Thinking Without Language

On Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel has a very interesting post about the relation between rationality or consciousness and language. He cites an example given in a paper by Andre Roch Lecours and Yves Joanette. It is very interesting story, please go to Eric’s place and read it first if you haven’t already.

Eric is very careful not to read too much from the “single anecdote transmitted second-hand”, but to me the conclusion from the anecdote seems pretty straightforward, and sensible.

First, wouldn’t it be hard to give a new name to a phenomenon, if we can’t think about the phenomenon without actually having words for it?

Think of the IQ tests (if you have solved one), and some of those problems with figures. When one thinks of which figure doesn’t fit, or something like that, what we do are things like rotating the figure in our minds (excuse my French), or imagining the mirror figure, or something like that. That is surely thinking and conscious act, and it doesn’t seem that it is done in language.

Take also playing of chess. A good chess player, might simply see that some move is wrong, without actually being able to explain or put into words why the move is wrong. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t aware that the move is wrong, he is fully conscious that the move is wrong, just it shows that his thinking is not done on linguistic level. Even simple tracking in the mind of the moves which are on the table doesn’t have to be correlated with words. I can be aware of the possibility of moves as such, without having words for them.

But why those “voices in our heads” then? What is their function, if we don’t think in terms of language?

Here is my thought on this…

The language is practice in the community, it is so very present that we are probably unaware just how much of our practices are related to language. Every informing, asking, expressing opinion, promising, threating, joking, and so on as social practices are related to language.  It is no wonder then, that we think of our experience in the world in terms of those practices, or to use the ‘language game’ metaphor, because we play language games so much, when we encounter different things, we tend to think  in terms of the possibilities that they relate to this playing a language games.

I want to relate this with the known phenomenon of how playing other games affect us.

Here are some examples Wired’s article Real World Doesn’t Use a Joystick:

Here is just one example, check the posts for more…

Taylor also said that after reviewing Quake III he had trouble getting his mind out of the game. “I’d play it, then walk out into the office corridor and realize I was looking at my co-workers as potential targets,” said Taylor. “I was so used to killing anything that moved.”

I think this is particularly interesting example related to the issue at hand:

Any addictive game can have a similar effect: The more someone plays, the more likely they are to stay mentally inside even afterward. And immersive games like Electronic Arts’ The Sims are frequently to blame, given the countless hours players put into them.  “When I played (it) a lot,” said Laura Martin, a devotee of the game, “I remember thinking, ‘What percent of my bladder is full?’ to decide if it was time to head to the bathroom.”

As I read this it says that Laura started to think in terms of the game which she was playing a lot. It is true that she used language to express what she thought, but I think that is just a consequence of necessity to express her thinking some way. Of course, without type of experiments done by Eric (and even with them) it is hard to solve this.

For what is worth, I know the feeling, as after long playing of Tony Hawk Pro Skater, when I was moving through the world I was thinking of the possibilities to grind on most ‘grindable’ things I was seeing. (For the record, in real life, I haven’t even try to skate. Also haven’t kill people.)
So, I guess you get the general idea, that the playing of the games affects what kind of possibilities we think of when we look at the world, and that because of playing the language game A LOT, we are inclined to think in terms of this (something like ‘what I would say to describe this situation’. Again, I use language here, but you get the point).

And, while at this, here is another way that things from the games can spill to our ‘real life’… Daily Bits has a post about Top 6 Bizarre Online Gaming Incidents.

6 thoughts on “Thinking Without Language

  1. When trying to explain to other people I decision I make, I sometimes use the “internal voice” metaphor:

    “So, I went to the shop on the 5th Street and I was about to buy the item, when something told me ‘you better not do this purchase'”

    There was no internal voice, really. But it seems easier to describe the decision in these terms.

    Intuitively, I feel that thinking is fully non-verbal, with some “voice module” in the brain being connected to the “thought processor” and doing an almost full-time translation. I am not sure why that is. There may be no “why”, just a random output of the evolution game.

    Also, there are reports from people doing meditation (yoga) and also from those who take psychedelic drugs, indicating that it is possible to think without words during certain altered states. I assume this kind of anecdotal evidence might be harder to accept though.

  2. Thinking seems to be related to languge in the shallow meaning. But in the deeper sense it has little relation to a language. Just in the case of a person found from the jungle without any knowledge of human llanguages, with what language will he be thinking?. Surely without any language he might be thinking in images. As far as i believe human (even animals) think in images. Matching patterns or the images in the sub-concious with the perceived image, new knowledge emerges in the mind.

  3. AS one must begin by accepting the T.without L. concept as a contradiction in terms and , in consequence, acknowledge Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that one cannot see an environment whilst one is enveloped by it, the whole principle of introspection is self-defeating because there is no environment more universally pervasive than language.
    NEVERTHELESS, since without a mind to contemplate it, nothing has any consequential existence, (or should that be existential consequence?), I will attempt no explanation here, but leave it to the reader to respond, if they will, with questions that indicate the basic premise of what they do understand – or believe they could understand.
    SUFFICIENT to say that I have been fortunate to have studied this matter first-hand for over 35 years, with a foot in both camps so to speak. I am now 78, with a Deaf son of 48, who refused all communication other than pictorial (even sign language) from the age of 3 and 1/2 years. Even so, without language, he has been tested and rated as having an I.Q. above 125.
    IT HAS proved an interesting life once I accepted the frustration created by the “normal” world, and ceased to have emotion (beyond constant on-going disappointment. “People don’t want to know.’ (Sigmund Freud)

  4. I agree with the author of this article – Tanasije Gjorgoski and Sendra. According to me, without any language, a baby can still think, a person who is deaf when he/she was born can think too.

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