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[ontolog-forum] Frege-Whitehead hypothesis (was Sapir-Whorf)

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From: John F Sowa <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Mon, 25 Feb 2013 12:10:29 -0500
Message-id: <512B9B05.1080301@xxxxxxxxxxx>
I changed the subject line to distract attention from the accumulated
baggage that burdens the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.    (01)

In the famous paper that introduced his Begriffsschrift, Frege (1879)
expressed a strong, but negative version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
He hoped "to break the domination of the word over the human spirit by
laying bare the misconceptions that through the use of language often
almost unavoidably arise concerning the relations between concepts."    (02)

I much prefer the more positive statement by Whitehead: "... by the aid
of symbolism, we can make transitions in reasoning almost mechanically
by the eye, which otherwise would call into play the higher faculties
of the brain... Civilization advances by extending the number of
important operations which we can perform without thinking about
them."  (_Introduction to Mathematics_, p. 61)    (03)

Some comments:    (04)

Phil M
> You can say, "It rains tomorrow." and be understood perfectly by
> almost every English speaker, even if the sentence occurs in isolation.
> But you will probably be thought of as someone who has limited
> familiarity with "standard" English.    (05)

Yes, but the grammatical requirement to speak in a certain way tends
to direct thought along certain lines.  For example, the Slavic
languages have pairs of verb forms to express perfective (action
completed) vs imperfective (action continuing).    (06)

English speakers who learn Russian are forced to pay attention
to details that they could express in English, but usually don't.
They can understand the distinction when you tell them, but it
takes a great deal of practice to express it consistently.    (07)

By the way, Chinese doesn't have the elaborate inflections of Russian,
but it has a particle (le) that indicates a completed action.  But
Chinese doesn't have any way to express the English 'would be' or
the subjunctive particle 'by' in the Slavic languages.  Chinese
speakers who have not learned an Indo-European language find it
very difficult to express those forms.    (08)

> I doubt that a specific language limits what a good programmer
> thinks should be possible.    (09)

Steven E-Z
> It is not a question of limiting thought but more to do with directing
> the engineer toward one solution over another, often complicating their
> thoughts and behaviors with unnecessary concerns, and distracting the
> engineer from the task at hand.    (010)

I agree with Steven, and so would Whitehead, Peirce, Wittgenstein,
and others.  New language forms change your way of thinking.    (011)

Languages that can be compiled directly to machine language, such as
FORTRAN, COBOL, and C, lead to similar ways of thinking.  Compare
them to a logic programming language such as Prolog or, as Steven,
recommended a parallel language such as Occam.  Programming in those
languages requires and *teaches* a new way of thinking.    (012)

> In general, doesn't language evolve to reflect culture?    (013)

Yes, and the fastest way it evolves is by acquiring new vocabulary.
But the differences between English, Russian, and Chinese are
preserved by immigrants who move to different countries with
different cultures and different majority languages.  See the
article by Chen, who included statistics about immigrants and
their children who grew up bilingual.    (014)

And note the difference between thinking in C or in Prolog.  That
is far more fundamental than a change in vocabulary.    (015)

> Meaning *precedes* language, but they become intricately intertwined.    (016)

Sometimes.  But meaning that is encoded in the syntax and vocabulary
of one's native language is much easier to express, learn, and think.    (017)

Danny A
> two counter-arguments to Sapir-Whorf.
> one is people do work-arounds, you don't have the word, you come up
> with something close
> two is, if you see a tree, it's still a tree    (018)

The word is trivial.  The issue is the patterns of thought.  You can
tell somebody the words 'Prolog' or 'Occam', and you can show them how
to write a trivial program in either of those languages.    (019)

But until they begin to use those languages extensively and learn their
radically different patterns, they'll still be thinking and programming
in the patterns of Fortran or C.    (020)

Frege-Whitehead hypothesis:  The patterns built into a language,
natural or artificial, influence the ways of thinking and behaving.    (021)

John    (022)

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