Language and Culture’s Creation of Reality
The world stares solidly at us, seemingly assured of itself, its structure and its meaning. What do we come upon as we stare back out onto it? Do the ordinary constituents of worldly experience have in themselves characters to be discovered, classified and cataloged, or are things not so straight as they seem? What shapes do these catalogs of knowledge take on when people of largely different cultures or languages construct them? Would these shapes vary enough to alter their perceivers’ experience to a point that they would be experiencing worlds different from those with other classificatory guidebooks? In this paper I will argue that people’s culture, their language, and their unique individual minds form frameworks that come to act as their real worlds. These worlds are loosely coupled to the machinations of experienced reality, but also to cultural and interpersonal influences of more fleeting and dynamic character.
Language undoubtedly affects thought, but can it in itself craft a world? Though the degree may differ across tiers of thought’s complexity, language is undoubtedly present in our heads as we consider, coalesce and weave ideas. Language is mapped onto the world in particular ways that vary from language to language and through time. These differences can appear superficial, and can indeed be glossed over in translation between disparate language systems, but we will find that there are fundamental dissimilarities that exist beneath pragmatic translations that constitute speakers’ perception of the unfolding of the world around them. Though founded in the centuries preceding him, we will begin by examining Benjamin Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity, the idea that language dramatically dictates the speaker’s methods of categorizing and interpreting the world, and that sharply different linguistic systems mold similarly differentiated minds. Developing upon the Whorfian view, we will consider John Cook’s crystallization of Whorf’s principle. Cook argues that it is a culture’s underlying metaphysical system, not their language, which crafts their differing categorical systems. Donald Davidson stands apart from these thinkers in his belief that this linguistic, or even metaphysical relativity is of no consequence to these perfectly functioning speakers and thinkers. He argues that there is little trouble finding a calibrated conceptual scheme into which any linguistic or metaphysical patterning can be fit into with a little effort. He maintains that any idea in any language can be translated across language boundaries, and that apparent differences are only a matter of style. Upon hearing from these considerations of linguistic relativity, we will focus upon the relevant philosophical problems, then dissect the evidence, such as it exists, and come to a conclusion regarding to what degree our languages can mold our thought and imaginations.
Benjamin Whorf’s name raises hackles throughout the world of linguistics and linguistic philosophy. His central thesis, that one’s language definitively shapes one’s thoughts about the world, is one that flies in the face of a tradition that seeks to accurately, and objectively reflect the world. His is an idea that is interpreted in a number of different ways, and assailed for a number of reasons. For our purposes, we are going to consider what we will refer to as the principle of linguistic relativity. I make this distinction to separate us from what is often referred to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or the Whorf Hypothesis. Taken as a hypothesis, and presented as Whorf did, there does appear a certain assailability in terms of its breadth and consequence. We will treat the idea instead as a principle, and work to answer some of these questions for ourselves. The Principle of Linguistic Relativity for us shall mean that the particular language a person, and her culture, uses becomes the major vehicle for her thought and, as such, its grammar becomes to be a structural element of her thinking.
This on its face may seem relatively benign. However, if we compare the grammars of significantly different languages, subtle and not-so-subtle variances arise that can have a variety of effects on a speaker. There are a number of ways grammar can vary between languages: they may have gendered nouns or not, they may have largely different categories for grouping people or things, they may have wildly different ways of speaking about time, or none at all. There are myriad examples of this, and we shall investigate a number in detail. Another idea that we shall consider is the idea that John Stuart Mill expressed, that “grammar … is the most elementary part of logic”. While Mill used this to argue that his was the epitome of language in that it ‘correctly’ reflected logic so well in its causal nature, we will be using this idea, that grammar can have unseen affects on what is taken as logical, in a comparative study across wildly varying languages.
Whorf’s chief comparison when writing about his principle was between the Native American languages, most prominently Hopi and what he called Standard Average European (SAE) languages, specifically English. This pairing was especially illuminating for him as they are markedly different. Fundamental categories of thought for the English speaker simply do not exist for the Hopi. One of the most striking and immediate differences is a wholesale absence of a concept of time in Hopi thought. Where the SAE speaker’s world is founded on a “static three-dimensional infinite space, and kinetic one-dimensional uniformly and perpetually flowing time” the Hopi instead has base metaphysical categories of manifested and manifesting which both contain ideas of temporality and dimensionality, but interweave them. The Hopi, according to Whorf, mix and overlap what we define as impenetrable categories when they use the major category of manifested to classify all that is appreciable to the senses with all that has happened through time up to what we call the present. Their category of the manifest does not distinguish between the past and the present as we do but rather flows them together. Likewise, their category the manifesting contains less the idea of future events as we take them to be, but is instead filled more with imagined possibilities, without distinguishing between that which becomes real or not. These differences play themselves out in Hopi language, where there is not to be found grammatical tools for denoting specific tenses for time, nor, and perhaps more importantly, without plain, unadorned nouns as we think of them. Things for the Hopi are not discreet entities, but rather modes of beings, actions, verbs, that are for a time, but then cease to be. This is not to say they are completely ignorant of certain things or ideas altogether, but rather that they take a different tact in organizing sense data by funneling it into their own quite distinct major grammatical categories.
Comparing such wildly different thought and linguistic systems, it’s not a stretch to follow Whorf into believing that it was not only a different language, but an entirely different world that these people were inhabiting and speaking about. Whorf runs with this notion, and predicts that there are as many realities from which humans build their conceptual categories as there are significantly different language groups. These realities cannot be incidental for their speakers, and instead of being different ways of describing phenomena, are nearly entire different ways of believing in the world.
He believed that a system such as English, which is fundamentally constituted of nouns and verbs, proceeded to produce in its speakers a world of materialist relations: discrete objects (nouns) acting (verbing) upon one another. This seems plain enough to the English speaker, but he found that there were cultures for which this physical/casual paradigm made little intuitive sense and required deep metaphor to explain. The Hopi system is rich with animistic philosophy, which abounds in their speaking. To describe to them the inert materialism we ascribe to a boulder would take a Herculean effort to remove their intermixture of manifesting and manifested existence as it pertains to that particular stone. The Hopi would find a far more interconnected existing around that mass, as it daily cools this part of the trail, and rests against and deforms that pinion tree, sitting guard over the nest of chipmunks that have lived under it since it came to be known. The Hopi view is less tolerant to the objectification of this stone as an independent being. To treat this player in terms of its dimensions and mass, and not in terms of its interrelations as an actor amongst actors would seem as much hokum as this living description might seem to the English speaker.
Whorf makes for excellent reading as his thoughts rush fluid and unbound, excited by this new world he’d uncovered. His writing and legacy suffered in a similar scale for his imprecision and several hasty conclusions. As such, for the half-century after his writings fell to the more deterministic tenor of Chomskyan linguistics, which bear the assuring feature of being strictly formal and mathematically describable, Whorf fell deeply out of favor. Cross-cultural linguistic oddness such as he described was neatly shelved as being a symptom of a lesser mind as progress marched onward.
The mantle was not laid down entirely however, and was taken up by a number of other thinkers. John W. Cook in the late seventies, in a couplet of papers sought to clarify some of Whorf’s meaning, and to answer his critics. Cook’s central thesis regarding Whorf’s principle is that a culture’s language and its metaphysics are two sides of the same coin. One formally articulated (metaphysics) and the other is an application of the first, effortlessly coded in the grammar of language. He does some very useful work in hardening the principle of linguistic relativity against the lazy ways that Whorf left it soft.
He first takes on the challenge that it is ludicrous to assume that a certain grammatical system could ‘shape thought’ in such a way as to lead people to one or another conclusion. Many of Whorf’s critics took this to mean that there are certain ways that a language would leave a person believing a certain incidental sort of idea, or unable to reach another sort. Cook argues that this uncertainty comes from an imprecision in Whorf as to what he meant when he used expressions such as “constrained to”, “conditioned by”, or “no individual is free to” in speaking about these linguistic boundaries. Cook clarifies by pointing out that it is not simply thought that is shaped and bounded here, but rather forms of thought. The important difference here is not that language restricts certain concepts from entering discourse, or the mind. Indeed, one of the aspects of language is that any language is said to be formally complete. Formal completeness is the characteristic of language that, as described by linguist Edward Sapir is language’s …
… profoundly significant peculiarity which is easily overlooked. … A language is so constructed that no matter what any speaker of it may desire to communicate, no matter how original or bizarre his idea or his fancy, the language is prepared to do his work. … Formal completeness has nothing to do with the richness or the poverty of the vocabulary… Speakers of a language may extend the meanings of words which they already possess, create new words out of native resources on the analogy of existing terms, or take over from another people terms to apply to the new conceptions which they are introducing.
By virtue of this completeness, which Cook argues Whorf was fully aware of, it would not follow that Whorf meant us to think that there were conceptual boundaries on thought or speech. Instead, when speakers describe something, Cook says they will take a rough inventory of what is to be said in his or her sentence, and it is in this action that the forms of thought come to bear. This process of inventory, of reducing an experience to bare words involves a certain paring down of the experience into a form that is shaped by the tools one has at their descriptive disposal: grammar and lexicon. As the man with a hammer sees all problems as a nail, the man with a lifetime of only the English language, all events will appear easily summarized as English verbing-nouns. Cook, alongside Sapir, argues there is not an “objective” reality that speakers aim to model with their speech; instead, what they experience and choose to sort and relate is very much defined by the form of their linguistic system. Whorf would cry hallelujah at this, and remind us of how differently his Hopi friends would appraise a given situation, than would his friends at home in New Haven.
A final point that Cook stresses in this defense of Whorf is on the question of translatability, and habitual use. One can well make the point that there is little problem in translating sentences between languages, and that this makes it seem that the relativity principle is uninteresting in that any idea is easily reformed between different grammars. How important can these metaphysical differences be if the content of these sentences are not so different that we cannot understand them through translation?
Here Cook marks the difference between pragmatic and metaphysical equivalence in translation. A pragmatic translation is one that moves the essential idea of a particular sentence across languages. Saying that the day is awfully hot is not hard to codify to anyone sweating and thirsty. The way this is said can be found when one attempts a metaphysical translation. The words used in the original utterance are not flatly-defined static symbols; they bear a history and life of their own in and amongst the ocean of words they swim to us from. A metaphysical translation would attempt to carry with it the full breadth of cultural nuance along with the mundane translatable meaning.
Sapir illustrates this point well by providing a number of metaphysical translations of the English phrase “the stone falls” in his article “The Grammarian and His Language.” He points out in German and French (other SAE languages) that the stone is assigned a gender category, masculine to the French, Feminine to the Germans. In Chippewa the language makes clear that the stone is an inanimate, rather than an animate thing. Russians have no use for the definite article “the” and do not refer to the individual stone, but rather to stone in general falling. The Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia necessarily indicates with their grammar whether or not this event is seen or not, and whether it’s closest to the speaker, the listener or someone else. The Chinese equivalent is simply “stone fall”. Finally, and in some detail, Sapir provides the metaphysical translation for Nootka as being “It stones down”, where the noun in English’s case becomes the verb in theirs. To imbue the formerly simple rock with gendered qualities, animistic judgments, individuality, or their opposites, or something else altogether breeds in the speakers’ minds a world full of objects propertied in ways others might never consider. This in turn may cause differently spoken agents to act towards these worldly things in distinctive ways.
This metaphysical differentiation is never spoken in simple translation, and in glossing over this, Whorf and Cook both assert that something important is lost in not carrying with the pragmatic translation the metaphysical implications of the original way of speaking and thinking about the subject. Cook also endeavors to clarify that what Whorf is speaking about is habitual, common use of speech. He allows that philosophers or linguists in any language may consider problems such as these and in doing so, can come to appreciate the boundaries of their linguistic systems, and through comparisons with other systems can be awakened to other ways of speaking and thinking. However, it is important to consider how rare an endeavor this is in life, and to what degree people generally live in monolingual worlds without the advantage of this sort of perspective.
I began by stating generally that different language systems shape their users’ habits and modes of thought. In this second chapter I will augment linguistic relativity with the idea of frameworks within which people seat their conceptions of the world, and how they do and do not relate to an external world. I will also consider the problem of whether there can verifiably be an objective world apart from our perspectives of it, shared or personal. Being generally stranded within the conceptual schemes we use to consider the world, I will look at the manner in which these schemes can be said to create the worlds we find ourselves in. By extension, in our ability to alter and shape our conceptions we in fact gain the ability to shape the worlds we occupy by altering the frameworks we use to consider our experience.
Leaving for a moment the question of whether or not our language can accurately or reliably describe the world, we must delve into the problem of a representation of the world being our only access to it. Common sense has us believing that when I apprehend the chair beneath me I have an accurate, if incomplete picture of it. The dutiful skeptic, though, assures us that I have no experience of the chair, only an experience of my sensation of it. The accuracy, and completeness of this sensation, visual, tactile, auditory, or otherwise, is of dubious quality. Perhaps I have a color-blindness of which I’m unaware, or perhaps the chair is made to appear as though it’s made of oak but is in fact an imitation. Our sense impressions of the world are limited, and so we must do rigorous work to prove to ourselves even the most common of everyday experiences if we wish to call what we experience as facts or knowledge. We must be measured in our taking our sensorial appreciation of the world as an accurate representation. Hidden behind the screen of perception, we have only our internal impressions of the world, our frameworks, regardless of how at home we feel lying in the sun in our favorite and well-explored park, or how learned we feel at work with the latest, most refined fields of study. We, our lonely selves, can only ever have our internal representations of what is experienced. This representation shares few if any of the properties of the subject of the experience, despite our efforts to refine our knowledge. So with this great divide there are a number of stances one can take about our justification in believing in this external world or not, and to what degree we can make warranted assertions regarding it.
This debate spans two general poles of faith in existence, Realism and Anti-Realism. Realism tends to argue for what appears to be the commonsensical stance: that there is one objective reality, and our knowledge of it is imperfect but improving, and by now, rather good. We never see anything so unexpected as to jar us and leave us feeling as though the world isn’t so unpredictable as to doubt its constitution as being something beyond our capacity to understand. Our tireless efforts in science and philosophy have been illuminating reality’s mysteries for millennia, and we are ever closer to a complete picture of what is.
The opposite pole of this line of thinking is the skeptical Anti-Realist position. Anti-realists argue that by virtue of our disconnectedness from any reality as such, it is not justifiable to make any claims about its existence or nature. The explanations we offer about the world are always approximations, and the reality only loosely fits within our ideas of it. Nelson Goodman measures this imprecision in saying, “The perceptual is no more a rather distorted version of the physical facts than the physical is a highly artificial version of the perceptual facts.” The whole business of defining and classifying existence is so terribly imprecise as to be, as a measure of truth, useless. In either direction, either making claims about the world from experience, or applying our claims back onto experienced reality there is forever a measure of imprecision not entirely small. We cannot know if there is any one plane of existence, as we will never have an unmediated appreciation of it. Instead of a world, all we have is our conceptual frameworks of what we perceive to be the world, and sense experience that our mind categorizes with these frameworks.
Thus far these descriptions of anti/realism has very much been limited to questions having to do with a objectively conceived reality, populated with physical things: chairs and trees and mountains. Another dimension exists in the realism/anti-realism debate as to what we can say about our ability to conceive and speak of metaphysical questions. Metaphysics can be summarized as dealing with three primary topics: ontology, theology and universal science. Theology I will save for another essay; however ontology and universal science are critical for this examination. Ontology questions the nature of existence as such, seeking to find truth in regard to the nature of entities and their classification, or if there is one. Language commonly glosses over ontological uncertainties of identification and the essential nature of objects through the use of loosely constructed symbols. This linguistic toolkit is built on a set of first principles, essentially metaphysical assumptions, which are not shared generally, but are held nonetheless as culturally core values. Questions of value, origins and meaning are rarely proven in unimpeachable ways, but are taken on faith of one kind or another as a cornerstone upon which to build a system of communication.
In the context of language’s ability to approach these questions there are two positions anti-realists generally offer. The first is what Daniel Kaufman refers to as fig-leaf realism: the idea that there is indeed an objective world out there, yet it’s metaphysical nature is hidden from view and demands more inquiry to uncover. This has largely been the framework within which metaphysical thought has progressed in western philosophy to this point. Some proponents of Anti-realism insist on the idea of Quietism: that we simply have no capacity to have any meaningful discussion or inquiry into metaphysical questions because the framework in which we can even begin to discuss them must be grounded in a framework set atop metaphysical reality, which the anti-realist believes cannot exist. This metaphysical uncertainty hinders our ability to proceed assuredly with our systems of classification, but having to proceed with feeding and clothing ourselves, we fudge it and muddle through.
Through shared history, cultures develop pictures of the world; sometimes dramatically different as Whorf argues, which form the basis for a people’s conception of the world. Varying with different first-principle-states, these pictures can come to display very different frames. These conceptual schemes come to be machinery used by our minds to interpret and describe experience. They are by no means precisely constant across a particular culture and inevitably every individual builds for herself a scheme from her particular life in the world. There are, however, apart from individuals little worlds, frameworks that are collectively developed, refined and shared. The scientific method and its fruit, with its mathematized physics and rigorous standards of proof, stands as the forbearer of generally accepted frameworks in western culture today. We utilize these schemes to help us discover what is true, and can be knowledge. It has become the litmus test for factuality and plausibility generally in our world.
As discussed in the first chapter, grammar and its underlying frameworks bore varied interpretations of sense experience. Concerning frameworks in one particular culture, Thomas Kuhn wrote on the evolution of one particular type of framework, the scientific paradigm. Backed into intellectual corners, it was “men … either very young or very new to the field” who would try a radical tack and find a new paradigm with which to explain the formerly insurmountable quandary. This new insight would lay the foundation for an entirely new world for study. Kuhn remarked about this curious happening: “Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world… I am convinced that we must learn to make sense of statements that at least resemble these” . This contradictory sentiment strikes at the heart of the importance of these frameworks, that they can indeed alter the world of those that enter them.
A framework, or conceptual scheme for us shall mean a presumed or learned set of cognitive tools of categorization by which people fit their sense experience into understandable units. These frameworks can be so rudimentary as to often straddle the boundary into metaphysical assumptions. If our schemes hold so important a role as to instruct us in determining truth, we ought consider upon what they themselves rest. Daniel Kaufman points out the following pair of important distinctions:
Point one elucidates the metaphysical charge our conceptual schemes hold for us, we will take things to exist, or make determinations regarding their natures if and only if they conform to the active conceptual scheme to which we subscribe. Point two highlights the nature of our conceptual schemes as existing beyond the bounds of our ability to explain them, or perhaps more accurately, pin them down as being true.
Consider the case of the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism as a conceptual scheme for the orientation of the earth and the sun. This is a shift in the framework used to describe a fundamental mechanism of reality. Such a shift changed the very context in which they lived for its discoverer. Suddenly the earth was hurtling through space, and the sun sat stoic in the heavens in the minds of these new true believers. Truth changed, because the criterion for its determination changed. Perhaps the facts of the matter remained the same, this is not important. What matters is that there dawned a new perspective from which to understand this situation. All the descendants of this line of thinking lived in a world with different definitions.
This is the anti-realist’s delight. A large part of the anti-realist’s position is that the subdivision of experience into classes and kinds is always relative to who’s doing the dividing. Richard Rorty illustrates, “everything, including giraffes and molecules, is socially constructed, for no vocabulary … cuts reality at the joints. Reality has no joints. It just has descriptions – some more socially useful than others.” How we decide to classify the world around us is entirely a function of the conceptual scheme we pass it through. Some schemes may have no eyes for seeing one or another division, as theirs may have no use or word for that joint. Inuit culture’s particularized grammar for snow gives them a keener sensitivity to this phenomenon, a framework the Briton has no senses for. Are these different kinds of snow actually different classes? The reality of their being independent hinges off of the interpreter’s finding different meanings to different arrangements of frozen water. These arrangements being separate things in the northern world, and not in the lands where their water remains a little more fluid is a result of a dissonance in the frameworks within which these people live.
Unconvinced by these relativistic arguments, Kaufman argues for the common-sense acceptance of the idea that we are embodied in a particular world of material existence that exists apart from us. He begs we side with Hume when he says,
“[The skeptic] must assent to the principle concerning the existence of body, tho’ he cannot pretend by any arguments of philosophy to maintain its veracity. Nature has not left this to his choice… We may well ask, What causes induce us to believe in the existence of body? But ‘tis vain to ask Whether there be body or not? That is a point we must take for granted in all our reasonings”
Our embodiment, and the physicality of the world, Kaufman and Hume ask us to believe is a simple fact that we must accede, despite Hume’s admission of its philosophical indefensibility. Differences in the way we describe the world, myriad types of snow, or not, are merely incidental. For Kaufman, if our Briton does not have the words to echo in English the Inuit particular snow-kinds that is a matter of his lack of education, not that he lives in a world without those kinds. He believes this is a problem of lexicon, not of existence. Given some time, and the inclination, the Briton could come to learn these differentiations and make these distinctions a part of his or her vocabulary. This does not quite account for the differences, however. English has taken on a number of particular words for snow: graupel, rime, dendrites, but these differentiations have not become part of our framework for describing frozen weather generally, in spite of its nearly global existence. It takes a specialist to understand these differences whereas these particularities are part of the world of the Inuit. There is indeed a geographical component to this particular example, where the Inuit culture had a reason to assign meaning to these particularities that otherwise go unnoticed.
This shifting conceptual background presses the anti-realist to ask how we can ever believe we’ve got any kind of picture of reality, objective or otherwise. Understanding the shifting and imprecise nature of our frameworks, the anti-realists run as free as they see reality to be. Nelson Goodman, who Kaufman deems the arch-anti-realist, extends the construction of frameworks to become the literal act of Worldmaking. Staunchly from the perspective that we cannot ever apprehend a “real” world, we have only our conceptual schemes to live within, he terms these evolving schemes actual worlds within which people live. He bolsters this idea with the notion that the ‘things’ of reality are not so obviously divided and defined as we take them to be. The delineations of things are dependant entirely upon their perceivers. At what point, and why do we classify a salmon as being a separate entity from the stream. What is a stream, anyway? Is it these particular water molecules right here moving to my left with a murmur? These divisions are culturally, conceptually arbitrary, argues Goodman. They appear obvious to us, as our parents had words for them as we moved through the world and were given instruction not to fall in the cold water, or not to approach the scorpion on the trail. Lifting an eye into the formerly flat, but now-boundless heavens, Goodman insists:
“We make a star as we make a constellation, by putting its parts together and marking off its boundaries… [N]ot all making is a matter of moulding mud. The worldmaking mainly in question here is making not with hands but with minds, or rather with language or other symbol systems. Yet when I say that worlds are made, I mean it literally.”
When the word “star”, which still refers to the twinkling light in the darkness, is changed from meaning a jewel beset in the night sky, to be an immense sphere of nuclear plasma and pressures beyond experience hovering more distant than one could ever travel, this shift has a dramatic effect on the perceiver’s reality. One’s world explodes in size, scales twist, and one’s seemingly simple existence is altered, and entire conceptions must deflate to give way to these new frameworks for understanding. These new theories for the reality of stars are perhaps more accurate in reality, but they are also quite far from experience. Such power: “That we can make the stars dance, as Galileo and Bruno made the earth move and the sun stop, not by physical force but by verbal invention, is plain enough.” The facts of the matter are quite beside the point here; it is the convincingness of the new stories that set the world onto a new framework. The fit of this new theory harmonized with other stories of the day in a way that Ptolemy’s old song no longer did.
The realist demands: Isn’t this merely a problem of perspective? Sure the old fools thought the earth was the center of the universe, but we’ve corrected ourselves, and we’re moving onwards. Just because we had imperfect concepts before, aren’t we always arming ourselves with better and more perfect pictures of the universe and the truth? The antirealist answers, what truth and what world? We have no reason to believe there’s an absolute out there to judge our successes by. Truth seems to be moving with the times. Goodman even chides, “Truth, far from being a solemn and severe master, is a docile and obedient servant.” Truth’s establishment always hangs upon the framework within which it is being tested, and as Kuhn penned, following a scientific revolution, “It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well”. Entirely new horizons open, and whole new characters smile up from the heat of their microscopes, who just the day before were so inconceivable as to be invisible, and perhaps, not even there.
One of the latest critiques of this anti-realist position lies in Paul Boghossian’s book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Boghossian contrasts two definitions of fact: Objectivism about Facts, and Constructivism about facts:
Boghossian’s Fact Objectivism: “The world which we seek to understand and know about is what it is largely independently of us and our beliefs about it. Even if thinking beings had never existed, the world would still have many of the properties that it currently has.”
Boghossian’s Fact Constructivism: “The world which we seek to understand and know about is not what it is independently of us and our social context; rather, all facts are socially constructed in a way that reflects our contingent needs and interests.”
On the following pages Boghossian offers some mundane examples of what a fact-objectivist would offer as facts: “there are mountains, there were dinosaurs, that matter is made up of electrons”. He contends that it’s impossible for us to have constructed these facts, because dinosaurs and mountains are all older than humans, these “facts about [the world] obtained before we did”. There may well have been terrible lizards roaming the earth, but the question is, were they dinosaurs without there being such a definition? Were the velociraptors and the pterodactyls natural-constituents of a convenient one-word grouping in their day? Certainly not. I hardly think it’s nit-picking in this case to refer to the dictionary definition: “any chiefly terrestrial, herbivorous or carnivorous reptile of the extinct orders Saurischia and Ornithischia, from the Mesozoic Era”. Had, as Boghossian asks, humans never come along, this definition could never apply, as there would be no orders Saurishia or Ornithischia nor a Mesozoic era. These classifications of time and of biological order are entirely human-made. What is and is not a dinosaur, by definition depends wholly on human categories. What Boghossian is missing is the primacy of language in facts; something as simple as “dinosaurs having existed” absolutely depends on the word “dinosaur” having been crafted to have a meaning. To say that dinosaurs existed, without having a definition for the words in the sentence yields but a vacuum in meaning and truth-value.
I do not mean to argue that these words have the kind of magic that render unto the world the substance and history of giraffes from where there was only void. There is a Serengeti alive and dead with all manner of energy and bustle. Instead words and their attendant cognitive existences, do the work of carving from the whole of existence particular types for their interpreter. These types are not universal, and their definitions will have some of the differing metaphysical properties to which Sapir refers, depending on who is in the bush this day.
Words, definitions, like “dinosaur” or “giraffe” are not timeless monoliths. To speak so assuredly of the “fact” that dinosaurs existed, forgoes consideration of the plasticity of such a definition. A modern example of the malleability of definition comes from the former planet Pluto. Since its discovery in 1930, there was a planet, orbiting our sun, which we named Pluto. Following the discovery of an object named “2003 UB313” which was larger than Pluto and also orbited the sun in that year, a the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union voted to decide that they were going to change the very definition of what it is to be a planet such that they wouldn’t have to include this and other newly discovered astral bodies in our list of solar planets. This new definition happened to have a property associated with it that Pluto did not embody, thus, Pluto was kicked out of planethood . Nothing about Pluto changed; it was the definition of what a planet is that changed. These definitions of what might be taken as natural categories are nothing if not human made descriptions.
Without a description, and an associated framework, against which to measure the sensed world there are no yardsticks for reality with which to fashion ideas as facts. These joints that appear so obvious are only obvious because we have a history of coming up with answers when our children ask us, “What’s that?” There shall be no descriptions without our making them.
Are the discrepancies between frameworks so far discussed a matter of ignorance of those not so far along a progression of worldly knowledge? We will find that while not all possible worlds are useful, shareable or valid, there is to be found a principle of equal validity between worlds. Equal validity has been something of a revolution itself in the humanities and social sciences in the close of the 20th century. The idea that different cultures have different systems of belief, and it is an ethnocentric failure to declare that one’s particular system is necessarily the holder of truth over another’s. However, this idea has thus far failed to take a strong hold in philosopher’s circles, as this multivariate spectrum of worlds throws a rather noisy and clumsy relativistic wrench into notions of Truth.
The chief problem in finding if our words, our frameworks, indeed reflect “the fact of the matter” comes from the problem of there being no exact fact of the matter in the world. To what boundary does a fact apply, and what is the matter? Are there mountains or were there dinosaurs? We would not find these things if we hadn’t a history of definitions from which to fit these experiences into. The deceptively plain term “mountain” has a swirl of meaning behind it. Perhaps there exist great landscapes, rippled with streams, bathed in sunlight, alive with fauna, but are they mountains? How stoic and definitive is the word “mountain”? When does the mountain become the plain, can you find that particular grain of quartz that sits no longer on the mountainside, but on the foothills? In trying to do so, the immense ambiguity in the definition will have you lost in the trees. Do these ambiguities matter? The truth is that this heavy landscape is but one undulating field of mass and time until an observer comes and decides to classify and categorize, going to work with the scalpel of language. Today’s mountain is tomorrow’s sediment is the next day’s ocean sand. Are the gazelle and the lion separate systems or the same? Do they not ebb and flow together?
Linguistic philosopher Roland Barthes revealed words as vast oceans that roil in different directions for different people. The connotative qualities, realities and meanings of these windblown “facts of the matter” are not anything in themselves, but instead live as multifaceted actors in the very much spoken lives we lead. Atop our denotative beliefs about things there flowed what he called a mythology that gave vibrant character to the words we used. Throughout his book Mythologies he highlighted such mundane nouns as Toys, Wine, Milk, and Plastic as having wide, culturally dependent stories that shaped and flavored their use in language. Wine is not so simply “the fermented juice of grapes” , for the French it is a “totem-drink”, the “sap of the sun and the earth”, when red it “has blood, the dense and vital fluid” . We cannot speak so plainly of wine and not evoke a cultural and personal milieu of meaning. Likewise to think we can easily refer to dinosaurs and mountains as simple tools in the statement of facts is to ignore a cultural body of silent understanding and sung celebration of the very living existence of these simple ideas. To forgo this level of appreciation for the meaning of terms is to take this proverbial fish out of its water.
People across cultures, frameworks or worlds often do witness and believe in the same things, like corn, and guns, and dinosaurs and mountains. But the frameworks within which they fix these ideas are hugely different. Corn to a Wyoming senator is a wildly different thing than it is to a Hopi bread maker. That corn is, in one simple interpretation, a tall cereal plant carries with it none of the meaning, the reality, that it holds for these two actors. Maize is effectively a deity to the Hopi, whereas to our lawmaking friend it is merely a side dish, a garnish or a high-fructose sweet. For the former, corn will evoke the divine while for another it’s hardly ever worthy of consideration. Only by living in wholly separate conceptual frameworks can this disparity be understood.
So it is with every experience we interpret, divide and classify in a day, its relevance for us, it’s meaning, even our ability to consider it as a particular thing, or not, depends on the framework within which we function. Goodman offered the example of a man with no experience outside of an indigenous existence in the Brazilian rainforest being dropped into a typical waiting room in an American doctor’s office. What things in that room would be obvious to an American, but indivisible from the background visual-noise of everything in the room? This person would have no idea that things like a clock radio or a clipboard or a pamphlet existed. As such, in their world, these things would not at first exist, even as their eyes passed over them, the color and form would be there, but the existence of the thing, as we see it, would not. The words to describe these objects would never have been uttered to this person. The pamphlet might at first be a leaf, until someone went through the arduous process of explaining voluminous concepts like paper, printing, advertising, photography, typography, etc. only then would this person start to move into a world that could contain an idea so ludicrous as a drug pamphlet. Returning to his village it would be as if he were abducted by extraterrestrials, unable to explain without props the ideas he glimpsed.
The primary arguments against worldmaking are of the objectivist bent. There’s nearly-obviously a shared, flesh and blood world out there and our frameworks are not correct until they can accurately account for all experience. However, I do not believe correctness has any final bearing on whether or not people will live in one particular framework or another. The delusions of a psychotic may not reflect everybody’s shared experience, but I think its fair to say that this particular psychotic is indeed alive in that world, rather than his doctor’s. An astronaut orbiting the earth may have an impossible time believing that the world rides on the back of a great turtle, as he can see with his eyes, and is reinforced with his scientific history that the jewel of earth instead hovers alone in a vacuum. For someone raised on a diet of World Turtle history this is no far stretch, regardless of accuracy. This turtle creation story carries as much validity for that person, as the big bang theory holds for out astronaut.
Am I not using the word World too loosely? Isn’t the objective totality out there beyond my sense perception the world, and isn’t what I’m talking about merely the realm of opinion, or simply a worldview. We must return to the question of what it is we experience. I do not spend my time engulfed in the world; rather I spend my time in my perception of it. When I get in my car and drive to the mountains, whether that’s happening in some extra-perceptual reality or not is not a piece of information available to me. What is available to me, what I do live in is the intermixture of my sense experience upon my frameworks. The sights and sounds enter my perception and are weighed, judged and interpreted by my particular combination of assumptions, beliefs, ideas and notions, through my particular lens. What I see or don’t see out there in the field of color that enters my vision is crafted by what I’ve been trained to see. Imagine an infant learning to interpret her senses. She’s a bit like the man in the waiting room: she hasn’t the capacity to discern the “things” out there before her, as she has no framework yet within which to interpret them. Until she is informed by language and experience as to what it is she will find out and about, and which categories she should deposit her experiences into, she will be largely lost. The summation of a cultural education along with one’s personal experience becomes the world they live in.
Whatever objective existence there may be, it is not quite there in which we live. It is this middle ground, these frameworks, the structure we use to interpret experience, which a person ends up with or builds for him or herself. These prejudices, and its reality become the world they inhabit. These can be shared with some accuracy through language, to the extent that members of a group will often inhabit worlds with many of the same schemes, at many different levels of complexity and meaning. As with Whorf’s work, a people that share a language will have much of their thought and categories shaped by both the particularities of their grammar.
Donald Davidson argues that a division of frameworks, these different worlds, can easily be overcome and combined through translation. He argues that these differences are merely of appearance and that with some work there’s no reason to believe that we cannot explain any or another idea from one world into another. Davidson chided that “Whorf, wanting to demonstrate that Hopi incorporates a metaphysics so alien to ours that Hopi and English cannot, as he puts it, ‘be calibrated,’ uses English to convey the contents of sample Hopi sentences.” One cannot help but wonder what was lost in translation? If an animistic world comes across as silly and primitive, can it fairly be said that the interpreted messages truly brought the actual, fully alive content of the utterances across the wire? The nature of the world from which the original sentence originates, the framework within which it lives, is not part of a ten-word sentence, now comfortably presented in just another English sentence. Can this indeed be calibrated? Perhaps with some years of a life spent with a people sharing words and bread. Perhaps not with a simple pragmatic translation, and no curiosity as to why these damned natives talk crazy. It’s important to consider how often this kind of difficult work of actually trying to inter-translate cultures’ ideas actually happens, and perhaps even more importantly to consider how often this exchange happens in equal measure in both directions.
A silent genocide of culture is underway. Globalization is homogenizing the planet’s speakers and thinkers into a handful of languages and histories in a way that is unprecedented. The kinds of minds being put to our earthly challenges is coming form a more vertically integrated, similarly schooled stock than ever before. The paradigm at the head of this charge is one with an objectivist commitment at its foundation. The sort of relativity we’ve been discussing in this paper, the numberless interpretations one can have in finding beauty, justice or value in this shared world, is afforded less and less lip service under the march of power and progress. It’s hard to see what others see all the time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.