The Concept Of Community, An Etymological Comparison
The Concept Of Community, An Etymological Comparison
Simonetta Silvestri Raggi
The Chinese language, thanks to its several representations and the evocative power of its images, offers the opportunity to rethink in an original perspective the theme of community and attempt to sway from the ambiguities and paradoxes that characterize it.
The following essay is a comparison between what the Latin etymology of the word communitas suggests, which the philosopher Roberto Esposito discusses in his book "Communitas – The origin and destiny of community", and what the Chinese etymology of the word jí tǐ (community) may communicate.
Marcel Granet introduces us in the first pages of his work "Chinese Thought" to the meaning of the language “The word in Chinese is much more than a sign that serves to indicate a concept. It does not at all correspond to any notion that may fixate, in a manner that is however possibly defined, the degree of abstraction and generalization. It evokes an undefined complex of particular images, letting the most efficient one emerge first. The language aims to act in the first place. (…) The Chinese people do not seem to worry about establishing a set of clear expressions, which are only valid as signs, but are themselves indifferent. They seem to, instead, worry that each term in their language will make them perceive the word as an act. Chinese people do not separate the art of language from other processes of signaling and action. It is to them included in a set of techniques that are aimed to place individuals in the system of civility shaped by society and the universe.”
According to the philosopher and sinologist François Jullien “China lays an ideal ground for experimentation […] to test the universality of these “base” notions, which we consider obvious”. He warns however, “Talking about diversity of cultures in terms of differences defuses in advance whatever unexpected and foreign the other culture may bring, at the same time surprising and disconcerting, disorientating and incongruous. The concept of difference places us from the start within a logic of integration – of classification and speciation – not of discovery.”
Jaques Lacan the famous french psychoanalyst also speaks of the Chinese language “Regarding the significant, I have already talked repeatedly about the Chinese characters. In this respect, there is an example I have used because it was the one, which served me best: I have taken the first among those articulated in the examples, in the archaic forms, in the work of Karlgreen named Grammata serica, the one that signifies exactly “Chinese meanings”. The word is composed in its modern form by the character Ke 可 first, which means “power”, the radical of which is Kou 口 meaning mouth. It seems not without reason that we may rely upon the root provided by the commentator, and which is very gracious, meaning it’s a schematization of the impact of the air column that presses, in the glottal stop, against an obstacle that opposes the posterior part of the tongue against the palate. Admit that it’s not bad that this 可 be used to signify “power”, the possibility, the axial function it’s been introduced in the world with coming of subject in the real”.
We reencounter the same radical, Kou (mouth), in the characters for the words 话 huà e 词 ci’.
Communitas – origin and destiny of community
In this work, Roberto Esposito conducts his analysis in the attempt of a radical reversal of the traditional concepts of community that assume community to be a propriety of the entities it combines. “Community – he writes- is not translatable in the philosophical-political lexicon, if not at the price of a distortion, or even perversion, which our century has tragically experienced.”
He proceeds “If one should stop for just a moment to reflect beyond current schemas, the most paradoxical detail of the question is, that what is “common” has been identified with its evident opposite: it is common what combines in one identity the properties (ethnical, territorial, spiritual) of each of its members. They share their own, and own what they share.”
To avoid this impasse, the author looks for the way of tracing an entirely different concept of community, in the etymology of the Latin word communitas.
The term munus (from communitas: cum – munus) means service in the sense of duty, it indicates obligation. “It results that communitas is the set of people united not by a property, but rather a duty or a debt, no longer a plus but a minus. The munus that the communita shares is not a have, but on the contrary, a debt, pledge, a duty to give. Thus what this determines it will become, and virtually already is, a lack … the subjects of the community are united by a duty, in the sense one says “I owe you something”, but not “you owe me something”.
The etymological investigation hereby summarized, inaugurates a series of political and philosophical reflections.
In communitas, according to Esposito, individuals are in fact decentralized, invested by an original expropriation, are delineated as subject to their lack. They aren’t pooled together by a principle of identification, what they encounter is the otherness, what they share is a void that represents them as lacking of themselves and therefore communitas is to be understood as a set of non-subjects, which is structured on the nothingness.
“That’s the blinding truth kept within the etymological fold of communitas, the public is indistinguishable from the nothingness. It is the nothingness which constitutes the bases of what we share”.
The bond with the other is perceived as a danger, since it signals the loss of boundary, which guarantees the survival of singular identity. The distinguishing trait of communitas thus appears to be its own incongruence, if what it seems to offer is the hospitable and protective condition most suitable for man, at the same time it assumes his potential decline.
From the perception of this intrinsic risk, which is due to the exposure to the other, a preventive and conservative strategy is developed to protect oneself from the dangers of the munus actuating its immunization: the immunitary project is what frees us from the debt, closes and disentails, relieves, excludes and isolates, in this way it protects from the contamination of relations, and ultimately connotes as immunitary syndrome.
It is in this light, according to the author, that we may interpret the complete modern paradigm.
“What is then the present and future destiny of subjectivity? Entrusted in an autoimmune regime throughout the world – Esposito continues – that is to say, human life in its complexity does not have great chances of survival. I believe that the answer to this question should neither be located outside of the paradigm of immunization, necessary to the conversation of life, nor within it. It might be found on the threshold, the border that defines, as well as opens, the concept of immunity to the relations with its common reversal.”
集体 jí tǐ
We will now review where the Chinese characters 集体 jí tǐ, which mean community, will lead us by looking in the etymological dictionary P. L. Wieger, in the Grand Ricci and the Mathew’s Chinese English Dictionary, with the advice of letting oneself be grasped by the images and the intertwine of relations regarding them.
The left character jí may be translated from ancient Chinese into meeting, focus, reunite, assemble and it represents a tree on which are gathered short-tailed birds. It is composed of two radicals (semantical components of the character) “mu” meaning “wood” and “zhui” short-tailed birds, on the verge of landing, and in the quantity of 3 signifying multitude.
The right character tǐ means human body as well as: state of substance, essence, conformation, oneself, realize, intimate, model, system, to put oneself in the place of other, to attempt to understand, manner of being, fundamental nature, calligraphic style, forms of literature.
The character is composed of the left radical ren the human being, which is also intended to mean human virtue, which enlivens beings, and the right radical ben, which represents a tree trunk, a log on the ground, which signifies: origin, fundaments, to stop and pause.
At first sight, it is already possible to sense the lack of mentions of the idea that individuals should give a service, a token, to become part of the community.
If anything, we can immediately trace in the figure of a tree the natural disposition that allows the collective being together as human beings, completely free of charge.
The body – the human being. 人, 躯, 形, 身, 体
The body in Chinese may be described in different ways and each way highlights what dimension of the body may be used according to contest. The variety of representations gives an idea of how the body escapes any reductive and objectifying assumption.
Francis Rouam, acupuncturist and sinologist, writes in his work L’homme veritable du Cinabre-du Nord:
“The body is not reduced to flesh: it emanates, deploys, it’s crossed. (…)
As a fact, there is no one straightforward word to designate the body.
If we, for example, review the principal terms used in the Shi Ming (clarification of names):
Ren 人, usually translated as “man”, “For Ren, we mean the virtue of humanity to enliven beings.”
Qu”.躯 indicates the position of the body. “The various functional aspects of the body are identified with precision relative to one another, due to their name.”
Xing, 形 bodily form “For Xing, we mean that which allows us to distinguish ourselves, what has a shape and an image.” It also translates to “trace”. The body (as well as any other “object”) is inferior to its material and substantial reality, compared to the trace is leaves following its interactions with what is outside.
Shen 身 “Shen, means something that can straighten up, bend and straighten again”. In Zhong Guo Yi dian xue (Great dictionary of Chinese medicine, modern book), it is explained “Shen is the generic word for body. Above it appears to be a head, below it appears to be a foot, the anterior part resembles the tummy, the posterior part resembles the back, it bends and straightens, it makes a triad with the sky and the earth…” This definition summarizes and highlights the entirely dynamic dimension (meaning, exclusively bound to a logic of transformation) of the body, through its somatic aspects, psychological, behavioral, social, ethics, etc…
Finally tǐ 体, the character used for community “Must signify an ordered succession; flesh and bones, hair and blood, straight and backward, big and small all follow a specific order. The four pairs of parameters mentioned are not chosen randomly: (in Chinese) there are several hints to the material structures of animation and of the body’s dynamics, to the dialectic of the visible and the invisible, to the relativity of opinions and discourses, to the relative positions of objects in the world, both on a physical or social plane, familiar, etc.”
In Chinese thought, the body is never circumscribable by an anatomical and independent object, and even when we want to grasp it in its fundamental structure it can’t be isolated from its natural and cosmological environment, nor from its social environment: “The man has 365 articulations that correspond to the 365 celestial degrees. The body with its bones and flesh corresponds to the inside of the earth. Above the ears and eyes correspond to the sun and the moon. The body has orifices and veins similar to valleys and rivers. In the upper part, the head rises round, resembling the sky. The hair resembles the stars and constellations…”
Again, in the Su Wen first medicine compendium (ca. 420 bc.) we read:
“The heart has the role of sire and master, from which the mind’s light proceeds. The lungs fill the role of minister and chancellor, it regulates the meridians. The liver has the role of general giving out analysis and strategies. The gallbladder has the role of the right and exact, from which determination and behavioral decision come along. Tan zhong (core energy) has the role of onsite agents, from which happiness and joy come along. The spleen and stomach are responsible for granaries and ceilings, from which the five tastes come along. The large intestine has the role of transit from which the residues and transformations come along, the small intestine is responsible of receiving and let thrive, from which transformed matter comes along. The kidneys have the role of generating power, from which abilities and knowledge come along. The triple heater is responsible for crosses and channels, from which the conduction of liquids come along. The bladder is in charge of the territories and the cities; it hoards the bodily fluids following the changes brought about by the blows, from which the output power comes along. Since the most ancient times, the root of all living being is entrenched in the yin-yang; in the intervals between the sky and the earth, within the six junctions, its blows, in the nine territories and the nine orifices, in the five deposits and the twelve meridians of animation that are in free communication with the sky’s breath… In the sky the deep mystery, in the man the Way, the Way brings about the knowledge…”
“Moreover, it’s a fact that, depending on the texts, the occurrences and the contexts, psych and soma are clearly differentiated – when it seems useful or necessary for the argument’s sake- or considered at the same level, to the point that their differentiation becomes irrelevant; then a third concept emerges which is a non-identification of their relative epistemological existence.”
“In Chinese tradition, the body is never given suddenly, its living reality is that of constant being, having, organizing, preparing, elaborating. That a body becomes, for whomever, their own body – because otherwise the word has no meaning- in the dual aspect of appropriation and identification. It presumes creation as indefinitely renewed of its own space, the body is its space in a given moment; “space”, in the sense that not only is it not circumscribed by its limits but they temporarily define it. Above all space in the sense that it bases, where depth is generated, its movement, its shine, its evidence, the brightness of its aspect, the junction between the “not-yet” and the “already there”. It is also, for example, a place of enunciation and emission of the word, the place of fluctuating attention.”
The body seems therefore immersed in a ritual dimension as a fundament of existence, and it may only be grasped thanks to the changing and mutual interactions with the surrounding environment, which is never considered in Chinese thought according to an ontological perspective.
The character tǐ 体, according to the Ricci dictionary, also derives meaning from its calligraphic style and literary forms. Now, the idea that the body, which is the human being, may be perceived through calligraphic style and literature, not only allows us to savor the poetic richness that is common trait of traditional Chinese medicine and many philosophical tendencies; but also suggests an environment in which humans differ from one another as works of literature do, according to their style and their know-how.
It is the living attribute that in fact must be expressed in calligraphic works, in which what counts is that the blow be grasped by the brush. For this reason, it is said that if the calligrapher is in harmony with the world and its blows, he may see his swallow ideogram take flight from the paper…
The etymology of 集体 jí tǐ introduces us a bit at the time to a natural environment that intimately welcomes the set of differences between individuals almost as is, we allow hereby a space for suggestion, a living and dynamic library.
The tree – the wood 集 jí
The tree, just as the river and the mountain, is a privileged figure in Taoist philosophy and its practice of nourishing the vital breath, which can be found in Qi Gong and Tai chi Chuan.
It represent distinctly the cooperation between yin and yang, the two emblems functioning as a catalogue of every existing phenomenological relationship.
A yin part well founded in the humid obscurity of the earth, and the yang part exposed to the alternations and celestial changes, they hint at the interactive and fertile meeting of the sky and the earth, between the above and below, the outside and the inside, the visible and the hidden, the latent and the manifested.
The figure of the tree in Chinese thought, evokes at the same time rooting and extraversion, and always refers to the season of spring and the beginning of things.
In analogical models of correspondence that belong to the Chinese thought, and in particular to the traditional medicine’s concept of five elements, the element of wood goes back to the East and the rising of the sun, to the musical note E, to the color green and sour taste.
The element of wood, to which is associated the kindness of the wind that never cease moving, is put in relation to ideational and creative force, it’s potential unfolding, in the human body it corresponds to the functions of the liver and the biliary bladder.
These organs are considered more as energetic entities than anatomical systems; they govern neuro-muscular functions, the tendons and the sight. The liver is said to be the strategist, the brave foreseeing general who wins without fighting. This is referring to the immune functions of the organism; the defensive system is above all focused on prevention, its ability consists of maintaining health balanced. Its motion is of opening towards the outside.
From the tree, we have now returned to the human being, captured by the analogic plot that is the paradigm of the Chinese thought, focused more on the efficacy of the know-how than to a search for universal truth.
We should now ask ourselves, by example of Roberto Esposito, what the subjects, that are part of the community, share.
The (own) nature, the way and the reason (of things)
Confucius contemplated the great waterfall, where neither giant turtles nor caimans, nor fish could live. Suddenly he saw a man swimming amidst the mills and thinking he might want to end his life, he ordered his disciples to hasten along the stream and pull him out of the water “… Some hundred paces towards the valley, the man exited the water by his own means, with his hair disheveled and singing, strolling on the shore.”
Confucius followed and asked him “I thought you were a sprite, but now that I look closely I can see that you are a man. Allow me to ask you if you have any particular method of treading the water.”
“I know nothing at all, I have forgotten everything, I don’t know any of the methods you speak of, none of the principles you refer to, in order to swim in this inaccessible place… I was born in these hills, and I have always lived peacefully, comfortably, this is what I call GU (circumstance). I grew up in the water and I feel comfortable in it, I adapt easily to it. This is my own nature. I do what I do without knowing how.”
理 lì the reason oh things
The meaning associated to nature 性 is inseparable from that of “natural spontaneity” Ziran 自然, which has the prerogative of absolute immediacy, this concept can be encountered again and again as it is described in Taoist texts as the anecdote of the swimmer and Confucius.
It is a natural tendency of beings, to each their own, that should never be obstructed, it is genuine, original and immediate, however as Rouam writes:
“It should be equally supportive of the –reason of things- the “lì” 理, which designates the structure of phenomena, not only on a material level, but in what concerns their transformation.”
Together with the notion that Tao means way, the “lì” 理 is one of the most original philosophical notions in Chinese thought, the etymology of the character refers to the streaks of jade.
In this regard Anne Cheng, teacher at the lnstitut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris writes:
“If the Greek spirit is drenched in the spirit of the potter, who works the amorphous mass of clay making it first completely malleable then shaping it entirely according to the artisan’s idea, we deduce that the Chinese though was instead drenched by the spirit of the stone carver: who tests the resistance of jade and uses his art to take advantage of the matter’s layers, obtaining a shape that was already there but that nobody could know before discovering it.”
The existence of lines, traces, active but veiled grids that suggest harmony in things and processes and that address the logic of what’s well done, it doesn’t depend on a superior or divine law nor on a principle of causality, but rather on a sort of natural prescription that promotes “interactive interpretation of the world, at the same time heuristic, ethical and esthetic.”
“This concept is similar to that of tao 道 (within the character there is an image of a footprint)”
“The shoe is a rite. It frames the foot, and it’s for this reason that it lends itself to the meaning of the ritual. The adjustment (which is an interaction) between the shoe and the foot is ritual in the way that it’s correctly shaped, the reason of things (the foot as it is), confirms in this last analysis that reason itself is a ritual.
The world as a natural process is a ritual: the sequence of day and night, the seasons, the growth of plants throughout the difference times of the year, etc. The examples could be multiplied infinitely; the human body participates in the rite as well:
“In the tissues of living beings’ body is the reason of muscles (Jili 肌理), the reason of the flesh (couli 腠 理), the reason of the lines on the skin (Wenli). To cut the tissues there is a cutting line without fringes: this is called the line of reason (tiaoli 条理).” 7
The heuristic process, both in Confucianism (the moral and social regulation) and Taoism (the natural and ethic regulation) with different orientations, is formalizes in the ritual, it is for this reason that the “lì” 理 the reason of things has an intimate complicity with its homophone LI 礼 ritual.
The “lì” 理 is a manifestation of a language hidden in chaos and appearances that is decipherable and produces meaning, but in this sense, as Cheng and Rouam let us know, is not static and timeless; it is not theoretical, but dynamic because it attempts to adhere to natural processes that are in constant mutation.
Tao means path, central way.
“All the authors, such as Taoists and others, use the term Tao to indicate a complex of ideas that remain very close… at the bottom of all the conceptions of Tao one can find the notions of Order, Totality, Responsibility and Efficacy.”
“This performs the role of a regulatory power, it does not create beings, it makes them as they are. It presides the grouping of operating realities, but without it being considered as a substance or force. It regulates the rhythm of things. Every reality is defined by its position in time and space; in every reality we find Tao; and Tao is the rhythm of time and space.” 1
The ideas guiding Chinese thought circle around these meanings, and if one wants to attempt to comprehend, or rather sense, and I add, to the Taoist manner, what the etymology of jí tǐ directs us to it’s necessity to venture in these waters, and let them tinge us…
“Chinese thought doesn’t have concerns in general. It is a thought that does not build but rather clarifies. It is a thought that brings clarity such as when the jade is polished and its lines appear more vivid. Clarification without end that makes coherence appear. What we call thought, in China it’s a whole other matter.”
The subject of jí tǐ have in common not the debt as in communita, that Esposito analyses, but… a tree, before meeting each other they meet “the hospitable, the available”.
The spontaneous nature of the tree is availability, its tao is cooperation between earth and sky, its lì is its method of acting out transformations (such as chlorophyll photosynthesis), its style.
These notions belong to a device, which functions don’t get clouded in indifference, they don’t remain as a background to the individual who position himself in a dominant position in nature, but rather they build an actual norm, an address to conduct, a suggestion to balance, in the guise of a living manual to the art of wellbeing.
As a fact, the subjects of a community do not only share the “available” represented by the tree, they also share something in common with the tree, with its tao and its lì, the cooperation and transformations.
The character tǐ 体 in fact, as we have seen, is composed by the left radical ren the human being, and the right ben, which represents the trunk of a tree, who’s active element is wood.
We therefore encounter a dialectic in which an object’s dominance, around which western thought sense of being rotates, is absent. The linguistic elements translate reality expressing the idea of syncretism.
The wood element of the tree is the same that animates the functions of the liver and gall bladder, which presides motion, sight, vision and the strategic foresight of defense.
It maintains vibrant relations with the body’s parts and the world system.
In the theory of the five elements in traditional Chinese medicine, the water (kidneys) nourishes the wood (liver), which in turn feeds the fire (heart), the fire feeds the earth (spleen) which feeds the metal (lungs) which nourish the water.
The important reference to the immune character, which by virtue of the analogic model we are authorized to transpose within the community, does not hint to a posture aroused by fear of the other, but to an intrinsic knowledge, which is an ability to wisely maintain health and peace.
Wisdom is inseparable from the body: “Mencio says: “Our body’s form (Xing 形) and our aspect are our nature 性 enacted by the sky, only the wise can fully grasp its bodily form “圣人” , “The man of quality who adheres to his nature, to the virtue of humanity, to fairness, abidance to rituals and wisdom, is rooted in his own heart, has a florid appearance, which is shown in the face as well as in the back and the extremities, offers an intelligible message without words”. 7
Therefore, there does not seem to be that missing subject, fractured, who senses in the community the danger of its dissolution, nor does the community seem to be founded on the “nothingness of the object” and have relations with the idea of death. In the Chinese characters’ etymology, you may find completely different tensions, declinations, addresses.
The void, another great concept in ancient Chinese thought, in particular, the taoist thought, never indicates the nothingness, or that impossible vertigo evoked by the notion of reality. In Lacan’s work he refers instead to the functioning necessary for every transition, functional to every mutation. It is without name in order to have it. There are no static notions, even the void is an integral part of every process in which human wisdom has, so to speak, a vibrant and lucent body, even talismanic.
In conclusion, what else is necessary to the collective halting of humans, each according to their own style, if not availability, cooperation and adaptation to the fertility of transformations?
If this is the Taoist way, it is starting from the language that makes the traces visible. And if something about the order of suggestion can be grasped as a question, this could concern one’s own nature, the tao and lì of everyone and everything (in Chinese thing is called dong xi东西 which means East-West).
There are still many in-depth analysis that could be made, however the elements laid for discussion could already introduce the attempt of unforeseen which Roberto Esposito refers to in these final lines:
What fate then for present and future subjectivity?
“It’s there, in the still obscure power of our immune systems, that we should look for answers to a question that we cannot, for now, even formulate precisely, but of which intensity is suspended in our destiny. To do it we have to attempt to change out habitual perspective, make an effort to read reality not only from the front, but also from the side and from the opposite, adopting a perspective that we initially lacked.” 6
1) Marcel Granet, Il pensiero cinese, Adelphi, Milano 2004, p.24, 29, 31, 226, 244.
2) F. Jullien, L’universale e il comune. Il dialogo tra culture, Laterza, Roma-Bari 2010, p. 86.
3) F. Jullien, Contro la comparazione. Lo “scarto” e il “tra”. Un altro accesso all’alterità, Mimesis, Milano-Udine 2014, p. 40-1.
5) Roberto Esposito, Communitas. Origine e destino della comunità, Einaudi,Torino 2006, p. 7, 9, 13, 16.
6) Roberto Esposito, Immunitas. Protezione e negazione della vita, Einaudi, Torino 2002.
7) Francis Rouam, L’homme veritable du Cinabre-du Nord, author’s translation.
8) Francis Rouam, Le corps et les phénomènes psychosomatiques au regard de la pensée chinoise traditionnelle, mia traduzione.
9) Zhuang-zi, Adelphi, Milano 2001, p.170.
10) Anne Cheng, Confucianesimo La ragione delle cose, festivalfilosofia Modena 2012, from the transcription of the relation, Consorzio per il festivalfilosofia.
11) Rencontre avec François Jullien à la Société de psychanalyse freudienne, 12 janvier 2008, author’s translation.