Right or left?

Hokusai - The Great Wave

Hokusai – The Great Wave

I’ve been reading “The Great Partnership” by Jonathan Sacks. One of the main themes of the book is the tension between a scientific and a religious worldview. He sees this tension as the very basis of Western thought, intrinsic in Christianity because of its dual nature: steeped in Hebrew tradition but developed and spread in Greek.

I think it’s an accepted fact that language shapes our thinking: you can only express thoughts and feelings in the language you have available and that same language will shape your thoughts and feelings. If I remember right Steven Pinker addresses this in “The stuff of thought”.

But Sacks in the book takes this even further: he advances the hypothesis that even the way a language is written, its graphic appearance, has an effect on the thinking process. He contrasts Aramaic and Greek. His reasoning goes like this:

Aramaic does not have vowels in its written form. To know what a particular word is, you have to read it in its context: it will only make sense based on the whole discourse. After all, if you’re faced with ‘p*t‘, it’s only from context that you will be able to work out whether you’re meant to read pat, pet, pit, pot or put. You need to look at the whole; you need to see how the parts relate to each other to make sense of it. Sacks’s hypothesis is that there is a connection with the fact that Aramaic is written and read from right to left: to understand it you need to engage the “right” part of the brain, the mode of thinking that deals preferentially with the big picture, relationships, meaning. On the other hand Greek is written phonetically: for every sound (vowel or consonant) there is a graphic symbol. To write a word you have to break it down into all its constituent parts. This is a “left” brain approach: looking at the details, differentiating, separating. And it’s read from left to right.

This reminded me of something I read some time ago. It was an article about  Hokusai’s print ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ also known as ‘The Great Wave’. The writer (I can’t remember who it was) maintained that Westerners must necessarily have a very different understanding of the image because they look at it from left to right, whereas the Japanese would “read” it from right to left.I have often wondered if he was right.

Hokusai - The Great Wave (reversed)

Hokusai – The Great Wave (reversed)

I’m not going to retrain myself to read anytime soon, so I thought I’d try a little experiment. At the top of the page you have the original (from New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s website) and here is one that I flipped over to mimic “reading” from the opposite direction.

What do you think? Does it read differently?


7-Hall Table

7-Hall Table

And now I get to ask the same question about my work. After drafting the post above, I went to visit a potential client. They like my 7-Hall Table. But because of the design of their hallway, the drawer would need to come out from the right hand side.



Does it still work if I just flip it? Or am I better off coming up with a totally different design? What do you think?





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