Sunday 1 May 2011

On the philosophy of language

A philosophy of language (Martelaere, 1996) is a science that is build on reason alone. In the natural sciences, it is generally accepted that one can only do fruitful research by combining reason and experiments, as your theory determines how you see your experiment, and experimenting without theory normally leads to experiments that are not informative. In the same way, philosophy will be most useful if it starts with the current societal consensus and improves upon it by making the premises clearer and the reasoning more logical.

The language philosophers see language as a limiting factor; limiting our thinking and limiting our perception of reality. Here, I would like to argue that languages are flexible enough, have evolved to allow for creative statements about the complex reality, that languages are no important limitation in our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Creative use of language

A distinction should be made between the current language a person or group uses and a theoretical and nonexistent language as everything that could be verbalised. If you talk about language as the only way to communicate with others and with yourself, it is important which of these two meanings of the word language you are using. In the first meaning, you could see language as a limitation. In the latter meaning, a limitation is hardly possible, given the almost infinite combination of words possible, but would need almighty humans. Our evolving and creative languages lie in the middle. The worst combination of the two would be to see language as we use it now as the only possible one. This would leave little room for communication with other or for understanding oneself.

Even in a language you already know, every new sentence is a creative act. Even more creative is the invention of new words or constructs. Such creative acts open up new ways of thinking, just as a new theory in science opens up new areas for research. It is this creative power of languages that allowed it to play a central role in human development an in the progress of the sciences.

In his inspiring book Fluid concepts and creative analogies Douglas Hofstadter (1895) emphasises the enormous flexibility of human thinking which is made possible by the fluid use of concepts and analogies. As thinking and language are closely related, one can find this fluidity of thinking back in languages that are made for creative use and are not limiting our capability of expression seriously.

Perception and language

Patricia de Martelare (1996) describes the example of someone who does not know the word tree, and is confronted with one. She imagines that someone like that would just have some vague, fluid :-), and fully inexpressible impression.

I would imagine that that person would fluidly use a similar word and make up the construction “large bush”, or would use the hierarchical nature of language and call it a “huge plant”. If he would encounter such a large bush more often, he would probably create a new word for it. This person would have no problem to create related words as roots, trunks, branches and leaves and to communicate the meaning of these words to his fellows.

Thinking without language

Another theme of the text is that we only have access to our subconscious by verbalisation. The term subconscious is normally connected to emotions and desires, so it could be that De Martelaere wants to write that we only have access to our desires through language. However, I get the impression she also mean thinking.

I think that most of the thinking is done subconsciously; at least the creative part. This is for example shown by experiments where people are given a problem before going to sleep (thus giving their subconscious time to think) and are better able to solve this problem as people who stayed awake during the same period. In an other recent publication (Varley et al., 2005) it was shown that people who lost their ability to understand or produce grammar, were still able to solve mathematical problems. Both examples show that thinking is possible without verbalisation. The latter example also shows that we have access to our subconscious thinking without using language. For a critical evaluation of ones thoughts, language may be more important. In addition, maybe philosophy is not possible without language, as its basic concepts are words and their meaning.

That subconscious thinking without verbalisation is possible, I can also confirm by introspection. One day I woke up with the question, why I wanted to make synthetic clouds with a certain statistical description (structure functions) with a global search algorithm, why not simply make them iteratively. I knew how the code should look like, without ever verbalising it, and wrote the first version of the algorithm almost exactly like that. Almost, because I, or rather my subconscious, had forgotten that the structure function of a certain lag should be chosen.


Concluding, when De Martelaere writes: ‘We are all readers of reality, industrious decipherers of signs (tekens, in Dutch, red.). We do not really see the world, we read it through words, our images are shaped by words’, she would be right if you assume thinking equals language, but she would still only mention one direction. I would argue that access to subconscious thinking is possible without language.

More importantly, the other direction is that our language has been shaped by our impressions of the world. Acknowledging this makes the first direction sounds much less like a restriction. Theory makes us see experiments in a certain light, and the experiments lead to new theories. Iterating like this for hundred thousands of years allows us to see a good representation of the word.


Hofstadter, D. and the fluid analogies research group. Die FARGonauten. Ueber Analogie und Kreativitaet. ISBN: 3-608-91758-6. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgard, Germany, 1996, American original: Fluid concepts and creative analogies, Basic books, New York, USA, 1995.

Martelaere, de, P. De wereld is een woord. In Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid. Maarten Muntinga, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, ISBN: 90 17 10051 1, 1996.

Varley, R.A., N.J.C. Klessinger, C.A.J. Romanowski, and M. Siegal. Agrammatic but numerate. Proc. Nat. Academy of Sciences, March 1, vol. 102, no. 9, pp. 3519-3524, 2005.

This post was first published on my homepage on March 2005.

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