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Applying Kants The Primacy of Time to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Linguistic Relativity By Robbin Zirkle During most

of the middle of the twentieth century, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was taboo in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines because its serious sociological and metaphysical implications made it highly controversial. In the last thirty years, however, intellectuals have returned their attention to the controversial Hypothesis and are evaluating it empirically and conceptually. The connection between philosophy and linguistics is not immediately apparent for the casual intellectual, but after careful consideration, philosophy can prove to be very useful in evaluating the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. When one applies what Kant says in his The Primacy of Time about time as an a priori form of intuition to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it becomes clear that language does not shape how we think about time. Linguistic Relativism Linguistic relativism is at the most basic level the idea that perception of the world is dependent upon an individuals inertial frame of reference as well as the speakers mother tongue, and implies that a speakers thought is defined by the limits of his or her language. Linguistic relativity gained attention as early as the nineteenth century among scholars, but it did not gain credence in the popular sphere until the early nineteen-hundreds (Deutscher 1301). During this time, linguists were making enormous advances in understanding the outlandish nature of Amer-Indian languages. Edward Sapir, a professor, translated claims about languages negative influence on philosophy into an an argument about the influence of the mother tongue on everyday thoughts and perceptions (Deutscher 139). However, what is now

known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was actually primarily developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf, Sapirs student. In Science and Linguistics, Benjamin Lee Whorf writes specifically that the [grammar] of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas (Whorf 6). As examples of this phenomenon, Whorf cites English nouns and verbs as well as the languages of different ethnic groups including the Nootka, Eskimos, and the (now) famous Hopi. Whorf claimed that after a long and careful study, he found that the Hopi Indian tribe from northeastern Arizona used a language which did not distinguish between past, present and future. Because of this eccentricity in their grammar, Whorf believed that a perceived inability to speak about mathematical time indicated that the Hopi lived in a timeless society and that they were unable to perceive time as a result (Deutscher 142). Linguistic relativism carries with it two claims: first, (1) that languagesespecially those from different language familiesdiffer in significant ways from one another, and second, (2) that the structure and lexicon of a language influences how its speakers perceive and conceptualize the world systematically (Swoyer). Aside from seeming unexpected or surprising, claims about linguistic relativism have a number of sociological and metaphysical ramifications which throw it into controversy.

Whorf Controversy The first question that rises from beliefs about linguistic relativism is whether nonWesterners think about time differently from Westerners and vice-versa. Furthermore, is the way that we value time different because of this? These questions present a variety of

dilemmasdo different experiences of time lead different values of time? Is causation involved? For example, if a hypothetical African culture doesnt utilize the future tense, assent to these questions would imply that to native speakers, the future is unreal or doesnt exist, and therefore, future times arent worried about because they are unreal. In contrast with Western preoccupation with time, this take on African conceptions of time plants seeds for racism and could be used to justify ethnocentrism. For example, such a belief could be used to justify the stereotypical belief that Africans are lazy, or to explain away why Africans are not concerned with the afterlife (Rubenstein lecture). Metaphysical implications for Whorfs ideas deal with questions about the nature of time, rather than feelings about time (as do sociological implications). It is important to note that Whorf is not talking about how people value time; rather he is trying to make statements about what people think time is as a result of language. For a member of the Hopi tribe, you live in a different world than a typical Westernertime wouldnt show up in your description of what the world is. Therefore, he or she would have significantly different experiences in life and in nature, and due to these experiences we are unable to talk about the human experience of others. The experience of time itself becomes radically different if we take linguistic relativity to be valid.

Applying Kant It is easy to see how linguistic relativism becomes controversial, especially since on the surface, linguistic relativism and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis seem plausible. In Through the Language Glass, however, Guy Deutscher points out that English speakers can have entire

conversations about the future in the present tense, and they and the person to whom they are speaking (if they are a native English speaker) understand that the event is forthcoming (example: Im driving to Arizona). Deutscher notes that human brains are innately equipped with powerful pattern-recognition algorithms, which sort similar objects into groups. Such conceptsmuch somehow correspond to this inborn aptitude to categorize the world. (Deutscher 12). These algorithms are eerily reminiscent of the forms that Kant discusses in his The Primacy of Time, in which he argues that time is an a priori form of intuition. This connection suggests that we may use Kant to try to get at the heart of linguistic relativism and evaluate its plausibility in light of philosophy. When we boil Kants argument down to its very bones, we see that he believes that human experience requires an active contribution from the mind. He calls two faculties of the mind sensibility and understanding. According to Kant, understanding deals with concepts, while sensibility deals with intuitions. In The Primacy of Time, Kant talks about these faculties as if they are essential, or innate, an idea which has been utilized by other philosophers and social scientists for support throughout time. One interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it is throwing the idea that such faculties are innate out the window. Sapir-Whorf may consider concepts to be items in a language which are learned from the culture in which they occur; therefore, experience is still the result of an active process of the mind, but concepts which are a part of language enable us to experience reality (Rubenstein). If we follow this interpretation, language is culturally dependent and can modify how humans experience the world.

In his Primacy of Time, Kant argues that time can be both subjective and real, bridging both substantialism and relationalism. Kant believes that human knowledge is the result of two faculties at work: understanding, or comprehension, and sensibility. Sensibility is passive and includes intuitions, which are representations of singular items (Rubenstein). Furthermore, intuition is the condition under which anything can be an object of our senses and is a condition of sensitive knowledge, making it subjective (Kant 144). In Kants mind, space and time are forms of intuition and are mind-dependent, or subjective. A form is the structure into which we receive data, and this structure comes from humans, therefore, time and space are the structures through which humans intuit the world around them (Rubenstein). Kant states that time is an a priori form of intuition, in which a priori means knowledge that humans can justify or support without the use of our senses. For example, if one was asked how they know that they truly exist, an a priori response would not appeal to the ability to observe the surrounding world; in contrast, it might fall along the lines of I think, therefore I am, as stated by Renee Descartes. Without relying on the sensed world, Kant believes that we are experiencing the world as it truly is. Intuition, by his definition, is a priori, and intellection is possible only through universal concepts in the abstract.For all our intuition is bound to a certain formal principle under which alone anything can be apprehended by the mind immediately (Kant 143). Kant asserts that humans are able to experience the world because of a certain formal principle which receives, processes and interprets the world for humans. In his work, Kant alludes to some internal means of processing the world around us. As noted, Kant believes that time and space are forms of intuition and that they are minddependent. Therefore, time helps us to process the world that surrounds us, but it is

subjective. When he states that time is an a priori form of intuition, which is bound by a certain formal principle, it seems reasonable to believe that Whorf would argue that language is this means of processing, and that it is only through language that we are able to perceive the world. Therefore, Whorf would say that since language shapes perception, ergo it shapes the way that humans think. The belief that time is mind-dependent is significant because Kant also states that time is a means for structuring the data that we perceive in the world. Note that Kant does not suggest that time is the only thing that does this structuring. Furthermore, this structuring is dependent upon the human perceiver (Rubenstein). This makes sense, as the need to structure the perceived world is arguable moot without a subject. But how seriously do we want to take the idea that our mind constructs reality? It would seem that Kant could also be read in a manner which doesnt treat the mind as a conveyor belt merely processing the world around us. It is also possible to read Kant as saying that we can perceive the world regardless of our interaction with it, but our faculties (understanding and sensibility) enable us to become self-aware and reflect upon the world. Through this interpretation of Kant, we could begin to see language as one of many faculties, but that doesnt mean that it determines whether or not we can interact with the world around us mentally. Furthermore, we arent dependent upon high cognitive abilities to be able to perceive the world and our own needs and want. For example, infants who have not yet learned speech or motor skills are still capable of perceiving the world, although they have not developed advanced faculties. Analyzing Linguistic Relativism

It is important when considering the question of how we perceive the world to understand that linguistic relativism by Whorfs standards is reasonably complex, and could be used as a basis for arguing any number of things. For example, linguistic relativism could be used at its worst to justify repeats of the horrors committed against primitive people during colonization. Turning this reality on its head, Chris Swoyer notes that Whorfs type of relativism carries two claimsfirst, that different groups will see the world differently, whether they are scientific communities, cultures, linguistic communities or historical periods. Second, that a good deal of perception is affected by perceivers concepts, expectations and beliefs; this is part of the Theory-Ladenness of Perception, which argues that we are primed to see things in a particular context (Swoyer). Matching Kants ideas with Whorfs ideas about linguistic relativism brings up a number of other issues. For example, one might argue, why couldnt language be another form for structuring the world around us? Interestingly, in his On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme, Donald Davidson argues that any use of language distorts realitythe very act of putting something into words destroys its essential meaning and simplifies it into the conventions which we must use to communicate. Davidson hypothesizes that it is only wordlessly if at all that the mind can come to grips with things as they truly are. Not completely throwing out Kants idea, Davidson notes that a mechanism, which he calls a conceptual scheme, enables us to process the world and, specifically, time, Davidson writes that if the mind can grapple without distortion with the real, the mind itself must be without categories and concepts (Davidson 7).

Davidson also has a number of interesting things to say about translation. He notes that the principle of charity in translation keeps one group of language speakers from according different language speakers bizarre or obviously false beliefs (Rubenstein). This idea essentially boils down to the discrepancy between what one group of language speaker says and what the receiving different-language speakers want that speaker to say. Essentially, we use a principle of charity to translate others languages into something that makes sense to us, if we are the other language group. This method of translation assigns other language groups beliefs that are very similar to the speakers own beliefs, regardless of whether or not that affinity exists (Davidson). When we apply this concept to Whorfs claims that the Hopi language constructs its own metaphysics, it seems that we must evaluate whether or not he has the ability to objectively explore translations of the Hopi language, or if he is trying assign equivalent value across languages which cannot exist. This assertion is sticky because it seems to suggest that the Hopi do think differently and in a way that cannot be translated directly. It is important to note that Davidson is not arguing that languages are not translatablethis would support Whorfs hypothesis. Davidson is drawing attention to the manner in which translation occurs. He asserts that we can play with a translation to fit into our own language schemes (Rubenstein). If we try to fit non-IndoEuropean language structures into the American English language structure, it is natural that we will have difficulty. This difficulty, however, does not mean that perception of the world is differentit means that language is structured differently in a way that does not translate easily.

Language underspecifies meaning. That is, we often mean something quite different and more complex than what we actually say based upon the meaning of our words (Denham and Loebeck). Language functions to help humans communicate thought, not to help us understand what we think. This assertion easily leads into issues for translatability. What is often argued by the linguistic relativism camp is that there are some concepts that are not translatablethis is true in a sense. There are a number of terms in German philosophy texts that are not directly translatable, yet Americans can talk their way around them. Even if the translation is not direct, is its difference really significant, so long as the essence of the idea is communicable? Similarly, while some languages may not have specific terms for communicating past, present and future, those civilizations still survive; they plan for growing seasons, they construct garments knowing that eventually it will become cold. In this sense, those civilizations may not be able to talk about mathematical time in the way that Westerners do, but it does not change their understanding of the concept. It would seem if civilizations which are primarily selfsufficient have survived by planting crops and celebrating rituals such as coming of age, those civilizations have an understanding of what Westerners might call mathematical time. Another example that is often brought up in relation to translatability is the French phrase, raison dtre. This phrase literally translates to reason to be, which oversimplifies its meaning. Raison dtre is a phrase often used by artistic people to describe their muse or motivationtheir inspirational reason for being. While there is no direct translation into English for this phrase, we can still find a way to talk around it and explain the concept obviously we are capable of doing so, for I was able to describe the phenomenon in the last sentence. Such a phenomenon may not be directly translatable, but the ability to modify and


utilize another language to describe such a concept would indicate that language is not so obtuse that it is not communicable across cultures. Translatability is a great example of how time helps people to structure the world around them. Civilizations such as the aforementioned one with no ability to talk about time still use time to plan their lives, and they perceive the world day after day. The ethical ramifications for saying that a group has no sense of time or that time does not help them to organize their lives and perceptions sets such a civilization up to be labeled as careless or lazy, as has happened with hunter-gatherer societies throughout history. For example, linguistic relativity could contribute to ideas of social Darwinism, or the concept that some cultures are more fit than others thanks to evolution. Ideas about social Darwinism fueled colonization as well as the Holocaust; if we are to take seriously linguistic relativity, we must think carefully about what it truly means, and the ethnocentrism that it may perpetuate. Furthermore, the language that we use is largely arbitrary, so to say that it makes us fundamentally different seems to be assigning language more value than we ought to, because we construct its meaning in a largely meaningless manner (Ferdinand de Saussure has a great deal to say about this). The beauty of Kants The Primacy of Time is that he manages to identify time as a means for structuring the world around us. While we may use language to talk about time, it is not to say that time is restricted by language. Furthermore, perception and understanding are not dependent upon languageif you call a chair a sedia, it doesnt change the fact that it is a chair; the concept remains, and you will perceive it as it remains, regardless of what words you use for it. For example, we have all experienced the sensation of time moving unusually slowly because we are looking forward to something, such as vacation, a birthday, or the end of a


lecture. We have also all experienced the sensation of time moving unusually quickly, often when we are experiencing something pleasant, or something unpleasant is on its way, such as a trip to the dentist or the drive to work in the morning. In none of these instances does time actually change at allrather, our perception of time changes. We are able to notice these changes in perception because time helps us to organize the events in our day and to become self-aware. In these situations, we are certainly able to use language to communicate such phenomena. The language we use does not change the way we think about time passingas mentioned, it may underspecifies what we mean. However, that doesnt change our perception. Whorf was famous for citing the many different ways that Eskimo people speak about snow (Deutscher). These people have words for all different kinds of snow, while in Western Pennsylvania, we use only two words to speak about snow: snow and flurries. This doesnt change our perception, however; we can still differentiate between the light, fluffy powder that is ideal for skiing and the wet, icy sort of snow that is great for snowballs. We understand these differences, even if we do not possess the language to talk about it. In contrast, Eskimos utilize many different words for snow because it holds greater cultural importance for themit impacts their ability to move from place to place to purchase food, interact, or go to work and school. Similarly, American English-speakers tend to put a great deal of emphasis on money, thus it makes sense that we have many words that mean just that: cash, green, moolah, Simoleans, and so on. We understand the difference between how cash and green are usedcash is what you have on hand, where as green is generally something you loan to a friend.


It is easy to see what Sapir and Whorf meant when they explored linguistic relativism, specifically in relation to time, but one must overlook a number of problems to believe it is correct. Kant believes that time is a mechanism for understanding the world that we perceive around usthis is not to say that it is the only mechanism, but understanding that it is one negates the possibility for language to be a mechanism which shapes and orders thought. What does all of this information come down to? When we begin to understand what Kant says about time as an a priori form of intuition, we can conclude that time is used as a means of structuring what we perceive, and it does not rely on our senses. When we apply Kants ideas to the phenomena that Whorf claimed to observe, his claims fall apart. Furthermore, the concept of linguistic relativism has sweeping metaphysical ramifications which sit on a slippery slope leading to ethnocentrism, and which does not make a great deal of sense when held under an intellectual microscope. But where does this leave us? It shows us the importance of intermingling both linguistics and philosophy. Rulon Wells stated that The final lesson for the philosopher is clear. To progress effectively the linguist needs those skills of analysis and of theory construction which are a specialty of the philosopher (708). These words are wise Sapir and Whorf might have been better off if they had expanded their scope of knowledge beyond their own discipline. Then again, as the history of linguistic relativism has shown us, someone else would likely have fallen into the same trap.



In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher expounds upon recent empirical research regarding linguistic relativism, and makes some interesting conclusions about what he has found. Deutscher writes, The effects that have emerged from recent research.are to do with the habits of mind that language can instill on the ground level of thought: on memory, attention, perception and associations (22). This statement is significant because it goes to the heart of an important distinction. Language has a definite potential to influence how we understand the world through how we label things, but not through how we perceive them. For example, Italians do not use the future tense, except to talk about the very distant future. If an Italian says that he or she is going to study tomorrow, he or she says I am studying (or rather, io studio). This label changes intention and makes it more definite, but it does not make it difficult for a speaker and his or her audience to understand that what is meant is tomorrow, even if that is not the label that is used. The concept is understood because of the way that time works, and the label reflects how a culture thinks about time, but not how it exists for them. In the final pages of Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher makes another insightful remark about the very subject of language and thought: The crucial differences between languagesare not in what each language allows its speakers to expressbut in what information each language obliges its speakers to express (151). What Deutscher means by this statement is that some languages force their speakers to make distinctions that others do not, such as in the example of Italians that is listed above. In that regard, Italians are not required to differentiate between today or tomorrow unless they are talking about the distant future (I am going to marry John in May 2014). In English, we are obliged to talk about the


timing of events. If one person goes to the park with another person and tells you about it, in English, the first person is obliged to differentiate between whether you went, are going, are at, will be going, et cetera. However, the construction and understanding of each of these times is not more or less understood by English speakers because of our obligation to make such a distinction. Additionally, these obligations could make it difficult to translate words directly, but they do not make it impossible. A great example of this phenomenon is bodies of water. In English, we are obligated to identify bodies of water by their size, thus we have the words stream, river, creek, spring, and so on. In French, however, bodies of water are named by the direction in which they flow (north, east, south, west). Translatability becomes more complicated because French obligates its speakers to identify direction rather than size, but that does not mean that the concept could not be explained (once again, it can obviously be explainedI just did so). Applying Kant to linguistic relativism is important because it brings us back to the idea that there is a common human experience and we are all essentially the same in the manner in which we understand time. Language is not the tool that shapes thought, though it does control how you label and communicate your thoughts. Time, however, is the same for everyone, regardless of the language that is used. It helps us organize the world that surrounds us and understand what we perceive. It is, as Kant stated, an a priori form of intuition.

Works Cited


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