Frans de Waal is a well-known primatologist who has written many books on the behaviors of apes and what we have learned about them and from them. In an excerpt from his 2016 book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he discusses the relationship between thought and words. He does not share the enthusiasm of many of his fellow scientists to talk with animals to find out what the think, largely because what even humans say may not be accurate reflections of what they are thinking, so why would we place any more credence on what other animal species may tell us?
No one is going to admit to murderous thoughts, stinginess or being a jerk. People lie all the time, so why would they stop in front of a psychologist who writes down everything they say? In one study, female college students reported more sex partners when they were hooked up to a fake lie-detector machine, demonstrating that they had been lying when interviewed without the lie-detector. I am in fact relieved to work with subjects that don’t talk. I don’t need to worry about the truth of their utterances. Instead of asking them how often they engage in sex, I just count the occasions. I am perfectly happy being an animal watcher.
But he goes on to say that his objections run deeper because the relationship between thoughts and words is highly murky, “despite the widespread assumption that language is at the root of human thought”.
It is now widely accepted that, even though language assists human thinking by providing categories and concepts, it is not the stuff of thought. We don’t actually need language in order to think.
As the chief architect of the modern concept of mind, the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, put it in The Language of Thought (1975): ‘The obvious (and I should have thought sufficient) refutation of the claim that natural languages are the medium of thought is that there are non-verbal organisms that think.’
You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider humans the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species. Language parallels between our species and others have been called a ‘red herring’.
There is a notable irony here. In an earlier age, the absence of language was used as an argument against the existence of thought in other species. Today I find myself upholding the position that the manifest reality of thinking by nonlinguistic creatures argues against the importance of language.
I personally do not believe that we think in words, even though I fancy myself as a writer. In fact, it is precisely because I write so much that I am skeptical. As anyone who writes anything other than routine stuff knows, writing down one’s ideas is not easy and takes time and multiple rewrites to get the ideas in one’s head even close to what one thinks they should say. If we thought in words, the process should be much easier. The only time I think in words is when I am actually constructing sentences in my mind with the intention of writing them down later.
The funny thing is that when I think about thinking, such as when I tried to think about whether I thought in words, then I do think in words. But when I am not thinking about whether I think in words, I do not know what is in my mind. It has a loose parallel to the measurement issue in quantum mechanics, that certain quantities take a definite value only when one measures them. The ‘measurement’ in this case is the act of consciously thinking about what one is thinking.
The somewhat confused nature of my above remarks is an indication that I do not think in words because it took me some time to be even halfway coherent about what seemed to be clear when I started writing about it.