Friday, 17 June 2011

A short essay on modernism and post modernism in light of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

As a novice student of linguistics I didn't take the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (or linguistic relativity) very serious; in fact, I thought it very Euro-centric (ie, at once admiring and belittling of the mysteries of being of non-European extraction). Benjamin Lee Whorf (a student of Edward Sapir) wrote about his observations of the Hopi language and its apparent lack of temporal tense in its grammar (ie, no distinct between past, present and future tenses) in trying to prove the veracity of the hypothesis which he and his mentor is named after.

The hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, is a linguistic principle that comes in two different versions (taken from Wikipedia):

"(i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories; and,

(ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

[ie] that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view".

It was for Whorf's famous analysis of this "ability to conceptualize (and limit) their world view" (in Hopi) that put me off and for no other significant reason.

As a student of language I knew that human languages have this amazing ability to compensate or account for grammatical distinctions (or lack thereof) at the supra-segmental level (ie, using tone, stress, prosody, and socio-temporal context) that are not immediately obvious and overt, especially for non-native speakers of a given language. In fact, there is another linguistic principle that any human language can be translated (or rendered) into any other human language - a position where I was coming from.

Over the years the hypothesis has worked its magic on me for I see its fugue and variety in thinkers that I admire in other other fields like mathematics, philosophy and science: Ludwig Wittgenstein; Bertrand Russell; Gregory Bateson; Umberto Eco; John Dewey; Paulo Freire; Ivan Illich; Max Weber; Northrop Frye, etc. etc. - all of whom have something significant to say about humanity and just treatment of human/social relations; not to mention that we (human beings) have this wonderful ability to learn and educate ourselves and transcend our present circumstances - all, by way of conscious and conscientious use of language.

Now, having set the mise-en-scène, I would like to talk about modernist and postmodernist use of language. From my present-day perspective (as an armchair philosopher), I take much of these two eras with (perhaps unfounded) irony.

The biting-at-the-bit optimism of modernism was a reaction against the stifling conservativism and its social structures of ages past which, in turn, post modernism tried to supplant. But the thing that strikes me as fools'-errandish about the two eras is the means and language both used to bring down the obsolete and passé: blunt force with sledgehammer, militaristic terms. The thing that makes them fools'-errandish, in my mind, is the superficial and ready buy-in to demagoguery without much thought given to the consequences and the contemporary, more humane alternatives that were in the air of the times. This is uncannily reminiscent of the rise of heretical cults and demagogues when Christianity was first introduced to Inuit.

There is something of narcissistic and fool-hardy about the two ages with hugely inflated views of their respective "exceptionalism" and justification for expansionist drives inherent in the ages. The influential and prevalent thought of the times - such as the doctrine of Malthus which states that the barbaric and violent "struggle" for existence (more precisely, thriving) of all living things "inevitably" results from the geometric progression of population growth and the arithmetic progression of food sources (ie, from agriculture) - sought philosophical and ideological currency in much the same manner in which their violent sadomasicism were couched.

In Darwinistic terms, these "successful" life forms (and peoples, by extension) were "selected" by Nature precisely because they were able to beat out their more numerous (ie, superfluous) lesser, weaker kind and therefore deserving to thrive from the benefits of the "spoils of war" and just rewards.

But there is an alternative, much humbler and humane interpretation, namely: that the geometric progression of population growth stems precisely from extremely high attrition/mortality rates found in Nature. Those that survive to reproductive maturity are no more "deserving" than their less successful kind; the blind designs of Nature make for random and accidental lots for us all (there but for the grace of Nature go I). In fact, the more humane and enlightened the life modes of human societies, the slower the population grows, the longer the life expectancies. This seems to be the way of better life prospects in general - at least in human societies.

The unfortunate choice of militaristic terms tend to give the wrong impressions. Scientific "revolutions", for eg, rarely supplant wholesale their predecessors nor do them violence by any stretch: these revolutions, more likely, refine and make closer the approximations to facts and accounting for their place in the perceptual frameworks that is the theories that came before them. Scientific revolutions are really more like maturation processes, as in St. Paul's epistle 1 Corinthians 13: when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child...

Last point: why is it that the field of study of human societies is called "anthropology" for non-European cultures, and for Europeans, "sociology"?


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