Human ecology

Observations on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Does the SWH have anything useful to say to science?

"Two nations separated by a common language" (attr. George Bernard Shaw)

(Use of SWH in criticism of science.)

“Common-sense and culturally dominant views may emphasize the biological aspects of motherhood - it is ‘taken for granted’ as natural and therefore fixed as an identity.” (Woodward, 1997c, p.246)

(Counters to this criticism)

"The realisation that most scientific observations are context-dependent has led some philosophers to argue that science is a social construct which has nothing to do with reality and is solely a matter of human convention. This argument stems from the entirely sensible modern perception that scientific 'truth' is not absolute, but depends upon having some agreed common conceptual framework. However, the belief that science is solely a construct, which by implication could be whatever scientists decided to agree on, is really very silly - however elegantly phrased - because it ignores a very important aspect of these conceptual frameworks. They are not arbitary: they are the outcome of a previous scientific process. For example, scientists cannot make objects float skywards merely by agreeing amongst themselves that the force of gravity acts up rather than down." Stewart & Cohen (1997, p.36)

Question: Does the SWH have anything useful to say to science?
Consider the following two statements.

Statement A - The SWH denies access to any objective world.
Statement B - Science is objective.

At first sight we might assume that the SWH is incompatable with science. If science is right, the SWH cannot be true. Or, on the other hand, if the SWH is true then science cannot be true. This, however, assumes that cultural studies and science are using the same meaning of the word 'objective'. Let us return to our initial definition of the SWH.

"different languages determine or shape the ways in which their users think about their world."

Hypothesis Can science and cultural studies considered to be separate languages? If so, statements A & B might both be true. Statement A could be true in the language of cultural studies and statement B could be true in the language of science. The SWH may still not be useful to science, we must first translate it into the language of science.

Translation An important concept in translation is that of 'faux-aimes' (sp.). 'Faux-aimes', or false friends, are words that are spelt the same in two languages but mean different things in each language. For example, in...

I would suggest that, in the present discussion, objective, subjective, relativism, and construct may all be 'faux-aimes'. I will discuss these words in association with the following classifications:

Objectivity and Subjectivity


Subjective The distinction between objective and subjective is fraught with dangers. A simple categorisation would say that science considers itself objective whereas cultural studies denies that access to any objective world is possible. These two disciplines appear to take these positions as starting definitons. Considering the arguments that might arise from this disagreement, it is perhaps best here to avoid the objective-subjective distinction.

(Note: It is worth noting that the 'strange loops' used by Stewart and Cohen are based on Hofstadter definitions. In Hofstadter's 'strange loops' and 'tangled hierarchies', object and subject are inextricably mixed.)

An analogy

"On this view, then, the historical raison d'etre of political power is to be found in the economy." (Foucault, 1980, p.89)

"What means are available to us today if we seek to conduct a non-economic analysis of power?" (Foucault, 1980, p.89)

"So, no sooner do we attempt to librate ourselves from economistic analyses of power, than two solid hypotheses offer themselves: the one argues that the mechanisms of power are those of repression. For convenience sake, I shall term this Reich's hypothesis. The other argues that the basis of the relationship of power lies in the hostile engagement of forces. Again for convenience, I shall call this Nietzche's hypothesis" Foucault (1980, p.81)

How then can we assess the SWH without looking at the objective-subjective distinction? Following Foucault's methodology, I would suggest that the alternative classifications offered below allow finer distinctions to be made. Further more, they may allow us to put the objective-subjective distinction into context.

Absolutism and Relativism

Absolutism: In Ernest’s criticism of absolutism, he defines this view as being one in which "mathematical truth is absolutely valid and thus infallible, and that mathematics (with logic) is the one and perhaps the only realm of incorrigible, indubitable, and objective knowledge" (1998, p.9)

A&R - Beliefs about the nature of mathematics

"Absolutism: Mathematics is right or wrong, certain, exact and is made up of facts, skills and fixed methods which are either correctly known or not.

Relativism: The variety of mathematical sturctures, form and contexts allow different sorts of analyses, comparisons, evaluations and approaches. This perspective incorporates a process view of mathematics and admits multiple problem-solving approaches." (p.49)

Relativism: "[C]ultural relativism implies that we must accept even violence, and such patriarchal and exploitative institutions and customs as dowry, female genital mutilation, India’s caste system and so on, because they are the cultural expressions and creations of particular people. For cultural relativists, traditions... are always considered as particular and beyond criticism." (Mies & Shiva, 1993, p.11)

These two definitions of relativism are incompatable. I shall term Shiva's definition "Dissolutism". (Note - I was looking for an opposite of absolute with slightly negative undertones - Dissolute seemed ideal!)

Reflectivity, Constructivity, and Intentionalism

These approaches are based on three different classifications of representation. The following version of these classifications is taken from Hall (1997b, pp.24-26)

These classifications are used in cultural studies to distinguish between, on the one hand, an absolutist position that language merely reflects nature and, on the other hand, an intentionalist view that language can mean whatever we what it to mean. The constructivist view is used to define what is meant by ‘relativism’ (O’Riodon, et al., 1994, p.169), and what is meant by subjectivity (Woodward, 1997b).

Agreement and Action

Broadly speaking three moderate positions can be proposed.

(Relate these to Ernest, 2000, Chapter 6.)

Language as symbolic code

Action as language

Enactive and Behavioural modes of representation?

Communicative action theoretically requires an "ideal speech situation". The assumptions of this are that:

1. everyone with competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in discourse.
2. everyone allowed to question any assertation whatever, introduce any assertation into discourse, and express attitudes, desires and needs.
3. no speaker may be prevented by either internal or external coercion from exercising his rights as laid down in 1. or 2. (McGlade 1993)

Excised Objectivity Pertaining to the object; relating to whatever is exterior to the mind.The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology defines objectivity as "avoiding bias or prejudice". A & R These classifications are sometimes used inchangably with objective and subjective. This is perhaps where

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Created 4/2/00