Following the previous tangent, addressing the use of culture, as well as, to lesser extent, nature and ideology, it’s time for me to once again attempt to dip me feet into ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’ by Valentin Vološinov. It’s an interesting book published as it strikes me as ahead of its time, quite a bit to be honest, considering it was published in 1930.
Just as the title suggests, Vološinov (9) explains his interest in language, in relation to Marxism:
“[T]he bases for the studies of scientific knowledge, literature, religion, ethics, and so forth … are closely bound up with problems of the philosophy of language.”
He (9) clarifies his position on language by distinguishing it from what lies outside language, physical bodies:
“A physical body equals itself, so to speak; it does not signify anything but wholly coincides with its particular, given nature. In this case there is no question of ideology.”
In other words, he is saying that what lies outside language, regardless of what we make of it, in language, say, a body, an actual human body for instance, is just what it is, what it happens to be at any given moment. Sure, he (9) adds, physical bodies can be converted into signs, into language. He (10) further elaborates this with a proper Marxist example by explaining that a tool, for example, a hammer or a sickle, has a very specific function. It can also be converted into a sign, standing for something outside itself, for example as the insignia of the Soviet Union.
As a side note here, I’d argue here, to further complicate this, that a tool, be it a hammer, a sickle, or something else, is, itself, already a conversion. To go back to the example in the previous essay, a chair is chair because we hold it to be a chair, not because it is a chair-in-itself, unless, of course, we build on a premise in which objects exist in themselves, sort of ready made or, if crafted, created according to an idea of the specific object. This leads me to another tangent, so I won’t be making much progress on Vološinov this time either.
A while ago I was reading what Benjamin Lee Whorf had to say about language and its connection to reality, as discussed by him in ‘Language, Mind, and Reality’, and I came across something relevant. Whorf (246) states:
“For science’s long and heroic effort to be strictly factual has at last brought it into entanglement with the unsuspected facts of the linguistic order.”
Ah, yes, to simply take things (haha, it’s so hard to avoid that word) for granted, as facts as Whorf puts it, or to address how those things, those facts, those objects, come to be thought as such. It would be only apt to bring in some Michel Foucault here, but I’ve done that in previous essays, so I won’t do that this time. It would also be handy to explain this in reference to Kenneth Olwig’s assessment of what a thing is, but I’ve also done that previously so I won’t do that either. So, I’ll just work with Whorf this time. Anyway, in my experience, as limited as it may, most of my peers opt for the first approach. To be fair, I don’t think they consciously take that approach. Instead, they just end up that way. That’s how taking things for granted works. You don’t really think about it as it all seems about right. There is nothing to challenge. That’s doxa for you alright, as I’ve explained a number of times in the past in reference to Pierre Bourdieu (68) in ‘The Logic of Practice’. For me, taking things for granted just doesn’t cut it, no matter how tedious, not to mention heretical, it may seem to start from scratch, to dig deep, to question all fundamentals. Anyway, Whorf (246) further addresses the unsuspected facts:
“These facts the older classical science had never admitted, confronted, or understood as facts. Instead they had entered its house by the back door and had been taken for the substance of Reason itself.”
In other words, as I like to explain it, this is about sneaking in a presupposition, hence the point made about a back door. He (246-247) goes on to give some examples (which I’m sure you can look up yourself), followed by a summary of the underlying issue with the obsession of Reason in science (247):
“For certain linguistic patterns rigidified in the dialectics of the sciences – often also embedded in the matrix of European culture from which those sciences have sprung, and long worshipped as pure Reason per se – have been worked to death. Even science senses that they are somehow out of focus for observing what may be very significant aspects of reality, upon the due observation of which all further progress in understanding the universe may hinge.”
Oui, to put this in contemporary terms, to be more easily understood by those who are familiar with computers, it’s not that you aren’t achieving something by using a computer, you are, but what if, what if the operating system is limiting you by setting limits to what can be achieved through it. To be more faithful to Whorf, as language is not separate from thinking, it affects the way we think, which affects the way we come to understand the world. He (248) elaborates what he is after:
“All that I have to say on the subject that may be new is of the PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown, vaster world – that world of which the physical is but a surface or skin, and yet which we ARE IN, and BELONG TO.”
I’m not exactly sure how new his contribution is though. I find his (247-248) take to be rather Kantian (not that it’s unique only to Kant though), considering he refers to the unknown, inconceivably manifold, vaster world, realm of patterned relations also as a noumenal world and what the different sciences address as phenomena. If you are unfamiliar with noumenon and phenomenon, simply put, for Kant, noumenon is the thing-in-itself and phenomenon is how it comes to appear to us, inasmuch as it does. Crucially, for Kant, while we can acknowledge the noumena, we can never know them. They are out of our reach. As a result, we are left to deal with phenomena and addressing how they come to appear to us, as they do, inasmuch as they do.
To be honest, what Whorf is after, or at least what I think he is after, reminds me of how Gilles Deleuze (208-209, 222-223) conceptualizes reality, the real, in ‘Difference and Repetition’ as both virtual and actual, with difference giving rise to identity, intensities developing sensible extensities. Anyway, Whorf (248) argues that:
“[D]ifferent sciences chop segments, as it were, out of the world, segments which perhaps cut across the direction of the natural levels, or stop short when, upon reaching a major change of level, the phenomena become of quite different type, or pass out of the ken of the older observational methods.”
To link this to Deleuze, now that I went there already, this reminds me of how Deleuze, along with Félix Guattari, explains this in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ as a matter of subtraction, as always ‘n-1’ (6). Deleuze also elaborates this in ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’ or ‘Gilles Deleuze from A to Z’, as it is translated to English, the series of interviews with Claire Parnet, when he addresses the letter U (U, ‘U comme Un’). He states that science has to do with particulars, with singularities, not at all with universals or reproducible phenomena. That may seem a bit … contrary to the popular opinion, but that’s exactly the point he is making. He uses the example of falling bodies, that “all bodies fall”, only to counter it by noting that it is of little importance that they do so. What is of importance is the fall itself and the singularities of the fall. As he points out, their reproducibility is secondary to what’s at stake itself, in this case the fall and the singularities of the fall. Simply put, the general, the universal, is not at all universal, in the sense that it’s actually secondary to the particular, the singular. It’s derived from those particulars, those singularities. That’s why it’s always ‘n-1’ not ‘n’. It’s always subtracted. If you pile up ‘1’, it does not result in ‘n’. As a related matter, this is about confusing ‘multiple’, piling up ‘1’, with ‘multiplicity’, which isn’t about piling up ‘1’ because ‘1’ is already subtracted from the multiplicity.
Where was I before that tangent on Kant, followed by Deleuze? Right, so, back to Whorf, who goes on (and on) to explain all kinds of things about language in the non-western parts of the world. He (249) moves on to brings up how “mathematical formula[s] … enable a physicist to adjust some coils of wire, tinfoil plates, diaphragms, other quite inert and innocent gadgets into a configuration in which they can project music to a far country” which allows the physicist to make “possible adjustment of matter to a very strategic configuration, one which makes possible an unusual manifestation of force.” He (249) adds that “[o]ther formulas make possible strategic arrangement of magnets and wires in the powerhouse so that, when the magnets … are set in motion, force is manifested in the way we call an electric current.”
These formulas remind me of diagrams and diagrammatics, as explained by Deleuze in his book about Foucault, aptly titled as ‘Foucault’, in reference to its use by Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’. I’m emphasizing Deleuze here because Foucault doesn’t delve that much into it, using the word only twice in the whole book (171, 205) when he examines the spatial configurations of military camps and prisons, both involving what is known as Panopticism.
In Deleuze’s (33-34) terms, what Foucault is after is an abstract formula, “an optical or luminous arrangement” or “abstractly … a machine that not only affects visible matter in general … but also in general passes through every articulable function.” If you are familiar with ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, the wording, referring to Foucault “view[ing] it abstractly as a machine”, makes you think of it as an abstract machine (which, spoiler alert, it is). Anyway, Deleuze (34) elaborates these bits:
“So the abstract formula … is no longer ‘to see without being seen’ but to impose a particular conduct on a particular human multiplicity.”
This why it is machinic, to put it in Deleuzo-Guattarian parlance. It’s not only a mere static arrangement, but also how that arrangement comes to operate. I’m pulling this out of memory, to jog it a bit, but it is an abstract machine, in the sense that it puts certain arrangements, that is to say assemblages, or, better yet, agencements (the French original agencement, used to indicate how it is active, arranging, assembling, rather than a static arrangement or assemblage), into action, functioning as the formula, or so to speak. The English words, assemblage (used by their translator, Brian Massumi) and arrangement (sometimes used by others in their own translations), do not neatly capture what Deleuze and Guattari are after with agencement. He (37) notes that in Foucault’s parlance the concrete assemblages are typically called mechanisms.
To connect this to singularities, as mentioned already, it is the assemblages, the agencements, that construct or, perhaps, to be more apt, arrange them in relation to one another, albeit in a way that is never done or united, in the sense that the arrangements are always subject to change, well, inasmuch as they are as they do tend to hold together, more or less, hence the static appearance. How to put it? To pun a bit here, to make South Park reference, the composition is always fractured but whole, as Deleuze and Guattari (16) might allow me to characterize it, to humor you, the audience, a bit, considering they call a concept “a fragmentary whole” in ‘What is Philosophy?’.
This also reminds me of how earlier on, a few paragraphs back, I pointed out how you cannot get to the multiplicity by piling up ‘ones’. Later on in the same book, they (23) add that you cannot approach concepts like pieces of a puzzle. If we are to think the world as a puzzle, for them (23) the issue is that the pieces have irregular contours so there’s no telling how they fit. I realize that I may be off with this but I like explain the issue along the lines of, okay, it’s puzzle alright, but considering that you always subtract from the multiplicity, you have no idea how big the puzzle is. Simply put, even if you get this or that piece of the puzzle together and even if they fit neatly, not to mention seem complete, you have no idea whether you completed it or not and even if you did, congratulations, the puzzle itself is subject to change and might have changed while you were putting it together.
Deleuze and Guattari (23) find it more apt to compare this to a dry-stone wall, you know one of them walls that are just piles of stone slabs, holding together not because the wall is a marvel of masonry but because it just sort of does, inasmuch as it does, as long as it does, pending on the arrangement of stones. It’s only fitting, not to mention hilarious, that they (23) characterize philosophy “as being in a perpetual state of digression or digressiveness”, considering that I have a habit of going on a tangent, which may involve another tangent, only to lead to another tangent, as you may have noticed if you’ve read my essays. The thing is that they may seem unrelated, hence I like to call them tangents, but I’m the kind of guy who has to follow all kinds of sidetracks, like I do in this essay, to make (more) sense of what the main track is about, well, assuming there is a main track that one ought to focus on.
To get back to diagrams, in ‘Foucault’ Deleuze (34) summarizes what Foucault is after with the concept:
“[I]t is always concerned with unformed and unorganized matter and unformalized, unfinalized functions, the two variables being indissolubly linked.”
What’s in between them, linking them is the diagram, the informal dimension as Deleuze (34) puts it. To put it very concisely, he (34) characterizes it as:
“The diagram is … a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field. It is an abstract machine. … [I]t makes others see and speak.”
I spoiled it already, but yes, in short, Foucault’s diagram is Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract machine. Moreover, he (35) adds that:
“It never functions in order to represent a persisting world but produces a new kind of reality, a new model of truth.”
To link this back to assemblages, to make this a bit more concrete, he (37) states that:
“[T]he diagram acts as a non-unifying immanent cause that is coextensive with the whole social field: the abstract machine is like the cause of the concrete assemblages that execute its relations; and these relations between forces take place ‘not above’ but within the very tissue of the assemblages they produce.”
To be precise, to specify what he is after by calling it an immanent cause, he (36-37) warns not to think of it as a transcendent idea, ideological superstructure or an economic infrastructure. This is why I went on a ten page tangent on culture, nature and ideology. This is also why it does not represent anything. It’s about immanence, not about transcendence. He (37) further clarifies that “there is a correlation or mutual presupposition between cause and effect”, hence the connection between abstract machines and assemblages.
To get somewhere with this, he (35) characterizes diagrams as unstable and fluid, in the sense that they effectuate what they effectuate yet they are subject to change because what they effectuate may also lead to change the diagrams (otherwise they’d be permanent arrangements, or so to speak). Moreover, he (34) argues that, strictly speaking, “in terms of form [a diagram] makes no distinction between content and expression” or, to put it in Foucault’s parlance, between a non-discursive formation and a discursive formation. Now, that is not to say that they, these two, regardless of which parlance you prefer, can’t or won’t diverge. He (38) makes note of this and argues that through doubling (I reckon this is about double articulation, as explained in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’) they gain their forms, as as form of expression and form of content, as form of the articulable and the form of the visible, as discursive and non-discursive formations. To wrap this up, he (38) reiterates that it is between the two where we find the diagram.
Back to Whorf (249-250) who compares mathematical formulas, specialized formula-language of mathematics, with what he calls mantric formula-language that is also specialized but manifested differently in terms of its form, working on the human body and its nervous system. He argues that like with the inorganic, in his examples the magnets and the wires, or, I guess, to connect this to Vološinov, any tools or their parts, the organic lacks the capacity to operate the way we think they do unless they are patterned properly, in ways not simply attributable to the various parts that make up the whole. I might be reading too much into this, but this reminds me of the organization of bodies discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ in relation to the concept they call a body without organs. I’m also thinking their (23) dry-stone wall example here, as presented in ‘What is Philosophy?’.
Moving on, as Whorf does when he shift the discussion from bodies and their arrangements to language itself and (250) asserts that “[w]e must find out more about language!” He (250) clarifies his position:
“Already we know enough about it to know it is not what the great majority of men, lay or scientific, think it is. The fact that we talk almost effortlessly, unaware of the exceedingly complex mechanism we are using, creates an illusion. We think we know how it is done, that there is no mystery; we have all the answers. Alas, what wrong answers!”
Haha, I have to cut in here, to commend Whorf on his moxy, his candor and assertiveness. How dare he rock the boat! This may be from early 1940s but damn it is refreshing, if not invigorating, reading when compared to much of contemporary academic texts. Anyway, he (250) continues:
“It is like the way a man’s uncorrected sense impressions give him a picture of the universe that is simple, sensible, and satisfying, but very wide of the truth.”
He (250-251) exemplifies this with people who we might nowadays call flat earthers, albeit in his example there is no hint of conspiracy to it that we might associate to such nowadays. He is simply pointing out that it is a fairly recent thing to understand gravity and how bodies are arranged accordingly in the solar system, or in space to be more general, as well as on earth. He (251) also exemplifies this with how people used to think that heart has to do with “a place, where love, kindness, and thoughts” reside, not as a pump for circulating blood in the human body, how cooling was thought to be an addition of cold to heat, not a reduction of heat, and how leaves were thought as having some inherent property of greenness, not “the chemical substance of chlorophyll” that makes them appear green. In summary, he (250-251) is stating that it comes across as preposterous, against common sense, to propose such to the people he is characterizing, the point really being that for them asserting that the earth is flat, and the like, is simply adequate, matching their needs there and then.
He (251) argues that regardless of whether we think that the world is round and goes around or that it is flat, to use that example again, we “are in conception of language.” It’s worth noting that he (250-251) is not ridiculing people for being uneducated simpletons. No, no. In fact, he (251) notes that while we are tempted to hold one, the scientist or the scholar, better than the other, the layperson, even the scientists and the scholars fail to address the effect the conception of language and its forces have on people. In his (251) words:
“He [or she] supposes that talking is an activity in which he [or she] is free or untrammeled. He [or she] finds it a simple, transparent activity, for which he [or she] has the necessary explanations.”
To briefly comment on this, before I let Whorf continue, this characterization reminds me a lot of how in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ Deleuze and Guattari characterize language as thought of as informative and communicational instrument in mainstream linguistics. Anyway, Whorf (251) holds the opposite view:
“But these explanations turn out to be nothing but statements of the NEEDS THAT IMPEL HIM [OR HER] TO COMMUNICATE.”
In other words, as Deleuze and Guattari, as well as Vološinov (we’ll get to this, eventually), might put it, you simply don’t speak language. Instead, language speaks you, through you. You are a talking head, not because you inherently are one, but because you’ve become one. For example, notice how I added [she] and [her] alongside ‘he’ and ‘him’, in order to make note of how Whorf is complacent and complicit of what he is describing, asserting that it’s always a man who makes these observations, has these thoughts etc. (I was actually going to replace those with [one], while in the process of moving the references to the end of the essay, in 2022, but I kept those, because, while [one] would be preferable, using it here would muddle the point). This was finalized in 1941, the year he died, and thus was likely written in the late 1930s and/or early 1940s. At the time and even decades later, this was nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t know if I need to emphasize this, at all, but ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ were words to use, as you may have noticed when you read old texts or listen/watch old recordings. Actually it’s quite ironic, really, how Whorf is focusing on how language affects our sense of the world, unbeknownst to us, only to have it happen to himself, as he is explaining it. Here language speaks through Whorf, indicating how at the time, immersed in that language, women were not considered people, or at least not important enough to warrant their inclusion. Of course, if language didn’t speak through him, he’d be just full of hot air on this issue, so it’s only fitting that it does. It’s, perhaps, worth adding here that Finnish does not have this issue as there is only one, non-sexed, pronoun, which works just fine (and if you need to make out the sex, you have to look for other cues).
The exclusion of women, how it was and still, to some degree is, manifested in language, reminds me of how it can also pertain to other types of expressions. I remember how I attended a geography field trip to Dublin during my year abroad. I believe we had just crossed the O’Connell Bridge and were standing in front of the O’Connell Monument. We made our way up the O’Connell Street (the pedestrian walkway between the O’Connell Streets, Upper and Lower, to be specific), going past four monuments on the way: the William Smith O’Brien Statue, the Jim Larkin Statue, the John Gray Monument and the Spire. We walked and walked until we reached the intersection where O’Connell Street meets Parnell Street. There’s yet another monument there: the Parnell Monument. It was at that point when the geography lecturers asked us what’s the deal here, what’s with all these statues. No one said a thing. Perhaps the Irish students didn’t find anything particular to say about a bunch of monuments dedicated to handful of notable people. For them it’s most likely obvious that these people deserve their veneration. As no one said a thing, I braved to point out the obvious, that none of monuments were dedicated to women, which made people, the women included, go a bit ‘oh, true, true, this main street has nothing that is dedicated to great Irish women’. They needed an outsider to make that observation for them.
Back to Whorf (251), who I keep interrupting:
“They are not germane to the process by which [one] communicates. Thus [one] will say that [one] thinks something, and supplies words for the thoughts ‘as they come.’ But [one’s] explanation of why [one] should have such and such thoughts before [one] came to utter them again turns out to be merely the story of his social needs at that moment.”
As you can see for yourself, Whorf (251) isn’t at all convinced that thought precedes speech and what follows from it, that language is a mere instrument for people to communicate with others (in order to express their thoughts). He (251) continues:
“[One] supposes that there need be no light thrown on this talking process, since [one] can manipulate it anyhow quite well for his social needs.”
Here Whorf acknowledges that alright, okay, if we assert that people are driven by their social needs, people are still in the habit of countering it in a way that retains the primacy of the autonomous rational subject by conceding that they have social needs but that they actively make use of language in order to fulfill those needs. Whorf (251-252) does not agree:
“This [one] implies, wrongly, that thinking is an OBVIOUS, straightforward activity, the same for all rational beings, of which language is the straightforward expression.”
Instead, for Whorf (252), thinking and language are as mysterious as anything gets, really, operating largely under the hood, unbeknownst to us, here and now. In his (252) words, “a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which [one] is unconscious”, the patterns being “unperceived intricate systematizations” of language. With regards to languages, typically considered as neatly separated distinct entities, Whorf (252) considers them as pattern systems that have become distinguished from one another (albeit, perhaps it’s worth adding that only to such and such degree) in operation. He (252-253) goes on (and on) to provide examples of this and that in different languages and how they differ, but that’s not what interests me in his work, so I’ll largely skip it here. The gist of his examples is that, with particular emphasis on English, we, those in the western world in particular, come to think of the world as full of ready made objects, distinct things, even though it is easy challenge this premise. I’ve been using the chair example, but that has the issue that it is fairly easy to argue that it is a distinct thing on the basis that it is typically fabricated. Whorf (253) provides a more compelling example when he points out that we like to think there are hills or swamps, even though what’s actually at stake is “local variations in altitude or soil composition of the ground”. Where does a hill start? What’s it based on? And I’m not even trying to be funny here. These are legit questions. Whorf (253) explains what language does:
“Each language performs this artificial chopping up of the continuous spread and flow existence in a different way. Words and speech are not the same thing. … [T]he patterns of sentence structure that guide words are more important than the words.”
To which he (253) then gives the name of combinatory scheme that comes to organize shape segmentation and vocabulary. For him (253) this is “the pattern world par excellence.” He (253) adds that it is formless, by which he clarifies as, somewhat contradictorily, not without form or organization but without a spatial referent, a visual shape in space, such as a hill or a swamp. He (253) characterizes this pattern world or realm of patterns as something that can be actualized spatiotemporally, that is to say in space and time. In other words, what Whorf (253) is trying to say is that the segmentation to shapes and words, that is to things and words (to drop a subtle hint to Foucault here), is when the patterns have been actualized. This makes me think of the virtual and the actual again, as explained by Deleuze in ‘Difference and Repetition’. Anyway, Whorf (253) continues:
“Such patterns are not like the meaning of words, but they are somewhat like the way meaning appears in sentences. They are not like individual sentences but like SCHEMES of sentences and designs of sentence structure.”
If what preceded this in the text made me think of the actual and the virtual, this made me think of how Deleuze argues how we make sense of things, as opposed to what certain words mean, as explained in ‘The Logic of Sense’. The second sentence here may seem somewhat contradictory and it’s hardly the same as how Deleuze explains it, but I’ll let Whorf (253) continue:
“Our personal conscious ‘minds’ can understand such patterns in a limited way by using mathematical or grammatical FORMULAS into which words, values, quantities, etc. can be substituted.”
For me, this moves back to how Deleuze builds on difference in itself and how you can have something that is simultaneously undetermined, determinable and determination, as explained by him (171) in ‘Difference and Repetition’. To be specific, in his (171) words:
“The symbol dx appears as simultaneously undetermined, determinable and determination. Three principles which together form a sufficient reason correspond to the these three aspects: a principle of determinability corresponds to the undetermined as such (dx, dy); a principle of reciprocal determination corresponds to the really determinable (dy/dx); a principle of complete determination corresponds to the effectively determined (values of dy/dx).”
To make more sense of this, how this is related to what Whorf (253) is getting at, make note of how Whorf refers to formulas in which one can place words, values, quantities and so on. Also, make note of the earlier bit, on how Whorf (253) expresses that meaning appears in sentences, not individually but in patterns. Now, the way Deleuze explains how we make sense of things in ‘The Logic of Sense’, as also explained in a more rudimentary fashion in ‘Difference and Repetition’, on its own, a word or a symbol, such as dx or dy, have no meaning, but together create meaning (or sense, which I prefer over meaning because meaning tends to be associated with the words themselves whereas sense is tied to this in-between operation). The similarity becomes even more apparent on the following page where Whorf (254) states that:
“Mathematics is a special kind of language, expanded out of special sentences containing numeral words, 1, 2, 3, 4 … x, y, z, etc. But every other type of sentence of every language is also the potential nucleus of a far-reaching system.”
This bit just so in case you fail to grasp what the x and y would be substituted by. Whorf (254-256) goes on to explain how this function, how language functions formulaically, providing the underlying patterns that govern word generation, regardless whether the words are sensical or nonsensical. He (256) also reiterates that this all happens unconsciously, so people are unaware of the patterning and how it constrains their them in terms of their thinking, what they can and can’t express, as well as the organization of reality. This makes me think of Pierre Bourdieu (68) again, how doxa is a state of body or habitus in which something becomes and thus is taken for granted, as explained by him in ‘The Logic of Practice’. Bourdieu (164) clarifies doxa in ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’, stating that it sets sense of limits or sense of reality, in which what appears objective does not adhere to objective reality but to is own internal logic of organization. So, in Bourdieusard parlance, Whorf (256) argues that language affects our sense of limits, our sense of reality. Whorf (257) summarizes this:
“This organization is imposed from outside the narrow circle of the personal consciousness, making of that consciousness a mere puppet whose linguistic maneuverings are held in unsensed and unbreakable bonds of pattern.”
Now, this should not be taken as undermining people’s intelligence. In fact, Whorf (257) emphasizes that he holds the opposite view. He (257) is actually quite struck by how even humans are in this respect, how supposedly primitive people have little issues with complicated calculations or, conversely, how the supposedly brightest scientific minds of humanity are as dim-witted as anyone else when it comes to explaining what language is and how it works. Later on, he (263) reiterates this point, stating that it can be a bitter pill to swallow for the educated westerners that, to be hyperbolic here, some backwards tribesmen, some crude savages, or so to speak, have to pay little to no effort with regards to language, even though it takes many decades for the bright minds to superficially describe how that language works.
He (257) moves on to note how, if challenged to address the role of language and their ignorance towards it, uneducated people reject such as theoretical and impractical, whereas, conversely, the educated people, reject such as metaphysics, mysticism or epistemology. As an anecdotal side note here, it was noted during the aesthetics lectures that I attended last semester that condemning something as mysticism used to be a thing among the religious authorities. The issue with mystics is that they generally don’t do things by the book, in the case of Christianity quite literally so (by the Book), and thus pose a threat to religious hierarchies. Whorf (257) states that this is also the case in science:
“Western culture in particular reserves for the investigators of language its most grudging meed of recognition and its meagerest rewards, even though it has to counter the … tendency to find language, mysterious as it is, the most fascinating of subjects – one about which men love to talk and speculate unscientifically, to discuss endlessly the meaning of words[.]”
I think he could have gone a bit further with this rather than just pointing out that study of language tends not to be held in high esteem, nor considered very rewarding, except, perhaps, on a personal level, despite our obvious everyday fascination with language. Okay, fair enough, the criticism is there, sort of, as I did point out already, but I think he could have gone after the apparent dogmatism, as well as the hostility towards theory, in the academic circles. There is, however, a bit, a funny one, where he challenges the supposed neutrality and objectivity of language in science:
“‘Electrical’ is supposed to be a scientific word. Do you know what its referent is? Do you know that the ‘electrical’ in ‘electrical apparatus’ is not the same ‘electrical’ as the one in ‘electrical expert’?”
Now, I don’t think you need me to answer this question. The point here is that words have no built in reference, no meaning inherent to them, as he (261) goes on to state. Feel like challenging that? Okay, look up a word in a dictionary. What does it refer to? You’ll come to notice that a word always refers to another word. It is always explained in other words, which, if you are unfamiliar with, must look up in order to understand the word you were looking up (and so on, and so on). He (260) goes on to mock scientists for their naïveté by pointing out that, far from being clear, scientific words, such as “force, average, sex, allergic, biological”, are, in fact, markedly vague, not unlike, “mirabile dictu”, words, such as “sweet, gorgeous, rapture, enchantment, heart and soul, star dust”, you find used “in the language of poetry and love!” He (261) also characterizes science as “the quest for truth, … a sort of divine madness like love.” Gotta love his moxy!
Moving on, skipping a couple of pages worth of examples pertaining to, among other things, cats and raccoons, Whorf (263) summarizes how scientific language, nested in Western traditions and built on Indo-European languages, affects understanding of reality:
“[C]aught in a vaster world inscrutable to its methods, [it] uses its strange gift of language to weave the … illusion, to make provisional analysis of reality and then regard it as final.”
Now, he (263) acknowledges that this is not unique only to the West, but it is where this has been taken the farthest and thus determined as final. Simply put, in general, reality is considered as simply out there. I’m again skipping the various examples he (264-268) provides for the reader and, instead, condensing it all to an earlier point he (262) makes about how an underlying pattern affects the way we make sense of the world. To be more specific, to use, perhaps, the most illuminating example, he (262) notes that in English agency must attributed to some entity, some being. So, a flash is a flash. Fair enough. But in action it, the flash, flashes. Same with rain. It rains. There’s a curious redundancy there. What is this it that rains? To use an example not used by Whorf, in Finnish that’s just ‘sataa’. There’s no it to it. Is that a major difference? Well, I’d say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that having to have an agent, an it, makes it seem like there is one. Okay, sure, you typically have clouds when it rains, but, strictly speaking, to best of my knowledge, clouds have no intentionality. On top of that, it can actually rain when there are no clouds, so what’s this it again? No, in the sense that you still get wet from it and what not. On top of that, it’s not like it’s impossible to grasp the differences. I grew up with Finnish, aye, but I’m not forever locked in that, forever failing to grasp how someone could think differently. So, in summary, it does make a difference, as aptly expressed by Whorf (263):
“A change in language can transform our appreciation of the Cosmos.”
Note how he is not saying that it can transform the Cosmos, but how it can transform our appreciation of it. The key here, why one would pay attention to language, is that taking this into consideration allows us to understand the world in a different light, to highlight different aspects that we might be missing if we don’t and just take language for granted, as a neutral medium for communication information about the world. In his (263) words:
“For do you not conceive it possible that [people] all unknowingly project the linguistic patterns of a particular type of language upon the universe, and SEE them there, rendered visible on the very face of nature?”
So, conversely, to give this a negative treatment, if language is not taken into consideration in how we come to see the world, or sense it (to avoid ocularcentrism), we not only miss the potential of seeing it in a different light, that is to say sensing it in different ways (to be sense neutral again), but also risk projecting on to it, resulting in seeing things, as they say.
I reckon the best example that he (262) gives on this is a wave, which is something I hope to cover in the future in a topic largely unrelated to this. In summary, he points out that not unlike a hill or a swamp that are, more or less, static (or, well, appear to be so), a wave is also thing in English. It has the same issue again. How do you define a wave? Where does it begin and where does it end? How does one segment water into a thing? How? More importantly, how does one segment moving water into a thing? Even calling it moving is a bit off, considering that it’s not actually even a thing that moves. I’m actually failing at words how to put it differently. I guess I could say that the water is folding or coiling on to its self, continuously (this is a topic for another day, but, to get the picture, think of a giant wave, with a surfer riding it). I guess water is becoming-wave, to put it in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms. Anyway, Whorf (262) characterizes it as undulating. I reckon the issue is also present in Finnish. ‘Aalto’ is, actually, pretty absurd, now that I think of it. Whorf (262) notes how Hopi does not suffer from this issue, as in there are no waves but only waving or sloshing, that undulating that he was referring to. One can, apparently, call attention to waving, to a particular point, but there’s still no such thing as a wave. Again, I’m sure a speaker of Hopi is not unable to get to the point where that person can understand the world as having these things. I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case as otherwise Whorf would be contradicting himself throughout the text. So, yeah, I think language does make a difference as to how we come to understand the world as language plays a part in how it is all assembled right in front of our eyes, to put this in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms.
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