Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Honors 2118: Myth

Dr. Nancy Goslee

Fall 1975 (December 1, 1975)


Of the essays in this collection, some deal more or less directly with the "linguistic relativity principle" (also known as the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis), while others either imply the formulation of the principle in its author's mind or tend to support it with complicated grammatical illustrations from native American languages, especially Hopi. I will deal here strictly with the principle itself as set forth in the dedicated essays, drawing as clearly as possible the implications of the principle (especially inferring and extrapolating where necessary the interrelations of language, thought, behavior, science, world view, and reality) and paralleling certain of its aspects to ideas to be found in similar writings.

The linguistic relativity principle states that "the structure of a human being's language influences the manner in which he understands reality and behaviors with respect to it" (23). The way in which reality is understood is a world view or Weltanschauung, and is not 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 world views including, e.g., concepts of "time" and "matter" (158) play a large role in the development of the respective cultures to which they belong. The view may give rise to "an explicit scientific world view" which it does not cause but simply colors (221). Science, utilizing the specialized view, co-develops with culture (154), which acts through language in its "provisional analysis of reality" that results in the world view in the first place (244). Thus, we see that culture, language and world view develop simultaneously, and science may also develop along with culture. It is most important, however, to realize that without language there would be no community at all, and hence no culture or world view or science.

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

Man must have a language to comprehend or understand the chaotic perceptions he continuously receives in his experience of reality. Language provides "a specific system" (a set of linguistic patterns) for the organization of experience "into a consistent and readily communicable universe of ideas (Whorf, 257, 104; cp. Lilly, 108). Differing languages, again, will produce different experiences (104). It follows that each separate culture has a different world view, lives in a different "world," has "a separate reality" (cf. Castaneda 1968, 1971). Sapir comes close to this in a quotation made by Whorf in "The Relations of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language," when Sapir says: "Human beings do not live in the object world alone. . . but are very 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 (134). This is in turn 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 world view 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).

Language "habits" are linguistic patterns which we extend the use of by habit. For example that "the three-tense system of SAE [Standard Average European] verbs colors all our thinking about time" (143) is an extension of the pattern onto thought. In this way, and simply because thought must be formulated into words in order to be communicated to others or even to be "thought about" further is in the individual, language structures thought to a large extent. It does so in such a way that thought is made to reinforce the world view belonging to the language-culture-community in which one has membership. As we have seen, language also influences behavior tin that we behave in accord with our world view (e.g., we do not step off of high buildings, because we cannot fly) and culture (our selection of clothing is restricted to some extent by society and norms; we drive down a particular side of the street). Behavior habits can also be extensions of language habits beginning, for example, with gestures and body language.

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. (We see in Vedantic philosophy, yoga, and Zen Buddhism that stopping thought is essential to freedom of consciousness. See, e.g., Vishnudevananda, 1960.) 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 static objects we can symbolize (with names, images, etc.) for reference (239). Such thinking is no more than a "specialization" 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 world view 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 world view in order to find an answer to a question, attain a goal, etc. The mind is reorganized, the brain is actually altered, 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 red, the sky will be red for us; belief alters experience (Lilly). This process occurs naturally. We perceive according to the world view that we must (for psychological reasons) believe in.

The "thought world" in which we live is "linguistically determined" (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 world view (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 world views. In Castaneda, one world view can be exchanged for another, but it is difficult to slip "in between" the descriptions in order to experience reality directly. Yet don Juan offers solution: perception as we know it is a "bubble" formed around us so that we perceive only the reflection of our own world view; this is the same as metanoia, for we perceive according to our description. To open the "bubble" would be to suspend the description, to escape the ideational world (by suspending the mind itself; cf. Vishnudevananda) and experience reality without conceptual baggage (Castaneda, esp. 1974). Thus, freedom of spirit, freedom from thought, world (or world view), habit (linguistic and behavioral), language itself, and from culture, is temporarily achieved.

Whorf does not go so far as this. In "Language, Mind, and Reality" written for a rather mystical Theosophical audience he strongly indicates, however, that improvement in thought and language would allow for a "culturing of consciousness" (263), an opening of a higher consciousness in the mind, and an increased awareness (cf. Vishnudevananda). This would aid tremendously in brings about a brotherhood of man. At least, it would be a catalyst for "mental growth," in terms of which we must envision the future, if at all (83).





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

Cassirer, Ernest. Language and Myth. New York: Harper Brothers, 1946.

Castaneda, Carlos. A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971.

Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Castaneda, Carlos. Tales of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974.

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

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

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

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

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality New York: John Wiley & Sons, and The Technology Press of M.I.T., 1956.




Professor's Comments: Good. I particularly admire the way you have drawn upon your own knowledge of literature to examine, explain, and to enrich the work you are reviewing. The good reviewer always puts the work it is reviewing into the kind of perspective that allows the reader to evaluate the review in terms of the reviewer's philosophical orientation. You did that splendidly. Grade: A-. [Dr. Nancy Goslee]





Alan Gullette > Essays