Language and Thought: Separate but Equal?

Some have argued that there is a realm of thought that is outside of language and yet parallel to it, a kind of extra domain in which humans communicate without words, sharing their innermost selves with others. This doesn’t seem quite right though. Or at least not right in the sense that what is being proposed is a kind of special language, a language without words. The argument goes further, suggesting that because non-human animals can recognize one another and communicate, that something very deep is happening here and that this shows that language is really only a surface phenomenon, that real communication is much deeper and language superficial. Here a kind of mysticism obtains, a belief in the power of the poetry of souls, of inner contacts between speakers that transcends what is said. Look at other creatures, the supporters of a view like this suggest, see how they know one another and without words. And can’t our pets see us and understand our wants and needs, too? And can’t we understand theirs and all without the exchange of linguistic utterances?

Well of course there’s inter-species as well as intra-species recognition. But that doesn’t mean there is also thought at work, unless one defines by “thought” the whole range of mental life in a subjective entity, i.e., an entity with wants and needs capable of acting autonomously to achieve them. Dogs and cats, mice and birds, lizards and amphibians and fish all presumably have feelings (sensations) and are capable of acting on them. But do we say of the rat in a maze in a research lab, that he is thinking about the cheese and how to reach it? Is thought just awareness of sensations and reacting to them? Isn’t there more to thought as such than just having awareness, a mental life?

Language rests on certain mental faculties which include things like this, things that constitute being a subject. These faculties include awarenesses of perceptions and proprioceptions, of the feelings of emotion, and of needs generally. Awareness is the important thing here, for being aware, at some level, is essential to being a living creature though that awareness need not be very high level or sophisticated. Even microorganisms act and react to stimuli. When there’s a nervous system (or, presumably, some equivalent) those actions and reactions gain efficacy of course. The mouse is more capable than the amoeba, the cat more capable than the mouse. Nor is this limited to mammals for birds also show sophisticated capacities in this way as do some mollusks (e.g., the octopus). But none of these appear to have what we humans have: a sense of self, a selfhood. What makes that possible if not our language capabilities?

Without conceptualization there is no selfhood and without language how could we conceptualize anything? Without language how could there even be the phenomenon we recognize in ourselves as empathy, the state of seeing the other as like ourselves? There can, of course, be genetically dictated interactivity, as when one creature encounters another that it is genetically predisposed to recognize and interact with in some fashion. But does the tiger, in seizing its prey, recognize a fellow creature in its jaws? Or when encountering another like itself think ah, here is another like me?

Language, of course, is embedded in the broader mental life of the speaker a mental life consisting of subjective events: of feeling and perceiving, wanting and having appetites, etc. Language, as an aspect of behavior (for what else is it but the use of utterances, gestures and signs to do things in response to what one experiences?), is built on our signaling repertoire, inherited from those ancestral creatures to which we owe our presence today. Language is expressive. It includes the signaling capacities of its speakers, a capacity which language commandeers to achieve something else, something that makes it more than mere signaling: the capacity to represent, to single out some aspects of perceived reality from other aspects, some things from other things, and thus call attention to one aspect of our sensory world rather than another. But we can have expressiveness, through signaling, without the representative capacities language delivers. That’s how signaling works in other creatures after all.

What makes the difference then? Conceptualizing must be the answer, for once you can form concepts you can represent and representing is necessary to thinking about oneself as a self. Concepts are how we organize our signaling modalities in order to depict, to represent things. Concepts enable us to distinguish and explain, to report to others the world as we find it . . . and to think about things beyond this present moment and location. Without concepts everything is gut level, as it is for non-language using creatures, but with them we unfold a world, turning the inchoate of sensory inputs that we obtain through our sensing faculties, the experience pouring in upon us, into a world of past, present and future, a world of what is here and what is there—even if the “there” in question is beyond our immediate ken. But the fact that we have language (and what it makes possible) doesn’t mean we lose all the rest. The rest just becomes a kind of background for us most of the time.

The world is only that for us because we organize our sensory inputs by seeing them in certain relations, relations that become possible because, by becoming language, our utterances can do representing work they cannot do for us as mere signaling functions. To represent, we must be able to carve up our sensory inputs into relational phenomena. In this way we segment the inchoate world of the senses into things and locations—and into ideas and thoughts. But before there are any of these categories there is the undifferentiated world of sensation in the raw. Our brains have developed to enable differentiating, sorting and arranging. And language is how it is done.

Language is the facility our brains possess, however it came about (and there is certainly controversy here, i.e., whether it inherent as language within us, a la Chomsky, or is it built up from deeper, non-linguistic capacities we put to new uses as per a Chomsky critic like Daniel Everett. But it is language that give us the ability to turn the ongoing flow of our sensory inputs into a world. It does this by enabling us to create concepts through our inherited signaling mechanisms.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the broader ocean of subjectiveness in which language swims is nothing. But our deeper subjectness, the experience we have of being subjects with wants and needs, hopes and dreams, beliefs and anticipations, is only something for us because it is part of our world, too. Like the things that we recognize as objects in our world through representations, so, too are our thoughts representations, like all the rest. That is, we can talk about the thoughts we have, too.

The idea that there are two domains of separate but equal significance in human life, an explicit domain of words and an implicit one of deeper passions, of unspoken communications between humans, is misleading because our awareness of being a thinking subject exists and functions only within the wider sea of subjective experience itself. The condition of awareness that we construe as the mental life we possess is not a phenomenon that runs parallel with our explicitating capacities, our ability to use and apply language to our world. One rests, rather, on the other. Language, and the concepts it enables, and the selfhood we learn to see as what we, ourselves, are and which conceptualizing makes possible when we turn our concept forming mechanism inward, are all inextricably linked.

And all rest on the subjective condition that constitutes being a living entity. Subjectness, the state of being a subject, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for language to occur. But language, when it appears in an organism, the result of a growing capacity for gathering, retaining and arranging information, flows through this broader sea. Like the Gulf Stream current in the Atlantic, it courses through a wider and deeper milieu, a part of it but not the same as it. Without the sea there can be no flowing but without the flow, the sea cannot know itself.

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