Thinking without language?
alexilen at sprynet.com
Sat Nov 20 01:34:16 EST 1999
My own contribution to your dialogue "Thinking without language"
will come in three parts. The first part, this one, is a compendium
of opinions on this topic ranging over the last several hundred
years (and in one case even going back a few millennia).
Many of these ideas contradict each other, even to an extreme
extent. You will find famous scientists proclaiming the primacy of
language, famous poets and lexicographers expressing grave doubt
that this can be true.
It's my hope that this part alone will instill a bit of
humility in some of youse guys. This problem has been around for a long
time, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that it will be
finally resolved even by the godzillions of calculations made by
computers (which could in fact merely potentiate the difficulties to
an astronomical extent).
The second part, coming tomorrow or the next day, will be an attempt
to reconcile these widely different views and reach some kind of
reasonable synthesis among them.
The third part will be some excerpts from an article i wrote on this
general theme six years ago. once again, i have the feeling that
some of you have embarked on what may well be the "hysterical
discovery of the obvious."
a realistic corrective is clearly needed, and i hope this tripartite
message can at least provide a beginning.
So here comes Part I right now, a compendium of views on this
subject from some large-scale minds over a pretty humongous
It is impossible to disassociate language from science or science from
language, because every natural science always involves three things:
the sequence of phenomena on which the science is based; the abstract
concepts which call these phenomena to mind; and the words in which the
concepts are expressed. To call forth a concept a word is
needed; to portray a phenomenon a concept is needed. All three
mirror one and the same reality.
--Antoine Laurent Lavoisier
"The Father of Chemistry"
Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.
--Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient
instrument in thinking.
--Sir H. Davy, 19th Century
Words are tools which automatically carve concepts out of experience.
The tool of the mind. --Elbert Hubbard, Poet
Words are not merely the vehicles in which thought is delivered; they
are part of thinking.
--Peter Brian Medawar
Language! the blood of the soul, sir, into which our thoughts run,
and out of which they grow.
--Oliver Wendall Holmes, 1859
I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the
daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language
is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of
ideas. I wish however that the instrument might be less apt to
decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they
--Samuel Johnson, Dictionary, Preface, 1755
Human beings live--literally live, as if life is equated with the
mind--by symbols, particularly words, because the brain is
constructed to process information almost exclusively in their terms.
--Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984
All words are pegs to hang ideas on. --Henry Ward Beecher, 1887
Words...the thread on which we string our experience.
--Aldous Huxley 1894-1963
The clothes that thoughts wear--only the clothes. --Samuel Butler
The signs of our ideas only, and not...things themselves.
--John Locke 1632-1704
Words are used to express meaning; when you understand the meaning,
you can forget about the words.
--Chuang-tse, Sixth Century BC (?)
Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are
familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.
--Cardinal John Newman (1801-90)
There can be no doubt that distrust of words is less harmful than
unwarranted trust in them. Besides, to distrust words, and indict
them for the horrors that might slumber unobtrusively within them
isn't this, after all, the true vocation of the intellectual?
--Vaclav Havel, Speech, Oct. 1989
Without words to objectify and categorize our sensations and place
them in relation to one another, we cannot evolve a tradition of
what is real in the world.
--Ruth Hubbard (b. 1924), U.S. biologist.
"Have Only Men Evolved?," in "Women Look
at Biology Looking at Women"
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
--Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889-1951
Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it.
A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion.
Every human being thinks that, because he speaks, he is qualified
to speak about language.
There are thousands of ideas that it is impossible to translate into
Methinks the human method of expression by sound of tongue is very
elementary, & ought to be substituted for some ingenious invention
which should be able to give vent to at least six coherent sentences
--Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
As I take up my pen I feel myself so full, so equal to my subject,
and see my book so clearly before me in embryo, I would almost like
to try to say it all in a single word.
--G. C. Lichtenberg (1742-99),
German physicist, philosopher.
Language originated before philosophy, and that is what is the matter
I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I do not
have and which I could not put into words.
Men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that
words react on the understanding; and this it is that has rendered
philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive.
--Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620
Everyone knows that words are the means of representing thought; but
few are aware that the progress, abundance, and economy of thought are
the effects of words.
--Ugo Foscolo, Essays, 19th Century
Because language is the carrier of ideas, it is easy to believe that
it should be very little else than such a carrier.
--Louise Bogan (1897-1970),
U.S. poet, critic.
Syntax and vocabulary are overwhelming constraints--the rules that
run us. Language is using us to talk--we think we're using the
language, but language is doing the thinking, we're its slavish
--Harry Burchell Matthews, 1988
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language...
Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a
defining framework for it.
--Benjamin Lee Whorf
Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted
segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger
part, is silence.
--George Steiner, 1967
Meanings are to be made, not found. They are imposed on concrete
facts; they do not inhere in them.
--Andrew Debanco, 1994
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