I'm writing this post because I've become aware of a conflict in my thinking on the matter of linguistic determinism. For a long time I've felt comfortable with the wholesale rejection of linguistic determinism on the model of the 'strong' Whorf hypothesis. But it strikes me now that it's difficult to square this stance with my ideas on rhetoric and the primacy of language, as set out, not altogether successfully, in previous posts. In this post I'm hoping to clarify my thinking in the good old heuristic mode; I'm mainly writing this for my own benefit, and I'm sure that much of what I say will come across as naïve, badly-thought-through, or just plain wrong.
The crux of the matter is this: like anyone who adheres to the tenets of classical rhetoric, I am persuaded that language, broadly speaking, determines thought; but I fail to be persuaded that the conceptual systems made possible by different languages are fundamentally different. You can see the bind I'm in.
Steven Pinker very convincingly demolishes one version (his own strawman version?) of linguistic determinism in The Language Instinct. And indeed, I find it hard to believe that the German-speaker's mind functions in any fundamentally different way from the Chinese speaker's. No need even to posit a deep-structure universal grammar to accept this contention - it's just common sense (that we all have a common sense). Of course, it's possible to make arguments based on the notion that the Chinese mind deals only in the concrete and is incapable of abstraction, or that German Idealism could not have existed were it not for German syntax – but these arguments generally turn out to be specious, putting the cart before the horse, the chicken before the egg and the destination before the letter all at once.
It's a clumsy way of conceptualizing the problem, to draw sharp lines between different languages on the basis of political divisions, while paying scant attention to different idioms within a language. A language is a dialect with an army and a navy, and the notion that different ways of thinking derive solely (or even predominantly) from the nature of the individual speaker's mother tongue (whether it be Swedish, Sanskrit or Swahili) is clearly flawed. Better to think in terms of linguistic subsystems – not least because few of us possess sufficient mastery of many different languages to make comparisons meaningful. Many of the arguments for strong linguistic determinism, it seems to me, rest on the researcher's (deliberate?) inability to convey the sense of a peculiar idiom in a familiar idiom. Just because other languages' grammars/idioms/phraseology seem bizarre and incommensurable with 'our way of thinking' when we read them in translation, doesn't mean that they really are incommensurable. And linguistic researchers are not necessarily skilled translators; sometimes they are downright tendentious.
The 'weak' version of linguistic determinism says that different languages/idioms shape different ways of conceptualizing things, and so open up different fields of 'things' possible to conceive of – without necessarily positing the incommensurability of those ways of thinking. This I can accept, with some reservations.
I recently took a look at Ann Moss's excellent book on Renaissance Truth and the Latin Language Turn. It is the author's contention that the shift from the technical Latin of medieval scholasticism to humanist Latin was at the root of a new conceptual system. Her earlier work on Printed Commonplace Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought is a favourite of mine; and, of course, I never for one minute questioned the notion that our reading structures our capacity to think. But this new idea seems to me to go one step further: are we to believe that the advent of a new kind of expressivity (new syntax, new lexicon, a new poetics) was at the root of a new way of conceptualizing Truth?
Let's turn to Erasmus for the answer; writing from the heart of the debate (this from the De ratione studii of 1512):
[NB: It may seem perverse of me to persist with this words/things dichotomy in this post-Saussurean semiotic universe, but let's keep it as simple as possible for the moment (my English-speaking mind can't cope with indigest complexity - it needs to build up to it).]
For a start it would seem that knowledge is altogether twofold: knowledge of things and knowledge of words. Knowledge of words comes first; knowledge of things is more important ['cognitio...verborum prior, rerum potior'] ... As things are only known through verbal signs, anyone who is not skilled in the power of language ['sermonis vim'] will of necessity everywhere misjudge things, blindly, fancifully, crazily. Finally, you may observe that there are none more prone to everlasting quibbling about verbal minutiae than those who boast that they have no time for words because they are concentrating on things.
Now Erasmus was saying nothing much new here (Augustine might even have agreed with him); but he was setting out, in his characteristically robust style, a position that was controversial enough in its own way. That parting shot at the pedants, which rings true even today, has greater significance in the context of the Aristotelianism (and its scholastic Latin) that Erasmus is writing against. A few centuries later someone else set it out much more pithily (although I'm not too sure he was saying quite the same thing): 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world' (proposition 5.6 of the Tractatus). The implications of the view of language Erasmus describes here are far-reaching: to be sure, 'things are more important', but words 'come first' and cannot be dispensed with. We know things only by virtue of words. Those who boast that they have no time for words are clearly both blind and crazy, since attending to words is what comes first: err at that stage, and you fast become lost in the forest of things. Things are worthless without words. Meaning emerges only from discourse when the speaker possesses sufficient mastery of the language arts, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic. To attend to substance over style (or to claim to be doing that) is to go wrong: the way you say something is more important than what you [think you're] say[ing], in that nebulous region of the mind that deals in ideas. Words precede things.
Permit me to backtrack a little. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that the how is more important than the what: better to borrow Erasmus's formulation and say that words are more powerful than things; vis sermonis exceeds vis rerum. I think it's essential not to lose sight of what's bound up in that little phrase: verborum prior, rerum potior, lest I fall into the scoptical scepticism of radical relativism. It's a tricky one: prior versus potior, 'first' versus 'more important' or even (if we translate 'potior' in a slightly different but no less accurate way) 'more powerful' – in which case the opposition I posited is compromised. Choice of words is everything at this delicate stage. Can we tease it out any further, or is this entanglement a Gordian knot? One thing's for sure: cutting it by brute force might solve the bind, but we will have lost something in the process.
Let's try again: words come first; words are at the cutting edge of experience; they are the first and the last, the alpha and the omega. Things cannot exist independent of words: things cannot precede words, they can only emerge into the light of understanding once words have had their say. Words are shared; things, not necessarily. Things do not exist in some ideal Platonic realm: they exist by virtue of their instantiation in language. No relativism here: language is shared, held in common, conventional; there is no private language. Nevertheless, the capacity of words to mean things is not strictly limited by convention: there is still poetry.
Foucault, in Les mots et les choses (irritatingly translated into English as The Order of Things) set out a whole trajectory of the evolution of the language/knowledge axis since the Renaissance episteme, going from resemblance through measurement (in the era of Classicism) to the opening up of the 'human' disciplines (in the modern era). Things have changed since the Renaissance, and so have words. Nevertheless, I'm still inclined to believe in this idea, from Foucault's first chapter on 'The Prose of the World' (paying due attention to the qualifying clause):
The process is everywhere the same: that of the sign and its likeness, and this is why nature and the word can intertwine with one another to infinity, forming, for those who can read it, one vast single text.