Myth, Language, Thought and Reality:

An Extension of the Whorfian Hypothesis


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

English 3330: Linguistics

Dr. Bethany Dumas

Fall 1975 (December 5, 1975)



The Whorfian hypothesis, also known as the principal of linguistic relativity, may be extended to include myth in its interrelation of language, thought and reality.  Benjamin Whorf's hypothesis indicates that strong relationships bind language, culture, thought, worldview or Weltanschauung, and reality into a cohesive whole.  This I will briefly demonstrate, also showing how Carlos Castaneda, Dr. John C. Lilly, and Joseph Pearce have followed up Whorf's implications.  But there are ideas in the writings of Ernest Cassirer and Mark Schorer, among others, that connect myth to these other elements in such a way that an extension of the hypothesis is possible.  It is my hope that an understanding of myth in these terms will be a better understanding of myth than in other terms of from other perspectives, leading perhaps to a new estimate of its functional potential.

The linguistic relativity principal states that "the structure of a human being's language influences the manner in which he understands reality and behaves with respect to it" (Whorf, 23.)  The way in which reality is understood is a worldview or Weltanschauung and is no more than a description, a "picture of the universe" (214).  Since one's view is influenced by language, then it follows that "users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations … and hence … must arrive at somewhat different views of the world "(221).  These worldviews – including, e.g., concepts of time and matter (158) – play a large role in the development f of the respective cultures to which they belong.  Culture acts through language in a "provisional analysis of reality" that results in the worldview in the first place (244).  Thus, we see that culture, language, and worldview develop simultaneously.  It is most important, however, to realize that without language there would be no community at all, and hence no culture or worldview.

The worldview held by a speech community is an "agreement" to which members of the community are "parties" (213).  The members, then, of the community and its paradigm, organize nature into concepts and attach importance to certain aspects of their environment according to the value system of their culture.  This conception of linguistic and cultural relativity has been developed to a great extent by Carlos Castaneda, who also says that we are "members" of a description of the world (Castaneda 1972).  According to both Whorf and Castaneda, a worldview is upheld and reinforced by language; for Castaneda, also by reason.  Although the view is only a description of reality, and no more, it is taken as fact, as final, as real (Whorf, 244, 263).  Since the "real reality" of the "real world" underlying our description is beyond anything we know, Castaneda refers to the worldview as the "world" – it is a way we have learned to organized experience in order to make it intelligible (Castaneda 1972, 1974).

Man must have a language to comprehend or understand the chaotic perceptions he continuously receives in his experience of reality.  Whorf writes that "language produces an organization of experience" (by means of a "specific system" or set of linguistic patterns) into "a consistent and readily communicable universe of ideas" (Whorf, 55, 102, 257; see also Lilly, 108).  Different languages, again, will produce different experiences (Whorf, 104).  It follows that each separate culture has a different worldview, lives in a different "world," has "a separate reality" (cf., Castaneda 1968, 1971).  Edward Sapir comes close to this when he says "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone… but are view much at the mercy of… language.  The 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits" of the community or group (quoted in Whorf, 134).  This in turn is very close to Wilhelm von Humboldt's statement that "Man lives with his objects chiefly – … one may say exclusively – as language presents them to him" (quoted in Cassirer 1946).  We are also reminded of the work of Dr. John C. Lilly, for whom the world or worldview is a model (paradigm) in which we live qua reality.  It is real to us even though it is only a facsimile or representation of reality (Lilly).

Thought is bound to language structurally:  "linguistic order embraces all symbolic processes, all processes of reference and of logic" (Whorf, 252).  This, in fact, is Whorf's definition of language.  That this is so is devastating to the idea of free thought; for language, though theoretically infinite generatively, must follow certain finite patterns.  This applies especially to highly structured thought, obviously, such as logic and scientific thought.  Logical and scientific thinking about nature forces us to "break up the flux of experience" into objects we can symbolize (with names, images, etc.) for reference (239).  Such thinking is no more than a "speculation" of ordinary language use (246), for we must and do refer to objects daily in communication and activity – consciously or not.

Language influences not only thought but also perception itself.  We perceive in such a way that our worldview is reinforced:  "We tend to select and favor" in experience "whatever bears out this view" (154).  Perhaps we "project the linguistic patterns … upon the universe, and see them there" (263).  This idea is akin to Joseph Chilton Pearce's concept of metanoia – the process of reorganizing one's worldview in order to find an answer to a question, attain a goal, etc.  The mind is reorganized, the brain is actually altered on the neural level, and our perceptions change in order to support the beliefs or idea for which we seek phenomenal evidence (Pearce).  If we believe the sky is read, the sky will be red for us; belief alters experience (Lilly).  This process occurs naturally.  We perceive according to the worldview that we must (for psychological reasons) believe in.

The "thought world" in which we life is "linguistically determined" (Whorf, 154).  Even more, it is totally removed from reality – being, again, only a description.  Cassirer calls this the "ideational world" or a "spiritual reality" (Cassirer 1946, 9).  It is made up of and by such intellectual or ideational forms as language, thought, knowledge, art, and myth, each of which constitutes "a particular way of seeing" – a worldview (11).  The problem is, again, that we live mainly or wholly in this ideal world, this description or model, and not in the real world at all.  As Humboldt states, "there is no escape" from "the magical circle" drawn around us by our language "save by stepping out of it into another" (quoted in Cassirer 1946).  The same goes for worldviews.  In Castaneda, one worldview can be exchanged for another, but it is difficult to slip "in between" the descriptions in order to experience reality directly (that is, without describing it to ourselves and then "experiencing" that description).

It should be obvious by now that, if Whorf and the others are right, culture influences/is influenced by language (which was developed by/with culture); language structures thought; thought reinforces and is influenced by worldview; and worldview was developed by/with language.  The worldview is real to us – is "reality." For our "mental processes fail to graphs reality itself " (owing to the nature of perception?) "and in order to represent it, to hold it at all, they are driven to the use of symbols" (Cassirer, 7).  The bridge to myth can now be made.

"One of the fundamental assumption of the myth-making consciousness is the notion that –- the name does not merely denote but actually is the essence of its object" (Cassirer XXXX, 3; see also Frankfort).  Where there is the assumption that the mental image, the concept, the name, the thing-as-perceived, the description of reality is identical to reality – is real –it does not necessarily follow that this is myth-making, but it is interesting that modern man continues to equate his concept/description of reality with reality.

Mark Shorer defines a myth as a "large, controlling image… which has organizing value for experience" and mythology as a "body of such images" (Schorer, 355).  What is more, "without such images" – which need not be myths – "experience is chaotic" (334).  Now, Whorf said the same of language – it utilizes a paradigm, a set of concepts, and linguistic patterns in organizing "raw" experience.  If Schorer and Whorf are right, then language, not unlike mythology, is also a body of controlling images.  Cassirer selves this when eh places myth with language (and art, thought, knowledge, etc.) as symbols: "not in the sense o f mere figures which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own" (Cassirer 1946, 8).  Such worlds alone are real, for we can never directly perceive reality, living only in the "spiritual reality" these worlds make up – or so Cassirer thinks.  (Castaneda, for one, offers a solution to the problem of mediated perception, as we will see later.)

Myth, then, is necessary for experience of objects – for objects exist as separate objects only in the mind: only when distinguishing forms and labels are projected up on them for reference.  This is organization of experience.  As with metanoia (discussed above) and Lilly's remark that belief alters experience, Schorer says that belief organizes experience or the way in which we experience reality.  It does so "because all belier depends on a controlling imagery" – which may be religions symbolism, mythical imagery, language, philosophical concepts and terms, etc. (Schorer, 356).  This means that without controlling imagery there is no belief and thus (modus tollendo tollens) where there is belief there is controlling imagery (which organizes experience).  I may mention here that the character don Juan Matus in Castaneda's "anthropological" studies (which are actually philosophical if largely fictional), can, at will, cease to organize his experience and perceive reality as it is, and claims to believe nothing! (Castaneda 1972, 1974)  This is in keeping with Schorer.

Myth is functional in that it does have organizing value for experience.  It like language makes the world intelligible.  Further, it makes the ordinary world meaningful by transcending the particular moment, by purposefully" placing it in the whole scheme of life – both individual and, on a higher level, as lived by all men.  Thomas Mann deals with the beneficial (even therapeutic) aspect of thus associating with heroes of the past, of associating one's everyday, ordinary and otherwise dull activities with "timeless" myths (Mann).

Nevertheless, freedom from the psychological weakness in which acts need be meaningful is desirable. Freedom from the ideational world in which we are trapped is also desirable – if this is possible.  Yet even don Juan has one belief, one that he says he has to have, without which he would have nothing:  he has to believe that his life at least has the meaning that his accumulated "personal power" will allow him to choose the place of his death – i.e., the place of his final consciousness (Castaneda 1974).  Still, speaking in t least relative terms, don Juan is free.  He has supposedly escaped the necessity of myth and language, of linguistic relativity and its control over his thoughts and acts and perception – he has allegedly escaped even the bounds of thongs (for, perhaps, thought is necessarily related to linguistic pattern, at least to images of past experience or of a conceptual nature and is thus not unlike myth in that these memories render experiences familiar, therefore cohesive and coherent) and the mediation that is perception as it is understood in modern neurology and physiology.  Castaneda has also experienced this "direct perception", in which he felt as though he as "tapping the essence" of that which was perceived, thus "knowing" it with certainty (Castaneda 1974, 200).  (With perception as we normally understand it, we are certain only that we are conscious of perceptions; we cannot be certain of the nature of that which is perceived, nor whether our perceptions of it even remotely correspond to it as it actually is, nor whether we are not imagining everything we think we perceive.)  It is evident that this vision (cf. G. H. Hartmann, The Unmediated Vision) – this direct perception of reality, this "knowledge" mystics use the word "wisdom") is "merely" a result of escaping the ideational world that entraps us.  By don Juan's explanation, perception as we know it is a "bubble" formed around us in such a way that we perceive only the reflection of the worldview on the inside of the bubble.  (This is also implied in the principal of metanoia, for we here perceive or experience according to our description, which is also what Whorf and Lilly say in terms of their won.)  Don Juan says that our description of the world respects itself (Castaneda 1974, 30-1).  To open the "bubble of perception" is to suspend the description, to escape the ideational world (by suspending the mind – and all the mental processes – for the mind is equated with the world, i.e., the worldview which we take for being the real world, in not only Vedantic philosophy (see Vishnudevananda, esp. 346, 349 305f.) bu evidently in don Juan also; and it its to be remembered that, in Cassirer, the mental processes create the ideational world; in don Juan, the world is "concocted and maintained" by "reason" and "talking" – by thought, reason, and language (Castaneda 1974, 101) – in shourt, to open the bubble is to experience reality without conceptual baggage (15, 30, 31, 32, 53, 246-7, 249, etc.).  In the Zen doctrine of "no-mind" this is known as satori – enlightenment.  Thus, freedom of spirit, freedom from thought – from world (or worldview), from habit (linguistic and behavioral), from language itself, and from linguistic and cultural relativism – is achieved at will.

It is my person belief that this freedom is entirely possible philosophically, it must be.  Furthermore, it seems to me that only an awareness of cultural and linguistic relativism – as propounded by Whorf and developed by Castaneda, Pearce, Lilly, et al., – and of the function of myth and archetype – as defined by Schorer and schematized by Cassirer – can allow one to approach that ultimate freedom of spirit.  This understanding of the implications of Whorf's hypothesis sheds light on myth and allows its understanding in terms of language, thought, perception, reality, etc.  And this understanding of the Whorfian hypothesis extended to include myth – is of utmost importance in philosophically approaching the idea of freedom as we have outlined it above.  Also involved, on a somewhat lesser level, is a greater understanding of the role of myth in intellectual life: myth "denotes the basis and structure of ideas" and "the element by which they are activated"' mythology is involved by "all real convictions" (Schorer, 354-5)






Cassirer, Ernest (1944). An Essay on Man; An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

–– (1946). Language and Myth. New York: Harper Brothers.

Castaneda, Carlos (1968). The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

–– (1971). A Separate Reality: The Lessons of don Juan.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

–– (1972). Journey to Ixtlan; Further Conversations with don Juan.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

–– (1974). Tales of Power.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

Frankfort, Henry, et al., eds. (1946).  Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man.  Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Hartmann, G. H.  The Unmediated Vision.

Lilly, John C., M.D. (1972).  Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer.  New York: Julian Press.

Mann, Thomas (1937).  "Freud and the Future." In Henry Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Pearce, Joseph C. (1971).  The Crack in the Cosmic Egg; Challenging Constructs of Mina and Reality.  New York: Julian Press.

Schorer, Mark (1946).  "The Necessity of Myth. In Henry Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Vishnudevananda, Swami (1960).  The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga.  New York: Julian Press.

Whorf, Benjamin L. (1956).  Language, Thought and Reality; Select Writings.  John B. Carroll, ed.  New York: Wiley.




Professor's Comments: This is fascinating, though we might argue that myths, by setting us back to a "basis," at least free us from familiar logic.  So you see myth as radically opposed to mysticism? Grade: A. [Dr. Bethany Dumas]





Bethany Dumas is Professor of English and Chair, Linguistics Program, The University of Tennessee.




Alan Gullette > Essays