Thursday, April 04, 2013

Muller on Thought and Language

The Ancient Greeks used the word 'logos' to symbolize two sorts of things today we usually keep separate: on the one hand thoughts, and on the other hand spoken words. Not even written words (like these words on the screen in front of you) were regarded as highly as spoken words. Only the spoken word carried the immediate force of a persons thoughts. They carried the force of a person`s soul, their purpose, even their life. Words on the page were dead letters, hollow reminders of things once spoken.

Reading through Friedrich Max Muller's lectures on Natural Religion, just how far our intellectual convictions in the 21st century have wandered from Ancient preoccupations was impressed upon me. More recent figures like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke could have still carried on an agreeable conversation with the Ancients about things that follow as a consequence of the intimate relationship between spoken words and thoughts. Intuitively, I think, we should also be able to recognize what they are talking about. We each have our own 'internal monologue' by which we think through ideas in the form of a more or less broken conversation with ourselves. (Please tell me I am not the only one!) But we don't place the same sort of theoretical value on the distinction between our internal monologue with ourselves and an external dialogue with other people (or with yourself, though that usually attracts the concerned attention of other people.)

Muller establishes, fairly persuasively in my estimation, that no human being thinks without words. Our knowledge of language comes out of processes of socialization, especially early on in life. Knowledge of language allows for the communication of desire, purpose, or query. All of those 'higher cognitive functions' seem to depend on a mastery of language. Now that is not to say that other animals do not cognize and communicate. But what they lack, Muller thinks, is the ability to abstract and categorize, analyze and synthesize--specifically those things that have allowed human beings to cultivate the ground, transform the natural world, build up a civilization, and write books and blogs about it, wondering what it is to be a being that has words--logoi.

The conclusion he eventually puts to his readers is still manages to be something of an eye-opener.
The reason why real thought is impossible without language is very simple. What we call language is not, as is commonly supposed, thought plus sound, but what we call thought is really language minus sound. That is to say, when we are once in possession of language, we may hum our words, or remember them in perfect silence, as we remember a piece of music without a single vibration of our vocal chords...But as little as we can reckon without actual or disguised numerals, can we reason without actual or disguised words.
The first part of Muller's observation is strange enough on its own. It never dawned on me to ask myself whether language was thought plus sound or thought was language minus sound. The comparison itself is intelligible enough. I have thoughts, and you can't hear them unless I speak my thoughts, at which point my thought become audible words. But I never thought the difference might be theoretically productive.

Muller's decision against defining language as thought plus sound in favour of thought as language minus sound is even more perplexing. (Hence I am blogging about it.) The decision corresponds well with the above noted observation that our knowledge of language--and our ability to think--comes through processes of socialization. We don't just make up our own words. Someone, usually parents, teaches us how to use them. The decision also conceptualizes words as objects of study. They are cast as things that we can both look at and think about, and then have a conversation about. They are perceptible objects, ultimately not reducible to the interpretive whims of persons.

But does Muller's account make sense of our individual experience using words? When he says thought is language minus sound, he seems to suggest that the language we use does our thinking for us. And, no doubt, there is something to this. If people spend enough time together, talking to each other, they end up thinking more or less on the same lines. We tend to listen to and read things that confirm our sense of the world around us.

I have to wonder, though. I personally have had a not infrequent experience of lacking the right words to express my intention. The words don't correspond quite right to an objective states of affairs, and so I find myself unable to communicate my meaning. The result is that the logoi in my head don't always seem to match up with the logoi in someone else head. The only thing to be done is root around in my head for better words or better ways of stringing words together.

The Ancient Greek idea of logos is able to make sense of this situation. It locates intelligence both inside and outside a person's head, but doesn't require that the correspondence between them be completely transparent. About Muller's conception of language, I am not so sure. If thought is really just language minus sound, if the correspondence really is transparent, one has to wonder who is doing the thinking.

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