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28 November 2010

Do We Think In Language: Addendum

In a recent post I wrote that thought does not take place in or through language, and I glossed over those times when we do speak to ourselves without vocalization. This is quite interesting.

The confusion that I pointed to in that post may stem from the tempting idea that this talking to oneself is prior to talking to others, as if we first and foremost talk to ourselves – and this we call “thinking” – and then we express these thoughts vocally. This view is ingrained in Western culture and philosophy, the conception of a human being as an isolated individual with a precarious relationship with the “external world” and “other minds”, acquainted with its own inner thoughts before anything else.

It seems clear to me that this conception is badly wrong. Things are exactly the other way around. We are first and foremost social beings, and talking to oneself is just an odd kind of talking to others. It is social interaction where there is nobody to interact with. This might seem like just a subtle shift of emphasis, but I think it’s important: we do not begin as isolated subjects, but as worldly, social, bound-up beings.

I think this is exactly what Wittgenstein is getting at in his “private language argument”. There can be no private language to name inner states, because language is only ever social or potentially so: this must be its essence, if it can be said to have an essence at all. Wittgenstein showed that much of traditional philosophy, especially the epistemology that began with the scepticism of Descartes, implies that such a private language is possible, that we are separated from the world by a veil of perception, behind which we can philosophically doubt the existence of physical objects and other minds beyond the veil.

But so far I haven’t read the relevant passages of Philosophical Investigations, so I won’t say much more about this now. Is it wrong to be convinced before I’ve actually read it? Probably.

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