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Do we think in language?

September 1st, 2006 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.