Whorf Hypothesis Hoax*
and Redemption in Academe
Dan Moonhawk Alford
In the original Greek story of fire-stealing, Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to give to the humans; his punishment was to have his innards eaten by vultures throughout eternity. With Whorf, there was a new twist: linguists had already gotten away with the fire-stealing for 300 years when the physicists crept in and stole it, and Whorf was just trying to get it back -- but his punishment for nearly half a century has been having his own verbal innards fought over incessantly, but never truly devoured, by academic vultures, blindly protecting their turf.
Since many major understandings have come from people who never quote Whorf, what I would like to do right now is suggest that you stop reading my book and go find a copy of Whorf's Language, Thought and Reality. Many libraries have it, and the paperback edition is fairly cheap. I advise my students to read the last essay first, then the previous three essays, then the ones with "Universe," "Primitive" and "Habitual" in the titles; the rest at will. Reading what he actually wrote, and in his presumably 1930's Yale accent, is a great antidote to the Hypothesis Hoax literature many of you are already familiar with, since its creators seldom quote him.
Who was Benjamin Whorf and why do people say such bad things about him? I claim Whorf as a linguist, as I claim for myself even though I never finished my doctorate; but whereas I teach for a living, Whorf made his daily money as a fire-prevention engineer for Hartford Insurance Company and actually refused offers to teach linguistics. So at the center of this huge academic controversy we have someone who refused to join the old boys' club -- a 'dabbler' or 'dilettante' in linguistics, some have called him. Why should anyone care about the ideas of this outsider who never even claimed linguistics as his profession?
After 40-some years of concerted academic corpse-kicking, with respected academics claiming that they've disproved him in countless ways, why haven't his ideas just … gone away? Perhaps bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. Does that exhaust all that compels this enduring attention? And what, exactly, are we to be telling undergraduate and graduate students about Whorf these days, at the dawn of a new millennium?
Why do I care?
As I mentioned earlier, Whorf was just one of innumerable authors on language issues that I, as a typical undergraduate, was exposed to in my linguistics training at UCLA -- in my very first linguistics class, while I was still an English major -- and then not again during my undergraduate or graduate classes, since we were learning Chomsky's view of language. At the time, I didn't think much about his absence after that first class. Very insidious -- in advertising, that's called "bait and switch," but I think Whorf nonetheless got me into linguistics. I think I thought, as other linguists have admitted to me, "if this is what linguistics is all about, this is for me!"
It was not until I began retracing Whorf's steps -- until I actually worked on an American Indian language myself, and had been reading quantum physics insights for a while -- that his importance in the History of Ideas became clear to me. Whenever I discussed Whorf's insights with Native Americans, they resonated with his insights on Native languages, and therefore those insights became increasingly more important to me. Whorf had come closer than any other linguist to explicating the worldviews and langscapes of Native America.
Yet on my return from the reservation environment to academe, I found that no linguist at Berkeley or conferences seemed to be able to say Whorf's name without an accompanying sneer on their lips! They regarded Whorf as simply 'wrong', with no redeemable qualities whatever. As far as I could remember, this was a new and different environment than had surrounded Whorf when I'd left UCLA eight years before -- where Whorf was basically ignored instead of actively preached against.
Figuring out what had happened while I was gone consumed another two years of my life, and by that point I was solidly hooked by the issue. I realized there was something very simple but powerful that was being covered over by a hoax -- by all of the trivial determinism, strawman and ad hominem arguments(1) in the literature -- covering up something so important that academics were fighting like crazy to win the right to avoid ever having to talk or write about it!
Now this happens all the time within individual disciplines, but it's seldom they put aside their differences to form a "global coalition against academic terrorism" the way they did. As I tell my graduate students from various disciplines, if you really want to know what your chosen field is all about, find the fundamental issues by discovering who the big guys are beating up and why they're doing it. And if you're ever so lucky as me to find someone that four or five different academic disciplines are beating up on, you'll know you've hit paydirt.
The legacy of Benjamin Whorf
What if you had intimations of an idea SO BIG that it took a highly improbable international combination of people interested in consciousness and cognition issues -- quantum physicists, field linguists, Native American philosophers and others -- to figure out whether it had any validity? And what if the consensus of that group was that it was important for cross-cultural understanding? As we saw in Chapter Five, the perhaps most lasting achievement of disciplinary synthesis that Benjamin Whorf created, which he called the "principle of linguistic relativity" on taking it back from Einstein, has in the 1990s been de facto validated by just such a historic meeting and dialogue.
This principle, seen now as a century-long dialogue between physics and linguistics, occurs at the place where they agree, using complementarity or respect thinking, quantum logic instead of English logic -- and it's at exactly THAT principled intersection, which had never happened before, where Native American philosophers could finally join in dialogue and find Westerners for the first time in 500 years who would actually listen to their words, their insights, their langscapes and worldviews; as a result, all participants then began to explore together, after appropriate rituals, the logic and worldview of the nounless quantum (spirit) realm, and went away with very special new relationships.
Yet it is this very linguistic relativity principle, this pivotal stage on which such history has happened, arbitrarily renamed a hypothesis(2) by many social scientists, presumably "so as to be better tested," that has sparked the amazingly acrimonious debate, name-calling, and strawman argumentation that's gone on, until recently, during the five decades since the publication of Whorf's collected articles by M.I.T. Press.
Worse yet, the debate itself, their own Hypothesis Hoax, is all that most social scientists and their textbooks ever focus on, not the principle that underlies it. Students are urged to learn the intricacies of the debate from all the current and historical players -- although a close reading of Whorf himself -- in the original, in English -- is not necessarily specifically encouraged. And that's the education that most students get in the social sciences about this topic, unless they actually dig deeper on their own -- which they may be discouraged from doing because, they're told, they'll just be 'wasting their time' on a dead issue. At least, I was.
What are these academics so afraid of that they can't face and contemplate and answer student's questions about Whorf's actual text? Why the smoke and mirrors? I suspect that they fear, and rightly so, that the entire Western worldview -- logic, reason, science, philosophy, categories -- the entire 'civilization' enterprise of which academia is a part, in fact, is at stake; or at least the superior attitude that often accompanies it. It may be a fear that what we're culturally heir to is 'just another worldview and its langscapes' rather than exemplifying, as we tend to want to believe, eternal and universal human logic, which we're simply 'better at' than people who speak other languages outside of the Indo-European language family. As John Lucy says, relativity "challenges assumptions which lie at the heart of much modern social and behavior research -- namely its claim to be discovering general laws and to be truly scientific."(3)
David Abram eloquently shows in The Spell of the Sensuous that we long ago disqualified ourselves from claiming anything 'universal' as a culture when we adopted phonetic alphabets, which shifted the locus of 'interaction with the world' from Nature to the printed page -- thereby also transforming air into something empty instead of the inescapable medium of all speech interactions and all life. All the more reason then that we must now listen to the indigenous voices of those who have resisted our cultural attitudes, and who come as speakers from languages with different cognitive structures than our own, which has become so divorced and alienated from Nature.
Whorf was the only linguist of his time who understood the advances in modern physics well enough to understand that physicists had stolen the fire from the philosophy of language camp; he staked his claim and tried to take it back. He knew enough about Hopi to know that, in its proclivity of turning our propositions about things into propositions about events, its structure is more congenial to describing quantum eventings than are the structures of Western languages; in his writings he suggested Hopi as a human language candidate, a real life example, that would demonstrate the quantum logic of nounless realities perplexing physicists. Although Hopi itself has not been considered as yet in the Science Dialogues (because we have had as yet no native Hopi speakers as participants), the addition of Athapaskan, Siouan and Algonquian languages to the 'quantum language list' at the Science Dialogues and elsewhere are independent evidence that Whorf was substantially on the right track.
Relativity in the History of Ideas
Although anthropologists and others prefer for their own reasons to call it 'relativism', relativity may now be seen primarily as a larger science dialogue outside the realms of social science itself -- except insofar as the less conservative practitioners of social science are trying to link their results up with complex modern concepts rather than simpler Newtonian ones. Dana Zohar, for instance, has made substantial efforts to link up psychology with the quantum realm in The Quantum Self and other works.
In this realm of the history of ideas, just as in linguistics, words have meaning only insofar as they participate in a system of distinctions with other words. Relativity (or diversity, or pluralism) and its linguistic complementary opposite, universality, have been used together as a set, a system, for hundreds of years in Euro-thought. Some people prefer to explore their own truth by studying the diversity of things, and some people like to explore their own truth by studying similarities between things -- and both are okay, although they lead in different directions. If, at some point, the two camps come back together and respectfully compare notes, much can be accomplished in dialogue. And nobody has to do just one kind of research to the exclusion of the other: although social scientists branded Whorf as the relativist par excellence, my reading of Whorf shows that he makes a large number of universalist statements in his writings while only mentioning the same relativity principle in different words three or four times. That is, he effectively balanced both, unlike his critics, who apparently weren't intellectually capable of such a sophisticated task.
Now if, however, instead of learning from each other, one camp arbitrarily begins denying the validity of the insights of the other, begins claiming that differences are only (trivially) superficial while only universals are deeply real(4) , and begins trying to logically prove the other viewpoint out of existence and rewrite history so only that only their half of the truth will remain by generational socialization, the delicate balance between the two ideas is lost -- and a bewildering period of confusion begins, as happened following Noam Chomsky's 1957 publication of Syntactic Structures , a small book which set the stage for changing the course of linguistics away from ideas of relativity and toward a fundamentalist-like embrace of universals, in a dichotomous (win/lose) rather than the historic yes/yes complementary manner and its balancing, more suited to a search for truth.
The Chomsky Factor
Although Whorf had published a few articles in the 1930s and '40s, few people saw his work until after 1956, when they were pulled together, with some unpublished essays(5) , by John Carroll and printed by MIT Press. A major conference had just been called by anthropological linguists a couple of years earlier to discuss both Whorf's ideas and those of 'Whorfians' such as Dorothy Lee, Madeline Mathiot and Harry Hoijer (on whose varied interpretations of Whorf much of the blame for the Hydra Heads of the Hypothesis Hoax ultimately rest).
The dominant paradigm of American linguistics at the time, called structural linguistics, had been formed in the crucible of discovery of the morphology-rich Native American languages -- where, because a single word could be a full and complete sentence, the pieces of words (morphemes) assumed greater importance than the order of words making up a sentence (syntax). That is, when a "word" can also be a "sentence," the boundary between the seemingly discrete levels of Morphology (how pieces make up a word) and Syntax (how words make up a sentence) become much fuzzier than in Western languages; from the Native perspective there is only morphosyntax, with morpho- having much more emphasis than -syntax.
It can be said that the distinction between anthropology and linguistics was not as sharply defined in America prior to Chomsky, when indigenous languages (real speakers in real communities) tended to be a major focus of linguistics, in the way it became after Chomsky called for autonomy and unleashed hordes of sometimes anti-social linguists on academe, who felt empowered to just make up their own data rather than painstakingly collecting it in character-building and sometimes foreign social situations. BC (Before Chomsky), it was well understood that cultural context was part of real live language use, just as I myself had to learn, along with the pronunciation of the word for "thank you" in Míkmaq, the context of when its use was okay (as a response to a formal "would you please pass the X" at the dinner table) and when it was not (when someone unexpectedly says or does something from their heart spontaneously).
One year after the posthumous publication of Whorf's work, however, Noam Chomsky began an end run around the then-dominant structuralist paradigm, and began manufacturing consent (6) for his own paradigm within linguistics. Chomsky's approach was syntactic rather than morphological (which thereby backgrounded American Indian languages and any insights about them), mathematical (context-free) rather than anthropological (context-bound), and in its mathematical bias it favored universals rather than diversity and relativity.
From the relativity stance, the universalist stance in and of itself isn't 'wrong' in any way; however, along with the rise in popularity of the universalist position there also appeared in some a new attitude about the 'rightness' of universals and the absolute 'wrongness' of relativity -- a kind of fundamentalist demonizing that had not been seen before in linguistics. Universals and relativity became diametrically opposed to each other, in some minds, rather than working together as a complementary set of ideas: both right in their own way, depending on what you're looking for, just like the yes/yes light experiments in physics. It was in the context of this reactionary dualistic attitude that Whorf's fate was sealed in the Chomskyan camp, not as a partner but a foe -- a person whose name was most indissolubly linked with dreaded relativity in this past century.
As a way of outlining the Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax, I'd like to present an overview of how Whorf has been misrepresented, since before the publication of his collected articles to the present. The original embracing of Whorf by anthropological linguists and others provides one period of a pendulum swing; the heyday of Chomskyanism provides a second period, and the current return to a careful reading of Whorf marks a new and hopeful period of responsible scholarship. Afterwards, we'll look at some fascinating issues that get left out of discussions about Whorf when people waste too much time arguing about the Hoax.
The Pendulum Swings
Part I: What Whorf Wrote and How It Was Originally Received
First and most importantly, let's be clear on one simple fact: Whorf did not write nor actively have anything to do with The Whorf Hypothesis ; likewise, needless to say, Sapir and Whorf also never teamed up to co-author something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Never happened. A hoax.
The Hoax was created and developed by perhaps well-meaning but mostly universalist-leaning social scientists long after Whorf's death, during the push for linguistics to become more of a 'science'. The Hoax consists of a miniscule amount of relativity, a 20th-Century physics idea which Whorf was extremely interested in, and a liberal amount of Newtonian monocausal determinism(7) , which his critics 'weakly' believe in but which Whorf would have disavowed completely as the big picture, had he been alive, preferring to use the complementary logic of both physics and metaphysics as a better method of scientific thinking.
Examining the volume of Whorf's collected writings, we find in his earliest writing years, before taking linguistics classes from Professor Edward Sapir at Yale, only two unpublished short pieces, reflecting psychological concerns, neither of which fits into this controversy in any significant way. Whorf was obviously interested in language issues before studying with Sapir, the perhaps most eminent linguist of his day and still revered today, but Sapir's influence is quite evident in shaping the issues and terminology which Whorf began to use in his published and unpublished essays from then on.
After beginning to study with Sapir, Whorf published three 'straight' linguistics essays on Hopi in the preeminent professional journals of his day (Language, International Journal of Linguistics, American Anthropologist), one essay on Shawnee published in the appendix of a book, one on decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs published in a Smithsonian Report, and another on more general topics of language such as grammatical categories. These articles show his acquaintance through Sapir with linguistic thought and the structure of American Indian languages, and none of these are remarkably controversial.
While the above articles reveal that his technical grasp of linguistics was of sufficient quality for professional publications, Whorf's seven more controversial essays reveal his more speculative side, which is fully in line with the Humboldtian influence in his training through Sapir. These include two provocative essays never published during his lifetime ("An American Indian Model of the Universe" and "A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Communities") and an equally provocative one that was published in a book of tribute to Edward Sapir after Sapir's death in 1939 ("The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language").
And near the end of his life, cut short by "a long and lingering illness" (as Carroll politely labeled cancer) at age 44 in 1941, he embarked on a new mission: he stopped writing to just linguists (and his desk drawer), and began addressing lay audiences as the first major popularizer of a new linguistics. Whorf published three of his last four articles ("Science and Linguistics," "Linguistics as an Exact Science," and "Languages and Logic") in M.I.T.'s Technological Review , appealing to the general educated audience of his day to become linguistically aware -- to realize to what extent the language you speak influences what and how you think. His most oft-cited formulations of the principle of linguistic relativity are contained in these popularizing articles not meant specifically for linguists (though he kind of talks around the principle at the end of "Habitual Thought(8)"):
Figure 16 illustrates a similar situation: 'I push his head back' and 'I drop it in water and it floats,' though very dissimilar sentences in English, are similar in Shawnee. The point of view of linguistic relativity changes Mr. Everyman's dictum: Instead of saying "Sentences are unlike because they tell about unlike facts," he now reasons: "Facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them." (p. 235)
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. (p 214)
From this fact proceeds what I have called the "linguistic relativity principle," which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars(9) are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. (p 221)
Concepts of "time" and "matter" are not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed. (p 158)
It was his final act of publication, though, "Language, Thought and Reality," published in Theosophist, a decidedly non-academic publication by the Theosophical Society in India, that in my opinion really got academics scratching their heads the most about him -- although, to be fair, most academics who would care probably didn't even know about this publication until Whorf's articles were collected 16 years later. Written probably on his deathbed, and written specifically to people whom he knew were open to and excited about 'new ideas,' this final essay shows Whorf at his holistic, mystical and poetic best, reaching at last an international educated audience with his ideas about the power of language, and especially its background role in creating our daily lived realities.
Dr. Sam I. Hayakawa, leader of the General Semantics movement and later a California Senator, was perhaps the first linguist to reprint one of Whorf's essays for a larger audience in his 1941 Language in Action. This essay, "Science and Linguistics," the first of his three Technological Review articles for non-specialists, was also the leadoff essay when those three and a few others were gathered and published as Collected Papers on Metalinguistics by the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department in 1952. His final essay, "Language, Mind & Reality," was also reprinted in 1952 by Etc., a Review of General Semantics . Within a decade of his death, people in semantics (which deals with meaning) and in the State Department (which deals with translation) were determined to get Whorf's ideas out to a wider audience.
Then in the mid-'50s, Whorf's work fairly exploded onto the scene with two dramatic events: a major linguistics conference in 1954 to discuss his ideas, and the 1956 M.I.T. Press publication of Whorf's Language, Thought, and Reality, the definitive collection of his published and unpublished articles, collected and introduced by John Carroll (now in its 22nd printing). Most American linguists during the '50s were anthropological linguists, and many of the best-known anthropologists and linguists showed up at the Conference on the Interrelations of Language and Other Aspects of Culture, either attacking or defending Whorf. The eminent Harry Hoijer vigorously objected at the time to what he called the "vulgarization of Whorf's work(10) " which he saw going on at this gathering a little more than a decade after Whorf's death. This vulgarization would continue for decades, impelled and intensified by the universalist followers of Noam Chomsky.
Part IIa: Chomsky takes on Whorf
In fact, I say 'the followers' because in my 30 years of reading in linguistics, only once have I ever come across Chomsky actually attacking Whorf head-on -- and that was in a Preface he wrote for Adam Schaff's 1973 Language and Cognition, translated from Polish and printed by McGraw Hill, which someone sent me by email a few years ago. And the interesting thing is: although I don't remember finding this Preface when I reviewed the literature in the late '70s and wrote about "The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis", it nonetheless contains the same 'determinism' and 'circularity' arguments, cloaked as 'relativity', as in the literature I did review.
I think it is useful to study this Preface carefully, so I will footnote some places I have trouble with, especially the hidden assumptions behind Chomsky's words. Maybe you should read it straight through (without footnotes) the first time, as I did -- and went: "Oh, no! Chomsky's right and I'm wrong!" Then I thought it over.
The hypothesis of linguistic relativity as formulated particularly by Whorf,(11) discussed here at length, is one that has given rise to much interesting thought and speculation. Many of the inadequacies in Whorf's formulation are sketched here; there are others that deserve more prominence than they have received. Whorf argues that the structure of language(12) plays a role in determining a world-view(13) and supports his argument by contrasting the world-view characteristic of speakers of Standard Average European (SAE) with that of speakers of various American Indian languages. As Schaff notes, the hypothesis practically rests on the treatment of categories of time and space in Hopi.(14) The category of space is similar in Hopi to SAE, but the Hopi, Whorf argues, do not have our intuition of TIME as a smooth flowing continuum, with a past, present, and future, in our sense. The basis for this distinct world-view is provided by the categories of their language, which does not formally provide the past-present-future analysis of verb forms,(15) as in SAE.(16) Against this it has been argued that Whorf gives no evidence for a difference in linguistic structure, but, rather, begs the question by postulating the difference on the basis of the difference in the formal structure of Hopi and SAE.(17) Here, then, is a point where further research might be proposed, perhaps along lines that Schaff suggests, to bridge the gap in the argument.
But there is, after all, a much more fundamental defect in Whorf's argument, namely, that his description of SAE is incorrect.(18) In English, for example, there is no structural basis for the past-present-future world-view that Whorf attributes, quite correctly, to SAE speakers.(19) Rather, a formal analysis of English structure would show a past-present distinction, a set of aspects (perfect and progressive), and a class of modals, one of which happens to be used to express future tense (among other devices that serve this purpose). Approaching English from a Whorfian point of view,(20) we would conclude that an English speaker has no concept of time as a doubly infinite line, he himself occupying the position of a point moving constantly from past to future, but rather he conceives of time in terms of a basic dichotomy between what is past and what is not yet past, in terms of an aspectual system of a subtle sort, and in terms of a superimposed and independent system of modalities involving possibility, permission, ability, necessity, obligation, future (the latter not being distinguished in any special way). The conclusion is absurd, which simply goes to show that our concept of time is not determined by the linguistic categories in any detectable way, but is rather quite independent of them.(21) If this is true of speakers of English, why not of speakers of Hopi?(22)
From consideration of these matters one is led to several conclusions. First, the investigation of linguistic relativity presupposes an exact analysis of linguistic structure of a sort that is not available for SAE, let alone for American Indian languages.(23) This is no quibble over tenth-order effects. Even an excellent linguist like Whorf was able to misconceive the nature of such a basic part of English structure as the system of verbal auxiliaries. What is more, it might yet turn out that Whorf's quite naive conclusion about English is actually correct. That is, further research might, in fact, show that at a deeper level of analysis than can be realized today, there is a past-present-future system underlying the formal structure outlined in the preceding paragraph. I see no indication that this is true, but it would not be a very great surprise. If it turned out that Whorf is correct, this would further substantiate my feeling that studies of linguistic relativity are entirely premature, since his correct guess would have been based on no evidence of substance and no defensible formal analysis of English structure.(24)
Now read it again consulting the footnotes so you can see how he does achieves such a stunning effect while sounding polite as apple pie and even complimenting Whorf as being an excellent linguist, even though in a left-handed way.
But here's what troubles me the most: the smokescreen aspect. When you finish reading Chomsky's Preface, what is it, exactly, that survives of the very real possibility that the Hopis do not have and do not live by our cultural notion of time? What happens to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is something profound that we can learn about the diversity of human thinking and experience, about different systems of spacetime? (Native American systems I've worked with seem to express integrated spacetime, like modern physics, not separate Space and Time like us.) What happens to that felt sense of difference that my American Indian bilingual friends describe as they go between different languages and cultures? It just evaporates, becomes a non-issue, because of this highly rhetorical style, shared by Chomsky's followers, which reduces, simplifies, and discounts important human and existential insights.
Would you, as a student of linguistics, think it would be at all useful to you to read Benjamin Whorf's writings after reading what Chomsky, the leading light of the profession, had to say about him? This smokescreen aspect is the major challenge that I have with all rationalist argumentation, and why I, with Whorf, prefer systems thinking, which I call respect thinking. I'll try to stay respectful in the next section, about a Chomskyan follower.
Part IIb: Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct and 'Mentalese'
During the past decade, the book I've been most asked about by my linguistics students, possibly because I have not included it in the readings, is a popularizing book about linguistics by M.I.T.'s Steven Pinker, called The Language Instinct. The cover even has a testimonial by Chomsky prominently displayed at the bottom: "An extremely valuable book." It is an excellent book in many respects, and I recommend it to any thoughtful reader -- except, of course, when it comes to his Chapter 3 on "Mentalese," where he takes on Benjamin Whorf and the misnamed Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Here we almost need a score card in order to see the old familiar players in action: utter confusion of determinism with relativity, mixed with strawman and ad hominem arguments, and even a soupçon of faulty scholarship.
Pinker starts out Chapter 3 by introducing us to "the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, stating that people's thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language, and its weaker version, linguistic relativity, stating that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers (p57) ." Whorf immediately has two strikes against him -- first, his principle about relativity reclaimed from physics which had been stolen from linguistic thought, is cavalierly demoted to a 'hypothesis', as usual, but now it's primarily about 'determinism': even the relativity is mired in monocausal determinism in Pinker's formulation (which we might call "The Pinker Hypothesis of Linguistic Determinism"). The magic transformation is complete: a principle of relativity, modelled on 20th century physics formulation, becomes -- voila! -- a hypothesis about monocausal determinism, the mainstay of 19th-century physics. How retro! And, unfortunately, as usual, there are no citations or footnotes to any writings by either Sapir or Whorf to back up his claim, even though as an author he specifically chose to use the word 'stating' -- so it must be stated by them somewhere, mustn't it?!
Two pages later we find that "The linguistic determinism hypothesis is closely linked to the names Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf." The construction is closely linked is what we might call a "Passive of Convenient Omission," so that exactly WHO has been doing the linking incessantly for decades is conveniently omitted. (Pinker's use of this is all the more bizarre because just two pages before he talks about how constructions like Reagan's famous non-confession "Mistakes were made" license an evasion of responsibility.) So who's the deleted agent -- who's doing the linking? My research indicates that the agent is the group of advocates of universal grammar who created, developed and promulgated The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax in the first place as a way of avoiding the more important implications of relativity and quantum theories in their own work.
So, true to form, Whorf is the one being introduced to readers as a rabid determinist, even though anyone who knows about relativity in physics knows that relativity and quantum theories are what separates classical Newtonian deterministic thinking from that of modern physics; relativity, in fact, introduces structural linguistic insights into the mathematics of physics, and demonstrates how different starting points lead to different conceptions of the cosmos, or worldviews. Euclidean geometry gives one view of a world of Space and Time, and non-Euclidean geometry gives another view, of a universe of spacetime. Whorf didn't only write about linguistics, he also brought notions from physics, Jungian synchronicity, systems theory and Gestalt psychology (with its foregrounding and backgrounding) into his writing -- all holistic viewpoints which go against the business-as-usual 'Old Science' standards against which he is normally judged. In fact, he knew that our grammatical structures mitigate against such insights:
Monistic, holistic and relativistic views of reality appeal to philosophers and some scientists, but they are badly handicapped in appealing to the "common sense" of the Western average man -- not because nature herself refutes them (if she did, philosophers could have discovered this much), but because they must be talked about in what amounts to a new language. "Common sense," as its name shows, and "practicality," as its name does not show, are largely matters of talking so that one is readily understood. (p 152)
Pinker's determinism mischaracterization, which is quite effective for building a familiar strawman opponent, is followed immediately by undisguised scorn for anyone who finds something of intellectual value in the celebration of cognitive diversity instead of smartly jumping on the universalist bandwagon, characterizing it as merely a pre-professional concern ("perhaps accounting for the perennial appeal of the hypothesis to undergraduates"). And then the inevitable voice of authority thunders out from the ivory halls:
But it is wrong, all wrong. The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity.
Again there is no citational backup, nor is any possible, to show that Whorf ever stated that thought was the same thing as language (if he thought they were the same thing, how was he supposed to have then said that one determines the other?), but there it is -- Whorf's all wrong, and he's committed a conventional absurdity. On the next page Pinker tells us that "the more you examine Whorf's arguments, the less sense they make," and then authoritatively and derisively intones,
[T]here is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers' ways of thinking. But I want to do more than review the unintentionally comical history of attempts to prove that they do.
Wrong? Absurdity? Less sense? Unintentionally comic? Does this promote objective scientific reading of Whorf? You see how fun it is to take shots at a strawman opponent and call it 'Whorf'? He then takes the next few pages to help us understand WHY linguistic determinism, often called 'the strong version,' is wrong, yet again without demonstrating that either Sapir or Whorf advocated it -- and what's the point of talking about it if nobody advocated it? What is the purpose of all this muddying of the waters, this setting up of a strawman opponent easy to tear to shreds?
In addition, Pinker either does not know about or is resolutely disregarding the work of Berkeley cognitive scientist Dan I. Slobin concerning a particular form of thinking that occurs simultaneously while we are talking to ourselves or others. Slobin calls this "thinking for speaking," during which process our thinking is very much shaped by the grammar of our language. Interestingly, in order to even think productively about this form of thinking, Slobin was forced to move from monolithic nouns like "Language" and "Thought" -- processes so difficult to think of clearly as 'things' -- to more verby, participial forms of English in 'thinking' and 'speaking'. As we saw in the "God is not a Noun" chapter, one important way to tap into creativity is to break up our cognitive habits (25) , and one way to do that is to think of 'things' in a verby way, changing our language.
Nothing displays Pinker's unremitting contempt for Whorf more than his treatment of one of Whorf's American Indian language examples, which explained how English "The boat is grounded on the beach" comes out more like "It is on the beach pointwise as an event of canoe motion" in the Nootka language spoken by some river peoples of the American Northwest. Pinker, however, following his usual habit of shoddy scholarship when dealing with Whorf, seemingly never actually bothered to check Whorf's original writings and mistakenly attributes the sentence as being from Apache -- from desert dwelling peoples, not generally known for their canoe prowess. Why be accurate about someone you've cast as your enemy, even though it leaves you yourself wide open to ridicule?
Pinker's scientistic bias is clear when he says,
The idea that language shapes thinking was plausible when scientists were in the dark about how thinking works or even how to study it. Now that cognitive scientists know how to think about thinking...
With the exception of Slobin, evidently. This argument hearkens back to the most important Newtonian argument going on here: whether language shapes/molds our thinking or is a mirror/reflection of it. Notice that the question is deliberate framed in a yes/no, monocausal determinism mode of argumentation -- as if it couldn't possibly do both at once in some proportion. In higher-order systems thinking, which these critics have yet to bring to bear on the issue, a yes/yes answer is quite acceptable: language shapes and reflects thinking while thinking shapes and reflects language in a mutually interdependent chicken-and-eggy historical way.
Pinker also attacks Whorf on the tired old "language and perception" argument; again, nobody using this argument has ever shown, by proper citation, that Whorf hypothesized that language shapes perception, yet the bugaboo crops up in almost every discussion of the Hypothesis. In showing the obvious absurdity of language having anything whatever to do with influencing perception, Pinker contrasts the way physicists and physiologists look at color: while to the former 'color' is a continuous wavelength dimension without our familiar delineations (that is, just frequencies in a certain range), to the latter it's a matter of three kinds of cones in the eye wired to neurons, etc. "No matter how influential language may be, it would seem preposterous to a physiologist that it could reach down into the retina and rewire the ganglion cells."
Well, how preposterous of Whorf to have even brought it up! Which he didn't -- see how strawman argumentation works? This kind of language is intended to silence the "true believers", or even casual questioners, so they won't bring up touchy issues in class or at professional conferences.
What Whorf DID talk about was how the habits of our language impel us to think of a fist, or lightning, as a 'thing'; how a slight elevation of land becomes a different 'thing' from the ground around it (hill), or slightly higher water content of the ground qualifies it to be a different 'thing' (swamp) from the ground around it. More like conception than perception.
Besides, in his overly-physiological explanation above Pinker appears to assume that whatever comes into the retina and through it into the ganglia is what we see -- itself an overly simplistic direct view of vision which overlooks the obvious constructed nature of vision. If we saw 'directly', we would always be aware of the blind spot in our vision where the retina attaches to the eyeball; instead, that is all filled in by the magic of construction, blending the "direct seeing" input with memory and meaning to produce a seamless visual field. Much less, if we saw 'directly', we would see frequencies, not colors -- red, blue, and green do not exist as colors in the outside world of atoms and molecules, but as frequencies, which are interpreted and projected by the particular parameters of our human senses. We, as a reaction to receiving certain frequencies, clothe the world with colors -- and it even looks like the colors are really 'out there' instead of projected from 'in here'.
On Pinker's page 63, in a discussion of the Hopi conception of time (or, better, 'timing') drawn from Whorf's "An American Indian Model of the Universe", we find his most virulent anti-Whorf attack of all, which reduces to little more than a classic ad hominem attack against the man and not his ideas:
No one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims, but his limited, badly analyzed sample of Hopi speech [even though Chomsky had called Whorf an excellent linguist!] and his long-time leanings toward mysticism must have contributed.
An excellent ad hominem tactic, especially in academe: brand him as a mystic, brand his claims as outlandish, and no self-respecting academic will come near him on pain of their reputation and possibly employment! Luckily, like Whorf, I don't care.
Of course, Whorf had already pointed out half a century earlier that our own notions of flowing time and static space are equally mystical to the Hopi, in whose language "time disappears and space is altered, so that it is no longer the homogeneous and instantaneous timeless space of our supposed intuition or of classical Newtonian mechanics." And modern physics seems to back him up, telling us for nearly a century that our own particular cultural notion of time is, in fact, but a linguistic construct. Relativity was outlandish when Einstein promoted it, but physicists finally saw the deeper sense of it. And when Einstein showed that spacetime is curved, that also included the notion of time being curved, not linear. The notion of curved time, of cycles being important, is indigenous and aboriginal at the same time as being consistent with modern physics. The construct of manifested and manifesting as cosmological foundations instead of space and time crossed over from linguistics into physics and propelled Einstein's co-worker Bohm into envisioning the implicate and explicate orders of reality. Outlandish indeed! Pinker needs to brush up on twentieth-century science if his quest is to make linguistics more scientific.
And finally, in an effort to be strictly factual about Whorf being wrong about Hopi time, Pinker cites the work of Ekkehart Malotki to thereby assure us that Hopi does indeed have time terms. While Malotki's linguistic work has seldom been read except by a few specialists, a more accessible treatment of his work, using his own image and words, is to be found in a video series on The Mind shown on PBS -- especially the last part of a video chapter on "Language".
Part IIc: Malotki 'Disproves' Whorf about Hopi Time
In this video segment, we are introduced to Malotki in the following way: "Whorf made various claims about Hopi language and thought. Ekkehart Malotki has spent 15 years finding out whether they're true." So he's an unbiased researcher without an agenda? In one of the very rare instances of actual linguistic fieldwork ever being shown on TV, a middle-aged Malotki is shown working with a Hopi speaker -- a woman perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties. Now remember: not only did Malotki authorize the depiction of this fieldwork, but others, from filmmakers to linguistic consultants and network executives, must have agreed (on some basis!) that this looked like good fieldwork. Here's a transcription of one part:
Malotki: Okay, let-let-let's interrupt here for a minute. I just heard one expression...what was that, kui-vun-sut?
Hopi: Mm-hum. [clear throat] kui-vun-sut.
Malotki: kui-vun-sut. In other words, to go and pray to the sun with corn meal, and that's why kui-vun-sut, that means the TIME when you do this?
Hopi: Yes, uh-huh. [quietly] The sun's ... barely sunrise.
First off, no lawyer in the land would ever get away with those tactics in a court of law ("Your Honor, he's leading the witness!"). And notice that, in this unequal whiteman-expert/native-woman sociological imbalance, "Yes..." probably means "That's the way you would say it," while barely sunrise is the real answer. But more importantly, this documentation of fieldwork then allows narrator George Page to call Whorf "wrong" a few minutes later -- all because of Malotki hearing what he want to hear ("Yes") instead of the REAL answer: that the phrase described a particular growing lightening of the morning sky, not our Western abstract notion of TIME with past, present and future! What can past, present, and future possibly have to do with describing the quality of light at 'barely sunrise'? How does this fieldwork make Whorf 'wrong'? Fifty-some years before Malotki tortured this time-confession out of that poor Hopi woman, Whorf wrote that
In Hopi however all phase terms, like 'summer, morning,' etc., are not nouns but a kind of adverb... It means 'when it is morning' or 'while morning-phase is occurring'... Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual 'getting later' of it. And so there is no basis here for a formless item answering to our 'time'.
Malotki's Hopi consultant actually gives an even better gloss, having to do with a gradual lightening of the sky characteristic of early morning.
Other phrases in the video however make clear an obvious hidden assumption: that a universalist has come to disprove the claims of a relativist. "Deep down," Malotki says, "we're all the same -- it couldn't be otherwise." Obviously, being both the same and different at the same time hasn't occurred to him; it must be one or the other -- preferably the universalist answer.
How could it be that there are people out there that live, that get through the world, completely divorced from this phenomenon of time that we all experience?
Again, these are classically universalist statements, uttered in a kind of fundamentalist, true believer way, taking as true exactly that which is being questioned. Is it just ME? Do these sound to you like statements of faith, almost fundamentally religious, or like the statements of an unbiased researcher? The best is yet to come: Malotki follows quickly with,
They [Hopis] are living with time at every point of their lives, but not necessarily of course in the way we perceive time today. Before the encounter with the whiteman, there had never been a need for naming hour or minutes or seconds. In the Hopi society, time is probably experienced as a more organic or natural phenomenon.
Maybe it's just me again, but do you see any contradiction between this statement and the previous one? There's "this phenomenon of time that we all experience," and then there's the Hopi experience of time as "a more organic or natural phenomenon" -- which, ostensibly, WE as Westerners don't experience in "this phenomenon of time that we all experience."
More insidiously however Malotki (and later narrator Page, who is reading someone else's script) above uses a rhetorical trick that I didn't mention 20 years ago in my "Demise" article because I didn't see it happening then the way I do now -- and I don't know exactly what the technical term is for repackaging your opponent's position as your own and then calling your opponent 'wrong'.
Let's take this slowly now: On the one hand, Whorf argues that American Indians, indigenous and less technological than Westerners, traditionally have a curved rather than linear concept of time, geared to the diurnal and annual cycles of Mother Earth (the same day coming around again rather than different days). On the other hand, Malotki states that the Hopi experience time as "a more organic or natural phenomenon" rather than our hours, minutes, and seconds. Is it ME? Aren't they arguing for the same view?
Narrator George Page, uttering an invisible writer's words that accept Malotki's fieldwork at face value, continues:
Page: So the Hopi grammar does possess words and grammar for time, but the Hopi concept of time naturally springs from the environment with its naturally perceptible seasons, slow movement of the sun across the sky, rhythms of planting, of a culture that lives from harvest to harvest. Like all languages, the Hopi language holds a mirror to the world its speakers live in.
Gosh, could it be that Whorf was really arguing that American Indians were more supertechnological and divorced from nature than Westerners are, and so their view of time was more unnatural than ours and really weird instead of being tied to the rhythms and cycles of Nature the way Malotki and Page agree it is? What kind of sleight of words is this? Minutes later, Page intoningly concludes the segment with:
Page: Benjamin Whorf's notion that language molds our thoughts, our minds, is seductive. And though he was wrong about the Hopi language in particular, that doesn't necessarily mean he was wrong about language and thinking in general. But most people searching for the link between language and mind think Whorf's question is the wrong one to ask. Maybe our minds ARE in part molded by language. Maybe language merely reflects the workings of brain and mind. Or maybe, it's all in how we look at it. For brain and mind, like biology and psychology, form a continuum, an unbroken line that sometimes may be almost impossible to tease apart.
Perhaps I should mention that the word 'wrong,' though uttered three times in fifteen seconds here, isn't otherwise uttered a single time throughout the hour-long segment. Does the word 'wrong' used in conjunction with Whorf's name three times in quick succession convey anything to you personally? What would you naturally think about Whorf after seeing this superbly produced video on language, and hearing that at the end? Does it seem, given this narration, that there is any useful reason whatsoever for reading Benjamin Whorf's actual writings? Seems like it would be an exercise in futility, which might lead you astray from 'real' linguistic thought.
Part IId. Kicking the Corpse
Perhaps you can now fully appreciate why this continual -- and for decades increasing -- academic smokescreen around Whorf disturbs me so much. And these are only the most recent examples of an essentially vapid yet acrimonious debate that stretches back for half a century as Whorf's critics have systematically simplified his elegant and complex thoughts into fodder for the antique Newtonian shredder, making it up for him as they went along -- and staying anonymous -- when they couldn't pin him down to saying what they had characterized him as saying. And then they trashed their own simplifications, apparently clueless about the larger and staggering implications of what they were trashing -- or were they?
These fairly recent examples of out-and-out Whorf-trashing by Pinker and Malotki, regardless of the excellence of the rest of their work, gave an unmistakably loud and clear message to linguistics students and professionals and non-linguists alike: It's perfectly okay to talk about the ideas of Benjamin Whorf as long as (1) you make sure to muddy the waters by stuffing him in someone else's 'determinism hypothesis' straightjacket, and (2) when you're done, you ritually kick his corpse, turn out the lights, and close the door. Only then will the universalist gods of modern linguistics and the other social sciences be properly appeased, it seems.
Underlying this perhaps unintendedly deceptive scholarship and public reporting is a deep fear that the logic of Western European languages doesn't really match the logic of reality after all, or that it's only one of many that are equally true -- a bitter pill to swallow for those raised on the 'natural' superiority of Western European thinking over that of less 'civilized' indigenous peoples. I hesitate to call this 'racist,' since I really can't get behind a term less than a hundred years old with this meaning which has done nothing but needlessly further divide humanity (religion and place of origin have always been enough to pit people against each other sufficiently), but it can at the very least be called colonializing -- part of the 'superior' colonialistic mindset which has been wreaking havoc on the Americas for over 500 years: beginning with a sad history of physical slavery for this continent's original inhabitants, moving on to 'civilized' economic slavery in a reservation system, culminating in cognitive imperialism, the last stage of cultural imperialism, with Indian children being kidnapped by the federal government and sent to 'English-only' boarding schools thousands of miles away from their families in order to destroy Native culture, knowledge and languages. Many or most Native Americans of 'baby-boomer' age and older -- people you may know! -- were actual victims of this barbaric bureaucratic carrying out of the will of the descendants of the Invaders which tried to wipe out the 'differences' between Native Americans and Europeans. Native Americans are also presently experiencing spiritual terrorism as disrespectful 'wannabe's, like Mickey in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice," appropriate millennia-old spiritual rituals and then teach them to others for profit.
Part III: The Pendulum Swing Back to Respect for Whorf
David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous
Some changes happen only gradually, as thinkers steeped in one way of thinking gradually give way generationally to those raised with a new way of thinking, perhaps first as an option and then as a preferred way. Such is beginning to happen now regarding Benjamin Whorf, I believe, as what my friend Ray West calls 'pre-atomic' thinkers give way to 'post-atomic' ones. I felt for years that I was the only person who was giving Whorf a fair chance -- okay, the only one defending him -- but these days you can find physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, American Indians, and even other linguists treating Whorf with respect again.
The phenomenological methods of Continental philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty have for decades been perhaps the only Western mode of philosophy (besides Whitehead, perhaps) congenial to the insights of Whorf, and David Abram pulls the best of that tradition together in a masterful way in The Spell of the Sensuous -- a joy to read, which I just did while I was writing the early part of this chapter, and was pleased to find him writing the following:
Whorf's fascinating disclosures were often taken simplistically, by researchers in other disciplines, to mean, among other things, that the Hopi people have no temporal awareness whatsoever, or that the Hopi language is utterly static, and has no way of distinguishing between earlier or later events, or between occurrences more or less distant from the speaker in what we would call time. Such misreadings, doubtless encouraged by Whorf's occasional propensity for vigorous overstatement, have led various linguists in recent years to decry Whorf's findings. Several researchers, working closely with the Hopi language, claim to have refuted Whorf's conclusions entirely. Such refutations, however, are themselves dependent upon an oversimplified reading of Whorf's conclusions, upon a crusading refusal to discern that Whorf was not asserting an absence of temporal awareness among the Hopi, but rather an absence, in their discourse, of any metaphysical concept of time that could be isolated from their dynamic awareness of spatiality. (26)
While I can't agree with the 'vigorous overstatement' phrasing, though I know many think so (though how many of them understand the phoneme/quantum/spirit analogy, I can't say), I admire Abram's general stance on the Whorf issue, and I think his explanation above is correct; today a unitary 'spacetime' notion is not as 'outrageous' as it might have seemed in earlier decades of last century, and more thinkers are recognizing the oversimplicity with which Whorf has been treated, thereby hiding insights important for us to know.
John Lucy, Language Diversity and Thought, Vols. 1 & II.
I also admire John Lucy's solidly empirical approach to Whorf (even if he does succumb to calling it a hypothesis), because no matter whether the issue is argued on purely empirical grounds or a more balanced systemic way, the empirical evidence is important. Lucy has learned, as Heisenberg states, that the particular question you're asking is as important as anything else when questioning reality (as the matter/energy character of light shows). Lucy understands that ways of thinking, such as the Newtonian views of reality, are deeply entrenched in common, academic and scientific thinking, and that relativity "challenges assumptions which lie at the heart of much modern social and behavior research -- namely its claim to be discovering general laws and to be truly scientific."
Language Diversity and Thought is a massive undertaking, with the first volume discussing many of the issues I've discussed here and more, and the second volume actually undertaking the empirical research that he calls for in the first volume, contrasting grammars of American English and Yucatec Maya, and concluding with the identification of "distinctive patterns of thinking related to the differences between the two languages." (27) This has been a goal of some linguists in this past century, going back to Saussure, who saw linguistics as a branch of semiology or semiotics, a field which he created and described to be "A study which studies the life of signs in a society." (28)
Lucy rightly brings to our attention, as I also will later in this chapter, many of Whorf's insights that get overlooked in the brouhaha over the Hoax, such as the deeper implications of Whorf's writings,
Throughout his later writings, Whorf made ... statements arguing that to the extent that science, philosophy, logic, and mathematics emerge in a culture, they are dependent on (and frequently little more than) specialized extensions of language patterns." (29)
or that Whorf was most concerned not with the innate possibilities of language and thinking so much as with the daily habitual thought world we live in (in Whorf's terms, "the microcosm that each man carries about within himself, by which he measures and understands what he can of the macrocosm" (30) ) and our 'fashions of speaking':
[T]hese specialized forms of thought are really secondary reflexes of the more basic phenomenon, namely that languages influence everyday habitual thought. (31)
Whorf showed that it was the 'simplest' of English, which some people feel adherence to will solve all problems, that is fraught with the most hidden assumptions. His insurance investigation work showed him that words like 'empty,' 'waste water,' 'spun limestone' and others were fraught with careless possibilities in the real world when linked with notions of fire safety ('empty' gasoline drums being more dangerous than full ones because of explosive fumes, 'water' burning when the waste in it is flammable, the 'stone' part of 'limestone' suggesting that it won't burn).
Thus, speakers unwittingly accept much of the suggestive value of the linguistic analogies in their language even when, upon reflection, they might recognize that they are misleading. (32)
As Lucy rightly comprehends, Whorf was concerned with "the everyday ordinary confusions resulting from overreliance on a linguistic label in responding to experience." (33) In the terms I've used in this book, it's an overreliance on that word-world that is our guide to experiencing reality, assuming it to be a better guide than it often is, that's the problem.
According to Lucy, Whorf "emphasized that speakers have the view that language reflects an independently organized reality and thought rather than shapes or affects them in a significant way." (34) As we have seen, the reflecting vs. shaping argument is one that has been around in the social sciences for a long time, and 'mutual interdependence' or yes/yes solutions have been widely resisted. As radical as that solution, however, was Whorf's insistence that merely examining isolated words or lexical items was only the beginning of the investigation:
Whorf's principal claim was that speakers can readily reflect on lexical meanings but tend to be completely oblivious to the patterned grammatical meanings which ultimately govern a lexical item.... In short, some aspects of language are more susceptible to conscious awareness than are others. (35)
Penny Lee's The Whorf Theory Complex
If Lucy's book cracked the Whorf Hypothesis dam, Penny Lee triumphantly surfed the escaping water, due not in small part to her own understanding of the powerful role which physics -- classical, relativity and quantum -- held in Whorf's mind and writings. It's a simple and obvious point, given his educational and professional history, and the key to understanding correctly Whorf's linguistic relativity principle, yet it's conspicuously absent in the critiques by most of his social science Whorf Hypothesis hoaxers.
Why? Call it the lack of hard science education among social scientists. Or the perils of specialization: when I've said understanding Whorf required knowing something of post-Newtonian physics, linguists have told me that learning linguistics well is difficult enough, so why add something like quantum physics to that? Fair enough, unless you've set your sights on understanding Whorf; unfortunate, perhaps, but nonetheless true, as Penny's book ably shows. For once I could yell, "YES -- someone else actually GETS Whorf!!!!"
What Doesn't Get Talked About Because Of The Hoax??
What is it that generally gets left out of all discussion of Whorf's ideas because of the discussion time which the Whorf Hypothesis Hoax takes to cover whenever Whorf's name comes up? It seems like nobody can just simply have students read Whorf and come up with their own understandings unfiltered through the Hoax. How many insights into the human mind are currently aborted because their thinkers are derisively dismissed as 'Whorfian'? ("Oh, haven't you heard? He's been disproven.") What signposts pointing to different ways of experiencing the world did Whorf leave behind which get lost in the dust of the academic debacle?
I will never forget one of my grad students, a Chinese-American woman, who told me a few years ago that she had searched all major forms of Western psychology for five years trying to find herself somewhere in its pages -- all in vain. But the moment she read the first assigned Whorf essay in my language class, she found what she was looking for: a respect for multilingual awareness, which had something to do with the different languages, cognitive systems, and cultures that she went back and forth between daily. She was personally and professionally elated at this discovery, feeling Whorf had given her new and fruitful directions to go in, and ultimately wound up including Whorf in her dissertation.
Finding Human Language Equivalents for Modern Physics Puzzles
If Whorf were suddenly able to be conscious, 100-some years after his birth, and fully understand what has happened to his reputation since his death, he might be quite amazed, since much of what both his fame and infamy rests on is the essays that were unpublished during his lifetime. Who knows, perhaps he even meant them to remain unpublished. But this is where we owe a debt of gratitude to John Carroll for having the genius to include them for history. Arguably the most important and influential of unpublished works is his seminal "An American Indian Model of the Universe," which I contend may have helped inspire David Bohm to conceive of the implicate and explicate orders, which relate to the terms "explicit" and "implicit" used in Whorf's essay.
Of crucial importance in this article, as Dr. Bohm must have realized, is the first written cosmology of a people that does not revere a dynamic Time separate from a static Space in the way Europeans do. Instead, the major division has more to do with what we might call Sensory and Non-Sensory, Objective and Subjective, Factive and Non-Factive, or Whorf's preferred terms Manifested and Manifesting. What we think of as 'past' as well as things occurring 'right now' are part of the sensorily Manifested realm, while the rest -- our habits ("I walk around the block every morning," called nomic or habitual), our consciousness and thinking processes, what we sometimes call the future -- all are in the still Manifesting realm which has not yet fully Manifested in the physical realm. This particular first division of reality seems to be much more prevalent in Native American languages than Whorf knew, according to my Native colleagues,, stretching as a mega-areal feature across most language families on the continent.
But Whorf's genius was, after giving us the above as background, to then give us a nice puzzle to work through in the Hopi language -- one which makes absolutely no sense in English but makes absolute sense in Hopi terms. The answer, indeed, relies on a different kind of reasoning than normally allowed by Eurothinking -- the yes/yes rather than yes/no kind of reasoning. Here's the puzzle: there's a word in Hopi that we cannot help but translate as either "starting" or "stopping," depending on the context in which it's used.
How, indeed, could one word mean two opposite actions that are each primal and necessary -- wouldn't everybody just get confused the way computers would? Perhaps you can now see the analogy to the experiments early in this century concerning the contradictory particle/wave aspects of light, when physicists thought that if you were one, then you couldn't be the other. Here we have the same problem, only in human language -- which does nothing so much as point out the problem of using English in trying to understand reality.
The puzzle comes with what Whorf calls the 'inceptive' aspect of Hopi. He explains that the 'manifesting' or 'subjective' realm could perhaps better be called, if we wanted to match our own English metaphysical terms more closely with theirs, the realm of 'hoping'. He continues,
Every language contains terms that come to attain cosmic scope of reference, that crystallize in themselves the basic postulates of an unformulated philosophy, in which is couched the thought of a people, a culture, a civilization, even of an era. Such are our words 'reality, substance, matter, cause,' and as we have seen, 'space, time, past, present, future.' Such a term in Hopi is the word most often translated 'hope' -- tunátya -- 'it is in the action of hoping, it hopes, it is hoped for, it thinks or is thought of with hope,' etc. Most metaphysical words in Hopi are verbs, not nouns as in European languages. The verb tunátya contains in its idea of hope something of our words 'thought,' 'desire,' and 'cause,' which sometimes must be used to translate it. The word is really a term which crystallizes the Hopi philosophy of the universe in respect to its grand dualism of objective and subjective; it is the Hopi term for subjective. It refers to the state of the subjective, unmanifest, vital and causal aspect of the Cosmos, and the fermenting activity toward fruition and manifestation with which it seethes -- an action of hoping; i.e., mental-causal activity, which is forever pressing upon and into the manifested realm. As anyone acquainted with Hopi society knows, the Hopi see this burgeoning activity in the growing of plants, the forming of clouds and their condensation in the rain, the careful planning out of the communal activities of agriculture and architecture, and in all human hoping, wishing, striving, and taking thought; and as most especially concentrated in prayer, the constant hopeful praying of the Hopi community, assisted by their esoteric communal ceremonies and their secret, esoteric rituals in the underground kivas -- prayer which conducts the pressure of the collective Hopi thought and will out of the subjective into the objective.
Only now that he's set the stage does Whorf bring in the answer to the puzzle, namely, how the same word, or particle really, can mean both 'starting' and 'stopping.' He explains very carefully how the 'inceptive' form, which means beginning something in the objective realm, means something slightly different when it is applied to the subjective realm of hoping:
The inceptive form tunátya, which is tunyátyava , does not mean 'begins to hope,' but rather 'comes true, being hoped for.' Why it must logically have this meaning will be clear from what has already been said. The inceptive denotes the first appearance of the objective, but the basic meaning of tunátya is subjective activity or force; the inceptive is then the terminus of such activity. It might then be said that tunátya 'coming true' is the Hopi term for objective, as contrasted with subjective, the two terms being simply two different inflectional nuances of the same verbal root, as the two cosmic forms are the two aspects of one reality. (36)
So Whorf's cosmic puzzle term from Hopi means something like stopping being subjective while simultaneously starting being objective, showing a one-directional movement from one realm to another, each realm being just an artificially different aspect of the same reality pointed to by language. It describes a very subtle transformative process in a way that, while quite difficult to do in English, is quite common in Native American languages. As you can see, it is indeed a yes/yes answer, showing a relationship partaking of both realms at once in a transformative process from one to another. It is the process, not 'things,' that is important in most Native American languages. It reminds me of the Lakota term that means 'mixed blood,' 'translator,' and 'medicine person' all at once, depending on the context -- which points to the same process.
In the above example we see Whorf portraying a synthesizing way of thinking -- complementary, interdependent, Gestalt, holistic thinking -- which is the only way out of the trap he provides, a trap which cannot be solved by just the information given to us in English, since that information is contradictory in English. His essay is an example of linguistic relativity -- of the different views of the cosmos that unrelated languages and cultures can provide for their participants.
Perhaps it is true, as Whorf suggested, that what we fear is that if relativity is correct, we have been tricked all of our lives by English, thinking that ALL of reality was something like our English language conceptions of it told us it was. Whorf brings a sorely needed correction to Western arrogance that may help balance us as English goes global, engulfing other worldviews with its own, with its emphasis on static nouns in an inanimate universe. We owe a debt of gratitude to Whorf for explicating exactly what different forms of thinking are like, and for so expertly showing us a somewhat foreign way of thinking and holding it up as a mirror to our own, much as the Cheyennes did to me for four years in the early '70s. I recommend his entire essay to you in its original English as a spacetime journey through another langscape.
As far as I can figure it, the toughest part of complementarity thinking is that it goes against public attitudes. Because of English-speaking people's love of binary-opposition thinking, complementarity is often simplified to become the equivalent of "sitting on the fence" or "speaking out of both sides of your mouth." Complementarity is often seen by binary thinkers as indecision, a simple lack of making a decision, rather than as a conscious choice to remain in the tension of the truth of both sides -- and such is the path of a shaman, steadfastly standing with a foot in both worlds.
The Importance of Meaning in Linguistics
In another of his early, unpublished essays, "A Linguistic Consideration of Thinking in Primitive Communities," Whorf attempted to set the record straight regarding how anthropologists think about linguistics:
What needs to be clearly seen by anthropologists, who to a large extent may have gotten the idea that linguistics is merely a highly specialized and tediously technical pigeonhole in a far corner of the anthropological workshop, is that linguistics is essentially the quest of meaning. It may seem to the outsider to be inordinately absorbed in recording hair-splitting distinctions of sound, performing phonetic gymnastics, and writing complex grammars which only grammarians read. But the simple fact is that its real concern is to light up the thick darkness of the language, and thereby much of the thought, the culture, and the outlook upon life of a given community, with the light of this "golden something," as I have heard it called, this transmuting principle of meaning. (37)
So what is meaning? Tough question -- you see how Whorf had to talk around it. I remember at the beginning of my linguistics training being told, by Chomskyans and structuralists alike, that "Meaning is a can of worms," which serves as quite a contrast to Whorf's characterization; kind of a half-full/half-empty attitude, perhaps.
Meaning comes in at least two flavors: lexical and structural -- the meanings of words, as a foreground, and the meanings inherent in background structural patterns into which words are placed. That is, we can have individual meanings for words like "king," "peasant," and "kneel," but something else, another kind of meaning, is added when we put the words together as "The king knelt before the peasant." (What, exactly, DOES 'the' mean to you? It usually means it's old information, something or someone mentioned before or understood from context.) Simple ordering in English can give us structural meanings of subject and object, of who's doing what to whom. It is this structural meaning, where the meaning comes from being a point in a system, known this past century as structuralism, that linguistics has shown the importance of to the other sciences.
I realized recently while reading Heisenberg's 1958 Physics and Philosophy that the relationship in quantum physics between 'normal' reality and quantum reality is very similar to linguists' relationship between a sound and a phoneme: it is the difference between the 'actually occurring' physical manifestation and the possibilities and potential before manifestation. For instance, when we hear the sounds of the words "tick" and "stick," we physically register two different t sounds (which we call aspirated and unaspirated, aspiration being a puff of air that follows the sound) as the "meaning of 't'", or the phoneme /t/; we cannot interchange those "t" sounds without making our English sound un-English.
But if you ask what does the phoneme /t/ sound like, there is no answer to this question. Phonemes themselves do not have sounds and cannot be sounded out; they only sound like one thing or another within specific contexts. In fact, we use not only 't' in certain places, but sometimes a 'flap' (just tapping the 't' spot instead of holding it closed, as in "butter") or a 'glottal stop' (made way back in the throat, as in "cotton") instead.
What all these sounds in English have in common is that each sound, or phone, is part of a set that MEANS 't', called the phoneme /t/ -- but each only in its own contexts. That is, almost nobody in the U.S. pronounces a classic 't'-sound anymore in the words 'button' and 'cotton'. Sound them out for yourself, both the way you normally do and with an actual 't' sound. We mostly use what's called a glottal stop, down in the throat, instead of a classic 't' near the middle of the mouth, unless we're giving a formal pronunciation. But now look at words like 'bottle' and 'better' -- we use a flap in the middle of these words, not a glottal stop (unless we're Cockney speakers or certain U.S. East Coast dialects). Sound them out the way you usually do, then use the glottal stop you used in 'button' and 'cotton'. And if we used a flap instead of a glottal in 'button' and 'cotton', they too would sound weird. All of these sounds masquerading as 't' -- each in its own way the physical manifestation of the meaning or 'spirit' of 't' in specific physical contexts. This is directly analogous to the structuralism of this past century's physics, with its Newtonian realm of sensory actualities and its quantum world of possibilities.
Like phonemes, as with the famous Schroedinger's Cat Thought Experiment where a cat in a box is said to be both alive and dead until you open the lid and look, quantum eventing does not itself have real-world characteristics, but require real-world contexts and observations in order to manifest their potential. It is the difference between possibilities and actualities, as Heisenberg put it, or between the manifesting and the manifested, in Whorf's terms.
Another example, perhaps easier to understand, comes from morphology, the level of making words: what does the notion 'plural' look or sound like in English? "Just add an -s at the end of the word"? You don't know the plural until you know the word it's going to be applied to: man/men, child/children, goose/geese, sheep/sheep, tree/trees. The potential or quantum state of plural contains all those possibilities and more, but it's only when you observe the plural on a word, that you know which of the potential possibilities becomes manifest as actual.
At any rate, meaning -- or 'potentia' in Aristotle's terms for physics -- is what science has been forced to allow in the front door during the past century.
Mechanical Mixtures and Chemical Compounds : Plus vs. Times (circumfixes)
In his popular essay "Languages and Logic," Whorf talked about what at first may seem a trivial point to non-linguists: processes of word formation, and how different one kind is that's found in Native America but not very often in our own languages. After carefully dissecting and analyzing some Shawnee and Nootka sentences, Whorf reflects:
As a hang-over from my education in chemical engineering, I relish an occasional chemical simile. Perhaps readers will catch what I mean when I say that the way constituents are put together in these sentences of Shawnee and Nootka suggests a chemical compound, whereas their combination in English is more like a mechanical mixture. A mixture, like the mountaineer's potlicker, can be assembled out of almost anything and does not make any sweeping transformation of the overt appearance of the material. A chemical compound, on the other hand, can be put together only out of mutually suited ingredients, and the result may be not merely soup but a crop of crystals or a cloud of smoke. (38)
Another simile, a mathematical one I brought up earlier, might discuss this distinction in terms of plus vs. times. I believe it fits the sense of what Whorf was trying to bring out in his simile, and I used earlier the example of two strangers vs. a couple sitting on a bench to convey the same idea -- one plus one equals two, but one times one equals a new kind of one with an added dimension.
Whorf says that these Native American languages don't use this chemical compounding exclusively, but use other methods of forming sentences as well, and that even we use this form occasionally:
Even our own Indo-European tongues are not wholly devoid of the chemical method, but they seldom make sentences by it, afford little inkling of its possibilities, and give structural priority to another method. It was quite natural, then, that Aristotle should found our traditional logic wholly on this other method. (39)
Finally we see why Whorf brought this up -- it was another way to bring up the fact that different languages engender different ways of thinking, and that grammatical preferences in a language have a direct bearing on preferences in logic and thinking within a culture. A persistent point to which Whorf always returns is that while certain parts of language, for instance words, are fairly amenable to conscious reflection, other parts -- such as these deep grammatical structures -- are fairly invisible to our consciousness, and thus all the more powerful in shaping our thinking in ways we're unaware of.
The Logics Involved In Language
[W]hen anyone, as a natural logician, is talking about reason, logic, and laws of correct thinking, he is apt to be simply marching in step with the purely grammatical facts that have somewhat of a background character in his own language, or family of languages, but are by no means universal in all languages and in no sense a common substratum of reason.
It is this background character, according to Whorf, that is the province of linguistics; the trick, in Gestalt terms, is flipping the background into the foreground and studying it. When Whorf mentioned 'natural logician' above, he was talking about most of us as we blindly follow the 'logic' of English and its Indo-European roots. However, recent work by a trained logician influenced by Whorf has shown Whorf to be on the right track again.
A friend of mine, Andy Hilgartner, has been working for decades to create a mathematical notation and ways of speaking/writing based on a non-aristotelian logic of non-identity as opposed to our firmly entrenched Aristotelian logic of identity. In "A Non-Aristotelian View of Quantum Theory," (40) Hilgartner says that his team
uncovered a fundamental relationship between grammar and assumptions and disclosed what ... amounts to an untenable assumption encoded in the grammar of W[estern]I[ndo]E[uropean] languages such as English or the mathematical theory of sets. (41)
That 'untenable assumption,' found in both Western mathematical languages and daily languages, is Aristotle's Law of Identity (C=C), one of his "Laws of Thought, (42) " by which he meant a universal law of human thought, one that all humans obey. The problem is that Identity is certainly a choice one can fixate on, but is not the only choice available. Hilgartner has shown that Western languages, logic and thinking processes have reified identity into an unquestioned assumption, even though non-identity is just as practical a choice to make.
What is not generally well understood is that identity is a cultural metaphor, plain and simple. We all know that when we step out of the boundaries of rarified logic, strict identity no longer holds in the real world. Non-identity is based on the kind of observations that Heraclitus made millennia ago: that we can never step into the 'same' river twice; or that we may not be today exactly who we were yesterday. This is not to say that identity is 'wrong,' but merely that if it is 'right' then non-identity is also 'right'; and they are both right at the same time. The tension of Life is that everything is both same and different simultaneously. Hilgartner maintains that quantum logic was discovered only by disobeying the Aristotelian law of identity embedded in the grammars of our daily language. Once you reject identity as exclusively valid, he says,
the WIE grammar collapses, taking with it the current forms of our WIE logics, mathematics, sciences, philosophies, jurisprudences, religions, etc. (43)
As we have seen, Whorf claims the same intimate connection between grammar and societal forms of knowledge as Hilgartner does, and Hilgartner is not unaware of Whorf's contribution to this line of thinking:
In the text we quote one implicit statement of Whorf's principle of linguistic relativity. Our findings over the thirty-year lifespan of our research group illustrate and exemplify a large majority of Whorf's inferences, with a directness not apparently available within the WIE frame of reference. (44)
The payoff for Hilgartner's alternative scheme is that once you take into consideration the difference between, in Count Korzybski's terms, the map and the territory, the words and the reality they point to, then the so-called 'contradictions' of quantum behavior when viewed from the frame of identity logic simply disappear when viewed from the frame of non-identity -- no longer contradictions at all, but flowing naturally from the different logic used. The description of a quantum event can never actually BE the same as the event itself, and yet that's what scientists expect who are trained into the Aristotelian laws of thought. As Hilgartner points out, "Nothing in the grammar of the WIE languages, however, requires any speaker/writer to distinguish between the words she/he generates and that which the words designate (if anything)." and that "the grammar of WIE languages tacitly identifies map with territory." (45)
Of central concern to Hilgartner's method is his incorporating the quantum physics insight regarding our observer-created realities -- that our observations change possibilities into actualities (although he says the insight doesn't go far enough and record that the observer too is changed by the observation). Rather than using the classical subjects and objects of traditional thought, Hilgartner is forced to either work with mathematical symbols or use clumsy but accurate run-ons such as "one-particular-organism-as-a-whole-dealing-with-its-environment-at-a-date, as viewed by a specified observer" in order to capture the important spacetime facts of 'transacting' (46) in an 'eventing'; indeed, he had to create this somewhat clunky language along with its elegant mathematical notation as a kind of "Let's Keep Track Of What We Say" mode of rigor for his ideas. In a way, it's similar to what some Native American languages do in forcing their speakers with every statement to declare whether this is personal knowledge or hearsay and if the latter how much credence you put in it (called "evidentials").
Complementarity plays a primary role in Hilgartner's formulations, and he elucidatingly uses the Gestalt terminology of figure and (back)ground (including an optical illusion in his text), or focal and subsidiary interest, to show the necessity of balancing opposites (we can only focus on one at a time) rather than denying one side completely; Whorf used Gestalt concepts repeatedly throughout his writings as well, though never making the connection as explicitly as Hilgartner does. Interestingly, F.S.C. Northrop, in an Introduction to Heisenberg's book, describes a faction within physics that wished to explain away complementarity by saying it was basically a language problem, that of not keeping distinct the two kinds of causality, weaker and stronger (47) , when contemplating the Newtonian and quantum realities; that its only purpose was to avoid invoking the Law of Contradiction; that complementarity is just a way of playing fast and loose with contradiction.
Again, it is natural that people speaking Western European languages and using logic based on the law of identity should feel, at first, extremely uncomfortable when asked to contemplate the positive side of contradiction, or a superset out of which both contradiction and complementarity arise. But viewing a simple optical illusion shows that complementarity is a way of life -- you can either view the foreground or the background, but perhaps never both at once. Viewing is not understanding, however, and it is possible to understand two 'opposite' things at once as being true, and the holding of that tension is a shamanic act of consciousness; denying either is an act of intellectual cowardice in today's quantum climate.
I'm firmly convinced that 80-90% of the Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax would go away if his critics were merely brave enough to step up to the next level of thinking which science has brought us during this pastt century, complementarity, in the way Whorf was completely aware of and practiced: he used quantum logic rather than Newtonian logic when the situation called for quantum logic (as when that golden something called meaning is involved).
Substance and Matter in the English Worldview
One of Whorf's most important insights that get lost in the Whorf Hypothesis Hoax is the very real possibility that some of our least questioned assumptions about reality, including 'time,' 'space,' and 'matter,' are more like verbal hallucinations born of a noun-happy family of languages that look at the world in this way, rather than deep 'intuitions' of the 'really real' state of reality. That is, we all live our everyday habitual lives as if these notions are real, and not just part of our language and its way of helping us 'see' reality. We have seen how 'time' in our normal sense is such an hallucination, and according to Heisenberg was abolished by Einstein's mathematics. (48) It is only the existence of languages other than those of the Indo-European family that can bring in this counter-evidence to a worldview logic grown wild and considering itself "true" in the absence of just such exceptions.
As I've teased you with before, astronomer Sir James Jeans told us that the universe is looking less and less like a great machine and more and more like a great thought. Heisenberg assures us that the universal "substance" in classical terms is energy, which can transform into light, heat, matter, and other vibrations. But wait -- energy, even in the form of electrons, which don't exist as nouns -- is what drives the images we see on TV. Are we just enmeshed in a kind of reality-TV? But, you say, these things are made of particles and particles are made of elementary particles.
If you were drinking I'd call it the alcohol talking; since you're not, I'll have to call it the language talking. We just call them particles because it's difficult to do otherwise in European languages. I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower and flying the great expanse, and then as a butterfly I settled down for the night and dreamed I was a man... Unfortunately, there's very little evidence against this view at this point right now.
Perhaps this is one of those glass-being-half-full-or-half-empty concepts. Heisenberg points to the defining moment in history when the glass became half-empty for those of Western European descent:
However, the emphasis on experience [in the rise of natural science] was connected with a slow and gradual change in the aspect of reality. While in the Middle Ages what we nowadays call the symbolic meaning of a thing was in some way its primary reality, the aspect of reality changed toward what we can perceive with our senses. And what we can see and touch became primarily real. And this new concept of reality could be connected with a new activity: we can experiment and see how things really are. (49)
I hope we allow by now that "complementarity rules" -- that the real answer may indeed be found in the tension between the matter realm and the quantum/ spirit/meaning realm. (50) It is after all a kind of accident of nature that we as English speakers have a habitual cultural tendency to see everything in terms of nouns and sensory things; had we been born speakers of other languages, as I hope I have shown so far, we might 'see' the same eventings in relationship and process terms rather than thing terms, 'seeing' and reporting reality as the dancing rather than the dancers. Neither we nor speakers of Native American languages actually had much choice in the matter, if you look at it that way. However, modern physics has shown that dancing is the 'substance' of the universe (51) -- verby, not nouny. As the end of World War II showed, nouns only become unstuck and become verbs again with the most explosive of eventings, often followed by destructive fallout.
If we assumed a new cultural attitude of paying attention to the dancing rather than the dancers, which our whole language mitigates against, unfortunately -- of knowing two hundred words for different 'states' or rhythms of consciousness instead of two hundred words for roads or two thousand words for makes and models of automobiles -- we might, as Native Americans do, finally just give up trying to 'explain' it and call it all a great mystery. After all, we know now (and even Galileo knew back then) that we project colors and taste and smells onto our experience of the world, that atoms do not have these sensory properties and they are filled in by our own senses. How much more than that are we also projecting? And onto what? And what is it in reality that we're responding to in this way?
As I wrote in the late '70s, in "The Origin of Speech in a Deep Structure of Psi" ['psi' being then a useful cultural word for ill-understood human and animate abilities], the so-called physical reality we are part of is primarily a frequency reality: the difference between C-sharp and B-flat, or between orange and red, or between a triangle and a square, is primarily that of patterns of frequency -- which we clothe with the smells, tastes, colors and forms of our experienced reality. Frankly, all this perhaps says something useful and explanatory to the scientifically inclined, but I'm not real sure it says anything more than "spirits" says to my Native American friends; maybe less, since they live in an animate universe.
What happens to our notion of 'substance' is like what happens to our notion of 'time' when examined closely: it disappears, revealed as a linguistic hallucination, though a persistent and unforgiving one. When our scientists 'peered inside' the supposedly indivisible atom, they found qualities which they named as particles -- electrons, protons, and neutrons -- or building blocks of the atom; then those were found to be made of "elementary particles" as they're called, such as quarks with charm, but the word "particle" in these instances leads our visualizing minds astray from what's actually going on with misplaced concreteness.
What is an elementary particle? We say, for instance, simply "a neutron" but we can give no well-defined picture and what we mean by the word. We can use several pictures and describe it once as a particle, once as a wave or as a wave packet. But we know that none of these descriptions is accurate. Certainly the neutron has no color, no smell, no taste. ... If one wants to give an accurate description of the elementary particle -- and here the emphasis is on the word "accurate" -- the only thing which can be written down as description is a probability function. But then one sees that not even the quality of being (if that may be called a "quality") belongs to what is being described. It is a possibility for being or a tendency for being.(52)
So at the bottom of 'matter' is 'a possibility or tendency for being' -- not so 'substantial' after all. To further complicate matters, physicist Jack Sarfatti contends that matter or mass is gravitationally trapped light, as a consequence of Einstein's relativity equation. Following these lines of reasoning, life is looking more and more like Reality TV with fully 'realistic' sensory effects -- surround sound, smell-o-vision, "solid" mass, etc. Or we can just call it the Great Mystery.
Telepathy and Other Issues of Consciousness
I cannot deny that Whorf has been my inspiration and role model for three decades now because of how he wrote about issues of consciousness -- something that seems not to matter to most linguists today. For instance, Whorf is the only linguist I know of, besides myself of course, who has dared to write about 'telepathy' in his linguistics articles, though without using that word:
Moreover, the tremendous importance of language cannot, in any opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called "mind." My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signaling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur, and which also can, at a pinch, effect communication (thought not true agreement) without language's and without symbolism's aid. I mean "superficial" in the sense that all processes of chemistry, for instance, can be said to be superficial upon the deeper layer of physical existence, which we know variously as intra-atomic, electronic, or subelectronic. (53)
Otherwise called the quantum realm with its 'elementary particles,' in terminology popularized after Whorf's death in 1941, the "processes of consciousness" belong to this quantum world, naturally, not to the Newtonian world, so Newtonian concepts of physical mechanics do not apply to these quantum denizens. Whorf was careful to talk about processes, so he's reaching for something verby even though 'processes' are taken to be 'things' in English.
We might say "consciousing" instead, but it sounds very clunky (at first, as does "languaging" when you want to talk about that process equally behind speaking and signing). So we have languaging as a superficial embroidery, frosting on the cake as it were, on the deeper consciousing going on: a consciousing which is so powerful that it can -- in a pinch, he says, bowing to the non-replicability of this phenomenon (part of the Newtonian paradigm anyway) -- on its own effect communication, or a shaing of meaning or understanding (but not linguistic agreement) between two people who are bonded at this level with each other.
Hm -- beings consciousing and communicating without human language agreement: sounds kind of like animals and the rest of nature, doesn't it? If we simply give up a certain superiority attitude we (and especially linguistics professionals) have about human language and see it as a powerful superficial embroidery on top of deeper languaging abilities shared with the rest of nature, many of the seeming paradoxes about the origins of speech simply disappear, dwarfed by the immense puzzle of why our evolutionarily newest brain, the cortex, begins as undifferentiated and then lateralizes as children mature, making our modern kind of language possible as the lateralized left brain analyzes reality while the lateralized right brain searches for analogies in memory. The brain that analyzes is that most susceptible to the hidden assumptions within the grammar or logic it is using to analyze; the analogical brain less so. We are presented with knowledge and information by both brains in a complementary way, in a tension of awareness.
Consciousness, or 'consciousing', as part of the quantum realm, remember, follows quantum instead of Newtonian laws (or 'habits') in a realm where our usual terms animate and inanimate have little distinction and therefore little meaning, since all is moving and meaningfully tending toward being. Whorf described consciousness in the Hopi worldview in a very animate way: "Consciousness itself is aware of work, of the feel of effort and energy, in desire and thinking." (54) For all we know, this 'consciousing' may be another term for the physicists' energy since that 'energy' has specific tendencies toward being, or potential in the Aristotelian sense. Consciousing may be all there is, which we then clothe with our senses to create the reality we experience. Animate consciousing sounds an awful lot to me like 'spirit' in the way that term is used in Native America!
Seen this way, as David Abram has pointed out in The Spell of the Sensuous , the so-called 'powers' of shamans and psychics are really just ways of perceiving the spirits/frequencies of reality beyond what the rest of us habitually do, rather like having a larger rather than smaller range of frequencies on a radio dial. I have known one person so far whose veracity I trust implicitly who can "see beyond the veil" and see spirits -- in human form, as they were when previously living, in animal form, etc. Let's examine what that means more closely. It means that she senses, in some place of synesthesia, of unity, before the senses get separated, certain frequency patterns which she then unconsciously clothes by her senses with shape, color, etc., and then consciously sees and hears what she experiences. The variations in the range of frequencies which humans perceive has always been mysterious rather than a fact of known norms.
The very idea that the ancient Sanskrit culture could have over two hundred words for different states of consciousness should be quite boggling to Western minds, which pay more attention to outer than inner phenomena. What do we have? Awake, asleep, and intoxicated; drowsy talks about an in-between state. Where do we go from there? Reflective, contemplative, analytic -- are they states of consciousness or forms of thinking? Are consciousness and thinking the same thing? Is the verb of 'mind' minding? But 'consciousness' seems to come primarily from the sense of being conscious of something, to which we have linked bipolarly the 'subconscious' (though we don't talk about being subconscious of something). Do we also have 'subthinking' and 'subminding,' standing in the same ground to figure relationship?
And what could those other nearly two hundred distinctions in states of consciousness possibly be about anyway? Is there something valuable we've LOST because of our incessant attraction to outer phenomena as our ruling cultural-and-linguistic attitude? And this is just within our own language family over the past three thousand years, since Sanskrit is the oldest language of the Indo -European language family that we have written records of. Everything you think of as facts of reality can change dramatically once you step outside of the family boundary. As Whorf said, and is really the point of linguistic relativity, "Facts are unlike for people whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them." (55)
If I could tell you what those other terms were in Sanskrit, that wouldn't help you very much unless I also explained what those terms could possibly mean in English -- but English doesn't have those distinctions, and so longer and more roundabout ways might be found which would do justice to those distinctions. But this is exactly the situation physicists face when viewing the quantum world through mathematical systems congenial to it, then coming back out and having to explain in English what their insights were. As we have seen, the first thing the physicist has to do is turn 'eventings' into 'things,' subjects and objects -- and as Native Americans can attest who speak what we may call 'relationship languages,' this translation process is very difficult, and requires a much different skill than that of just replacing one noun or verb with another, the way we do among European languages.
Perhaps we can all guess together by now that this immense number of states of consciousness or consciousing has to do with perception or perceiving, when, as with philosopher Merleau-Ponty, we unshackle the concept from the five-senses-only restrictions put in place during the "Enlightenment" and reconfigure it in a primarily frequency reality manifesting as particles, waves, and fields, each person's perceiving being limited both evolutionarily (dogs hear higher frequencies than we do) and through our own particular habits of minding. In this reconfiguration we must trace back along each of the senses, traditional and non-traditional, until we reach a point of synesthesia, which Whorf describes as the "underlying unity behind the phenomena so variously reported by our sense channels," (56) and which Citowic has described in The Man Who Tasted Shapes as having more cross-over pathways for some people's perceiving than for others from this deeper undifferentiated place.
Current estimates agree that before the Invasion 500 years ago, the average Native American worked about three hours a day to provide for current and future family and societal needs. This is the symbolic Eden where Nature provides and renews itself, which our culture lost with the agricultural revolution, and the Native Americans lost with our coming and bringing this stress-producing living hell, calling it "progress." What do you imagine these indigenous peoples were doing the other twelve or so waking leisure hours (where we're lucky if we have four)? Enjoying each others' company, learning about their animate environment, exploring different ways of perceiving? I know in Native America much time was used just observing the different personalities of their animate environment, sensing that the laws that governed the rest of Life also governed them; if anything can be called Native American Psychology, it has to do with their systematically noticing the character traits of and potentia behind animals and plants, using a language which evolved over millennia to notice processes, relationships and transformations (processing, relating and transforming) instead of things. Verbs don't have the same kinds of boundaries that nouns do, and can be similar across different forms of life.
So What Have We Learned From This Academic Hoax?
In The Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary Hoax, Geoff Pullum shows how Boas' originally reported three morphologically different words for snow, in the late 1800s, mushroomed over the next century to 25, 50, 100 and even 200 ("Did you know that Eskimo has over two hundred words for snow?") in academic literature. Why? Very simply, shoddy scholarship -- exactly the cause of The Great Whorf Hypothesis Hoax (for which my apologies to Geoff). My biggest complaint in this area is that Whorf's critics seemed to spend much more time reading each other than Whorf himself, each assuming the other had double-checked their 'facts'.
* Chapter Seven from The Secret Life of Language, October 17, 2002 DRAFT. Dan Moonhawk Alford (to top)
1. See "The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis" on my website. (back to text)
2. Whorf and Einstein fashioned these as principles in careful scientific nomenclature -- like axioms in geometry, which cannot be tested, they are starting points into a worldview. Arbitrarily demoting a principle to a hypothesis and then testing it says more about the people doing it than the principle they are supposedly working on in such an unscientific fashion. A principle is an orientation, like an axiom in geometry -- not testable like a hypothesis. (back to text)
3. John Lucy, Diversity in Language and Thought, p.2 (back to text)
4. Which, if you think about it, is a curious act of faith for those calling themselves scientists! (back to text)
5. Boxes of these "writings for the drawer" are housed in the Yale Archives, and I know of only two authors who've seen and reported on some: Peter C. Rollins, Benjamin Lee Whorf: Lost Generation theories of mind, language, and religion. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Popular Culture Association, University Microfilms International, 1980 (see my review in Language and Society, ed. Del Hymes, Vol 11, No 1, April 1982 or my web site) and Penny Lee, The Whorf Theory Complex: a critical reconstruction , John Benjamins, 1996. (back to text)
6. Viewing "Manufacturing Consent," shown occasionally on PBS, can be quite instructive as to how Chomsky managed this in linguistics. In about the middle of the video, Chomsky describes how the media manufactures consent on various issues, and has a bulleted list: limiting scope of inquiry, xxx, xxx. This is highly reminiscent of his tactics when I heard him talk at Stanford one time: he stated a position, said there were only three ways someone could disagree with this and deflated those three positions. We Berkeley grad students just looked at each other and shook our heads; we disagreed with his position, but not for any of the "only three" reasons he had listed. (back to text)
7. Anthropologist Herbert Landar was one of the first to link these ideas together under the "Whorf Hypothesis" label, so the hypothesis that "relativity" and "monocausal determinism" are inextricably related should quite rightly be termed the Landar Hypothesis. (back to text)
8. "Concepts of 'time' and 'matter' are not given in substantially the same form by experience to all men but depend upon the nature of the language or languages through the use of which they have been developed. They do not depend so much upon ANY ONE SYSTEM (e.g., tense or nouns) within the grammar as upon the ways of analyzing and reporting experience which have become fixed in the language as integrated 'fashions of speaking' and which cut across the typical grammatical classifications, so that such as 'fashion' may include lexical, morphological, syntactic, and otherwise systematically diverse means coordinated in a certain frame of consistency. Our own 'time' differs markedly from the Hopi 'duration.' It is conceived as like a space of strictly limited dimensions, or sometimes as like a motion upon such a space, and employed as an intellectual tool accordingly. Hopi 'duration' seems to be inconceivable in terms of space or motion, being the mode in which life differs from form, and consciousness in toto from the spatial elements of consciousness. (back to text)
But what about our concept of 'space...'? There is no such striking difference between Hopi and SAE ["Standard Average European," a term Whorf used for our familiar worldview] about space as about time, and probably the apprehension of space is given in substantially the same form by experience irrespective of language. The experiments of the Gestalt psychologists with visual perception appear to establish this as a fact. But the CONCEPT OF SPACE will vary somewhat with language, because, as an intellectual [Newtonian or Euclidean] tool, it is so closely linked with the concomitant employment of other intellectual tools, of the order of 'time' and 'matter,' which are linguistically conditioned. We see things with our eyes in the same space forms as the Hopi, but our idea of space has also the property of acting as a surrogate of nonspatial relationships like time, intensity, tendency, and as a void to be filled with imagined formless items, one of which may be called 'space'. Space as sensed by the Hopi would not be connected mentally with such surrogates, but would be comparatively 'pure,' unmixed with extraneous notions."
9. It would be useful to recall here the users of Euclidean and the users of non-Euclidean geometrical languages. (back to text)
10. Harry Hoijer, Language in Culture: Conference on the Interrelations of Language and Other Aspects of Culture University of Chicago Press, 1954, p230. (back to text)
11. We have a problem already, and a quite factual one: Whorf never in all of his writings, published or unpublished, formulated the Whorf Hypothesis. In fact, he never formulated ANY hypothesis that I can find. Whorf did, however, as we have seen, formulate a "principle of linguistic relativity." Using Chomsky's logic, we may safely discard this entire discussion because of one fundamental error.
You will note there are no scholarly citations here, no page number to point out the offending paragraph in Whorf's writings; not needed, evidently, since his crime is so well known. Further, Chomsky assumes there is only ONE hypothesis; this has been shown to be patently false because there are really as many hypotheses as graduate students and critics create (someone put it at 205 variations). I dealt with four of the Hypothesis Hydra Heads (determinism, weak and strong; nontranslatability; color terms; circularity) nearly twenty years ago in "The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis" (see my website) -- where I argued for a moratorium on the offending phrase since it only serves to produce more heat than light, misattributes the actual authors, and has only tangentially to do with anything Whorf ever wrote. This is why no one, not even Chomsky, cites a page number on such blatant mischaracterization. (back to text)
12. Anyone who understands systems thinking and then approaches Whorf has to conclude that Whorf saw language and culture as a dynamic interpenetrating system, two sides of a single coin as it were ("I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have and that are generally assumed to be universal." p 57. And when talking about the connection between language and culture on p. 159: "The connections are to be found ... by examining the culture and the language (always and only when the two have been together historically for a considerable time)..."). Chomsky is here setting the frame for arguing from his usual position of 'autonomous syntax' -- language not connected to culture in any way -- which constitutes an entirely different framing than Whorf himself used. Resetting the framing in this way is a particularly successful rhetorical trick that Chomsky has used throughout his reign over linguistics. In effect, Chomsky changed linguistics from an anthropological and human-centered stance, with complex 'language/culture' ideas, to a mathematical position of autonomous syntax, removing language from its living context. (back to text)
13. Notice Chomsky's wording carefully here: "Whorf argues that the structure of language plays a role in determining a world-view". Note that "plays a role in determining", while as accurately stated as one can do in Newtonian monocausal deterministic language, is quite contradictory in Newtonian language. Although Chomsky is actually being quite generous here, not (the way some of his followers did) creating a strawman opponent who believes in strong determinism, he nonetheless introduces determinism into the argument. Of course, Whorf never argued any such thing: 'determine' is a term unique to Newtonian science and Cartesian thought, resting on a foundation of Aristotelian exclusion, shorthand for 'monocausally determine' such that event A uniquely causes event B. Whorf, on the other hand, was informed by the systems thinking of physics, and thought in terms of multicausal and interdependent relationships founded on a non-Aristotelian logic of inclusion; in the kind of complementary thinking Whorf used, sometimes the opposite of one profound truth is another profound truth (as in relativity and universals), not something to be tracked down and killed!
Notice that Chomsky begins talking about relativity, then all of a sudden is talking about determinism, as if the two are somehow inextricably connected in everybody's minds, and will shift again, to circularity , by the end of the paragraph. I have already shown how Whorf modeled his formulation of the relativity principle after Einstein's -- and Einstein's version did not contain determinism; it also wasn't labelled by his colleagues "The Einstein Hypothesis." Beyond that, the wordview or 'Weltanschauung' in the original German of this concept, is made up of more than just the langscape or word-world portion of the worldview -- it has social, cognitive, and many other aspects as well. Chomsky here is confusing the total worldview with merely its langscape. (back to text)
14. Notice the duplicity in merely assuming what is being specifically questioned by Whorf -- whether there are indeed categories of space and time just like ours in Hopi. (back to text)
15. Chomsky presents another simplification here, that Whorf only considered categories as the basis for his Hopi world-view statement: "the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time,' or to past, present or future, or to enduring or lasting, or to motion as kinematic rather than dynamic..., or that even refer to space in such a way as to exclude that element of extension or existence that we call 'time,' and so by implication leave a residue that could be referred to as 'time.'" That is, what Whorf suggested as actually going on in Hopi, a manifested/manifesting distinction replacing our Space and Time, did indeed come from the categories of the Hopi language as well as their cultural ideas, but Whorf's analysis of the lack of our 'time' notion came from an extensive review of the entire language. (back to text)
16. Actually, most European languages don't have a stable future tense either. The future tense per se is unstable within Indo-European languages, and hardly occurs outside them. The only reason we think that all languages should have future tense is because hundreds of years of examining exotic languages through the lens of Latin Grammar told us so. Yet Western culture keeps the notions of past-present-future alive even when the structure changes, and even gives us added directionality, from our metaphorical River of Time to our graduation speeches reminding us that our past is behind us and our future ahead of us.
This is the cultural side of worldview which Chomsky doesn't address -- the difference between the what and the how, and both are necessary. I once learned the Mikmaq word for 'thank you,' but at the same time learned a difference sense of when it is speakable -- only when you ask for something and it is given to you, in a polite sense; otherwise, as when a friend hears that you're ill and brings you some chicken soup, spontaneously acting from their heart, saying 'thank you' demeans the act, makes it sound like you asked the person for it. You can certainly express your appreciation in other verbal and nonverbal ways, but not with that polite phrase. Whorf talked in similar ways about how, after studying the grammar of Hopi, he knew what plurals were and how to form them, but didn't know WHEN to use them because they're used in different ways in Hopi than they are in English. Of course, in order to take this kind of information into account, we must posit real live human beings in societies and relationships, instead of some ideal speaker-hearer -- an 'individual' stripped of all contact with the real world. (back to text)
17. This circularity objection, also raised by John Carroll in the Introduction to Whorf's essays, has been disposed of beautifully by John Lucy in Diversity in Language and Thought. Our purpose here is not to argue the point but merely to notice how effortlessly Chomsky moves us along from the concepts of relativity and determinism to a different Hypothesis Head called 'circularity of evidence'. (back to text)
18. It's difficult to know here whether Chomsky means merely that Whorf's description of "tense/time" in SAE is incorrect, or his entire description of SAE, including naming, plurality and numeration, nouns of physical quality, phases of cycles, duration, intensity and tendency, habitual thought, and habitual behavior. Chomsky kind of leaves the question open. (back to text)
19. Here's where Chomsky starts getting tricky. This argument rests on some unstated assumption, certainly not stated by Whorf, that English is a typical or even prototypical example of SAE languages -- and if something isn't true for English, then Whorf's SAE description is incorrect. But Whorf's description of past-present-future for SAE speakers is correct, according to Chomsky -- just not correct for English -- which therefore somehow makes Whorf's SAE description incorrect? Huh? Rather than assuming English to be untypical of SAE in this respect, instead, according to Chomsky, the lack of three structural tenses in English invalidates the entire SAE argument, which is however correct for SAE speakers. Go figure. (back to text)
20. Chomsky's use here of "a Whorfian point of view" is a clever cover phrase for his transforming Whorf's complementary language/culture systems view into an argument in the mathematical realm of autonomous syntax. Once you've simplified and distorted an opponent's position into a shredible strawman (reminiscent of deep-sea creatures brought up to surface pressure in nets), you can conclude anything you want to about your opponent's point of view. Notice that he at least doesn't say that it's "Whorf's point of view", but just "Whorfian"; otherwise, you might have to prove it by citing him. (back to text)
21. This is called "sleight of hand" when a magician does it with physical objects. As noted earlier, Chomsky characterizes Whorf as arguing "that the structure of language plays a role in determining a world-view" -- and plays a role in determining, Chomsky's own words, cannot under any torturing of scientific nomenclature also mean uniquely or monocausally determines, as when he says that "our concept of time is not determined by the linguistic categories". The fact that it's not total invalidates its playing a role? not total means not partial? If I read Chomsky correctly here, he is claiming that linguistic categories play no role whatever in determining our concept of 'time' and our worldview -- again, a radical claim which fits quite securely in an autonomous syntax perspective. (back to text)
22. Once we allow Whorf his own framing, with language and culture as necessary and interdependent systems, we may then ask the question that Chomsky's tight argument leaves unasked: given that neither English nor Hopi have language structure that supports a future tense, which language/culture system is immersed in centuries-old cultural metaphors of time as a river or a journey? Only the SAE cultures, as Whorf painstakingly researched and described. (back to text)
23. Chomsky's statement could just as well be said of investigations into linguistic universals, of course. If we don't have "an exact analysis of linguistic structures" for these other languages, how can we possibly reconstruct their ancestor languages? A way out of this problem is to find out what American Indians themselves say about the subject, and at least for the highly educated ones I know who have read Whorf, they find Algonkian languages, Siouxan languages, Athapaskan languages and many others functioning in just the way Whorf described for Hopi as 'manifested/manifesting', or what Bohm called 'explicate/implicate' -- which is, in form, the way English does it too, even though its speakers have been socialized to believe in linear 'time'. That's language AND culture. (back to text)
24. Notice that, according to Chomsky's narrowed interpretation of Whorf, only linguistic evidence, and not cultural, can now be brought to bear on this question, disallowing Whorf's own stance. (back to text)
25. Ishmael says, in Daniel Quinn's novel by the same name, "The obvious can sometimes be illuminating when viewed in an unhabitual way." (p 128) I take this as the core dictum of my own teaching about language. (back to text)
26. Abram, p. 121 (back to text)
27. Lucy, frontispiece (back to text)
28. Saussure, p 16. (back to text)
29. Lucy, p 44 (back to text)
30. Whorf, p. 147 (back to text)
31. Lucy, p. 44 (back to text)
32. Lucy, p 46 (back to text)
33. Lucy, p.50 (back to text)
34. Lucy, p 37 (back to text)
35. Lucy, p 38 (back to text)
36. The thoughtful reader may keep in mind Yin and Yang, or energy and matter comprising complementary aspects of reality as well. (back to text)
37. Whorf, p73. (back to text)
38. Whorf, p. 236. (back to text)
39. Whorf, p. 237. (back to text)
40. C.A. Hilgartner and Joseph DiRienzl, Physics Essays, Volume 8, No. 4, 1995 (back to text)
41. ibid, p474. (back to text)
42. In footnote 14 (p501), Hilgartner discusses 'Laws of Thought':
The exponents of WIE frames of reference have long regarded "thought" as independent of, and prior to, "language." Further, they have traditionally regarded the Laws of Thought of Aristotle as the most important presuppositions underlying "thought," while regarding "language" as largely free of presuppositions. (Today, the Laws of Thought look more like the rules for naming or nouning in WIE languages such as modern English and ancient Greek -- a tentative, tacit admission that "language" might stem from premises.
Stated in modern English, the Laws of Thought become: Identity: What is, is. Or (given the noun form or noun phrase C), C is C. Excluded middle: Everything must either be, or not be. Or, everything must be either C or not-C. Contradiction: Nothing can both be and not be. Or nothing can be both C and not-C. (back to text)
43. ibid, p. 477. (back to text)
44. ibid, p. 501 in footnote 12, where he references me (among others) in pointing out that Whorf knew the difference between a hypothesis and a principle. I'm not sure who those 'others' are, however, unless they include Penny Lee. (back to text)
45. ibid., p. 476. (back to text)
46. Hilgartner views 'transacting' as a primary process, giving this a place in Cartesian space notation as '(organism cross environment)' where he uses cross in the same 'times' rather than 'plus' sense just given above. (back to text)
47. Although I'm sure Whorf critics assume they've used the same terms in the same ways when discussing the Whorf Hypothesis, Heisenberg shows that the meanings of these terms are more like 'mechanical' and 'teleological' causes, such as a window breaking vs. an acorn growing into an oak tree instead of pine, etc. the strong form is active in the physical world and the weak form is active in the quantum world. The critics often say things like "Whorf often espoused the strong form," but that would be tantamount to saying that Whorf -- who at least KNEW about quantum physics unlike most linguists, was advocating that mechanical causality happens in the quantum realm! Whorf critics seem instead to be using 'strong' to mean 'determines' and 'weak' to mean 'influences' -- though I'm not sure that translates into an acorn 'influencing' an oak tree. (back to text)
48. Heisenberg, p114 (back to text)
49. Heisenberg, pp195-6 (back to text)
50. Heisenberg, p62: "For Heraclitus the world is at once one and many, it is just "the opposite tension" of the opposites that constitutes the unity of the One." (back to text)
51. Heisenberg, p70: "Since mass and energy are, according to the theory of relativity, essentially the same concepts, we may say that all elementary particles consist of energy. This could be interpreted as defining energy as the primary substance of the world." (back to text)
52. Heisenberg, p70. (back to text)
53. Whorf, p239. (back to text)
54. Whorf, p149. (back to text)
55. Whorf, p. 235. (back to text)
56. Whorf, p156 (back to text)