Many years ago I read somewhere that metathinking is absolutely impossible without ordinary language (be it a natural language like English, or a constructed one like Esperanto). After this statement a very persuasive argument followed, however I am not able to reconstruct it at all, no matter how hard I try. Internet searches are of no help.

Can somebody present a persuasive argument defending the abovementioned view, or a refutation of it (in case I misremembered the whole thing)? This is not a homework question.

  • 2
    What is metathinking? Thinking about thinking? Dec 25, 2014 at 3:16
  • @ZubinMukerjee yes.
    – user132181
    Dec 25, 2014 at 11:44
  • 2
    Is it possible that it is just difficult to communicate what metathinking could be like without language, without language? Dec 26, 2014 at 0:06

4 Answers 4


Thinking about other thoughts requires a reference to something that cannot be present to consciousness. If I make a reference to an apple, I can make that present to my consciousness through sheer imagination of its traits. As studies of the behavior of the deaf without language indicate, this can go really far, and whole communities can live in pantomime for decades. So thought itself does not require language.

But I cannot make a reference to a thought by imagining its qualities, retrieving the thought itself occupies the stream of consciousness, and thinking about it is not possible at the same time in the same way.

This last insight is not a theoretical assumption, or a deduction from the immediate nature of thought. It is an observation based upon the descriptions of thought processes in early literature --http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/402276.The_Discovery_of_the_Mind and the subjective reports of people who acquire or re-acquire language late in life ---http://www.radiolab.org/story/91728-words-that-change-the-world/

The memory of a thought therefore has to be referenced obliquely, and so has to be labeled in some way, either by its relative temporal position, or by outright naming.

So, at least some of the furniture of language needs to be present for thinking about thought to be possible. You need some internal notion similar to the pronoun. The question then is whether that requirement already constitutes language, or not.

For me, it does. At the point where you reference things abstractly, and not by recalling them, you have committed yourself to abstract symbolization. Even if your language has only one word, meaning something like "what came immediately before this in my mind", it has vocabulary, which is used temporally to create narrative structure, and is no longer simply pantomime.

  • Some common sense, at last!
    – user132181
    Dec 26, 2014 at 21:46
  • Is storing a thought-in-process in working memory therefore "language"? Or if not, why then can I not have sheer imagination of the traits of my cognitive processes?
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 27, 2014 at 0:44
  • @RexKerr Absolutely not, and the question is a totally unrelated to anything I said. As far as we can tell, consciousness is singular temporally, it can task-switch, but it cannot truly parallelize. So having a thought, and having thoughts about that thought requires the thought be symbolized or otherwise abstracted rather than present to consciousness. Symbolization is the necessary component of language.
    – user9166
    Dec 27, 2014 at 1:39
  • Of course I am considering only conscious thought. Unconscious thought parallelizes freely, so your 'sense' or 'intuition' of ambiguity or difficulty that might enter consciousness without focus upon or elaboration of a specific other thought then becomes a counterexample, if you include that as thinking. But I assume the OP did not mean to include it.
    – user9166
    Dec 27, 2014 at 1:42
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    @jobermark: There is no difference between thought about thought and thought about an apple. An apple is not present to thought unmediated just as a thought itself. There is a complex process of identifying properties, categorizing, abstraction that need to happen for us to call an apple "an apple". What we refer to when we say "an apple" is not some immediate memory - what we refer to is a symbolic construction - whether there is a physical apple before me or not is irrelevant. All thought is symbolic in this way.
    – nakiya
    Dec 27, 2014 at 3:09

The argument is (presumably) flawed because there are counterexamples.

(1) If it is a psychological claim (i.e. specific to the details of thinking as done by humans), I do most of my thinking without explicit symbology or an internal narrative. This includes evaluation of my own abilities and "thinking". You can't easily examine my thoughts, but I bet most readers have had the very clear sense, unverbalized but equivalent to "this will be easy" or "this will be too hard for me", when it comes to some cognitive task. That is a type of metathinking.

(2) If it is a computational claim, practically any recurrent network can do the job. You can build an associative network between sets of symbols xi and yj (which is "thinking") and have one of the y's trigger an estimate of the time of computation of the associative network which then feeds back into one of the x's on the next pass ("thinking about thinking").

There is some wiggle room to make the claim true if one defines "meta-" narrowly enough so that only expression of linguistic symbols counts as "meta" (or as "thinking"). But the claim is then basically a tautology.

  • 1
    " You can't easily examine my thoughts, but I bet most readers have had the very clear sense, unverbalized but equivalent to "this will be easy" or "this will be too hard for me", when it comes to some cognitive task. That is a type of metathinking." - that is not a type of metathinking. Metathinking is having an unsymbolized thought about the fact that you are thinking. Metathinking is not having an unsymbolized thought about your capabilities to do something. Hell, even my cat can evaluate her capabilities to make a certain jump.
    – user132181
    Dec 25, 2014 at 23:36
  • I'm not your downvote. It could be the jetlag, but I'm not sure if they are counterexamples because I haven't the foggiest what the OP means by metathinking or for that matter by "ordinary language" -- on at least some definitions of "ordinary language" I cannot imagine how it would be the language of any of our meta-thinking.
    – virmaior
    Dec 25, 2014 at 23:45
  • "You can't easily examine my thoughts, but I bet most readers have had the very clear sense, unverbalized but equivalent to "this will be easy" or "this will be too hard for me", when it comes to some cognitive task" - Aren't these examples of intuition rather than meta-thinking? Because meta-thinking implies it is directed, concious.
    – nakiya
    Dec 26, 2014 at 8:28
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    @user132181 - I'm not sure what your claim here is. You are saying that unsymbolized thoughts about your prospects or progress on a thinking task are not "about the fact that you are thinking"? I gave that example rather than simple qualia-of-the-fact-that-one-is-thinking because in evaluating your thought processes you are, presumably, thinking. Why is evaluation of capabilities not thinking? (It must not be, if evaluation of ability to think about things is not "thinking about thinking".)
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 26, 2014 at 19:01
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    @nakiya - How do you know any of that, or that it is different when linguistic brain regions get involved? This isn't to say they're not helpful but the question is whether they're necessary.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 26, 2014 at 19:12

Your argument can be reduced to remove the 'meta,' which makes it simpler to refute (but my answer will not directly refute it. It will simply make an easier to think about question)

Metathinking, as you define it, is "thinking about thinking." So we have requirement number 1 for metathinking:

  • You cannot have metathought without thought, for metathought is thought about a thought.

Now we can bring in "ordinary language," a metathought is a thought, or metathought in general is a category of thoughts. This has an interesting implication:

  • If "ordinary language" is required for metathought, then there exists a category of thoughts which cannot occur without "ordinary language," or else metathought would be possible without language.

I would start from this question: are there thoughts that cannot occur without "ordinary language?" The dialogue regarding this question would form a framework for defining several words we are stumbling over, such as "ordinary language" "metathought" and arguably even "thought" itself. It might even have to define "impossible!"

This sort of dialogue will be essential, because the answers are many. For instance, there is still a debate as to whether any thought can occur without language. A belief in that philosophy will quickly reduce your original question to triviality.


This is fairly straightforward. It all depends on whether you agree that thinking is symbolic (using language). Meta-thinking is just an instance of thinking in general, i.e. the object of thought is thought itself. there's no qualitative difference between thinking and meta-thinking as far as I am concerned.

So, it all boils down to "what is thinking?". If you subscribe to any theory that says thinking is impossible without a symbolic (linguistic?) system, then the answer to your question is yes. Then again, why do you qualify "language" as "ordinary language?"

The above is, I feel too simplistic. This does not analyse thought. I'll try to elaborate my limited understanding on this:

Any object in thought is Platonic (ideal, transcendental, abstract, perfect). There are also universals in thought (As Hegel says) like here, now, this, etc. Can we think "now" without language? We cannot, because the operation of language is operation of thought itself (abstraction from being) - When we think "This table is round", we are manipulating abstractions and universals. If we want to characterize zebras, we have to make a generalized abstraction. The word "zebra" is an arbitrary consensus. The thought zebra is a composite thought about an "horse-like animal with black and white stripes in body". So, the thought "zebra" is a composite arrived at by recursive application of thoughts. They exists in opposition to each other but also support each other. There is no good without bad, etc. But because an individual zebra does not represent the Platonic ideal, the word "zebra" is needed. And this is the relationship to thought. We think in ideal Platonic terms. Language enables us to do so.

  • But metathinking is not about ordinary things, it is about thinking. One can reference an apple by its characteristics, but if you have referenced a though by its characteristics, does that not constitute a real symbol, in a way your memory of an apple does not? It is a reference to something that cannot be constituted in memory at the same time as the reference is used, since the mechanism of symbolization is already occupied. So it is an abstract word.
    – user9166
    Dec 26, 2014 at 21:22
  • care to elaborate why downvote?
    – nakiya
    Dec 27, 2014 at 18:58

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