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Eastern, Western Alphabets Reveal Basic Differences

The fascinating excerpt "The ABCs of Abstract Science" from Robert K. Logan's book The Alphabet Effect (The Scientist, January 12, 1987, p. 15) must make readers wonder why China and Japan did not long ago give up their ideographs in favor of a phonetic alphabet or syllabary. The alpha-bet appears to be directly linked to deductive logic, abstract theoretical science and an atomistic conception of the material world. However, this last point, as Joseph Needham keeps on emphasizing, is not enough

By | February 23, 1987

The fascinating excerpt "The ABCs of Abstract Science" from Robert K. Logan's book The Alphabet Effect (The Scientist, January 12, 1987, p. 15) must make readers wonder why China and Japan did not long ago give up their ideographs in favor of a phonetic alphabet or syllabary. The alpha-bet appears to be directly linked to deductive logic, abstract theoretical science and an atomistic conception of the material world. However, this last point, as Joseph Needham keeps on emphasizing, is not enough to understand nature. Modern physics now requires both wave and particle concepts, both continuity and discontinuity.

Needham traces the entry of continuity/wave concepts into Western science back to Leibniz and, through him, to the Chinese conception of nature. The Chinese saw the world as a continuum characterized by constant change as symbolized by the waxing and waning of yin and yang. Chinese ideographs, instead of being atomic components for linear arrangements, are gestalt symbols depicting complex interrelationships. They give a hint as to how our ecological problems might be comprehended. It appears that we might need to develop a script incorporating both ideographic and alphabetic elements. Interestingly, Japan is engaged in just such a project. Of the thousands of Chinese characters they took from the Chinese, the Japanese now limit themselves to 1,850 for their written daily use. These are supplemented and combined with a phonetic syllabary.

Our alphabet also seems to have encouraged the subjective/objective dichotomy, another aspect that in many areas we need to unlearn. The remarkable early achievements of the Chinese in science may well have been due to the fact that they looked at the world in a different way. Their study of terrestrial magnetism, their pioneering earthquake indicator, clock and Cardan suspension can be linked to their concern to be as sensitive as possible to the operation of subtle patterns and forces of nature with which humans felt they had to be in tune. Perhaps because of our rather limited and one-sided approach to natural phenomena, we are missing important clues for the unraveling of nature's secrets.

—Theodor Benfey
Dept. of Chemistry,
Guilford College
Greensboro, NC 27410

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