Monday, February 14, 2011

what a Mennonite pastor, the "Queen of Cognation" and a "new pagan" can teach us about "Language shapes everyone's thought"..including Jesus'?

Thanks to studying at FPU under  Pastor James Wenger, who specializes in the linguistics/anthropology nexus, I have ever since been a fan of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (language shapes thought, over against Chomsky et al).
St. Don Berg and I loved the class, I dunno about anyone else..

For decades ignored, discredited and bebunked, the Hypothesis is once  again popular, thanks to strong empirical evidence collected by Lera Boriditsky  (here' a great new article of hers from Scientific American) and the delightfully named thinktank "Cognation"  (note, that term alone is a microcosm of "language shaping thought.").  Bonus: click here to hear the Cognation National Anthem...

But as this article from  "Who Jesus Was" reminds us, not many have taken up the historical, and historical/theological implications of S-W.  If language inevitably shapes thought, no matter what ones culture..

Then what about Jesus, who was for a few years, part and parcel of a human culture, and spoke a language (or two) that shaped his thought.  Knowing  and trusting his divinity, we can be secure in asking what some would suggest are risky, heretical, or unnecessary questiosn about his humanity.
It also means we can read the article "even though"  the author  "is the hierophant of The Church of the New Paganism."      (:

In the article below, the bold emphasis is mine, as I will take up the challenge....and make it a bold emphasis in my thinking and research (which of course, will flow through my primary language):

We Are What We Speak:
 In 1956 the linguistic anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the intriguing question: How does language determine the way we experience the world? A leading researcher of Hopi culture, Whorf observed:

I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. [italics mine] In particular, he has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or, in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future.

Whorf’s insight has been experimentally confirmed by a new generation of cognitive psychologists, whose most articulate exponent is Stanford’s Lera Boriditsky, leader of an international research group rather cleverly called “Cognation.”:

We've looked at the influence of language on the patterns of early vocabulary acquisition in English and Navajo, on thinking about time in English, Greek, Spanish and Mandarin, on color memory and color perception in English and Russian, on people's thoughts about the gender of toasters (and other inanimate objects) in Spanish and German, and on people's representations of actions and events in Indonesian, Mandarin, Turkish, and Russian.

Sharon Begley writes, “In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, [Boroditsky] is amassing evidence that, yes, language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that ‘the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,” not only when they are thinking in order to speak, ‘but in all manner of cognitive tasks,” including basic sensory perception...

Although to my knowledge no one has yet pointed out the implications of “Cognation’s” findings for historical research, they are stunningly obvious and strongly supportive of the implications of the behavioral ecology thesis that man has no nature but history.

Language, whether written, spoken, or both, is the chief constituent of human culture. The Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, were not the same languages in 1st century Palestine or 4th century Rome with the same subtle connotations and layers of meaning as modern scholars understand Hebrew and Greek. And we have an even poorer understanding of 1st century spoken Aramaic. To reconstruct Aramaic words that appear in the New Testament, scholars must rely on 4th century texts that employ a written form of Syrian Aramaic....

Amidst the semi-scientific claptrap, ahistoricism, and anachronism of that species of the higher nonsense known as the social sciences, the sociology of knowledge represents an enclave of humanist scholarship, especially as exemplified by Peter L. Berger, the author, along with Thomas Luckmann of the classic The Social Construction of Reality, which has lost neither relevance nor freshness since its first publication in 1966...

For unknown reasons this model, ideal for historical research, has rarely been employed by historians. Among contemporary New Testament scholars, only Gerd Theissen uses the methodology of the “social construction of reality” in his research. As a result, his insights into Jesus’ miracles, healings, exorcisms, the nature of illness in 1st century Palestine, and many other New Testament subjects, are often insightful.  -Dan Wick, link

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Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!