Thursday, April 10, 2014

An Aristotelian Straightjacket?

Arun links to an interesting article by A. K. Ramanujan entitled "Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?" It's a subtle article, and I hesitate to try to summarize, but he emphasizes the idea that compared to Western thinking, Indian thinking is more contextual, Western more context free. I don't claim to understand exactly what this means, but some of the examples suggest that this is a difference between saying something like "the governor, speaking to the maid in the bedroom said ..." (contextual) and the context free "the governor said ..." The author also suggests that the Indian mode is more comfortable with simultaneously holding two apparently mutually contradictory views of the same phenomenon - giving as an example, his father, an astronomer, also doing astrology. There is much more, but I recommend the article.

At any rate, I was reminded of the discussion of the role of metaphor in cognition by Lakoff and Johnson. They argue that, at least since Aristotle, the role of metaphor in thought has been systematically devalued and and neglected in philosophical thinking. They point out the the many metaphors, for example, that we use to think about time: time flowing like a river, time as distance, time as a sequence of points, us moving through time, time as a resource, like money, that can be saved, wasted, or lost. These metaphors are by no means completely compatible, and a lot of philosophical confusion has been wasted over this fact. Despite the philosophers, ordinary people have little trouble juggling the metaphors and using them in reasoning when appropriate. Nonetheless our philosophy and much of our thinking considers this kind of incompatible metaphor use unsatisfactory.

Ramanujan quotes Emerson's famous aphorism: "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." There is no doubt that we humans like to construct a consistent picture of our world. In practice, that's rarely possible without some violence to either the facts or the rest of our cognitive apparatus, and in practice we use various metaphors quite opportunistically. Perhaps one difference between Indian thought and Western is that recognition of this opportunistic use of metaphor has been devalued, at least since Aristotle.