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A Notable Theosophist: Benjamin Lee Whorf

By John Algeo

Benjamin Lee Whorf was by profession an inspector and engineer for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, but his avocation was linguistics and the study of languages. He studied at Yale with one of this country's leading anthropological linguists, Edward Sapir. Following Sapir, Whorf became a leading exponent of a concept called variously the "linguistic relativity principle,"the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis," or most often just the "Whorf hypothesis." It is,over-simply put, that the language we speak affects the way we think. His ideas are much richer and more complex than that and have very practical implications for the evolution of humanity.

Whorf's ideas imply that, because the language we speak affects the way we think, it also affects the way we view the world around us. We habitually formulate our perceptions of the world in language, according to the particular biases and prejudices inherent in whatever language we know. Thus language limits the way we perceive reality, the way we think about it, and the way we talk about it. But it need not do so. If we are aware of those limitations, we can compensate for them and view the world freshly and newly.

The overcoming of such limitations of the mind is related to the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness." And it is also what H. P. Blavatsky's Voice of the Silence is talking about in its fifth and sixth verses: "The Mind is the great Slayer of the Real. Let the Disciple slay the Slayer." "Slaying" is, of course,a metaphor. The mind "slays" because it tricks and misleads us through its conditioning (especially, according to the Whorf hypothesis, by the language we speak). To "slay the slayer" is to trick the trickster by meditative mindfulness.

A recent study of the Whorf hypothesis observes: "Benjamin Whorf was an extraordinary person whose theories about linguistic thinking developed more than half a century ago anticipated in several respects ways of talking and thinking about language in cognition which are only now gaining currency incognitive science" (Lee xviii). Another linguistic historian has identified Whorf as "a key figure in the development of 20th century linguistics" (Lee 9,summarizing Darnell).

Whorf was also a member of the Theosophical Society and of the Fritz Kunzcircle, whose members were concerned with applying Theosophical principles to education and intellectual life. Moreover, the fullest exposition of the Whorf hypothesis was first published in the Adyar Theosophist magazine for 1942 in a multipart article entitled "Language, Mind, and Reality." That article sets forth Whorf's ideas in Theosophical terms and from a Theosophical perspective, particularly the relevance of the distinction between lower and higher manas (the Sankrit term for "mind") to language capacity, acquisition, and use.

Our "lower" mind is closely connected with our physical brains and is molded by the experiences we have in life; so it is also called the "empirical" mind and is part of our personality, thus varying with every person. Our "higher" mind, on the other hand, is what Kant called the "pure reason" and the Greeks "nous"; it is anterior to our personal, empirical mind and is essentially the same in structure for all human beings. The difference between the "lower"and "higher" minds is roughly parallel to the Jungian distinction between our personal conscious and the collective unconscious.

We human beings all have the same capacity for perceiving the world around us because we all have higher minds that are structured in the same way.The evolutionary development of that mind is what makes us human and also makes language possible. Our capacity for language is a faculty of our higher minds,but the particular language systems we learn and use are related to our lower minds. The differences among the various language systems of human beings all over the world and the effect of those differences on our thinking processes are what interested Whorf.

The publication of the major statement of his ideas in the Theosophist was a result of "Whorf's long standing association with The Theosophical Society, a nonsectarian international society . . . which . . . promotes a world view in which the universe and everything in it is regarded as an interrelated and interdependent whole" (Lee 21). Whorf himself (282) said that he chose a Theosophical publication because "of all groups of people with whom I have come in contact, Theosophical people seem the most capable of becoming excited about ideas--new ideas."


References

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Voice of the Silence. 1889. Reprint Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992.

Darnell, Regna. Edward Sapir: Linguist, Anthropologist, Humanist. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990

Lee, Penny. The Whorf Theory Complex. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1996.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "Language, Mind and Reality." Theosophist  63, parts 1 and 2 (1942): 281 -91, 25 -37. Reprint in Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1956, 1974, 1997).



John Algeo is Professor Emeritus in English linguistics from the University ofGeorgia and editor of volume 6 of the Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, published by Cambridge University Press.


[The following are extracts from Whorf's "Language, Mind and Reality."]

We must find out more about language! Already we know enough about it to know that it is not what the great majority of men, lay or scientific, think it is. The fact that we talk almost effortlessly, unaware of the exceedingly complex mechanism we are using, creates an illusion. We think we know how it is done, that there is no mystery; we have all the answers. Alas, what wrong answers!

The forms of a person's thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. The patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family. His thinking itself is in a language in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese. And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others,

in which is culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.

It is as if the personal mind, which selects words but is largely oblivious to pattern, were in the grip of a higher, far more intellectual mind which has very little notion of houses and beds and soup-kettles, but can systematize and mathematize on a scale and scope that no mathematician of the schools ever remotely approached.

And now appears a great fact of human brotherhood--that human beings are all alike in this respect. So far as we can judge from the systematics of language, the higher mind or "unconscious" of a Papuan head-hunter can mathematize quite as well as that of Einstein; and conversely, scientist and yokel, scholar and tribesman, all use their personal consciousness in the same dim-witted sort of way, and get into similar kinds of logical impasse.

The higher mind would seem to be able to do any kind of purely intellectual feat, but not to "be conscious" on the personal level. That is, it does not focus on practical affairs and on the personal ego in its personal, immediate environment. Certain dreams and exceptional mental states may lead us to suppose it to be conscious on its own plane, and occasionally its consciousness may "come through" to the personality; but barring techniques like Yoga, it ordinarily makes no nexus with the personal consciousness.

We are compelled in many cases to read into nature fictitious acting-entities simply because our sentence patterns require our verbs, when not imperative, to have substantives before them. We are obliged to say "it flashed"or "a light flashed," setting up an actor it, or a light, to perform what we call an action, flash. But the flashing and the light are the same; there is nothing which does something, and no doing. Hopi says only rehpi. Hopi can have verbs without subjects, and this gives to that language power as a logical system for understanding certain aspects of the cosmos. . . . A change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos.

The lower personal mind, caught in a vaster world inscrutable to its methods, uses its strange gift of language to weave the web of Mãyã or illusion,to make a provisional analysis of reality and then regard it as final.

The scientific understanding of very diverse languages--not necessarily to speak them, but to analyze their structure--is a lesson in brotherhood which is brotherhood in the universal human principle--the brotherhood of the "Sons of Manas." It causes us to transcend the boundaries of local cultures, nationalities, physical peculiarities dubbed "race," and to find that in their linguistic systems, though these systems differ widely, yet in the order, harmony and beauty of the systems, and in their respective subtleties and penetrating analysis of reality, all men are equal.