The Canon: Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf

October 8, 2009

Language, Thought and Reality is not a very interesting title for a book, and in many ways Benjamin Whorf's subject is not very promising either, being about the structure and nature of language. Wake up at the back there! But here, unprepossessing or not, is the essence of philosophy. This is because, as the great Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu put it very nicely in one of his metaphorical asides, language is a fishing net cast into the waters of reality, useful for catching "meanings". Thoughts and concepts are slippery fish, and we need the net of language to capture them. But the net itself is just a means to an end.

Ancient Chinese philosophy does not rate very highly in academic philosophy, and nor does the work of Benjamin Whorf, who for most of his working life was not a "real" academic, merely an investigator for a fire insurance company. Such people, of course, do not produce new theories, and so Whorf's writings are not taken very seriously by anyone.

Philosophers exclude him from the pantheon; within Whorf's nominal discipline of linguistics, Noam Chomsky has described his work as "entirely premature" and "lacking in precision". And in bookshops generally, popularisers such as Steven Pinker (a contemporary philosopher well aware of the power of language who describes himself more imposingly as a "cognitive scientist") mischaracterise Whorf's theory as saying that thought is the same thing as language - before dismissing that as an "absurdity".

Ironically, Whorf's idea survived only courtesy of being renamed (and re-credited) to his academic supervisor, Edward Sapir. After all, since Whorf did not fit the image of a learned professor, his work could not be considered very important. The theory, however, was of some interest, therefore it must have been someone else's. And so it needed to be renamed. Out went his "theory of linguistic relativity" and in came instead the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis".

At least this illustrates what Whorf wanted to say: that the world is reconstructed around the terms used. That we do this all the time is the message conveyed in his book (actually a collection of his essays put together after his untimely death in 1941 at the age of 44). At its heart is an examination of American Indian linguistic structures, which Whorf uses to illustrate the idea that we "dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages". The world comes to us as "a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions" that has to be organised by our minds - and this means largely by our linguistic systems. "We cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language."

I first came across Whorf's book while still at school (and hence still curious and open-minded). Packed with original ideas - complex in places, but poetic in others - and prepared to range freely across disciplines in pursuit of ideas, it represented an approach to philosophy that inspired me then and has kept me going ever since.

The Canon:

Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll

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