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How to Stop Pain From Determining Your World–Part3

How to Stop Pain From Determining Your World—Part 3

Welcome back to the third part of the series that focuses on how to stop pain from determining your world. The whole series is a reply to the linguistic  determinist who believe that language not only influences, but determines the way we perceive the world.

Tips on what We Perceive
To Perceive

The first post focused on acknowledging  the feelings of hopelessness that a pain sufferer may have as a result of acknowledging that his  or her world is the way it is because of language. Thus, the only reality is the reality that their language conceives. So, for example, he or she  may perceive themselves to be a  “problem”  because that’s how they keep describing themselves.

The Depression of Determinism
How We Perceive Depression

The second post examined how language influences, according to those who support linguist  determinism, the way we look at the world.

As I said in post 1 of the series , my hope is that even after acknowledging and then showing how language  influences the way a pain sufferer looks at the world, it does not determine how he or she will cope in the future. Thus the final post will be a critique  of linguist Determinism and why I believe even if it’s clear that language  influences the way we perceive the world, it’s not at all clear that it determines the way we perceive the world.

Let’s jump in

To be Linear or Non-Linear

One of the famous tenants  of linguistic determinism is the belief that some cultures are determined to see the world in a linear form, and others in a non-linear form.

Perceiving Linear Reality
Linear Reality


Perceiving Non-Linear Reality
Abstract Reality

If one can show the flaw in this assumption then one can successfully show  that any conclusion based on the same  assumption is also flawed. This means that language does not determine the way we perceive  the world. Which means that someone experiencing widespread chronic pain is not doomed to believe that his or her future will be defined by illness.

Meet Dorothy Lee, The Language Determines Everything Lady

Dorothy Lee in “Lineal and NonLineal Codification of Reality” [1] goes beyond Benjamine Whorf’s suggestion that language influences the way we perceive the world. She believes  that language determines the way we we look at the world. You might say she uses linear and nonlinear logic to explain her view.

Here is What She Says

She strives to show how the language of the people living in the Trobriand Island (of New Guinea) doesn’t have a concept of linear while English calls attention to linear order.

Tips on Non-Linear Believers
Non-Linear Believers

The implication of course is that the Trobrianders look at the world differently from us. Lee states, “Basic to my investigation of the codification of reality on these two societies (Trobriand, English speaking) is the assumption that a member of a given society not only codifies experience through the use of the specific language but that he actually grasp reality only as it is presented to him in this code.” [2]

In other words people grasp reality only through words that are in their language. Here is the flaw in that logic. The Hopi are a Native American people who live in Arizona. Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) was a linguist who researched Hopi, and published a grammar of the Hopi language.

Flag on Non-Linear People
Hopi Flag

As Whorf points out, the Hopi use a single word to name all flying things except bird. ( air planes, insects, aviators).  Our language has a separate word for each of these things. On the other hand, the Eskimos have many different words for snow—flying snow, slush snow, dry snow— while we get along with one.

What is The Significance of Such Lexical Differences?

Does the fact that a language does not have separate forms for certain phenomena mean that the users of this language are unable to to distinguish the phenomena from each other? Are  most Americans unable to see the differences that Eskimos see in snow? Or take an absurd example, is the Hopi unable to make a visual distinction between an aviator and an insect?

Tips on Perceiving an Aircraft
Perceiving an Aircraft


Perceiving an Insect

It May Just Come Down to Connivence

It seems to me that the reason Eskimos make elaborate distinctions between types of snow is just a matter of convenience. Eskimos more than most Americans constantly need to make distinctions between snow. American skiers on the other hand often are required to also make distinctions between types of snow.

One can say that most Americans make rather elaborate distinctions between types of cars. We have Dodge, Pinto, Mustang, Bug, Station Wagon, Jeep, etc. The distinction is convenient since we make a great use of cars in almost everything we do. But the fact that we can make distinctions  between types of cars does not mean that the Hopi are unable to; it may mean there is no reason for them to do so.

So let’s Get Back to Dorothy Lee

We can now analyze her position with the view that she doesn’t conclusively prove that the Trobrianders look at the world differently from a so called linear language people. One of the things Lee states, in distinguishing the  Trobriander and English language, is that a Trobriander word refers to a “self-contained concept.” She states:

What we consider an attribute of a predicate is to the Trobriander an ingredient. Where I would say, for example, “a good gardener” or “the gardner is good” the Trobriander word would include both “gardener” and “goodness”. If the gardener loses the goodness, he has lost a defining ingredient. He is something else, and he is named by means of a completely different word.[3]

Not Much There

Lee’s observation may at first glance seem like a brand new insight. When you look into it deeper,though, it says less than advertised. it reminds me of a marketer who says his or her product is unique but in reality does something  better than his or her competitors but is not at all unique. So let’s take a closer look at  this so called  “self-contained concept” as it applies to the Trobrianders.

Gardening is a an importune aspect of Trobriander life. Goodness is a standard that everyone who is a gardener must have. That said, don’t we do the same thing with our professions? To illustrate, let’s talk about the plumbing. How many of us have complained that someone is not a “good” plumber because he or she lacked skills that a plumber in the industry has. The implication is that a profession has set standards, and thus one can make the case that because the standards are implicit part of the definition, then in a sense all professions are self-contained. So while Lee’s observation of “self-contained concept” is not at all the big break through it at first seems.


What is The Implication For The Chronic Pain Sufferer?

It means it’s possible, and probable, for a person suffering from chronic widespread pain to have a self-contained concept of a “good day.” This would be a day when the pain is less intense and allows for completion  of tasks that couldn’t be done days when the pain is too much.

Tips on Perceiving a Beautiful Day
Perceiving a Beautiful Day

“On a good day the body can be controlled in order to accomplish activities, and to store up time against a bad day, on which control, and routine, are disrupted.”[4]

Perceiving Happy Girl Playing in Field
Girl Playing in Sunny Field

This would mean ,for example, that a person wanting to do house work would associate  a good day  with the standard of having more control over his or her body because of less pain, and thus able to complete the chores. So certainly  the so called self-contained  concept is not unique to the Trobrianders. We have now  dispensed of the linear and NonLinear, self-contained concept, of the Linguist Determinist and showed that there is a lot that doesn’t add up when  you take the assumptions to their  logical conclusion. In the last post of the series I will address the climax argument. Here is where Lee attempts  to show another example of how the Trobrianders fail to see things in a linear way. I will challenge the assumption and show why I think she is wrong.

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I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.


1Dorothy Lee, Lineal and NonLineal Codification of Reality



4Jane C. Richardson, Bie Nio Ong and Julius Sim

BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 9 (Jan. 11, 2008) : p3


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