Making noise, not getting anywhere.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sapir, Whorf and History


When we toured all the big monuments on our recent visit to DC, I got gut feelings about them, I was left cold by the World War II memorial, touched by the Vietnam Memorial's somber simplicity, avoided what looked like a bad kitschy joke, but was in fact the Korean War Memorial, looked up with a sarcastic smile at Lincoln's face covered in scaffolding for renovation, and stood with an even more sarcastic smile in the midst of the great words of Jefferson and, again, rubble and scaffolding. Jefferson's statue, a park ranger had explained, looked north toward the White House, because Jefferson was highly suspicious of authority. This statue, apparently, keeps the administration honest.

It is an interesting experience to then revisit this only a short while later when Slate's Witold Rybczynski walks the same walk. The substance of his article is interesting, but I'm most intrigued by my reception: some of the things he says I have the impression of having felt while visiting - like the inappropriateness of the fountains and the cold oddness of the columns in the WW2 memorial, but I could never have said them. Now the fact that I can think that this man says what I think, while at the same time I would not have been able to say it myself, pretty much refutes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. If you'll accept that jump.

On a related note, I bought Roth's The Plot Against America for the flight back, and was delighted by it's thoroughly constructed plot and the clever way it turned it's counterfactual premise back into the real flow of events at the end. I felt pretty stupid when I read what feels now like pretty obvious criticism on Salon, saying that a book that talks about how close American society was to prosecution of minorities while hardly mentioning the situation of the black, seems counterfactual indeed. Sadly, I didn't notice that at all, explicitly or implicitly, but don't think that's an argument for Sapir-Whorf. Least I don't feel it is.

Edit: It's a bit misleading to talk about Sapir-Whorf in this context, since the thesis has a hard and a softer formulation. While the hard formulation says that there is no thinking but what is mediated by language, hardly anybody adheres to that any more. The softer variant is that language influences what we can think, and there some cool evidence to that end has just come out. I've added an entry on that further up.


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