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Thursday, March 8. 2012
It depends on how you define "thinking." If "thinking" means an effort to form a logical progression of thoughts and ideas, words sure come in handy whether you intend to communicate the thoughts or not. In my experience, most people tend to avoid the effort that this requires unless they are trained to do it in some area of life such as diagnosing a car breakdown or a legal case or a medical complaint.
But if "thinking" refers to all sorts of mental activities, then of course words are not required for most of it. Impulses, gut feelings, images, daydreams, movement, musical ideas, etc. are all wordless mental activity (I exclude mathematics, which is just another language). Furthermore, unconscious mental activity, which may be the bulk of mental activity, is all or mostly wordless.
The question is raised: To what extent do our words shape our thinking? Here's an effort to study the topic: Language doesn't influence our thoughts ... except when it does.
Speaking only for myself, I find that my words and my thought stream seem to do a sort of dance together, and a fresh new word or verbal concept can add new color or shape to it all. What is most fun is when a fresh word or phrase or concept crystallizes a dimly-thought thought.
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I exclude mathematics, which is just another language
Some mathematicians might think that way, but I suspect many don't. Images, unconscious thought, analogy, all can play a role. Personally, I find sleep a good way to solve some mathematical problems, together with visualization.
A classic anecdotal mathematical example is Poincare's discovery of automorphic functions:
At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations that I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-euclidean geometry.
And as he later said:
Logic, therefore, remains barren unless fertilised by intuition.
I would put logic in the vicinity of language, and intuition among the things that are mostly unconscious.
Though spoken language is now considered to be the greatest invention of Homo sapiens, our distant primate ancestors had none, other than sundry yeehaas and wahoos.
They seem to have adapted and survived to reproduce without Boggle.
Well music is certainly another "language" if you want to speak in those terms. In fact, music and language use the same memory systems and are processed in the same way - or so neurologists tell us.
In fact, you could make the argument that different tones, patterns, inflections, etc., are a form of musical communication which would make it a language.
I volunteered in the mid-nineties at a Catholic Charities home in Chicago that cared for children taken by police from abusive situations. Most were children of crack cocaine addicts. One of the most shocking things about these kids was that they had no words. Yes, they were 3, 4, 5 yrs old and still in diapers because no one cared to show them what to do.
But it was worse that they had no words. They didn't recognize the names we were given for them. They couldn't say yes or no to whether they wanted a snack. They couldn't answer the question, "What is your name?" The question, "How old are you?" was incomprehensible.
So my answer to your question, "Can you think without words?" is No. Dreams are an opportunity for insight but they are not thinking. We have no real information at all whether when how why language grammar developed.
But if the word "thinking" has an agreed upon meaning, it is based in the uniquely human ability to use words to communicate with each other.
Language colors our understanding and worldviews are shifted by the force of a speakers native tongue. Literature, histories, perspectives on human nature, our relationship with the physical world...are all influenced by language. The question is what is language. Language is simply a collection of symbols used to organize sensory data, and abstraction is an inevitable outcome of the utilization of symbolic language. Ideas are an inevitability. An utterly unique system of symbolic abstraction, regardless of its modality, is still language. It's not a matter of whether thinking occurs in the absence of language, there is no language without thinking.
white rectangle on
screen glows empty of
a word but not of a thought
white rectangle on
screen glows empty of
words but not the thought of none
white text on
screen glows empty of
words but not the thought of none
lol on me --i was gonna inform you that haiku is 5-5-7 syllables per line, so your first line needs two more syls. but i checked, to be sure of the info, and bo and lehold, it's actually 5-7-5. So everything goes to rewrite, bah!
A haiku gone wrong
A comment post done in white
I'm rethinking both
To tell the sad truth
I missed the haiku you wrote
I am duly shamed
I spent the afternoon trying not to think in words. An internal dialogue is a bitch to shut-off, but it was interesting. The discipline was meditative and quite moving at moments. The shifting of modalities moved me to become more visually oriented and I began to see beauty in ordinary things; I was more acutely aware of my inner-state as well. Obviously, the common language has informed my worldview and my responses to the "new" orientation were shaped by feelings forged in that perspective. Part of that perspective is that language is a product of thought, and so I never felt I was thinking without language, I was only experiencing a different symbolic framework. I enjoyed it quite a bit actually.
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.
--"August 1968", by W.H. Auden, written during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the obliteration of 'Prague Spring' --a soft (at its 21 years-distant victory, named the 'Velvet Revolution') revolution built on word real-meanings. What had given such power to such a prosaic notion? Let Christopher Hitchins tell it:
...the Soviet system was self-indicted by its own putrid and paralyzing and unintelligible jargon. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a "fraternal and peace-loving" action, aimed at "normalization" and "the restoration of order." Peaceful resistance by citizens in Prague was a "provocation." Protests from other democratic countries were no more than "heating up the Cold War." And behind this shabby, lifeless, wooden rhetoric was an arsenal of lies. Polish and Hungarian soldiers, rushed across the border under Red Army orders, were told that Czechoslovakia had been invaded by West German aggressors who had to be repelled. The only German soldiers they found were from East Germany, a state founded on the premise that no further invasions would ever be launched from German soil. In a very short and intense space of time, every slogan ever uttered by the Communist system had been exposed as the sort of scabrous lie in which only a fool could believe.
PS, Hitch goes on to say:
...the system farcically evaporated in the face of a wave of literate and humorous and ironic and defiant words, uttered by novelists like Milan Kundera, playwrights like Vaclav Havel, and singers like the Plastic People of the Universe. Velvet has always struck me as a vapid word for this cultural revolution. If we must have a V, then verbal would be preferable.
--one wonders if the current administration reading of the "fraternal and peace-loving" action, aimed at "normalization" and "the restoration of order." Peaceful resistance by citizens in Prague was a "provocation." Protests ... were no more than "heating up the Cold War", somehow totally took the entirely wrong point and hence decided to launch 'Obama ended the recession', 'lifted the Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium', 'created or saved xxxx jobs', 'supports the working people', 'saved healthcare', 'is pro Keystone pipeline' et cetera et cetera ?
Certainly they know nobody can possibly believe the words, so the message must lie (!) outside those words. Hmm, what could that message be?
"You silly Earthlings amuse me" --?
Here's what words do - from one of the most insightful and charmingly written books ever written on early childhood:
(caution: the forward and back buttons are reversed, the page layout is Hebrew).
The difference between a toddler and Brandy the author's beagle underscores what words make possible for humans.
Page through this section and the previous section - where she compares toddlers struggling with language like Gulliver in the land of Brobdinang.
Another function of words: memory. She covers it all, in a very engaging way:
Also this passage:
If you've ever had an animal, you know the answer is yes. My 12 mo old pup tells me he is sick and asks for help by snuggling his head into my arm and vomiting on me. My older dog calculates how to steel a toy. All w/o sound (except the vomit) or words. Are there doggy words? Maybe but I believe some day we will find that living things with brains transmit and detect brain waves to some extent, enabling us to "download" moods, intentions (that feeling in your gut when you don't trust someone), and other things we call intuition.
Thought without Words - Pick up a brush - get some paint begin to paint - consider the colors lines and values - do it quickly and intuitivly - you are thinking without words - it will reflect basic aspects of your personality and how you see the world whether you depict something or make an "abstract" work