Cultural and conceptual relativism, universalism and the politics of linguistics

Chris Hutton
The political history of linguistics in the 20th century has yet to be written. The insistence within linguistics on the discipline'e identity as a descriptive science rather than a prescriptive or normative activity has led to decontextualized and apolitical readings of linguistic models and theories. The involvement of linguistics in political, national and other social movements has been underplayed or ignored, and the political and cultural impact of linguistic theories underestimated. This neglect has led to a number of myths and misconceptions gaining hold within intellectual history and the history of linguistics.

This paper aims to show how compley and how politically ambiguous the relationship between linguistics and other social and political movements has been. It illustrates this thesis through an analysis of some of the links between the 'linguistic relativity' thesis (the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, linguistic determinism, neo-Humboldtianism, etc.) and the politics of 20th century nationalism, colonialism, primitivism, Orientalism, etc. In so doing, it asks what exactly we mean by a Ñlink", and what the political significance of intellectual parallels, personal biography and so on, should be taken to be.

The issues that arise can be illustrated by looking at the place of the German neo-Humboldtian school of thought within intellectual and political history. That school (or intellectual trend) is associated primarily with the name of Leo Weisgerber, but might also be said to include-leaving their differences to one side-linguists such as Jost Trier, Walter Porzig, and André Jolles. In the pre-WWII period, these scholars were associated with a neo-structuralist approach to the study of word meaning (word field theory). In 1959 a Festschrift in honour of Leo Weisgerber's 60th birthday appeared, edited by Helmut Gipper. The majority of the contributors were drawn from the intellectual circles associated with neo-Humboldtianism in Germany; there was however one North American contributor, Harry Hoijer.

From one point of view, this association between the Boas-Sapir-Whorf North American tradition and the German neo-Humboldthians is a natural one, given their common assumptions and their common intellectual roots. The twist in the tale comes if one looks more closely at the German contributors to the Weisgerber Festschrift. They include at least five former members of the NSDAP (E. Rothacker, W. Porzig, H. Brinkmann, J. Trier, L. Mackensen), as well as two others who have been criticized (fairly or not) for complicity with Nazism (H. Moser, G. Deeters). Weisgerber himself played an important (some would argue, central) role in the linguistics of the Third Reich, though the exact nature of that role is highly controversial (Hutton 1998).

While ne-Humboldtianism can be read as an expression of liberal nationalism and enlightened cultural relativism, it must thus also been seen in the context of the anti-universalism of National Socialist scholarship. That anti-universalism involved a reaction against positivist methodologies in science and against the ethical void that modern materialist science was perceived to have created. Within linguistics, this led to a rejection of Neogrammarian uniformitarianism, and an emphasis on each language as constructing an autonomous world-view for its speakers, and on the dynamic way in which a language constructs a meaningful world for its speakers.

The emphasis within neo-Humboldtianism in Germany was on the German language and the world view it constructed for its speakers. Whorfianism, by contrast, came out of the North American tradition of anthropological field work in the context of the study of non-European languages, primarily those of native Americans. Whorf's own intellectual formation was complex, and involved theosophical Orientalism and linguistic mysticism, in addition to sharing key features with the General Semantics movement of A. Korzybski (Joseph 1996, Hutton and Joseph 1998, Whorf 1942). While Whorf's work can be seen as part of a liberal attack on ethnocentrism in relation to so-called 'primitive peoples', it also points to a rejection of modernity through a transformed version of the 'noble savage' myth.

The key political and intellectual issue at stake in this is the clash of and merger of universalist and anti-universalist currents within linguistics. From one point of view, anti-universalism is an expression of sensitivity to cultural difference. It underlies modern multi-culturalism and demands for cultural tolerance. Yet the attack on Enlightenment universalism was also a key element in Nazi thought, and the rejection of western liberal (universalising) modernity (including democracy) was part of reactionary and fascist modernism (Jünger, Klages, Heidegger).


Hutton, C. (1998). Linguistics and the Third Reich: mother tongue fascism, race and the science of language. Routledge: London.

Hutton, C. and Joseph, J. (1998). ÑBack to Blavatsky; the impact of theosophy on modern linguistics". Language and Communication 18: 181-204.

Joseph, J. (1996). ÑThe immediate sources of the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' ". Historiographia Linguistica 23: 365-404.

Gipper, H., ed. (1959). Sprache - Schlüssel zur Welt: Festschrift für Leo Weisgerber. Schwann: Düsseldorf.

Whorf, B.L. (1942). ÑLanguage, mind and reality". The Theosophist 63 (1): 281-291.


linguistic relativity; modernity; universalism; Orientalism; Nazism