

The Chinese term for phenomenology, 現象學, consists three characters (or more accurately, three logograms). Here is a detailed break-down of the characters in 現象學:

Indeed, for a Chinese reader, the term 現象學 does not appear as a singular, self-contained “word” per se. Rather, like most Chinese vocabularies,  the nomenclature would appear as a loosely-grouped logographic cluster that reads something like “(the) study (of) manifest shape(s) and symbol(s).” Those parenthetical parts are grammatical features absent in the Chinese writing system. Indeed, concepts such as definitive articles, plurals and grammatical tense may not apply to written Chinese…at all! Chinese characters group together in ways that’s very different from English vocabularies. When used together, they do not form a new “word” in ways English alphabets would. Thus, unlike English “words”, meanings are not “encoded” into Chinese phrases and characters. Each logograph in a phrase or sentence merely defers and refers its signification in terms of its relation with those other characters in the sentence, and the final “meaning” of a phrase or sentence is obtained as the sum aggregate of signification of all the characters in the phrase. This might sound confusing, but it is worthwhile to keep in mind that even the most basic grammatical and syntactical principles in English do not apply in written Chinese. And now I regress…

Most notably, the second character of the phrase, (pronounced “hsiang“) , indeed means “elephant” in Chinese. Yes, when used with other characters, can be used broadly to signify ideas relating to “shape”, “symbol” and “representation”. However, those are derivatives or its “ordinary” meaning of “elephant” Indeed, when the character “” is used alone, it almost always refers to non other than those massive land mammals with long trunk and pillar-like legs.

In fact, the “elephant“ in 現象學 is among the oldest Chinese characters still in common use. As shown in the figure below, the glyph “” first appeared in Oracle bone script (c. 1,200 BCE) as an elephant pictogram. The basic shape and composition of “象” remained surprisingly consistent across its three-thousand-plus years of continuous usage:

So what does “elephant” has anything to do with symbol and elephant? While it is impossible to get into the heads of Shang dynasty kings (who first used this letter during sacrificial rites), I did found a compelling explanation by searching around Chinese Classical texts. Han Fei (韓非, c. 280 – 233 BC), an influential political philosopher from the Warring States period (475BC – 221BC), wrote the following in his Han Fei Tzu:

“People rarely see living elephants. More frequently, as people encounter the skeleton of a dead elephant, they are compelled to observe the fleshless remains and trace out the living. Therefore, whatever compels the people into imagining the Real is also called ‘象 (elephant)’. The Dao present-at-here may not be directly seen, heard or felt, but a Sage could trace the form by examining the manifestation of its effects. Thus this is called the ‘Form of the formless, the Elephant of the fleshless body.

韓非子 · 解老》: 人 希 見 生 象 也,而 得 死 象 之 骨,案 其 圖 以 想 其 生 也,故 諸 人 之 所 以 意想 者 皆 謂 之 象 也。 今 道 雖 不 可 得 聞 見,聖 人 執 其 見 功 以 處 見 其 形,故 曰:「 無 狀 之 狀,無 物 之 象。」

(Posted by Keren Wang | Feb. 3, 2017)

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