My studies have recently taken me on a very interesting diversion into the world of knowledge. To be more specific: the ontological and epistemological assumptions that we use when we go about placing things in categories, so that we can do useful things such as talk about the world around us and compare stuff. When we are talking about Japanese identity we are also talking about the categories that separate ‘Japanese’ from ‘foreigner’ etc. Of course, these categories need to come from somewhere and in the case of Japan, John Clammer suggests that a lot comes from indigenous cosmologies (read Shinto and Buddhism) that have shaped the ways in which the Japanese think about basics such as inside and outside, purity and impurity etc.
But another, perhaps even more fundamental categorising element is language. I was lucky enough to get Steven Pinker’s excellent “The Stuff of Thought” for Christmas, which is a great book about how language and thought are interlinked. Although I am by no means a theoretical linguist, the idea of language determining how people see the world seems very rich: the immediate question being can learning another language allow one to think outside the confines of one’s own mother tongue? This has implications for my study: are Japanese who can speak foreign languages and foreigners who speak Japanese slowly modifying their respective world views in a way that is challenging hegemonic cultural understandings of each other?
The physics bit comes from this week’s New Scientist. In it there is an article entitled “Trapped in a World View” that reiterates and builds upon an argument made by Niels Bohr that: “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (p. 42, my italics) The article suggests that Western European languages are getting in the way when it comes to understanding the latest in theoretical physics. Why is this? Well, it seems that the concepts that ideas such as string theory deals with are not wholly compatible with the basic mechanics of our language, which is made up of nouns acting on nouns in various ways using verbs. The author suggests, however, that different languages offer a ‘better’ set of categories for understanding the weird world of quantum mechanics, notably the Algonquian family of languages that have lots of verbs but little in the way of specific noun categories. In this world view the world is a set of processes that we are part of and the world is in a continued state of flux – quite close to the physicist’s own observations of particles that showed them to be more process than thing. What is stunning about this revelation is the fundamental importance of language – to the extent that the cutting edge of physics is only now (well, 1992) making insights into the universe that some of us on this planet have had access to from day one thanks to the language they grew up with. But here is the kicker. The author suggests that by studying other languages we may be able to break down categorical walls and address the limitations that they impose upon us. “The study of other types of languages opens us up to other world views, to complementary ways of speaking about the cosmos.” (p. 43) Back in the universe of me, I wonder if the same holds true for the world views that come with national identity.