Re: Substance and Form

Mon, 8 Jun 1998 13:30:44 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Mon, 8 Jun 1998 13:30:44 -0400 (EDT)

On Mon, 08 Jun 1998 12:03:17 +0200 Josip Pajk <>=20

> Can we change the fact
> that a particular electromagnetic radiation is always perceived by our ey=
> as "red" or that the word "red" in a particular language or culture
> produces basically the same sensation in any particular entity evolved in
> this culture?

Quite a few people have tried to make a case that we _do_ see colours=20
differently, according to the way language has somehow 'programmed'=20
our central nervous system. This idea goes back to Benjamin Lee=20
Whorf and was further developed by Sapir and Vygotsky. =20

Sapir says: (1929, quoted by Serpell 1976, p.58)

=91..we see and here and otherwise experience very largely as we do=20
because the language habits of our community predispose certain=20
choices of interpretation.=92

This is at first sight a rather counter-intuitive view, but there=20
are lots of niggling little pieces of evidence that tend to point=20
towards it (rev. in a wonderfully dry and dispassionate manner by=20
Serpell 1976).

Vygotsky expressed the same sort of opinion: =91Words play a central=20
role in the growth of consciousness as a whole (Vygotsky 1962,=20
cited in Innis 1985, p.vii.)=92

However, the consensus of opinion nowadays is that this is wrong=20
and that we have no basis for imagining that people who have=20
radically different languages also have radically different=20
perceptual worlds. The crucial evidence against what became known=20
as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity is from=20
Berlin and Kay (1969) (see Durham 1991, pp.213-222). Pinker=20
(1994) gives a good overview of the whole controversy, but he is=20
unfortunately much more partisan (although admittedly more=20
entertaining) than Serpell (1976).

I also agree with your comments on Popper. I wasn't intending to=20
advance a Popperian framework, merely to point out that Popper's=20
thought was important to ideational anthropology, but that=20
somewhere between Geertz and Dawkins (I think that the crucial=20
juncture was either Cloak or Dawkins' interpretation of Cloak),=20
Worlds 2 and 3 became amalgamated and much confusion ensued,=20
which we still haven't disentangled ourselves from.

> So, to return on some more "real" issues: I think we in memetics (as it i=
> true for any other science) will not go anyway if we try only to "count h=
> many memes are in someone's head".=20

Absolutely. But how do we get the rest of the memetics community=20
to agree with us? The 'Thought Contagion' metaphor has a powerful=20
grip on memetic discourse.=20


Berlin B and Kay P (1969) Basic color terms: their universiality=20
and evolution. University of California Press.=20
Durham WH (1991) Coevolution: Genes, culture and human diversity. =20
Stanford University Press.=20
Innis RE (1985) (ed.) Semiotics: an Introductory Anthology. =20
Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Pinker S (1994) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind=
Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London
Serpell R (1976) Culture=92s Influence on Behaviour. Methuen, London.

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