Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wu Zongjie on words in practice

Words always leave something unsaid. You can recall the classic distinction of literal meaning and speaker meaning. While literal meaning is explicitly expressed, speaker meaning is just implicitly there without any form. The distinction is often explained by a typical (and rather boring) example of “It’s hot here.” Whereas the literal meaning is IT IS HOT HERE, the speaker meaning is often explained as something like ‘Would you be kind enough to open the window?” Here, the speaker meaning is simply something left unsaid for politeness or parsimony of speech. However, as Relevance Theory claims, not all sentences are like this. In fact, in our daily discourse, utterances more often have weak speaker meaning than strong speaker meaning like the above. Think of the weak speaker meaning when your spouse says on holiday, “Oh, how relaxing!” What does she mean exactly other than the literal meaning of the sentence? Certainly not something identifiable precisely. Rather she meant to express her being in a holiday resort, or understanding of the being, giving the mind of the listener ripples of multiple effects, of different kinds and degrees, the whole of which nobody, even the speaker herself, cannot enumerate. Words express what can be expressed and what cannot be expressed at the same time.

When I exchanged e-mail with Judith Hanks, she kindly told Dick Allwirght that I was interested in connecting Exploratory Practice with Heidegger’s philosophy. Dick in turn was kind enough to call my attention to Zongjie Wu, who wrote “Understanding practitioner research as a form of life: an Eastern interpretation of Exploratory Practice” (Language Teaching Research 10, 3 (2006); pp. 331-350). I thank Judith and Dick very much, for I read the article with excitement.

Wu connects Exploratory Practice with not only Heidegger, but also other Western philosophers like Gadamer and Dreyfus and Eastern philosophers like Zhuangzi and Laozi. As someone who learned many fables of Taoism from childhood and studied German philosophy in adulthood, I greatly enjoyed the argument.

The argument might be best summarized by the following quotation.

Following the route from being and understanding to naming, an inquiry is undertaken for the harmonization of teachers’ professional life, where (following Thomson, 2001: 259) teaching is revealing being though words embraced by understanding; and learning, conversely, is experiencing what a teacher reveals. Being is here conceived as life on an ontological basis. Quality of life means authenticity of being. Understanding takes the form of the unity of knowing and doing, where the unsayable intelligibility experienced by teachers is named in a language that vibrates with the silent call of learning. Language here serves the function of bringing understanding into consciousness and manifestation, but to make itself into the unknown in the sense that language itself offers nothing directly plausible and meaningful but helps transform life into essential insight. (p. 333)

I cannot resist the temptation of quoting the last three sentences of this article as well, which are also beautifully written.

In the practice of naming, understanding reveals itself as being in the nameless. Naming is to bring people together, not to fragment them into different parts in a hierarchical structure. Thus naming is ‘to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced’ (Palmer, 1998: 90). On the Way from being, understanding to naming, EP brings research and teaching, work and life into a harmonious wholeness. (p. 348)

I believe this is one of the very important articles in which the delicate and somewhat paradoxical nature of language use in practice is academically explored by way of connecting Eastern (Chinese) and Western (German) philosophies. As someone who appreciate Chinese philosophy and German philosophy, it was indeed a pleasure reading

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