Communicating Thoughts and Thinking About Communication; The Duality of Reason

(Author’s note: this piece was originally prepared as an essay for a philosophical conference, and so was so tailored to be as general as possible. The application to men’s rights should be obvious and I encourage readers to comment on various points raised in the essay as they apply specifically to men’s rights. There should be plenty of points of departure.)

1. Introduction

The objective of philosophy, in the broadest and most fundamental sense, is concerned with thinking. But this begs the obvious question – what is thinking? One professor at the University of Utah asked his students this simple question with varying results:

I recently asked some college honor students to define thinking. After pondering the question, a student majoring in sociology said, “It consists of reflecting on some idea or insight and exploring its logical connections and implications for making sense out of something.” In response to the same question, an English major responded: “It’s the ability to write a convincing argument in support of a particular point of view.” According to a premedical student majoring in biology, “Thinking is the ability to use information for analyzing data in order to solve some problem.” A philosophy major said without hesitation, “It’s a critical openness to new ideas as one explores their logical foundations.” And a student whose major is undecided said “It’s what I’m trying to do in response to your darn question.” (Geersteen, 2003)

It seems that a precise definition eludes consensus; indeed, as American writer and television producer J. Michael Straczynski once famously remarked, “The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language” (Lewis, 2009). The purpose of this essay is to more closely examine the link between language and thought, and put forth the foundation for an argument that asserts that language is, more or less, thought, as well as consider the implications of that idea.

2. Evolution of Language

In his work, Evolutionary Biology of Language, Martin A. Nowak goes to great lengths to establish a logical model that tracks the way in which a simple system of symbols could have evolved into modern language. His model involves quite a bit of advanced logic and mathematical concepts (which are beyond the scope of this essay), but the basic idea is that language evolved from a rigid system of limited symbols whereby one object had one symbol to the more modern system which allows for (perhaps) unlimited expression of ideas and events. Another expert who has also tracked the evolution of language remarks on the character of modern language systems: “Present-day human languages can be readily deployed to talk about events, objects, people and places far removed in space and time from the act of speaking, and the signs used to talk about such displaced referents have no detectable physical similarity to the referents themselves” (Urban, 2002).

Nowak (2000) incorporates arguments about evolution in his analysis of language: “Evolution relies on the transfer of information from one generation to the next. For billions of years this process was limited to the transfer of genetic information. Language facilitates the transfer of non-genetic information and thus leads to a new mode of evolution.” Essentially, he asserts that language has evolutionary advantages, and thus more effective (or “fit”) systems of languages would be the ones that get passed down from our ancestors, while less “fit” systems would become extinct. How do systems become more or less fit? It has to do with how many symbols and how many definitions there are in a system:

In other words, adding the possibility of describing more and more objects (or concepts) to the repertoire of a language cannot increase the maximum amount of information transfer beyond a certain limit. If, in addition, we assume that objects have different values, then we find that the maximum fitness is usually achieved by limiting the repertoire of the language to a small number of objects. Increasing the repertoire of the language can reduce fitness. Hence natural selection will prefer communication systems with limited repertoires.

He goes on to assert that “successful communication increases the survival probability or performance during life history and hence enhances the expected number of offspring. Thus, language is of adaptive value and contributes to biological fitness.”

If languages which retain fewer concepts (“reduced repertoires”) have increased biological fitness and evolutionary advantage, how did modern language come to be so complex and accommodate so much ambiguity and confusion? Nowak (2000) offers his thoughts in his conclusion (emphasis my own):

Efficient and unambiguous communication together with easy learnability of the language is rewarded in terms of pay-off and fitness. While we think that these are absolutely fundamental and necessary assumptions for much of language evolution, we also note the seemingly unnecessary complexity of current languages. Certainly, systems designed by evolution are often not optimized from an engineering perspective. Moreover, it seems likely that at times evolutionary forces were at work to make things more ambiguous and harder to learn, such that only a few selected listeners could understand the message. If a good language performance enhances the reputation of the group, we can also imagine an arms race towards increased and unnecessary complexity. Such a process can drive the numbers of words and rules beyond what would be best for efficient information exchange. This should be the subject of papers to come. (Nowak, 2000)

Here Nowak admits to one of the most fundamental problems with language – the way in which it can be ideologized. Before I tackle that idea, which deals with large social systems, let us first examine more mundane dangers associated with misunderstandings of language.

3. Language Assumptions

“Everyone who reads this paper knows of the order of 50,000 words of his primary language. These words are stored in the ‘mental lexicon’ together with one or several meanings, and some information about how they relate to other words and how they fit into sentences” (Nowak, 2000). Language is a fundamental fact of human existence, but it is also one that is taken for granted. As the quote above illustrates, we all have a sort of mental dictionary we tote around, and during communication, it is all too natural to assume that the definition we have in mind for a word we use when we are speaking matches the definition that our listener has in mind for the same word. Often times, conflicts that arise as a result of this are minimal, but other times they can have important consequences. Imagine a scenario where a friendly girl tosses around the phrase “I love you” in the most trivial of ways, utilizing the phrase as a sort of goodbye, which seems so common these days. (Her interpretation of the word love is casual and can be supported by more than one of the many definitions found in any number of dictionaries – the dictionary.com website has no less than 14 definitions for love.) In a communication moment with someone who thinks of the word love as having more gravitas, she is bound to create a miscommunication – the person to whom she is speaking will receive an entirely different message than the one she intends. This could result in disappointment for her listener, such as in the case of her listener being a man who was infatuated with her. Twist the scenario a bit, and imagine she did mean the more serious interpretation of love, whereas her male listener assumed she meant a more casual one, and now she is prone to feel the negative impacts of communication loss.

Recall Nowak’s (2000) idea of language fitness, first visited above: “…The fitness contribution of a language can be formulated as the probability that two individuals know the correct word for a given event summed over all events and weighted with the rate of occurrence of these events.” Essentially, a language is more “fit” if the chances of the speaker and listener having the same definition for a word (love in the previous example) are high. It follows that the higher the number of disparate definitions for the same word there are in a given language, the less fit that language becomes. English seems especially rife with words that have numerous and disparate meanings, and it is no exaggeration to say that a 15-page paper could be written on this subject alone. I implore you to consider the use of words such as “socialist, “communist,””harassment,” “equality,””family values,” “oppression,” or nearly any other politically charged word in the public sphere, with the idea that the person speaking the word could be talking about something entirely different from the person listening to the word, even though they are both considering the same word. Since this essay is concerned only with impelling contemplation, the previous analyses should suffice as a primer on this particular point.

However, definitions of words are not the only assumptions we make regarding language. The literature establishes that the average person is both ignorant and arrogant when it comes to language, a rather dangerous combination:

In matters of language history, structure, function, and standardization, the average individual is, for the most part, simultaneously uninformed and highly opinionated. When asked directly about language use, most people will draw a very solid basic distinction of ‘standard’ (proper, correct) English vs. everything else. (Lippi-Green, 1994)

That we posit the existence of something called language can itself be considered an assumption, which, furthermore, has an impact on how human societies are organized:

Beliefs about what is or is not a real language, and underlying these beliefs, the notion that there are distinctly identifiable languages that can be isolated, named, and counted, enter into strategies of social domination. Such beliefs…have contributed to profound decisions about, for example, the civility or even the humanity of subjects of colonial domination. They also qualify or disqualify speech varieties from certain institutional uses and their speakers from access to domains of privilege. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

More examples of how language has a tangible impact on our lives will be discussed later. We hold other assumptions about language that are of paramount philosophical importance. Indeed, how we think about language may impact perceptions as fundamental as how we define ourselves: “Language socialization studies have demonstrated connections among folk theories of language acquisition, linguistic practices, and key cultural ideas about personhood” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). Moreover, thoughts regarding language (especially in the Western nations, like the United States) underpin assumptions regarding the nature of reality: “In the vernacular belief system of Western culture, language standards are not recognized as human artifacts, but are naturalized by metaphors such as that of the free market” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). This stands in stark contrast to a more reasoned and self-examined perspective, informed by a more comprehensive understanding of language, its functions, and its evolution:

Deconstructive rhetorical analysis is based on the premise that all claims to transcendent truths are radically undercut by the fact that they are made within a given language and culture which impose limits on the thought and perception of individuals making the claim. We do not have unmediated access to a truth; rather, our view of the world is a function of a set of culturally constructed assumptions which shape our perception of the truth…Deconstructive critics also assert, though, that rhetoric is always open to multiple interpretations which are themselves a function of the interpreters’ own beliefs and values. Any deconstructive reading is offered as one among many possible interpretations.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

A key point here is that not only is language ineffective for establishing perfectly objective observations of reality form the perspective of the speaker, it also depends upon the interpretations of the listener. Thus, miscommunication can result either from poorly phrased speaking or from various deficiencies in the listener. For example, while a speaker’s poor accent can increase the odds of communication loss, a listener’s desire to understand the speaker is perhaps even more important:

…Accent…is most likely to pose a barrier to effective communication when two elements are lacking. The first is a basic level is communicative competence on the part of the speaker…. The second element, even more important but far more difficult to assess, is the listener’s good will. Without the goodwill, the speaker’s…degree of communicative competence is irrelevant. Prejudiced listeners cannot hear what a person has to say, because accent, as a mirror of social identity and a litmus test for exclusion, is more important.” (Lippi-Green, 1994)

The assumptions of language we take for granted can be exploited through the imposition of language ideologies.

4. Language Ideologies

The phrase “language ideology” is defined by different authors in different ways, but for the purpose of this essay I provide the following: “The definition [of language ideology] used here is: a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed from above, and which takes as its model the written language. The most salient feature is the goal of suppression of variation of all kinds” (Lippi-Green, 1994). In other words, a language ideology seeks to impose a standard of language upon as many potential speakers as possible (for example, within a nation as in a national language, though certain social groups may exclude others on the basis of ‘official’ languages).

Considering that language can be crucial to how one defines one’s place in the world (as examined in the article Language and Borders), such totalitarian impositions have observable consequences:

The phrase “language and borders” suggests that language differences signify categories of person defined by ethnic or national origin and that these categories are opposed to each other. People act in ways that are taken as “having” a language, which is equated to “belonging” to an origin group. Borders emerge in specific contexts as a metonymy of person, language, and origin category. This metonymy can be fleeting or quite rigid and in varying degrees politicized. (Urciuoli, 1995)

Stated more simply, the language a person speaks comes to fully define that person in the perception of others. Ideas like ethnicity and nationality could be deconstructed as nothing more than a difference in language. Urciuoli (1995) goes on further to say, “What does exist, in any society, is the fact of linguistic variation from which people deploy language forms in acts of identity. From such acts, people’s sense of community, group, and language emerge in specific places and times.” This need not be interpreted only with regards to nations – think also of subcultures, such as internet gaming communities, the military, or any other culture which has a language unto itself.

Due to length considerations, this essay cannot fully examine the ways in which various parts of language have important implications. The literature points out that accents play a key role in the way a listener perceives a speaker: “…Prosidics and accents…are key in the perception of ethnic and race boundaries that thread their way through ordinary situations and that have real-world consequences for people’s social options” (Urciuoli, 1995). Additionally, notions regarding systems of writing and literacy are fueled by cultural factors: “Anthropological studies of literacy…recognized belatedly that it is not an autonomous, neutral technology, but rather is culturally organized, ideologically grounded, and historically contingent, shaped by political, social, and economic forces” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). I would now like to take the time to examine the counterargument that language is not the only way to think, that surely there must be some other way of thinking.

5. Alternative Models of Thinking

The most common split in cognition theories is that humans are capable of thinking verbally and mathematically, and that these two modes of thinking are distinct from each other. Such a worldview is evident in the organization of the SAT exam, for example, which is split between math and verbal components. Nowak (2000) seems to hint that language is not the only mode of thinking when he writes, “Our language performance relies on precisely coordinated interactions of various parts of our neural and other anatomy, and we are amazingly good at it. We can all speak without thinking. In contrast, we cannot perform basic mathematic operations without concentration.”

Let us examine mathematical thinking more closely. At first glance, the literature is convincing in establishing mathematical thinking as distinct from thinking through language:

Most schools assume that teaching mathematics compulsorily and over a number of years they are providing the conditions through which pupils will develop their mathematical thinking. This assumption, usually unchallenged, rests on a view of mathematics as a logically developed discipline, together with the expectation that the logic will spill over and be absorbed by the pupils into all aspects of their lives as they pursue a study of the content of mathematics, for example, in learning number, geometry, trigonometry, or algebra. Experience, however, tells a very different story…Certainly an inordinate amount of time in schools is spent teaching mathematical content and techniques while the process, the means through which mathematics is derived, receives little attention….Exploring process is not very profitable when teachers do not understand the kinds of thinking from which process springs. (Burton, 1984)

In summary, mathematical thinking is a different process for thinking, and one assumes it would be distinct in nature from thinking through language. However, once the literature is read more deeply, apparent distinctions evaporate (emphasis the author’s own): “The process is initiated by encountering an element with enough surprise or curiosity to impel exploration of it by manipulating… Although the sense of what is happening is vague, further manipulating is required until the sense can be expressed is anarticulation” (Burton, 1984). Expressing an articulation? Isn’t that the precise point of language? Yet wait, there’s more (emphasis my own):

Pupils need tools to help them structure their responses so that they can build their reflective powers. Further, they need encouragement tocapture their feelings at the moment of expression. Consequently, students of all ages have been encouraged to develop the use of particular words that reflect their responses as they tackle questions…The key to recognizing and using mathematical thinking lies in creating an atmosphere that builds confidence to question, challenge, and reflect.(Burton, 1984)

I assert that mathematics is just another type of language which is also based on symbols (generally, numbers instead of words), and that, in fact, all human thinking is symbolic in nature. There is a school of thought which asserts truth through symbolic logic, and it is worth examining at this juncture.

6. Symbolic Logic

What is symbolic logic? Aside from a rule system that has useful applications in computer programing and math, for instance, I assert it is nothing more than another language. In any event, one proponent describes it as follows (emphasis my own):

…Symbolic logic, is, in its broadest sense, a new science which studies through use of efficient symbols the nature and properties of all nonnumerical relations, seeking precise meanings and necessary conclusions. As an applied science, it holds immense promise. For example, it may give us an unambiguous language for political, economic, and social fields, which will conveniently reflect the structure of these fields and make discussion and analysis easy. (Berkeley, 1942)

Symbolic logic seeks “precise meanings” and supplies us an “unambiguous language…” It should be clear at this point that it is nothing more than another language (and thus owes no higher claim to The Truth than any other language), but, the following quote about one of symbolic language’s chief powers may help shed some more light on the situation (emphasis my own): “We observe first that symbolic logic can define certain ideas which neither mathematics nor the dictionary can possibly define; for example, symbolic logic can define number.” (Berkeley, 1942) There again, symbolic logic is concerned with defining things (and it is even said later in the article that symbolic language competes with dictionaries); how can one not conclude it is just another language?

For those unfamiliar, symbolic language did indeed take off as a philosophical idea and has had many practical and important impacts. However, as mentioned before, it is no more a path to conceptualizing The Truth or reality as any other path. It is still a language, though a refined one, and still subject to the pitfalls of language (emphasis author’s own):

As we noted earlier, no language, as the product of a given culture and history, can claim to have unmediated access to the real. Making such a simple assertion implies a kind of cultural arrogance, forgetful as it is of the multiplicity of languages and of the linguistic reality that each provides a variety of ways to structure the real. Language is a mediational tool which enables the construction of cultural reality. Such terms as real,authentic, and genuine, especially when they are repeated without much critical self-awareness, give the impression that successful language use provides access to The Truth itself.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

Symbolic logic was not without critics, however.

One author wrote a multifaceted rebuttal based on logical arguments, though a full treatment of those arguments is beyond the scope of this essay. Of more relevance is the following analysis, which rejects the idea that the definitions of things should be fixed, or, in other words, that language ideologies should be enforced (emphasis author’s own):

But Formal Logic has perversely chosen to build on the fiction that the meaning of terms is (or ought to be) fixed, and to talk about propositions rather than judgments. So the proposition becomes a helpless formula, totally incapable of reproducing the features of living thought. It has acquired its meanings from past uses; but these do not protect it against ‘willful modifications’ at the hands of masters of language like Humpty Dumpty, who make words mean what they please…Is not the whole history of philosophy one long illustration of philosophic audacity in manipulating language, and does not experience show that philosophers frequently get away with their arbitrary modifications of ‘the‘ meaning of words and ‘propositions?’ I can not admit, therefore, that…symbolic logic [is] in any way relevant to the procedures of our actual thinking. (Schiller, 1932)

An important implication of this argument is that words/ideas/what-have-you are defined by past uses, but this provides no protection from those who would manipulate definitions for their own advancement. Thus the Jew in Nazi Germany, for instance, can suddenly become the scapegoat for an entire nation’s woes. There are many examples of this but unfortunately little room for a detailed analysis; I am sure the reader can think of his or her own examples of how words have been manipulated to mean entirely different things, for good and for ill. The take away point from this section is that a more accurate conceptualization of human thinking is thus: all human thinking is symbolic – and language can be thought of as nothing more than a system of symbols created for the purposes of communication. Therefore, symbolic logic is ‘just’ another language, like English or mathematics.

7. Practical, or Less Abstract Implications

So far, many of the examples mentioned in this paper have been of an abstract nature. Here, I hope to provide a brief look at some real-world, practical implications to the understanding of language I have outlined above. Geersteen (2003) outlines why it is important to think more clearly:

What makes higher-level thinking so important? To begin with, we live in a world of unprecedented change and expansion in information. New information continues to multiply as old information becomes obsolete…Constant and accelerating shifts in information mean that all members of society need greater skill in assessing and evaluating knowledge.

An understanding of language ideologies may yield answers to significant and challenging contemporary problems, including (but certainly not limited to) those outlined in the quote below:

Many populations around the world, in multifarious ways, posit fundamental linkages among such apparently diverse cultural categories as language, spelling, grammar, nation, gender, simplicity, intentionality, authenticity, knowledge, development, power, and tradition. But our professional attention has only begun to turn to understanding when and how those links are forged – whether by participants or their expert analysts – and what their consequences might be for linguistic and social life. A wealth of public problems hinge on language ideology. Examples from the headlines of United States newspapers include bilingual policy and the official English movement; questions about free speech and harassment; the meaning of multiculturalism in schools and texts; the exclusion of jurors who might rely on their own native-speaker understanding of non-English testimony; and the question of journalists’ responsibilities and the truthful representation of direct speech. Coming to grips with such public issues means coming to grips with the nature and working of language ideology. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

Indeed, an understanding of language ideologies may be critical to achieving true intellectual freedom. As was quoted in Nowak (2000)’s work above, it is not unfeasible to imagine that certain people/groups/interests have a vested interest in an “arms race” towards ever increasing complexity and ambiguity. As his work demonstrates, this is more than just a social justice issue  if the fitness of our language continues to deteriorate and we can no longer efficiently and effectively communicate with one another, we will be at an evolutionary disadvantage. How much danger we are in is up for debate, but it certainly warrants consideration.

We should be wary of ideological interpretations of language: “Important sociolinguistic changes can be set off by ideological interpretation of language use, although because they derive only from a larger social dialectic, such changes are likely to take an unintended direction, as in the historical case of the second person pronoun shift in English.” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

One example I would point out would be the “politically correct” movement, which seeks to define what is and is not acceptable for conversation and even intellectual debate. Such ideas are dangerous because they limit the amount of discourse in society and in the academy, and, further, can allow for certain ideologies to propagate unopposed and without critical evaluation. The whole idea of freedom of speech, after all, is to protect the ideas that we do not like to hear; the ideas that we enjoy hearing need no protection, and yet, if we do not listen to ideas we do not like, we may not be able to see the ways that the ideas we do like potentially poison our thinking (and in turn, our society and world).

Figurative speech is often employed for ideological purposes. This essay cannot hope to examine every use of figurative speech possible, but will provide one example related to the “whole language” movement in education to illustrate the point (emphasis author’s own):

We mean the term rhetoric to refer to the effort to persuade or argue forcefully for a position. More specifically, following a tradition that goes back to antiquity, we use it to refer to…figures of speech….An example…is the use of the word ownership to describe the relationship that the movement wants to foster between student writers and the texts they produce. In this context the word ownership is being used figuratively. It does not refer literally to an act of economic possession; rather, it uses that act as an analogy for the idea that writers can have control over and feel pride in what they write. The use of the word ownership in this metaphorical or figurative way serves as a rallying cry for teachers. The intense control that the word implies is a goal that teachers can strive for, a value that they can share. Thus the use of this figure attempts to persuade the uninitiated and to produce group solidarity. It serves the rhetoric of the movement. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

Figurative language can be evaluated critically to reveal the deepest assumptions of its users, however:

We argue, though, that the figurative language of a text does more than persuade. Read critically, it also reveals the deepest assumptions that underlie the text’s arguments. All arguments proceed from a set of assumptions held by the persons making the arguments. These assumptions are what can be taken for granted, the unquestioned ‘truths’ that underlie the explicit claims evident in the text. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

A wise philosophy professor I had the good fortune of studying under once told our class that philosophy was the business of questioning assumptions. If that is the case, we should always be on the lookout for figurative language, and seek to evaluate the assumptions that lie lurking below powerful rhetorical language.

8. Conclusion

We are left then with the simple-seeming question posed at the beginning of this paper: what is thinking, and what is the proper way to go about thinking? The answer is likewise simple: thinking and the proper way to go about are entirely up to the thinker to define. Some may deride this idea as infantile and naive; but I believe a full appreciation of the implications of this idea reveal it to be as liberating a philosophy as can be conceived – it permits true freedom of thought. As Kierkegaard once remarked: “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find an idea for which I can live and die.” The extent to which we can conceptualize of thinking as correct applies only so far as a thinker can effectively communicate with another through whichever language facilitates the most clarity between the two – be it English, algebra, symbolic logic, or some soon-to-be invented language. Cognizance of the communication medium and respect for differing abilities among speakers/listeners to comprehend messages encoded in that medium are paramount to understanding and commonality. Indeed, “A…crucial concept is that the burden of communication is shared, on every level, by both participants…” (Lippi-Green, 1994). Perhaps, one day, humans will evolve an entirely new system to replace symbolic thinking/language, but until that day we are compelled to live with what we have. A rigorous review and critical evaluation of the mediums we choose to communicate in, and all the associated implications, seems likely to reduce unnecessary conflict and to, dare I say, promote peace.

Works Cited

Geersteen, HR. (2003). Rethinking thinking about higher-level thinking.Teaching Sociology, 31(1), 1-19.

Lewis, JJ. (2009). Wisdom quotes. Retrieved from http://www.wisdomquotes.com/cat_wisdom.html

Urban, G. (2002). Metasignaling and language origins. American Anthropologist, 104(1), 233-246.

Nowak, MA. (2000). Evolutionary biology of language. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 355(1403), 1615-1622.

Lippi-Green, R. (1994). Accent, standard language ideology, and discriminatory pretext in the courts. Language in Society, 23(2), 163-198.

Woolard, KA., & Schieffelin, BB. (1994). Language ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 23, 55-82.

Blanton, W., McLaughlin, T., & Moorman, G. (1994). The Rhetoric of whole language. Reading Research Quarterly, 29(4), 308-329.

Urciuoli, B. (1995). Language and borders. Annual Review of Anthropolgy, 24, 525-546.

Burton, L. (1984). Mathematical thinking: the struggle for meaning. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 15(1), 35-49.

Berkeley, EC. (1942). Conditions affecting the application of symbolic logic.The Journal of Symbolic Logic, 7(4), 160-168.

Schiller, FCS. (1932). The Principles of symbolic logic. The Journal of Philosophy, 29(20), 550-552.

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