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Are Writing Systems Intelligently Designed?

Smith, Adam Daniel

These English psychologists — what is it they want? We find them, voluntarily or involuntarily, ever engaged in the same work, — the work of pushing into the foreground the partie honteuse of our inner world and of seeking for the really operative, really imperative and decisive factor in history just there, where the intellectual pride of man would least wish to find it (for example, in the vis inertiae of custom or in forgetfulness or in some blind and accidental hooking-together and mechanism of ideas or in something purely-passive, automatic, reflex-motion-like, molecular and thoroughly stupid). (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals.) This paper concerns the genealogy of writing systems, not of morals. But, like Nietzsche's "English psychologists," I am interested in the role of "blind and accidental hooking-together and mechanism" in the formation of that genealogy, particularly to the extent that its results resemble the products of goal-directed human agency. In a manner perhaps somewhat contrary to the guiding spirit of this volume, I will suggest that the apparent design and efficacious functionality of writing systems are the product of less human agency and forethought than is generally imagined.

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Also Published In

Early Writing and Agency in Archaeology
University Press of Colorado

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Published Here
January 10, 2012