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Ideographic Myth: Logical Weaknesses in John DeFrancis' Critique


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Logical Weaknesses in John DeFrancis' Critique of the Ideographic Myth

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Ideographic Myth: Logical Weaknesses in John DeFrancis' Critique

  1. 1. Ideographic Myth: Logical Weaknesses in John DeFrancis Critique Keywords: Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, Ideographic Myth, John DeFrancis, Lawrence J. Howell, Victor Mair, logical fallaciesVictor Mair and other proponents of the Critique of the Ideographic Myth claim thatJohn DeFrancis “debunked” the myth in his 1984 book “The Chinese Language: Factand Fantasy.” Here, I propose to consider the accuracy of that claim.The relevant chapter of “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy” is entitled “TheIdeographic Myth.” In the second paragraph, DeFrancis writes, “There never hasbeen, and never can be, such a thing as an ideographic system of writing.” From thevery outset we observe that DeFrancis is tackling the question of ideography from auniversal perspective. This accounts for why, despite the purported subject of thechapter and book, non-Sinitic writing systems (Egyptian hieroglyphics; Sumerian andAccadian cuneiforms) and the subject of writing in general are treated at length.After subtracting information extraneous to Chinese and/or the characters, we are leftwith 1) an historical sketch outlining the origin of the ideographic myth, 2) anexample of using a pictograph to represent sound, 3) an account of the ideographic-phonetic debate (halted in 1940) between Herrlee Creel and Peter Boodberg, 4)quotations from 19th century Sinologists Peter S. Du Ponceau and Joseph-MarieCallery, and 5) a discussion of character nomenclature. (The disjointed order ofpresentation is that of DeFrancis.)As evident from the outline, point 2) is the only concrete argument DeFrancis offersby way of countering the ideographic myth (which he defines as the “... concept ofChinese writings as a means of conveying ideas without regard to speech”). Ascontributions go, it isnt much. Lets see why.
  2. 2. DeFrancis gives but a single example, noting how a character meaning “wheat”acquired the meaning of a homonymic term meaning “come.” This borrowing processin ancient times is a common, yet statistically minor, practice among the Chinesecharacters: We are talking about scores of examples among thousands of charactersunaffected by borrowing. Despite this, DeFrancis proceeds as though he hassomehow demonstrated that borrowing is normative for the characters, notexceptional. This is a classic example of the logical fallacy of faulty generalization,here aggravated by reliance on suppressed evidence (those pesky other thousands ofcharacters counter-indicating the conclusion DeFrancis wishes to reach).In fact, DeFrancis argumentation is shot through with logical fallacies. 1) Faultygeneralization. 2) Suppressed evidence. 3) The appeal to authority, the authorities inthis case being Du Ponceau, Callery and Boodberg. 4) Circular reasoning. As wehave seen, DeFrancis puts the cart before the horse by asserting at the outset that nowriting system is ideographic, indicating he has already arrived at his conclusion thatChinese characters are not ideographic. If at some point DeFrancis offered solidevidence to support his claim we could dismiss the inversion as a stylistic quirk, butsuch evidence being absent, the reasoning is patently circular. 5) The false dilemma,seen in positing that Chinese characters must of necessity be either phonetic orideographic.To reiterate, Victor Mair would have us believe that, in “The Chinese Language: Factand Fantasy,” John DeFrancis “debunked” the ideographic myth. Careful inspectionsuggests that DeFrancis accomplished nothing of the sort.The notion of DeFrancis debunking the ideographic myth has, in the decades sincehis book was published, taken on a curious life of its own; we can speak of a mythwithin a myth. This mythologizing process itself merits consideration.
  3. 3. Lawrence J. Howell7 April 2012Version of a post originally uploaded to the Kanji Networks Blog