In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher addresses the question as to whether the natural language we speak will have an influence on our thought and our perception. He focuses on perceptions, and specifically the perceptions of colours and perceptions of spatial relations. He is very dismissive of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and varieties of linguistic relativity which would say that if the natural language we speak is of a certain sort then we cannot have certain types of concepts or experiences. For example, a proponent of this type of linguistic relativity might say that if your language does not have a word for the colour blue then you cannot perceive something as blue. Nonetheless, Deutscher argues that the natural language we speak will have some influence on how we think and see the world, giving several examples, many of which are fascinating. However, I believe that several of his arguments that dismiss views like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are based on serious misunderstandings.
The view that language is the medium in which conceptual thought takes place has a long history in philosophy, and this is the tradition out of which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was developed. I believe it has its roots in medieval nominalism, the position which asserts that only particular exist and that universals are mere names referring to groups of particular things. It would follow from this view that thoughts concerning universals will be thoughts concerning names. Many philosophers in early modernity developed this notion, asserting that thought about about anything that was not particular necessarily involved the use of names (although not all of these philosophers could be called nominalists properly speaking). Thomas Hobbes (in Leviathan and Elements of Philosophy) stated that thought involving universals was essentially a matter of connecting names in propositions and then connecting propositions in arguments. John Locke (in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) asserted that words were necessary to hold abstract ideas in the mind. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (in New Essays on Human Understanding III.1.2, Dialogue on the Connection Between Things and Words, and Meditations on Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas) went further to state that words were needed to hold any clear and distinct ideas in the mind and to connect ideas together in an act of reasoning.
Although this idea that words are necessary for some kinds of thinking doesn’t necessarily result in the view that different natural languages result in different types of conceptual thought, it isn’t difficult to see how it could be developed in that direction. Locke himself asserted that our abstract ideas are developed through our needs to communicate, and he seems to have thought that the fact that some languages have words that cannot be directly translated into words in another language indicates that speakers of some languages will have abstract ideas that speakers of other languages will not (e.g. Essay 3.5.7-8).
In the tradition I have described above, the idea that language conditions not only the nature of our conceptual thought but also the nature of our perception has its origin in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that for something to be an experience at all it would have to possess a unity that would conform to the concepts that he referred to as the categories of the understanding. This is not the same as saying that experience has to conform to the concepts of some particular language, of course, but Kant did see conceptual thought as closely connected language generally. In his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics he said that determining what the categories of the understanding were was a project closely related to the study of grammar, and in his Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View he stated that conceptual thinking was dependent upon the use of words. Kant’s views would be gradually developed by later philosophers such as Hamann, Herder, Humboldt, Hegel, and Nietzsche into the idea that our experience necessarily conforms to the concepts and the grammar of the natural language we speak.
It is important to note that in this tradition the relation between language and conceptual thought is not seen as one in which the ability to speak a language is one capacity and the ability to think conceptually a completely separate faculty, and in which the first merely has a causal influence on the other. It is rather the view that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to think conceptually and that the ability to speak a language makes it possible to have perceptions of certain kinds, such as those in which what is perceived is subsumed under a concept. For example, it might be said that without language it is possible to see a rabbit but not possible to see it as a rabbit (as opposed to a cat, a dog, a squirrel, or any other type of thing). Thus conceptual thinking and perceptions of these types are seen not as separate from language and incidentally influenced by it but dependent on language and taking their general form from language. This does not mean that speech or writing must be taking place every time a person thinks in concepts or has these types of perception, though. To think that it must is a misunderstanding essentially the same as a common misinterpretation of Kant, which I will discuss in more detail in a later post.
While I take this to be the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Deutscher evidently interprets that hypothesis as a very different kind of view. According to this view, the ability to speak a language is separate from the ability to think conceptually and from the ability to have the kinds of perceptions described above and it merely influences such thought and perception from without. Furthermore, it is not a relation in which language makes these types of thought and perception possible but one in which thought and perception are actually constrained by language. This interpretation runs through all of Deutscher’s criticisms of linguistic relativity.
Deutscher writes about an Australian aboriginal language that has no words for egocentric directions like left or right. The speakers always refer to cardinal directions north, south, east, and west. He briefly mentions other languages that also lack words for left and right and instead have words for relations such as towards the sea or towards the mountains. According to some thinkers in the tradition that I have outlined, if this was the only language that someone had, then that person would not have the concept of left or right, and he or she would not perceive something as on the left or on the right. However, Deutscher argues that the aboriginals’ language does not prevent them from seeing things on the left or on the right because they are perfectly able to describe things as on the left or on the right when they speak English. This assumes that those who espouse linguistic relativity would say that the aboriginal's first language prohibits them from seeing the relations, when they would really claim that it doesn’t give them the ability to see the relations and that before they were able to see the relations, they would have to learn another language or their language would have to change to include the concepts in question. In the case Deutscher describes, the aboriginals have learned English, and it is because they have learned English that they have the concepts of these relations and are able to see these relations. It would be very surprising if anyone did claim that if a language does not contain a concept then it is impossible for those who speak the language to ever learn that concept. That would mean that it is impossible for languages to develop new concepts and impossible for a person to learn another language that has a different set of concepts.
Deutscher offers a similar argument against linguistic relativity when he argues that since people who speak English can have a conception of Schadenfreude, it is not the case that their language prevents them from having the concept. This might refute a popular conception of the way in which the natural language one speaks conditions the way one thinks or perceives, but the tradition I described isn’t necessarily as simple as the view that one cannot have a concept unless one’s language has a single word for it. The example does not refute the idea that one cannot have a concept unless one’s language makes it possible to have it. English is able to refer to the same thing that Schadenfreude refers to, even though it cannot do so with only one word. So this case is probably different from the case with the aboriginal language and left and right. One could make a stronger case that to explain to someone in that language what left and right are it would be necessary to add new concepts to the language by showing the unilingual speakers of it how words are used. The egocentric nature of “left” wouldn’t be captured by descriptions such as “the direction that is west when you are facing north, north when you are facing east, east when you are facing south, and south when you are facing west”.
Elsewhere in the book Deutscher makes a similar argument to the one about Schadenfreude when he teaches the reader a bit of terminology from linguistics—the term factivity. He says that even though the reader did not have a word for this concept, he or she was able to learn the concept. This is an even stranger argument since the word in question is one in the English language, albeit part of a specialized jargon. The reader is taught the concept by being given an English word for it and then an explanation in English of what the word means. Consequently, this example fails to show that a person’s ability to have a concept doesn’t depend on his or her language making it possible to have the concept.
There seems to be a process of knocking down increasingly weaker straw men here. The aboriginals using the English words left and right was cited to knock down the straw man which claims that if a language is not capable of describing a concept then it is impossible for the speakers of that language to ever learn the concept. The ability of English speakers to conceive of the thing that Schadenfreude refers to was used to knock down the straw man which claims that if a language does not have a single word for a concept then its speakers can never learn the concept. Then the example of the reader learning the meaning of factivity was used to knock down the straw man which claims that if a person does not know of a single word for a concept, even if such a word exists in his or her language and even if the concept can be expressed in more than one word in the language, then he or she can never learn the concept. In each case the straw man involves the idea that language is external to thought and influencing it in a restrictive way.
Certainly many questionable assertions have been made based on the premise that language conditions the way that we think. Whorf apparently made spurious claims about Hopi conceptions of time. Today a great deal of dubious material is being written about the supposed influence of the internet and hypertext media on the way that we think. This is mainly inspired by Marshall McLuhan but generally lacking his originality and creativity. Nevertheless, there have been complex and sophisticated versions of the idea that the natural language that we speak conditions our thought and our perceptions, and these deserve serious attention. There are certainly more complex and sophisticated versions of these ideas than the crude caricature that Deutscher sets up and knocks down. Consequently, I don’t believe that he has given convincing reasons for seeing the relations between language and thought as limited to the types of relations in the examples he gives, interesting though they may be. For instance, he notes that the aboriginal tribes in question would have to always keep in mind where the cardinal directions were and consequently in this sense the language would require them to think a certain way.