Hegel’s prejudice against the Chinese Part 2: ‘The Uncivilised Hieroglyphics of Language’

Nanjing Road at night, Shanghai, China.

I began with my previous post to locate Hegel’s explicit prejudice, or what could even be called outright racism, towards the Chinese, where I took the text from the very beginning of The Philosophy of Mind. I will now continue in the same manner, citing a longer passage that occurs later in the book.

While I don’t have much problem with condemning undisciplined behavior and extolling the virtues of discipline within the area of thought, and agree that many children often are guilty of these accusations (which goes against the general cult-mantra often also found in academia which attempts to glorify childhood innocence), it’s direct application and exemplification into an entire nation, especially one as distant and as foreign as the Chinese are for the European mind, is obviously the main problem with the first passage cited.

I continue now with the pages ranging from 195-198 as published in the English translation by Wallace & Miller of the book I’m using for my studies. What follows is a much more direct attack by Hegel on Chinese thought as such, which could be said to be going a step further from the first quotation I’ve shown before. It seems that the main problem Hegel sees here is to attack the Chinese logographic system of writing as opposed to the more phonological German alphabetical writing, and does all of that from the philosophical point of view. While he achieves the self-reflexive step of pointing out the difficulty of accentuation a European encounters when trying to speak Chinese, Hegel nonetheless maintains his position of the superiority of his own language to deal with philosophy.

This entire discussion is then placed by Hegel into Subsection C: Psychology, The Mind (§§440-82), (β) Representation (§§451-64), between (2) Imagination (§§455-60) and (3) Memory (§§461-4) parts of the book, making his entire theory to appear as a general science of the mind (i.e. psychology) and not simply his own point of view:


“Sound articulating itself further for determinate representations, speech, and its system, language, give to sensations, intuitions, representations a second, higher reality than their immediate one, in general an existence that carries weight in the realm of representation.

Language here comes into consideration only in the specific determinacy of being the product of intelligence for manifesting its representations in an external element. If we were to deal with language a concrete way, we would have to revert to the anthropological, more precisely the psycho-physiological standpoint ($401) for the material of language (the lexical element), and to anti­cipate the standpoint of the intellect for the form (grammar). For the element­ary material of language, the idea of mere contingency has disappeared, while on the other hand the principle of imitation has been restricted to its narrow range, objects that make a sound. Yet one can still hear the German language praised for its wealth on account of the many particular expressions it possesses for particular sounds. (Rauschen, Sausen, Knarren, etc.; perhaps more than a hun­dred of them have been collected; the whim of the moment creates new ones when it pleases.) Such an abundance in the sensory and insignificant contrib­utes nothing to the wealth of a cultivated language. The specifically elementary material itself depends less on a symbolism relating to external objects than on inner symbolism, namely anthropological articulation, as it were a gesture of the bodily expression of speech. For each vowel and consonant, as well as for their more abstract elements (gesture of lips, of palate, of tongue) and then for their combinations, people have thus looked for the specific meaning. But these dull subconscious beginnings are modified to inconspicuousness and insignificance, by further external factors or by the needs of civilisation, but essentially by the reduction of what are themselves sensory intuitions to signs, so that their own original meaning atrophies and is extinguished. But the formal element of lan­guage is the work of the intellect which impresses its categories on language; this logical instinct gives rise to the grammar of language. The study of languages still in their original state, which we have first begun to get to know thoroughly in recent times, has shown on this point that they involve a highly elaborate and detailed grammar and express distinctions which are lacking or have been obliterated in the languages of more civilised peoples. It seems that the language of the most civilised peoples has the less complete grammar, and the same language has a more complete grammar when the people is in a more uncivilised state than in a more highly civilised state. Cf. Mr W. von Humboldt’s On the Dual,.

While on the subject of spoken language (which is the original language), we can also mention, but here only in passing, written language; this is merely a fur­ther development within the particular province of language which enlists the help of an externally practical activity. Written language proceeds to the field of immediate spatial intuition, in which it takes and produces signs (§454). More precisely, hieroglyphic script designates representations with spatial figures, whereas alphabetic script designates sounds which are themselves already signs. Alphabet­ical writing thus consists of signs of signs, and in such a way that it analyses the concrete signs of spoken language, words, into their simple elements and designates these elements.—Leibniz allowed himself to be misled by his intel­lect into believing that a complete written language, formed in a hieroglyphic manner—which occurs in a partial way even in alphabetic writing (as in our signs for numbers, the planets, the chemical substances, etc.)—would be very desirable as a universal written language for the communication of peoples and especially of scholars. But it may be thought that it was rather the commu­nication of peoples (as was probably the case in Phoenicia, and today happens in Canton—see Macartney’s Travels by Staunton) which occasioned the need of alphabetical writing and led to its emergence. Anyway a comprehensive, finished hieroglyphic language is out of the question. Sensory objects no doubt admit of permanent signs, but for signs of spiritual matters the progress in the cultiva­tion of our thoughts, the advance of logical development, lead to altered views of their internal relationships and thus of their nature, so that with this anoth­er hieroglyphic determination would also emerge. After all, this already happens with sensory objects: their signs in spoken language, their names, are frequently changed, as e.g. with chemical and mineralogical names. Ever since we have for­gotten what names, as such, are, namely intrinsically senseless externalities which only have a meaning as signs, ever since we require, instead of genuine names, the expression of a sort of definition and in fact frequently also form the definition again according to choice and chance, the denomination, i.e. just the combination of signs of their generic determination or other supposedly characteristic properties, is altered according to the different views we take of the genus or of any other supposedly specific property.—It is only a stationary spiritual culture, like the Chinese, which is suited by the hieroglyphic script of that people; in any case only that lesser portion of a people which remains in exclusive possession of spiritual culture can share in this type of written language.—At the same time, the development of spoken language is very closely connected with the habit of alphabetic writing, which is the only way in which spoken language acquires the determinacy and purity of its articulation. The imperfection of the Chinese spoken language is well-known; a mass of its words have several utterly different meanings, as many as ten, or even twenty, so that, in speaking, the distinction is made noticeable merely by stress and intensity, by speaking more softly or cry­ing out. Europeans beginning to speak Chinese stumble into the most ridiculous misunderstandings before they have mastered these absurd refinements of accentuation. Perfection here consists in the opposite of that parler sans accent which in Europe is rightly required for cultivated speech. Owing to hieroglyphic written language the Chinese spoken language lacks the objective determinacy that is gained in articulation from alphabetic writing.

Alphabetic writing is in and for itself the more intelligent form; in it the word, the worthiest mode, peculiar to the intelligence, of expressing its representations, is brought to consciousness and made an object of reflexion. In this preoccupa­tion of intelligence with the word, the word is analysed, i.e. this sign-making is reduced to its few simple elements (the primal gestures of articulation); these are the sensory component of speech, brought to the form of universality, and at the same time acquiring in this elementary manner complete determinacy and purity. Alphabetic writing thereby also retains the advantage of spoken language, that in written as in spoken language representations have genuine names; the name is the simple sign for the genuine, i.e. simple representation, not resolved into its determinations and compounded out of them. Hieroglyphic lan­guage arises not from the direct analysis of sensory signs, like alphabetic writing, but from the preliminary analysis of representations. This then readily provokes the thought that all representations could be reduced to their elements, to simple logical determinations, so that from the elementary signs chosen for these (as, in the case of the Chinese kua, the simple straight stroke, and the stroke broken into two parts) hieroglyphic language would be generated by their composition. This circumstance, the analytical designation of representations in hieroglyphic script, which misled Leibniz into regarding it as preferable to alphabetic writing, is rather what contradicts the fundamental need of language in general, the name, to have for the immediate representation (which, whatever riches may be com­prehended in its intrinsic content, is for the mind simple in the name) a simple immediate sign as well, which as a being for itself provokes no thought, having only the determination of sensorily representing and meaning the simple repres­entation as such. It is not only the representing intelligence that dwells on the simplicity of representations and also puts them together again from the more abstract moments into which they have been analysed; thinking too reunifies the concrete content into the form of a simple thought after the analysis in which it has become a combination of many determinations. Both intelligence and think­ing need to have such signs, simple in respect of their meaning, signs which, though consisting of several letters or syllables and even decomposed into them, yet do not display a combination of several representations?—The foregoing considerations constitute the principle for deciding on the value of written lan­guages. Then too it emerges that in hieroglyphic script the relations of concrete spiritual representations must necessarily become complicated and confused, and in any case the analysis of them (the immediate products of which are also to be analysed in turn) appears to be possible in the most various and divergent ways. Every divergence in analysis would give rise to a different formation of the writ­ten name; just as in recent times (as we have already noted) even in the sensory sphere hydrochloric acid has undergone several changes of name. A hieroglyphic written language would require a philosophy as stationary as is the civilisation of the Chinese overall.

It also follows from what has been said that learning to read and write an alphabetic script is to be regarded as an inestimable and not sufficiently appre­ciated educational instrument, in that it diverts the mind’s attention from the sensorily concrete to the more formal aspect, the spoken word and its abstract elements, and makes an essential contribution to laying and clearing the ground for the subject’s inwardness.—Later too, ingrained habit effaces the peculi­arity of alphabetic writing, that it appears to take, in the interest of vision, a roundabout route to representations by way of audibility; habit makes it a hieroglyphic script for us, so that in using it we need not have the medi­ation of the sounds before our consciousness, whereas people who are little accustomed to reading speak aloud what they read in order to understand it in its sound. Besides the fact that with the facility that transforms alpha­betic script into hieroglyphics the ability in abstraction gained by the initial practice remains, hieroglyphic reading is for itself a deaf reading and a dumb writing; it is true that the audible or temporal and the visible or spatial each has its own foundation, initially of equal validity with the other; but in the case of alphabetic script there is only one foundation, and in fact it stands in the correct relationship: the visible language is related to the audible only as a sign; the intelligence expresses itself immediately and unconditionally by speaking.—The mediation of representations by the less sensory element, sounds, also shows its peculiar essentiality for the transition that follows, from representation to thinking,—memory.”

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