Essay Preview: Language
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1. Does thought depend on language?
We human beings may not be the most admirable species on the planet, or the most
likely to survive for another millennium, but we are without any doubt at all
the most intelligent. We are also the only species with language. What is the
relation between these two obvious facts?
Before going on to consider that question, I must pause briefly to defend my
second premise. Dont whales and dolphins, vervet monkeys and honey bees (the
list goes on) have languages of sorts? Havent chimpanzees in laboratories been
taught rudimentary languages of sorts? Yes, and body language is a sort of
language, and music is the international language (sort of) and politics is a
sort of language, and the complex world of odor and olfaction is another, highly
emotionally charged language, and so on. It sometimes seems that the highest
praise we can bestow on a phenomenon we are studying is the claim that its
complexities entitle it to be called a language–of sorts. This admiration for
language–real language, the sort only we human beings use–is well-founded. The
expressive, information-encoding properties of real language are practically
limitless (in at least some dimensions), and the powers that other species
acquire in virtue of their use of proto-languages, hemi-semi-demi-languages, are
indeed similar to the powers we acquire thanks to our use of real language.
These other species do climb a few steps up the mountain on whose summit we
reside, thanks to language. Looking at the vast differences between their gains
and ours is one way of approaching the question I want to address:
How does language contribute to intelligence?
I once saw a cartoon showing two hippopotami basking in a swamp, and one was
saying to the other: “Funny–I keep thinking its Tuesday!” Surely no
hippopotamus could ever think the thought that its Tuesday. But on the other
hand, if a hippopotamus could say that it was thinking any thought, it could
probably think the thought that it was Tuesday.
What varieties of thought require language? What varieties of thought (if any)
are possible without language? These might be viewed as purely philosophical
questions, to be investigated by a systematic logical analysis of the necessary
and sufficient conditions for the occurrence of various thoughts in various
minds. And in principle such an investigation might work, but in practice it is
hopeless. Any such philosophical analysis must be guided at the outset by
reflections about what the “obvious” constraining facts about thought and
language are, and these initial intuitions turn out to be treacherous.
We watch a chimpanzee, with her soulful face, her inquisitive eyes and deft
fingers, and we very definitely get a sense of the mind within, but the more we
watch, the more our picture of her mind swims before our eyes. In some ways she
is so human, so insightful, but we soon learn (to our dismay or relief,
depending on our hopes) that in other ways, she is so dense, so uncomprehending,
so unreachably cut off from our human world. How could a chimp who so obviously
understands A fail to understand B? It sometimes seems flat impossible–as
impossible as a person who can do multiplication and division but cant count to
ten. But is that really impossible? What about idiot savants who can play the
piano but not read music, or children with Williams Syndrome (Infantile
Hypercalcemia or IHC) who can carry on hyperfluent, apparently precocious
conversations but are so profoundly retarded they cannot clothe themselves?
Philosophical analysis by itself cannot penetrate this thicket of perplexities.
While philosophers who define their terms carefully might succeed in proving
logically that–lets say–mathematical thoughts are impossible without
mathematical language, such a proof might be consigned to irrelevance by the
surprising discovery that mathematical intelligence does not depend on being
able to have mathematical thoughts so defined!
Consider a few simple questions about chimpanzees: could chimpanzees learn to
tend a fire–could they gather firewood, keep it dry, preserve the coals, break
the wood, keep the fire size within proper bounds? And if they couldnt invent