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Language and Thinking

cogito, ergo sum.

That old Descartes chestnut? Well, yes and no. Many (if not most) people I know (both personally and electronically) tell me that language influences their way of thinking to such an extent that both are almost one and the same thing.

I had, for a very long time, extreme problems in understanding, even believing, such statements. I was convinced these people were somehow pulling my leg. Or that we grossly misunderstood each other. I simply could not relate to this alleged dominance of language over thought because my brain just doesn't work like that (and after all, the way my brain works is the only way I know… indeed, it's the only way I will ever know!).

However, after many long discussions I am now beginning to see that there must be two (perhaps more) fundamentally different modes of thinking. Some people think in language. Others don't.

Well, I don't. But trying to elucidate (or explain) this… that's an uphill struggle if there ever was one: I have to use language to explain something that for me is beyond language. But being the fool that I am, here goes.

I can think about something (a philospohical, scientific, trivial, complex thing: whatever) for a long time, contemplate that aspect and this, and while I do that I will not once get “down” to the level of language. Instead, I produce a sort of complex knot of interconnected “symbols” (for want of a better word) that I keep in my mind. I can mentally manipulate that knot but I do not use words of any known language for that manipulation (that's why I just used the word symbol). I can keep a complex thought as one such knot in my head, as a whole, whereas, if I have to put the same thought into words, it inevitably unravels and forms a long, one-dimensional string.

In other words, I will only resort to language, to actual words, whether German or English or French, if I want to say something: share the fruits of my mental labours with others, thereby transforming them into speech, either written or spoken.

Let me employ a picture here (the very fact that I have to resort to “pictures” speaks volumes): such a thought-knot is like a 3-D pullover in my mind, complete with trunk, arms, collar, perhaps made up of many strands of multi-coloured wool etc. But once I want to talk about that pullover, I have to start somewhere. I can't just transport the whole thing as I am holding it in my head to other people.

Instead, I have to go through the keyhole of language: I produce a long string of words as if I were unravelling the wool that makes up the pullover in my head. Thoughts, in order to pass through the keyhole of language, have to undergo such a transformation, just as a pullover has to be turned into a long string of wool to be drawn through a real keyhole. And once the wool is through that keyhole, I can only hope that the person I am talking to is able to take it and re-knit the pullover in her head.

And there's more. I harbour, since my earliest days, a deep mistrust towards language. After all, a language, any language, is just a random product. It is like it is purely by chance, the outcome of many accidents. It has an important function as a tool, sure, and it more or less fulfills that function. But how can a language encapsulate everything? It can't, of course. Try to encapsulate the redness of the colour red in words; try to encapsulate the higgledy-piggledy way a butterfly flutters by in words; try to encapsulate the face of a beautiful woman in words; try to encapsulate Beethoven's Ninth in words. (Re the latter two: I am not talking about the emotions that flow though me while I see the face or hear the music: I am talking about encapsulating the actual face or music, so that you can tell someone else, who has never seen or heard it, how it looks or sounds in such a way that he would recognise it.)

Yes, yes, I know: language wasn't made for that. But that's not my point. What I (for whom words are merely tools) find amazing is how many people are prepared to take language for the real thing, the importance language has for them and their thinking. I know someone who is bilingual, Arabic and English, and he claims he thinks differently in Arabic. I have no doubts that he does but that difference is exactly what I can't understand for the life of me… and vice versa that is what many other people can't understand about my refusal to accept that “I am thinking in language”.


$updated from: Language and Thinking.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:24 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$