Linguistic Relativity in French, English, and German Philosophy

By Harvey, William | Philosophy Today, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Linguistic Relativity in French, English, and German Philosophy


Harvey, William, Philosophy Today


In our century philosophy has indeed taken a "linguistic turn," both in the AngloAmerican analytic tradition (in the work of Russell, Wittgenstein, and subsequent logicians), and in the Continental tradition, which has been deeply influenced by Saussurean "structuralism," as well as by Lacan's notion of language as a mirror of consciousness, and Heidegger's concept of language as the "house of being." Most philosophical discussion, however, has considered language as an essentially undifferentiated whole, treating, for example, such problems as the role of language in general in acquiring knowledge (Gadamer), the significance of metaphor in general in understanding (Ricoeur), the possibility of a universal ambiguity in language (Derrida), and so on. Apart from such studies as Quine's theory of untranslatability (which is, in any case, rather abstract) there has been surprisingly little attention paid by philosophers to the important question of differences between real language--what factors are involved in diachronic language change, why there should be hundreds of extant languages, etc. Even the linguists' eminently philosophy-oriented hypothesis of language-thought relativity (the theory that the grammars of different languages might cause their speakers to develop different world views), first investigated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 1800's and further developed by prominent 20th century linguists (in America, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf; in Germany, Leo Weisgerber and Jost Trier), has not been treated in a significant way by recent philosophers. Certainly, though, the theory has profound import for philosophy, not least of all in philosophy's self-examination, as it attempts to determine causes for the variety of philosophic schools that have traditionally formed, not only from shared political ideologies, historical determinism, and perpetuation of respect for teachers and tradition, but also along linguistic lines. In the synthesis of environmental and genetic factors that create philosophic world views (and cultural views in general), syntactic and semantic differences between languages might constitute a larger ingredient than has generally been acknowledged. As Edward Sapir rather pointedly states in an essay written for H. L. Mencken's American Mercury in 1924: To a far greater extent than the philosopher has realized, he is likely to become the dupe of his speech-forms, which is equivalent to saying that the mould of his thought, which is typically a linguistic mould, is apt to be projected into his conception of the world. Thus innocent linguistic categories may take on the formidable appearance of cosmic absolutes. If only, therefore, to save himself from philosophic verbalism, it would be well for the philosopher to look critically to the linguistic foundations and limitations of his thoughts. (157) The current situation in linguistics has not been very much more favourable than that in academic philosophy to the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis." Dominated by Noam Chomsky's oft-revised attempts at a structuralist "universal generative grammar," linguists have likewise devoted comparatively slight attention to the theory of language-thought relativism; but Chomskyan and relativist theories are not necessarily mutually incompatible. Even Chomsky, who holds that human knowledge and understanding in language and thought "is not derived by induction.... Rather, it grows in the mind, on the basis of our biological nature, triggered by appropriate experience," admits that cognitive and linguistic understanding is "in a limited way shaped by experience that settles options left open by the innate structure of the mind" (Sophia Linguistica, p. 25).1 This "limited" shaping of languagethought by experience remains, however, undefined by Chomsky; presumably it is an amalgam of individual and group experience (including the linguistic); and intercultural world view differences, insofar as they are non-innate (i.e., non-genetic), must then, for the Chomskyan structuralists, be experientially shaped. …

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