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Does thought entail possession of language?


To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does thought entail possession of language?
Date: 17 January 2002 19:48

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your e-mail of 4 January, with your second essay for the Philosophy of Language program, on the question, 'Does Thought Entail The Possession Of Language?'

The 'Tractatus' is a very difficult work. Approach it as if you were a detective (this is advice I often give my students!) trying to piece together a theory on the basis of the clues you have been able to pick up (from the text and also from the Pathways units or any secondary reading material).

At the time of writing the 'Tractatus', Wittgenstein did believe that logic was something very real, that exists quite independently of all natural phenomena. This is a view he later came to question in his 'Philosophical Investigations'. (I am not saying who I think was right here, the younger or the older Wittgenstein.)

I surmise that you are using the Ogden (1921) translation of the 'Tractatus', which is fine. I shall be quoting from the more recent Pears and McGuinness translation.

The section which you quote (5.61), is a direct comment on section 5.6 (according to the numbering system in the 'Tractatus'): 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.'

The question of the meaning of 'I' is a prime example of the problem of the limits of language. When I say to myself, 'I am GK' (or you say to yourself, 'I am LB') it seems that one is trying to say more than merely, 'The person uttering this statement/ thinking this thought is GK (LB). It seems as if 'I am GK' is information for me only. You can't understand what I mean. You can't appreciate the metaphysical fact, which I seem to appreciate, that *not only* is there a 'GK' in the world, but that *I* am GK. (And the same goes for you, regarding the existence of 'LB'.)

Wittgenstein has a particular take on this, however, which connects with his 'solipsism'.

You are correct, therefore, in connecting section 5.61 with the question of whether thought entails the possession of language. But it is not immediately clear that this is what is at stake. (I wouldn't put too much stress on the sentence which Pears and McGuinness translate as, 'We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot *say* either' as evidence that Wittgenstein holds the view that thought is 'prior' to language.)

Your example of the hot coal in paragraph two illustrates the difference between the kind of 'representations' that a non-human animal is capable of, compared with the kinds of representations expressible in a human language. (I discount the 'languages' of whales or dolphins, for example, as not having the 'logical form' in Wittgenstein's sense of language. They are merely means of conveying information from A to B.)

I wrote to a student earlier today, "Non-human animals inhabit a world of dangers and opportunities, notable objects set against a background, things to respond to and things to ignore. Immensely complex in physiological terms, the animal brain is notable, from our point of view for its lack of complexity in two crucial aspects: the ability to form general judgements, and the ability to form judgements about times other than the present. Judgements of perception are wrong when the object does not conform to expectations. The bone is a rubber bone, not a real bone. The dead leaf turns out to be a dangerous predator. The expected store of nuts is not there. By contrast, a general representation, or a representation about another time can be 'wrong' only when that representation has 'logical form'."

This is the sense of 'language' that we are concerned with, not merely a cause and effect process of conveying information, but a system of representation that is capable of representing generality, or statements about the past or future.

Solipsism is incoherent, because in order for there to exist such a system of representation there has to be a concept of truth, the idea that my judgements can be 'true' or 'false' from the perspective of a language which I share with others. As you write, "The argument that thought entails the possession of language evolves from the consideration of language as a social action. Language is a mechanism for exchange of information. It is a medium for mitigating experience and error." The key term here is 'error'. For what this implies is that my judgements can be wrong by a common standard. For the solipsist, by contrast, my judgements can only be wrong by my own standard: there is nothing outside *my* world. However, the point is that this is a logical argument, not merely a conclusion which we have reached by empirical observation.

Having disposed of solipsism, we are left with the question of how we account for the apparently 'thoughtful' behaviour of non-human animals. I will not accept that the immediate 'judgements of perception' that the animal makes, for example, in recognizing the bone, or the hot coal, are judgements in the true sense. They are representations, but not judgements, because there is no correspondence between the representation in the animal's brain and anything that can be expressed in language: e.g. 'The coal is hot.' The animal does not have the concept of 'coal' or 'hot', because having concepts entails having a language in which one can make true or false judgements, a system of representation whose form is 'logical form'. We can say that there is a representation in the animal's brain whose import is tantamount to 'The coal is hot' but this is just a heuristic device for grasping what cannot be grasped. That is why I call the animal's behaviour 'enigmatic'. There is no mapping from animal representations onto ours.

There is a lot in your essay. Just remember, if you have doubts, or if you can't quite get to grips with a problem, it is OK to express them in what you write, rather than keep them to yourself, or confining them to the accompanying e-mail message!

All the best,