Saturday, March 12, 2011

the fusion of Sapir-Whorf/synesthesia

As you can see by the labels below, I am interested in the Sapir_Whorfy Hypothesis.
As you can see by the labels below, I am interested in synesthesia.
Since I am curious about the fusion of the two, I googled the two phrases, and found
(on a website CALLED 'Fusion'), some helpful leads:

How Visionary Experience Supports Steven Pinker's Theory of Mentalese:

It is a common misbelief that words determine thoughts. This misinformation argues thought as a consequence of language, and is founded on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Without language – this theory contends – thought cannot occur, consciousness cannot be ascribed, and a living entity is resigned to the animalistic realm of unawareness. Linguistic determinism implies that “the foundational categories of reality are not 'in' the world but are imposed by one's culture,” one's language, which leads to the subordinate conclusion of linguistic relativity: “differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers” (Pinker 46). But this theory overlooks one of the most astute questions regarding the relationship between thought and language: if thought does not exist independently of vocabulary, where does that leave the creation of new words?

If words actualize thought, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues, then how, as an example, did Richard Dawkins coin the term “meme” (Meme)? How is the linguistic virtuosity of Black American street youths – the implementation of words like “bling-bling” – or the creolized languages birthed from necessity in areas encompassing multitudinous cultures explained (Pinker 16, 21)? If one needs language in order to think, and one needs to think in order to create new language, we are left with a “chicken or the egg” dilemma of causality. The most appropriate way to address this dilemma is through an exploration of Steven Pinker's theory of mentalese, a theory that counters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism by reversing the equation; mentalese supports the idea that language does not create thought, but thought creates language.

Pinker defines mentalese as the “representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meaning of words and sentences, are couched” (509). It is the realm of consciousness all human beings experience, wherein analysis of our environment, emotions, and relation to other people occurs independently of language. It is difficult to superficially imagine thought occurring without language, as pondering this idea no doubt results in one's inner voice tossing around analytical sentences; it is a challenge to avoid discounting mentalese when one's inner voice thinks via the premise supported by linguistic determinism. But this occurrence does not immediately disprove mentalese's presence. In order to further explore the probability of mentalese, it is necessary to review empirical data that clearly demonstrates situations wherein thought is not reliant on linguistic structure.

In Pinker's discussion of Ildefonso – a languageless, deaf adult – we observe the possibility of abstract thinking void of familiarity with words. “Ildefonso's animated eyes conveyed an unmistakable intelligence and curiosity,” Pinker explains, and Ildefonso demonstrated that “he had a full grasp of number: he learned to do addition on paper in three minutes and had little trouble understanding the base-ten logic behind two-digit numbers” when prompted (58). Even though Ildefonso was languageless – never acquiring English because of his deafness, and never being taught sign language – it would be preposterous to deem him as one who is unable to think, one who is – as Wittgenstein would argue – unconscious (Pinker 46). What, then, is the source of Ildefonso's intelligence? The most probable answer to this question is mentalese.

We are able to reference similar exemplifications of mentalese through a brief recounting of entirely-visual discoveries and artistic inspiration: Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” based wholly on a (potentially opium-induced) vision; contemporary artist James Surls plans his sculpting projects visually in his mind before pursuing their construction; DNA's double-helix shape was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick strictly through visualization (Pinker 61). Mentalese exists, it seems, as a visual realm of cognition separate from language. It is a mental realm of visual metaphor, an iconographic system of consciousness that we transcribe – and not always successfully – into language in order to express thought. It is a difficult-to-define entity specifically because of its independence from language. In order to delve further into the evidence for mentalese's existence, we can turn to the highly-visual experiences of sound-color synesthesia and psychedelic trips.

Synesthesia is defined as “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” (Synesthesia). Sound-color synesthesia produces the experience of “seeing” spoken words, music, a cat's meow, et cetera, as colors and shades which appear in the mind's eye, float and swirl around, and fade with the catalyzing sound's termination. In this experience, the colors occurring subsequent to particular sounds are experienced in a solely visual manner. If a particular piece of music, for example, evokes a floating blue realm for a synesthete, this thought-realm is experienced visually with very little to no reliance on language.

This non-reliance on language is evident in the fact that it is often very difficult for a synesthete to describe their visual experience to a non-synesthete (Synesthesia). Language, “the quintessential example of [man's] capacity to use symbols,” is often too inadequate to express the synesthetic episode (Pinker 4). The episode exists as a purely-visual experience within the synesthete's mind. This existence demonstrates consciousness, and deconstructs the Sapir-Whorf argument that consciousness relies on language.

The psychedelic visual experience can also be utilized in the deconstruction of linguistic determinism. As Aldous Huxley expresses in his essay Heaven and Hell, “at the antipodes of the mind, we are more or less completely free of language, outside the system of conceptual thought” (92). The antipodes about which he speaks are the realms of consciousness experienced by people under the influence of psychedelic chemicals, a realm wherein language breaks down and is discarded almost all together. He justifies this argument in his related essay The Doors of Perception, reasoning that while:

we must learn how to handle words the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction (74).

Here, Huxley regards language in the same manner as Pinker: a conceptual, symbolic system that necessitates transcription from a fundamental, languageless world of thought and experience (Pinker 73). Language is emblematic, a system that reduces the integrity of pure thought and functions primarily in a representative manner. Huxley's direct world is not unlike Pinker's mentalese: both are states of consciousness that exist independently from vocabulary; both are realms of awareness from which concepts are pulled and crudely translated into metaphor for the purpose of communication. The psychedelic experience may very well be the catalyzed incarnation of Pinker's mentalese, and synesthesia the spontaneous incarnation.

What support, then, is left for Sapir-Whorf? If thought exists independently from language – a hypothesis which art, synesthesia, and the psychedelic experience all firmly support – then the premise of linguistic determinism is moot: language does not create thought; language is a product of mentalese. A new word is created not because language was used to think, and that thinking used to create language, but because mentalese provides a medium of creativity and awareness from which language is birthed. Thus, support of Pinker's counterargument to linguistic determinism can be concluded: language may require thought, but - after consideration of the above support for unadulterated visual experience - thought does not require language.


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