The Whorfian Hypothesis


I don’t know that much about Whorf’s theory regarding the relationship between language and thought.  I have no experience with anything by him and I haven’t so much as seen a publication he’s authored.

I am, however, being exposed to secondary literature in one of my cognitive psychology graduate seminars.  Within cognitive science, Whorf’s claim that language affects thought in profound ways and that two individuals who speak different languages will think differently is apparently some revolutionary stuff.  Revolutionary in the sense that its initial reception was not a welcoming one: most language theorists in the field of cognitive science and psycholinguistics poo-pooed the idea that native Hopi speakers, for instance, experienced and thought about the world in incommensurate ways as compared to English speakers.

In reading reviews of Whorf’s hypothesis concerning different linguistic communities I found it ironic that, on the one hand, most theorists seemed perfectly content with distinguishing between “language general” and ‘language specific” effects, or between “language effects” and “culture effects”, but not at all OK with the distinction between grammar and syntax, as it pertains to effects on “thought”.

One reviewer suggested that the distinction between grammar and semantics wasn’t very useful because there are many instances when the two become indistinct where “the effect on thought” can be explained equally well with recourse to grammar and/or to semantics.  Moreover, the one influences the other.

I grant that.  But in rejecting that distinction and accepting the equally vague, broad, and misleading “language vs culture” distinction, mainstream cognitive theory in this area seems to be forgetting the intimate bond “language” and “culture” share.  I want to say that where there is a difference in culture there is a difference in language.  Of course, being an avid reader of our pal Wittgenstein, my perspective on “language” is very peculiar and probably inappropriate for the sort of empirical ambitions cognitive scientists have.

I guess for psycholinguists and others in the field, it simply isn’t significant to consider the possibility that members of the same “linguistic community” (i.e. native English users) “have different thoughts” in virtue of their responses to questions regarding “thought” and/or “what they were thinking when x occurred.”

I like Whorf’s hypothesis, from what I hear of it.  I’d also like to say that a theoretical physicist, in virtue of his linguistic repertoire, has a very different “idea of” and therefore “experience of”, for instance, “spatial relations” or “the concept of time”.

That is, if we’re still thinking that there is such a thing as the “concept of time” that represents what all our instances of “understanding time” share.  Then again, maybe cognitive scientists are just playing another language game and ought not be ridiculed or questioned from non-players such as “people that try too hard to emulate Wittgenstein”.

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4 thoughts on “The Whorfian Hypothesis

  1. thanks–I wish I could say I designed it.

    So yeah, turns out that psycholinguistics is pretty much like analytic philosophy, at least in the sense that its courses involve criticizing people over mostly semantic concerns

  2. I’m glad you’ve been introduced to the concepts of Whorf and that you are thinking about the relations between culture,language, and thought. Each informs, influences, and at times defines aspects of the others. It’s important to give serious thought to these interrelations.

    There is quite a vast literature on various aspects of these topics in psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology, and psychological anthropology. I encourage you to browse through the stacks in these areas of your library some time.

    A good introduction to issues in culture and cognition is set forth in Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner’s Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction (Wiley, 1974). While it’s not a new book, it is well written and remains valid as an introductory overview of the kinds of issues you mentioned in your post. I believe they have a chapter on the Whorfian hypothesis.

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