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Heart Vs Mind Essay Definition

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This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

Michael Puett, the professor who is featured in the article, is a friend of mine.  He is a mesmerizing speaker; audiences are glued to his every syllable and glance.  If his course is changing students' lives, how so?  For the better?  Has Michael Puett become a guru?  A missionary?  Something more than a mere college professor of ancient Chinese thought?  Is ancient Chinese thought, in and of itself, so powerful that it can transform people who are exposed to it?  Or does it have such a profound effect chiefly because of the skillful spin that Professor Puett puts upon it?

I do not intend to answer any or all of these questions, but leave them to Language Log readers who are familiar with ancient Chinese thought or who may have chanced to hear a lecture by Professor Puett.  Rather, I would like to concentrate on a problem raised in this key sentence from the section of the article titled "Decisions are made from the heart":

Americans tend to believe that humans are rational creatures who make decisions logically, using our brains. But in Chinese, the word for "mind" and "heart" are the same.

What can we say about this identification of "heart" and "mind" (xīn 心)?  In what way is true?  In what way is it misleading?

Because of uncertainty over how to translate xīn 心, whether as "heart" or "mind", some scholars have taken to rendering it as "heart-mind" or "heart / mind", while others feel that it should be translated as "heart" or as "mind" depending upon the context.  It becomes problematic when one insists on translating it either as "heart" or as "mind" in all cases.

I asked a number of specialists in Chinese philosophy and related fields what they thought about this conundrum of the xīn 心.  All explanatory and amplificatory notes within square brackets have been added by VHM.

Steve Angle:

I learned at my teacher's knee that, indeed, xin unifies cognitive and conative.

Scott Barnwell

…xin is the organ of thought and feeling. It seems to be used that way. The heart signific begins to appear in jinwen [bronze] script (with De 德 ["virtue"] being one of the first) to identify a number of concepts related to the “inner life.” On a related note, I’ve often wondered about the word si 思 ["think"]: that is apparently a head/brain along with the heart. When did they realize we think with our brains? [VHM: we shall take up this question below]

Bryan Van Norden

I've always thought of XIN, in its earliest philosophical use, as straddling the supposed dichotomy between emotion and cognition that became enshrined in post-Enlightenment Western thought.   So it is something like the "heart," as the seat of the emotions and desires, and something like the "mind," as the faculty of perception and cognition.

Edward Slingerland

My current primary work in progress is an academic monograph with the working title Body and Mind in Early China: Beyond the Myth of Holism, an article-length version of which was recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

"Body and Mind in Early China: An Integrated Humanities-Science Approach," Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2013), pp.1–50. [pdf]

Arif Dirlik:

Did they really think they were thinking with their xins and xin'ing with their minds! If it was such a reductionist equation, why would they make such a fuss over Wang Yangming vs. Zhu Xi?  At least your friend seems to be pushing Zhuangzi rather than old Kongzi!

John Lagerwey

The word xin, heart: as I am preparing the next set of volumes on Chinese religion (Song-Yuan), I am confronted with the frequently encountered but really quite offputting heart-and-mind translation of this apparently simple word. The Buddhologists, without hesitation, translate "mind", and the Daoxue people get all tangled up with the heart/mind problem. I wrote to them to point out that, in the Bible, too, so far as I know, the heart is the thinking-and-emoting organ, but no translator of the Bible throws heart/mind at us. It says "heart", so they translate "heart"

I guess that's why the Buddhologists opt for "mind" even when it says guanxin "observe the heart". And of course Zhuangzi already said clearly that the heart was the lord of the body, so there can be no doubt that, for the Chinese, in Chinese, xin means heart and it does all the jobs we associate with cognition. This is why, in the end, the Chinese prefer, epistemologically speaking, intuition and synthesis to analytic logic and deductive thinking.

I usually avoid "heart-mind" because I think it's too clunky and not accurate in most instances.  When the text says xin, I normally go for "heart" because that's what it is.  Only when the text is talking about mental processes do I use "mind".

Robert Eno, writing informally with spontaneity unencumbered by responsibility:

…I’ve also been reading neuroscience for the past few years to look for non-facile ways to relate Confucian ideas to features of the human brain/body, so I’m sympathetic to some of the sort of shopworn observations the Atlantic article points towards on that front.

I think the heart/mind cliché is unproblematic if you point out to students that English uses of those terms often conflate cognitive and affective features as well, although our theories of the two lexical items distinguish them (there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Her mind quickly grasped the horror of the situation,” meaning that she was struck emotionally and not that she reasoned it out; we say it because “grasp” is a powerful word that has been built into the rhetoric of cognition). Don Munro analyzed the cluster of terms used for “know” in Classical and Mandarin Chinese and concluded that four dimensions are conflated (he was most interested in evidence that use of the terms usually denoted dimensions of approval and dispositions to act in accordance) – something I think is also often true of English equivalents in use, though not in lexical theory, and something that I think points to much more interesting features of Chinese thought.  See See The Concept of Man in Contemporary China. Chapter 2 is where Munro comes up with his analysis of “clustering” in the verb 知 ["know"].

But while I really don’t think the lexical issue of xin is of particular interest (I used to teach it as a point students would encounter and that I’d be flagging routinely in translations, but that I wasn’t going to spend time on), the cliché is useful for highlighting the different epistemological centers of “philosophy” in early Chinese and European contexts.

Peng Hsiao-yen

The most noteworthy debate on heart (feeling) and mind (reason) started in Rousseau's time, during the European Enlightenment. David Hume says, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." Chinese philosophy, which teaches the unification of feeling and reason, and subject and object, has been used by contemporary European philosophers to critique Western philosophy since Descartes's time that has led to the separation of heart and mind, subject and object.

Think about the Frankfurt school philosophers such as Adorno, who criticized Enlightenment rational thinking. What about Foucault's thinking about the "unthought" (non-pensée), or Deleuze's affect theory?

I nudged another group of specialists on language and thought to consider when the Chinese started to conceive of the xin as an organ of thought.  And when they began to think of "thought" at all.

Scott Cook:

I guess it depends on what you mean by "thought," exactly.  But certainly at least by the time of Meng Zi [Mencius], no?

Christoph Harbsmeier

Quite early, I should say. Very early. But they were so very late to find a term that distinguishes the intellectual/reflexive part from the emotional/attitudinal part of the "thinking process, I should say….

Matt Anderson

…As to xīn as an organ of thought…  that's a hard question.  The graph is used in OBI [oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest stage of Chinese writing, ca. 1200 BC during the Shang dynasty], but it doesn't ever seem to write the word xīn (in the sense of 'heart' or any derived meaning), so Shang inscriptions aren't very helpful.

Xīn definitely means something like 'will' or 'aspiration' quite early (as well as 'heart' in its metaphorical sense), but it doesn't necessarily follow that it means 'an organ of thought' (though even Schuessler, in his early Zhou dictionary, defines it as "heart, mind" [VHM: more on this below]).

From the Pan Geng II 盤庚中 section of the Shang shu:

汝萬民乃不生生,暨予一人猷同心 [Rǔ wànmín nǎi bù shēngshēng, jì yǔ yīrén yóu tóngxīn]

If you, the myriads of the people, do not attend to the perpetuation of your lives, and cherish one mind with me, the One man, in my plans… (Legge's translation)

From the Pan Geng III 盤庚下 section [ibid.]:

式敷民德,永肩一心 [Shì fū mín dé, yǒng jiān yīxīn]

Reverently display your virtue in behalf of the people. For ever maintain this one purpose in your hearts. (Legge's translation)

From Qiao yan 巧言, from the Xiao ya section of the Classic of Odes:

他人有心,予忖度之。[Tārén yǒuxīn, yǔ cǔnduó zhī.]

What other men have in their minds / I can measure by reflection. (Legge's translation)

From the Jin yu 4 晉語四 section of the Guo yu 國語:

同姓則同德,同德則同心,同心則同志 [Tóngxìng zé tóng dé, tóng dé zé tóngxīn, tóngxīn zé tóngzhì]

If they have the same surname then they have the same dé, if they have the same dé then they have the same xīn, if they have the same xīn then they have the same will. (my quick rough translation)

All of the above could mean 'organ of thought' (or an extended meaning related to thought or mind), but something like 'will' or 'aspirations' or 'heart' could be intended instead of something related to 'thought' in these cases.

These examples are the ones in which it seemed most conceivable that xīn meant something along the lines of 'mind'—in the great majority of the examples I found, it very obviously did not mean anything like 'mind'.  But I agree that, even for those cases, something along the lines of 'will' fits better.

By Mencius, though, it does seem to have some connotations of 'thought':

From Gaozi I 告子上 [chapter of the Mencius]:

心之官則思,思則得之,不思則不得也 [Xīn zhī guān zé sī, sī zé dé zhī, bù sī zé bùdé yě]

To the mind belongs the office of thinking. By thinking, it gets the right view of things; by neglecting to think, it fails to do this. (Legge's translation)

It definitely meant 'brain' by the Warring States at least, but I can't find any real connotation of 'thinking'….

From "Zhang Yi wei Qin po cong lianheng wei Yan wang" 張儀為秦破從連橫謂燕王 from the Yan I 燕一 section of Zhanguo ce:

廚人進斟羹,因反鬭而擊之,代王腦涂地 [Chú rén jìn zhēn gēng, yīn fǎn dòu ér jī zhī, dài wáng nǎo tú dì]

The kitchen worker entered to pour the stew, and as he turned over the ladle and struck him, the Dai king's brains splashed on the ground.

The Shuo wen defines it as the 'marrow (or essence) of the head', or something like that:

匘(腦),頭髓也。[nǎo, tóusuǐ yě.  This is clearly the physical brain, not the thinking brain.]

The Chunqiu yuan ming bao 春秋元命苞 has the passage:

人精在腦 [Rén jīng zài nǎo]

The essence of the human is in the brain.

But that still doesn't have anything to do with thought.

In Lu Ji's 陸機 "Yu Changsha gu mu shu" 與長沙顧母書 from the Jin 晉 dynasty, nao is interestingly connected with xin:

痛心拔腦,有如孔懷 [Tòngxīn bá nǎo, yǒurú kǒng huái; "grieved at heart and vexed in brain, as though mindful of one's brother" — the idea of "mindful" is not explicit in the text, but is only present through allusion]

and also, Han Yu writes in "Chaozhou cishi xie shang biao" 潮州刺史謝上表:

聖恩宏大,天地莫量;破腦刳心,豈足爲謝。[Shèng ēn hóngdà, tiāndì mò liàng; pò nǎo kū xīn, qǐ zú wèi xiè; "the capaciousness of sagely (i.e., imperial) grace is beyond measure in heaven and earth; smashing my brain and ripping out my heart would be insufficient to convey my gratitude"]

But again, that's only an indirect connection with thought.

I haven't looked very hard, but the earliest example I can find (it's in Hanyu da cidian) that clearly links nao with thought is from Honglou meng, long, long after the arrival of Western learning:

林姑娘是個有心計兒的;至於寶玉,呆頭呆腦,不避嫌疑是有的。[Lín gūniáng shìgè yǒuxīn jì er de; zhìyú Bǎoyù, dāitóudāinǎo, bù bì xiányí shì yǒu de; "Miss Lin is calculating, but Baoyu seems dull-witted and makes no attempt to avoid suspicion"]

What does the graph used to write xīn ("heart / mind") represent?  It has traditionally been thought that the old Chinese graph for "heart" (xīn 心) depicts the physical organ, with some authorities even claiming that it showed the atria and ventricles.  I've always been suspicious of such explanations of the graph because I doubt that the people who devised and used this character over three millennia ago had sufficient anatomical knowledge to accurately delineate and describe the physical heart as a whole, much less details of its inner construction.

On his "Chinese Etymology" website, Richard Sears explains — with visual examples — the oracle bone form of the graph as depicting the human torso.

While Sears' explanation may seem rather fanciful, it's as convincing to me as the notion that the oracle bone form of xīn 心 is an anatomical drawing of the physical organ.

When it comes to the etymology of the Sinitic root for xīn, Axel Schuessler's research indicates that its earliest attestations already conveyed the meanings of both "heart" and "mind", while its apparent Tibeto-Burman cognates signified "breath; life; soul; spirit; mind; thought", and Mon-Khmer has a similar word meaning "breath; heart; mind".


A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese, p. 683ab

ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p. 538

Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese:  A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, p. 368 (38-31 K663).

Brendan O'Kane has a few thoughts that are suitable for wrapping up this long post by bringing us back to the The Atlantic article with which we began:

Interesting — I'd seen people sharing this article, but hadn't read it until now. I'd be interested in knowing more about the course, since a lot of the content here seems to be journalistic filler. (The mention of brain scans and popular neuroscience sets off alarms for me.)

 From what's here, it sounds like Puett is presenting an idealized form of Confucius and company as personal philosophers. He wouldn't be the first: Yu Dan, at Beijing Normal University, had a huge hit with 论语心得 — subsequently translated into English as Confucius from the Heart, though to me it'll always be Chicken Soup for the Confucian Soul.

 Regarding XIN and thought: is this a case where argument from graphs/望字生意 might work?

So, we've covered a lot of ground in this inquiry, from the heart to the mind to thought and the mind-body problem.  But where in all this is the self located?  When it comes to the self, there was little hesitation among premodern Chinese in locating it in the nose.  Indeed, the early forms of the graph for zì 自 ("self") depicted a nose.

My wife (and many other Chinese friends and acquaintances) actually emphatically pointed to her nose (placed the end of her index finger on the tip of her nose) when she would say, "Wǒ zìjǐ 我自己" ("I myself").

For traditional Chinese, the mind may have been in the heart, but the self was in the nose.

[Hat tip Ben Zimmer: thanks to Daniel Gardner, John Didier, Stephan Stiller, Allen Chun, Paul Goldin, and all those who are quoted or cited above]

September 29, 2014 @ 1:33 pm · Filed by Victor Mair under Philosophy of Language, Psychology of language, Semantics


Everyone probably has at least one, if not many, relationships they knew they shouldn’t have gotten into it. Your mind is most likely the culprit every time this happens. You analyze a guy you encounter and try to rationalize getting into the relationship for a variety of reasons. You may be bored, have poor options, or recovering from a disastrous relationship, and he just may be the best of the worst.

Your mind could possibly be thinking a million things like, well this could be convenient, he likes me so much, or in my case, he seems all right, I guess this could work. All these things usually pertain to the great personality traits of the guy and ignore how strange or horrible he probably is, causing your brain to temporary silence your heart shouting “Don’t do it!” in the background.

Logic is equally as important as remembering what your first instinct was and listening to what your heart is telling you. Yes, your mind is rational and reasonable, and it has helped you figured out so much in life, like mathematical problems, or how best to strategize other areas of your life. However, when it comes to matters of the heart, isn’t it best to listen to your heart?

When you have gotten into a regrettable, brain-induced relationship, you will quickly see things souring. You will notice an obvious grimace on your face as you reject one of his calls, or when you ignore his text message. You will blow every misstep on his part out of proportion, because inside you know you never should have been with him. Even though you have already declared yourself as part of a committed relationship, in a short while your eyes will start to wander to other men. Soon everything in connection with the relationship will get so tedious and distasteful, that you will just try to avoid it all and escape to your friends.

If you are experiencing these symptoms of an all logic based relationship, it is advisable to be get out of the relationship as soon as possible. You pseudo-significant other, in most cases, won’t realize that you aren’t really into it, so you should just end it before it causes greater heartache for them, or causes you greater break-up guilt.

You should always follow your heart, but also take into account what your brain has to say, to make you the most happy. Time isn’t running out. Be patient and find someone who your heart and mind both agree with. This will save you from spending countless hours from determining if you are in the right relationship or treating the other person as you should. You will know it’s right, when a person satiates both your mind and heart perfectly. 

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