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I was recently reading Evolution and Consciousness around p. 299 where Leslie Dewart discusses the differences between phonetic and ideographic writing.

As it turns out, phonetic writing like we use and ideographic writing (like Chinese) have a very interesting reciprocal property as concerns who can understand it and exactly how. With the “oriental” systems (i.e., other than ours), speakers of mutually unintelligible languages can literally read the same newspaper in certain cases, but if the newspaper were read out loud by, say, a speaker of Mandarin it would not be understood by a speaker of Cantonese. On the other hand, if I, a speaker of English, were to read out loud a passage in German, I would not understand what I was “saying” but a speaker of German would hear me (notwithstanding subtleties of pronunciation) adequately to understand the text. What’s with that?

It has to do with the assertiveness of the speaker and the very “ideas” of speech that are “built-in” as it were, to the two systems. By comparing and contrasting both, we can start to get a handle on certain presuppositions that would have been opaque to us had we only one way to do it. The Chinese approach is actually more accurate from a certain point of view, in that it allows writers to express what they mean, independent of how they might happen to vocalize their meanings, should they choose to assert their experiences in that modality. The Western approach is more efficient in certain key respects, but depends for its conception on failing to take into account that the writer is actually saying anything, keeping the focus of the exercise myopically locked onto the content of what is being said — presupposing that the meaning is not proper to the communicative activity of the author, but somehow, indeed magically, inherent in the semantics of the words.

I quickly Googled this, by the way, and the site I found to verify the content of my example innocently committed an egregious ethnocentricity which would doubtless appall them if they were aware of it, even though it is not uncommon. They referred to the system of ideographic writing as an “alphabet” which implies phonetic transcription, which reduces all written communication to the type we are familiar with in the West. Dewart calls attention to a pervasive ethnocentrism on the part of our culture which, once you know where to look, makes many otherwise sensitive and intelligent people around us look and sound like so many Victorians referring to other cultures as so many savages. I don’t exclude myself from these habits of speech and thought, but I am now working to root them out. The recent history of the world (last few thousand years) is largely the tragic account of the phenomenal peoples getting paved by the ontic.

Those of you who have done a 10-day Goenka Vipassana Course may recall the example in the Discourses of the guy who took a course but had tremendous difficulty realizing that heat and sweat were in fact sensations. Once that point was conveyed, vipassana became possible because sensations could be observed as such, rather than merely experienced. This is the move from content to insight. Dewart calls it very clearly, on a global scale, with a full account of the evolutionary appearance of the entire system: consciousness happens when the object and the act of experience are simultaneously present to the experiencer. Absent-mindedness is a culturally perpetuated inability to grok the assertive act, a predisposition to be dazzled by the object, a pan-cultural getting-stuck-in-content. Once you know where to look, this becomes obvious everywhere right down to the way we think about what we are doing when we communicate in words and in writing. It leads to staggering ethnocentrism. It leads to a predisposition to violence, confusion, and misery. It leads to the conclusion that life is essentially characterized by suffering, and that human existence is a problem that needs to be solved, transcended somehow. It also leads to science and philosophy as we know it today, the perpetual quest for that elusive solution.

It leads to being inclined to think of the world as structured in “real things” and “simulacra” with an ordered hierarchy of reality, transcendent/ultimate something-or-other out there somewhere or at the top, and human beings somewhere in the middle, with our job being to access the ultimate, to plug into the transcendent, by catching the wave of some kind of primordial consciousness energy and surfing it skillfully through the fissures of the facade. The contemporary dharma crowd has dropped many of the overt philosophical perturbations (with a “a plague on both your houses” tone) and followed the most excellent suspicion that the truth can be found very close to hand, somehow right in the sensations that comprise experience. But true to type, even here, so many of us are getting caught up in the complexity of experience and missing the simplicity of consciousness — in other words, making great progress in dealing with the problem, but even well into the solution still getting tripped up by the problem when it comes to discussing what has been solved.

It is even more dazzling and humbling to clue into the fact that most cultures that have ever appeared on the face of the Earth did not even have this problem. They had other problems, they were no Garden of Eden, but they did not have this problem. The reason that complex philosophies and esoteric practices preoccupied with and designed to deal with issues of ontology, salvation, transcendence, fate, omnipotence and ultimate power — the works — do not arise autochthonously in any cultures except Indo-European and Sumerian ones (excepting cases where they picked it up from us by acculturation) is that those issues are not a universal human reaction to the way the world somehow “is”, but a local peculiarity that can be traced back, essentially, to a speech defect.

Talk about the snake that turns out to be a rope!

I have been thinking that the pragmatic dharma community will be especially interested in Leslie Dewart’s work, because it should enable us to do much better what we have already started. I still think that, and as I wrote this, I became aware of this perspective as a perspective. It occurred to me that those working to prevent or limit the damage and disruption caused to traditional (almost invariably phenomenal) cultures by the onslaught of the ontic may be even more interested — indeed, outraged — when they realize the mechanics of what has been going down.

As Shinzen likes to say: “To be continued…”

(This post is based on something I just wrote in a conversation on the Dharma Overground.)

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