On History, Language and Philosophy 1

Recently I have leafed through two books, namely A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome[1] in English, the other Rekishi wo tetsugaku wo suru (歴史を哲学する, or The Philosophy of History)[2] in Japanese. The former dates the genealogy of Greek philosophers back to the earliest Ionic school (6th and 5th century BC) wherein thinkers attempted to find the ultimate form of nature, and spends a number of chapters near the end to expound on Platonic philosophy in various areas, with moral theory, politics and art inclusive; the latter is a compilation of nine chapters in the form of handouts, in which the author strived to encompass ethics, moral issues and personal and/or collective experiences as part of the methodology of history.

My attention of the first book inevitably turns to Plato’s theory, not only because Plato is a great and well-known figure, but also because of his thought-provoking ideas. He distinguishes truth from sensible thingswhat objects are perceived to be differs from what they actually are –, and forms seem to foster epistemological understanding, for to Plato, the forms are numbers (p. 193), and so far as I can understand, form performs as intermediary to concretize and clarify our intellectual thoughts. Viewed in this light, forms are merely some tools for us to approach truth, since in Plato’s “allegory of caves” we also knew that what we conceive is shadow of truth, or partial truth. Because of poets’ over-beautification of ‘false truth’- impartial imitation of a crafter’s imitation of Demiurge to appeal to men’s senses, he highly despise art per-se. So, pragmatically speaking, ‘good’ art should be pursuing as much truthfulness of truth as possible instead of made for pure pleasure. As a shallow thinker, while I agree to his theory on unattainability of truth, I nonetheless doubt whether we should always be slave to this game of truth pursuit or not.

Given that we have already known truth is beyond our grasp, why do we not focus upon the sensible instead? The sensible is not as stable as we can vorstellen – imagine –  though, especially in this always changing world of being. Here an article, “A Dialogue on Language” [3]wherein the dialogue between Heidegger and a Japanese professor has been recorded. For example, they mentioned a Japanese character “空” ( in Japanese, kong in Mandarin), which, like Chinese, gives a double meaning of ‘emptiness’ and ‘sky’. If we further interpret the image of sky, we can probably say that the sky to men is always boundless and almost everything; emptiness is however an exact opposite, it signifies nihil and represents nothingness. Thus, this word swaps always between nothingness to anything. Is not words another form that helps us recognize, however unable men are, part of everything ex nihil? Even though we homo sapien are situated elsewhere in the ever-flowing current, perhaps we can still seize some “current” moments and express with words how our sensation speaks on behalf of our soul.

I have no intention to refute Plato’s denial of Sophists’ proposal of relativism. Maybe Plato is right, or maybe Sophists are right, for one cannot be not right unless he takes no firm standpoint. But only if each of us take an individual perspective, and only by assuming that we are standing at a static point, we can feel the fluidity of this world, shall be risk being deluged by the unfathomable water cascades. Possibly because Immanuel Kant had understood that only if we treated ourselves as a stable entity could we be able to stay rational and acquire some objective synthetic and analytical knowledge; here I shall emphasise the determinant word ‘some’, for nobody are omnipotent even though the so-called God itself. Friedrich Nietzsche’s attempt to use madman as a surrogate figure of human being to pronounce that Gott bleibt tot! Und wir haben ihn getötet! to awaken the souls of men so that they can stay away themselves from myth. Since the ancient times until the late eighteenth century, we have blinded our eyes by believing that the world was a stable system because there was another system – the idea of theism – guiding us.

But in Asia, say China and Japan, men are never devout preachers. Metaphysics have rarely been Asians’ centre of attention and instead pragmatism is closely linked with ethics and morality. For instance, Laozi (老子) championed how to survive in the chaotic world while Confucius once proactively employed education as a means to shaping how men should behave. I dare not say ancient Chinese think more profoundly than the rest of its Asian counterparts, but the frequent changes of regimes in China also give rise to the possibility that one can be a new founder of the next dynasty. It is perhaps because of this historical tendency that Chinese philosophical thoughts flourished. In this sense, history thus cannot be separated from thoughts either.

Noe summarized the etymology of “歴史” (Rekishi, or history) in both East and West. “史” (Shi) is originated from some old Chinese sacrificing rituals or ceremonies during which the government official records what was happening. (p 37- 38) But in Western world, in particular English, Spanish, French, Italian speaking world, the word ‘history’ (or historia, storia and histoire) has close affinity with the meaning of “narrative of the past”. But this narrative, unlike China, seems not to be confined in officials. Nor is it simply confined in writing. Narrative can also be a parole or a speech given by a Sophist, a school or a politician. Speaking in a Platonian sense, narrative may be a second imitation of truth. If so, history will then, like psychology, be scolded as a false science. I also imagine what Plato would have said had he read Shima Qian (司馬遷, a Chinese famous historicist)’s The Scribe’s Records (史記); perhaps he would have depreciated his over-beautification of some historical scenes just as he had done to Homer’s poetry.

However it is hardly convincing to ask everyone to pursue one absolute truth or beauty, and sacrifice our free will to break free from such a blindly pursuit. Each human being, I should say, was inborn with a unique set of rules to appreciate whatever is around them. Japanese poets are shrewd in appreciating an instantaneous moments, probably also because of the language. In the same article, Heidegger mentioned “ことば” (kotoba), and broke down the Japanese word into “koto” and “ba”, the former of which can signify both “object” and “idea” while the latter of which means literally “leaf”. The same pronunciation of ‘koto” can indeed be written in Kanji, or Chinese chracters: “事”(affairs, issues) and “言” (words), too. The multiple meaning within the mono-sound thus creates multiple perspectives of the same moment, too. For instance, in a Japanese poet Fujiwara no Okikaze (藤原興風)’s Haiku, included in Kokinshū (古今集), he wrote:



who else I met in the past

can I treat now as friends?

despite this pine of longevity

long-time friendship with him

can never be

(My English translation)

The word “松” (or matsu) literally means “pine”, but matsu also includes a pun of “waiting” too. Thus, the song did not only record, like a static photograph, what the poet saw at that moment, but also expressed lamentation of waiting in vain. Viewed in this light, the song both represents truth and the poet’s sensation per se. It is even beyond the function of factual records, but is appealing to our aesthetic sense of pleasure. Thus while holding that truth exists somehow, each of us, also acknowledging that truth cannot be attained, should turn to leading an aesthetically delightful life without offending others.

P.S. My apology for always abiding by my own stream of consciousness without being able to organize and present my thoughts appropriately.


[1]  Frederick, Copleston. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plato. (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1993).

[2] Noe, Keiichi. nanokakan no syūcyū kogi: Rekishi wo tetugaku suru. (Tokyo: Iwanami Gendai Bunko, 2016).

[3] Martin Heidegger, “A Dialogue on Language”, Peter D. Hertz, trans. in On the Way to Language. (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1971), pp.1 – 56.

[4] Shigureden (Web) Accessed on 30th March, 2016 https://www.shigureden.or.jp/about/database_03.html?id=34

[Featured image taken by James on 27th March, 2016; Japanese song translated by James on 30th March, 2016]


2 thoughts on “On History, Language and Philosophy 1

Add yours

  1. Very nice translation of the poem by the way! I disagree that our cultural leanings are born within us but are fostered in our more or less God-like environments. The true north is the same seed within all of us.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I do think, however, that each of us bears both identical and different nature with one another, which enables us to develop some different aesthetic subjectivity. It is undeniable that our cultural experience might also shape the way we think, though. After all, I remain skeptical to the idea of truth, i.e. should we believe a universal truth given that we know it is impossible to prove it, or should we allow the interpretation of multiple truths by believing our own sensations?


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