Quine’s weak Whorfian hypothesis?

I am continuing to notice both implicit and explicit parallels between two different discourses: on the one hand, the philosophy of language/mind, and on the other, cognitive and psycholinguistics. Its eye-opening: I hadn’t been aware how influential many of the anglo-american philosophers I am familiar with were to other, non-philosophical discourses.

F. Xu, in The role of language in acquiring object kind concepts in infancy (Cognition, 85), showcases Quine’s influence on “theories of conceptual development in which language plays a crucial role.” (Xu, 224)  Quine’s view may be seen as a weaker Whorfian hypothesis to the extent that it holds cross-linguistic differences as corresponding to cognitive differences between groups. More importantly, apparently, is Quine’s regard to the ontological effect of such cross-linguistic differences.

“Quine…considered how language may be used to build our ontology.  Most widely discussed is the case of the conceptual distinction between objects and substances from the linguistic distinction of count/mass syntax.  Quine proposed that the infant’s world is profoundly different from ours for lack of representations of enduring objects, and that it is by learning the count/mass syntax of a natural language, e.g. English, that the infant is able to “boot-strap” herself into a more adult-like conceptual scheme.  On this view, [call what follows p] cross-linguistic differences result in profound conceptual differences in adults; e.g. speakers of Japanese, which lacks the count/mass distinction, would not represent the ontological distinction between individuated entities, such as objects, and non-individuated entities, such as substances. Furthermore, [call what follows q]children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

Oddly, Xu goes on to imply that Quine’s view can be distinguished further: “Empirical investigations of this issue have found that the strong version of this view is wrong: even English-speaking children who have not mastered the count/mass syntax already differentiate objects from substances in extending word meanings.” (Xu, 224)

To be honest, I’m not entirely familiar with Quine’s theory of cognitive development.   I’m not entirely sure, either, of what the “strong” version of this account is–though I suspect it is the idea that “children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

To review, the difference between the strong and weak Whorfian claim is allegedly that the former supports a “linguistic differences correspond to cognitive, non-linguistic differences in thought between groups” line of thought while the latter supports the lesser claim that certain KINDS of cognition, a “thinking for speaking” kind, might be influenced by linguistic effects.

The alleged distinction in Quine’s theory of cognitive development (i.e. that BOTH p and q) doesn’t parallel the strong/weak distinction in the context of Whorfian claims.  Unless someone else can offer another way to read Xu’s interpretation of Quine’s view, that is.


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