Language and Thought

Language and thought from the Psychology of Thinking by Thomson
Language and thought from the Psychology of Thinking by Thomson

Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Abraham Lincoln

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
Robert Frost

Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.
Humphry Davy

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.
Benjamin Franklin

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect – freedom of thought and freedom of action.
Frank Murphy


It is evident that there is a close connection between th capacity to use language and the capacities covered by the verb “to think”. Indeed some writers have identified thinking wit using words; Plato coined the aphorism, “In thinking the soul is talking to itself”; J. B. Watson reduced thinking to inhibite speech located in the minute movements or tensions of the physiological mechanisms involved in speaking; and although Ryle is careful to point out that there are many sense: in which a person is said to think in which words are not in evidence, he has also said that saying something in specific frame of mind is thinking a thought.

Is thinking reducible to, or dependent upon, language habits? It would seem that many thinking situations are hardly distinguishable from the skilful use of language, although there are some others in which language is not involved. Thought cannot be simply identified with using language. It maybe the case, of course, that the non-linguistic skills involved in thought can only be acquired and developed if the learner is able to use and understand language. However, this question is one which we cannot hope to answer in this book. Obviously being able to use language makes for a considerable development in all one’s capacities but how precisely this comes about we cannot say.

At the common-sense level it appears that there is often a distinction between thought and the words we employ to communicate with other people. We often have to struggle hard to find words to capture what our thinking has already grasped, and when we do find words we sometimes feel that they fail to do their job properly. Again when we report or describe our thinking to other people we do not merely report unspoken words and sentences. Such sentences do not always occur in thinking, and when they do they are merged with vague imagery and the hint of unconscious or subliminal activities going on just out of range. Thinking, as it happens, is more like struggling, striving, or searching for something than it is like talking or reading. Words do play their part but they are rarely the only feature of thought. This observation is supported by the experiments of the Wurzburg psychologists reported in Chapter Eight who showed that intelligent adaptive responses can occur in problem-solving situations without the use of either words or images of any kind. “Set” and “determining tendencies” opearte without the actual use of language in helping us to think purposefully and intelligently.

Again the study of speech disorders due to brain injury or disease suggest that patients can think without having adequate control over their language. Some patients, for example, fail to find the names of objects presented to them and are unable to describe simple events which they witness; they even find it difficult to interpret long written notices. But they succeed in playing games of chess or draughts. They can use the concepts needed for chess playing or draughts playing but are unable to use many of the concepts in ordinary language. How they manage to do this we do not know. Yet animals such as Kohler’s chimpanzees can solve problems by working out strategies such as the invention of implements or climbing aids when such animals have no language beyond a few warning cries. Intelligent or “insightful” behaviour is not dependent in the case of monkeys on language skills: presumably human beings have various capacities for thinking situations which are likewise independent of language.

from The Psychology of Thinking by Robert ThomsonSalva


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