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Title: A philosophical investigation of the relativity thesis of language
Author: Ware, Robert
ISNI:       0000 0001 3563 3682
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1967
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In this thesis, the author considers the nature of the relativity thesis of language and some of the philosophical problems that arise from it. The thesis has probably become best known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the relativity of language, after two scholars of American Indian languages who supported various forms of the hypothesis. Views similar to theirs have been expressed by a number of different authors both before and after the writings of Sapir and Whorf. The introduction is devoted to a discussion of some of the variety of the formulations of the thesis. There is mention of a few of the many authors who have been thought to be "relativists". Some attempt has been made by others to systematise the various possible theses, and a couple of these attempts are also discussed. It is suggested that the thesis can be best discussed in terms of the very general statement of it as a thesis about a relation between linguistic and non-linguistic factors. The views of particular authors can then be discussed in respect to (1) the linguistic factors, (2) the non-linguistic factors, and (3) the nature of the relation between the factors. The rest of the first part is then devoted to an interpretive and philosophical study of four authors who have supported a relativity thesis in some form or another. It begins with a discussion of the philosophy of language of Giambattista Vico, and Italian philosopher, who was one of the first to suggest a relativity thesis of language. His main interest was in the origin and development of speech and language. He postulated three eras, those of the gods, of the heroes, and of men, to which correspond three different languages. The languages are said to develop parallel to the institutions of the eras. The nature of the language is discussed. The chapter ends with a discussion of Vico's notion of an incomplete language and the need for words. The third chapter is a detailed study of the views of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who has probably been the most prominent in the promotion of the relativity thesis. It is pointed out that there is a great variation of the theses he presents and some of them are quire wild. Linguistic factors, non-linguistic factors, and relations are discussed in turn, giving those aspects of the thesis considered most important by Whorf. It is pointed out that Whorf thought there could be no simple correlations, but there is also discussion of his view about a language embodying and foreing on its speakers a science and metaphysics. In the fourth chapter an investigation of the views of Edward Sapir is taken up. Sapir, who was an influential American linguist, formulated his views before Whorf, but without the vigour and interest that Whorf had had in the thesis. It is pointed out that there was a radical change in Sapir's views that has gone unexplained. In this chapter, an attempt is made to give at least a partial explanation for this change. Sapir distinguished between the form and the content of the language, and in his earlier writings he maintained that all languages were equal in content (what could be said in them) but different in form. At that time Sapir considered the difference of form irrelevant, and he rejected the relativity thesis without qualification. It is then pointed out that he later accepted a relativity thesis because of a change in his distinction between form and content. The distinction is questioned and is discussed later in chapter 11. The fifth chapter is a discussion of some of the views and experiments of a contemporary psychologist, Erie Lenneberg. Lenneberg argues that previous formulations of the thesis have been useless because of a lack of precision and the impossibility of experimental confirmation. The various causes of failure and its remedies, according to Lenneberg, are discussed. Lenneberg's criteria for the formulation of a relativity thesis and some possible theses are considered. Finally, there is a discussion of some of the experiments to test a relativity thesis. The experiments have been mainly considered with the relation between colour terminology and the memory of colour samples. The chapter ends with an indication of how little has actually been shown about relativity between linguistic and non-linguistic factors. Part II is concerned with some of the philosophical problems that arise from the thesis and are connected with it. The distinction between language and speech is considered both historically and linguistically in chapter six. It is argued that sentences are not parts of a language and that consequently beliefs and confusions cannot be contained in a language. The identity of a language is then discussed partly in connection with the number of words that can be added to a language without changing its identity. The relation between language and speech is shown to be close, but confusions about the nature of speech are revealed. A resulting indeterminacy of the word 'speech' is discussed, and a distinction between utterances and sentences is shown. Chapter seven is devoted to some problems connected with non-linguistic factors and thoughts in particular. It is pointed out that there is a sense of the word 'thought' according to which there are "propositional" thoughts, which appear to be independent from language in a way specified. It is then considered whether one might have a thought which one discovered to be inexpressable in one's language. There are various attempts to make sense of this question, discussing how the having of a thought is related to the specification of the thought. It is then argued that any thought must have a complete specification and that if everything else fails this can always be achieved by using a predicate language. [Continued in text]
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis