Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Theosophist

John Algeo – USA

Theosophy has greatly influenced artists and musicians, but also some in the broader areas of science, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, a scientific linguist, who will be of interest to readers of this Web site.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

The Times Literary Supplement of March  23, 2012, has an article on Victoria Welby (in full, the Hon. Victoria Alexandrina Maria Louisa Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie, Lady Welby-Gregory, 1837-1912), a very unusual woman and a pioneer in the study of meaning via the analysis of linguistic expressions, which she called “Significs,” and the author of several books on that subject that influenced such later scholars as C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richardson, whose Meaning of Meaning (1923) depended on her work, and George Orwell, whose Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) also derived from her.

Especially indebted to her is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, derived from the work of Edward Sapir at Yale University but fully formulated by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf and made generally known in a collection of Whorf’s papers, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to think about the world. Physically we may be what we eat, but intellectually we are how we talk.

The TLS article ends (on page 15 of the issue) by observing that Benjamin Lee Whorf’s “work aims, overtly or covertly, at reconciling science and religion, a reflection  . . . of his lifelong commitment to Theosophy.”