Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Saturday, May 3, 2003day link 

 Language and World Views
picture Some people are having a discussion about whether and how language shapes how we experience the world. Stavros the Wonder Chicken has a very long post examining different academic models, and using Korean as an example. And David Weinberger has an excellent post talking about Heidegger.

I enjoy philosophical discussions, and I particularly enjoy examining how world views are constructed. But I guess I have somewhat limited patience with academics, and I'm not overly educated in traditional philosophy. I tend to be most interested in examining other models to possibly improve on the model I already have, and I have little interest in models that are more limited than my own, even if they are maybe of historical interest.

Anyway, I find it quite obvious that people being native speakers of different languages see the world a bit different. Western languages tend to construct sentences out of subjects and objects. That creates a certain separation between things, which doesn't necessarily exist, but which makes native speakers of for example English often believe that they can say things really precisely in their language. And because the sentences fit together well, and seem to fit with each other, they often end up with the misguided belief that their language provides a complete description of physical phenomena. Which is borderline insane, in my view.

I've noticed how Chinese or Japanese speakers often will make certain consistent mistakes in English. Like mixing up singular and plural. Some people figure it out eventually, but some people never do. For an English speaker it is obvious that noodles is plural, because there are many noodles on a plate. A Chinese person is just as likely to call it "noodle", not because he can't count, but because he's seeing it differently. I suppose focusing on the substance, not on the individual pieces. A Korean person leading a Yoga class might say "Touch your left feet". I only have one left foot, but in Korean thinking it makes sense that he's talking to the group, and there obviously are a whole bunch of left feet there. The English speaker will be very focused on himself individually, whereas a Korean will think more as a group.

From what I understand here, a couple of linguistic researchers, Sapir and Whorf, are major proponents of the idea that language shapes our world. There are various degrees of that. Like whether the language absolutely and inescapably shapes our world view, or whether it just influences it greatly. And others again disagree altogether.

I think many humans, many scientific types in particular, have a great fear of admitting that they live within a certain world view, which isn't just The Way Things Are. Particularly it is difficult to admit that what you perceive around you isn't the real world at all, but only a vague approximation and interpretation of a very narrow band of what is really there. Quantum mechanics should have revealed that, but the realization hasn't yet crept into our way of thinking. In part because we still speak the same way.

I think we should learn general semantics in school. Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity is still one of the most important books I've read, even though it is a very difficult read. The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing.
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