聪明 as Multiple Intelligence
Gaining Wisdom from Chinese Characters
By Songhe Wang and Jay McDaniel
In the twentieth century in the West, the poet Ezra Pound developed the idea that poems could combine Chinese characters and the English language, and he suspected that there was a philosophy contained in each character. In the language of Whitehead, each character contains multiple proposals for how we might see the world, multiple lures for feeling. In this respect each character is itself a very short poem: an invitation to look at the world and feel the world in a certain way. At least this is what Ezra Pound believed. He was a pioneer in cross-cultural poetics.
Later in the century, the avante garde and postmodern poet, Charles Olson, proposed that Whitehead’s philosophy offers a new cosmology for poetry and, equally important, for life itself, because it sees things in terms of events and connections, rather than static, isolated substances. His own poetry concretized, articulated, and embodied Whitehead’s idea that life unfolds in moments and occasions, episodes and events.
We stand indebted to these two traditions: the Ezra Pound “cross-cultural” tradition and the Charles Olson “Whiteheadian postmodern” tradition. We want to explore the possibility that particular Chinese characters contain with themselves philosophical ideas which articulate and interpret certain themes in Whitehead’s philosophy. We call it learning Whiteheadian poetics through characters. The characters become the teachers.
By poetics, we do not mean the activity of reflecting on poetry. Rather we mean the activity of seeking wisdom in daily life. We mean something like 诗意 (shi yi). If you are not a Whiteheadian philosopher, please do not worry. The wisdom offered by characters transcends Whitehead, and reflects the wisdom of Chinese tradition, as it has evolved for several thousands of years. Today people in many parts of the world can partake of this wisdom.
We begin with characters often translated as Intelligence. We propose that the characters invite us to consider the possibility that there are multiple forms of intelligence and that they can work together to provide a wisdom which might be lacking if the forms are separated.
The characters are 聪明. The first character is聪 (cōng ). It is composed of four parts. 耳means ear; 眼means two eyes; 口means mouth and 心means heart. The second character is composed of two parts: 日means the sun, and月means the moon.
In this character, sun and moon mean something like light. When we have the sun or the moon, something is illuminated so that we can see clearly. Think of the English language phrase “shed light on something.” It is as if the sun and moon were shining on something, so that we can see clearly.
Where, then, can light be found? The character for intelligence tells us that our lives are illuminated – that we find truths to live by – when we use our ears to listen; our eyes to see and observe; our mouth to talk or communicate; and our hearts to feel. Intelligence does not come from logical thinking and rational inference alone; it comes from the whole person as he or she is engaged with the world with her senses, her listening, her eyes, her dialogues with others, and of course her feeling.
The idea that intelligence is an activity of the whole person is something that was very important to Whitehead. Recall his idea of concrescence, which is the idea that at every moment of our lives we are experiencing the world through various kinds of prehensions: intellectual, emotional, recollective, anticipatory, and sensory. These prehensions are acts of taking into account other things: the feelings of others, memories, future possibilities, and material objects in the world.
These prehensions are like multi-colored ribbons flowing out from a person into the world and also flowing into a person from the world. They are gathered together into that momentary yet living whole which is a person’s life at that moment. Concrescence is the activity of the ribbons coming together: an activity of 耳 and 眼 and 心.
Imagine someone shopping for vegetables at a market. She sees the tomatoes, she touches the tomatoes, she talks to the person selling them, and all the while she anticipates going home to use them in a dish she will make and enjoy with her family. Eventually she may also taste the tomatoes. She has intelligence. She has聪明.
Howard Gardner at Harvard University proposes that there are many forms of intelligence: spatial, linguistic, mathematical, bodily, musical, interpersonal, introspective, intuitive, and the intelligence of knowing about the natural world. All are important. The Chinese character聪明 is an invitation to seek wisdom in all of these forms, using our eyes and ears and hearts, in dialogue with others who are also seeking wisdom. Indeed this character captures the spirit of poetics. Do we not all seek wisdom with our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our minds? The whole idea that the "mind" is divorced from feeling and intuition, from hopes and dreams, from seeing and hearing is a figment of the abstract imagination, rightly corrected by the wisdom of 聪明.