Likelihood of Success

Ron Coleman’s pretty good blog

The word and the thought

Posted by Ron Coleman on April 22, 2008

New York Times:

[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.

Mezzanine latticework, 60 Centre Street

“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.


3 Responses to “The word and the thought”

  1. Jack said

    “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.”

    That’s a good observation.

    I just finished Pinker’s latest not long ago book and he has some interesting ideas, even if I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.(I’ve known him for a long time by the way.) However I would not rely upon the New York Times to give either an accurate summation of his work, or for writers there to even really understand what he is implying. they are after all only writers for the Time.

    I do however agree with him about his premise that language does not so much direct thought as provide a fundamental scaffolding for linguistic (and communicative) expression (as implied in his book) because I have and anyone can have with practice (and some do so naturally, and children without a well developed vocabulary do this automatically) thoughts not tied, either directly or indirectly, to language. In meditation for instance (and many forms of meditation either require the suppression of language and/or thought or the elimination of language and thought simply as a prerequisite to superior forms of mediation) or in relation to artistic and scientific endeavors and enterprises (discovery process, invention, or problem solving) in which thought is both formulated and processed in ways which can be described as either anti-linguistic, or at the very least para-linguistic.

    But Hebrew is far from an imprecise language. It is an extremely precise psycho-linguistic paradigm (using the term psyche as the Greeks would, and more accurately as well, to describe the soul, and by extension to some degree to mean “spiritual”, rather than mind and the way the mind both creates and manipulates language).

    Hebrew, like Koine and New Testament Greek, Medieval and Byzantine Latin, and Sanskrit, are extremely precise spiritual languages to a degree that no primarily modern scientific and technical language (English, German, for instance) could possibly be. But I find the idea that Hebrew, or Arabic, by construction – rather than expression – for that matter, stimulates aggrieve behavior or at least mitigates precisely diplomatic passive behavior to be an extremely silly conclusion.

    Let us look at the greatest single era of human bloodshed and warfare in world history, the eras involving the so-called First and Second World Wars. The major combatants primarily spoke German, French, English, Italian (Latin), Russian, and later Chinese and Japanese. If body counts alone are signifiers of languages spurring aggression by implication of phonetic or ideological/ideographic (or even grammatical) construction then languages whose nature tends to be secular and technically and scientifically more precise are able to construct both aggressive means and implements at a rate far exceeding Hebrew (ancient or modern), medieval Latin, or Sanskrit. I suspect though that German alone (as a tongue) did not demand aggressive and offensive warfare. But rather that those aggressive elements, combined with a sustained focus upon the offensive and military implications inherent in the language (and almost all languages have such elements as a basic part of their construction) simply made warfare of a conquering nature attractive and palatable, at least for a period of time. In other words German did not demand Hitler but rather Hitler’s and Himmler’s and others propagandist psychological manipulation of certain elements inherent in the language made “total warfare” a pragmatic possibility in the psyches of many Germans who had previously not considered the probability realistic or beneficial.

    If anything the otherworldly and spiritual concerns, along with the acute concentration upon otherworldly and spiritual matters of a language like Hebrew tends to focus resources and energies that might otherwise be spent in pursuit of secular concerns and the discipline of military affairs away from an expansionistic and progressive formulation and instead reflects such energies back upon itself. As a general operating premise. In other words the mind becomes, to a certain degree, the language and thoughts it most often and consistently focuses upon. And because of such a concentration then the mind begins to naturally employ that linguistic structure it is already consistently using. It is not deterministically shaped, but rather habitually shaped.

    But there are exceptions of course, and every language and people group(s) from which languages develop and evolve are prone to times in which, no matter the general functional basis of the language development, variations occur. English tends to be extremely precise in some technical and scientific and secular disciplines (the most of any language actually) but also has a very high rate of absorption of terminology from other languages and has a huge “root base” of spiritual and psychological terms adopted from Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as a huge base of religious, mythological, and cultural root ideas accumulated from Latin, Greek, European, and Levant societies and cultures.

    So although English is far from being a spiritual language and spiritually precise, per se, it is extremely flexible in the way it can describe and converse on spiritual subjects (It has great spiritual breadth as a language, but little depth, whereas Hebrew has great spiritual depth but far less breadth or width of spiritual expression because of it’s tendency to focus upon its’ ancient roots and its’ xenophobia about adopted and absorbed terms from other spiritual disciplines. Purity gives depth but little breadth, a focus upon absorption and assimilation gives breadth but does little to promote depth and detailed exploration of spiritual experiences, states, and devices. The same can be said in reverse of scientific, technical and secular languages, of course.)

    Ah hell, I’ve talked too long already and have real work to do.
    It is indeed a fascinating subject Ron, and good post.

    Excuse all the typos. I wrote fast.

  2. Yeah, well, thanks, Jack.

    Seriously, you really know Professor Pinker? And read his book?

    Why do I do the blogging and you do the commenting? I feel marginally literate around you!

  3. Jack said

    “I feel marginally literate around you!”

    Most folks are, truth be told, but I don’t exactly consider that such a very great thing.
    Wisdom always supercedes intelligence in the big scheme of things.

    A man can be awfully smart and not be very wise, but if a man is wise he already knows enough. And maybe more than most folks ever will. Not that knowing stuff is the most important thing in life either, but it helps on occasion.

    Anyway yeah.
    I’ve known Pinker and studied his works for a long time.
    As men count time.

    Then again I know a lot of folks and have been involved in a lot of stuff.
    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t much impress me, generally speaking, either.

    God knows a lot more than I do or ever will, and knows a lot more folks than I do. And he’s pretty humble about it.

    So, all things considered and put in their proper place, what you got to say is as good as the next fella, and maybe occasionally, even better.

    I just work here from time to time.
    You do your thang baby.

    That’s more than good enough for me.
    I suspect it’s more than good enough for most of your readers too.

    Nobody comes here to read me, and iffin they did, then they should go out in the sunshine right now and find something far more interesting to occupy their time.

    Speaking a’which, see ya later.
    I’m gonna go cut the grass.

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