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> Do Words Control Thought?
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Do Words Control Thought?

What I want to do here is compare the principle that words are ideas to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. which, according to Hofstadter in Lisp: Recursion and Generality, is the following.

Language controls thought.

I originally suspected the two were the same, but now I have a convincing argument that they aren't. If language is the same as words, and words are ideas, then the hypothesis translates to “ideas control thought”, which is not a vacuous statement. In fact, I don't even think it's a true statement. The way I'd describe the relation between ideas and thought is to say that thought is the manipulation of ideas.

On the other hand, the hypothesis does have an important grain of truth in it. Although ideas don't control thought, having the appropriate set of ideas at hand does facilitate thought. For me, the internal sensation is much as if I had to write down my thoughts as a series of sentences—having the appropriate set of words makes the sentences shorter and the writing quicker.

By the way, I've never looked up anything by Sapir or Whorf; just about everything I know about their hypothesis comes from Hofstadter. As a result, it's possible I am completely missing the original point.

Speaking of language and thought, Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash is apropos. I would have a hard time drawing the line between fact and fiction, at least as regards language, but there is clearly a basis of fact, and whatever parts are fictional are still thought-provoking. Here's one nice quotation I found.

“What makes one Sumerian city better than another one? A bigger ziggurat? A better football team?”

“Better me.”

“What are me?”

“Rules or principles that control the operation of society, like a code of laws, but on a more fundamental level.”

The impression I got from this and other passages was that me are much like memes … a nice coincidence of names, and one that provides another justification for the choice of the name “meme”.


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@ March (2000)