Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting things by their right names, as the Chinese say

The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.  (E O Wilson, Consilience, 1998, p 2)

What do you do about alleged Chinese proverbs? Try to source them and discard them if they prove phoney?

“May you live in interesting times”, the supposed Chinese curse, is often asserted to be phoney, although according to this Wikipedia article the argument isn't all on one side. [But see note.] The fact is, that whether or not it’s ever been a Chinese curse, it’s certainly become an English saying, of which the first use known to the Wikipedia contributor was by Robert F. Kennedy in 1966. Actually the more I think about it, the less plausible it is that living in interesting times is an idiom that can be freely exchanged between Chinese and English.

Which brings us back to The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names. Well, I like it. So let’s just say that the first step to wisdom, as E O Wilson says the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names, and leave it at that. Let's not concern ourselves with whether it really is ancient Chinese wisdom.

E O Wilson in 2007, age 78
Of course we need to be alive to the possibility that E O Wilson is simply fooling with us. He could have opted for “the start of any philosophical discussion must be correct terminology”, which would have been true but unmemorable. He could have said “The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names”, which has a zing but might have sounded pretentious. Throwing in “as the Chinese say” may be nothing more than a device for disclaiming wisdom for himself and displacing it to long ago and far away.

I'm told by the way (see this review for example) that were I to read to the end of E O Wilson's book, I may not like it. Be that as it may, to find a pearl on page 2 isn't bad going.

Note added January 2017. The Wikipedia article has recently been amended, and if you follow the link you will find that actually the argument really is all on one side, that is to say, despite being known as "the Chinese curse", the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. Moreover it appeared in English in 1936 not 1966.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Djado, ruined Saharan slave city

The ruined city of Djado, with nomadic women gathered in the foreground. October 1989. (Wikipedia)
Seem to have dwelt on old ruins quite a bit lately. Here's something I'd never heard of. Djado is a ruined city sticking up from the Djado Plateau in the Sahara, in north eastern Niger. It is known for its cave art (often of large mammals long since absent from the area), but is now largely uninhabited, with abandoned towns and forts visible.

Today Niger is one of the most undeveloped and poorest countries in the world, recently coming to international prominence due to the story that Gaddafi had escaped there. The city of Djado is thought to have developed as a station on a slave-trading route between Niger and Libya, long before Europeans arrived. (I'm not sure when that was, 16th century?)

Surrounded by malarial swamps, the dwellings are now the abode of scorpions and snakes.

The building material is adobe, which is made from sand, clay, water, blended with some kind of fibrous or organic material (sticks, straw, and/or manure).

Google map

Source: The Guardian 8.9.11 and Wikipedia. Can't find anything in online Britannica.