Ideographic Myth: Inconsistencies in the Critique Keywords: Ideographic Myth, critique, John DeFrancis, Victor Mair, J. Marshall Unger, Lawrence J. HowellTerminology used with respect to the Critique of the Ideographic Myth has beeninconsistent.In “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy,” John DeFrancis defines theIdeographic Myth as the“... concept of Chinese writings as a means of conveying ideas without regard tospeech.”Next, lets review Victor Mairs definition of this myth (taken from his Foreword tothe book by J. Marshall Unger noted below):“... the notion that Chinese characters directly convey meaning without any referenceto specific languages and cultural contexts.”Now lets listen to Unger (“Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth ofDisembodied Meaning”; pg. 2):“The source of all the confusion is what DeFrancis calls the Ideographic Myth, thenotion that Chinese characters represent meaning directly, without reference tolanguage (that is, speech) in any way.”Assuming that the late DeFrancis would not object to having “Chinese writings”rendered “Chinese characters,” we can turn our attention to some significant
differences between these three versions of the ideographic myth.Lets consider the way Mair and Unger rework DeFrancis definition. First, note thesimilarity between the following passages:Mair: “... the notion that Chinese characters directly convey meaning without anyreference to ...”Unger: “... the notion that Chinese characters represent meaning directly, withoutreference to ...”One wonders whether it is Mair modeling his definition after Ungers, or vice-versa.Now, whereas Mair continues by substituting “meaning” for “ideas” and “specificlanguages and cultural contexts” for “speech,” Ungers amendments are limited tothe retention of “speech” while equating “speech” with “language.” It would beinteresting to learn from Unger why he felt the need for the parentheticalclarification, but let us not be diverted.Much more significant are the changes in nomenclature introduced by Mair. Perhapshe would argue that substituting “meaning” for “ideas” and “specific languages andcultural contexts” for “speech” makes no significant difference in this context. If so,Ill be greatly interested to hear him elucidate that particular line of reasoning.Now addressing both Mair and Unger, I would like to reiterate the question I posedMair in my Response: What exactly is the Ideographic Myth? Can the two of youagree on a latter-day definition of the Ideographic Myth that 1) is not qualitativelydifferent from that of DeFrancis and 2) does not undermine the claim that DeFrancisdebunked this myth in “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy”?
While on the subject of Ungers book, this sub-page of Ungers faculty listing at OhioState University is worth a look. Here we find Unger suggesting we imagine that“... the Chinese came up with a completely artificial writing system that can denoteevery thought you could ever express in any of the worlds languages without anyreference to human speech whatsoever!”He immediately reveals that“Something is obviously wrong with this story, and Ideogram explains what.”I can tell you what is obviously wrong. What is obviously wrong is the pretense thatopposition to the Critique of the Ideographic Myth compels assent to this absurdproposition. Ungers construction is a straw man, bad enough, but it also reprisesDeFrancis use of the logical fallacy known as the false dilemma. It is also a secondinstance of Unger and Mair parroting each others ideas (recall their respectivedefinitions of the Ideographic Myth); here, we see Unger repackaging Mairs phrase“... the notion that Chinese characters directly convey meaning without any referenceto specific languages and cultural contexts” in a form more likely to appeal tounversed, potential buyers of Ungers book.Thus we see the Critique of the Ideographic Myth advanced by means of inconsistentterminology, with cross-pollinated hype and yet another instance of fallacious logicsprinkled into the brew.Lawrence J. Howell7 April 2012Adapted from a post originally uploaded to the Kanji Networks Blog