Friday, February 11, 2005

From language to thought

Rand Simberg has a thought-provoking (and, as he points out, rather non-PC) post about how language structures shape our thinking. Evidently, tribes of people who do not have words for large numbers (e.g., "five") have trouble doing tasks that involve numerical concepts. Suppose you put down half a dozen nuts and ask a tribe member to put down the same number of rocks. If his language system does not reach that high, he is surprisingly likely to get it wrong.

The idea that Simberg pursues is that this is relevant to the merits of "Ebonics" and so forth. Some languages are just better -- not morally better, but better at preparing the mind for rigorous logic and mathematical abstraction.

This reminds me of discussions I've had about whether all thought was language-based. As I understand it, a basic premise of contemporary critical theory is that our thought is so enmeshed in our language that we are unable to think "outside" of language. Thus, language controls us in ways that we cannot even detect. The deconstructionists aim to try to expose this by demonstrating subversive secondary and tertiary meanings in texts, undermining the idea of a univalent "meaning".

I have very little sympathy with this project. To my outsider's eye, it either seems obvious ("Whatever we say, we're using words!") or wrong-headed ("This means whatever I want it to mean.") I don't mind saying that our minds do not have a direct, angelic access to Truth; but I do mind very much saying that our thinking can have no discernible relation to it.

Aside: I was once in a conversation about the Big Picture in academia and someone said that Women's and Gender Studies was crucially important because everything connected to it. I was incautious enough to remark that by the same logic Physics was crucially important, because everything was made of matter and energy, and Physics was about matter and energy. To which she said, "Physics is about matter and energy as seen by white European males." I held my tongue at that point, not wishing to cause a scene, but her remark serves as a fair example of the point of view. If all our thinking is simply conditioned by forces outside our perception or control, then no body of knowledge is "priviliged" by being, say, objectively right.

Back to language: A key point for me has been my own experience of thinking about mathematics. When I'm sorting out a mathematical idea, my thinking seems highly visual or kinesthetic. Later, after I have already understood the thing, comes the long difficult process of translating it all into words and symbols so that I can communicate it with other people. So my personal experience leads me to believe that not all thinking is based on words. But Simberg's post is an extremely interesting, and slightly disturbing, piece of evidence otherwise.


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