In Chapter 3 (“A Comparison of Eastern and Western Writing Systems and Their Impact on Cultural Patterns”) of Robert K. Logan’s The Alphabet Effect, Logan claims that “the absence of Western-style abstractions and classification schemes in Chinese culture” (47), including such things as systematic logical reasoning, codified legal systems, and monotheism, is due to the fact that Western writing is alphabetic, whereas Chinese writing is not. In this essay, I will show that most of Logan’s arguments are flawed, and that Logan’s main points, although interesting, ultimately tell us little more than the fact that Chinese characters are complex.
Logan’s basic premise, that Chinese characters are inherently less abstract than alphabetic characters, is incorrect. He states that “the alphabet is used phonetically to visually represent the sound of a word,” whereas “Chinese characters are used pictographically to represent the idea of a word and hence are less abstract than alphabetic writing” (47, emphasis mine). However, this is an inaccurate description of Chinese writing. While there do exist characters which are historically derived from pictograms, all Chinese characters represent sounds, just as the symbols from all other writing systems in the world represent sounds. Moreover, the forms of Chinese characters have been revised and simplified so many times in the course of their development that the vast majority of them are no longer transparently recognizable (one would need the help of historical texts). Thus, the description of Chinese writing as “pictographic” applied to the standard characters that have been used for the last two thousand years or so is not appropriate. Take, for example, the character 他, representing the third person singular pronoun “tā”. The left hand component, the “person” radical, indicates that this character vaguely has something to do with a person or people. I say “vaguely” because this is a very common radical is also used in characters such as 份, 假, and 做, meaning, “portion,” “fake,” and “to do,” respectively. The right side is a phonetic component indicating that (at some earlier stage of Chinese), this character rhymed with 也, now pronounced “yě.” Nothing in this character indicates the idea of “third person singular pronoun.” From this example, we can see that Chinese characters mainly represent sounds, and only represent ideas in a rather insignificant way. Thus, Logan’s claim that Chinese characters represent the “idea of a word” is baseless.
In his first concrete example, Logan talks about the Chinese legal system, saying that Chinese law was not codified. While this may be a true statement, Logan provides no evidence that this has anything to do with the writing system. He only states that “the Chinese developed two concepts of law: ‘fa’ and li’” (50), and then proceeds to explain these two concepts. What he overlooks, though, is that this has nothing to do with the writing system; the number and/or types of concepts associated with any concept, including law, is independent of the writing system. The concepts develop, and people subsequently find ways of writing them down on paper. Indeed, concepts are borrowed from culture to culture throughout history; with the influence of Buddhism from India, for example, Chinese writing adapted by making up new characters or adapting old ones for new uses. Another example: many of the philosophers/thinkers of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe, such as Leibniz and Voltaire, were inspired by Chinese philosophy. But I digress.
Next, Logan claims that “the Chinese ideographic script” was one of the “inhibitory factors to the growth of modern science” (54), for two reasons: first, the Chinese script has subliminal or hidden effects which are adverse to abstract scientific thinking; second, the alphabet, being a natural tool for classification, served as a paradigm for scientific classification (55). Logan gives absolutely no evidence to support the first claim. He merely lists, in his Table III (56), twelve characters, the scientific term in English that each character is supposed to represent, and a description of what the original symbol represented. For example, the character 始, meaning “to begin,” is described as “a drawing of a woman and a fetus.” Logan states:
an examination of the table reveals that even the most abstract scientific term must be rendered in a concrete form when it is written. This, no doubt, has had a subliminal effect on Chinese scientific thinking. (55)
As we have argued above, the forms of the Chinese characters in use for the last two thousand years can hardly be described as “concrete.” In fact, I would guess that most readers of Chinese would not even think of the character for “begin” as being a drawing of a woman and a fetus (if indeed that is what it is; it seems like a simple phonetic to me, as it rhymes with things like 怡, 治, and 笞), and even if they had read elsewhere that that was what the character originally represented, their minds have better things to do than to dwell upon that fact every time they come across the character in their readings. Thus, in the spirit of the scientific method, I would suggest that the subliminal effect that Chinese characters have on scientific thinking is a topic to be investigated, rather than the foregone conclusion that Logan thinks it is.
Logan’s second reason, that alphabetic writing served as a paradigm for scientific classification and therefore abstract scientific thought, also stands on shaky ground. First of all, Chinese characters can certainly be classified, in any number of ways: by radical, stroke order, stroke count, or even phonetically. In fact, the sheer number of them necessitates some sort of classification scheme. But even granted that the Chinese script is complex (e.g., it has been said that Chinese phone books are hard to use, and looking in a dictionary for a character which one does not know the pronunciation of can certainly bring up its own difficulties), we must first discuss a more fundamental issue, and that is the nature of modern science. Logan seems to think that classification is key to modern science. In fact, classification is a fundamental cognitive process, and humans have been engaging in it for millenia. What is unique about modern science, it seems to me, is not classification, but the entire process which we call the scientific method: observation, analysis, construction of a hypothesis, and testing of said hypothesis, which goes back to observation and analysis. Modern science is about building unified theories and models that help up explain and predict the world; it is not about classifying things into a set number of categories.
Logan’s most ridiculous claim is that the development of monotheism was encouraged by alphabetic writing. (Indeed, there is no reason to think that polytheism vs. monotheism even falls into the concrete/abstract distinction that Logan makes, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.) Of the major religions practiced today, all three monotheistic ones—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—can be said to be derived from the same source, the religion of the Israelites, which began, let’s say, with Moses around 1300 BCE. This was several centuries before the Greek alphabet (the first true alphabet) was developed, around 1000 BCE. Note also that Greek religion was by no means monotheistic, even though their writing system was alphabetic. The other noteworthy monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, came about around 600 BCE in modern-day Afghanistan/Iran, where at that time they were still using cuneiform.
We have seen above that Logan’s arguments about the impact of Chinese logographic writing on law, science, and religion are completely without basis. Moreover, Chinese characters, though complex, are not more concrete than alphabetic writing in any essential way, and certainly not pictographic, as he describes. The history of cultures and ideas is complex, with many different concepts and entities interacting. In view of this, the impact that the form of a writing system makes on concepts such as science, law, and religion must be very negligible indeed.
Logan, Robert K. The Alphabet Effect. 1986.
Smart, Ninian. The World’s Religions. 1989.