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15 October 2010

Do We Think In Language?

It surprises me how often people express the opinion that we think in language, as if when we think we are talking to ourselves internally. No doubt we do sometimes talk to ourselves in this way, but I don’t think this is the primary stuff of thought.

Although I’m fairly well convinced that thought does not take place in or through language, I do suspect that it could not take place without it. In other words, thought and language may be inextricably linked, both in evolution and individual development, but I think it’s wrong to say that thinking takes place in language just as talking, or talking to oneself, take place in language.

I play saxophone, and I like to improvise. This certainly involves thinking: when I improvise I am mentally manipulating forms of some kind, and the elements of those forms – aside from, or underlying, the explicit musical elements such as scales, intervals and patterns – are primary elements of thought, some of which I can only describe metaphorically: things like growth and decay, expansion and contraction, purpose and resolution, turbulence and stasis; and analogues of physical concepts such as gentleness, lightness, massiveness, force, shock and surprise.

What I am definitely not doing is saying to myself, in my head,

Hm, I think I’ll just extend this note for a short while longer and then maybe I’ll pick up the phrase I began the solo with, but transposing it down a third, increasing the volume and giving it more attack. That way I’ll build a feeling of insistence and mounting tension.

The thought of repeating that first phrase pops into consciousness without going near language (though I don’t mean that it’s random or unrelated to my previous thoughts). That is not to say that it does not somehow depend on language, or depend on having language.

With any skill at all (except writing or talking, obviously), if you are in the zone you are certainly operating cognitively, and it seems equally certain that you are not operating in the medium of language.

Here’s something I saw somewhere on the web. Compare this..

1654 – 792 = ?

...with this…

Please try not to understand this sentence.

You can avoid processing the first but not the second, indicating different cognitive processes. Therefore, while it is likely that our mathematical faculty is conditioned by our natural history as language-users, it is not right to say that the thinking involved in the calculation is taking place in language.

EDIT: Clearly it’s all about how we want to define thinking. In this post I was swayed by the modern habit of equating it with cognition, but it is perhaps more in keeping with ordinary usage – and also more useful – to use it to refer to cognition that takes place in language, in which case thinking obviously does take place in language. I look at things a bit further in this post

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