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Nonsense and Sensibility

The Hidden Dimension

by Edward T. Hall
Doubleday, 201 pp., $4.95

The Silent Language

by Edward T. Hall
Fawcett, 192 pp., (paperback) 60 cents (paper)

Dr. Hall’s recent book is an expansion of Chapter 10 of The Silent Language, and those familiar with the earlier work, now in its tenth printing, may need to know no more than that. Dr. Hall is a homegrown, very old-fashioned, practical-problem kind of American anthropologist who has been quite unaffected by the developments which have taken place either in his own subject or in linguistics during the past twenty-five years. As he himself sees it, his basic thesis is “that the principles laid down by Whorf in relation to language apply to the rest of human behavior as well, in fact, to all Culture.”

The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf died in 1941. His academic celebrity rests on his contention that an ordinary Hopi Indian has a different perception of time and space from that of an ordinary white American because the categories and syntax of the Hopi language are different from those of English. Dr. Hall makes the astonishing claim that “only in recent years, and to just a handful of people, have the implications of Whorf’s thinking become apparent.” In fact, Whorf’s thinking has now been rehashed in so many different forms that it is positively threadbare, and anyway the underlying hypothesis was far from original. In European philosophy a concern with translation problems goes back at least as far as Kant, and the baffling interconnections between apperception and modes of linguistic expression have provided a favorite stamping ground for the British followers of Wittgenstein ever since the early 1930s.

Wittgenstein’s own version of the Whorfian hypothesis runs: “When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is the vehicle of thought.” This implies that I can only think the kind of thoughts that my language allows me to think. So also Dr. Hall, using a crude version of the now hackneyed analogy that “culture is like a language,” wants to tell us that our modes of thinking are delimited by our general cultural experience and that this inhibits us from understanding members of other cultures. Which is no doubt true, but surely rather obvious. Every fieldworking anthropologist is faced with the kind of problem that evidently troubled Malinowski even in 1915: “How can, I explain to a reader of English, whose past experiences all come from a European context, just what a Trobriand magician is really up to?” Much space in both of Dr. Hall’s books is taken up with clumsy ethnographic illustrations of questions of this sort, but he offers few suggestions as to how they might be resolved.

IN The Silent Language, jargon and private boasting apart, the argument boils down to the banality that, since customary behavior presupposes an audience which is familiar with the custom, honest Americans who are unlucky enough to meet foreigners who speak English should not imagine that they can understand what is going on. The Hidden Dimension presents the same thesis on a narrower front. One way in which cultures differ is that they embody different expectations about the human use of space. Members of different cultures are liable to misunderstand one another on that account. The book starts off with three chapters of low-grade popular ethology. It is implied that observations of the space-using behavior of walruses, sticklebacks, seagulls, and muskrats have some relevance for the human situation. The reader is given some misleading information about the role of competition in evolution, and is offered the implicitly racialist suggestion that differences of culture in man are closely analogous to differences of species in animals. This cardinal error recurs at various places throughout the book: cultural labels are used like species labels, and the fact that a single individual may (and probably will) radically change his culture several times over in the course of a single lifetime is completely ignored.

IT IS NOT that Dr. Hall himself has a racialist view, it is just that he is confusing, or perhaps confused. For example, he refers to ethnic communities in their culturally adapted settings as “biotypes” and then comes up with this sort of thing: “some groups such as Italians and Greeks are much more sensorially involved with each other than some other groups such as Germans and Scandinavians.” He is not here referring to genetic differences; all he means to say is that, just as people learn to speak different languages even though they all have the same kind of speech organs, so also they can learn to use other parts of their sensory apparatus in specialized culturally defined ways. This is true, but the pitfalls of such an argument are wide and deep. By what criteria can we discriminate one culture from another at the “sensorial” level? How exact should these measures be? Anyway, the assumption that whole peoples can readily be classified according to national cultural stereotypes quickly leads to statements of pure farce: “the English man is fastidious about his clothes and expects to spend a great deal of time and attention in their purchase. In contrast, English women approach the buying of clothes in a manner reminiscent of the American male.” Wow!

It is hard to take an author of this sort at all seriously, yet his problems are of genuine interest. Every animal species has become adapted by evolution to a particular natural environment which provides its livelihood. In most cases the animal’s expectations of the qualities of “good” environment are narrowly defined, and the animal’s sense organs are adapted to respond-to such an environment and to no other. Our human expectations are peculiar in that we are able to cope with such an astonishing variety of different situations. The puzzle is: How does this come about? Our awareness of our surroundings is provided by signals received through all the senses simultaneously—sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, temperature, balance, rhythm, and so on—but our interpretation of these signals is governed by cultural training and here our flexibility is extraordinary. We are all endowed with the same sensory apparatus, yet any one of us can learn to live in the Arctic or in the Sahara, in tropical jungles or in the concrete forests of Manhattan. But this freedom of choice is not an unqualified advantage. Differences in cultural training make differences of human adaptation possible, but differences in cultural expectations may make cross-cultural communication impossible. Perhaps this is a tautology, but since so many of our practical day-to-day problems, at every level of political activity, stem from simple failures of communication it is a point worth making.

DR. HALL also points out that even within a single cultural setting we adjust our space conventions to fit particular social needs. Our different senses operate at different ranges. Touch, taste, and smell serve only as close contact indicators, while sight and hearing change their focus as we change our distance. We alter our use of grimace and gesture, and modulate our voice, to accommodate to such variation. According to Dr. Hall, American conventions discriminate quite sharply between four degrees of person to person separation which he labels “intimate” (0-18 inches), “personal” (18 inches-4 feet), “social” (4-12 feet), “public” (12 feet or more). What is correct behavior at one range becomes highly improper at another. Other societies have comparable but not identical distinctions: “features characteristic of American intimate distance are present in Russian social distance.” Just how far this might compromise the use of the Moscow-Washington hot lines is not revealed, but US Embassies overseas need to be on their guard: “To the Arab good smells are pleasing and a way of being involved in each other. To smell one’s friend is not only nice but desirable, for to deny him your breath is to act ashamed. Who would expect that when our highest diplomats are putting on their best manners they are also communicating shame?” Who indeed!

THE SLOPPINESS of this kind of ethnographic reporting makes one inclined to distrust everything that Dr. Hall says. Some of his ideas are new and interesting, but he does not seem to appreciate that serious research, in this marginal area between culturally conditioned and instinctive sensory responses, is extremely difficult. Let me cite just one example. In general ethology the non-verbal communication sequences which have the most obvious objective, and which are, therefore, the easiest to analyze, are those associated with courtship. This should be the case with Man also. Now since the sexual arrangements of the human anatomy are strikingly different from these of even our closest simian relatives they must have been evolved in association with a precise pattern of courtship-copulation behavior peculiar to the species and extending over an immense period of time. One might suppose, therefore, that man is “naturally adapted” to conducting his sexual activities according to a particular sequence and that all variations from this norm are cultural distortions. Yet (pace Dr. Desmond Morris) we know so little about the facts that we don’t even know what the norm is. All that the anthropologists can tell us is that in this area of activity every society has its own highly complicated conventions, that different societies have widely different ideas about what should be considered normal, and that in every case this normality is circumscribed by taboos of the utmost severity. If Dr. Hall can think up some means by which a comparative ethology of the sexual activities of Homo sapiens might be studied with the same scientific precision as that applied to the study of courtship behavior among fruit flies and pigeons I shall begin to believe that his ethological anthropology has some kind of future. But, as things are, he does his profession a disservice by suggesting that the “science” of anthropology consists of nothing better than the tendentious misleading hunches with which these volumes are filled.

Of course, it’s quite amusing to have someone suggest that the cramped interior of a French automobile which jams its occupants into close mutual contact is a correlate of the “stepped up sensory inputs” of French men and women who are “sensually involved with each other,” but Dr. Hall seems to be quite serious! In cultural self-defense I must assure him that the unneighborly, unsensual Englishman’s favorite car is one of the smallest in the world.

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