Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What question am I trying to ask?

So I’m at an annoying place in my research where I not only can’t answer questions, I’m not sure what questions I want to ask. I need questions for mid term student papers in my course on environmental ethics in China, and I need another question for my own paper I want to build from teaching this class.

The broad question which motivated the reading selection for my portion of the class was “What values and nature attitudes are motivating current environmental decisions in China?” A related question I wanted to focus on was “can the growing Chinese environmental movement find its roots in indigenous thought, or is environmentalism fundamentally a Western import?”

These questions are, of course, impossibly broad, which hasn’t stopped people from trying to answer them, especially the latter. The standard approach is to focus on one of the big traditional Chinese philosophies (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism) and then enthuse about its rich environmental awareness. People especially love to do this for Buddhism—much better than Christianity with all that dominion stuff. This leads to some easy debunking replies. The last stage in this debate is a constructivist position about a particular tradition: Yes it has environmentally friendly and environmentally hostile elements, but if we just cherry pick the elements that are environmentally positive, we can create the environmental ethic of the future. This sorting process usually involves examining ancient philosophical texts, with occasional references to traditional practices. Baird Callicott’s Earth’ Insightsis essentially an attempt to do this on a global scale.

This is not a useful way to turn an impossibly broad question into a tractable one. The only reason to focus on ancient philosophical texts is that its something we know how to do. I’m quite sure we need to examine Chinese environmental philosophy from a perspective closer to the ground, as it were. But how?

One thing I’ve been futzing with is philology. I’m trying to figure out the relationship between eight terms in a four languages: Fusij, Natura, Nature, Wilderness, zì rán, qì, tiān, and shānshuĭ. This actually leaves me doing the annoying thing we tell the undergraduates not to do: look at dictionaries for philosophical analyses. I'm looking in the OED, Liddell & Scott, and Mandarin Tools, sifting through the definitions and examples of use and trying to see patterns that will help me answer some question whose nature I'm no longer sure of. (BTW, does anyone know a better resource than Mandarin Tools? Does anyone know why the Perseus web page is so damn slow?)

Part of the problem is the basic tension between what the lexicographer's aims and my aim. I don't want to do an armchair analysis of meaning, but I'm not interested in cataloging every use. Really what I'm interested in is what Aristotle in The Categories called a "focal meaning" behind several different uses in several different parts of speech. What I have wound up doing is simply winnowing down OED type definitions: throwing out irrelevant uses, consolidating some meanings, trying to get at an essence of sorts. Is there a more formal method for doing this (one that doesn't revert back to Euthyphro suggesting definitions and Socrates proposing counter examples)?


Thomas said...

"Does anyone know why the Perseus web page is so damn slow?"

I couldn't say for certain, but it looks like most of the pages at Perseus are dynamically generated from CGI scripts. Their home page mentions some aging hardware issues, but it also looks like either the the code or the database (or most likely both) would benefit from some tuning.

Although they don't seem to consider it quite production-ready--and it is occasionally down for maintenance as they work some of the kinks out--the new "Perseus 4.0" implementation is rather more responsive (and better looking, too) when it's up, which seems to be most of the time:

Also, if for some reason you prefer the 3.0 version, the mirror at Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Berlin looks to me like it's a bit faster than the Tufts site. I'm not sure how often they sync (the news page at MPG looks out-of-date) but that shouldn't matter when it comes to lexicon and library content. Of course, as far as improved performance, YMMV.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

wow, thanks for the geekage!

bridgett said...

Rob, you might consider turning to historians who look at the ways that the Confucian elite shaped their understanding of place and self when stationed in the marchlands of the empire. I'm thinking particularly of the work of Cong Ellen Zhang (once my colleague, now at U Virginia) and her reflections on the word "zhang" (sometimes translated "miasma," but connoting a sort of wilderness). Anyhow, the Confucian artistic productions (both painting and poetry) that established one's refinement often were extended meditations on the meanings of place in relationship to politics and one's status as a learned individual.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Thanks for the tip! Thanks for stopping by!

Phinnea said...

The question is always:

What's up with that?