Emotions and Language.

Nikhil Krishnan writes in the New Yorker about the extent to which “things that seem natural may be artifacts of culture”:

When I left India for college in England, I was surprised to find that pinching my Adam’s apple didn’t mean, as I had thought it meant everywhere, “on my honor.” I learned to expect only mockery at the side-to-side tilts of the head with which I expressed degrees of agreement or disagreement, and trained myself to keep to the Aristotelian binary of nod and shake.

Around that time, I also learned—from watching the British version of “The Office”—that the word “cringe” could be an adjective, as in the phrase “so cringe.” It turned out that there was a German word for the feeling inspired by David Brent, the cringe-making boss played by Ricky Gervais in the show: Fremdschämen—the embarrassment one feels when other people have, perhaps obliviously, embarrassed themselves. Maybe possessing those words—“cringe,” Fremdschämen—only gave me labels for a feeling I already knew well. Or maybe learning the words and learning to identify the feelings were part of the same process. Maybe it wasn’t merely my vocabulary but also my emotional range that was being stretched in those early months in England.

Many migrants have such a story. In “Between Us: How Cultures Create Emotions” (Norton), the Dutch psychologist Batja Mesquita describes her puzzlement, before arriving in the United States, at the use of the English word “distress.” Was it “closer to the Dutch angst (‘anxious/afraid’),” she wondered, “or closer to the Dutch verdriet/wanhoop (‘sadness/despair’)?” It took her time to feel at home with the word: “I now no longer draw a blank when the word is used. I know both when distress is felt, and what the experience of distress can feel like. Distress has become an ‘emotion’ to me.”

Mesquita “came to believe that the idea of a culturally invariant core of basic emotions was more of an ideology than a scientific truth”:

For one thing, Mesquita notes, “not all languages have a word for ‘emotion’ itself.”

What about words for particular feelings? “If we were to find words for anger, fear, sadness, and happiness everywhere,” she writes, “this could be a sign that language ‘cuts nature at its joints.’” […]

Here, Mesquita—joining her sometime co-author Lisa Feldman Barrett and other contemporary constructionists—enlists linguistic data to undermine the universalist view of emotions. Japanese, Mesquita points out, has one word, haji, to mean both “shame” and “embarrassment”; in fact, many languages (including my own first language, Tamil) make no such distinction. The Bedouins’ word hasham covers not only shame and embarrassment but also shyness and respectability. The Ilongot of the Philippines have a word, bētang, that touches on all those, plus on awe and obedience.

It gets worse. According to Mesquita, “There is no good translation for self-esteem in Chinese.” Native speakers of Luganda, in East Africa, she tells us, “use the same word, okusunguwala, for ‘anger’ and ‘sadness.’ ” Japanese people, she says, are shocked to learn that English has no word that’s equivalent to amae: “a complete dependence on the nurturant indulgence of their caregiver.” […] Mesquita concludes that “languages organize the domain very differently, and make both different kinds as well as different numbers of distinctions.”

This was starting to make me very itchy, and I was delighted when Krishnan reversed course and provided counterarguments:

Start with her parade of sociolinguistic examples. Mesquita’s interpretation of them courts what in similar connections has been termed the “lexical fallacy.” What are we supposed to take away from the fact that another language doesn’t have different words for shame and embarrassment? That its speakers have no way of knowing which situations call for which emotions? Does my embarrassment at an undone zipper turn into shame when I am around other Tamil speakers? Is my shame at forgetting my mother’s birthday modulated into embarrassment? Do all my English friends, for that matter, have a firm grasp on the distinction? (Try to make it yourself.)

English has a single word for homesickness. So does German (Heimweh). But French doesn’t. Does that make the pain a French emigrant feels at an underbaked croissant any less acute than the pain of an Englishman in New York faced with a lukewarm cup of tea?

Mesquita makes much of the claim that Luganda has a single word that refers to anger and sadness. Doesn’t the English term “upset” have the same range? (Luganda speakers dispute her account, and note that the language readily marks the distinction between the two.) The English word “modesty” covers much the same range as the Bedouins’ hasham, and a clever translator can find ways of getting us to see the range of the Ilongot’s bētang, which can be used to connote an “I’m not worthy!” sense of bashfulness or submission. The practice of translation—undertaken daily by millions of migrants talking about their experiences—should leave us with more hope for what we can say with the words we have.

Some translations of this sort will end up being more like paraphrases. But even if my language needs two or three words where yours needs only one, it hardly follows that we cannot understand each other without first learning the other’s language. The temptation to be resisted is to take as a starting point the emotion words indigenous to a particular language. (When they are indigenous: the noun amae, in the sense Mesquita invokes, was given currency by Takeo Doi, as part of a psychoanalytic theory about the Japanese psyche.)

I liked the conclusion:

The real moral of all this research may be rather modest. People are complicated, and different from one another. Some of the differences are those among language communities, with their various norms and conventions. Some of them are differences within language communities. Among people who speak English, there are those who (as we say) let it all hang out. Others prize the legendary stiff upper lip. Nothing about speaking English, or thinking in it, tells us which of these attitudes toward emotion people have—which etiquette of emotion governs them. No surprise there.

In learning something about how people in other places “do” emotion, we might indeed come to learn something about how we do it. Our contemporary constructionists are right about this. What matters is what we do—not what we think we think about what we feel. Panicky extrapolations from dictionary discrepancies have to be squared with the unglamorous reality: I have interviewed a student in Kashmir who wanted only to talk about “Squid Game,” and have discovered that I shared my appalled fascination at David Brent with Tamil-speaking cousins in Chennai. The sense in which emotions are culturally specific isn’t a terribly exciting one. In the real world, differences are commonplace but don’t defy understanding. I told a Korean lawyer at a party last month that my “stomach burned” on finding that the coat I’d bought at full price was now on sale for fifty per cent off. I was, I realized a second too late, translating literally a Tamil expression. He paused a moment, perhaps wondering which one of us was guilty of an ignorance of English idiom, then said, “I know the feeling.”


  1. Stu Clayton says

    “things that seem natural may be artifacts of culture”

    That idea itself may seem natural or unnatural. It may be an artifact of culture or not.

    It definitely carries the marks of historicism – which, as we know from history, is an artefact of American/European cultures at least. Maybe of further cultures too – one knows little about them. I think that’s one of their functions.

    Suppose “artifacts of culture” are merely a guise in which natural things appear. Then there is no need to look into other cultures. One can concentrate on things that seem natural, and put up border walls to ensure that they stay that way.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    The arguments in the first part are really just cod-Sapir-Whorfism, but with even less justification than usual.

    The idioms used to express emotions are often unexpected from an English standpoint.

    In Kusaal, for example, you say “My heart is cool” for “I’m happy” and “My heart is white” for “I’m angry.”

    However, both happiness and anger themselves, as opposed to the contingencies of their linguistic expression, seem to correspond pretty much exactly.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    What I would say is that attitudes to (the expression of) emotions can be culturally shaped. Words for anger and irritation in German have transparent connections to words meaning “bad”. Generosity is lordly in Irish and the Romance languages but again in German the common word (großzügig) is neutral, referring to the size or ampleness of the gesture (although a generous feed could be described as “feudal”).

  4. The arguments in the first part are really just cod-Sapir-Whorfism, but with even less justification than usual.

    Exactly, which is why I was glad when he shot them down. It’s all too common for lay writers to embrace such arguments with cries of joy.

  5. I grew up in southern England, so of course my own idiolect has no words for ‘passion’ or ’emotion’ or ‘enthusiasm.’ The concepts are simply alien to me.

  6. I don’t really see cod-Sapir-Whorfism here, except where Krishnan flirts with it at the end of the second paragraph, qualified with “maybe” (I haven’t read the full article, though). Mesquita’s conclusions that “languages organize the domain very differently” doesn’t imply “language creates emotions” any more than pointing out that languages divide the color space differently implies that “language creates colors”.

  7. David Marjanović says

    although a generous feed could be described as “feudal”

    Presents, payments, tips and salaries are often fürstlich – lordly.

  8. cuchuflete says

    The Portuguese word saudade may require a paragraph of explanation in English, but that linguistic curiosity says nothing about the existence of the emotion among native English speakers.

    In Brazil, tudo azul—literally, all/everything blue—corresponds pretty well to English “good”. So, in answer to ‘How are you feeling?’, one might answer, ‘everything’s blue’. Of course that does not mean that one is feeling blue, or the blues. So the languages don’t match up neatly, but the same underlying emotions are present, regardless of language.

  9. Lars Mathiesen says

    A princely banquet innit. Et fyrsteligt måltid.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Princely! Exactly! The weather is unbelievably dark today.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    lordly feast is just fine.

  12. I find the conclusion of the essay frustrating as well. I can recognize the situation described (finding out that the coat was discounted) from my own life, but since he doesn’t explain what “stomach burned” means, I don’t actually know how he feels about it (angry? disappointed?). Is “stomach burned” a purely conventional expression or does is it in some sense a description of how he physically feels? It’s easy to assume that other people feel the same way about such as situation as one does oneself.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Why frustrating ? The man writes: The sense in which emotions are culturally specific isn’t a terribly exciting one. In the real world, differences are commonplace but don’t defy understanding. To understand, it is not necessary to pin down some nameable emotion.

    The Korean lawyer hears the author say the coat I’d bought at full price was now on sale for fifty per cent off. I should think many people have had a similar experience. I have, but I don’t know how I might have described my feelings on any given experiential occasion. It seems superfluous, since I can count on being understood when I merely mention the event – even without knowing a word of Korean.

    If it turns out not to be superfluous, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. That would be a lack of common ground, not a failure of vocab or introspection.

    The lawyer ignores the part he doesn’t understand – “my stomach burned” – and shows sympathy for what he does, saying: I know the feeling. No puzzle here. Are we not lawyers all when on vacation from pedantry ?

  14. If the lawyer didn’t understand the expression, he doesn’t know what the other person’s feeling was but only the situation, and different people might feel differently in that situation. This was a fairly trivial situation of course, and there was no need for the Korean lawyer to understand more than that it was a negative feeling.

  15. This 7asham has indeed been frequently discussed by anthropologists. There are chapters about it and I don’t even read anthropological literature often:-/

  16. Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society is somewhat similar to the above.

    Perhaps one of the most complex concepts in Bedouin culture, it lies at the heart of ideas of the individual in society. Rarely did a day pass without one form or another of this word arising spontaneously in conversation, yet the meaning seemed to shift depending on the context. In the leading dictionary of modern standard Arabic, various words formed from the triliteral root ḥashama are translated by a cluster of words including modesty, shame, and shyness. In its broadest sense, it means propriety. It is dangerous to accept any one of these terms, however, lest we prematurely assume that we understand what the Awlad ʻAli mean.[10] As Paul Riesman (1977, 136) points out, regarding a similar concept among the Fulani of Upper Volta, “the existence of a convenient term for a complex entity risks creating the false impression that in knowing the term we know the entity which it designates. ”

    In any case, dictionary searches to determine cultural meanings are of questionable validity. The controversy provoked by Antoun’s (1968) reliance on dictionary definitions in his classic article on Arab women’s modesty is instructive. Ḥasham is in fact one of the key words on which he bases his analysis. He writes, “Ḥishma refers to bashfulness or self-restraint and iḥtishām to modesty or respect, both related to the triliteral root form that means to cause to blush.” Thus far the definition suffers only from vagueness. He then adds, “But another form of the same root maḥāshim means pudenda. Many Quranic references to modesty and chastity are literally references to the protection of female genitalia” (Antoun 1968, 679). These definitions constitute part of his evidence for interpreting women’s modesty as tied exclusively to sexuality.

    Abu-Zahra’s ( 1970) reply to Antoun’s article is multi-faceted. One part of her criticism focuses on his reliance on lexigraphic explorations of “museum words” either unknown to the “illiterate villagers” he discusses or whose referent varies across Arabic dialects (Abu-Zahra 1970, 108 1). Consulting the most definitive Arabic dictionary herself, she turns up no mention of pudenda as a meaning of the word maḥāshim. Furthermore, she cites very different meanings for the words in both Tunisian and Egyptian spoken Arabic. In attempting to understand how the concept of ḥasham informs Awlad ʻAli society, then, the word’s meaning should be sought not in obscure dictionaries of classical Arabic but in everyday usage.
    [10]. For instance, it is tempting to translate ḥasham simply as “shame,” thereby placing our discussion of the Awlad ‘Ali squarely in the middle of a familiar anthropological discourse on honor and shame. As will become clear, however, to do so would necessitate interpreting the concept as the opposite of what it is. For Awlad ‘Ali, modesty and shame are forms of honor. Dishonor is another matter.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    This all strikes me as being pretty much on a Meaning of Tingo level. OK, it takes more than one word to describe a people’s ideas about honour and decency adequately. I have no patience with the exoticism which concludes from this that said people are forever inscrutable to us. They’re people. We can understand them. They can understand us. Put in the effort, guys.

  18. Well, what Abu-Lughod wrote above is not the same as thinking that exploring the concept is useless, else she would not have dedicated two sub-chapters to it….

    (Riesman, Paul. 1971. “Defying Official Morality: The Example of Man’s Quest for Woman Among the Fulani.” Cahiers d’études afri­caines 11:602-13. (free access)
    Antoun, Richard T. 1968. “On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Study in the Accommodation of Traditions.” (free access)
    Abu-Zahra, Nadia. 1970. “On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Reply. ” (and
    Antoun, Richard T. 1970. “Antoun’s Reply to Abu-Zahra.”, free access))

  19. This one is pretty:

    “One is most likely to share poetry with those individuals from whom one does not taḥashsham.”

  20. dronkverdriet” was one of my first Afrikaans words. Enough to consider “drunk[en] distress” to see the difference (whether it is semantics or wrong pronunciation of /r/) Two of my very first songs in Afrikaans were dedicated to it (one mentioned the word), while in Russian I don’t remember myself ever discussing it or thinking of it.
    As we have already established in the dovekie thread, it must be sound symbolic. Another one was babbalaas “hangover”, sound-symbolic too (what, am I wrong?).
    I understand the Dutch psychologist. Usually authors simply assume that such concepts are universal. Not a problem in a specific situation (the Dutch are less different from English speakers than the Japanese) but general claims are going to be untranslatable. And Dutch psychologists are expected to read in English.

    Linguists are at least warned. A Russian doesn’t have to study “universal grammar” with tense and definiteness but without aspects and information structure. In science you assume that concepts like “energy” (or objects like “Moon”) are universal too, but those belong to specific models. If there is dependence between them and langauges, I can’t trace it. But what to with “native speaker”, when books written about it in English would have never been written in Russian?

  21. Robert Hutchinson says

    My go-to for why “language X can’t express this concept from language Y” is ridiculous is that speakers of language X often have to cobble together the expression of concepts without involving other languages in the first place.

    “When that happened, I was so embarrassed … well, not exactly embarrassed … kind of a combination of embarrassed and sad.”

  22. I am very diffrent emotionally from the 16-years old version of myself. There is an interpersonal variation, how I can be sure about inter-cultural variation?

    I can say decisively nothing, despite having dealt with a cultural barrier numerous times (which usually involves some emotions…). And… I don’t have preferences here. If Bedouins tend to know a feeling most Russians have never heard of, that is fine. If they are similar to us, it is also fine.

    But it reminds me this “same but different but same but different but same” thing that we constantly experience with humans (and that we enjoy). E.g. my teenage attempt to define femininity: I observed that there is not a single character trait that each of my female friends possesses, girly as they are.

    Similarly the author used variation within a culture as an argument against inter-cultural variation.

    Worse: if language is a means of communication (I am aware of isoglosses that define my friends if I don’t share them, I know about some dialects) emotions are not necessarily so. (Gender is different: it is often discussed as social thing, but it has an emotional component, in turn connected to hormones). There is even a part of us opposed to the society. It is a bit like speaking about sexual practices of “Russians” (often performed in very private settings).

    “The sense in which emotions are culturally specific isn’t a terribly exciting one.”

    Hm. What is exciting for you is not always exciting for me! If you want to describe it, maybe dividing our emotions in “boring” (cultural) and “fascinating” (biological) parts is not a very good idea.
    I understand what the author means, because I understand what reasoning made the author arrive to this attempt. But I don’t think I agree with words. I do love cultural differences, stop telling me that they are uninteresting.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    If there is dependence between them and languages, I can’t trace it

    I don’t follow you.

    While “energy” is a technical term from modern physics, there seem to be few languages lacking a word for “moon”, with pretty much exactly the same referent in all cases. This seems to be a pretty clearcut connexion between “model” and “language” to me.

  24. “I understand what the author means…”

    I understood my friend when he joked “бабы это те же мужики”, though the words are not exactly accurate biologically:)

  25. @DE, I was thinking about “energy”. People tend to recognize the Moon, even worship her:)

    Energy and physical concepts and mathematical ideas that were needed to say “m*v^2 / 2”, connect it to “mgh” and other things and construct a useful invariant (eventually what is useful about energy is that it is doesn’t change). Including (or so some say, but I wasn’t able to confirm) observations (mental…) of the evolution of grace in time after the eucharist (holy communion) as a way to explore the notion of a continous function.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    Maybe Russians do not experience dronkverdriet so much, but are plagued by “Nifalophobia”:
    На начальных стадиях терапии у таких пациентов развивается «фобия трезвости» – выраженный страх перед возможностью жизни без спиртного.

  27. In more detail:

    For us things that we learn in school are “knowlege”. We distinguish between them and cultures and langauges. There are different scientific models (I’m using a word “model” in a rather wide sense), they make predictions about the same systems based on very different principles. E.g. there is thermodynamics, it tells us something about the world, but its laws are of very different nature. We call them “theories” (“thermodynamics” or “phonology”) or “schools”. Not cultures.
    Yet there is a model of world represented by concepts of our langauge and culture too, and it would be difficult to trace possible influence of European culture on physics (or specifically “energy”). Too many components and too many points where history could go elsewhere. What if without Europe others would have invented very different scientific theories (with no less impressive, but different predictive power and no less impressive technological achievements)?

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    it would be difficult to trace possible influence of European culture on physics

    We would probably be the least able to see any such influence, given that it would be bound up with preconceptions so fundamental that we are lagely unaware of them.

    FWIW I suspect that the influence is substantial, going back to the Greeks. For more recent linkages of science and culture, I have read a fairly convincing argument linking the Reformation with the attitudes which led to distinctively modern ideas of what science is, by way of a kind of desacralisation of Nature.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    @de, drasvi
    The idea that different cultures could produce different scientific theories with different but no less impressive predictive power seems to me only tenable within a philosophical worldview where “the Universe” is a social or cultural (or even solipsistic) construct. Also cultures are in contact, especially when one culture has evolved science or engineering that provides an economic or military advantage.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    only tenable within a philosophical worldview where “the Universe” is a social or cultural (or even solipsistic) construct

    No, I don’t think that follows at all. It is possible to have more than one valid viewpoint on a world which exists quite apart from any such particular viewpoint (though the observer/observed distinction implied in this entails quite a lot in itself, of course.)

    In fact, it is my own belief that the world is not fundamentally a construct of my own mind or my own preconceptions that encourages me to consider that others may see aspects of it that I cannot see.

  31. Cf. Blind Men, “Elephant” (Weltanschauung, n.d.).

  32. PlasticPaddy says

    @de, hat
    Ok, so by different predictions is meant non-overlapping predictions. I still would expect that any state of affairs, where one human culture had “different” science which could convey an economic or military advantage to someone using this science, would quickly change, e.g., knowledge would leak to other cultures.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    where one human culture had “different” science which could convey an economic or military advantage to someone using this science, would quickly change,

    That has in fact happened, of course, and on a huge scale, since the wildly successful European invasions of Everywhere Else over the past six hundred years or so; yet it seems possible that economic and military advantage may not be the best criterion of fundamemtal value, or even of actual truth.

    There are (as you imply) other ways that cultures may influence one another. Insofar as they do not involve military or economic coercion, they are surely better ways.

    In particular, there might then be the possibility of actual translation and transposition of knowledge, rather than destructive replacement and the consequent cultural impoverishment of humanity.

  34. ” by different predictions is meant non-overlapping predictions”

    @PP, yes. I mean, overlapping, but not fully overlapping predictions. It tells us something about the same systems that are studied by our sciences, and something about other systems – but it is different from our science.

  35. If we encountered such a culture and if their science could predict certain things more accurately than our science and other things less accurately than our science, we would arm ourselves with their science. We would put it in a book and the book in a library, and then we would use it when we need it.

    (Unless it is so crazy that you need to grow up with them and attend their school to see a value or understand it)

    Maybe this makes science different from “culture”. Cultures exists in our heads and our behaviour. Because of my goverment’s efforts to borrow the worst from otherwise quite impressive West, I might be somewhat pessimistic about “enriching” each other. But maybe there can be “larger” and “smaller” cultures and maybe we can borrow elements of Bedouin culture and just get richier.

    Some things about Russian and Bedouin cultrues seem to be mutually exclusive though.

  36. @PP, I’ll post my original answer (which is maybe redundant now): We have mathematics (many branches of it) and we have physics. We could have nothing of this, or we could have more of this, more branches, more theories.

    The world is the same, but it can be seen from so many angles – the former makes one expect convergence of the Earth and (hypothetical) Vulcan/Sentinelese sciences, the latter makes me expect divergence.

    The question is how and where exactly you should expect this divergence or convergence? I don’t know. I see no reason to think that this “Vulcan” science must be like “such and such theories are identical to ours, such and such theories are absent, instead they invented a few more theories that we don’t know” (thus designating a “theory” as some sort of an elementary unit: a stranger may never come to the land covered by a theory, but once she steps in, she inevitably builds the same theory as we did). I used differnet theories to demonstrate that we know divergence. We can imagine a world where a certain detail “has not been discovered”. This does not mean that actual divergence between the Earth and Vulcan is going to be so trival.

    Our science looks like a tree, would a different tree look the same?

    If scientific research is a creative endeavour, then no.
    If scientific research is an exploratory endeavour (there is a map drawn by God’s hand, we and Vulcans have expored different, but overlapping parts of it), then yes.
    And then “different angles” (with subtypes: 1. two equivalent but different formulations, e.g. Vulcans don’t have anything even remotely similar to our algebraic notation and still can prove the same theorems 2. actually different approaches that give us sufficiently different results)

    These metaphors (creativity, exporation, angles, elephants etc.) help me formultate the question, but I have no slightest idea what is the answer. I think more than one mathematician asked herself to what extent she is “creating” and to what extent she is “exploring”, and what exactly it is that she is exporing. The same can be asked about any science.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t think it’s helpful to broaden the reference of “science” to include any old Vulcan/Sentinelese “science”; just as “alternative” medicine that has been demonstrated to be more effective than placebo is, by that very token, “orthodox” medicine, so other ways of finding out about things become “science” exactly in so far as they meet our criteria for science and not pseudoscience. I think it just confuses the issue to use the term “science” more widely.

    That is not at all to say that I think all non-science is nonsense or meaningless (obviously.) Science is not a method for distinguishing sense from nonsense.* But all claims that not-science is science need to be firmly resisted: they are attempts, either from ignorance or delberate deceit, to hijack the claims that science has on rational belief.

    I do think that our scientific tradition has incorporated important features from Western culture (hardly a very iconoclastic thought, as any history of the philosophy of science can tell you.) But that doesn’t invalidate it; and its great predictive success is the most important thing about it, not merely in practical terms, but in philosophical terms: why should it be so successful? Why this attitude, and not another?

    * Attempts to use it as such founder under the weight of their internal contradictions (if I may be so Marxist.) Où est l’empirisme logique d’antan?

  38. @DE, I’m not trying to broaden it.

    “Models that can successfully predict something” is one possible definition applicable to our natural sciences (but not, maybe, mathematics). If Vulcans can do that, I think it is science.

  39. January First-of-May says

    If we encountered such a culture and if their science could predict certain things more accurately than our science and other things less accurately than our science, we would arm ourselves with their science. We would put it in a book and the book in a library, and then we would use it when we need it.

    Something very much like that happened when Hellenistic mathematicians (and astronomers) discovered Babylonian math (and astronomy). The Babylonian method of doing math by place-value fractions in base sixty was completely alien to the Greeks, but it sure made for a better way of doing astronomy (and some kinds of math) than the mess they had for fractions before, so Hellenistic astronomers (and mathematicians) decided that it was an awesome idea.
    Which is why there are 360 degrees in a circle, and a degree consists of 60 minutes of 60 seconds each.

    (The story of why an hour consists of 60 minutes of 60 seconds each is slightly more complicated and involves several further borrowings, though ultimately it goes back to the same thing.)

  40. John Cowan says

    there seem to be few languages lacking a word for “moon”, with pretty much exactly the same referent in all cases

    When I began my current reread of this post, it at once occurred to me that moon might be the verb.

    just as “alternative” medicine that has been demonstrated to be more effective than placebo is, by that very token, “orthodox” medicine

    Up to a point, Minister. The use of psilocybin and related drugs for anxiety and depression is demonstrably better than placebo (it helped my wife recover from the aftermath of her cancer diagnoses and treatments), but I would not yet call it orthodox medicine. There’s a lag.

  41. @January First-of-May: As to the names of the sixty-fold divisions of hours and degrees, the first division is the “minute,” obviously meaning “very small [division].” The next division is a shortening of “second minute,” for the “second very small [division].”

  42. As I recall, Spengler was of the opinion that each civilisation has their own kind of science, based on what he called the fundamental concept or image of the respective civilisation. For him, science was a system of organising, validating, acquiring and teaching of knowledge; so e.g. systems like astrology which are rejected as science by Western civilization could be a legitimate part of science in other civilizations. In such a view, what is and isn’t science is dependent on the viewpoint of a specific civilization; if, on the other hand, you only accept the definition of science of Western civilization, than the methods of other civilizations can only be science in as much as they are compatible with the methods of Western science.

  43. PlasticPaddy says

    @drasvi, hans
    These are more visionary approaches, I would approach Science from a more pragmatic aspect, with criteria like (a) what does it predict, (b) how repeatably are the predictions verified and (c) how many parameters/assumptions are needed to fit the observations to the theory? So astrology would not rate very highly. But maybe this is what Hans means by “compatible with Western science”.

  44. I believe a Mayan farmer or a Micronesian sailor have always employed very much the same methodology as what we call “Western Science” to plan their planting/sailing.

  45. jack morava says

    @ January First-of-May

    Matteo Ricci’s map of the world brought him a lot of authority in China, where it was thought the world was flat. One of Chinese science’s great achievements at the time was the measurement of the height of the dome of heaven, based on the location of the four corners holding it up, cf


  46. DE, I remembered that we discussed it. Is it possible to tell science from pseudo-science or not.

    I do see a problem here, but it is not what I mean. I mean a model of the world as impressive as our physics is – not something that we can call a subset of our science. I do not mean anything familiar that we “don’t recognize as science”, I mean Vulcans or an alternative Earth where Europe was not the leader in scientific research, and what to expect from them.

    When I said “unless you need to grow up with them” I was thinking about all those people of the world who go to Europeanized schools… and the actor for Gods Must Be Crazy who threw away his money. Maybe Yusuf, whose criticism of Western education would later become the source of “Boko Haram” – he studied in a traditional school. And a certain difficulty that jack morava is going to have if he tries to explain a Bushman what it is that he is studying.
    If Vulcans come and start preaching their anti-emotional philosophy…

  47. In Russian we have “наука”. Practicioners of natural sciences imagine it as prototypically precise sciences, but still it is applied to philosophy and various sorts of humantities, including literary criticism.
    A freind of mine considered a carer of a striper and I told her about an anthropology professor who, while working as a striper, collected sociological data on patrons. She insisited that it is not наука (likely I described the article as “scientific publication”), I objected that the girl, that is, the professor collected and analyzed some data about the world. Well, I see how getting naked and drinking and dancing and talking to men while keeping eyes open and getting paid well does not look like “science”. But then how is it differnet from what ornitologists do?

    In English this conversation does not work well.

    Speaking of “7asham” in anthropological literature, there was someone’s publication about young men and their interactions with women in the medina of Tunis. I found the idea that you can do your PhD by drinking coffee, looking around, talking and doing nothing so much attractive (alas, typing your thesis and formatting your bibliography and all the bureaucracy remains a pain in the arse). But drinking coffee and looking around… Is not it what so many men in Tunis do? Sometimes I think about anthropology as journalism. What Abu-Lughod does is: tells the Western audience things about Bedouins that Bedouins possibly know already.
    With a striper professor it is different: partons know who they are, but they don’t have stats for patrons.

  48. I think this (coffee, not striptease). Sorry for Urdu. Earlier google search offered a pdf (I came across it at random and was curious about girls and boys and coffee enough to read it) on some university site rather than z-library but not anymore. Anywya, the blue button downloads it.

  49. Speaking of hijab to whihc the article is dedicated… When I was a child and our large cities were populated by people sucked in from small towns and villages, a normal appartmen block here would have a bench near the entrance where old ladies in babushka headscarves would sit and talk. Ideally share gossip about a girl in mini-skirt in high heels passing by. Practically I haven’t seen them doing it:)

    Either a very religious Orthodox family moved in my apartment block (unlikely) or, likely, a family from one of our Muslim republics. I see them from above and can’t determine their confession from the way they wrap their scarves around their heads. Anyway, now I again see women in headscarves on a bench from my window. A rare instance where inter-cultural contact results in the sense of familiarity rather than exoticity.

  50. John Cowan says

    A rare instance where inter-cultural contact results in the sense of familiarity rather than exoticity.

    If I went outside my apartment and and all I saw were white people from Northern New Jersey, that would be exotic indeed.

  51. (1) African climate is exotic for a Russian (2) we grew up knowing that African climate is exotic for a Russian (3) if African climate becomes identical to that of Moscow, it would be highly unusual.

    Let’s someone else deal with this mess with definitions of “usual”.

  52. So astrology would not rate very highly. But maybe this is what Hans means by “compatible with Western science”.
    Yes, the things you enumerated as important in your conception of science are things that are valued highly in the current Western conception of science. The conceptions of other civilizations may put a low value or no value at all on predictive strength or simplicity, and high values on authority, vintage, and elaborateness – the more epicycles, the better.
    @Y: It is possible that Polynesian seafarers or Mayan planters achieved great practical results without formally doing what we would recognise as science; it’s also possible that what they did wouldn’t be counted as science even by their own society, because it lacks formalization, systematisation and organisation.

  53. “Yes, Vulcans fly spaceships. But they are like bees and ants. They do it instinctively, so it does not count”.

  54. Well, I don’t think any civilization could get to something so complex as spaceships without something resembling our scientific method. Whether they would classify its application as science or, say, engineering like the ancient Greeks, is a different matter, and of course there may be parts of their methodology and toolkit that is too advanced for us to understand, at least until we have been taught how to understand it.

  55. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t think any civilization could get to something so complex as spaceships without something resembling our scientific method.

    One of the plot devices in science fiction is that an “advanced” civilization found its stuff lying around, left by another civilization that disappeared billions of years previously. The film Contact uses this device.

    Also, we hear of aliens providing the technology to build pyramids, and of dreams of benzene rings.

    This is all good fun in fiction. Otherwise, it’s an impertinent child that demands to know its own father.

  56. John Cowan says

    The film Contact uses this device.

    As do Larry Niven’s Fithp, who learn space travel from a Rosetta Stone left by a previous species on their home planet. For Niven’s Kzinti, however, it’s another story (per Wikipedia):

    The Kzin civilization was at an iron-age technological level when an alien race called the Jotoki landed and made stealthy first contact with a tribe of primitive hunter/gatherer Kzinti. The Jotok were interstellar merchants looking for a species they could use as mercenaries.

    Once the Jotok had taught the Kzinti how to use high-technology weapons and other devices (including spacecraft), the Kzin rebelled and made their former masters into slaves, as well as the occasional meal.

  57. jack morava says

    @ Stu Clayton

    The Aztecs are said to have discovered deserted Teotihuacan, thought it had been built for them by their gods…

  58. @Stu: Yes, I’m familiar with that kind of SF tropes. Did you ever read Perry Rhodan? That series is full of aliens teaching their technology to more primitive races, of abandoned technology left behind by vanished civilizations that still works flawlessly after tens of millennia, of later civilizations using such technologies without knowing how it works… when I was a teenager I found that kind of thing awe-inspiring; nowadays, seeing how fast technology becomes obsolete, I rather find that kind of scenario incredible.

  59. Stu Clayton says

    @Hans: On the contrary. It means that Microsoft, Google, PARC etc are run by aliens who dump planned-obsolescent advanced technology on us at irregular intervals.

    I didn’t grow up here, so I knew nothing about Perry Rhodan Hefte except that they were displayed in the magazine section of supermarkets, along with those about Frauenarzt Dr Norden. I read one of the latter out of curiosity, and learned the word Brandung from it, which at the time seemed to me exotic and cosmopolitan.

  60. Instinctive Vulcans was not an objection, of course, just an unexpected view on spacefaring nations in general and Vulcans in particular. I am not sure if there was a novel where Earthlings interpret a species that comes here from the stars as “animals” (but still don’t fail to imitate their ships).

    Actually the notion of “instinct” makes me want to ironise about it.

    The recent novel by Andy Weir has spacefaring unicellular organisms that live in the photosphere of stars (used, apparently, as pack animals).

  61. @PP, Hans, actually one important thing we want from science is its capacity to grow/move forvard.

    Whether it’s a theory itself that does not leave much space for it or makes growth difficult, or the way science is organized in the society, if there is no progress, it is enough to make us nervous.

  62. On the contrary. It means that Microsoft, Google, PARC etc are run by aliens who dump planned-obsolescent advanced technology on us at irregular intervals
    Right, and some aren’t even subtle about their alienness. I mean, who on earth would have a name like Elon Musk?
    actually one important thing we want from science is its capacity to grow/move forvard.
    That’s something our civilization wants, but it’s not hard to imagine a civilization to which the idea of progress is alien and which assumes that there’s a given amount of knowledge that just needs to be organised the right way. Such a civilization then would progress, if at all, despite its conception of science, not because of it.

  63. Someone, explain finally why medieval Europeans were curious about the content of Greek and Arab books and the Muslim world was not so curious about their neighbours.

    “Mongols and Spaniards” as the reason for the collapse can explain something if we accept that (1) al-Andalus and (2) the region from Khorasan to Baghdad are craddles of thought par excellence.

  64. I initially used a word “Farangistan”, quoting here a certain Russian (or Savoyard in Russian service) traveller in Bukhara. There was a Shaikh ul-Islam and the traveller was of high opinion of him. The shaykh asked the traveller him about the opinion of Western scholars about the philosopher’s stone and youth elixir. This description of Bukhara impressed me because of the high amount of learning there.

    But then there is a question: how much we are curious about each other’s books?

    Actually the episode is memorable to me (apart of, you know, there are Ferengi in Star Trek…) because the shaikh asked a question. It is another maxim about science. I sometimes (e.g. when complaining at its presentation in school) note that for me “science” is about questions rather than answers (a by-product;)).

  65. David Marjanović says

    One easy way to make science incomprehensible to anyone from a different tradition is to express the same basic facts in different ways. What comes to mind, though not really part of science, is how gasoline consumption of a vehicle is measured in miles per gallon in the US, but as liters per 100 km over here – not just the units are different, but the ratio goes the other way around, because the thinking process underneath it goes the other way around: how far do you get with a fixed amount of gas vs. how much do you need to drive for a fixed distance –, and that’s enough to prevent me from estimating equivalences in my head. Pile up a few such things, add conceptually simpler differences like place-value fractions in base 60, and it’s easy to imagine how Vulcan physics could be incomprehensible at first and second glance and yet predict the exact same things.

    Spengler went a bit too far. To some extent he misunderstood the brand-new developments in physics as philosophical interpretations instead of mathematics applied to experimental facts.

    The Aztecs are said to have discovered deserted Teotihuacan, thought it had been built for them by their gods…

    The TV once told me Teotihuacan means “where humans become gods”…?

    That’s something our civilization wants, but it’s not hard to imagine a civilization to which the idea of progress is alien and which assumes that there’s a given amount of knowledge that just needs to be organised the right way. Such a civilization then would progress, if at all, despite its conception of science, not because of it.

    One of Spengler’s major points, perhaps the most important one. “Cultures” in his sense, let alone “civilizations”, that have no expectation and perhaps no concept of “onward and upward” have been numerous, probably even the great majority.

  66. @Hans, organising, validating, acquiring and teaching is important, but it is “science” in a different sense: a process.

    Initially in this conversation “modern science” stood for our models and concepts. I think criteria like “falsifiable” and what PP said about predictions are about this part. And imagining different (but no less successful!) physics is difficult. If I could imagine it, I maybe would have won a Nobel prize…
    For a different process we have examples.

    Well, it is not too surprising that the word “science” means many things (especially, as I said, Russian наука is not exactly the same as English “science”, which does not prevents us from comfortably reading Popper).

    I do often contrast “science [the process]” to systems where scholars transmit knowlege and don’t innovate.

    Speaking of “process”, some of its properties we can be ready to describe as “positive” or “negative”, e.g. “slow” looks worse than “fast progress”. Some are complicated. E.g. the idea of experemental science is great, but then if the Sentinelese invent everything just by scratching their heads, the results will speak for themselves. You will build a spaceship to confirm it, but then if it flies you will have to admit that Sentinelese science is scientific even if they received it as a revelation…. And to learn to scratch your head better.

    It was “Vulcan” initially, but it occured to me that naked Sentinelese are in a perfect situation for scratching heads.

  67. To some extent he misunderstood the brand-new developments in physics as philosophical interpretations instead of mathematics applied to experimental facts.

    When I opened the Landau-Lifshitz vol 3 (I was 16) I was shocked. “What this Shamanism is doing inside a physics textbook!?” Then most of the book looked like a normal book and this all looked like the authors felt obliged to add the Shamanist part, but wanted to move on to normal calculations ASAP. I asked around and…. physicists say “yes, shamanism”.

    No, I don’t understand the matter well enough to have an opinion of my own.

  68. And that’s when I thought about consciousness and quantum mechanics.

    But the idea is not the same as Penrose.
    It is just that “consciousness’ is a hole in philosophy (a “pudendum” as I described) and all of this looks like a hole in physics… …so why not unite the two holes, and have one hole rather than two as result?

    That would be just neat. Havign this said, I do not “believe” that two are related. My exact reason is what I said: IF we find that “conciouness” has to do with quantum shamanism, then there will be one shamanist area rather than two. Also we want our consciousness not to be determinist.

    Penrose in turn speaks about how mathematical ideas come to mind:)

  69. Landafshitz vol 3, the part that people other than Brett can understand is Shamanist.

  70. especially, as I said, Russian наука is not exactly the same as English “science”

    Indeed. You can’t even translate наука умеет много гитик into English.

  71. We can’t translate it even in Russian:)
    If it sounds like anything, it is like those clumsy palindromes. Лом о смокинги гни комсомол!
    But it is not a palindrome:(

    “Умеет” takes infinitive, just as “can” or “able”, even if the meaning is specific to Russian. When you can a noun, it is already some sort of Odessa talk. And usually a human/animal/robot/software agent, but “science” as an agent is at least possible.
    *гитика does not require comments.

  72. “Лом о смокинги…” is not anything famous. It is from a list of mostly innocent palindroms in a magazine around maybe 1990*. I thought back then that it is the author’s own invention and have never checked.

    I also don’t think the author is particularly aggressive and strongly suspect that a year later he willingly adopted the capitalist lifestyle, symbolized here by смокинги…

    *It is also possible that it was much later…

  73. Here is was Stephen Gasiorowicz has to say about the text by Landau and Lifshitz in the “References” section of his own undergraduate-level Quantum Physics textbook:

    The book by Landau and Lifshitz is one of a series of superb books covering all of theoretical physics. It is hard to think of this as a textbook for any but the most sophisticated students. Any student, however, once he reaches the advanced level, will find much that is useful in this book. There is an assumed mathematical facility on the part of the student.

    That sounds like a pretty accurate summary, although I cannot actually vouch for the other volumes in the Landau and Lifshitz series. I have a hard copy of the book on classical field theory; I collect such books as resources for my year-long graduate electricity and magnetism class. However, I have never really had much reason to refer to any of the books other than the nonrelativistic quantum mechanics one, volume 3.

    I’m not sure what content in that book would be considered shamanistic, but the level is (as Gasiorowicz indicates) very advanced. The book has the best treatment I know of for some approximation methods, such as the WKB method. When it comes to finding the WKB connection formulas that relate the wave function in classically allowed and forbidden regions, Landau and Lifshitz use a three-line argument involving a contour integration, where the more traditional derivation using Airy functions would take up at least a page. I had a master’s student who wanted to study the WKB approximation, and he was able to parrot what Landau and Lifshitz wrote explaining how the method is used, but he had no clue why they were appealing to integrals in the complex plane or really what that part of their description meant. So the content of the book could easily be described as “mystifying,” but I wouldn’t say “shamanistic.”

  74. Here it is what sophisticated students use (which includes those who intend to do theoretical physics and some others). It is considered the proper course, but it is expected to be too difficult for many (particularly, Landau is often blamed for skipping the derivation in ‘obvious’ [to him] cases. I don’t remember examples and everything I say is just rumours that I heard.) The quality of the series as a whole is uneven, but this volume is either the best or one of the best.

    I’m not sure what content in that book would be considered shamanistic

    I meant the (Copenhagen?) interpretation. Its presentation in L&L is by no means more “Shamanistic” (or mystical or philosophical or …) than elsewhere and it is brief. I just was not prepared. I knew what physics textbooks look like and I heard about L&L and expected more mathematized and strict treatment, and then I opened it and it began from weird ‘philosophical’ terms that don’t seem to have a precise meaning.

    I reread it now… I guess it was the paragraph about what is “measurement” that bothered me (if the Russian version is the same as the English translation that I am reading now). I don’t find it particularly Shamanistic now, but I just was describing my initial fresh reaction.

    I think I was right that they felt obliged to add it, but wanted to get done with it quickly.

  75. I had the aforementioned student back in my office today, and we talked more about the treatment of the WKB approximation in Landau and Lifshitz. At one point, it was evident that they were requiring the potential to be real analytic, so that they could locate a “turning point” with a positive imaginary part. This would mean that the method described in the book would be totally useless for the prototypical barrier potential (a rectangular one). I decided that the student should look at some other papers on the same problem—reflection above a barrier—to get a more physically meaningful picture of what was going on.

  76. PlasticPaddy says

    Messiah, V1 C6?
    Or are there better more recent texts?

  77. @PlasticPaddy: Messiah’s book covers the standard one-dimensional WKB method for bound states pretty well, but it doesn’t do the scattering above barrier. (Just like there is an exponentially small chance for a particle striking a classically forbidden barrier to tunnel, there is a similarly small chance for a particle entering a classically allowed region to be reflected—even though neither phenomenon occurs classically.) I’m not sure any of the other standard graduate-level texts* other than Landau and Lifshitz cover that case. However, alternate approaches using the WKB wave functions are given in “Semiclassical perturbation approach to quantum reflection” and “Reflection above potential steps,” both from the 1990s.

    * In 1996, Gasiorowicz could say that the books by Merzbacher and Schiff were the standard textbooks for a first-year graduate quantum mechanics course. (Those two are at a somewhat less mathematically advanced level than the other commonly mentioned, and sometimes assigned, books by Messiah, Shankar, Landau and Lifshitz, and Gottfried.) However, today Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics has seemingly completely replaced the lot of them. In spite of the fact that Sakurai never finished the book (and, after reading the whole thing, it is easy to go back and pinpoint the spot at which his final draft ended, leaving the rest of the book to be completed from his notes, but without his stylistic elan), it has become almost as ubiquitous in American graduate programs as Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics.

  78. David Marjanović says

    Wait – there’s a physicist named Messiah?

  79. Yes. He was Jewish. It’s not that rare a surname (Sephardi, I think.)

  80. David Marjanović says

    I sit in awe.

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