The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis holds that language affects thought, in part because we tend to think in terms of the languages that we speak. Whether thought is constrained by language or merely influenced is a matter of some debate beyond the scope of this post.
The point here relates to Methodological Individualism, which is the theory or practice of ascribing all human action to individual action, rather than amorphous collectives like races, genders, nationalities, countries, companies, etc. In other words, one would look at the motives of the individuals within a major Wall Street bank for explanations of the causes of the 2007-2008 market meltdown, rather than at ‘Wall Street’, ‘Wall Street banks’, ‘the government’, ‘capitalism’, or whatever.
Employing Methodological Individualism leads one to ask, “If I want to communicate with X, what is his or her email address?” Try it.
“If I want to communicate with the CEO of Citibank, what is his or her email address?”
See? No big deal.
Now, try these:
“If I want to communicate with Wall Street, what is his or her email address?”
“If I want to communicate with Main Street, what is his or her email address?”
“If I want to communicate with blacks, what is their email address?”
“If I want to communicate with Latino voters, what is their email address?”
Now, let’s apply the same principle to an essay that is making the rounds among the technorati. Neal Stephenson writes in “Innovation Starvation,” “My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space.”
Sounds gloomy, bordering on nihilistic. If I want to communicate with the United States of America, what is its email address?
Unlike Mr. Stephenson’s, my lifespan encompasses the era when a seeming army of NASA employees — who were provided with a clear mandate and huge sums of money confiscated from working Americans through taxation — were capable of launching human beings into space. It now includes the era of the first commercial space flight companies in human history, all of which are based in the USA.
An interesting assignment would be to rewrite Mr. Stephenson’s essay from the perspective of Methodological Individualism, replacing all collectivistic references to ‘America’, ‘us’, etc. with identifiable individuals, even if those individuals are archetypes and not actual living personages.