Monday, November 25, 2013

How we think: The time perspective

The future: The way ahead of us or the way up?

Language affects (but does not determine) the way we think about the world around us. We have seen this in my last blog, where I introduced an example from the interesting studies by Lera Boroditsky in this field. Other studies corroborate this view. However, the influence is not universal. So, it seems that the language we speak has no effect on the way we see colours. Does it also affect the way we see time? An investigation by Boroditsky makes clear that it is likely the case. At least, that is the result of a study with English and Mandarin speaking test persons. English has other spatial terms for referring to past and future than Mandarin Chinese. English uses horizontal terms like ahead and behind while Mandarin uses vertical terms like up and down. According to this study by Boroditsky (and now I quote from her summary) “Mandarin speakers tended to think about time vertically even when they were thinking for English (Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical array of objects than if they had just seen a horizontal array, and the reverse was true for English speakers).” However, the effect of language on thought is not determinate and can alter under the influence of external factors like having learned another language. So it is no surprise that another investigation by Boroditsky showed “that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English.” The effect works also in the other direction, for “[i]n another experiment”, so Boroditsky, “native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical spatial terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On a subsequent test, this group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers.”
But why then the difference between the case of time and the case of colour, since for colours language does not affect the way we see them? Boroditsky suggests  – and I think it’s plausible, although much research has yet to be done in this field – that the difference between time and colour is that colour experiences happen already before a newborn has learned a language while abstract concepts like “time” develop only after the language acquisition. All this brings her to the idea that once there “one’s native language plays an important role in shaping habitual thought (e.g., how one tends to think about time)”. Which should explain that colour perception is more or less universal while abstract ideas like time are is more or less language-bound, at least initially.
So far, so good, and, as said, all this is very plausible in my opinion, and it agrees with my view. But it made me think a bit about the idea of time. I should have consulted Henri Bergson and other philosophers (and psychologists) for saying something reasonable about this (and in order to avoid telling something as if it were new, while others may have said it many times before). However, we can see time quite momentaneous, as is actually done by Boroditsky in her studies: we stand here now on the road from the past to the future (or maybe a Mandarin speaker would say on the mountain between the valley and the top) with much time behind us (down to us) and much time ahead of us (up). And so life goes in a certain and significant sense, at least for an individual. But in another sense time is recurrent. The seasons and how we live through them are a case in point (and now the question occurs to me what the difference is between my experiencing the seasons, living in Northwestern Europe in a region with a clear seasonal cycle, and the experiencing by a person living in a region of the world like the tropics where this cycle is very different). Another instance of the recurrence of time is the way we produce our society and so our history as conceived by the sociologist Anthony Giddens: By what we do, so by our actions, we produce our social systems and social structure, which we later encounter as the conditions that make new actions possible and that give them an embedment. These visions of time make that it is much wider than merely a linguistic phenomenon (and I think that no one interested in the language-thought relation will deny this). But besides that, this recurrent cycle, or rather spiral, is also the way a language is produced and reproduced. Does this mean that the influence of time on the way a language produces its time categories is at least as big as the influence of language on our view of time? In general: does this mean that the influence of thinking on language may be at least as big as the influence of language on thinking?

Source: Lera Boroditsky, “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English
Speakers’ Conceptions of Time”, on

Monday, November 18, 2013

How we think, at least initially

Meuse Bridge at Harreville Les Chanteurs, France: Sturdy or elegant?

Many languages classify nouns in categories called “genders”. Spanish nouns are classified as either masculine or feminine, for example. To take a few instances, masculine in Spanish are the nouns for man (hombre), bridge (puente) and courage (coraje), while feminine are those for woman (mujer), tower (torre) and happiness (felicidad). German has three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. Some masculine German nouns are man (Mann), road (Weg) and courage (Mut), feminine are woman (Frau), bridge (Brücke) and happiness (Glück); neutral nouns are house (Haus), girl (Mädchen) and trust (Vertrauen). Don’t say that it’s obvious that “man” is masculine and “woman” is feminine for in Russian the word for man (muzhchina) has a feminine gender. And we have just seen that the German noun for girl is neutral. Some languages, like English, have only one gender (or no gender, if you like); some Australian aboriginal languages have up to sixteen genders.
Although there is no necessary relation between the gender of a noun and its meaning, it’s an intriguing question whether its gender influences the way we think about a noun. For as my examples show, the same words can have different genders in different languages: puente (bridge in Spanish) is masculine, while its German equivalent Brücke is feminine. Lera Boroditsky accepted the challenge to find an answer to this question. She took a group of Spanish speakers and a group of German speakers and asked them to describe words with opposite gender assignments in their respective languages. The tests were done in English, which has only one gender, so that the language used for the test didn’t influence the findings on this point. For instance, when asked to describe “bridge”, the Spanish speakers said “big”, “dangerous”, “long”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”, so Boroditsky, while the German speakers said “beautiful”, “elegant”, “fragile”, “peaceful”, “pretty” and “slender”. Other tests gave equal findings. As Boroditsky concludes: “Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.”
On April 19, 2010, I wrote in a blog: “Once some scientists thought that the language we speak determines in a certain degree the way we think and see the world around us. However, this view could not be substantiated by research. Nevertheless I think that our language has some influence on the way we think and observe: Our language is a guide for us, by the way we look at the world and make classifications. It gives us the first categories of what we perceive. But as it is with any guide: we can improve it or we can take a better one.” Then I hadn’t heard yet of Boroditsky and her research. For some years I had been occupied with the question whether language determines our thoughts (the so-called Sapir-Whorf thesis), but I came to the conclusion that research had refuted the thesis. Nevertheless the feeling remained that this conclusion was false. I mean, it was correct that languages do not have a determinate influence on how people think, but I thought that there had to be some influence, namely that the language you speak serves as a first guide for the way you think about the world around you. That’s what I expressed in the quote from my blog. However, I hadn’t the means to research it. Now we see that Boroditsky comes to the same conclusion. Although the example of her research presented here may give the impression that language determines the way you think (“German speakers gives bridges female qualities, Spanish speakers give bridges male qualities”), other research by Boroditsky and her team shows that such world views can change. Speakers of a certain language can change their views when they learn about other views. Actually, the world view in your native language is the view from which you start, but which you can alter later. That’s why I wrote then that “We can use another language with other categories and we can invent new categories. In that sense anything goes.”
I do not write this because I want to be right, but Boroditsky’s findings show how important it is to consider the way we speak (what feminists always have said). They show for instance (and here I refer to and quote from Prinz, 2013, pp. 189-190) that “we must be cautious when using gender-specific language”, and, as I want to add, “language in general”. It influences the way we see and categorize, anyway initially. “It’s a mistake”, so Prinz (and I fully agree), “that we cannot think without language”. However, “if you look at a scene, you immediately and automatically label the salient objects.” And although cultural and other influences and facts affect the way you see and classify as well, “linguistic variation is not superficial. It is a powerful example of how something we learn through experience can shape our understanding of the world.” Or in Boroditsky’s words: “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.” In short: Languages help us shape and discriminate, positively and negatively.

Sources: Lera Boroditsky, “How does our language shape the way we think?” on ; Jesse J. Prinz, Beyond human nature, Penguin Books, London etc., 2013.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Whether one must always directly confront an enemy

View of the battlefield of Lake Trasimene from
the place where consul Flaminius was killed

When travelling usually I follow not so much this or that travel guide, but I follow my mind and sometimes my photo camera, which is actually the same. So when I was in Tuscany in Italy a few weeks ago, I found it more interesting to be led by the Montaigne’s footsteps and to walk on the battle field of Lake Trasimene where Hannibal ambushed a Roman army than to see the great objects of art admired by many, although one can doubt whether most of them really admire them or that they admire them “because they have to” (as a pen friend remarked to me). But it is not up to me to judge the truth of the admiration of others. That would be quite arrogant and these “others” could probably say the same about me, and with right. Anyway, I remember that when I was in Florence a few years ago I walked into a church and my eye was caught by a statue on the wall and, although not being an art connoisseur, I immediately saw how excellent it was and when I looked up in my travel guide who had made it, I saw that it was by Donatello. Since Donatello is recognized as a famous and very good sculptor, I concluded that there must be something objective in what is good art and what is bad art and that even a layman can see that and can sincerely enjoy it. Nevertheless, my feeling tells me that my mind must lead me to other places when I am on a travel. Or most of the time.
Anyway, walking on the battle field of Lake Trasimene I wondered why Montaigne hadn’t been here, since he needed to make only a brief detour in order to go there. Montaigne writes several times about Hannibal in his essays, although not over consul Flaminius who was commanding the Roman army there, if I am right. I think that a walk, or rather a horse ride a Montaigne’s case, would have given him new insights and would have stimulated him to new themes, if he had looked at the details of the battle and had compared the reports of Livy and other authors with what he had seen in person on the terrain. And certainly he would have got inspiration if he would have studied what had happened after the battle, if he didn’t know it already. For after the Romans had heard about what was a calamity for them (15.000 soldiers had been killed, 6.000 had been taken captive and only 4.000 soldiers escaped), they were seized by panic and, as they had done so often in such situations in the past, they appointed a dictator who was charged to solve the situation and, of course, to beat Hannibal. However, Quintus Fabius Maximus, the new man on the top of the Roman Republic, chose the strategy of avoiding a direct confrontation with Hannibal. Instead he used a tactics of law-level harassment in order to exhaust his opponent and to give Rome time to rebuild its military strength. By doing so Fabius got the nickname Cunctator or “Delayer”. But the Romans were not very charmed by this approach. They dismissed Fabius and elected two consuls instead, who gave battle to Hannibal in the Battle of Cannae, which was even a worse defeat for the Romans than the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Apparently, Fabius’s strategy of avoiding and exhausting was not so bad. Even more, the same method was used by the Russian generals Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia and occupied Moscow. In this case the strategy was a big success and Napoleon was forced to leave Russia, which actually meant the end of his reign. Of course, Montaigne couldn’t have known about Napoleon, but without a doubt a few other such instances would have come to his mind. If he would have written about them, I think he would have given his essay the title “Whether one must always directly confront an enemy” and the upshot would have been that procrastination is not always as bad as it looks on the face of it.

Monday, November 04, 2013

In Montaigne’s footsteps

The house where Montaigne stayed in Bagni di Lucca

When I was in Tuscany some years ago, I suddenly realized that Montaigne had been there, too, on his trip to Germany and from there to Italy. But where exactly had he been? I seemed to remember only vaguely that he must have stayed some time in Bagni di Lucca, but I wasn’t sure of it. I had a book on Montaigne with me, but it didn’t talk about Montaigne’s tour. It was purely philosophical. I had no Internet connection at my disposal (smartphones did not yet exist, for instance), so how to find out where Montaigne had been in Tuscany? In the end, I skipped the idea to visit the places where he had stayed, although I was a bit disappointed, also because I was so stupid not to think of it, when I prepared my trip.
But now, I had a second chance. My wife and I had planned to visit the region again and this time I was well prepared. I had reread the relevant passages of Montaigne’s travel journal and I had previewed the places where he stayed on the Internet.
Our hotel was just north of Lucca and after our arrival our first trip was to Bagni di Lucca. We followed the same road Montaigne had taken in 1581 on the right bank of the River Serchio, stream up. The typical high bridge just north of Borgo a Mozzano described by Montaigne was still there. Today only pedestrians are allowed to use it. Had it really been possible to ride over the bridge with a cart 400 years ago? For the bridge was very steep and rather narrow. But Montaigne and his company had only horses with them.
We crossed the Serchio via a modern bridge and soon we were in Bagni. First we walked a bit through the little town. Then we went to the tourist office. They had a book with names of all famous and less famous people who had stayed in Bagni. Montaigne was certainly not the only person who had got the idea to cure there, in his case because he suffered from kidney stones. The healing power of the springs was already known in Roman times and Montaigne tells us that many people from the surrounding area used to spend the summer there. Especially in the 19th century it was a popular health resort, but today the bloom days of the spa seem to have gone.
Montaigne had rented rooms in a house in La Villa, a residential quarter a bit separate from the actual town, mainly existing of mansions and villas. The road leading to it is rather steep but from here you have a view on the roofs of the houses of Bagni. Where the road enters La Villa, there is a little square. To the left I see the stately mansion where Montaigne had passed many weeks in the late spring and early summer of 1581 and then again in August and September. The house is not open to the public but a plaquette tells us that Montaigne has stayed here 74 days all together. In front of the building, where once coaches were parked, now modern cars take their places. The mansion has been built against a slope. A staircase on the right side brings us to a garden on the level of the top floor of the house. Actually it’s not more than a lawn. A mountain wall closes the garden on the backside. A basin with a tap has been built in it. Was it already there in the days of Montaigne and has he used the tap then? As such it’s a bit a strange idea for me to imagine that the man must have gone there where I am now stepping in his footprints so to speak.
We walked a bit around the house and I absorbed the scene as well as I could. Then we went down again to the centre of Bagni. Later on our trip we met Montaigne yet a few times more. In Siena, for instance. According to Montaigne, its square is the most beautiful to be found anywhere. The square is beautiful, indeed, but it is clear that Montaigne hasn’t been in Brussels (or was the “Grand Place” not so beautiful in his days, as it is today? Anyway, Montaigne hasn’t been there). In the spa of Bagno Vignoni we saw the large basin with hot water, which has also been described by Montaigne. What surprises me is that he hasn’t visited the battle field near Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal defeated the Roman army in one of the most famous ambushes in military history. Montaigne needed only to make a little detour in order to go there. It’s true; there are no medicinal springs nearby. But isn’t it so that his interest was usually much wider than that, also when travelling? We can learn a lot of his openness for new experiences and his receptivity to new customs and habits, also on his travels abroad.