Benjamin Lee Whorf: Knowledge and native language*

Quotation

“Science cannot yet understand the transcendental logic of such a state of affairs, for it has not yet freed itself from the illusory necessities of common logic which are only at bottom necessities of grammatical pattern in Western Aryan grammar; necessities for substances which are only necessities for substantives in certain sentence positions, necessities for forces, attractions, etc. which are only necessities for verbs in certain other positions, and so on. Science, if it survives the impending darkness, will next take up the consideration of linguistic principles and divest itself of these illusory linguistic necessities, too long held to be the substance of Reason itself.”

Language, Mind and Reality (1942)

 

Short biography

Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1918 as a chemical engineer. Shortly after graduation, he began his successful career as a fire prevention engineer (inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Afterward he became interested in Native American, Mayan and Aztec languages. In the late 1920s, Whorf communicated his ideas to the intellectual community. As a result, he won a grant from the Social Science Research Council for a trip to Mexico in 1930 and made significant contributions to research on the Aztec language. In 1931, the well known linguist Edward Sapir took a job teaching at Yale University, and Whorf enrolled there as a part-time, non-degree graduate student. Sapir recommended Whorf to study the Hopi language. Whorf published three papers in MIT’s Technology Review in 1940 and 1941, and died of cancer at the age of 44 on July 26, 1941, at his home in Wethersfield, Connecticut.

 

* Carroll, J. (ed.) Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956.

 

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