Saturday, October 16, 2010

Language and Our Construction of Reality, Whorf Revisited

Here is a nice conversataion between Lera Boroditsky a psychologist from Stanford and Joshua Knobe a philosopher from Yale.

This is a wonderful dialog looking at many of the curious bits about our mental world. For example, Knobe questions the power of language to shape our view of the world because language is such a tiny part of our mental processing. Boroditsky agrees and talks about mental imagery as a font of insight that language captures only bits and pieces of. What I find curious is that neither mentions that conscious life itself is but a tiny bit of the mental engine that our churning mind is. We do so much processing at unconscious, non-linguistic levels. But in the end, neither is willing to deny that language shapes our perceptions and actions in the world.

At 11:42 Boroditsky begins to explain her research results showing than language shapes our understanding of the world. There is a lot of fascinating material covered here. The bit about testing Russian speakers' ability to do colour discrimination (they have 2 words for blue so therefore discriminate faster than English speakers) can be disrupted by having the test done while the testee is doing a verbal interference task is very telling. Fascinating stuff. And this discussion exposes you to the subtleties of scientific testing. You can appreciate the real "work" that goes into doing science and validating a theory.

Another nice bit in this dialog is the demonstration that "philosophy" is not a completely useless intellectual pursuit. Knobe shows philosophy as an intellectual pursuit that probes at the edges of science asking questions that scientists can find useful.

Previous posts on Lera Boroditsky can be found here and here.

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