Thought and language

William asked:

While written words symbolize spoken words, what do spoken words symbolize?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Imagine the following scenario:

After a long, desperate fight lasting all day and into the evening, the battle has been won.

A messenger is sent out to give the news to the King. He runs all night and all the next day, then collapses and dies from exhaustion before he is able to deliver the message.

If only written language had been invented! The message would have been delivered, whether the messenger lived or died, provided that he arrived at his destination.

But suppose that spoken language had not yet been invented, what then?

The battle has been won. But the only ones who know, are those who fought. And when, eventually, the weary warriors return home, how can they ever describe what they saw with their own eyes, judged with their own hearts and minds — corpses strewn over the battlefield, dismembered arms and legs, decapitated heads, the remaining enemy troops in full flight?

Michael Dummett remarks somewhere (it could have been in ‘What is a Theory of Meaning?’ either I or II) that ‘language increases the range of human perception’. You can look out the window to see that it is raining, or someone else can look out the window and tell you, in words, ‘Hey man, it’s raining!’

And so we are tempted to put forward the following analogy: just as written words reproduce (or ‘symbolize’) spoken words, so spoken words reproduce the language of thought.

When the warriors judge, ‘we have won the battle’, the thought they express, severally and collectively, is expressed in mental language, a language that has no ‘words’ or ‘sentences’ as such, and yet has the power, the capacity, to give meaning to spoken and written language (once it has been invented).

Dummett calls this the ‘encoding/ decoding’ model of language, which he claims is refuted by Wittgenstein’s argument against a ‘private language’ in Philosophical Investigations. (Dummett goes on to make some very questionable deductions from this about the necessity for a ‘theory of meaning’ which we need not go into.)

I endorse the view that language is necessary for thought. Before language (historically, spoken language) was invented, human beings simply did not have the power to ‘think’ the kinds of thoughts that language is able to express, specifically, thoughts about the past or future, or about generality. (This point is made persuasively by Jonathan Bennett in his book Rationality, 1964.)

Then Jerry Fodor came along with his The Language of Thought (1975) and gave the idea of ‘language in the brain’ a new twist. There has to be some ‘structure’ there to begin with for language learning to be possible, something ‘mental’ — although physically embodied in the brain — that is in some way isomorphic to written or spoken words.

However, Bennett’s point still stands. In an analogous way to Darwinian evolution, an individual human brain ‘evolves’ structures over time in response to human interaction and other external circumstances (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1991), and it is plausible to claim that the ‘language of thought’, if there is such a thing, only came into being as spoken (and written) language developed.

What Darwinian evolution gave homo sapiens was the extra plasticity required to build structures in the brain where none had existed before, which then enabled the development of language. As with other evolved structures (a wing, for example) we can hypothesize that some survival benefit was conferred by this extra brain plasticity apart from the capacity to develop language — but that’s just speculation.

What, then, do spoken words symbolize? Written or spoken words represent that something is the case, or is not the case: something that is true if the words represent that something is the case and it is the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is not the case, or false if the words represent that something is the case and it is not the case, or if the words represent that something is not the case and it is the case. — That’s how Aristotle explained the concept of truth.

The technical term that we would now use for this is: ‘truth conditions’. Instead of looking for some ‘thing’ in the brain that is the ultimate bearer of meaning, we describe what meaning does, what it is, in effect. Statements, or judgements, made in written or spoken language, have truth conditions, and that is how they get their ‘meaning’. That is how language is able to work.

You might object to this that nothing has really been explained. Isn’t there still a mystery about how meaning — or the capacity to express thoughts or statements that have truth conditions — can arise at all? There is much that we still do not know. But I am going to leave it there.

One thought on “Thought and language

  1. Thank you for the sources. I should read up on this stuff. I definitely still have questions. Your summary of Aristotle, for example, seems to assume all language comes in declarative sentences which are truth-valued propositions. What about interrogatives and commands and exclamations? Even some declaratives are not clearly truth-valued. Are normative statements like, “You should do this or that,” true or false?

    Thank you also for your lucidity. I appreciate information that is presented in a well written way. I also commend the consideration of ancient Greek thought which I’m convinced shows that we are not one iota more intelligent than the earliest recorded history indicates our ancestors were. In fact, putting aside inevitable discoveries that took us thousands of years to discover, we are probably degenerating. Modern thinking about language based on naturalist assumptions seems to be a point in case. Talk of “invented” language strikes me as patently absurd.

    I’m reminded of a story of an ancient king who wanted to know what language was the first language and to discover this he put two children in isolation. Their needs were provided for but no one was allowed to speak to them. When they were older, the kind asked, “What language are they speaking?” The answer, of course, was nothing.

    I think we should be a little more intelligent than that king. We should be able to figure out that language is learned and if learned, cannot even be invented either or at least, not from scratch. Obviously, language evolves and new languages can be invented by borrowing or just plain natural modification as with pidgin. But naturalist assumptions about language having been invented,
    besides sounding desperate and silly, are just plain incoherent. Quote for me someone who makes that coherent. I’m guessing we do not know what made animal grunts into meaningful words, but if we don’t know, then why are we assuming that is what happend at all? Is that a scientific or philosophical assumption? And what makes that a good one either way?

    I also noticed you didn’t quote Chomsky. I have not read him myself but I was under the impression that he more or less proved there is something innate about language. I don’t think there is anything you say that contradicts that, but you seem to be taking pains, as I imagine Chomsky probably does as well, to fit “innate” (and the whole host of mental phenomena implied by language) into some reductionist materialist view of the universe.

    This is a philosphy website–not a science website, so I do not see why there should be any reticence to enage in a little mind/body philosphy if that is what is called for. I understand the Wittgensteinian approach, “wherefore we cannot speak, we must be silent,” but then that is a prescription for dealing with transcedent realities. And if that is what we are up against when dealing with language, why can’t people just admit that?

    I’m beginning to realize, the question, “what do spoken words symbolize?” was a poorly phrased question. On one level, the answer is trivial. What is symbolized depends on the word. Whatever the word, the answer would have to be some part of speech — a noun is symbolized or a preposition and so on. To your credit, I think you realized I was asking something else. But even now, not even I, really know how to ask about what I am wondering about.

    A better, but still inadequate question is: “What is the ontological status of a word.” But that fails to address symbols and symbolizing and reference or what/who is referencing what. I am or my words are or we both are referencing…

    Enough for now….

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