The word and the thought
Posted by Ron Coleman on April 22, 2008
[Steven Pinker] cautions against confusing the “many ways in which language connects to thought.” “Language surely affects thought,” he writes, but he argues that there is little evidence for the claims that language can force people to have particular thoughts or make it impossible for them to think in certain ways.
That is actually something of a dissenting opinion, or seems to be, among researchers commenting on the linked article, in which experiments seemed to suggest a very different conclusion. But this is a fascinating topic, and one I was discussing with a very bright lawyer friend this weekend who, like me (actually, better than I) knows both English and Hebrew. I was telling him how, as my Hebrew skills improved, I was increasingly struck by the beauty and power of biblical passages. In particular I was thinking of the parts of the Torah that recount the Exodus, which of course was of recent interest.
“Hebrew is powerful,” he agreed, “but it lacks the precision of English. And that,” he said, “is why Middle Eastern peoples kill each other so readily: Their imprecise language, and their thinking, result in black and white approaches to life that don’t leave much room for tolerance or doubt.”
Maybe. But a lot of things in a culture can provide nurture violence. And as this Times article says, while there can be no mistake about the connection between language and conceptual development, it is probably a mistake to overestimate the effect of language on a people.
And after all, Hebrew itself is the language that, along with its cognate Aramaic, gave birth to the analytical depth and infinite shades of grey realized in the Talmud — a level of analysis, it is true, that is required in order to flesh out the flat-footed, “plain” meaning of arguably very vague, imprecise biblical texts. It is this process that is the premise of traditional rabbinic Judaism.
But focusing either on language or other social constructs also throws a sort of amoral mechanist blanket over moral teaching, at the societal level, and moral decision-making, at the individual letter, that is begets warranty. Ultimately people are, and should be treated as, moral decision-makers. Even if they are affected and shaped by their cultures, souls know the truth, no matter how much we foul up the ability of members of a society to make the inquiry and seek it.