The Whorfian Hypothesis

Among recent developments in the anthropological sciences, hardly any have found so much attention and led to so much controversy as have the views advanced by the late Benjamin Whorf.

The hypothesis offered by Whorf is, that the commonly held belief that the cognitive processes of all human beings possess a common logical structure which operates prior to and independently of communication through language, is erroneous. It is Whorf’s view that the linguistic patterns themselves determine what the individual perceives in this world and how he thinks about it. Since these patterns vary widely, the modes of thinking and perceiving in groups utilizing different linguistic systems will result in basically different world views (Fearing, 1954).

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar. . . . We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties of an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see (Whorf, 1952, p. 21).

For example, in the Indo-European languages substantives, ad- jectives and verbs appear as basic grammatic units, a sentence being essentially a combination of these parts. This scheme of a persisting entity separable from its properties and active or passive behavior is fundamental for the categories of occidental thinking, from Aristotle’s categories of “substance,” “attributes” and “action” to the antithesis of matter and force, mass and energy in physics.

Indian languages, such at Nootka (Vancouver Island) or Hopi, do not have parts of speech or separable subject and predicate. Rather they signify an event as a whole. When we say, “a light flashed” or “it (a dubious hypostatized entity) flashed,” Hopi uses a single term, “flash (occurred) ,”1

It would be important to apply the methods of mathematical logic to such languages. Can statements in languages like Nootka or Hopi be rendered by the usual logistic notation, or is the latter itself a formalization of the structure of Indo-European language? It appears that this important subject has not been investigated.

Indo-European languages emphasize time. The “give-and-take” between language and culture leads, according to Whorf, to keeping of records, diaries, mathematics stimulated by accounting; to calendars, clocks, chronology, time as used in physics; to the historical attitude, interest in the past, archeology, etc. It is interesting to compare this with Spengler’s conception of the central role of time in the occidental world picture (cf. p. 234f.), which, from a different viewpoint, comes to the identical conclusion.

However, the—for us—self-evident distinction between past, present, and future does not exist in the Hopi language. It makes no distinction between tenses, but indicates the validity a statement has: fact, memory, expectation, or custom. There is no difference in Hopi between “he runs,” “he is running,” “he ran,” all being rendered by wari, “running occur.” An expectation is rendered by warinki (“running occur [I] daresay”), which covers “he will, shall, should, would run.” If, however, it is a statement of a general law, warikngwe (“running occur, characteristically”) is applied (La Barre, 1954, pp. 197 ff.). The Hopi “has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past.” (Whorf, 1952, p. 67). Instead of our categories of space and time, Hopi rather distinguishes the “manifest,” all that which is accessible to the senses, with no distinction between present and past, and the “unmanifest” comprising the future as well as what we call mental. Navaho (cf. Kluckhohn and Leighton, 1951) has little development of tenses; the emphasis is upon types of activity, and thus it distinguishes durative, perfective, usitative, repetitive, iterative, optative, semifactive, momentaneous, progressive, transitional, conative, etc., aspects of action. The difference can be defined that the first concern of English (and Indo-European language in general) is time, of Hopi—validity, and of Navaho—type of activity (personal communication of Professor Kluckhohn).

Whorf asks:

How would a physics constructed along these lines work, with no t (time) in its equations? Perfectly, as far as I can see, though of course it would require different ideology and perhaps different mathematics. Of course, v (velocity) would have to go, too (1952, p. 7).

Again, it can be mentioned that a timeless physics actually exists, in the form of Greek statics (cf. p. 234). For us, it is part of a wider system, dynamics, for the particular case that t -> ∞ , i.e., time approaches the infinite and drops out of the equations.

i.e., time approaches the infinite and drops out of the equations.

As regards space, the Indo-European tongues widely express nonspatial relations by spatial metaphors: long, short for duration; heavy, light, high, low for intensity; approach, rise, fall for tendency; Latin expressions like educo, religio, comprehendo as metaphorical spatial (probably more correct: corporeal, L.v.B.) references: lead out, tying back, grasp, etc.

This is untrue of Hopi where rather physical things are named by psychological metaphors. Thus the Hopi word for “heart” can be shown to be a late formation from a root meaning “think” or “remember.” Hopi language is, as Whorf states, capable of accounting for and describing correctly, in a pragmatical or observational sense, all observable phenomena of the universe. However, the implicit metaphysics is entirely different, being rather a way of animistic or vitalistic thinking, near to the mystical experience of oneness.

Thus, Whorf maintains, “Newtonian space, time and matter are no intuitions. They are recepts from culture and language.” (1952, p. 40).

Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than the Euclidean which give an equally perfect account of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrast of time and space. The relativity viewpoint of modern physics is one such view, conceived in mathematical terms, and the Hopi Weltanschauung is another and quite different one, non- mathematical and linguistic (Whorf, 1952, p. 67).

The ingrained mechanistic way of thinking which comes into difficulties with modern scientific developments is a consequence of our specific linguistic categories and habits, and Whorf hopes that insight into the diversity of linguistic systems may contribute to the réévaluation of scientific concepts.

La Barre (1954, p. 301) has vividly summarized this viewpoint:

Aristotelian Substance and Attribute look remarkable like Indo- European nouns and predicate adjectives. More modern science may well raise the question whether Kant’s Forms, or twin “spectacles” of Time and Space (without which we can perceive nothing) are not on the one hand mere Indo- European verbal tense, and on the other hand human stereoscopy and kinaesthesis and life- process—which might be more economically expressed in terms of the c, or light-constant, of Einstein’s formula. But we must remember all the time that E = mc2 is also only a grammatical conception of reality in terms of Indo-European morphological categories of speech. A Hopi, Chinese, or Eskimo Einstein might discover via his grammatical habits wholly different mathematical conceptualizations with which to apperceive reality.

This paper is not intended to discuss the linguistic problems posed by Whorf as was exhaustively done in a recent symposium (Hoijer et al., 1954). However, it has occured to the present author that what is known as the Whorfian hypothesis is not an isolated statement of a somewhat extravagant individual. Rather the Whorfian hypothesis of the linguistic determination of the categories of cognition is part of a general revision of the cognitive process. It is embedded in a powerful current of modern thought, the sources of which can be found in philosophy as well as in biology. It seems that these connections are not realized to the extent they deserve.

The general problem posed may be expressed as follows: In how far are the categories of our thinking modeled by and dependent on biological and cultural factors? It is obvious that, stated in this way, the problem far exceeds the borders of linguistics and touches the question of the foundations of human knowledge.

Such analysis will have to start with the classical, absolutistic world view which found its foremost expression in the Kantian system. According to the Kantian thesis, there are the so-called forms of intuition, space and time, and the categories of the intellect, such as substance, causality and others which are universally committal for any rational being. Accordingly science, based upon these categories, is equally universal. Physical science using these a priori categories, namely, Euclidean space, Newtonian time and strict deterministic causality, is essentially classical mechanics which, therefore, is the absolute system of knowledge, applying to any phenomenon as well as to any mind as observer.

It is a well-known fact that modern science has long recognized that this is not so. There is no need to belabor this point. Euclidean space is but one form of geometry beside which other, non-Euclidean geometries exist which have exactly the same logical structure and right to exist. Modern science applies whatever sort of space and time is most convenient and appropriate for describing the events in nature. In the world of medium dimensions, Euclidean space and Newtonian time apply in the way of satisfactory approximations. However, coming to astronomical dimensions and, on the other hand, to atomic events, nonEuclidean spaces or the many-dimensional configuration spaces of quantum theory are introduced. In the theory of relativity, space and time fuse in the Minkowski union, where time is another coordinate of a four-dimensional continuum, although of a somewhat peculiar character. Solid matter, this most obtrusive part of experience and most trivial of the categories of naïve physics, consists almost completely of holes, being a void for the greatest part, only interwoven by centers of energy which, considering their magnitude, are separated by astronomical distances. Mass and energy, somewhat sophisticated quantifications of the categorical antithesis of stuff and force, appear as expressions of one unknown reality, interchangeable according to Einstein’s law. Similarly, the strict determinism of classical physics is replaced in quantum physics by indeterminism or rather by the insight that the laws of nature are essentially of a statistical character. Little is left of Kant’s supposedly a priori and absolute categories. Incidentally, it is symptomatic of the relativity of world views that Kant who, in his epoch, appeared to be the great destroyer of all “dogmatism,” to us appears a paradigm of unwarranted absolutism and dogmatism.

So the question arises—what is it which determines the categories of human cognition? While, in the Kantian system, the categories appeared to be absolute for any rational observer, they now appear as changing with the advancement of scientific knowledge. In this sense, the absolutistic conception of earlier times and of classical physics is replaced by a scientific relativism.

The argument of the present discussion may be defined as follows. The categories of knowledge, of everyday knowledge as well as of scientific knowledge, which in the last resort is only a refinement of the former, depend, first, on biological factors; second, on cultural factors. Third, notwithstanding this all-too- human entanglement, absolute knowledge, emancipated from human limitations, is possible in a certain sense.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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