Friday, November 09, 2007
Does Language Determine Thought?
UPDATE: You can now read my paper here (especially recommended for anyone with insomnia).

I was recently going through some old papers from college and came across a term paper I had written for my TESL Methodologies class about seven years ago. In it I critically reevaluate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity principle, and suggest that it deserves a second look by linguists, psychologists and philosophers after having been marginalized by the objectivism of social scientists in the mid-20th century. Simply put, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language shapes thought (rather than vice versa) and that different cultures therefore think differently about the world because of differences in their languages. I came across this quote by Benjamin Whorf in my paper that I think sums up the hypothesis well (emphasis added):
The background linguistic system (i.e. the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – and agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data, which the agreement decrees… No individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation…. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

Obviously this hypothesis, if accurate, has implications for how we talk about things like "truth" and "reality". Naturally this viewpoint has strong affinities with a more postmodern worldview in which what we call "reality" is primarily a construction of our language, which may be why it failed to catch on back in the late-Modern era of the 1930s and '40s when Whorf first proposed it. In my paper I argue that the hypothesis does in fact have merit and ought to be reevaluated. I consider several objections to the hypothesis, provide counter-arguments, and then suggest that the hypothesis itself was too quickly dismissed and thus has never been sufficiently tested.

And though I don't go there in my paper, I think it's also interesting to consider the ethical and social implications of this idea that people with different languages think about the world differently. Obviously the opposing view, that there are universal categories of thought that the world itself imposes on our language and which can be apprehended by all rational observers, fits well with a Western imperialistic mindset which says that there is really only one right way to view the world (usually that of wealthy white males) and all others who have disagreements with this way are simply ignorant and wrong and should be corrected by those who know better.
In contrast, the linguistic relativity principle would suggest that there are many different ways of categorizing and talking about reality, and that something which is true according to one culture and linguistic system, may not be true according to another system or culture. Thus it is possible to have respect for and learn from diverse viewpoints without having to always say that one is inherently superior to all the rest.

Of course, there is quite a bit of nuance and qualification that needs to be brought to these statements. Whorf was not a hard linguistic determinist (so that our thoughts are entirely and inescapably determined by our language), nor was he an extreme linguistic relativist (so that different linguistic and conceptual systems are entirely incommensurable with no hope of comparison or correlation between them). But one need not take things to an extreme to see the validity in this theory of the relationship between thought and language, and to recognize that, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said, "many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view"; and perhaps even on the language we use to describe those truths.


posted by Mike Clawson at 10:45 AM | Permalink |


At 11/09/2007 01:17:00 PM, Blogger Nathan P. Gilmour

Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature deals pretty extensively with these sorts of theories using some rather sci-fi thought experiments.

In the most extensive, he considers the ontological value of the word pain by imagining a space-race of beings physiologically identical to humans but without vocabularies of pain and suffering. He speculates that much of what we call the ethics of torture are more aesthetic in character than scientific.

I'm not endorsing torture by any means, nor do I think Rorty was, but the point seems to be that all of our judgments ethically are not only linguistic but also aesthetic. Of course, that resonates nicely (to use a Platonic/Augustinian word) with what the Radical Orthodoxy movement has been doing in theology, so there might be something there.

I actually ran into the S-W hypothesis in an Old English class, and our professor (a self-styled Tolkien-conservative) seemed somewhat convinced by it.


At 11/09/2007 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yea, Rorty was one of the more postmodern philosophers that has reappropriated the S-W hypothesis, as has linguist George Lakoff. It still meets rather significant opposition though from those who follow Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar.

I haven't read that particular book by Rorty though, and I'm not quite sure what he means by "aesthetic". Could you elaborate?


At 11/12/2007 05:33:00 AM, Blogger Nathan P. Gilmour

Sure. It might make some analytical philosophers call Rorty a mystic of sorts, but he arrives towards the end of the book at a thesis that states roughly that aesthetics is just as much a part of ethics as is rationality.

To illustrate his point, he notes that although pigs have shown in prolonged testing to be more intelligent than koalas, people still react more strongly to a koala's feeling pain than a pig's. Rorty postulates that the koala's facial expression, the human-like wince, makes the difference. Thus he postulates a super-logical aesthetic sense that in fact drives much ethical thinking.

It's been some eight years since I read the book, so that's all the more detail I can recall, but I remember the thesis bearing some weight intellectually.


At 11/12/2007 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Derek Berner

I remember reading about SW back in college in both my AI Programming and Linguistics classes. I will agree that for the most part, language constitutes high-level, conscious thought. The main issues I have with the idea of thought being primarily language driven though are as follows:

1. We experience the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, where the right word for what you're thinking seems just beyond your mental grasp, or you learn a new word and realize it's perfect for a concept you've been unable to articulate.

2. The vocal patterns of more highly cognizant species don't have especially linguistic qualities to them. Alex and Koko being special cases, of course.

3. With training, it is possible to eliminate words from conscious thought via meditation.

4. It's also possible to think in images, sensations, smells, tastes, and non-linguistic sounds.

5. Divergent languages nevertheless have a tendency to segment their vocabulary similarly. The idea that Eskimos have 500 different words for snow has been shown to be a hoax

6. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. It's equally plausible that thought shapes language.

7. Occam's razor. Linguistic theory and research are still very much active and and incomplete, and there are still ardent proponents of Sapir-Whorf in academia. However, we have simpler hypotheses that better fit existing data. As soon as hard experimental evidence is brought to light that favors this hypothesis over others, we will probably see a move back towards it in academic circles.


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