Soft power: Rising Chinese dominance in the sciences

Knowledge-production is a key component of what is commonly referred to as "soft power

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Analysis by: The Irish Crimean – Padraig Joseph McGrath

In 2016, for the first time, the People’s Republic of China surpassed the United States in published scientific output. A total of 429,000 scientific papers were published in China. In the United States, the total figure for 2016 was 406,000 published scientific papers.This is an important index of social and economic development, and an index of the shifting balance in geo-political strength. Knowledge-production is not only a key index of geo-political influence – it is also a key contributory factor to it.

 

That is to say: knowledge-production is a key component of what is commonly referred to as “soft power.”

 

The present debate on the role of language within ideology-transmission as an element of soft-power, is better informed with a view on this process in another civilizational sphere. In this case, we will topically examine that of the Chinese as it emerges onto terrain which until recently was hegemonically dominated by the Anglosphere.

 

This essay will base itself in the understanding that language is in itself a vector for pre-discursive ideology-transmission.

 

The Chinese very clearly had an understanding of soft power over 2,000 years before Joseph Nye coined that phrase, or before it was popularized by Fukuyama. You see this understanding of soft power implied throughout the Analects, which were compiled during the warring-states period (475 BC-221 BC). An example of such are sayings like: “You don’t need an ox-knife to kill a chicken,”

 

One effect of the global spread of the English language as a lingua franca is that it created something approaching an Anglophone monopoly on knowledge-production, and therefore a disproportionate influence on ideology-production, and this in turn had a pernicious geo-political effect.

 

At the same time, ideology-production can simply bypass knowledge-production on certain levels. Outside of the Anglophone world, the most irreprarably indoctrinated students are usually those who went to secondary schools which specialized in languages. Thus the students coming out of these schools do not know much on the subjects of physics or chemistry, and they know very little history or geography. Their core-skills are languages – they just subliminally and pre-discursively internalized Atlanticist liberal ideology by learning the English language. This leads us to our central thesis:

 

Language in itself is a vector for pre-discursive ideology-transmission. In the English language, this happens on at least three distinct levels.

 

Firstly, the grammar of the English language sets reality up as a list of standalone objects.
Compare the English sentence “There is a desk in the office.” with the German equivalent “Es gibt einen Schreibtisch im Büro,” which literally translates “It gives a desk in the office.”

 

So in the German sentence, the desk’s existence is postulated in the following way – the desk is thought to “exist” insofar as it is conferred into existence through its participation in some larger context – something which overarches the desk’s existence “gives it” – that is to say, confers it into existence. Furthermore, there is a loose implication that the desk is a manifestation of this “Es” which “gives” it or confers it into existence…. This way of thinking is inescapable if one happens to think in the German language – nothing simply exists in isolation – everything is part of a larger context. The grammar of the German language is pantheistic.

 

On the other hand, in English, the desk is postulated simply as a standalone object – it exists quite independently of any surrounding objects, independently of any social or historical context, independently of any surrounding physical reality – it’s just “there.” English grammar sets up quite a different ontology to German grammar.

 

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that many of Germany’s most historically noteworthy philosophers and theologians have offered pantheistic interpretations of Christianiaty, and that the empiricist tradition of philosophy and scientific realism have always been more influential in the English-speaking world. Native English-speakers just naturally think that way because that’s just how the grammar of their language cognitively sets reality up for them – objects in the world are just “out there.”

 

And, indirectly, this has ideological implications – it impacts on how we discuss history, politics, science, social morality, public policy issues, questions of technocratic or decision-making competence, ways of verifying knowledge, models of social organization, and so forth.

 

Secondly, the technical lexicon of the English language, being largely comprised of transliterations from Greek and Latin, is already dehistoricized. That is to say, native English-speakers have great difficulty getting an intimate grasp on the histories of many words which they use, insofar as the Greek and Latin etymological roots of many English words are obscured. For example, most native English-speakers are oblivious to the point that the English word “object” is conventionally taken to mean almost the opposite of what was meant by the Latin “objectus.” This helps to explain why most native English-speakers have such an epistemologically naïve idea of “objectivity,” which also has pernicious ideological implications.

 

In most technical disciplines, the German lexicon is mostly morphologically pure German. Many Slavonic languages employ binomial systems of terminology in chemistry, physics, engineering, medicine, etc. In English, however, all we have to work with are words which have been dehistoricized by virtue of having been transliterated from Greek and Latin rather than having been actually translated, morpheme by morpheme, from Greek and Latin. On this basis, it is also arguable that dehistoricization as an ideology in itself, and in particular the dehistoricization of knowledge, are pre-discursively inscribed into the word-stock of the English language. Is it any wonder, then, that so many Anglophone thinkers have interpreted the history of science as a historically linear progression, as “an ever-increasing approximation of the truth?” Furthermore, is it any wonder that so many native English speakers fall into the trap of scientism? Unfortunately, most of scientism’s core articles of faith are pre-discursively inscribed into the English language itself.

 

We might go even further.

 

Take, for example, the belief which is very widely held by people in the Occident, that all or almost all of history’s enduring scientific and technological ideas are of western origin. In historical terms, this belief is demonstrably nonsense. It is impossible to overstate the impact of what China bequeathed to the world in the fields of metallurgy, agriculture, medicine and astronomy. The first known microbiological theory of disease was first written down in 11th century Uzbekistan. Geology, plate-tectonics, clinical pharmacology and optics, to name but a few disciplines, all developed during the golden age of Islam.

 

The mathematization of physics can be traced back to Ibn Al Haytham (11th century). Lomonosov probably discovered oxygen before Lavoisier did, but never published his findings – many of his discoveries were published posthumously. The horse’s bit was probably invented in central Asia. The Romans knew about it, but this simple technological innovation was lost to early medieval Europe – the development of cavalry in early medieval Europe would not have been possible had it not been for its re-discovery through subsequent European contact with Asiatic peoples during the Carolingian period.

 

And yet, despite all of the historical evidence to the contrary, most Occidentals believe that all or almost all of history’s enduring scientific and technological ideas are of western origin.

 

Who taught them to hold this belief? In most cases, nobody actually taught them.

 

Most Occidentals who hold this belief (that all or most of our currently accepted received scientific wisdom is of western origin) were not explicitly told this by any science-teacher, nor did they ever read any article by any historian of science in which any such claim was ever explicitly made. No science-teacher or historian of science ever would tell them that they should believe such a claim, for the simple reason that it would be demonstrably nonsense. Most westerners who believe this simply believe it intuitively. This commonly held belief is partially an intuitive bi-product of the manner in which the English language, the dominant language for scientific publishing, dehistoricizes knowledge.

 

This serves as a particularly good example of what I mean by “pre-discursive ideology-transmission.”
In a nutshell, this concept means that it is not actually necessary to teach people any “doctrine” in order to “indoctrinate” them.

 

Actually, we might even say that the most effective way to indoctrinate somebody is by not teaching them any explicit doctrine. Doctrines can be falsified, argued against. If we indoctrinate people by teaching them explicit doctrines, explicit truth-claims about the world, then these doctrines can be itemized and intellectually attacked later. This explicitly doctrinal level of indoctrination is therefore reversible.

 

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The most effective way to indoctrinate a person, the most irreversible modus of indoctrination, is to carefully avoid teaching them any “doctrine” or “dogma” whatsoever. The most irreversible level of indoctrination is to insidiously inculcate beliefs and other attitudes in people by gaming their processes of intuition – in this case, the indoctrinated person may not even be aware that they hold the belief or attitude in question; they may be unable to articulate it, a point which renders the belief impervious to intellectual attack.

 

As the philosopher Régis Debray has argued, ideologies, and for that matter religions, become all the more “charismatic,” and transmit themselves all the more easily, once their dogmatic baggage has been hollowed out. The logo is more charismatic than the logos.

 

At this stage in our post-industrial history, it seems quite banal to claim that most ideology is transmitted pre-discursively, but insofar as the English language’s technical lexicon dehistoricizes knowledge in the manner suggested above, it is argued that the English language’s technical lexicon is, in itself, a factor in how both native and non-native speakers of the English language are indoctrinated.

 

On this note, an interesting distinction between two different senses of “indoctrination” exists in the Czech language. If one wanted to talk about “indoctrinating” somebody, then one could use the Czech verb “indoktrinovat” or the verb “naočkovat.” The verb “indoktrinovat” means to teach an explicit doctrine or doctrines. So, for example, schoolchildren in communist Czechoslovakia were “indoktrinovaný.” This level of indoctrination turned out to be totally reversible in the overwhelming majority of cases.

 

Czech millennials, on the other hand, are “naočkovaný.” Without the prefix, the verb “očkovat” usually means “to immunize,” “to innoculate” or “to vaccinate.”

 

So using the verb “naočkovat” implies that something is being injected into somebody, but not on the level of teaching explicit doctrines. The indoctrination is pre-discursive. It happens through films, popular music, advertising, and so on. And, just as the metaphor of “injection” suggests, this is far less escapable than “indokrinovannost,” because even if you later consciously reject what you have internalized, it remains in your bloodstream. At its most meaningful level, ideology is what you do when you’re not really thinking about it. Or to phrase it another way, you may not be interested in ideology, but ideology is still interested in you.

 

The third level on which language serves as a vector for pre-discursive ideology-transmission relates specifically to language-teaching. Insofar as learning foreign languages tends to work through a process of banalization, it reinforces the myth that “there is no alternative.”

 

No alternative to your socially meaningless job, the vocabulary pertaining to which is found in unit 11 of your language-textbook.

 

No alternative to the pseudo-science or pop-psychology with which your culture has become imbued, and which is normalized and implicitly reinforced in unit 8 of your language-textbook.

 

No alternative to the tedious obsession with lifestyle (shopping, holidays, keeping fit, travel, etc), which is covered extensively in several units of your language-textbook.

 

No alternative to the infantilization which is implicit in all of the above.

 

People are taught foreign languages through a process of banalization, and through having trash-culture foisted upon them. Language-textbooks typically present every cultural aspect of later capitalism as a fait accompli. If language-textbooks were people, then all of their “beliefs” would be tediously prosaic and conventional. In this sense, language-students are taught ideology pre-discursively, but still in a way which could hardly be any more blatant.

 

Furthermore, this ideology-transmission is both enabled and simultaneously obscured by the obsessional elevation of form over content which typifies language-teaching as a professional activity. You learn the form through which ideas are expressed – grammar, vocabulary, etc – but their content is never questioned. The content is presented as a given, as a cultural fait accompli.

When asked what the most significant political fact of his own time was, Bismarck answered that it was “the inherited and permanent fact that North America speaks English.”

 

This fact is more a historical accident than we imagine.

 

In 1795, 9% of the United States’ population spoke German as a first language, predictably concentrated in particular areas, and it was entirely possible that German might have been adopted as one of the new republic’s official languages, especially as the United States was still attempting to assert its cultural and political independence from Britain.

 

This might very well have resulted in German-speaking states, within the United States, on the North American continent.

 

In any case, this is what one can see that Bismarck meant, and the point still holds today – language in itself is a vector for pre-discursive ideology-transmission.

 

If the United States had learned to speak German, then maybe it would subsequently have produced fewer bad philosophers, less naive empiricism and epistemology, etc. Only in 20th century America could an academic philosopher be taken seriously if he tried to express the truth-claim that God exists (or doesn’t exist) through the notation of symbolic mathematical logic and probability-calculus. Only in America would anybody imagine that either claim could be reduced purely and simply to their propositional content.

 

The American analytical tradition, owing to it obsession with the propositional content of statements, generally renders people incapable of deciphering allegories or exploring subtext. Only in a dehistoricized philosophical tradition such as America’s would Jerry Fodor’s theory of “mentalese” ever have been taken seriously.

 

In any case, back to the connection between knowledge-production and ideology-production, and the 2016 figures for scientific output. It’s good to see the Chinese turn that corner. China also now has the 4 largest banks on the planet, the largest balance of trade, and the largest armed forces. It seems highly probable that the Chinese will choose to maintain the English language as a global lingua-franca, for the foreseeable future at least. However, this stop-gap solution may gradually begin to create more problems than it solves. It is an ideological imperative that science and technology remain prestige areas of activity – the Pandora’s box of geo-strategic competition conducted through breakneck technological development can’t be closed. Globally, those activities are still conducted predominantly through English.

 

But if the English language gradually loses prestige in every other context (by virtue of the ongoing debasement of moral, political and cultural discourse in the globalized, banalized form of the English language), then the new Mandarins may eventually begin to re-think the wisdom of maintaining English as the global scientific-language. They may eventually decide that it’s time a certain sub-set of the new global elite learned to think in Chinese. That would result in quite a radical shift in our consensual global cosmology, but for the moment, Beijing devising a cultural policy like that looks a long way off.

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Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.

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