« PreviousContinue »
LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT.
• What should we be without Language ? FTER we have finished our survey of the lanA guages which are spoken at present over the civilised world, and which have been spoken there so long as we know anything of the presence of the human race on this planet of ours, it is time to ask the question, what language really is. .
Now I ask, Do you know anything in the whole world more wonderful than language ?
No doubt, even if we were not able to speak, we should still be able to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, and to feel.
We could taste what is sweet and like it, and taste what is bitter and dislike it. We might run away from the fire, because it burns, and turn towards the water, because it is cool, or because it quenches our thirst; but we should have no words to distinguish fire from water, or hot from cold, or sweet from bitter. We should be like children who have burnt their fingers and cry, who have tasted sugar and smile, who have swallowed vinegar and howl. Some people might call this running away from what hurts, and turning towards what is pleasant, rational, just as they say that a dog is rational because he runs away from his master when he raises his stick, and jumps up at him when he holds out a piece of meat.
If by a bold metaphor this is to be called reason, we need not object, if only we distinguish between conscious and unconscious, between worded and unworded reason, and if we remember that, by using reason in that very enlarged sense, we may be driven in the end to call even the shutting of our eyes at the approach of a blow an act of reasoning.
However, with or without language, we might certainly do all this, and a great deal more. We might fight and kill, we might love and protect. We might, if we were very clever, accumulate dispositions and habits which by repeated inheritance would enable our descendants to build nests, or warrens, or beehive huts. The strongest might possibly learn to act as sentinels and make themselves obeyed; the weaker sex might even invent signals of danger and other signs of communication.
I doubt not that chivalrous and unchivalrous feelings also might be aroused in our breast, such as we see among the higher animals, and that jealousy and revenge as well as friendship and love might influence our actions.
But with all this, imagine that we were sitting here, looking at one another with a kind of goodnatured bovine stare, but without a single word, not only on our lips, but in our minds ; our mind being in fact a mere negative plate, without our being able to lay hold of any of the outlines drawn on it, by saying this is this, and this is that!
Definition of Thinking. Some philosophers, as you know, hold that men, like animals, though they possessed no language, might still sit silent and think. Unfortunately they do not tell us what they mean and what they do not mean by thinking, but it seems clear that they use. thinking as synonymous with every kind of mental activity. Des Cartes, when discussing his fundamental principle, Cogito ergo sum, did the same; but, as an honest philosopher, he warned us that he used cogitare in that widest sense !, so as to include sensation, perception, memory, imagination, and all the rest. If the meaning of to think is avowedly stretched to that extent, no one would dream of denying that animals, though speechless, can think, and that we also could think without language, that is to say, without ever having possessed language, without knowing one word from another.
What are we thinking of ? But now let us ask those philosophers the simple question, If we can think without language, what are we thinking of? What indeed ? I do not wish to lay a trap, like a cross-examining lawyer. Of course, if you told me what you were thinking of, you could do it only by using a word. Nor do I claim to be a thought-reader, and tell you, without your having told me, what you are thinking off, for that, of course, I could only do by using a word. But I ask you to ask yourselves, what you are thinking of, if you are thinking of anything, and I shall join myself in that experiment. Suppose we were all thinking, as we call it, of a dog, then as soon as we attempt to answer to ourselves the question, What are we think
1 Des Cartes, Méditations, ed. Cousin, vol. i. p. 253 ; Qu'est ce qu'une chose qui pense ? C'est une chose qui doute, qui entend, qui conçoit, qui affirme, qui nie, qui veut, qui ne veut pas, qui imagine aussi, et qui sent.'
ing of? we can only do it by saying to ourselves or to others, Dog. It is perfectly true that canis, chien, Hund would do as well, and we need not even pronounce any of these words while remembering a certain dog, or while hearing the barking of a number of dogs about us. But though we may suppress the sound or recollection of a word after we have once heard it, or replace it even by another word taken from another language, we cannot possibly become conscious to ourselves of what we are thinking, without having the word in reserve, or, as the Italians say, in petto, or, as some savages say, in the stomach.
Thinking in German or English. If any doubt still remains in your mind on the impossibility of real thought without language, ask yourselves what you mean in asking a foreigner who has long lived in England, whether he thinks in German or in English? What would you say, if he were to answer, In neither. You would, I believe, think, and think rightly, that he was a fool.
Why we cannot think without words. But if that is so, if thought, in the properly restricted sense of that word, is impossible without language, you may well ask, why that should be so. Many people suppose that we first form our thoughts, or as they call it our ideas, and that afterwards we go in search of certain sounds, which we attach to our ideas, and which we retain because we find them very useful for the purpose of communication. Now I ask you, is such a process possible or conceivable ? Do we ever find ourselves in possession of a concept, but without a name for it, unless indeed we have forgotten, and know that we have forgotten, the name which we formerly possessed ? Or is there anywhere in the whole world a place where we could find empty sounds, such as father and mother, meaning nothing as yet, but ready for use when wanted ? I know some people speak of inexpressible thoughts, but they mean feelings; others say they may have a clear concept of a plant, without knowing its name; they speak of that plant, Oh, what do you call it? But is not plant a name, is not vegetable a name, is not object a name, is not it a name, is not even What do you call it, a name?
We often do not know the exact or right name, but in that case we always know the more general name. If we had never seen or heard of an elephant, we should not know its name, but we should know that it was an animal and call it so ; we should know that it was a quadruped, and call it so. If we did not know whether what we saw was an inanimate lump, or a plant, or a bird, fish, or mammal, we should have no name for it beyond the name thing. We could not name it further, because we know no more about it, because we could not bring it under any more definite conceptual name. We may see, hear, and touch the elephant, we may have a more or less exact image of it, but until we can predicate or name some distinguishing feature of it, we could neither name nor know it, in the true sense of that word.
To suppose, as is done by most philosophers, that we first find ourselves in command of an army of naked concepts, and that we afterwards array them in verbal uniforms, is impossible for two very simple reasons; first, because there is no magazine which