We Were Never Postmodern

The New York Times Magazine has an article up reflecting on the ways in which one’s mother tongue shapes one’s thoughts about the world. It doesn’t begin well:

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think. …For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike.

The claim is that (a) Whorf let lose this linguistic theory and (b) that Whorf’s research methods were questionable, which led people not to do any work on the relation between a given language and what one thinks for some 50 years. Entire eras in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, etc., washed away in this article like a figure in the sand…

This is Malcolm Gladwell-ism run amok: find a cute nugget of a heroic, unlikely researcher and build a story around it. Needless to say, I can’t  even begin to list the relevant figures, theoretical areas, etc., that have somehow managed to get along with most people never having read Whorf. But good news, we can study it now.


  1. This is also a perfect example of the New Historicist’s “microhistorical anecdote,” which Alan Liu unpacks and critiques nicely in _Local Transcendence. That critique is especially interesting given the Liu considers himself to be part of the New Historicist camp.

    It’s interesting to watch this method leak out of the academy and take hold in the popular imaginary (or did it work the other way?) The microhistorical anecdote makes for a “cool” story. It’s fun to read, even if it’s wildly reductive. And yes, it is “Gladwell-ism run amok.”

  2. this does seem to be a bit of a thing in popular science writing recently. This article springs to mind: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html?mod=WSJ_LifeStyle_Lifestyle_5 it’s not as bad as the NYT one, but it does make the impressive leap from Charlemagne straight to Chomsky, as if nothing but the odd insignificant stray remark had taken place in between, then suggest that Chomsky apparently wholly defines the next forty years.

    1. Thanks for the link, and you might be right of a boomlet in popular science writing on this. But don’t the authors talk to someone who would point out that this is not a new endeavor. (Perhaps it’s the oldest…)

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