Reality Mind And Language: Field Wave And Particle

Dan Keith Hawkmoon Alford, 1981



















One of the most important and enduring issues in the study of language over the past five hundred years of Western research is the importance of language for culture and cognition. Some scholars have identified themselves with the unreachable theoretical extreme called relativity, others with the equally unreachable universals position. Just how they have identified themselves with these extremes, whether rashly (acting as if accepting one negates the other) or in calmly accepting both but choosing one over the other as a focus, is itself a matter of great importance.

1.1. Relativity In This Century

The history of the idea of linguistic relativity is ancient. Many contemporary writers (Koerner, Spence, Stam, Steiner) have traced the lasting influence of Humboldt's philosophy of language on such early leading figures in twentieth century linguistics as Boas and Sapir. It can be said that through them, and because of  the very diversity of American Indian languages they studied, the notion of linguistic relativity was in their time more important to linguistics than was universals.

During the 1930s, the competing strains of influence of Sapir and Bloomfield dominated linguistics, each assuming different goals for the field. Bloomfield's more mechanistic conception of linguistics as a rigorous science, based on one or another competing paradigm of behaviorism, contrasted with the Humboldtian flavor of Sapir, who embraced--rather than banished, as did Bloomfield--meaning and consciousness as factors to be reckoned with in studying language.

By 1950, Bloomfield's approach had gained virtual supremacy in the field of linguistics. But two names came to attain historical stature during this decade: the '50s saw the anthologization of Benjamin Whorf's writings, containing the most provocative statements of relativity yet formulated, and as well the publication of Chomsky's famous syntactic treatise, which led to the dramatic reopening of the case for universals. It was at this historic juncture, just before Chomsky's writings became popular, that Malkiel (1959) pointed to a Sapir Renaissance visible in the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

The Dramatic rediscovery of Sapir which, one ventures to predict, has just begun to gather momentum, making a return ... to a fuller, less schematic grasp of the facts of language in all its dimensions and layers, nuclear and peripheral alike, embedded in the broader facts of culture.
Malkiel was prophetic in taking the pulse of a discipline poised on the brink of decision as to which way to go:
The Michigan Conference [on Language, Thought, and Culture] and its belated brain child seem two links in a lengthening chain of symptoms pointing in the direction of a still inarticulate restlessness that began breaking into the open shortly after 1950. To be sure, formal descriptive analysis has by now been carried to a high degree of perfection, but the days when this respectable accomplishment produced unalloyed satisfaction seems to be speedily drawing to their close. The jubilance is tempered by the realization that, if current trends remain unchecked, linguistic analysis may become an isolate among intellectual pursuits; that very attractive possibilities of overlapping inquiries into language and culture may have been severely reduced ....
The '60s saw the meteoric rise of Chomsky's influence, the focus on competence rather than performance, increased mathematicization and jargon, the focus on universals and experiments designed to refute relativity claims -- all tending to isolate rather than integrate linguistics and anthropology. By 1969, many thinkers felt that Chomsky's theory would decide the relativity-universals debate once and for all; note Olachewsky:
To the extent that the Transformational-Generative thesis is reinforced by investigation, linguistic relativity theses will be weakened.
We know now, of course, that the Chomsky model began falling in on itself during the decade of the '70s, both from weight of the band-aids designed to patch the wounded theory, and from the scrutiny focused on the hidden assumptions underlying the theory. As the Transformational-Grammar thesis has not been reinforced by investigation it is clear that we are justified in reopening the case for an examination of the strengths of relativity.

Just how we should proceed in this investigation is another problem. Shall we use the same unworkable and inconclusive competing paradigms of empiricism and rationalism that have fueled the fire of debate for the past half-millennium? Perhaps there are other alternatives. Osgood, for instance (Stam 1980b), predicts that psycho-linguistic research and theory in the year 2000 will have the following characteristics: Its primary emphasis will be on performance and the contexts of performance, away from competence; the importance of semantics will overtake that of syntax; and rationalistic models will be superseded by more gutsy, dynamic psychological models.

We will see in later sections that such predicted approaches to language are in use by some linguists right now, and have their roots in the Humboldtian strain of thought in linguistics. We do not so much need something new as to understand our own history.

1.2. But is it scientific?

Part of the problem in examining the history of linguistic relativity concerns whether one to trying to understand the problem according to current insights or in terms of how the historical authors saw the issues. Lounsbury (Hook 1969) writes:

At the present time there in a tendency, at least among linguists, to see the pertinent issues in a way rather different from that which seems to be implied in the statements of Sapir and Whorf, and to conclude that the hypothesis of linguistic relativity is untenable, and that Sapir and Whorf may not really have believed everything they seemed to be saying.
In other words, the tendency has been to try to rescue Sapir and Whorf from their own ideas, to "save face" for them. The problems of misinterpretations of the statements of Benjamin Whorf have been dealt with elsewhere (Alford, 1978). By far the most serious indictment facing Whorf, however, revolves around the question of whether linguistic relativity is a scientific statement or a quasi-religious statement, which will be examined in Section 3. First we need to look at various statements of relativity from different authors.


2.1. Relativity In Modern Physics

All of this century's major statements regarding linguistic relativity followed Einstein's formulation in physics, a fact which too few critics have explored for implications. Gary Zukav (1979:280), in a recent history of physics, explains that John Von Neumann's "discovery that our thought processes (the realm of symbols) project illusory restrictions onto the real world to essentially the same discovery that led Einstein to the general theory of relativity:"

The general theory of relativity shows us that our minds follow different rules than the real world does. A rational mind, based on the impressions that it receives from its limited perspective, forms structures which thereafter determine what it further will and will not accept freely. From that point on, regardless of how the real world actually operates, this rational mind, following it's self-imposed rules, tries to superimpose on the real world its own version of what must be.

This continues until at long last a beginner's mind cries out, "This is not right. What 'must be' is not happening. I have tried and tried to discover why this is so. I have stretched my imagination to the limit to preserve my belief in what 'must be.' The breaking point has come. Now I have no choice but to admit that the 'must' I have believed in does not come from the real world, but from my own head."

This narrative is not poetic hyperbole. It is a concise description of the major conclusion of the general theory of relativity and the means by which it was reached. The limited perspective to the perspective of our three-dimensional rationality and its view of one small part of the universe (the part into which we were born). The things that "must be" are the ideas of geometry (the rules governing straight lines, circles, triangles, etc. ). The beginner's mind was Albert Einstein's. The long-held belief was that these rules govern, without exception. the entirety of the universe. What Einstein's beginner's mind realized was that this is so only in our minds (160).With this rather lengthy quotation we find the kind of knowledge which Sapir and Whorf were undoubtedly familiar with -- the true meaning of relativity, beyond velocities and moving systems, which has captured the minds of some of this century's greatest thinkers. Many educated people have simply missed the fact that physics has in this century begun invading the realm of meaning and consciousness, the semantic level of linguistics. The central message of modern physics to 'We have investigated the 'out there' and it's part us.' As Sullivan (1980:203) points out, the problems generated by the rise of science has been: how is knowledge of the world possible when the basic data are the sense data of the observing scientist? And it should come as no surprise that if this to a basic problem for science, it is the same for philosophy. For Herleau-Ponty (1964b),

The central problem is to understand how we can simultaneously constitute the meaning structures of experience and find that it is already constituted in terms of meanings we have not bestowed on it.... the dialectic of the constituted and the constituting.

2.2. Relativity in Modern Linguistics

2.2.1. Sapir's Formulations

With all this intellectual ferment regarding relativity in the first part of the century, it would be only natural that someone would take the new information from physics and attempt a fit with the older notion of the same name in linguistics. Sapir in 1924 (1949:159) introduced a kind of relativity that is generally hidden from us by our naive acceptance of fixed habits of speech as guides to an objective understanding of the nature of experience. This is the relativity of concepts, or, as it might be called, the relativity of the form of thought. Note the key words of the passage, "habits" and "guides:" Sapir stressed habitual acceptance, which has nothing to do with potential perception, and talked of then guiding -- not determining -- our understandings of experience.

Although he did not mention the word relativity per se in his 1929 article. "The Status of Linguistics as a Science," Sapir seemingly continues the 1924 formulation informally:

Language is a guide to 'social reality.' Though language Is not ordinarily thought of as of essential interest to the students of social science, it powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.

The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it to mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by their overtones. Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words that we might suppose. If one draws some dozen lines, for instance, of different shapes, one perceives then as divisible into such categories as 'straight, 'crooked,' 'curved,' 'zigzag,' because of the classificatory suggestiveness of the linguistic terms themselves. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. [Italics added.] Many critics have raised the bugaboo specter of "determinism" regarding this passage, although Sapir did not use the word itself; however, "conditions," "predispose," "to a large extent," and "very largely" assert directions or trends, and the infamous "at the mercy of" phrase is both times couched in the quantifying hedge "very such (more)" -- a fact ignored by more than one commentator. When Sapir's formulations of relativity are viewed in context, they are seen as tempered statements about a certain strength which language has to predispose certain choices of interpretation, choices that are comparatively easy given how everyone talks. This is fully in line with, in fact a seeming restatement of the insights that guided Einstein. Does the same hold true for Whorf?

2.2.2. Whorf's Formulations

In Whorf's earliest, though unnamed, formulation of relativity, we hear many echoes of his mentor Sapir. After showing us how the Hopi aspect-contrast, obligatory on verb forms, practically forces the Hopi to notice and observe vibratory phenomena, furthermore encouraging them to find names for, and to classify such phenomena, he explains how the article is an illustration of how language produces an organization of experience. We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression, and not to realize that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world-order, a certain segment of the world that to easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs. In other words, language does in a cruder but broader and more versatile way the same thing that science does (1935/1956-55).(1)Here we see the same structuring notion as Von Neumann's projection of illusory restrictions, an emphasis on that which through historical habits is easily expressible.(2)

In "An American Indian Model of the Universe," Whorf introduced a kind of cultural relativity regarding the concepts of time and space, indicating that the grammars of our languages assist us to understand the world as such-and-such or so-and-so. In "Science and Linguistics," he draws attention to the importance of background phenomena in science, and especially in linguistics, as a prelude to the formal statement of this century's famous linguistic principle:

The background phenomena with which [linguistics] deals are involved in all our foreground activities of talking and of reaching agreement, in all reasoning and arguing of cases, in all law, arbitration, conciliation, contracts, treaties, public opinion, weighing of scientific theories, formulation of scientific results. Whenever agreement or assent is arrived at in human affairs, and whether or not mathematics or other specialized symbolisms are made part of the procedure, THIS AGREEMENT IS REACHED BY LINGUISTIC PROCESSES, OR ELSE IT IS NOT REACHED. ...

When linguists became able to examine critically and scientifically a large number of languages of widely different patterns, their base of reference was expanded; they experienced an interruption of phenomena hitherto held universal, and a whole new order of significances came into their ken. It was found that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather to itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individuals mental activity, for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade. Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs from slightly to greatly, between different grammars. We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way--an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one. BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

This fact to very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free. The person most nearly free in such respects would be a linguist familiar with very many widely different linguistic systems. As yet no linguist is in any such position. We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (1940/1956:212-4).And in 1940, in an article whose very title ("Linguistics as an Exact Science") reflects Sapir 1929 ("The Statue of Linguistics as a Science"), Whorf restates the principle again informally:

The phenomena of language are background phenomena, of which the talkers are unaware or, at the most, very dimly aware -- as they are of the motes of dust in the air of a room, though linguistic phenomena govern the talkers more as gravitation than as dust would. These automatic, involuntary patterns of language are not the same for all men but are specific for each language and constitute the formalized side of the language, or its "grammar" -- a term that includes much more than the grammar we learned in the textbooks of our school days.

From this fact proceeds what I have called the "linguistic relativity principle," which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars towards different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world. In the formulations of both Whorf and Sapir, therefore, we find the same concern with the illusory restrictions which language projects onto the face of nature that led to the universally accepted scientific principle of physics made famous by Einstein.(3) In fact, this principle to so firmly established In physics that an attack on the linguistic version would seem to be equally an attack on its physics predecessor. Let's turn now to its potentially most devastating criticisms.


Although the major criticisms of Whorf are many and varied, most can be considered as strawman arguments (disproving extreme statements which nobody ever proposed), as discussed elsewhere (Alford 1978). These lie within the category of "the vulgarization of Whorf" which Hoijer (1954) so strenuously objected to long ago with little lasting effect. Most if not all of these side issues may be seen to flow from viewing Whorf's paradigm in terms of analytic paradigms, as will be discussed more fully later.

3.1. Causal Determinism

As discussed above regarding Sapir, critics often project spectres of determinism on anyone espousing the relativity view. As well as in the examples mentioned in Alford 1978, we see this projection happening in Olschewsky (1969:739) and Stam (1980), respectively:

The thrust of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is that thought and culture not only reflect the linguistic forms and categories with which they operate but are determined by them .... Even if the relativity of culture to language is accepted, some basics must be found for determining which is causally antecedent.

Also language and language-making are themselves formative factors in thought and the thinking process. However much Sapir and Whorf may have hedged on this causative factor, something of it seems to be an essential ingredient, for the linguistic relativity principle. Is there any evidence at all for the determinism charge? There appears to be none for Sapir, and but a single piece of evidence in Whorf's writings, although on closer scrutiny it becomes insubstantial. Whorf at one point (1939/1954:154) uses the phrase "our linguistically-determined thought world", which could logically have an exclusive (that which is) or inclusive (all of it is) meaning. The ambiguity is cleared up, however, once we recall his famous definition of rapport (1936/1954:67):

It is not words mumbled, but RAPPORT between words, which enables them to work together at all to any semantic result. It to this rapport that constitutes the real essence of thought insofar as it is linguistic ....
This alleged causal determinism is a tricky factor. Never mind that hard science has thrown causality out the window in this century and replaced it with statistical probability, social scientists insist on using it as an investigative tool. Too few have pondered, for instance, Cassirer's warning that causality "contains in its meaning the claim of 'always and universally,' which experience as such is never warranted in making." Besides, Hymes (1964:120) has shown that a minimum of four causal relationships are possible:
(1) language as primary (source, cause, factor, independent variable. etc.);

(2) the rest of culture as primary;

(3) neither as primary, the two being seen as jointly determining;

(4) neither as primary, the two being seen as determined by an underlying factor (such as world-view, Volkgeist, national character, etc.).

After stressing that Whorf seems to have expressed more than one of the possible positions in various contexts, Hymes declares that linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity are logically independent (121).

So according to Hymes, one need not be espousing determinism by espousing relativity. In fact it can be shown that the notion of determinism was a non-issue for Whorf. Given that Whorf, in line with advances in early 20th century intellectual thought, was influenced deeply by Jung and the Jung-Pauli (acausal) synchronicity principle depending on statistical probability, rather than reductionist Newtonian causality, we here find the first serious indication of a paradigm clash based on differing scientific views flowing from different philosophical paradigms.

3.2. Unverifiability, Unfalsifiability

But the recurring criticism which cuts most deeply in the language and cognition/culture paradox questions the very scientific spirit in which Whorf offered his principle to the world. Einar Haugen, in a discussion section following Dell Hymes' "Two Types of Linguistic Relativity," argues that the view that language and thought can be seen as interdependent, that one cannot prove or disprove 'the Whorfian hypothesis,' is the most damaging statement that can be said about the matter, since if it is so, "this means by definition we are not dealing with a scientific statement ... we are dealing with an opinion, perhaps with a quasi-religious statement [italics added]."

Stam (1980:248-9) approaches the same issue, but without the emotional labeling:

Ignoring for a moment a serious problem endemic to most criticisms of Whorf, namely the problem of whether to call Whorf's statement a principle, a theory, or a hypothesis (most writers being content to use them quite interchangeably), notice that this argument, as others, tends to draw our attention away from the intended meaning of the linguistic relativity principle. In fact, Robinson (1975) points out that: It seems that calling its scientific status into question is a less onerous task than refuting its content. We must next examine what it means for linguistics to be a science.


There seems to be a persistent notion in the literature of linguistics that linguistics is a science; both Sapir and Whorf wrote articles defending that proposition. And yet, what kind of science is it?

4.1. The Emotional Appeal of Science

As a first step, we need to strip the word "science" of its prestige value so popular during this century, due to the fantastic success engendered by the marriage of science and technology. Even amongst the most learned, "science" and "scientific' are often used as buzzwords which simply translate as "searching for truth with ultimate rigor." As discussed in Alford 1980, when one searches the history of Western thought one finds that "philosophical" and, before that, "logical" performed in earlier periods the same function of describing to others the ultimate worth of one's work.

Continental philosophy during the twentieth century, under the leadership of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Cassirer, and others, has taken as one of its prime directives the necessity of warning us about the limits of science. Itzkoff (197l:105) tells us about Cassirer that if there was a theme in the back of his mind, it was that the high valuation so many intellectuals place on science (derived in part from its tangible predictive power) did not necessarily imply the derogation of the less strictly deterministic cultural disciplines .... Science was an instrumentality of thought used to order experience. But there were other forms in which thought found expression and other aspects of experience which were revealed and cognized in their own particular matter.

A common practice of scholarship which seems somehow related to emotional appeal is what Koerner (1977) has called "discovering honorable ancestors," which applies specifically to those who rewrite history in light of present rather than historical concerns, what Sullivan (1980) has called a 'Whig history.' Chomsky, for instance, has been criticized for taking the innateness of language mechanisms and concepts out of Descarte's context of anamnesis, the Platonic reincarnation of an immortal soul (Hegde 1980) -- and without that, whence come the mechanisms and concepts? Chomsky is strangely silent about what the deep and primal structures of transformational generative grammars are generated out of, whether neuro-physiological, molecular, or whatnot. Likewise Chomsky has been criticized (Alford 1980) for claiming Humboldt as an honorable ancestor in light of his practice of quoting the statements of Humboldt that he likes and dismissing the rest as "romantic."

In both cases, a scholar has adopted from an honorable ancestor the ideas he considers "scientific" and abandoned the rest. The ultimate question here seems to be: Why does any discipline want to be known as scientific? Is being scientific the same as being a science? And applying this to the field of linguistics poses the even deeper problem of whether any discipline investigating meaning can ever truly be called a science.

4.2 Does Science Investigate Meaning?

What kind of science is linguistics supposed to be? Obviously it is not a "hard science" such as physics, from which most scientific method and nomenclature has entered educated speech. And there's a very simple reason why: A particle physicist named Greg Derry recently told me that if physics had to deal with the dimension of meaning as well as the rest of what it deals with, physics could no longer be a science.(4) Then could linguistics safely be called a science? No, he said, not unless it simply stuck to the business of counting and categorizing forms.

But surely this to exactly what was advocated by Bloomfield as he tried to make linguistics a science by banishing meaning from our calculations. Or, to be more precise, he presented a linguistic model which recognized a semantic system associated with language rather than a semantic level of language. (This was hardly improved upon by Chomsky's Standard Theory.) These structuralist models of language emphasize the historical and conventional habits of speech current at a given time. The philosophical approach used by Whorf, however, necessitates a return to the speaking subject -- to, as Merleau-Ponty (1964b:85) says,

The past of a language began by being present. We see in Sapir's 1932 essay on "Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry" the same concern for return to the experiencer as he defines the true locus of culture and of psychiatry: So it is clear that philosopher Merleau-Ponty and linguist Sapir are in agreement that language and culture must be thought of primarily in their modes of production in the present, as opposed to a view which takes the results of analysis of habitualized patterns as primary.

Is this agreement accidental, deliberate, or caused by some underlying factor? Sapir did not seem to know of Merleau-Ponty, but Merleau-Ponty (1973:12) quotes Sapir at least once, and Saussure often. However, indications point to the influence of Gestalt psychology as the real underlying factor -- as we may see in this most important statement by Merleau-Ponty (1964c):

We will show in the next chapter how Gestalt principles have influenced some of the most profoundly revolutionary trends during this century in psychology, linguistics, and physics -- have, in fact, begun to change the conception of science itself. For now we will merely note that this approach is one which does not arbitrarily separate form and meaning.

Whorf, of course, felt that the supreme goal of linguistics was "the quest for that golden something called meaning." And so we, as linguists, are each faced with answering a deep question: Do we identify the goals of linguistics more the way Whorf did, or the way Bloomfield (or Chomsky) did, or perhaps somewhere in between? The problem is: if we choose any answer except "Bloomfield", we may have to give up calling linguistics, strictly, a science. Because the study of meaning requires a more qualitative than mechanistic approach, linguistics cannot investigate meaning and be called a science. This is because language meanings, as implied by Merleau-Ponty, are qualitative, needing the mediation of consciousness, which is outside the realm of mechanism.

4.3. Meaning and Social Sciences

Meaning is, of course, the most inscrutable concept in our professional vocabulary; most language theoreticians have at one time or another taken a crack at defining it, from poetic ways to analytic ways. For Merleau-Ponty, for instance,

The philosopher is concerned with the power which language has on the human organism, not simply the structures of language. Notice emphasis on intention, arousing meaning by oblique action and enticement, words attracted at distance by thought. Elsewhere (1964b:20) he tells us that ideas are the center of our gravitation.

For contrast, now, we see a more analytic approach in Van Valin's definition, which flows from his replacing Fillmore's artificial intelligence foundations with phenomenological ones:

Certainly Van Valin's statements seem phrased in a more scientific sounding way, but Merleau-Ponty's thought somehow ring true more deeply In the human spirit. We have abstracted cognitive concepts, on the one hand, an and on the other a more "alive' organismic conception. This contrast is reminiscent of, though not (in Van Valin's case) strictly parallel to, the contrast between the competing reductionist and organismic paradigms mentioned earlier.

Returning to a previous question, if linguistics cannot because of its very subject matter be a hard science like physics, what kind of science is it? Percival (1980:191) tells us that

Although the speech act itself is a physiological and acoustical phenomenon, the underlying psychological properties are what make it what it is, that is, more than a mere physical event. Social sciences, then, must seek to embrace both measurable physical events and the unmeasurable psychological events which prompt the physical. This seems fully in line with the goals of language philosophers such as Sapir, Whorf, and Merleau-Ponty, but includes a balance which Bloomfield and Chomsky seemed loath to accept.

The reductionist methods of empiricism and rationalism were jettisoned by physics at the turn of the century, but as the natural sciences discarded them, many social sciences canonized them, moving away from the very stuff which led to their being social sciences instead of natural sciences.

As is evident by now, how we label linguistics has a lot do to with the goals we have accepted for it, goals which flow from our philosophical biases. If one gives due recognition to the qualitative facts of consciousness which language represents, then one is not as tempted as he might ordinarily be to want to limit linguistics by calling it a science. But perhaps there is an even deeper issue involved here concerning the limits of science itself in investigating the behavior of living organisms.

4.4. The Limits of Science

Science progresses through the scientific method of observation, correlation, and prediction. The predictions become hypotheses and theories, which are subjected to experimental verification.

Silva (1975) has pointed out some of the problems of experimentation that have taken place in linguistics. In the first place, no experiment is ever free of the theory which underlies it, and the unexamined assumptions underlying the theory itself. What never gets tested is the underlying assumptions.

Experimental testing requires a severe reduction of variables in order to focus on some target. And yet taking anything out of context in order to test it results in an inevitable distortion, such like certain fish which live on the bottom of the ocean and are distorted grotesquely when hauled up to atmospheric pressure.

Besides all this, there is the very notion of "testing" itself, which is a culture-bound notion of ancient SAE pedigree, but is seen as "ridiculous" by some autochthonous peoples who may not engage in the type of fantasy play of some experiments, who may be shy, who may be afraid of guessing wrong, or a host of other attitudes which contrast with our habitual acceptance of testing situations.

Further, we way ask what kinds of things are verifiable, and what kinds are not? The importance of this question can be seen in Haugen's notion that if relativity is not verifiable, it cannot be scientific. According to Maher (1977), Darwinism to an example of a principle accepted as epistemologically valid and unfalsifiable, since the survivor in a struggle for existence is by definition the fittest. No one would accuse Darwinism of being "perhaps a quasi-religious statement" because of its unfalsifiability.

And unfalsifiability did not stop Chomsky from developing his competence rather than performance model of language, thereby removing language from the verifiable domain. Steiner (1975) shows that language universals are also beyond the reach of verification.

Therefore if unverifiability and unfalsifiability are just indictments of Whorf's linguistic relativity principle, they equally indict almost the whole of linguistics itself. If, under competing paradigms, linguistics cannot generate testable hypotheses, how much of a science can linguistics be? We are reminded here of the stinging critique of linguistics by Steiner (1978:159):

This is the language and cognition question in microcosm. As long as we have to deal with meaning, nothing is ultimately verifiable, after all. Maher (1977) says that equations, syllogisms, and formalisms -- in some ways the ultimate "stuff" of science -- are all metaphors. Here we have "the crisis of science" in this century as seen by Whorf and Merleau-Ponty.

4.5. Consciousness and the Crisis of Science

For Merleau-Ponty (1964b:xi). the "crisis of European sciences" arose when turn-of-the-century developments in mathematics and physics proved to be incompatible with classical thought. Whorf (1942/1956:246) saw this crisis as a challenging frontier:

It needs but half an eye to see in these latter days that science, the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture, has reached, without having intended to, a frontier. Either it must bury its dead, close its ranks, and go forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness, replete with things shocking to a culture-trammeled understanding, or it must become, in Claude Houghton's expressive phrase, the plagiarist of its own past. The frontier was foreseen in principle very long ago, and given a name that has descended to our day clouded with myth. That name is Babel. For science's long and heroic effort to be strictly factual has at last brought it into entanglement with the unsuspected facts of the linguistic order. These facts the older classical science had never admitted, confronted, or understood as facts. Instead they had entered its house by the back door and had been taken for the substance of Reason itself. The crisis, or frontier, is that which faced Einstein's beginner's mind on discovering that no boundary absolutely isolates the subjective world from the objective -- a theme as ancient as philosophy itself.
Stam (1980b:255) points out that there was a time in Western thought when this would have come to no surprise to leading thinkers:
Despite the metacritical attacks on Kant by Hamann and Herder, there is an important common element in their respective views of reality. That agreement is as fundamental to the language-thought correlation as are the differences among them. None of then takes reality to be something which is given independently of human consciousness. All three reject the early modern model of objectivity, or the thoroughgoing separation of subject and object implied in Galilean physics and Cartesian metaphysics--a model which has now been superseded in twentieth century physics as well. Rather, "subjective mind" and "objective reality" must be understood in their interrelationship and interactivity. For Kant, reality is not simply given, but given as a task; not set down, but offered up. We see in the 18th and 19th centuries, then, a view of consciousness that virtually disappeared during the period of substantial technological advances of science leading to the present time.
During the past few decades a number of new insights have flowed into popular parlance regarding the complexity that underlies the phrase "the subjective mind": the importance of the analytic cognitive style of the normal left-hemisphere of the brain and the synthetic cognitive of the right-hemisphere;(5) the importance of the evolutionarily older limbic brain for emotions and consciousness, and the even older reptilian brain for ritualized patterns of behavior (see Alford 1980). Anttila's "Language and the Semiotics of Perception" points out that
There is growing evidence that the highest level of cognitive functioning takes place in the brain stem and not in the cerebral cortex, that the brain stem has a symmetric functional relationship with both hemispheres. This one mind (through holistic interaction) is matched by holistic memory storage.
Van Valin (1978) presents an interesting view on the hemispheric differences. He begins by developing Heidegger's important distinction about knowing: the way we usually know things is in the way we use them, such as a spatula when cooking in the kitchen -- this is known as the "ready-to-hand" knowledge which emphasizes interrelationship and interactivity, the loss of distinction between the subjective and the objective; on the other hand we also know things, such as finding a spatula in the middle of a desert, by their "present-at-hand" objective properties -- although the knowledge of the latter derives from our knowing it in its use more than, say, the hypothetical Martian landing and finding it (assuming, of course, that Martians do not use spatulas). Then he tells us that Arnhein (not to mention Ornstein and a host of others) has stated that there are two basic modes of cognizing and perceiving the world, called intuitive and intellectual cognition. Finally he identifies intuitive cognition with "the kind of thinking one engages in when involved with ready-to-hand entities in some practical activity."

Some, however, would question whether intuitive cognition should be called thinking. Whorf (1936/1956:66), following Jung, certainly doesn't think so:

One of the clearest characteristics of thinking is that of Carl Jung, who distinguishes four basic psychic functions: sensation, feeling (Gefühl), thinking, and intuition.
It is evident to a linguist that thinking, as defined by Jung, contains a large linguistic element of a strictly patterned nature, while feeling is mainly non-linguistic, though it may use the vehicle of language, albeit in a way, quite different from thinking. Thinking may be said to be language's own ground [MB: as in figure-ground], whereas feeling deals in feeling values which language indeed possesses but which lie rather on its borderland. These are Jung's two rational functions, and by contrast his two irrational functions, sensation and intuition, may fairly be termed non-linguistic. It takes but cursory knowledge of Whorf to know that his preoccupation with thinking crops up again and again, is in fact a distinguishing characteristic of his writings. In the words of Merleau-Ponty (1964b:17),
Philosophy begins with "What is thinking?" Language is not a means or code for thought. Thought and language anticipate each other, continuously taking each other's place. There is not thought AND language: each of the two orders splits in two and puts out a branch into the other. There is sensible speech, called thought, and abortive speech, which is called language.
Einar Haugen felt that if, indeed, thought and language were interdependent as Whorf (and Merleau-Ponty) claim, then relativity could not be a scientific statement. We have shown how the notion of science alluded to an outmoded and limiting one which has much emotional appeal, but ignores the advances in scientific thought this century; we have shown how meaning and consciousness are beyond the scope of that Newtonian-Cartesian spirit; and we have shown that the language and thought paradox is more amenable to philosophic than scientific inquiry.

Benjamin Whorf has rarely been referred to as a "philosopher of language," and yet his preoccupation with thinking places him in that category. But where does that leave his linguistic relativity principle? Is it banished forever from scientific inquiry?


5.1 What is a Principle?

A point on scientific nomenclature is in order. In physics,(6) for instance, one proceeds from a conjecture to a hypothesis to a theory to a postulate; and then there's the principle, which is generally taken to be that unproven, and in fact unprovable, guiding insight which orients us to data. Given the above ranking of terminology, it might seem that a great deal of empirical verification would be necessary in order to move a conjecture to the rank of principle, such that a principle could be seen as a proven and invariant "causal law of nature" by which to view experience. But Cassirer (Itzkoff 1971:95) warns us that this is the wrong understanding of the word principle:

Instead of deriving a principle directly from experience we use it as a criterion of experience. Principles constitute the fixed points of the compass that are required for successful orientation in the world of phenomena. They are not so much assertions about empirical facts as maxims by which we interpret these facts in order to bring them together into a complete and coherent whole.
So if a principle is not so such an assertion about facts as an interpretive maxim, an assertion which is unverifiable and yet the highest ranking of scientific concepts (much like an axiom in mathematics, equally unprovable), we find ourselves at a critical juncture regarding understanding Whorf's principle. Einstein took what had up till then been an enigmatic paradox, that the speed of light doesn't vary whether you are standing still or moving toward it or moving away, and transformed the paradox into a physics constant. Was Whorf attempting to do the same with relativity in linguistics?

We have already seen that both Whorf and Sapir were restating the physics relativity principle which had been discovered during their lifetimes. Whorf was a chemical engineer by training, with an early strong interest in biology, and wrote a number of unpublished physics papers regarding concrete representations of gravity (Rollins 1980). Sapir (1916/1949:402) used the word principle in other contexts, in accord with the notion presented here. All this to say that both were sufficiently knowledgeable about scientific nomenclature that we are safe in assuming that if they used the word, they used it carefully.

5.2. Is Demotion to Theory or Hypothesis Justified?

Principles are not arrived at through experimental verification, but through insight, and insight seems to be what Whorf was good at. Whether Whorf was in some sense ultimately justified in labeling his statement a principle and thereby promoting it to the top of the ranking system beyond verification to perhaps questionable -- and yet, that's where principles come from.

More questionable by far, however, are the actions of responsible social scientists who effectively demote the principle by renaming it a "theory" or "hypothesis," attach to it unfavorable interpretational doctrines, experimentally test those doctrines, and then pronounce the hypothesis disconfirmed ("at least in its strong form" is the usual hedge).

The irresponsible ways in which Whorf's detractors have interpreted his does not appear to be consciously malicious, but are consistent with what happens when you exceed the limits of science and make scientific experiments on the data contained in essentially philosophical questions; issues pertinent in one paradigm are of no interest In the other paradigm, are merely side-issues which detract from the intention of the statement. Wanting linguistics to be a science does not make it so, especially when its facts are by necessity fraught with meaning.

We see now that beyond the meta-issues of the limits of science, the outmoded role of determinism in modern scientific thinking, the futility of ultimately verifying anything at all unless you verify your underlying assumptions (which, like axioms, are unverifiable), the linguistic relativity principle was specifically designated as just such an underlying assumption from which could flow a certain approach to language and thinking, and which itself flowed from Einstein's theory of general relativity (which itself rests on a relativity principle).

In arriving at this, we have seen a certain consistency of viewpoint over a whole range of people who study language: Whorf, Sapir, Cassirer, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Malkiel, Stainer, and as well Saussure ("taken singly, signs do not signify anything... each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs" (Merleau-Ponty 1964b:117)), all of whom share a similar concept about the way language projects illusory restrictions on the world, in line with general relativity. In the next section, we will explore in more detail the reasons for their apparent unity of thought on this issue.


6.1. Science Versus Philosophy

We have seen throughout this chapter two major competing paradigmatic approaches in Western thought regarding the facts of language. One, which we save called the analytic or reductionist approach of science, advances Western thought by abstracting out of context, reducing the variables involved, and experimenting. Two major ways of being analytic are called rationalist and empiricist (often behaviorist); they are both "left-brain" ways of approaching the world, and usually leave out such "right-brain" cognitive modes as those called intuitive, instinctive, mystical, and affective or emotional. Analysis deals exclusively with quantities and structure. As mentioned previously, study, research, and speculation on the psychology of language and thought have been carried on simultaneously during a period that spans at least five centuries in accordance with the competing paradigms supplied by rationalism and empiricism (Rieber 1980:45), with little resolution.

The reason for the lack of resolution is plain: the facts of language are qualitative, needing the mediation of consciousness. There are two approaches which recognize the qualitative nature of language facts: one we have mentioned includes the intuitive, instinctive, affective side of language, and by itself would have to be called "poetic". This approach, like analysis, is a dead end when taken to extremes.

What is needed is another approach which incorporates the valid aspects of both, and it must start with the seemingly abstract yet fundamental problem of the relations between intuitive and analytic knowledge, between the whole and its parts -- recognizing that no pure "wholes" or "Parts" actually exist. According to Koestler (1978:27):

Each is actually a sub-whole or holon, a point in a pattern which is a multileveled, stratified hierarchy of subwholes. Each holon is Janus-faced: the face turned upward is that of a dependent part; the face turned downward toward its own constituents is that of a whole of remarkable self-sufficiency and autonomy ....
Once we adopt the general picture of the universe as a series of levels of organization and complexity, each level having unique properties of structure and behavior, which, though depending on the properties of the constituent elements, appear only when these are combined into the higher whole, we see that there are qualitatively different laws holding good at each level ....The term "holistic," then, when understood as a delicate relation between the whole and its parts, is one label which has been applied to the approach which lies beyond reductionism. Koestler's notions of holon and hierarchic structure have found their way into the terminology of such diverse disciplines as biology, ecology, psychology, and information theory.

As well as holistic, other labels for this approach are organismic (Anttila 1977), interpretive or hermeneutic (Lounsbury 1969), and in philosophy phenomenological (Merleau-Ponty 1964a:29):

Phenomenology could never have come about before all the other philosophical efforts of the rationalist position, nor prior to the construction of science. It measures the difference between our experience and this science.
Merleau-Ponty says later that philosophy has nothing to fear from a mature science, nor has science anything to fear from philosophy. Taken together these approaches have more to give than the mere sum of their observations: a Janus-faced approach recognizing both quantitative and qualitative facts in their interrelationships and interactivities more closely approximates the ways in which human beings actually live in the world, and points clearly to the natural limits of either approach alone.

Questioning the limits of science has become very popular in this century in the hard sciences as well as philosophy. Western science has for hundreds of years operated on the assumption that all we need in order to make better and better observations of nature is better equipment, that the limits of our equipment are the limits of our knowledge. Then along came Heisenberg to show us that there are limits beyond which we cannot measure accurately, at the same time, the processes of nature:

These limits are not imposed by the clumsy nature of our measuring devices or the extremely small size of the entitles that we attempt to measure, but rather by the very way that nature presents itself to us. In other words, there exists an ambiguity barrier beyond which we can never pass without venturing into the realm of uncertainty. For this reason, Heisenberg's discovery became known as the uncertainty principle (Zukav 1979-111). This finally led Heisenberg (1958:29) to state in the clearest and most unmistakable terms that "the scientific worldview has ceased to be a scientific view in the true sense of the word."

6.2. Heisenberg's Principle

One of the ways in which scientific thought matured in this century was in its transformation of the paradox of uncertainty into a principle. This mind-expanding discovery of quantum mechanics shows that Newtonian physics does not apply to subatomic phenomena. In the subatomic realm, we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. We can know both, approximately, but the more we know about one, the less we know about the other. We can know either of them precisely, but in that case we can know nothing about the other.(7)

What we observe is not nature itself, Heisenberg wrote, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

We see in Steiner (1978) the philosopher's side of the physics explanation, dealing with meaning rather than form. Steiner feels that the language and cognition question is best resolved by looking at its most crucial practical component, that of translation. After telling us that language is not a well-defined but an ill-defined system (:153), he says that the perceptions of language by people in literature are relativist "and, if the term may be allowed, ultra-Whorfian" (as opposed to Chomskyan), that interplay between general currency and personal idiom at the moment is what is important for literature:

The interaction of text and interpreter is never closed. The very opaque concept of "indeterminancy" in physics, the difficulties which stem from the ways in which observation acts on that which is being observed, are a commonplace in our experience of literature. No reading is neutral. The material alters in what could be termed "the field of force" set up by the reader's demands and expectations. Again, beyond the notions of position and velocity, the uncertainty principle tells us that there is no neutral stance, that the observer affects and thereby changes that which is being observed; nothing is ultimately verifiable, and that's the accepted principle.

It is in this spirit that Silverstein (1979) proposes that Whorf's linguistic relativity principle could just as easily, and perhaps more to the point, be called the linguistic uncertainty principle. Linguists, like everyone else, are culturally habituated beings, and can never be totally free of projecting enculturated understandings in exotic language/culture situations.

You can test a "word" to see if it has form -- it does; you can test it to see if it has meaning -- it does. Likewise, you can test light to see if it is particle and it is; you can test to see if it is wave and it is. This yes-yes approach to light being either form or energy, depending on which way you as the experimenter choose to set up your apparatus, has been called Complementarity.

6.3. Complementarity: Synthesizing a Paradox

To the uninitiated, contemporary physicists seem to be expressing themselves in a manner that sounds like the language of mystics. In Eastern mysticism. for instance, good and evil are not autonomous concepts: There is the concept of the Tao, the Way of Balance, in which good pushed to an extreme becomes evil and vice versa; this is indicated by the black dot within the white space and the white dot within the black space. Together they make a whole, and the same can be said for many other opposites which Westerners tend to polarize (like thought and language).

The Tao, as shown by Frijtof Capra in The Tao of Physics, expresses what physicists call complementarity. Access to the physical world is through experience. The common denominator of all experiences is the "I" that does the experiencing. In short, what we experience is not external reality, but our interaction with it. This is a fundamental assumption of complementarity. Complementarity is the concept developed by Niels Bohr to explain the wave-particle duality of light. No one has thought of a better one yet. Wave-like characteristics and particle-like characteristics, the theory goes, are mutually exclusive, or complementary aspects of light. Although one of them always excludes the other, both of them are necessary to understand light. One of them always excludes the other because light, or anything else, cannot be both wavelike and particle-like at the same time.

How can mutually exclusive wave-like and particle-like behaviors both be properties of one and the same light? They are not properties of light. They are properties of our interaction with light. If we choose to demonstrate the wave-like characteristics of light, we can perform the double-slit experiment which produces interference. If we choose to demonstrate the particle-like characteristics of light, we can perform an experiment which illustrate the photoelectric effect (Zukav 1979:93).This lends us to a peculiar paradox, given our normal ways of viewing the world:

Since particle-like behavior and wave-like behavior are the only properties that we ascribe to light, and since these properties now are recognized to belong (if complementarity is correct) not to light itself, but to our interaction with light, then it appears that light has no properties independent of us! To say that something has no properties is the same as saying that it does not exist. The next step in this logic is unescapable. Without us, light does not exist. ... Without us, or by implication, anything else to interact with, we do not exist. As Bohr himself put it, "... an independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can be ascribed neither to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation." (Zukav, 1979:95).

Philosophically, then, complementarity leads to the inevitable conclusion that "the world" consists not of things, but of interactions. Properties belong to interactions, and not to independently existing things. The philosophical implications became even more pronounced with the discovery that the wave-particle duality is a characteristic of everything (Zukav 1979:95).The complementarity of thought and speech in language is directly analogous to that of wave and particle in light, and is the essence of Merleau-Ponty's statement that thought and speech anticipate each other, continually taking each other's place. To this we can add Saussure's insight that a linguistic sign is the indissoluble unity of a meaning with an acoustic image:

People have often compared the bilateral unity [of the physical aspect and the meaning aspect of linguistic signs] to the unity of the human person, composed of body and soul. This analogy is unsatisfactory. It would be more exact to think of a chemical compound, like water, which is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Taken separately, each of these elements has none of the properties of water. Speech has about it a striking linear quality which inevitably results in accentuating some things at the expense of others. Cognition on the other hand, using intuitive "insight" as an extreme example, can show in a flash incredible complexities of interrelationship and interactivity among "habitually unconnected" phenomena. Language is something which is both but resembles neither. This is reminiscent of Dennis Diderot's (1713-84) concept of mind:

Mind is a moving scene, which we are perpetually copying. We spend a great deal of time in rendering it faithfully. The mind does not proceed step by step, like expression. The brush takes time to represent what the artist's eye sees in an instant (Rieber 1980:37).
Linguistics, like psychology, is in desperate need of an approach to language that is Janus-faced: consciousness interpreting the interrelationships of meaning and form, of synchrony and dischrony, of relativity and universals, of symbols and signs, of communication and speech, of philosophy and science; a complementary yes-yes approach to seeming oppositions which are interrelated.
Many linguists have warned us of the need for a balanced approach. Pitkin (1969) says we should avoid a uniquely relativist or universalist approach. Hoijer explains how biological, psychological, and social universals counteract the basic relativity of language. Malkiel (1959) warns of the dangers in the continued overemphasis on formal descriptive analysis, and the kinds of valuable interdisciplinary insights which can be lost.

The word science itself today has two meanings: the old Newtonian science and the 20th century relativity and quantum science; the latter, however, has a sense of its own limits, unlike the former. The very phrase "quantum mechanics" is a misnomer since the essence of quantum theory is that no mechanism is present in the subatomic world: something more like consciousness is happening. So the new meaning of science is radically different from the old meaning -- but both masquerade under the same name, which is quite possibly why the difference between them has been so slow in filtering into mass consciousness.

So what do we mean when we call linguistics scientific? Does that mean as in old science or new science? What if we wanted to call it by another name which presented more clearly the balanced view of form and consciousness?


The macrocosmic language and culture issue can be seen in microcosm in the phenomenon of linguists habitually calling linguistics "scientific" in order to appeal to Western culture prejudices. Since, as Whorf perceived, people tend to act in ways which are like the ways they talk we push on -- oblivious, in our autonomy, of the limits of science.

What if there were another word we could use, another view we could adopt, which would have the same kind of antique patina of respectability as the centuries-old emotional appeal of "scientific," and yet stressed the dual nature of language the way physics accepts the dual nature of light? Would we, by using the word and helping it gain acceptance, find ourselves more and more behaving toward the facts of language in this dual-oriented rather than reductionist way?


As the first chapter was fashioned as a guide for linguists in understanding the idea of relativity as it pertains to physics, philosophy, and translation, as well as linguistics, in order to show its fundamental importance and interconnections in recent Western thought, the second chapter is a guide to understanding the importance and pervasiveness of field theory and its stepchild, the Gestalt approach.

By looking at the various writers in linguistics who have at one time or another proclaimed the importance of Gestalt insights and principles, we shall clarify what this approach to all about and, as well, see how its proponents are conjoined in a philosophical tradition stretching back to Humboldt. First, however, a note concerning nomenclature is in order.

1.1. Nomenclature

In line with the final sections of Chapter 1, we need to know what to call a linguistics which is neither empiricist nor rationalist (positions which are easily labeled and defined).

When we come to this other approach which begins with totality, we find a long tradition of "word salad" or, in a more fitting metaphor, a multifaceted diamond: each facet has a label and displays a particular perspective of the whole, but each retains its own historical and goal-directed interests. The following list of labels, not exhaustive (and in no significant ordering), can usually be taken as signals that a philosophical approach wider than empiricism or rationalism is being taken:
Gestalt Sprachgefuhl Geistenwissenschaft
holistic hermeneutic human science 
configuration interpretation transpersonal
field theory historical organismic
ounijective philological ecological
culture tradition consciousness
pattern thematic metaphysics
relations systems dynamic
evolution idiomatic transcendental

This is not to say, however, that any linguist who uses any specific label above to necessarily using the approach we are discussing offhand I can think of two contemporary linguists who have written on "restart Linguistics', only one of which actually fits into this tradition.

1.2. Some Proponents of Gestalt in Linguistics

1.2.1. Anttila

Raiso Anttila (1977), for example, in an article entitled "Dynamic fields and linguistic structure: a proposal for Gestalt linguistics," discusses the way modern linguistics retains its reductionist approach even though physics has had to give it up in this century. But, he says, at the side of the natural science conception of linguistics there has arisen again the hermenoutic issue of linguistics as a Geisteswissenschaft. He cites Bertalanffy, originator of general systems theory (in which a system is a complex of elements standing in interaction), for developing the "notion of dynamic morphology, or an organismic conception. In this, the whole is not added to the material system as in vitalism, but is immanent in the constellation of the material system." He goes on to say that the organismic principle in mental life and in psychology to the Gestalt conception, and that "dynamic field notions in fact started in physics" with electromagnetism. There is no doubt, he says, that the organismic conception, or dynamic field effects, must be the core of the unity-of-science issue. Anttila points to Peter Maher, Dwight Bolinger, Kenneth Pike, Terho Itkonen, and other contemporary linguists as further developers of notions presented here, concluding that it is time to abandon the artifact of reductionist abstraction as the only theoretically valid endeavor and get back to real nature.

1.2.2. Whorf

Benjamin Whorf is another who championed strongly the Gestalt approach not only in his article entitled "Gestalt Technique of Stem Composition In Shawnee," but in other scattered references as well. In his pioneering Gestalt article, he combines a linguistic relativity approach to analysis with a technique based on figure-ground relationships as providing a universal canon of reference for all observers (one of the limited number of universals which Whorf stated). In "On Psychology," Whorf dismisses behaviorism for showing "its true character as simply the old experimental psychology over again in a more pick-and-shovel aspect." He felt that the Gestalt approach, however, showed greater promise as a psychological base for linguists, if only it could expand its boundaries:

1.2.3. Sapir

The above quotation from Whorf is especially intriguing because of the similarity to a statement made by Sapir (1929) two years later in assessing the importance of Gestalt principles:

We may suspect that linguistics is destined to have a very special value for configurative psychology ('Gestalt psychology'), for, of all forms of culture, it seems that language is that one which develops its fundamental patterns with relatively the most complete detachment from other types of cultural patterning.
And in discussing the importance of the whole, in this case regarding poetry, Sapir (1929) stressed that the meaning of the parts -- the words of a poem -- derives from the whole of the language and the whole of the relevant culture.

In Sapir and Whorf, then, we find two linguists who were influenced by the first wave of Gestalt principles introduced by Köhler in 1923, both of whom felt that an interface between linguistics and Gestalt psychology would be beneficial to each discipline.

1.2.4. Bolinger and Pike

Anttila (1977) lauds Bolinger (1916) for using basically Gestalt arguments in his lucid criticism of linguistic reductionism in the domain of syntax and semantics:

Bolinger correctly suggests that language to a jerry-built structure, heterogenous but tightly organized. He adopts the organismic (holistic) conception against the analytic view, arguing that analyzability always goes with its opposite .... This is an expressly Gestalt argument (without the label) against "the prevailing reductionism". Bolinger calls this view "Idiomatic," i.e. wholes that are more than the sums of their parts, and in fact idioms show the inadequacy of reductionist theories at a blow.
Anttila says that Pike (1975) "gave the most comprehensive 'geometric' (i.e. Gestalt) conception of linguistic structure pleading for the complementarity of particle, wave, and field" -- a notion to which we will return in detail later.

1.2.5. Maher

Maher (1977), like Anttila, is a proponent of the notion that the words historical (as in historical linguistics) and philology are terms which do not simply label a seeming sub-discipline but portray the philosophical approach taken in the interpretation of language (which Anttila says can only happen properly when the linguist reconstructs for himself the Sprachgefühl in which the language was produced). Maher is as vehement as Anttila in his denunciation of reductionism:

For Maher, Culture equals History, and History equals Tradition plus Reinterpretation. (For Anttila, nature equals causality while culture equals finality and teleology, or goal-directed behavior.) Maher cites passages by Sapir that solidly stress this historical approach, which is in line with Saussure, Hermann Paul, and others, and then applies the approach to syntax: In illustrating this point, he shows that the word brunif has come to mean "to make brown" or "to polish":
This is an instance of what Gestalt psychology terms "figure-ground reversal." We can focus on any single aspect or facet, of a holistic sensory experience, here the color or here the rubbing.
1.2.6. Werner and Humboldt

Heinz Werner (1963), better known perhaps to those in language acquisition than in other areas in linguistics, prefers the labels "organismic," "dynamic," and "transpersonal" as he attempts to account for how the organism forms its objects, transforms material into symbolic vehicles, and establishes a relationship of representation between vehicle and referent; he calls the central notion in this account that of dynamic schematization, characterized as a directive, regulative, form-building process:

Given the small number of linguists who have risked the censure of orthodoxy during the past generation in order to bring about a more Sapirian approach to language, it is not surprising that linguistics as a whole remains relatively untouched by the conceptions given in this section, that few young linguists have recognized that the authors mentioned here form a loosely unified approach to language. Anttila (1976) suggests that we must break away from a certain parochial narrowness that lurks everywhere, most evident in the kind of shallowness of linguistic training that used to be glorified. In the 1960s, that trend culminating to produce Ernst Pulgram's open letter (February 1974) against it to the officers of LSA: We have seen that a number of linguists, and there are others, have been influenced by Gestalt notions during the past half-century. Next we shall examine how the field theory parent of Gestalt theory revolutionized physics at the turn of the century.


We have already seen in 1.2.1 that the dynamic field conception of Gestalt psychology had its origins in theories of physics regarding electromagnetism. Henle (1971:6), anthologizer of Wolfgang Köhler, states that "Köhler, in particular, saw Gestalt psychology as an application of field theory, as developed in physics, to problems of psychology." In other words. in order to understand why certain linguists endorse Gestalt notions, we must return to the field theory of physics which spawned Gestalt psychology.

Field theory came about when Clerk Maxwell discovered the relationship between electricity and magnetism, thereafter called electromagnetism. The notion of field itself goes back to Faraday in the 1800s when he visualized electrical charges as filling space with imaginary lines of force, the pattern of those lines representing an invisible entity which today we call a field, permeating all space. This implied a subtle change in thinking from Newton's idea of action at a distance: now instead of one body working directly on another, "Faraday visualized one charge or pattern of charges producing a field, and the field, in turn, acting on the other body with a force proportional to the charge on it (March 1970:89-90)." Einstein (1954) writes about this:

Another change of thinking had also been going on. For over two thousand years the thrust of analytic and scientific modes of thought had aimed toward discovering ever smaller and smaller bits of matter, toward discovering the ultimate micro-units on which the universe is built up; these were called particles. Einstein himself summed up succinctly the importance of the change: Elsewhere Einstein concluded that "It therefore appears unavoidable that physical reality must be described in terms of continuous functions in space. The material point, therefore, can hardly be conceived any more as the basic concept of the theory (Schilip 1959:61)." What we have, in other words, is the death of the notion of the particle in the ultimate unit of reality. If this were to be translated into the discipline of linguistics, it would equally spell the death-knell of the notion of the word or morpheme as primary carriers of meaning. Meaning, like reality itself, must be seen as a field event which particularizes units of speech. The inescapable conclusion is that totality is the starting point for scientific inquiry. As Max Planck (1933:24) wrote: In field theory, as LeShan (1966:225) writes, the primary or most "real" aspect of an entity is its part in the larger pattern, and our perception of it cannot be responded to by a linguistic labeling procedure.

To perceive it at all, apart from the total field, is to perceive it as a subsystem, an artificially separated aspect of a field of stresses, a pattern. Only secondarily do we classify it as an individual entity for purposes of symbolic manipulation. Thus, from a field theory viewpoint, we cannot legitimately say, "Here is an electron," but can say at best, "Here is an area where the field is strong," or else we must switch back to the viewpoint of classical physics and say "Here is a place and time where an instrument registered reaction."

The field theory approach is first to the total Gestalt, and this is what is perceived as real. Parts of this total Gestalt may be considered individually as subpatterns, but it is recognized that this is only for the purpose of making it easier to conceptualize and communicate about them.

This last point, about the purpose of considering the fictional individuality of particles being for communication and conceptualization, recalls the Von Neumann discovery mentioned in (I) 3.1 concerning relativity, as well as Cassirer (1953:7) on concepts:

But what are concepts save formulations and creations of thought, which, instead of giving us the true forms of objects, show us rather the forms of thought itself? Consequently, all schemata which science evolves in order to classify, organize, and summarize the phenomena of the real world turn out to be nothing but arbitrary schemes--airy fabrics of the mind, which express not the nature of things, but the nature of mind.
The point of this section, then, is that Maxwell's field theory was the first and most profound of the worldview changes that began in physics near the turn of this century. With the addition of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Einstein's General Relativity, and Einstein's Quantum Theory (especially its most influential contemporary interpretation by the Copenhagen School), the theoretical physicists today talk about the nature of reality in ways that are closer to mystics and metaphysicians than to the physicists of the 19th century. Recent books like Capra's The Tao of Physics, Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and Talbot's Mysticism and the New Physics are merely a few which have charted the course of physics into the realms of consciousness.

Indeed, one of the hottest topics in physics right now concerns how electron-pairs in experiments are in instantaneous communication with each other: If the experimenter spins one electron upwards with a magnetic field, its twin "automatically" spins downward at the same angle. This has led a number of physicists, including Einstein himself, to the mostly unsavory position of defending the ancient notion of telepathy.

Saul-Paul Sirag, in a recent paper delivered before the Fifth International Transpersonal Psychology Conference (1979) entitled "Physics and Consciousness," reminds us that Einstein in his "Autobiographical Notes" said that quantum theory seems to imply "telepathy (Schilip 1949); in fact, that's what the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky thought-experiment was designed to make clear to anyone who would think it through. Einstein used the adverb "telepathically" to describe the interaction that he saw was inherent in quantum systems such as the EPR set-up. Further, Einstein refers again to telepathy in his reply to critics in his "Autobiographical Notes" (Schilip 1959:683):

I close these expositions, which have grown rather lengthy, concerning the interpretation of quantum theory with the reproduction of a brief conversation which I had with an important theoretical Physicist. He: "I am inclined to believe in telepathy." I: "This has probably more to do with physics than with psychology." He: "Yes."
In showing in his paper how physics can play a fundamental role in the emerging venture of the study of consciousness, Sirag shows that a profoundly unified description of reality is in the process of unfolding in physics:
That is not at all apparent to the casual onlooker--or even to the physicists themselves who are most active in this unification--is that the deeply unified description is accomplished by a renunciation of a mechanistic description and the embracing of a holistic description. By the term holistic, I mean a description that is fundamentally independent of space-time separation, and at a deeper level independent of mind-matter separation.
Talbott (1980:46) points out that with the advent of the new physics more and more scientists are reexamining the puzzle of consciousness. "In a paper entitled 'The Confluence of Psychiatry and Mysticism.' psychiatrist Stanley R. Dean lists a compendium of mystical beliefs that are gaining wider scientific acceptance. Among them he articulates the hypothesis that thought has universal 'field' properties which, like gravitational and magnetic fields, are 'amenable to scientific research'.' This Mind Field, as psychologist Ornstein (1976) has whimsically called it, is the subject of a following section where we will see how the Gestalt approach born of physics field theory revolutionized both psychology and philosophy.


As discussed in Chapter One (6-3), the principle of complementarity which synthesized the paradox of light in its particle-like behavior and light in its wave-like behavior introduced a new way of thinking into the top echelons of physics. Gone forever was the particle view (with mono-causal determinism), because of, as Einstein (1916/1961:144) put it, "the appearance of the concept of field and its final claim to replace, in principle, the idea of a particle (material point)." Originally, he says, fields were thought to exist only with matter: "Where no matter was available there could also exist no field (1916/1961-145);" but with experimentation on light in the early nineteenth century, it was felt necessary to introduce a field that could also exist in "empty space" in the absence of ponderable matter.

Since the field is that without which particles and waves do not materialize, all three are complementary. As Anttila (1977) writes:

Not only light but human beings as well are field phenomena in the most fundamental aspect, which manifest as forms or meanings, particles or waves, space or time, electricity or magnetism, against the ground of consciousness. According to the interpretations of modern physics (Talbott 1981), the "reality-structurer" of consciousness is behind the phenomena of both the perceived external and the inner dreaming world, turning self- and other-generated electrical impulses (among other things) into seeming sensory reality. Our experienced worlds are created, not simply re-created to match what is "actually out there."

This complementary way of thinking applies equally well to inanimate objects, the biology of organisms, mental functioning and, of course, language itself.

Oyle (1975:101) tells us that

A new paradigm is being proposed by eminent members of the scientific community: the world is crystallized thought. The practical implications of seeing mind and matter as a unity instead of a duality are enormous. Reality, a unity, presents itself to us in two apparently opposite aspects -- mind and matter. Current theory visualizes empirical reality as vibrating between my sensory impression of it, and my thoughts about it -- the one creating the other.
This echoes a similar statement by Astronomer Sir James Jeans:
Today there is a wide measure of agreement ... that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a nonmechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter .... (Mishlove 1975.)
Scientists are beginning to find that the vibratory or wave-aspect of matter is extremely important. Everything that is vibrates or "sounds' in rhythms of the universe. As Blair (1975:20) points out, the differences between blue and orange, F sharp and E flat, even between a circle and a square, are differences only in spatial and temporal wave motion. These understandings have led the Soviet scientist V. Inyushin to formalize a theory which reverses Descartes' dualism of wriggling [energy] and things [matter]. He suggests that "wriggles" also thing. The theory of bioplasmic energy suggests that the entire universe known to the mind is composed of vibrations. Finer vibratory rates (very fast wriggles) are perceived by the mind as thought. When the vibrations in the mind get coarse and alter their pattern, the mind creates the impression of things out there in space. ... The mediator which converts vibrations into objects in time and space is the image-making power of the mind. The objective time/space world out there, the dreamy subjective world of fantasy, dreams, hallucinations and ecstatic visions, as well as the intermediate experience of inhabiting a physical body, are examples of the ability of the mind to convert wriggles into patterns we call images (Oyle 1976:38).

As is evident, the self-imposed boundaries of these section titles, keeping Reality separate from Mind for instance, are difficult to hold to when investigating the statements of modern physics.


4.1. Gestalts and Psychology

We have seen that one of the major founding figures in Gestalt psychology, Köhler, attributed his basic insights to the field theory developed In physics. Köhler (1929/1947:104) points out about the word Gestalt:

One of the clearest examples of what Gestalt psychologists notice to what human do when confronted with a Necker Cube like the following:

The lines are stationary, but your perception is not, especially concerning which way the cube is "facing." This is reminiscent of the koan concerning two peasants arguing whether the flag is waving or whether the wind is waving the flag. The monk to whom they take the problem replies, "Neither. It is the mind that is waving."

Köhler (1929/1947:105) continues:

The notion of purely subjective and purely objective, missing in modern physics, to also missing in Gestalt psychology. How can it be otherwise when, as Köhler (1929/1947:18) explains, "[the] simple truth is that some of the experiences which depend upon processes in my organism have the character of objectivity, whereas others which depend on different processes in the same organism have the character of being subjective." Seen for its implications in linguistics, the barrier between objective speech and subjective thinking (or any cognition) dissolves.

Regarding complementarity and wholeness, Köhler (1971:238) writes:

He felt that, at the outset, "any sound new theory will presuppose that principles valid in other realms of nature are applicable in its own field (1971:239)." This is true of linguistic as well as other kinds of theories.
For these reasons I regard it as a necessity of psychological method that we make the attempt to develop a theory of "the larger physiological context," upon which all our experiences depend, on the basis of the fundamental principles of physics (1971:239).
Köhler calls Gestalt psychology "the psychology of functional wholes," explaining that although a melody has a "minor" or "major" character as an auditory whole, we may investigate the tones of the melody separately as much as we like (linguists may insert "words" for "tones") and we find no "minor" or "major" character in them. The character comes out only when the tones follow each other in appropriate sequence, speed, and rhythm; it belongs to the melody as a unit extended in time. The same happens with space regarding "regularity," "smoothness," "angularity," and so forth; in experienced space they belong to extended units. "Consequently we must find translocal, extended functional realities, if a theory of brain processed is ever to explain the properties of our visual field (1971:241)."

Stressing the dynamic character of fields. Köhler (1971:249) sounds like a physicist describing brain processes:

Köhler was himself intrigued with how physicists had come around to the holistic view:
Until recently physicists have not laid so much stress upon functional wholes, or Gestalten, as we have done in our attempt to bring psychological experiences into intimate relation with the physiology of the brain. But twenty years ago there was an intimation of a new point of view in physics. It came in a statement by Planck, the author of the quantum theory, who said in a lecture at Columbia University that, in all applications of the principle of entropy, we have before us functional wholes, the conduct of which cannot be deduced from the conduct of the molecules. And he added, casually, that the same theoretical situation prevails almost everywhere in mental life.... A few months ago, in a powerful paper, Schroedinger stated quite definitely that the problems of modern dynamics are problems of Gestalt dynamics, that is, dynamics of functional wholes. Again, in 1929, Planck declared that "in modern mechanics merely local relations are not sufficient for a formulation of the laws of motion; we do not obtain an adequate formulation of the laws until we regard the physical system as a whole.... On the basis of these statements, then, we may say that the leading ideas of modern physics and of Gestalt psychology tend to coincide.... Seldom has there been a more exciting moment in the history of science (1930/1971:250-1).
Köhler makes the important distinction between young sciences and mature sciences. In its beginnings physics made use of qualitative as well an quantitative measures; it was only over time that the qualitative measurements gave way to the dials and gauges so characteristic of today's quantitative measurements. In characterizing psychology as a relatively young science, he asks whether psychologists should be prematurely imitating the quantitative phase of the mature science. After all,
In the eighteenth century, Cavendish measured the resistances of different materials by comparing the shocks which geometrically equivalent pieces of these materials gave his arm, when he touched one pole of the battery with those pieces and the second pole with his other hand. Was this improper? On the contrary, in what was then a new field the procedure was perfectly sound. In this way he gained preliminary knowledge of facts which could then be used for the development of more precise methods (1929/1947:28).
Therefore qualitative measurements must not be theoretically disregarded by social sciences in favor of exclusively quantitative measures. In applying this view to a practical linguistic event, Köhler anticipated by decades the development of the Psychological Stress Evaluator (O'Toole 1975), which quantitatively measures microtremors of the vocal cords: "Again, while observing a man in a somewhat critical situation, it may be essential to observe whether he talks to us in a steady or in a shaky voice. At the present time this is essentially a qualitative discrimination" (1929/1947:26).

The Gestalt revolution has not changed the entirety of psychology the way field theory did to physics, but Gestalt psychology is today a significant though small branch of that field. The importance of Gestalt psychology on selected linguists has been mentioned already. As we shall see, Gestalt notions also did not revolutionize the totality of philosophy, but they do form the foundation of a very strong contemporary school of philosophy, more popular in Europe than in the United States at present, called phenomenology.

4.2. Gestalt and Philosophy

It took but mere recognition by philosophers that radical changes were taking place in physics and psychology to begin the changes in philosophy as well. Husserl and Heidegger can be said to be founding fathers of this approach, but Merleau-Ponty is felt by many to be the most significant spokesman, especially regarding his focus on language and thinking. We have seen in the previous chapter his recognition of how Gestalt psychology overturns the implicit ontology of science and forces us to revise our conception of the conditions and limits of scientific knowledge.

Merleau-Ponty is most insistent in viewing the primary language facts as those of being engaged in the activity of languaging, and only secondarily as analytically abstracted words; he says Gestalt notions demand the use of descriptive concepts borrowed from our human experience and which can in no way be replaced by quantitative functional concepts, that language facts are qualitative and need the mediation of consciousness. This is no less than a return to the speaking subject -- an investigation of the peculiar clarity which attends languaging behaviors.

Merleau-Ponty (1964b:88) discusses Humboldt's Innere Sprachform, noting that the speaking power the child assimilates in learning his language is not the sum of morphological, syntactical, and lexical meanings. The field aspect of language is that envelope or dimension which encases and surrounds human beings -- an intersubjectivity, a living relationship and tension among individuals (1964c).

Continuing this analogy, the wave aspect of consciousness is that which achieves specific rapport with another being such that the physical bits of speech are traded against the historical field. This qualitative rapport between communicating individuals has been made quantitative in recent experimentation: individuals in normal conversation (Hall 1976) and, in a much different experiment, individuals in telepathic exchange experiments (Watson 1973:227), display synchronous brainwave readings during rapport which resume more individual characteristics when rapport is broken.

At any rate, phenomenology -- like field theory and Gestalt psychology -- is a different way of talking about and therefore also thinking about phenomena in the world. Its proponents agree in principle with the new scientific views of physics: as with uncertainty and relativity they recognize the limits of science; as with quantum theory they realize that the so-called "hidden variables" in reality creation are those of consciousness, that we are never mere observers but participants; and as the body "is no longer merely an object in the world, under the purview of a separate spirit," says Merleau-Ponty (1964a:5), but our "point of view on the world, the place where the spirit takes on a certain physical and historical situation," it takes up the same field-figure-ground relationships of psychology as primary.

And so we are led, finally, to the Big Question: If the field and Gestalt insights are so powerful that they have revolutionized physics, psychology. and philosophy, is it possible they could do the same for linguistics?


Kenneth Pike was singled out by Anttila as the linguist who has given the clearest recognition of the complementary aspects of language an particle, wave, and field. In Pike's (1959) article by that name, he attacks directly the central concerns of linguistics: "What is the nature of language? What are its parts? How is the structure of language related to structural problems in other areas of investigation?"

Language, in my view, can be viewed profitably from three distinct standpoints. One of these is traditional, and views language as made up of PARTICLES--'things', pieces, or parts, with sharp borders. The second view is not at all thought of in lay circles perhaps, and is largely neglected on the technical front. This second view treats language as made up, not of parts which are separated one from the other and added like bricks on a row, but rather as being made up of WAVES following one another. This second view is one which I have recently been developing, and leads to some very stimulating insights as to the nature of language structure. A third view consists in viewing structure as a total FIELD. Technicians have studied semantic fields as part of language, but the handling of the concept systematically in terms of the more ordinary structuring of sentences has not even been attempted.
Pike then relates these concepts to others more fashionable:
These three views of language can be summarized in different terms. Language, seen as made up of particles, may be viewed as if it were STATIC--permanent bricks juxtaposed in a permanent structure, or as separate 'frames' in a moving-picture film. The view of language made up of waves sees language as DYNAMIC--waves of behavioral movement merging one into another in intricate, overlapping, complex systems. The view of language as made up of field sees language as FUNCTIONAL, as in system of parts and classes of parts so interrelated that no parts occur apart from their function in the total whole, which in turn occurs only as the product of these parts in functional relation to a meaningful social environment. It is extraordinary that in the twentieth century we should still be viewing language almost entirely from a static, particle-like view rather than in a dynamic fashion.
Pike shows that phonetics, for instance, cannot possibly work on a particle-like view, segmentable in the sense that one can cut up with a pair of scissors a sequence on tape and have left in segment form all the relevant components of one sound after another, because of the wave-like characteristics of sounds. The totality of any one sound is not necessarily found in any one segmentable section of the sequence--sound characteristics smear throughout sequences, as we see by anticipatory and delayed assimilation and dissimilation. This is similarly found, he says, in phonemes fusing into one another at their border points, syllables being partially anticipatory of each other, stress-groups fusing into each other in pause groups, and also with units of the lexical hierarchy (as in the smearing of lexical units in the usual "faspeech" pronunciation of "as you like it" -- the first two words have an indeterminate border which is fused in wave-like fashion, but "in spite of this fusion the PRESENCE of the two words is fully clear."

The wave view insists, furthermore, that this indeterminacy is an essential part of language -- the wave-like fusion of forms in sequence -- and that, rather than force an artificial segmentation upon language, one should adopt a wave theory of language which does not require this artificial treatment.

Like Anttila, Pike feels that no variety of a static, particle view of language can provide a useful framework for the description of dynamic historical change, since the dynamics of change in time are the dynamics of waves of movement of one system to another system; in historical change one system doesn't cease and another one begin with a gap between then -- all is in transition with periods and peaks of prominence.

Reference to system, however, forces us to turn to the discussion of a field view of language. As with the wave view of speech, so within this view separate particles as such disappear and melt into one another. There is one major difference, however. Instead of looking at language as a sequence of waves in a single flat wave train, language is viewed somehow in "depth." A word is not seen as part of a sequence alone, but as part of a whole class of words which are not being uttered at that particular time but are parts of the total potential behavioral field. A word is viewed against this larger background; it is viewed in reference to its contrastive relationships with words which are not being uttered at that particular moment. A word to seen as part of a total language system.

This field view, says Pike, to a necessary antidote to over-segmentation. It emphasizes the "wholistic" nature of phenomena. In contradistinction to most theoreticians who debate one approach over another, Pike opts for the yes-yes view of complementarity:

Turning now to look at the problem as a whole, in the light of these three views of language -- particle, wave, and field -- what attitudes should we now adopt? Should we consider, for example, that the particle view is invalid since a wave view is useful for describing physical continua? And must the wave view then be discarded because a field view provides better for functional relationships? By no means. As I see language structure, we need the three views, all preserved in our total descriptive statement, to approximate more closely the manner in which, language operates as a behavioral structure in an active community.

Like physicists, psychologists, and philosophers, then, linguists too are urged to adopt the three fundamentally different approaches simultaneously in their investigation of language facts. In such light, the historical dimension of a language and the human consciousness it entails must be given due recognition.

Benjamin Whorf is one linguist in this century who has approached head-on the Mind Field of consciousness. The concepts of "pattern" and "system" which all field theorists find indispensable are abundant in Whorf's writings, especially in his final essay (1941/56:247-8):

A noumenal world--a world of hyperspace, of higher dimensions--waits discovery by all the sciences, which it will unite and unify, awaits discovery under its first aspect of a realm of PATTERNED RELATIONS, inconceivably manifold and yet bearing a recognizable affinity to the rich and systematic organization of LANGUAGE.... The idea is older than Plato and at the same time as new as our most revolutionary thinkers....
This view implies that what I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense, and that patterns form wholes, akin to the Gestalten of psychology, which are embraced in larger wholes in continual progression. Thus the cosmic picture has a serial or hierarchical character, that of a progression of planes or levels. Lacking recognition of such serial order, different sciences chop segments, as it were, out of the world, segments which perhaps cut across the direction of the natural levels, or stop short when, upon reaching a major change of level, the phenomena become of quite different type, or pass out of the ken of the older observational methods.

Whorf, like many of the physicists, psychologists, and other intellectuals of his day, was inspired by field theory insights which revealed the role of consciousness in reality creation. But most importantly, he was interested in the limits of language for discovering reality, in observing the breakdown of language for describing the subatomic realm. Physicists and mystics alike agree that the ultimate nature of reality transcends language. As Talbott (1981:179) writes:

The complementarity of wave/particles, the yes and no logic of the quantum principle, the beyond real and unreal nature of the interpenetrating universes -- all transcend the limited dualities of our language.
That is because language is based upon discrimination. Consider the puzzlement of the physicist when discovering the "indistinguishable" nature of electrons:
Two electrons can either be referred to as the "same" or "different" and neither word imparts any more information about the phenomena of the electron than the other. Discrimination is meaning. If one cannot discriminate between two electrons, there is no meaning in words ascribed to their difference (Talbott 1981:180).
As Heisenberg once observed, the problems of language are very serious in speaking of atoms: We wish to speak in some way about their structure, but we cannot speak of them in ordinary language. Whorf (1936a:55) suggested that a language like Hopi is better suited to noticing and communicating about the vibratory nature of the universe than English, which, like other Standard Average European languages, has a preference for nouns, as contrasted with the Hopi preference for verbs (1936b:63). Perhaps Hopi speakers then would not find themselves in the quandary we do when trying to describe the radiating and spinning of atoms, as Bertrand Russell (1927) noted:
For aught we know an atom may consist entirely of the radiations which come out of it. It is useless to argue that the radiation cannot come out of nothing.... The idea that there in a little lump there, which is the electron or proton, is an illegitimate intrusion of commonsense notions derived from touch....
Matter is a convenient formula for describing what happens where it isn't. Linguistics, then, with rare exceptions, has been dominated for the past half-century by investigations into the particle-like behaviors of sounds, morphemes, and words. A growing number of linguists are now insisting that the particle approach does not explain enough, that wave and field views must be integrated into our descriptions.

Consider the total realm of natural communication. Einstein says electrons communicate telepathically. Oxford zoologist Hardy (1965) has held since 1949 that telepathy may be the clue to a fundamental biological principle that has played a major part in evolution, arguing that the development of language repressed a more primitive form of knowing in favor of a more precise communication system. Anthropologist Greist (1976) has argued that the notion that children learn language from interaction through the five senses alone is no longer reasonable, given the powerful psychic bending between mother and child which we are only beginning to investigate. Hall (1976) shows that synchronous EEG brainwave(8) rhythms attend our most mundane daily conversations, and Soviet experiments show us the same synchronous phenomena in numerous telepathy experiments (Watson 1973:227). Whorf (see next section) himself implies that telepathic communication can occur on a deep level of consciousness without the aid of language or symbolism. American Indian versions of the so-called Tower of Babel legend declare that men, animals and spirits used to communicate in the same way, but that after men acquired speech "The Old Language" was retained for dreams and communicating with spirits and animals.

There is a fundamental agreement from many segments of academic society that there is something real and important for natural communication between organisms behind the fearsome label "telepathy," something so pervasive and invisible that we usually neglect it. Its essence cannot be captured by the particle view of language, but is fully consonant with wave and field approaches. Linguistics must begin its investigations with the totality, no matter how much it irritates commonsense notions. Consciousness is the key to the interrelationships between all the various aspects of human experience.


In recent periods of Western scientific thought, meaning and consciousness have been viewed in disparaging ways. Being qualitative, they had no place in a quantitative view of the world. This, as Köhler pointed out, is to be expected of young sciences imitating the outward form of a mature science.

Since Köhler, however, that mature and quantitative science known as physics has matured even further, to the point that qualities, essences, and consciousness are again fundamental topics. It has done this by renouncing the earlier mechanistic view and embracing a holistic view. The New Physics described by holistic proponents is, they say, fully in accord with the metaphysical statements made by Sanskrit philosophers thousands of years ago, the works that so enthralled Humboldt and Whorf.

In Whorf's deathbed article, "Language, Mind, and Reality," the interrelationships between the three terms of the title are of primary importance:

The idea, entirely unfamiliar to the modern world, that nature and language are inwardly akin, was for ages well known to various high cultures whose historical continuity on the earth has been enormously longer then that of Western European culture. In India, one aspect of it has been the idea of the MANTRAM and of a MANTRIC ART. On the simplest cultural level, a mantram is merely an incantation of primitive magic, such as the crudest cultures have. In the high culture it may have a different, a very intellectual meaning, dealing with the affinity of language and the cosmic order. At a still higher level, it becomes "Mantra Yoga." Therein the mantras becomes a manifold of conscious patterns, contrived to assist the consciousness into the noumenal pattern world--whereupon it is "in the driver's seat." It can then SET the human organism to transmit, control, and amplify a thousandfold forces which that organism normally transmits only at unobservably low intensities.
In modern psychological terms, Whorf's three descriptions of the mantram correspond to a right-brain approach, a left-brain approach, and a holistic approach which blends and therefore becomes more than the sum of the two simpler approaches. Throughout this and other articles Whorf advances wave- and field-understandings about language, pointing twice (p231, 269) to quantum physics analogies. In describing the relationship between language and mind, Whorf is implicit where Einstein was explicit regarding telepathy:
Moreover, the tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is in back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called "mind." My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signaling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur, and which also can, at a pinch, effect communication (though not true AGREEMENT) without language's and without symbolism's aid (:239).
Consciousness is at the core of the unity-of-science issue today. Reality, mind, and language are seen as complementary aspects of each other, each of which can be viewed as field, wave, or particle facts. A new interpenetration of fields of knowledge has begun. It remains to be seen, however, whether linguistics as a whole will be left behind, or whether linguists will come to understand the true value of their discipline. I conclude with Whorf's vision regarding the place of linguistics in Western thought:
We all know now that the forces studied by physics, chemistry, and biology are powerful and important. People generally do not yet know that the forces studied by linguistics are powerful and important, that its principles control every sort of agreement and understanding among human beings, and that sooner or later it will have to sit as judge while the other sciences bring their results to its court to inquire what they mean.

A man was standing on the edge of a sheer precipice when the ground gave way beneath his feet. As he went over the edge he recalled with horror that the drop at this point on the cliff was some two thousand feet straight down. Glancing downward he was aware that the foot of the cliff was shrouded in mist so that the end of his fall was not visible. Something brushed against his hand and he clutched frantically at what turned out to be a stout rope attached to a firmly rooted shrub about two hundred and fifty feet down. His fall was broken, but ascent was clearly impossible. Some form of outside assistance was absolutely essential to his survival.

"Is there anyone up there?' he shouted at the mountain top and at the heavens above his head.

The response came from heaven above in the form of a voice. "Yes, my son," said the celestial speaker. "I am up here."

"Can you help me?"


"Sure, what do you want me to do?"


After a long silence, the man says. "Is there anyone else up there?" (Oyle 1976:137-8)


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1. Like Whorf, Einstein (1916/1961:142) felt that "Science has taken over from pre-scientific thought the concepts of space, time, and material object (with the important special case 'solid body'), and has modified them and rendered them more precise. Also (1954:323): "Science is the attempt to make the chaotic diversity of our sense experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought." (back to text)

2. Whorf's notion here has been overlooked by critics like Hockett (1954:122), who thinks he, not Whorf, developed this particular refinement.  (back to text)

3. The reader may ponder alone how Sapir and Whorf translated the stated principle of Einstein (1916/1961:152-3) into linguistics: "This implies the general principle of relativity: Natural laws must be co-variant with respect to arbitrary continuous transformations of the coordinates.' Einstein, growing up in the German Intellectual tradition and university system founded by Humboldt, must have (like Boas and Sapir) come into contact with the Humboldtian notion of language relativity, and substituted the narrower notion of "coordinate systems" for "language systems." Whorf, recognizing the modern physics dilemma (the most refined and precise language available for describing reality was getting stuck), retranslated Einstein's principle back into linguistics.  (back to text)

4. I must add, as an example of the rigor Derry is using here, he also contends that glass and wood are not "solids" because they do not have the definitionally requisite crystalline structure.  (back to text)

5. Physician Oyle (1975) says about hemispheres:
Medical research has split the brain in two in a breakthrough which rivals the physicist's discovery of atomic fission. In confirmation of the writings of giants like Freud and Jung we are now being told that our cerebral hemispheres constitute two separate brains. (back to text)

6. Greg Derry (personal communication).  (back to text)

7. This is perhaps analogous to language facts in that we can know the structures and definition of abstracted words like "feathers" and "horses", but that will not help us much in knowing that the functional usage of "horse feathers" means "nonsense", and is chosen from a class of idioms in the same semantic field.  (back to text)

8. Sagan (1978) notes that brainwaves, also known as Berger waves, were discovered by Berger in his search for a way to prove telepathy.  (back to text)