What came first, language or consciousness?

Has any philosopher said that language gives us consciousness by allowing us to communicate with ourselves and therefore giving us choices that we did not have before?

And on the other hand, what has been said to support the thesis that consciousness is necessary first in order to allow symbolic communication?

  • 8
    This is an evolutionary biology question, not a philosophy question. Of course one needs to know what counts as language and what counts as consciousness, which philosophers are as well-equipped to deal with as anyone is at the moment, but that's a different question. To answer your question, you cannot introspect your way to the answer; instead, you must formulate what you mean by language and consciousness and, assuming that one is not tautologically a prerequisite for the other at that point, go out and query the natural world (probably with experiments) to see which was first.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 12, 2011 at 19:39
  • @Rex Kerr: I agree in that the question may best be solved through biology (actually, I first learned about it in a language development [psychology] course, psychology being merely "applied biology"), but asking whether philosophers have approached this makes it acceptable here. Prima facie, it seems very approachable from a philosophical perspective but I can't say for sure (as I only learned about it through a psychologist's lens).
    – stoicfury
    Dec 12, 2011 at 19:59
  • @stoicfury - One can query philosophers on evolutionary biology questions, just as one can query software engineers, dog trainers, or ambassadors (and note that I didn't vote to close the question). Given that this is an area where introspection and rational argumentation is of limited use, however, one would have about equal chance of getting the right answer from any of the above (which is to say: 50% in two-alternative forced choice, ~0% of revealing deep insight about the process by which language and consciousness developed, including interactions between the two).
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 12, 2011 at 20:09
  • @Rex: I'd say "rational argumentation" is of equal use as physical experimentation at this point, unless you have some special device to peer inside brains to tell if they are conscious vs. using language. MRI's could theoretically do this, but as you point out philosophy is important to define language and consciousness so they can be used in experimental contexts. Also, I'm not wholly convinced that introspection should be quickly dismissed; I'd be interested in seeing some (philosophical) reasoning as to why this is the case. Essentially, I think we agree with each other here. :)
    – stoicfury
    Dec 12, 2011 at 23:03
  • Welcome! This is definitely an interesting theme, but can you specify your particular concern a little more clearly here? What exactly is it that you're looking for someone in the community here to explain to you? Telling us a little bit about your context might also help -- what might you be reading that makes this concern an urgent or important one? Formulating your question as a problem you are having in the study of a particular text (about which you are requesting an explanation) can also help specify a concern.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 13, 2011 at 2:42

9 Answers 9


Has any philosopher said that language gives us consciousness by allowing us to communicate with ourselves and therefore giving us choices that we did not have before?

Not that I am aware of; Wittgenstein's private language argument shows why the notion of a purely internal "language" doesn't make sense.

And on the other hand, what has been said to support the thesis that consciousness is necessary first in order to allow symbolic communication?

The question, I imagine, comes down to what we mean by "consciousness"; it seems pretty well established that bees make use of symbolic communication. Are bees conscious?

  • Is Wittgenstein's argument about private language accepted by most philosophers? (I don't know, but I doubt it)
    – Mitch
    Dec 28, 2011 at 3:04
  • @Mitch: I don't know (off the top of my head) of anyone who has argued against it. It seems to be generally accepted, yes. Dec 28, 2011 at 9:40
  • 2
    I might suggest Lacan might be worth investigating on this point, who suggests that the unconscious is structured "like" a language
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 28, 2011 at 21:13
  • @Michael: on looking up references it seems that W is eithe unconventional, is using a special meaning of 'private language', or is not psychologically relevant, viz Fodor's language of thought.
    – Mitch
    Dec 29, 2011 at 3:04
  • 1
    I think with regard to both Fodor and Lacan, that Wittgenstein is pointing out a break in the analogy; internal thoughts can certainly be like a language, and once we are exposed to actual language, can be (or use) language-- but there is no way a "language" worthy of the name can be private to only one person. (Note, of course, that I wrote in the answer of "a purely internal language"...) Dec 29, 2011 at 9:52

Humans and other animals have conscious experience but humans have a wider range of conscious experience associated with their language skills. Consciousness came before language because other animals predated humans. - Theory of Complex Evolution

  • +1. In my opinion this answer along with Rex's comment is on the right track. The crucial thing to recognize is that there are degrees of both consciousness and language. The answer depends on where you set your threshold defining both, as M. Dorfman implies.
    – user6552
    Oct 17, 2014 at 20:15

The answer seems so immediately evident to me that it makes me wonder what has made the OP to have doubt in the first place.

Just how can there be any language capability without consciousness? One has to be first conscious to use anything and language is no exception! Just look at the newborn and how it learns to associate symbols only after he becomes adequately conscious of the environment and also conscious of primitive communication methods (gesture, voice, etc).


"Has any philosopher said that language gives us consciousness by allowing us to communicate with ourselves and therefore giving us choices that we did not have before?"

I really doubt it. From my own experience, I don't know what language I use to communicate with myself but it's not English. It's something that provides a forum of meaning and interaction of my own thought, which is only then turned into any external language (English, body language, or otherwise) once I need to articulate it - or, in the case of body language etc, it happens involuntarily.

Incidentally elements of your question hint at the world of Neuro-Linguistic Programming . . Not entirely, but it might be of interest : What Is NLP


"Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon. Nothing worth reading has been written about it." Stuart Sutherland in the 1989 International Dictionary of Psychology

The definition of 'consciousness' is a matter of some debate. Most people - and probably even most philosophers - use the layperson definition of the term being equivalent to subjective mental experience.

Personally, I disagree with this common and popular definition. It seems terribly imprecise and fails to differentiate between related terms of sentience, sapience etc. It requires additional distinctions such as described by Ned Block between “phenomenal consciousness” (P-consciousness) of pure experience, sounds, emotions etc., and “access consciousness” (A-awareness) of introspection, memory etc.

An alternative is where consciousness is distinguished from sentience (from the Latin “to feel”) and sapience (Latin “to know”, or “to be wise”). "Consciousness" derives from Latin conscientia which primarily means moral conscience (knowledge-with, shared knowledge, cf., Cicero).

Descartes was the first to use it in the sense of the individual ego and awareness and that's probably where we get the lay usage today, but even that was expanded by Locke to include moral responsibility.

Consciousness is typically described in terms of phenomenological subjectivity; awareness, a sense of self, which is also applied in contemporary medicine as a continuum (from being fully alert and cognisant to being disorientated, to being in delirium, to being unconscious and unresponsive). The historical definition suggested social co-knowledge (con- "together" + scire "to know") suggesting moral reasoning (conscientia, conscience) and language. This original use is still applied in law with the concept of legal responsibility with consciousness.

Lest there is any confusion; sentience = the ability to feel (from the Latin "to feel"), sapience = the ability of awareness ("to be wise"), consciousness = shared knowledge (con - 'together', scientia - 'to know').

Using these more precise (and etymologically accurate) definitions, consciousness and language are strongly related to the point of being occurring simultaneously. One becomes conscious at the same time that they grasp the shared (c.f., Wittgenstein) symbolic values.

It is worth reading the material of the contemporary linguistic pragmatistsm particularly Jurgen Habermas, and Karl-Otto Apel for further consideration of this point of view.


Dr. Trigant Burrow (1875 - 1950) wrote in Preconscious Foundations that the language followed after consciousness and caused quite a few problems. His theory is that early consciousness was holistic/unified but later and quite recently, in terms of evolutionary time, language came along and profoundly confused people and society. The main problem seems to be the tendency for literalism, but more mendacious tricks and methods of social control are not beyond suspicion. The solution sounds a lot like buddhism: consciously detaching from views and thinking/being without language/mentation.

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On the other hand, there is little doubt about language's coevolution with emotions and culture. E.g. The co-evolution of language and emotions (PDF)

We argued that not only were the social emotions a precondition for the evolution of instructive communication and controllable imagination, but also suggested that their co-development and co-evolution with language led to new repertoires of emotions.


I believe that consciousness is proper to any living creature, given its requirement to interact with its environment. Even plants have to react to a cut, or dry soil or low sunlight. It somehow knows how to react by instinct. Self-conscience is, I think, the simplest form of conscience; I would even call that a "soul". Communication happens naturally when you interact with the environment, but you just cannot notice and interpret all the information generated by the environment. Some species notice more and may even build and establish a sophisticated communication standard based on mutually understood conventions assigning symbols to meaning. Therefore I think that basic consciousness and basic communication is proper to all living beings, and that both are a consequence of our interaction with the environment.


Dr Julin Jaynes speculates in his book; The origin of consciousness in the break down of the bicameral mind. In Dr Jaynes thesis he puts forward though corroborative evidence the revolutionary idea that consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged though cataclysm and catastrophy, from hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago and that it is still developing to this day.

Dr Jaynes contends that we are still living with vestiges of are bicameral past to this day. Take a european from the middle ages and injected them into todays society he or she could perhaps adjust to the technological advances. Still that person would probably be unable to understand and adjust to today's profoundly different why of thinking.

consciousness is a conceptual medaphor- generated analog world that parallels the actual world. Thus consciousness would have proceeded language and written languages according to dr jaynes thesis.

My own projection is consciousness will continue to expaned into total consciousness clarity and the bicameral past that Dr Jaynes explians will fall away from are minds leaving only consceptual clarity and authority of ones own mind.

The bicameral mind was mans intelligent, nature-evolved mind before he discovered consciousness as a conceptual/introspective mind.

  • So where does language fit in with this explanation of consciousness?
    – Mitch
    Dec 28, 2011 at 3:05

The case of Helen Keller seems to suggest that it is quite possible to have consciousness while not being able to communicate and not even understanding the concept of language. Helen Keller describes quite impressively how she experienced the breakthrough from being able to think into being able to communicate.

  • I think you are confusing "spoken language" and "language" in a terrible way. Note how the wikipedia article (caveat wikipeidator) indicates she produced comprehensible signs.
    – virmaior
    May 26, 2014 at 1:56

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