“Correlation, connection, correspondence” (5)
“Trained as an engineer, Whorf had a hard-headed, mechanistic sense of causality and an impatient disregard for the metaphysical aspects of language” (4).
This section begins a discussion of where Whorf is coming from (science and engineering)… as he fashions a “view” or a theory of language as it relates to culture: Berthoff takes issue with Whorf’s rejection of the term “correlation”: she quotes Whorf: ‘I should be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as a ‘correlation’ between language and culture, in the generally accepted sense of correlation, is certainly a mistaken one'” (5).
“Sapir had written that ‘all attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain…(1921b: 219).” **Berthoff is identifying where Whorf goes wrong, eschewing the term “correlated” as though it was a problem for Sapir. The term isn’t the problem, the specific meaning relationship constructed in this sentence is “the problem…” (5).
“Ten years earlier, Whorf’s strategy had been the same—to let lexical definition do the work of concept formation” (6).
“Since ‘correlation’ is disallowed, when he comes to relating these connections to experience Whorf falls back on the archetypal metaphor of embodiment. In the case of the phenomenon he was trying to describe, context of any kind is considered superficial or inessential to the meaning of words: a ‘true connection…is simply one of linguistic meaning'” (6). ***”Embodiment” here… The person, the agent, doesn’t not “do” anything, or “bring anything” to a term. She does not make associations or construct relationships. A word has meaning because it “embodies”: “…’the social or collective experience which is embodied in the common linguistic stock of concepts’ (1956:39)” (6). It’s easy to see in this example what Berthoff means when she identifies and demonizes a “positivist,” “dyadic” semiotics.
Clearly put: “This conception of meaning is somehow merely ‘verbal’, unrelated to personal experience or context, is the root cause of Whorf’s failure to form the concept of correlation when he later came to consider more explicitly ‘The relationship of habitual thought and behavior to language'” (6).
“Whorf remarks earlier that it is languages which ‘break down nature to secure the elements to put into sentences. This breakdown gives units of the lexicon’. (This sounds a bit like the Alka Selzer ad depicting the stomach talking to its bilious owner.) If our mother tongue does are segmenting for us and, simultaneously, our expressing, does it also do our thinking for us? Do speakers control the dissecting—or does language? Muddling language and language users may not be a conscious strategy, but it is certainly the effect of Whorf’s fundamental confusion about the relationship of language to thought” (7). ***In some ways this decentralizing of “the subject” enacted by Whorf echoes the moves of OOO, though I think I’ve read that somewhere… (Thinking with Bruno Latour…?) It does seem to perform a kind of Latourian “flattening out”… I see what Berthoff is doing here, though. “Thinking” isn’t taken for granted as a power controlled by language. What is thinking then, anyway? Certainly to some extent thinking is controlled by language. I think of “the masses” driven by rhetoric to commit crimes against humanity, or to act and think against their own interests. We are all controlled by language in a sense, as we are limited by the affordances and constraints of the language within our wheelhouses (internal, external). When studying writing as it functions within large systems and ecologies, I wonder how important it is to work out this distinction between language and thinking. But as a teacher, it is vital, I think, to take this relationship into account… Isn’t it the point, actually, for writing teachers? (Maybe even more so than for debate or speech…) When what we try to inspire isn’t language but thought-through-language? Our subject isn’t language; our subject is “the subject”–her thinking, with language. That is Berthoff. And me. This is the classroom as philosophical laboratory.