Different language / different epistemology? A reconsideration of the relevance of Whorf-Sapir and discursive relativity in discussions of epistemology and culture today


How are language and thinking related? The “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis that language determines thinking, has been widely debated but more recently has attracted far less interest and some critics reject it outright, as refuted. Has it been refuted and is there no longer any reason to discuss Sapir and Whorf’s ideas? I will argue that it has not and that, in any case, the “hypothesis” does not express Whorf’s published ideas (nor, probably, Sapir’s). This leads to an even more interesting question: what did Sapir and Whorf really write about the relationship between language and thinking? Because Sapirand Whorf differ significantly and should be treated separately, in this paper, I will focus on Whorf, whose writings I am most familiar with. After briefly describing Edward Sapirand Benjamin Lee Whorf, after whom the hypothesis is named, I will then describe the hypothesis and explain how it is precluded by Whorf’s own writings.

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Mark Brasher
Catholic University of Louvain (PhD)


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