Wittgenstein and linguistic relativism
Written by Sil Hamilton in March 2022.

A belief particular to linguistics goes like this: our mental states are the product of our native language. Failing that, our world-view is at least partially provided for us through the patterns and constructions that constitute our native tongue. This belief is called linguistic relativism. Those within linguistics have tended to categorically dismiss the stronger version of this hypothesis (the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) for both suspicion and fear that it may lead some down the road to language supremacy, but growing evidence suggests such a weaker type of the hypothesis is possible: deep-set differences between even closely related languages results in learners using different styles of narration when construction grammatical sentence. The grammar of our language rail-roads us in a particular direction when reading or speaking. This should not be a surprise to anyone for those of us who speak multiple languages. What are the consequences of this hypothesis? Linguistic relativism was a pet topic for analytic philosophers in the twentieth century, some of whom took the concept of linguistic relativism one bar higher: linguistic determinism.

Nietzsche wrote "we have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language; for we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we can see is really a limit." Language is a prison-house, an environment which both provides and limits the extent of our thought. If we think symbolically, then we must (or should) think according to the symbols we are provided. Take GPT as an example: it has a vocabulary of 50,257 tokens. All of the complex cognitive phenomena it has demonstrated so far (producing and solving university-level mathematics questions, playing chess, evaluating and providing tips to human authors) are necessarily performed within the limits granted by this vocabulary size. Can it “think” outside of the limits of what it has been provided? Another example: many languages lack gendered articles or some forms of tense-forms. Can those unfamiliar with these languages (think to) conceive of these features and their implications? To what degree? Answering this is equivalent to explaining how languages evolve. Language-games take this one step further. If we interface with the world through a series of discrete games, then how are the rules generated? To what degree do the rules guide our moves? Ludwig Wittgenstein has quite a bit to say on the matter.

"When I think in words, I don't have 'meanings' in my mind in addition to the verbal expressions; rather, language itself is the vehicle of thought," (s329).

"One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its explanation and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing so. It is not a stupid prejudice," (s340).

"How do I know that this train of thought has led me to this action?" (s490).

"'So if someone has not learned a language, is he unable to have certain memories?' Of course – he cannot have linguistic memories, linguistic wishes or fears, and so on. And memories and suchlike in language are not mere threadbare representations of the real experiences; for is what is linguistics not an experience?" (s649).

Does Wittgenstein’s thought more closely align with linguistic relativist or linguistic determinism? He speaks for himself on this matter, unlike other tangents he takes. I am sometimes aware of language providing a road map for my thoughts to take; even writing these sentences now do I feel a tug and pull in one particular direction over another. I begin a train of thought that I must complete, and this train of thought (being in English as it were) is guided by syntax. Although this very sentence may never have occurred before in the history of English writing (likely true judging by Google), I am still being guided towards it. But I digress - in boiling language down to their constituent games, Wittgenstein opens the door to linguistics having the theoretical potential to become the dominant field of the philosophy of mind. Is he wrong in doing so? I leave it to you to decide. Just try not to pivot back to idioms and aphorisms while you are at it.