[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[xmca] FW: NYTimes.com: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Larry (and others), 
I'm not sure if I'm reading you right, but just to be clear, John Lucy is a 
proponent of Whorf's ideas. His main argument is that while Whorf may have 
overreached in some of his work, the standard interpretation of Whorf mis-
represents Whorf's position. Take, for example, the whole eskimos and umpteen 
words and Orwell's book 1984 and language as a prison of thought. These are 
all caricatures of Whorf's position that, unfortunately, got taken up by people 
(academic and popular) who claimed to be arguing FOR his position even 
though many had not read his work. The result was that this overly simplified 
argument became a kind of common received knowledge, even hegemonic 
among college undergrads (even though it didn't really get at Whorf's point) and 
thus it became ripe for a critical response. Steven Pinker was one of the major 
popular critics (and I suspect that this was the set that Mike was referring to in 
his comment). 

In my reading of Whorf, Whorf's point is not that language is a "prison house". 
Rather, his point is that it shapes our thinking in important ways. Most 
importantly, as you point to Larry, it shapes our habitual thought. I had a post 
on XMCA about a year ago where I responded to Peter Jones' paper rejecting 
linguistic mediation and used an example of the everyday habit of driving down 
the street (I'll send it to you offline since I can't seem to find it in the archives) . 
This is not to say that you can't speak about or understand the organization of 
the categories of another language. This was exactly what Whorf's project was - 
to understand how other languages ordered the world differently from his own. 

I see Whorf's point as one that picks up on Kant's point about the mediated 
nature of reality (and one could invoke Hegel here as well, a Hegel-Herder-
Humboldt-Boas-Sapir-Whorf lineage) (and I once heard someone refer to John 
as a neo-Kantian in his presence and he did not appear to be offended). This is 
just taking that point of mediation in a direction that can be empirically 
explored (and there is plenty here that would offend Kant's sensibilities, no 
doubt...). Importantly though, it is a really complicated thing to try to explore 
empirically because even the very domain that you are studying (e.g. "color") 
can be one that is differently encoded in different languages. So how do you 
even choose some thing in the world that can be used to investigate the 
question? It is a difficult question that John takes up in his article "The 
Linguistics of Color" (1997 The linguistics of "color." In C.L. Hardin and L. Maffi 
(eds.), Color Categories in Thought and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, pp. 320-46.). It is this kind of complexity that Pinker and his 
fans gloss over completely. . 

For a thorough and in-depth consideration of the problem, I'd suggest his 
Annual Review of Anthropology paper at:


His website, which has additional .pdf's can be accessed at:


And yes, there are some wonderful affinities between this literature and the 
CHAT perspective esp. with regard to language and thought.

Hope some of this was useful...


>Message: 6
>Date: Sun, 29 Aug 2010 21:37:21 -0700
>From: Larry Purss <lpscholar2@gmail.com>
>Subject: Re: [xmca] FW: NYTimes.com: Does Your Language Shape How You
>	Think?
>To: lchcmike@gmail.com, 	"eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
>	<xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
>Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1
>Mike and Vera
>I followed your recommendations to read Lucy and so I googled his website
>and located an "older" [1987] chapter he authored with James Wertsch titled
>"Vygotsky and Whorf: A Comparative Analysis." in the edited book "Social and
>Functional Approaches to Language and Thought".  Mike, I'm aware you
>suggested reading Lucy's RECENT writings, so if he has changed his position
>and become more critical of Whorf's ideas I would appreciate a suggestion
>for more recent writings.
>I'm also cognizant of the criticisms and "trauma" Mike has alerted me to be
>aware of in reflecting on Whorf's theories. With that caution in mind, I
>would like to summarize the points that Lucy and Wertsch recommended for
>future research in their 1987 chapter.
>Whorf's approach to the relation between thought and language was based on 
>1) The relation was concerned with large scale patterns of thought
>2)concerned with HABITUAL thought
>3)concerned with conceptual thought rather than perception.
>These assumptions led Whorf to adopt a synchronic, comparative-interpretive
>approach in his attempt to understand the role of language in human
>thought.  This approach contrasts with Vygotsky's diachronic,
>historical-developmental approach.  Now in 1987, Lucy and Wertsch comment
>that these two approaches, though very different, in many ways COMPLEMENT,
>rather than contradict each other. They state "It is this complementarity
>that is most suggestive for future research.... Future research on the
>significance of language for thought will profit from a creative
>integration  of important features from both approaches.  (p.84)
>Lucy and Wertsch suggest 3 implications of an integrated approach.
>1) One implication of an integrated approach is that the use of language in
>thought provides certain advantages but also entails certain costs.
>Socially shared generalizations constitute a set of SPECIFIC classifications
>of experience, and the specificity sets a certain direction to HABITUAL
>thought that is extraordinarily difficult to surmount, in essence a
>linquistic relativity.  A unified approach would recognize the potential
>advantages recognized by Vygotsky and the costs emphasized by Whorf.
>2) A second implication of an integrated approach is that any linquistic
>relativity should increase during development. Early "lower" intellectual
>activity should be relatively free of linquistic influences. As the child
>develops true concepts which are abstract and have SYSTEMATIC internal
>relations to one another, the way of organizing experience characteristic of
>the language should become even more apparent.
>3) A third implication of an integrated approach is that there may be
>general historical changes in the USES of language.  Those modes of thought
>(ie scientific) which use or rely on language forms most heavily are exactly
>those forms which will be most bound by language.  Whorf by focusing on
>form-meaning STRUCTURES as interpretive devices was led to minimize the
>significant HISTORICAL evolution of the uses of language in thought.  If, as
>Vygotsky suggests, there is a general development in the way language is
>used in thought - more systematic, more explicit reliance on language in
>modern society - it will not only produce new, perhaps more sophisticated
>TYPES of conceptual forms, but it may also amplify the IMPACT OF THE
>PARTICULAR interpretive forms of the languages involved. Thus, layered over
>a general linquistic relativity based on the shaping force of language,
>would be a second more specific level of relativity grounded in the cultural
>RELIANCE on and, ultimately, REIFICATION of specific grammatical and lexical
>forms, characteristic of modern Western societies. Whorf recognized the
>potential for such an amplification of using language when he criticized the
>human tendency to make a provisional analysis of reality and then regard it
>as final. He emphasized that "Western culture has gone farthest hear,
>farthest in determining thoroughness of provisional analysis, and farthest
>in determination to regard it as final" (1956, p.263 as quoted in Lucy and
>Wertsch P.85)
>Mike, in 1987, it seems Lucy and Wertsch saw  the complementary value of
>trying to integrate Vygotsky's diachronic historical-developmental model of
>the interplay of language and thought in generating verbal thinking with
>Whorf's synchronic comparative-interpretive approach. In the past 23 years,
>since this chapter was written, Whorf's models of linquistic relativity may
>have been refuted by empirical research, and his synchronic
>comparative-interpretive approach found objectionable [not
>historical-developmental]  However, the term "HABITS of mind" is a notion
>from Whorf that may be productively explored.
>In the New York article the concrete example of how a person orients in
>space, which was contrasted as either referencing the "embodied self" or
>"external coordinates" is an intriguing abductive conjecture. I don't know
>if these contrasting "habits" of mind are a speculative conjecture, or is
>this difference a "fact"?  If it is a fact, established empirically, then it
>is a surprising fact that  needs to be explained.  Orienting to landscapes
>seems to include sensory, motor, perceptual, and conceptual aspects and both
>higher and lower cognitive processes are implicated.  This surprising "fact"
>leads to questions of the interplay of language and thought.
>On Sun, Aug 29, 2010 at 12:30 PM, mike cole <lchcmike@gmail.com> wrote:
>> So lets focus on the good part. Sorry I go hung up on the opening rhetoric.
>> I tire of peope literally "making news" by trashing their progenitors. Very
>> popular way to get a career started but generally not a great way to learn
>> how to supercede your progenitors.
>> The topic is certainly important. Might even have something to do with the
>> nature of thinking and speech!
>> mike
>> On Sun, Aug 29, 2010 at 12:19 PM, Vera John-Steiner <vygotsky@unm.edu
>> >wrote:
>> > Hi Larry,
>> >
>> > I agree with Mike that the Whorf article in the N.Y. Times is overblown
>> (in
>> > terms of Whorf's claims) and it does not give named credit to the new
>> wave
>> > of researchers, including Lucy, Boroditsky and others. But focus on the
>> > relationsip of  language and thought is a welcome
>> > topic for public discussion,and a useful one for xmca.
>> > Vera
>> > ----- Original Message ----- From: "Larry Purss" 
>> > To: <lchcmike@gmail.com>; "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <
>> > xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
>> > Sent: Saturday, August 28, 2010 1:20 PM
>> > Subject: Re: [xmca] FW: NYTimes.com: Does Your Language Shape How 
>> > Think?
>> >
>> >
>> >  Mike
>> >> As my previous post mentioned this "pop psycholinquistics" way of
>> >> explaining
>> >> phenomena I found intriguing.  What do you see as the fundamental 
>> in
>> >> this line of thinking.
>> >> Specifically on the position he articulates on "orientation in space"
>> and
>> >> "landscapes" Do you question the basic premise that one cultural group
>> >> could
>> >> habitually orient by egocentric references to "my" body" while other
>> >> cultural groups habitually orient by cardinal coordinates.
>> >> If these "facts" can be empirically established then what would be a
>> >> better,
>> >> more coherent way to explain these habitual ways of responding to
>> >> landsapes?
>> >>
>> >> Larry
>> >>
>> >> On Sat, Aug 28, 2010 at 10:40 AM, mike cole <lchcmike@gmail.com> 
>> >>
>> >>  Peter-- This article seemed like pop psycholinguistics to me. The
>> >>> "trauma"
>> >>> of whorf?
>> >>>
>> >>> There is a lot of work, call it "neo-whorfian" on relations between
>> >>> language
>> >>> and thought. The recent writings of John Lucy come to mind, but many
>> >>> others
>> >>> as well.
>> >>>
>> >>> mike
>> >>>
>> >>> On Sat, Aug 28, 2010 at 6:16 AM, smago <smago@uga.edu> wrote:
>> >>>
>> >>> >
>> >>> >
>> >>>
>> >>>
>> http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?
>> >>> > _______________________________________________
>> >>> > xmca mailing list
>> >>> > xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
>> >>> > http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca
>> >>> >
>> >>> _______________________________________________
>> >>> xmca mailing list
>> >>> xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
>> >>> http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca
>> >>>
>> >>>  _______________________________________________
>> >> xmca mailing list
>> >> xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
>> >> http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca
>> >>
>> >>
>> > _______________________________________________
>> > xmca mailing list
>> > xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
>> > http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca
>> >
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
>> xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
>> http://dss.ucsd.edu/mailman/listinfo/xmca
xmca mailing list