Do we think in language?

The linguistic turn taken by most 20th century philosophers included a tendency to assume that when we think, we think solely in language. When reading Dallas Willard’s mind-blowing website, I came across this piece that he wrote in the ’70s refuting the supposition that we think in language.

Here is an excerpt from near the end of the short article:

Now it is very certainly true that some processes clearly involving thinking as described above depend for their occurrence upon linguistic behavior and the sensible signs which it involves, for example, the processes of learning algebra or the history of the Basques, or learning how to counsel emotionally upset persons. But it is to be noted that these are not themselves processes of thinking, but rather are extremely complex processes involving all kinds of events and entities other than language and other than thinking–e.g., feelings, perceptions, buildings, other persons, days and nights, books, and so on. None of these processes is a process of thinking; and for that reason alone it is invalid to infer from them that thinking is linguistic behavior, or that one thinks with language. What is essential to things or events of a certain sort must be shown essential to them taken by themselves, not in combination with many other things. With reference to the involved processes in question, it might be more appropriate (though it would still be wrong) to say–as some have said in recent years–that we live in or with language. Nevertheless, it is certain that some kind of dependence relation–probably similar to feedback mechanisms–exists between linguistic processes and their sensuous signs, on the one hand, and certain sequences of t-states on the other.

(T-states are states in which we are thinking.) If Willard is correct that it is insufficient to say we think in language alone, he reinstates the problem that has plagued modern philosophy: what are our thoughts (and perceptions) of? Of course, he does not offer a solution here. His purpose is only to cast doubt on the mission of analytics to solve the problem by reducing thoughts and perceptions to language.

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  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Linguistic analysis is bound to come up short if it attempts to reduce thought to language. We think in representations of perceptions, whether they are sounds, images, smells, tastes, or feelings. It’s no coincidence that we metaphorize thought in concrete ways. See what I mean? Do you grasp what I’m saying?

    I’d wager that smell and taste aren’t reflected as often in our thought-metaphors because they’re dominated in perception by the other senses.

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    I think the belief that “we think in language” is so common because when most academics think, they are thinking about how they would express their thoughts (such as in a lecture or book). So all the people whose job it is to tell us about the thought-language relationship are those whose personal experience is preoccupied by thinking-in-terms-of-language.

    Ironically, my own preoccupation with expressing my thoughts linguistically has demonstrated to me that my thoughts are independent from language. Sometimes when I can’t remember an adjective that describes a particular sensation or something, I will scour a thesaurus knowing that I’ll recognize the word when I see it. Usually this works and I find the word I was “thinking of” but couldn’t immediately recall.

    Once in a while, though, after finding several close words but not the one I was looking for, I will realize that the word which perfectly describes the thought in my head does not acutally exist, and I had just been combining the connotations of a couple known words in my head to form an imaginary word.

    I guess that was a tedious way of saying that the experience of not knowing a word to describe something is proof that you can think about something without recourse to language. I describe the thesaurus exercise because it shows that I was not simply thinking about a word that I knew but had momentarily forgotten.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    Ironically, my own preoccupation with expressing my thoughts linguistically has demonstrated to me that my thoughts are independent from language. Sometimes when I can’t remember an adjective that describes a particular sensation or something, I will scour a thesaurus knowing that I’ll recognize the word when I see it. Usually this works and I find the word I was “thinking of” but couldn’t immediately recall.

    This is a great observation. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

    Willard mentions in the article the fact that academics do tend to think-in-language more than most segments of society. He does this as a psychological explanation of the propensity of philosophers to hold the belief that we think in language.

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    I thought of another example today whilst watching TV. During a five-second montage of famous faces, showing at least 6 images per second, I am sure that I recognized every celebrity or historical figure, but I noticed that I was unable to think of their names as fast as their faces were flashing by.

    Of course I would be able to name them all and keep up if it was just one or two per second, but the mind is able to recognize images (each a distinct thought) much faster than the speed of language (even unspoken thoughts-in-language).

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com K.B. Enthusiasmos

    It still seems to me that we do think in language, but let me avoid one easy misunderstanding —

    We often have “mental activities” or “events in the mind” that are not language-based or naturally linguistic. Willard, Nobody, and Selby each mentioned perceptions, images, or “words-I-can’t-quite-remember” as examples.

    However, that is not the question, in my mind. The question for me is, “Should we call such mental events ‘thoughts’, or something else entirely?”

    Perhaps they should be called “image-thoughts,” indicating that they are a non-linguistic sub-set of “thought-thoughts”, which themselves are all “in” language.

    At this moment in my life, with many hours devoted to the question and the related inquiries, I have often returned to the believe that all mental states, everything that “happens” in my mind, is either a “language thing” or a “picture thing.” Everything is either something linguistic or something imaginary, and these “picture things” are the only alternative to the “word things.” (Emotions take place in my soul, etc., but these I do not “feel” in my mind.)

    According to this schema, all thoughts can (or already are) reduced to language, but perceptions, memories, etc., are not.

    Thoughts? (wink)

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    Perhaps they should be called “image-thoughts,” indicating that they are a non-linguistic sub-set of “thought-thoughts”, which themselves are all “in” language.

    I was with you until the final clause. I would not say that “thought-thoughts” are all “in” language, but perhaps image-thoughts and language-thoughts are each sub-sets of thought-thoughts. How could image-thoughts be a non-linguistic subset of thought-thoughts that all linguistic? It strikes me as a contradiction in terms.

    I also think your following statement is too restrictive:

    Everything is either something linguistic or something imaginary, and these “picture things” are the only alternative to the “word things.”

    What about musical thoughts? They seem neither iconic nor linguistic, don’t you think? (wink)

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    All this winking is making me downright uncomfortable! ;)

    I think K.B. correctly identifies images as thoughts that are non-linguistic. But I agree with Odysseus that it may be too restrictive. I’m pretty sure mathematical thoughts could be grouped with musical thoughts, which Odysseus suggested. I’ll have to reflect on it more, though.

  • http://anyeventuality.wordpress.com Nobody

    I agree with AMcKS that mathematical concepts are close if not identical to musical concepts.

    It is sometimes said that logic is a construct of language, which is probably a misleading impression given by syllogisms. But math, and if math then necessarily music, seem like logic-based systems that, even when expressed on paper, have their own “languages” that are non-linguistic.

  • Moses Mailafia Arung

    Imagine a person born blind, deaf and dumb. He/she has never seen, heard or spoke to anyone. When such a person takes a walk around the house and eventually hits the wall as he/she tries to move, will he/she not know that he/she has encountered a solid object that could not be overcome by mere pushing, and that it is necessary for him to change his/her direction, if he/she must get to his/her destination? The mental exercise going on in his/her mind is not the product of any language but the power of reason through right thinking in him/her. Therefore, I will say that we think independent of language. For, although there are instances of partial influences of language on the way we think, nevertheless, we cannot conclude that we think solely in language.