A Zen story

A Zen student came to Bankei and complained: ‘Master, I have an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?’

‘You have something very strange,’ replied Bankei. ‘ Let me see what you have.’

‘Just now I cannot show it to you,’ replied the other.

‘When can you show it to me?’ asked Bankei.

‘It arises unexpectedly,’ replied the student.

‘Then,’ concluded Bankei, ‘ it must not be your own true nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. When you were born you did not have it, and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over.’

A serious “concept”

I am utterly serious when I say I do not believe concepts as things.

I am not trying to be clever, only to point out that language fools us into believing that concepts exist as things.

The self referential aspect of “concept” is what I am talking about.

We can never escape concept-as-thing because this is the only way we can deal with it. It is a kind of metaphor.

Do concepts exist?

I like lightning strikes. As an event they are dramatic and violent. They cause damage and they may even kill. But I cannot “catch” a lightning strike like I can catch a lion or a tiger. It is an event, process, action of a thing, not a thing in itself.

It is language that “catches” it as a thing. We call it a lightning strike. We conceive it that way. But we do not “catch” it that way.

Lakoff and Johnson, revolutionised our understanding words with Metaphors We Live By. The book gave us the concept of conceptual metaphor, showing how all language can be metaphorical. It is not just a device literary writers use but something that is inescapable as language. Apart from “literal statements” whatever that may be we have no recourse but to use metaphors.

Do concepts exist?

There are concepts, and concepts of concepts, but not the thing – concept.

Just like lightning strikes they are not things, but processes of things. A lightning strike is the conditions that make the process. Sequence of occurrences that have not “catchable” quality. Unlike lions which are catchable, cage-able.

There is no thing of concepts.

And just like the ‘is’ in the previous sentence is illogical to say there exists a negative. Materially impossible, conceptually create-able. Parmenides found this same problem and concluded that everything must be one. I do not think he drew the right conclusion.


This is a continuation of a conversation about the topic of unicorns with Hack. Here is the list of the conversation (correct me if I am mistaken, Hack)

Hack: I say, “unicorn” and you know what I am talking about.
103 (me): Yes.
Hack: So, because you and me know what we are talking about they exist.
103: Well, no. There is a concept of “unicorn”.
Hack: But you know what I am talking about, so they exist.

This went to Harry Potter (my example) and imagination to which I said they were both concepts, and do not exist.

Simply speaking: The cutting board that is in front of me and the mouse that is sitting next to me do not become one object no matter how I think about it, no matter how I conceptualize it, even though I am able to come up with some weird concept about how they might be the same or different or whatever. In truth there is the computer mouse there and there is a cutting board there. Two objects. In truth. That’s it that’s it. You either except it or reject it. If you reject it then I have to say that you’re being hypocritical. You’re not being consistent with the philosophical ideas that you play with so far as language games and things like that.

Because we were talking about imaginary things I took the mouse (in the first sentence) to be a live mouse (cutting board … mouse … scavenging for food). But in reality Hack was talking a computer mouse (second usage) in which I proceed to think he is talking about the imaginary usage of language.

In truth he is talking about cutting board and a computer mouse. I am assuming – from context – that he uses a cutting board for a computer mouse pad (lol. correct me if I am wrong, again). This went on for me to be accused of lying (of which I am not). I may be guilty of misunderstanding his meaning (and Hack, guilty of unclear language (who would have thought he uses a cutting board for a mouse pad)) but I am not guilty of lying that I do not believe in unicorns.

The point I was trying to make with “there is a concept of unicorns” is that there is the word “unicorn” and there is a concept of “unicorn” but there isn’t a real material thing that is a unicorn.

This, I think, is a misconception of how symbols, concepts and existent things relate.

That is my approach: I start by stating what I understand to exist, and go on to explain why I think language (symbols and concepts) is the ground on which these mistakes stem.

Do you have any prior convictions?

I don’t mean jail terms. I mean what are your influences?

Being Chinese, Asian culture influences informs my thinking. So does Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism. But not before Christianity (this is one is a negative influence). I am also informed by postmodernism, deconstruction, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Kant, corpus and cognitive linguistics. I am sure I have forgotten some.

The point is, I want to be transparent about where I come from while also deal with the baggage, so to speak.

Hello world

A philosophy blogger/online acquaintance and I have been having long discussions about our philosophies on and off for about a year now, maybe more. We come from very different philosophical backgrounds.

I started philosophy with some light readings into Western philosophy in my teens but turned to Zen Buddhism even though I was in a Catholic school as a non-Christian. In college, I took a gap year and entered a Zen temple in Japan to become a lay monk. After that, I began reading Japanese Literature back in college. Writing a paper on Yasunari Kawabata with deconstruction as my philosophical base. But these days I use a lot more Wittgenstein, Kant and cognitive linguistics theory in my thinking.

I will let Philosophical Hack write his own bio (link when available).

This blog came about as I thought about PH and my talks with him in the comments section of posts we had made. They got out of hand in terms of readability. Previous comments were hard to trace back to. Something had to be done. In a way, we both have our influences, “our prisons” so to speak, hence, the URL handle theoretical convicts. Extending from this got me to prior convictions, a collocation (I am a corpus linguist by trade) that links to prisons again but also to our philosophical jails.

I hope this blog will lead to better places in our understandings, regardless of whether they converge, diverge or just run parallel.