LINGUIST List 5.780

Thu 07 Jul 1994

Disc: Pinker's book, Quantum physics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Re: 5.768 Pinker's book and linguist bashing
  2. James Anglin, quantum physics

Message 1: Re: 5.768 Pinker's book and linguist bashing

Date: Sat, 2 Jul 94 11:10:23 EDTRe: 5.768 Pinker's book and linguist bashing
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.768 Pinker's book and linguist bashing

A few remarks re Dan Alford's comments on Pinker on Whorf:

(1) Thre is a difference between linguist bashing and Whorf bashing.
As I recall, Geoff Pullum pulled the same trick of describing Whorf
as an insurance man, which of course is true but in context sounds
dismissive, and said about the same about him as Pinker.

(2) Malotki's work on Hopi time, which seeks to contradict
Whorf, is explicitly based on TODAY's usage, which is heavily
influenced by English. There are places where he notes
that the usages he is giving were not used traditionally.
However, Hopi does seem to have have a word for time, qeni,
which interestingly enough is cognate with the word for house
in many other Uto-Aztecan languages, e.g., Southern Paiute
qanni-, Tubatulabal hanii-l, etc.

(3) I think it is, as Alford says, untrue to say that
Sapir or Whorf came up with the Sapir-Worf hypothesis,
but it IS true to say that the accepted it or something
close to it. I think the evidence is that the a thesis
of a correlation between linguistic structure and thought
was widely accepted at the time. Thus what Whorf is
often said to be arguing for was actually what he
presupposed. What he was arguing was that the differnces
in thought between peoples were much greater than generally
believed, BECAUSE the differences in language were much
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Message 2: quantum physics

Date: Tue, 5 Jul 94 11:39:16 MDTquantum physics
From: James Anglin <>
Subject: quantum physics

My girlfriend forwarded the critique by Moonhawk of Pinker's critique of Whorf.
I have only slight familiarity with either Pinker or Whorf, but I am a
 theoretical physicist and I was bothered by Moonhawk's use of references to
quantum physics. I am all in favour of interdisciplinary thinking, but I worry
 that appeals to concepts in one discipline to settle disputes in another can
be unfair, in that they may carry illegitimate authority. It seems to me quite
likely that physicists can be guilty of careless use of linguistic ideas they
don't really understand, perhaps in trying to interpret quantum theory. But
quantum physics seems to me to have a widespread cachet, so that using it in an
 argument is a bit like selling the emperor his new clothes.

I think I like Whorf's ideas, insofar as I understand them. But in fairness
to Pinker I submit some comments on some sentences from Moonhawk's posting.

>Pinker, like most Whorf critics, doesn't understand that Whorf
>generally argued from a systems perspective inherited from quantum
>physics, where his arguments make sense, not from the Newtonian
>perspective, where monocausal determinism arguments make sense.

I do not know what is a 'systems perspective`, but the differences between
quantum and classical (Newtonian) physics concerning causality are really
quite complicated. Whorf may well have a different perspective that is
perfectly valid, but the inheritance of this perspective from quantum
physics would have to be so remote as to provide neither explanation nor

>Actually, come to think of it, quantum physicists have been telling us
>about this for almost a century, that our particular cultural notion
>of time is a linguistic construct! Is Pinker taking on quantum physics

They haven't told me. Quantum mechanics does nothing whatever to the notion
of time held by Newton, and by your your typical representative of whatever one
 wants to call the cultural stream to which he belongs. Einstein's relativity,
 which is partly compatibible with quantum mechanics but is an independent idea,
 does indeed claim that the intuitions of this cultural group are wrong in some
respects. But I doubt that many physicists would call this intuition a
 _linguistic_ construct, even if they knew any linguistics. Einsteinian time
 differs insignificantly from Newtonian time in situations where no relative
 motions are close to the speed of light. Since all human cultures have evolved
 in environments where this is the case, I think the physicist's view would be
 that the Newtonian intuition of time is an objective description of fact,
 within the domain of typical human experience. If one tribe lived in a desert
 and another in a marsh, would one ascribe the differences in their perceptions
 of climate to linguistic factors? And in this case, all human tribes live in
 low-velocity environments. I think that physics would actually judge the
 Newtonian picture of time to be genuinely more accurate than the Hopi picture.

The theory of relativity does not at all state that there are no absolutes, but
 only that the absolutes are different from those we previously supposed. It is
 really a badly named theory, and is not at all in line with the philosophical
 attitude of relativism.

With apologies for this intrusion by a non-specialist,
James Anglin.
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