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Thinking without language?

Sergio Navega snavega at attglobal.net
Fri Nov 19 10:51:21 EST 1999

Bill Skaggs wrote in message ...
>"ADR" <a.dalla_rosa at virgin.net> writes:
>> >I don't know about you, but I'm perfectly able to think verbally while
>> >sticking my tongue out and keeping it still.  The fact that I'm typing
>> >this with my tongue stuck out proves it.
>> No muscular movement at all? Not even in the throat or with the lips?
>> would be a miracle.
>There is considerable danger of going astray here.  One should be
>careful to distinguish between thinking that involves words and
>thinking that involves *only* words.  There is good reason to think
>that, in people who have language, the linguistic parts of the brain
>are always to some degree active, and always activate the machinery
>for speech to some degree, even if it is far too weak to be
>noticeable.  But this doesn't mean that thinking is exclusively, or
>even mainly, verbal.
>In fact, the idea that any kind of thinking could be exclusively
>verbal is almost absurd.  Consider a very simple example of thinking,
>such as going from "What is seven times six?" to "Oh yes, forty-two",
>and suppose you have the task to programming a system to get from the
>former to the latter, but it is only allowed to operate on words --
>the only operations it can do is directly transform sentences into
>other sentences.  I won't say it's completely impossible, but it would
>be outrageously difficult.  Any sort of plausible algorithm would
>involve creating a sub-linguistic representation of the "meaning" of
>the sentence and operating on the elements of that representation.
>Most likely, the sub-linguistic representation would need to be
>considerably more complicated than the sentence itself, involving
>probably hundreds (or even millions) of auxiliary variables.
>If you buy what I'm suggesting -- that even during "verbal" processing
>most of the cognitive operations don't act directly on words, but
>rather on sub-linguistic representations of the meaning of sentences
>-- then the differences between verbal thinking and nonverbal thinking
>become a lot less important.

I agree. Most of our thinking (even purely linguistic) is composed
of a great deal of sublinguistic, unconscious elements and this is
a elusive enough process to fool us into thinking that most of our
thoughts are linguistic.

As another example of a purely non-linguistic reasoning, follow the

Draw in your mind a square. From the upper right corner, draw a
diagonal that meets the lower left corner. Now take the middle
point of this diagonal and from it drop a vertical line to the
base (inferior) side of the square. Take the middle point of this
vertical line and draw a straight horizontal line over it, extending
all the way over both sides. Now answer: how many lines does this
horizontal line crosses? The answer (4) cannot be obtained by
purely linguistic methods.

Sergio Navega.

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