When you study philosophy, you tend to spend a lot of time thinking about reason and language. For many philosophers, the two are inextricably linked. Plato warned of the damage that sophistry and oratory (the manipulative misuse of language, devoid of truth) could do on the minds of others, the power of stories to shape our character and ability to think, the power of mathematics to teach us abstraction, and of the changes that turning to written language could cause to our minds and souls. Augustine pondered the universal nature of grammar as he attempted to find a place for individuality within the rational soul. Medieval thinkers went over and over the nature of the Trinity and the idea of Christ as the Word, and what it meant for our understanding of personhood and knowledge. Rousseau warned that the introduction of purely conceptual language had changed our ability to think, empathize with others, and even act in our own best interests irrevocably. This is not even to mention the post-Heidegerrean “linguistic turn” to analytic philosophy and linguistic logic, and the political power of critical theory to challenge the hegemony of western phallogocentrism.
The point is, whether language and the human quality of thought are tied together is of central importance to our understanding of the world in both how we access it, and how it really is. Entire philosophical frameworks turn on whether either or both are universal and essential, or malleable and learned. I’ve recently come across a couple of articles to read in tandem when pondering the issue.
The first is an article from the NYTimes called Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, by Guy Deutscher. There’s a minor glitch at the beginning of the article when the author claims this idea was a discovery of a scientist in the mid 20th century, but other than that it’s a great piece. It doesn’t really dig too deeply into the structural issues at play, but it does work nicely with questions concerning vocabulary.
The second article is from Scientific American magazine titled Is Consciousness Universal? by Christof Koch, and I owe credit to the blog Self Aware Patterns for pointing it out to me (as well as this awesome comic that’s equally relevant to this discussion). This rounds out some of the open questions left by a discussion of language and thought, but it also leaves open questions about where thought originates, and where the subjective experience of language comes into play – sending me right back to the first article with new questions.
The question is whether our use of language plays a part in shaping our subjective experience or if it is itself shaped by some innate mental framework. I don’t have a solid answer with which I’m comfortable – I tend towards a more holistic view where the innate (a priori) and the empirical (a posteriori) aren’t separate but reciprocally intertwined. It’s a false dichotomy.
But it’s a dichotomy that’s fun to ponder. Let’s say that language shapes how we think, and that the edifice of reason is built empirically. On the one hand, the idea that a rational consciousness could be something learned through the manner of speech that surrounds us is deeply unsettling – few want to think that their very thought patterns and ability to imagine consequences is determined by something so changeable and arbitrary as their patterns of speech (it’s practically nihilistic). On the other hand, the freedom offered by a purely subjective notion of consciousness appeals to modern desires for autonomous individuation, giving some hope that we could be in control of how we think and what we give meaning if we could only harness the power of linguistics (the grand hope of ordinary language philosophy, if you’ll forgive my glibness).
Let’s say instead that consciousness and reason are innate and universal, and that language is just a way to connect that internal world with the external stuff that confronts us. In that case, language is just a tool that helps us take the complexity of sensory data and simplify it through the use of labels, categories, and hierarchies. On the one hand, this means that there reality has an essence, and that our minds have the power to access it. However, it also means that this power is only as strong as our language, and that faulty wording, bad grammar, poorly framed logic, and limited vocabulary can prevent us from ever accessing that reality. If we’re too wedded to our understanding of reason, we miss things that don’t fit into it neatly – like quantum physics (which I’m pretty sure I’ll never understand), gut feelings, and more.
I don’t think it breaks down that cleanly, though.