Creuset of Ideas
» Can we think without language?


Can we think without language?

2006-01-19 @ 11:33 » Français

A friend recently asked me: Can we think without language?

First of all, what do we mean by that? I can see two interpretations: (1) Can we think without using language? and (2) Is thought possible without a prior language?

(1) Short answer, yes. But it’s not that simple.
We don’t have to use words to think. I can think about my brother without his name or the word “brother” crossing my mind. We can think about what we want to do tonight; design the floorplan of a house (or a yurt, but that’s another story); create a symphony; develop various aspects of a theory. We can project ourselves into the future, or go back to our past; solve complex problems. All without recourse to words.

But, in order to fully hold it in our mind, give it a certain persistence, we usually need some sort of language or code. Not necessarily a natural language, could be mathematical or musical notation, or a number of other codes. For many things, words are a wonderful tool when it comes to taking hold of our thoughts. Language is useful in the prehension of thought, to give it a more stable form. In a way, to transmit it to ourselves.

(2) Here it gets trickier.
I don’t think it possible to reach a certain level of thinking without having beforehand integrated (I prefer this word to “learning”) a language. Language gives a basis with which to structure (without necessarily influencing – let’s not get into that one) our thought processes.

Of course, it’s pretty hard to adequately judge the intellectual capacities of someone who cannot speak, with whom a structured enough communication is not possible. On the other hand, we can see that many intellectual things are possible without language: simple problem solving; creation and use of rudimentary tools; collaboration; even playing tricks. All of these have been observed in primates.

But can we say that primates think? We’d first have to figure out hat we mean by “think”. Deep thought is probably not possible without a prior language which sets the foundations on which is built the intellectual faculties, elevates us above what could be called more “instinctive” thought. Language opens up the needed horizons; once they are open to us, we don’t need language in our reflections, but as I said, it helps to give them form.

But that’s just my opinion.

13 comments to “Can we think without language?”

  1. Hey Marc Andre,

    I was so happy to find your blog is also in English, because my French is TERRIBLE after so many years of neglect - I can get the gist of things, but not fine details. And then to find that my own site is linked - how nice! Thanks for the nod. :)

    I think maybe we do have a language in our minds that helps us form external language that we can use to communicate. Unfortunately, I think the corollary of this is that language is in some way innate. I don’t want to have to accept that theory, but I see little room to wiggle out of it if we accept a prior mental language. It’s hard enough to wiggle out of on the basis of empirical evidence! I guess because it’s an argument from rationalism, there can be no evidence, and that makes it difficult to come to a conclusion. So I remain steadfastly agnostic on the subject of the innateness of language acquisition.

    I think we can think without language, too, but only rudimentarily; here I am thinking of daydreamy shapes and colours that do not require a coherent and linear train of thought.

    You know what would be cool? If you could somehow automatically translate my comments into French! just a thought… I wonder how hard that would be to implement…


  2. Thanks TG, glad to see you here.

    To begin at the end: it would actually probably not be so complicated to implement an automatic translation of comments. But given the state of machine translation, it would probably not be a very good translation. But I’m always one for a challenge! I’ll keep you posted on this. (On a related note, I created some time ago, an experimental multilingual chatroom: you type in your language, and the person at the other end reads a translation (with accompanying original). If you want to try it, I can give you access.)

    I think the question becomes “how rudimentary is thought without recourse to language?” Thinking without “a coherent and linear train of thought” can be very useful, especially when try to find answers to a question or solve a complex problem. Like when we meditate (or in the shower, walking, doing physical activities), when we clear our mind. And when the answer comes, then we can use language to grasp it, take a hold of it and give it a more stable form.

    I don’t think we have a language as such to begin with. But we’ve got incredible cognitive abilities that help us make sense of our surroundings. I personnaly do not believe in the “hardwire” language acquisition device, or Universal grammar. And I have yet to see any empirical, or convincing theoretical, proof of those. I actually wrote a post in French on the subject, it should be translating it soon.

  3. yeah, I don’t believe the theory of innate language acquisition, UG, or whatever else NC feels like calling his hypothesis. I abhor all things philosophically “innate”, because of where it leads - that is, inevitably the question becomes, how did it get there in the first place, and turns into a reductio ad absurdum deal with the invocation of God as the omnipotent creator of all things. I, too, looked for a way to evidence the LA device Chomsky presents, and I could not. However, the problem is, I couldn’t find a way to completely discredit it, either. Despite my intense desire to find some convincing empirical evidence that would place his theory squarely where I thought it belonged (the toilet), I could not find such evidence. Just because I, a novice philosopher of language (and admittedly, a mediocre one - so much I didn’t understand!), can’t find any documented proof doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. And just because I can’t find evidence against it doesn’t mean I have to accept it, either. So I’ll keep sticking out my tongue and blowing at Chomsky and his UG, poverty of stimulus, crap… but I also think it’s just impossible to prove either way!

    I’ll look for your post about the topic… maybe I’ll post my paper on it that I wrote last term.

    yeah, cool, that sounds like a neat idea, multilingual chat room. That could really take off! makes the world a bit smaller and all.

  4. “reductio ad absurdum deal with the invocation of God as the omnipotent creator of all things” I use to paraphrase some Generative arguments as “God willed it.”

    I agree, finding proof against the innateness of langue is not really possible. In this, it doesn’t not conform to Popper’s prime criterium: falsifiability. How can you falsify this claim? And it doesn’t help that Generative Grammar (or whatever it’s called these days) has great internal cohesion: once the basic claims are accepted, all the rest flows.

    The only thing we can do is look at the arguments leading to this claim and see how they hold (actually, Pullum and Scholz made a very good case against them a few years back). From my standpoint, the main problem with the “poverty of stimulus” argument is what is considered “stimulus”. It takes for granted that language is made up of sentences, not words. Most of the things they claim children cannot learn, like complex structures, can be easily arrived at by starting not with the features of the structure itself, but the features of its components, i.e. the words.

    We have to remember that children learn words. They start by associating a meaning (right or not) to words, and using them one at a time. Then they figure that they can “join” two words together and get a new meaning. After this two-word step, they do not move on to three-word sentences, but rather sentences with any number of words. What happens it that they figure out that the word pair is, in itself, a unit, and that this unit can be joined to other units, be they words or other units. Once you know what you can (and cannot) do with words, it’s easy to build a language.

    The “poverty of stimulus” argument is like saying that building lego bridges is innate, because a child can build a lego bridge even if he has never seen one. All the elements are there (the child knows how lego bricks work, and he’s seen bridge), so where’s the poverty of stimulus?

  5. that is exacly how I view language development… poverty of stimulus? not a chance. children learn language because they are trained from the moment they are born. We all know kids are like little sponges, and they absorb everything that goes on around them. of course they absorb language - they observe it long before they are actually “taught”. And then, they are taught in explicit ways how to pronounce words, what words go together and in what order, etc. They are corrected continually as they make mistakes, and rewarded in small but meaningful ways when they get it right. 5 years or so of intense, non-stop training is certainly enough to make a child learn language; look at immersion situations among adults. Adults who are placed in an environment with a different language learn fairly quickly how to speak well; most learn a language to the point of intermediate within a year. That’s several years shorter than children typically learn to the same level, which accounts for some of the “poverty” Chomsky speaks of (developing cognitive faculties, etc.).

  6. I strongly believe that we can think without language. Language necessarily categorises the world and we see the world as the language shows us. This means that there is a big gap between the world as it and the world we perceive. Language system is a linear way of thinking and the objects in the world are presented in the form of symbols and the words take the place of objects. There are many people who claim that we see words. Many people have argued that we can not perceive an object if we do not have a word for it.
    Same is the case with thought. we can think without language and it is very much possible. All the new discoveries and things that we have come up with are the examples of this fact that we do think about things for which we do not have any word in the language they are called creative thinking.
    One of the creative activity is to relate few words and to make some sense out of it but the other kind of activity could be to think about something which is not expressible in language.

  7. I agree that language works as a filter between the world and us; I had this professor that used to say that language, in a way, was a theory: a way to comprehend, define what’s outside us.

    As for “seeing word,” I really doubt that anyone speaking a non-written language (which is probably what the majority of languages are) would make that claim.

    I forgot to link it, but I had a follow-up to this one, saying that (2) is also possible without language, based on this.

  8. Language is one of the ways to express thought. Thoughts can exist even without language.

    By language here I mean languages such as English, Hindi - those which contain alphabets, words and sentences. I know that one can say that any symbolic representation is a language. But it is just similar to saying all knowledge is metaphor. I wouldn’t get into it.

    Languages provides a convenient representation for communication. Its a formalism. As maths is use to explain many findings in science, language is used to explain thoughts. Now can science exist without maths ? Yes, it can.

    We will get a little back into evolution. There should definitely have been a time where we did not have languages. So people did find it difficult to put their ideas across and communicate. So they started drawing pictures. But pictures have a problem - they are polysemous. If I show you an apple, it can mean an apple, a fruit, a red color etc., So there is always an ambiguity in communication. So to avoid this our ancestors moved a little bit up the abstraction scale and languages were born. Some times even language is ambiguous and that is where a more strict formalism like mathematics comes in.

    A new born child doesn’t know language. But he would still have his thoughts. He develops his language only when he wants to communicate.

    Suppose I am the only person in the world - would I need language ?

    Suppose I have a very good understanding of what all neurons do and I can selectively excite a few neurons in another person’s brain. Now I can communicate just by exciting those neurons. So do I need language ?

    Language is a by product of intent to communicate. If you don’t have to communicate you don’t need language… Thought predates language - in evolution and development. So thought without language is very much possible.

  9. I agree that language is a by-product of intent to communicate. But as social animals, communication is one of the primordial needs humans face, from birth. And language has also evolved as a means to make sense of our surroundings, of our world. Another human need. In this sense, it is a by-product of thought.

    But let me play devil’s advocate here and point out that paleontological evidence shows us that prehistoric man already had a form of languge before moving on to drawing images (granted, images that stayed long enough to leave a trace for us to find).

    We can also wonder if a newborn child does think. Some would argue it is just instinct at this point or “animal thought”

    Would you need language if you were the only person in the world? I don’t know; half the time, if not most of the time, people use language to communicate with themseleves (inner dialog).

  10. yes we can think without language.
    but in some cases it is not possible such as we can take an example of a born child who is naturally deaf so for him or her it is not so easy to think without language.

  11. We will get a little back into evolution. There should definitely have been a time where we did not have languages. So people did find it difficult to put their ideas across and communicate. So they started drawing pictures. But pictures have a problem - they are polysemous. If I show you an apple, it can mean an apple, a fruit, a red color etc., So there is always an ambiguity in communication. So to avoid this our ancestors moved a little bit up the abstraction scale and languages were born. Some times even language is ambiguous and that is where a more strict formalism like mathematics comes in.

  12. You say that you only need language if you want to communicate, therefore we can think without language. Though though, at least reasoning and higher-than-instinct thought, is in many ways just “self-communication”.

  13. Thinking without Language?

    I will try to establish the concept of a symbolic system of representation. This concept should denote a general concept of a performance of which our language is only one single case. Nevertheless this general idea is best explained in the case of language: A system of representation should enable us to form the idea of a state of affair or an or an event without having the appropriate intuition of them. We usually do this in using language expressions. Theory of work which I have done is on the principle formed by the ‘’ Dieter Lohmar, Husserl theories of language’’

    Lets discuss it in detail now

    Language is one system of representation but we can in principle conceive of other systems of representations with the same performance. Alternative systems of representations are at least possible
    Human thinking seems to use in the first line language with concepts. There are some very useful phenomenological descriptions of how we think with the help of concepts. Most basic in this concern is the insight into the cooperation of acts that are dedicated to become the grounds for intuitive evidence of states of affairs, Husserl names them categorial acts and other acts that are dedicated to connect this intuition with elements of an representational system like language, Husserl calls them meaning-giving acts. In this complex interplay of meaning-giving and intuitive acts giving the evidences of categorial objects the most important movement is trying to adjust the expression to the intuition and not the other way around.
    Nevertheless we are able to interpret uttered language as sound words and sentences that points to the intuition usually connected with this sentences. So we can find back what the intuition words and judgements aim at. But this shows that language and the intuition of states of affairs are not unseparable. Language is a certain system of representation of states of affairs originally intuited. But this originary intuition is in contrast to the language representation more basic, originary and independent. With the help of language we are able to conceive the same state of affair that we have had intuitively before, and this is possible even in the absence of this intuition. This is generally speaking the central function of a system of representation.
    But as we realize the difference the distance of word and intuition of the state of affairs, sometimes we even realize the difficulty of adjusting language judgements to the evidence in intuition (and also vice versa of judgements understood to its corresponding intuition). This gives us a clear hint that language is only one of several possible systems of representation for cognitive contents that is working in our thinking.

    The expression of intuition in categorial acts can use different means of which I will name three basic types with their performance and their characteristic limitations.
    1. Language and codified gesture languages (ASL, …),
    2. Not codified gestures together with mimics and pantomimics,
    3. scenic phantasma of past and future events are suitable for their representation in singular thinking but they cannot be used for public communication. Such scenic phantasma are not only to be found in our nightly dreams but also in our daydreams.

    Thus the symbolic carrier of an conviction is the presupposition for the three essential performances of thinking: (1) the ability to awake and to keep in mind the same object of cognition (2) the ability to conclude to other cognitions from this one (3) the ability to manipulate our future possibilities (and also different hypotheses concerning the course of history in the past). These central performances allow me to manipulate the possible future of an object or event in different situations, ponder possible consequences, obstacles and solutions of problems. Essentially thinking is an active treatment of the contents of our cognition.
    If we understand thinking as the ability to awake, hold on and manipulate the contents of cognition even in the absence of the intuition of this states of affairs then we cannot deny that thinking needs to have a medium of symbolic representation. But this has not to be language. Language nevertheless gives us a hint at the most important feature of such a system of symbolic representation: I must be able to produce the material carriers of the symbols at any time, for example, I must be able to produce spoken or written words at any time either in public speech or in inner speech. I am able to think only if the symbolic carrier is in the way described ready at hand all the time. This carrier must achieve its meaning in a meaning-giving act based on the intuitive cognition (categorial intuition). This is true for language as for all other non-language systems of representation.
    Thus we may conclude what we already know: language is a usable carrier of cognitive meaning, it makes possible thinking and public communication because I can speak loudly any time. And in concern of inner thinking I can let my inner voice function as the carrier of thinking. But our conclusions can go also beyond this trivial insight because I now know at least one general feature of symbolic systems useful for thinking: I must be able to produce the carrier of symbols at any time - either in inner sensibility or in outer sensibility. Thus there can occur also internal carriers of meaning that allow for thinking but do not allow for public communication. And: there may be also carriers of symbols that allow for both like language, gestures and pantomimics. But it is obvious that in none of all this cases the carrier must be language, there are always alternatives

    Non-language systems of representation in humans
    In our own consciousness there is still functioning a non-language system of representation (reality). We are using simultaneously different systems of representation among them are language, gestures, feelings and scenic images.

    Which alternatives are there in our mind that might take over the function of a symbolic carrier of meanings? We may say: Language, codified gesture-language, non-codified gestures, pantomimics, scenic phantasma and perhaps also emotions.
    Our ability to communicate with gestures and pantomimics is broadly underestimated. I start with the example that I am in a foreign country and I cannot speak the local language but I must go to the airport. Then imagine the situation that I meet a taxi driver that I have to inform about my urgent wishes but without language. In this situation we will immediately start to communicate our wishes with the help of gestures, onomatopoetic means and pantomimics. [Example]
    This behaviour is very informative about our non-language systems of representation: We are starting without further thinking and we are very shure and have no uncertainties about our attempt to communicate in this way. And this reveals us that this non-language mode of communication is still alive all the time while we use language, for we have not to wonder about the “how” of this gestic-pantomimic communication. We simply start with it, as if we have done it all the time hiddenly. But this is only an example for public communication without language, now I would like to come to non-language modes of internal thinking.
    We are using scenic phantasma as expressions of our wishes and fears in our daydreams and thus they function as representations of cognitive contents. It is always a state of affair that we are wishing or are in fear of. But we do not only simply express our preferences and our view of the state of affairs in this means moreover it turns out that it is also a kind of action with this problems, a mental action.

    In daydreams we are playing the possible solutions of a problem through, we are mentally testing our options, their usefulness for a solution and their respective consequences. This life of scenic phantasma takes a big part of our conscious life but we rarely reflect this fact. I just mention some examples that everyone might know: Worries about urgent challenges or uncertainties that makes us sleepless in the night. There are many phantasies of having success. I would like to mention also empirical-psychological research that suggests that most grown up males think of sex every few minutes, and the mode of this thinking is definitely not conceptual. In this scenic episodes of our conscious life the language expressions are getting into the background in favour of pictorial elements. - I am not denying that we can also think about our wishes and problems with the help of language means and that in daydreams both is often merged, but what I want to stress is that we are using also non-language systems of representation.

    We also know that most higher developed mammals can dream. They show first signs of an attempt to act and emotions in this phases of their sleep which we are interpreting as dreamed episodes prolonging wake state actions and aims. We might therefore claim that the representation system with scenic phantasma is working in primates in dreams and wake state in the same way as in humans.
    We might also interpret our feelings as an important element of non-language systems of representations, functioning for example in the framework of the scenic pantasma. I think that we cannot interpret emotions as a selfstanding system of representation because we have always to presuppose another kind of representation in which we have in mind things or (possible) events that are object of the feelings. Emotions can easily grant the most important request for a system of representation for we can have them in an actual situation and we can “produce” them (but this is not arbitrary) also in the absence of the intuitive situation only in imagining it. The feeling of fury is moving me violently in a certain situation but also in mere thinking of the same situation later on. In both cases the feeling “tells” me something about the value of the event, it is a part of my inner “expression” that has a certain meaning. In thinking about a nice experience the pleasant feeling “means” the desirable quality of the event.
    [Another aspect that can be partly be expressed by feeling is the dimension of time: fearing an event points to the future character of an event, regret to past.]

    Daydreaming as old mode of thinking

    But now back to daydreams that also perform in their way a consistent representation of our wishes and fears. They mirror somehow our personal order of relevance between the two poles of events that should never happen and that should happen at any costs. They do not ask for a refined psychoanalytical hermeneutics (at least at the first glance). Daydreams additionally respect the identity of objects, causality and their order in time (this is something nightly dreams do not always respect), also from this point of view they can be accepted as a thinking activity with present and future reality.
    The framework of our order of relevance in possible events makes us also understand better why special daydreams must be experienced ever and ever as long as the urgent needs and fears remain the same and unaltered. But we have to be attentive to small modifications in this repetitions that represent my possible options in real action.
    To give an example: If I was pressed hard by an impertinent and agressive guy and I have given way to his demands due to the situation and the circumstances I will go through furiously this annoying situation in my daydreams a lot of times. But in doing this I will realize small variants of my behaviour and after some rounds in this scenic phantasma I realize the right solution to get rid of his agressive demands and I will register: This would have been the right reaction, if you have done this it would have stopped him! Nevertheless this insight is irreal and it cannot change the past, but it is a kind of action on reality that enables me in the next similar situation to act appropriately and to resist the unjust demands. The same is true for events I am anxiously expecting.
    The special scenic mode of daydreams allows for an interpretation of the daydream as an old mode of thinking. If I am worried in the mode of daydreaming then things and persons are occuring in pictorial representation and language shifts into the background. The contents of my worries is represented in scenic phantasma but every time with small modifications. And in this modifications we sometimes realize happy solutions for our problems: Winning in a lottery will solve in an easy way the pressing worries about money, working hard or suffering for some time from some privations will work as well. This shows clearly the function of the daydream as a non-language mode of thinking that can so to say “move” all problems in thoughts up to their possible solution. - I will not deny that in turning back from our inner life of scenic phantasma to other members of our group we will immediately change to a language-mode of communication, but this is only expressing what we have found with scenic means before.
    There is only a limited set of themes that primates living in groups have to be able to think about: 1. Objects, their present and future states and use (for example as a tool), as well as their value in my personal estimation and their value in the view of the community, i.e. the cultural value. 2. Events in present, past and future, their felt value and their probable consequences. 3. Other persons with their sensings, feelings, convictions and their practical intentions related to me and other members of the group. — I hope that I can leave it to You to find examples for the first two themes I let this task to the reader and concentrate on the last group of intentions of other persons.
    At first glance, it seems difficult to imagine a scenic image of the character of a person and of their probable behaviour towards me, especially within complex constellations with others who are involved in the action. But scenic phantasma offer a simple solution for this. In remembering a brutal former classmate, I see his face looking at me with evil eyes, with clenched fists, and ready to give me a beating. But this “image” is not simply an image of him, it is a characteristic scene within which I am present, writhing with pain from his beating and in fear of further beatings from him. This scene presents central aspects both of his character and of his future behavior.
    But scenic presentation of the attitude and the behaviour of a person need not be so one-dimensional as in the case mentioned, since normally there are multiple facets of the character of other persons that we should be able to present. Thus the question arises: How can I think a multitude of (changing) attitudes in a scenic mode? Think of a colleague with whom you work together successfully in most cases, but who occasionally appears with an air of high-nose arrogance. Both “faces”, i.e. both aspects of his character, may be represented in a scenic phantasma, one after the other, or, even, as mixed in a changing way, which results in an uncertain base for your plan-making. The character of possibility and uncertainty is thus present in the changing and merging faces of your colleague. We might interpret this changing image as a non-language form of the logical ?or“. His attitude towards other persons and other situations may be represented in a similar way since you can easily extend the characteristic scenes.
    The value and the use of objects can change, which is also reflected in the characteristic scene. For instance, if I own a car that usually breaks down and thus has to be towed off and repaired, the characteristic scene within which I am positively excited about my car is modified, and converted to one that is negative. The emotional aspects of this bad experience are especially mirrored in the characteristic scene: I no longer imagine the car with the joyful expectation of reliable use, but with the cheerless expectation of future harm, expense, and inconvenience. In this way, the two sorts of characteristic scenes – i.e., the characteristic scene that involves other subjects and the characteristic scene that involves objects or events – are analogous, insofar as both scenic presentations will change on the basis of the underlying scenic phantasma that give them their ground.
    In the first part of this essay I demonstrated the principle possibility of without language by discussing alternative systems of represen?ta?tion. In the second part, I argued for the necessity of the performance of non-language systems of representation of cognitive contents on the background of the history of human evolution and the astonishing abilities of primates. In the third part of the paper I discussed scenic phantasma in daydreams as a special system of representation, characterizing this process as an “old mode of thinking” employed by humans and probably also by primates. As a phenomenologist, I can not go further, for the empirical proof that primates are really thinking in the mode of scenic phantasma must be done by other sciences, for example, by experimental psychology or neuroscience.
    With our analyses the significance of language for human thinking is delimited in clear way. Language is by far not the only possible means of thinking and moreover it is not the only system of representation that is working factually in the human consciousness. It seems to be probable that the real basic performances of cognition and our conception of reality is based on more easier systems of representation that are still working in our mind. Public language and the concepts it uses is only a very superficial layer of the whole performance of thinking.
    Nevertheless, there is revealed a new and important task for phenomenological research: to analyze the mode of alternative systems of representation in humans.

What do you think?