Thinking in words – or not?

Jan asked:

What are the arguments for and against the proposition that humans think in words?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

All arguments ‘for’ are driven by philosophical, linguistic, and even religious notions, as well as certain intuitive ideas based on the peculiarity that humans are alone among all species of animals with this capacity.

It is an attractive proposition to say to ourselves, as we think, “I’m thinking with words”, because that’s what we commonly seem to do. I’m doing this right now, thinking as I’m writing these words. By the same token, I am aware — as perhaps we should all be — that before I put pen to paper, there is an idea in my head I wish to express, and this idea is not a sequence of words — rather the words come as I write, as if my thinking mind triggers a process that collects the words ‘on the fly’, so to speak. Exactly the same pertains to speaking, which is precisely the reason that makes me write a speech down before I deliver it. I cannot trust my mind to make me think with the right words if I speak without prior preparation, and therefore writing them down is a safeguard against getting stuck or confused, letting wrong words slip out or simply missing something that I wish to say.

All these familiar hiccups are an argument ‘against’. I have known people who can “speak like a book”, but they are rare. And this applies to writing as well. Just look at the most common problem that afflicts writers: They grimace at their text and wonder why the words just don’t seem to reflect what they were intended to say. Tolstoi is reputed to have written War and Peace seven times over; and I think (again with few exceptions) this is the rule. For everyone, speaker or writer, it’s a struggle to find the right words to express their ideas.

This is not forgetting that words do not generally stand alone, but must obey the grammar and syntax of the language and that, importantly, most words must be fitted to this mould specifically, i.e. must occupy a specific place in the sequence, which is not predetermined, but can vary depending on the intended message.

There is enough in the above to show that thinking is not done with words. On the contrary, these struggles testify against it. If we thought with words, why do we make mistakes? It’s illogical to believe that I think words and then can’t speak or write them! So all this points to some faculty that is connected to, but not identical with, the “dictionary” and “grammar primer” in our memory. But we have to be careful to keep ambiguity at bay. It means that, although thinking is not done in words, nor with words, the words and grammar are ‘in reserve’, like infantry, cavalry, artillery etc. lining up for battle. In other words: We must have learnt the words as well as grammar and syntax first, before thinking is possible. And, incidentally, every infant would (if they could!) tell you the same thing.

Therefore the answer to this dilemma is the existence, in our brain, of verbal and motor cortices, all connected to the conceptual faculty and memory, which do this work for us. As I start to think with intention to speak or write, my cortices go hunting for the words, put them in sequence and activate the appropriate muscles — lips and tongue, or the hand driving a pen or tapping a keyboard. All the errors I mentioned above are reminders that it is a far from perfect performance. If we really thought in words, these things would not happen!

To sum up: I am not, generally speaking, convinced that science is in possession of appropriate tools to handle the many subject-related topics on which philosophy thrives; and this includes theories of the mind. But there are exceptions; and on your question we have one of these few, in that neurophysiology has by and large succeeded in unravelling an issue on which, as it turns out, philosophy is not well equipped to offer a plausible explanation from its own stock of concepts.

One thought on “Thinking in words – or not?

  1. Fascinating! I’ve often wondered how organic our words and ideas really are, and how much will simply adapt them into our own minds. something has to be organically ‘ours’ for there to be anything new, surely, but what is it? I remember reading that the area of the brain which processes language develops separately from the area which uses language. One wonders whether ‘language’ is even the same thing in both cases.

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