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February 19, 2005

Thinking and Language

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Doesn't it sometimes seem as though scientists spend much of their time "discovering" what everyone already knows?

Case in point: I don't know about you, but I've always been amazed by the way so many science and philosophy types are convinced that thought is language-dependent; it's only with the development of language that thinking became possible, etc., etc.

Sez who? Am I really supposed to believe that my visual and music friends -- few of whom can put together a coherent sentence -- aren't doing any thinking? Am I being asked to agree that visuals and music can't be tools for thought? There goes art history; there goes Bach; there goes Louis Armstrong. What's so special about the wordy thing we speak anyway -- aren't there many kinds of languages? Classical architecture, for example. And aren't manners well-understood as a language of social behavior?

To be even more basic: what am I meant to make of all those dogs, cats, and squirrels I've seen who are clearly puzzling problems out? ("Where's that doggy treat? Over here? If not, then maybe it's over here! No? OK, so maybe it's under the rug instead!") Why are we meant to agree that what these language-less creatures are doing doesn't qualify as thinking?

It seems to me, for one thing, that what dogs-cats-squirrels are doing at such moments is the equal in "thinking" of what I spend much of my day doing. I'm more word-based than most, but even so, I seem to get through most days without doing much focused word-based thinking. I may have a nonsensical noodle-soup of words, images, and phrase fragments sloshing around my skull. But I kick into active word-based-thinking-mode only occasionally, and only when the situation really demands it.

Granted that I may be on simple zombie-autopilot for some of these hours. During others, though, I can manage to be pretty sharp. Can we really say that during these on-the-ball hours I'm not-thinking? Again: sez who? Please explain, then, how I'm managing to get by. My own experience suggests that I'm not not-thinking at such times; it suggests instead that I'm doing thinking of a nonverbal kind.

So I was pleased to run across this BBC report. New research suggests that thinking may not be entirely language-dependent after all. Sample passage:

According to many academics, people are much cleverer than other animals because language gives them a higher order of thought. But these [new] findings suggest cleverness and language might not be as closely connected as once assumed ... 'Despite profound language deficits these guys showed advanced cognitive abilities,' [said a scientist about his subjects], 'which indicates considerable autonomy between language and thinking.'

Not for the first time, science has -- after much ponderous deliberation -- reached the conclusion that snow is cold and fire is hot.

Why do you suppose scientists often seem stunned to discover that reality is ... what reality is? And why do scientists focus so tightly on the particular kind of thinking that obsesses them? This couldn't represent a disguised form of marveling at their own peculiar abilities, could it? Nah, I'm sure it couldn't. They're too objective to be swayed by mere narcissism.

Is there something Asperberger-y about science itself? Or just about scientists?



posted by Michael at February 19, 2005


if you play around with quantum mechanical wave functions as an undergrad you start to lose touch with fidelity to common sense as the be-all-and-end-all arbitrar.

Posted by: razib on February 19, 2005 8:32 PM

Some bits of common sense are actually pretty good descriptions of reality. Other bits of common sense are, well, not so much.

There's some value in further investigation to determine which is which...

Posted by: Ken on February 19, 2005 9:11 PM

No, where I am schooled science historians will call research like that: the difficult way of finding proof for common sense.

Most psychology is, by the way.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 19, 2005 9:57 PM

You seem to present a straw-man argument by misrepresenting the nature of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has branches of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity, and determinism can be "strong" or "weak."

In either case, the hypothesis doesn't posit that language enables thought itself, but merely that language strongly influences the *way* we think about our existence and surroundings.

"Weltanschauung" is an extreme adaptation of the theory. To discount the whole of linguistic determinism and relativity on the basis of Weltanschauung's shortcomings would be akin to dismissing the Existentialists because of the Third Reich.

Posted by: David Summerlin on February 20, 2005 3:20 AM

I think what the philosophers are talking about is conceptual thinking. Thus, when theoretic concepts are developed, one can think about "thinking," itself a concept.

Obviously, a musician or an artist "thinks." Whether such people think in concepts or in other categories, I wouldn't know. But I don't think anyone, philosophers included, would argue that there aren't a variety of cognitive skills or aptitudes, and the manipulation of concepts through language is just one of those. I think also that we can agree that some concepts can be expressed in both musical and artistic metaphor, and that these metaphors can preserve a concept for long periods of time.

The memory, definition, recording, and manipulation of concepts is difficult and unwieldly without language. It can be done to some degree through art or music, but theoretic language skills are more handy (and some would argue, are so powerful they make civilization possible).

When a philospher says a dog doesn't "think," I think he means the dog doesn't have theoretic language skills, and can't sit (or lay) down and "think" about a category, such as the category of thinking. And because dogs don't have theoretic categories to manipulate, and no language to express them if they did, communication between dogs is limited. So, although a dog might "think," it can't think about its own thinking, although I (I have a dog) can think about the dog's thinking (how much of this is projection, I leave to the psychologists and zoologists).

Posted by: MD on February 20, 2005 9:05 AM

What MD said about the beasts of the field.

On other types of beast: M. Blowhard - You may think that you are not doing the kind of thinking Prof Frink would associate with LANGUAGE, but if you let the good doctor wire you up in a lab setting, I'm confident that your brain rays would be true to type for your kind. If I'm wrong, then someone, somewhere, did a heck of a job training you!

None of which changes the fact that some science types are idiots.

Posted by: j.c. on February 20, 2005 4:24 PM

As for myself, it seems words aren't spoken all that often in my head as I think. Here, as I type, they sort of bubble up. But I wonder if the thinking isn't the song, the words just a pleasant buddy, occastionally tagging along for the ride (mix that metphor, ray-boy!).

In short, I'm just saying most of my mental life sure seems to be an instrumental i.e. pictures, emotions, things seeming more 'right' than others. Am I really listening to some voice speaking english inside my hear saying aloud "357" when I stumble across a '370-13' problem. Doesn't seem like it.

I wonder if this isn't just the result of asking extremely verbal people how important the words in their heads seem to them?

Posted by: Ray midge on February 20, 2005 7:07 PM

Razib -- I'd imagine!

Ken -- Point well taken. But is common sense intended as a representation of reality? Without having given it enough thought, I'd imagine it's that, but also combined with a "guide to how to behave" as well.

IJSbrand -- Sociology too, or at least often, no?

David - Actually I wasn't thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I was thinking about the dozens of books I've been through where thinkers marvel about the glories of human-style thought, ask where it comes from, and conclude that spoken language made it possible. Language was certainly a big deal. But was it that big a deal? And was it the only big deal? For instance, was music's emergence from noise really dependent on us acquiring verbal language? I don't see the connection.

MD -- I think you're right, that the thinkers are concerned largely with "higher-level" thinking. I confess that that's part of what puzzles me about their ideas. I think they assign 'way too much emphasis on higher-level-type thinking. As far as they're concerned, that's the only real thinking there is. And it's what distinguishes us from mere animals. Yet I know people who are barely capable of higher-order thinking at all, but who are still functional people -- better than that, they're canny, streetwise, and sharper about a lot of things than most scientists are. And in my own life, I can't say I rely on higher-order thinking much. Yet many scientists and philosophers get transfixed by it. My hunch is that they're really transfixed by (and assign too much importance to) a kind of thinking that they specialize in. They're marveling at their own powers, basically, and so overvalue them that they put them at the top of some kind of evolutionary heap. Not to disparage higher-order thinking or those who do it well. But I can't agree that it's as all-important as they seem to think it is. You write "When a philospher says a dog doesn't "think," I think he means the dog doesn't have theoretic language skills, and can't sit (or lay) down and "think" about a category, such as the category of thinking." And you're certainly right. I just think that "thinking about thinking" is a very specialized activity that 'way too much importance is assigned to, particularly by people who have that specialization.

JC -- I think I'd be quite pleased if I could function consistently as shrewdly as some dogs I know.

Ray -- I think you're on to something! I wonder if all of us don't tend to overprivilege (oops, apologies for awful academic term) the kind of thing we ourselves specialize in.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2005 12:54 AM

The whole language = thinking thing is also the trustiest stand-by for the argument against other animals' consciousness, ergo their guilt-free use as food and slaves. I wouldn't expect the idea to disappear overnight, any more than flat-earth or phrenology or witch-weighing.

That scientists are doing research to back up our intuition about the sentience of a wide variety of creatures should be commended. Redundant perhaps, but necessary in our narrowly Cartesian world view.

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 21, 2005 8:42 PM

Cheers to that. I wonder when and if the deathgrip so many have on the Cartesian thing will let slip. And I wonder if there's any way to encourage it to do so. Sometimes attacking such a thing is best; sometimes ignoring it work even better.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2005 11:24 AM

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