Chomsky's Rebuttal of Whorf:
The Annotated Version by Moonhawk, 8/95


 Noam Chomsky's Preface to Adam Schaff, Language and Cognition, McGraw Hill, 1973. Translated from Polish.

MOONHAWK:
1 We have a problem already. You notice there are no scholarly citations here, no page number to point out the offending paragraph in Whorf's writings. Further, it assumes there is only one hypothesis, which has been shown to be patently false because there are as many hypotheses as graduate students and critics create. Someone put it at 205. I dealt with five or six of the Hydra-heads (determinism (weak & strong), nontranslatability, color terms, circularity, etc.) in my "The Demise of the Whorf Hypothesis," in which I argued for a moratorium on the offending phrase since only serves to produce more heat than light, and has only tangentially to do with anything Whorf ever wrote--which is why no one, even Chomsky, cites a page number on such blatant mischaracterizations.

2 Whorf never in all of his writings formulated a single hypothesis that I can find; he did however formulate a principle, which is of a different order of scientific nomenclature than a hypothesis--which Whorf knew, but has still 50 years later not become clear to all "scientific" linguists. Again, no citation.

3 Well, the tone is certainly set, isn't it? 4 Anyone who understands systems thinking and then approaches Whorf has to conclude that Whorf saw language and culture as a dynamic, interpenetrating system (e.g., p156). Chomsky is already setting the stage here for arguing from a position of autonomous syntax, and entirely different framing than Whorf used. Resetting the framing in this way is a particularly successful rhetorical trick that Chomsky used throughout his reign over linguistics, and he even told everyone about it as he was describing what "others" (the media) do in order to "Manufacture Consent."

5 Notice very carefully the wording here: the structure "plays a role in determining a worldview." Here Chomsky is being very generous--is fairly accurate--and not overtly prejudicing the argument to come. However, "determine" is a term unique to Newtonian/Cartesian science, shorthand for "monocausally determines" such that event A uniquely causes event B. Both the so-called "strong" version (which even critics begrudgingly admit Whorf didn't hold, but anyone who speaks favorably of Whorf probably does--although if Whorf didn't hold that view, why bring it up?) and the so-called "weak" version (which most critics claim they hold and figure Whorf maybe did too) nonetheless partake equally of Newtonian monocausal determinism founded on an Aristotelian logic of exclusion. The "weak" version is in fact more deterministic than any view Whorf held--which, informed by the systems thinking of physics, partook of multicausal and interdependent relationships founded on a non-Aristotelian logic of inclusion. This is also behind the critics' distinction about whether language "shapes/molds" thinking or merely "reflects/mirrors" our thinking. Systems thinking however, with its insistence that sometimes the opposite of one profound truth is another profound truth rather than something to be tracked down and killed--that historically language shapes thinking and thinking shapes language. Notice that Chomsky began by talking about linguistic relativity, and then all of a sudden he's talking about determinism, as if the two have some inextricable connection! Since, as I have shown elsewhere, Whorf's version of "linguistic relativity" was an extension of Einstein's relativity principle--and Einstein's relativity principle does not contain determinism. (Good thing his colleagues didn't taunt IBM with "The Einstein Hypothesis!)

6 We might quibble on "the" or "a" here.

7 Without the careful use of quotation marks, the way Whorf did, I'll be hornswaggled if those words space and time there don't look like universal a priori notions given to all humans in the same way!

8 Except, of course for that pesky "imaginary space" which our language and culture encourage us to have but Hopi language and culture don't in Hopi speakers. This concept of "imaginary space" is also extremely important for understanding these critical worldview differences. (see esp. Whorf pp. 145-150).

 9 Or, as Lakoff and Johnson elaborate, the 3 popular metaphors of TIME AS A MOVING POINT, TIME AS A JOURNEY, or TIME AS STATIONARY WHILE WE MOVE THROUGH IT. Now that we're talking about metaphors instead of structure, we're into the culture part of the language/culture system rather than the language (structure) part per se.

 10 A skillful reiteration of Chomsky's framing, whereas Whorf's statement (that "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.' (p57-8)") is preceded by his own framing: "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." Chomsky, coming from a mathematical and autonomous syntax position, rather than an anthropological and human-centered stance, must have somehow missed that critical 'language/culture' linkage Whorf insisted on.

 11 Actually, as I have shown in a recent posting, "Summary: Time and Tenses" on the Linguist-List, neither do most European languages! The future tense per se is unstable within IE languages, and hardly occurs outside them, and the only reason we "feel" that languages should have future tenses is because hundreds of years of examining exotic languages through the lens of Latin Grammar told us so.

12 Notice how effortlessly we move from the relativity of concepts such as "space" and "time" to a different Hydra-pothesis head called "circularity of argument." 13 It's difficult to know here whether Chomsky means that Whorf's description of "tense" or "time" in SAE is incorrect, or his entire description of SAE (p134-159), including notions of naming, plurality and numeration, nouns of physical quality, phases of cycles, temporal forms of verbs, duration, intensity and tendency, habitual thought, habitual behavior. Chomsky kind of leaves the question open.

14 But what kind of example is this--a relevant one? In order to buy this example, do I have to also buy the assumption that English is TYPICAL as far as SAE languages are concerned? What if I don't?

15 Here we go--slow down and watch this one. Now Latin, which almost everyone would agree is more typically SAE than English, does have a structural basis for that worldview, the -b- future tense, which Chomsky agrees is a correct description. English doesn't have such a future tense--but rather than being considered untypically SAE in this particular instance, it invalidates the entire SAE description. Perhaps this rests on some claim by Whorf that I'm not aware of, that English is the prototype of SAE languages.

16 By which Chomsky means his own particular radical refraining of Whorf's systems view to Chomsky's perspective of autonomous syntax. Once you've distorted a person's position into a shredible strawman, you can conclude anything you want to--a position Whorf strived desperately to avoid (p59).

 17 This is called "sleight of hand" when a magician does it with physical objects. As noted in footnote 5, Chomsky set this up that Whorf "argued that the structure of language plays a role in determining a worldview, [italic added], and "plays a role in determining" cannot under any torturing of scientific nomenclature mean "uniquely determines," which is the sense in "our concept of time is not determined by the linguistic categories." 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 rather radical claim which fits quite securely in an autonomous syntax perspective. Once we allow Whorf his own framing, with language and culture as an interdependent system, we may ask the question that Chomsky could NOT ask: given that neither language system structurally supports a future tense, then which language/culture system, English or Hopi, is immersed in centuries-old metaphors of time as moving, stationary, river and journey?

18 This could just as well be said of investigations into linguistic universals, of course.

19 Many linguists today are indeed wondering who wrote in stone that a tense must be morphological, it is on that basis ('will' is a modal rather than an affix) that Chomsky adjudges Whorf wrong.

20 When you get done with his preface, what survives concerning the possibility that the Hopis do not have our cultural notion of time? And that maybe, just maybe, there is something profound we can learn about the diversity of human thinking? What happens to that felt sense of difference that my American Indian friends have who are bilingual? It just evaporates, becomes a non-issue, because of this highly rhetorical style--which is the major problem I have with most or all rationalist argumentation and why I, with Whorf, prefer systems thinking, which doesn't just blanket-deny things but accepts all as a respected part of the system, as the appropriate tool for.