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Do We Think What Our Language Tells Us to Think? August 29, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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What if our entire capacity for thinking is limited and determined by our respective languages, forever preventing true cross-cultural understanding from taking place? An interesting article by linguist Guy Deutscher in the New York Times Magazine gives a good overview of the linguistic debate while introducing his new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.” In brief: in 1940 anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that language molds your capacity for thinking, to the point that if the language does not contain a certain concept, you’re incapable of thinking about it or understanding it.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Deutscher tells us that the theory has been abandoned and ridiculed by linguists for decades, but for one thing, linguists aren’t the only ones who have an interest in the epistemological side of language—20th century philosophers have had many a discussion on the subject; and for another, I’ve certainly heard scholars from many different fields refer to such ideas as established truths. But, says Deutscher, Whorf’s theory lost out because of it radical approach:

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

Says Deutscher, the interesting thing isn’t that language limits your thinking, but enforces a certain kind of thinking:

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

In German, Spanish, Russian and many other languages, you have to think about nouns in terms of masculine and feminine. In English we have to think about actions in a certain tense—have we done something, will we do something, or are we doing it? In Chinese apparently you don’t have to be that specific. In Western languages we tend to put ourselves in the middle of most of our spatial references (left, right, back, forth), but some tribal languages do not: their talk about space involve cardinal points (north, south, east and west), not relative references to ourselves. If our language has certain words for colors, we are more apt to perceive them. The bottom line is that language does affect our way of thinking, in terms of what we have to be aware of, and what we learn to pay attention to, and to disregard. But to what extent?

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Whether Deutscher’s reevaluation of Whorf’s theory is really something new in linguistics I can’t say—I’m not a linguist—but philosophically this is hardly a new approach; on the contrary, it is reminiscent of what some Continental philosophers of the twentieth century said a while back (actually, it was that brilliant linguist Nietzsche who first floated a similar idea!): we don’t all think the same way, because our available language creates a perspective or horizon, for all that we take for granted and are likely to notice—a hermeneutic circle. Not Whorf’s thought prison, but a Lifeworld of our interpretations into which we are thrown, and which takes some intellectual effort to rise above—hard, but not impossible. You can find similar ideas in the writings of several contemporary German and French scholars, and some of them have actually been influenced by Jakobson.

So without having read Deutscher’s book yet, it seems to me that the idea of  language as a primary condition for understanding the world, but not per se a prison of interpretation, is not exactly new in the general realm of scholarship. And philosophically as well as scientifically, it is already the subject of a revisionist overhaul, focusing on our neurological/ontological similarities beneath the cultural differences! 

But I’m glad Deutscher brought up the name and influence of  Roman Jakobson. I myself  actually had the privilege of meeting him at the 500th anniversary of the University of Copenhagen in 1979. Jakobson was talking about his amazing life in a succession of countries, and to the best of my recollection he said, “The surest way to stay mentally active is to change country and language every 10 years!” And he wasn’t talking about just learning new words and rules of grammar…