The way we humans think and reason involves us using words to describe things. Even when thinking in our heads, we use words to think. This begs the question, how do animals who don't understand a language think?

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    Fair warning with the series of questions you're asking about thought: They're good questions. That means you should expect many answers that just lead to more questions! It's worth noting that epistemology, a major branch of philosophy, is dedicated to exploring the theory of knowledge, which is very closely woven with the concept of thinking. The problem with asking good questions about a big subject is that a lot of people have spoken their mind on it, and they don't all agree =)
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 11 '15 at 2:08
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    Do you know how you sometimes cannot find a word to express a thought, feeling or idea? (or only in one language if you're multilingual) This implies you actually don't think in language. However, since we communicate in language, language does to some extent shape how we think.
    – HSquirrel
    Dec 11 '15 at 10:02
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    I can't answer because I don't know enough about the subject but I'm very surprised no one talked about deaf blind people. Some were born that way and explain that they would think in feelings (instead of thinking "I want ice cream" they would taste it). I suggest you read up on them.
    – the_lotus
    Dec 11 '15 at 16:45
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    When you are hungry, do you think, "I am hungry now, I should go to the fridge," or do you just get up and do it? Dec 11 '15 at 17:17
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    Not everyone uses words to think in their heads. If you could watch what is going on in my head, it would all be pictures and sounds. My thoughts are like dreams - immersive auditory and visual experiences that are "fuzzy around the edges". I remember seeing TV show where a character said "How could there be a thought without a word for that thought?" I didn't understand that at all. I think without words all the time. Dec 11 '15 at 22:38

Do you only think in words? Personally, I find I often think in images too. And sometimes my thoughts take a shortcut and skip all words and images and just take me straight to the answer? Michael Phelps is famous for thinking in terms of "the perfect race," a thought stream without words describing exactly how he would race from start to finish.

There are many features of words that are useful to us but not required for thought. For example, reproducability. I can think of "sad," pause for a moment, and then think of "sad" again and claim I am thinking of the same word. This is useful for discourse (its hard to develop a "language" otherwise), but for thought purposes, all that matters is that the "thought" works well enough right now. It doesn't matter if the thought has no meaning 15 seconds from now, the present is all that is needed for thought.

One may choose to take the issue down to the neural activity level, in which case there is clearly communication going on. However, that communication may not meet our [human] definition of language.

Does that mean animals don't "think?" Well that depends on your definition of thinking. I think you could answer any number of ways, depending on your preferred definition of the word. (Ironic that the thing that gets in the way of giving you a clear answer is that we have to use words to describe it, isn't it?)

One approach might be to attack the problem from a different perspective. Instead of presuming "language" must mean exactly what you believe it means right now, start from behaviors of the animal. Identify sets of behaviors which are connected in ways that are clear enough to warrant grouping them together. Some of those behavior groups may start to pick up characteristics of what you thought "language" meant. If so, you may elect to call them "behaviors caused by language."

A parting thought: body language. Virtually every animal has it. In fact, you could even make an argument that bacteria and fungii have it. It has no words.

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    Very good answer, I almost forgot that I think with images too. But because of the fact that animals don't have a spoken language to describe things how humans do, would that limit how they understand things?
    – mdlp0716
    Dec 11 '15 at 2:00
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    @mdlp0716 I think it would be fair to say it limits how they understand things. However, it may be very hard to pin down exactly where those limits arise. Things that we perceive as "language only" may actually be expressible without language, there's simply no real reason for a human to do so (and thus, we anthropocentrically presume no one can think of them without language). And there is the question of whether those limits actually matter for an animal or not (an easy question to ask... much harder to answer)
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 11 '15 at 2:02
  • @mdlp0716 Well it limits them in at least the following way: When I have to find the answer/solution for a problem, I usually start forcing myself to thing about it, and I do it by repeating the words that remind me of the problem like a mantra (using my inner-voice of course), this way I can focus on the problem instead of my surroundings and it doesn't get overwritten in my short-term memory. I am almost sure the lack of words make animals incapable to do so.
    – mg30rg
    Dec 11 '15 at 13:16
  • That would make animals incapable of repeating words in their thought. This repeating-mantra thought process you've described sounds (to me at least) very strange. I've never done anything of the sort personally...
    – nhgrif
    Dec 12 '15 at 0:06
  • I used to think it was odd that nobody thought like I did. Later I realized that no two people approach thinking the same =)
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 12 '15 at 0:21

I know someone who had a car accident and lost the ability to speak due to a head injury. She didn't lose the physical ability, but the part of her brain responsible for language was damaged. She had to learn to speak again just like a baby does, completely from the beginning. She is doing well now, but there are still plenty of words she doesn't know, but only the words, not the concepts (she is intelligent and can fluently insert a description for anything she doesn't remember the word for). What is very interesting is that her cognitive ability and intelligence didn't suffer in any observable way. A few months ago she couldn't even use conjugation or any pronouns, she used a grammar even worse than the Hulk from the comic books. However, no matter how hard it was for her to express her thoughts, it was evident that her cognitive ability was normal for her age of approximately 30 years.

This shows that language is not necessarily the same as thinking ability.

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    The details you've given don't prove the conclusion you've drawn. It's clear that something about the ability to articulate was lost for the woman, but it's not clear that her thinking is not linguistically formed even if the ability to articulate that was lost.
    – virmaior
    Dec 11 '15 at 7:44
  • @virmaior : No, not the articulation. I wrote that the problem was not with the physical ability to move her tongue etc. but that she forgot the language itself. This was evident in the time when she couldn't use any grammar, but the few words she remembered / was taught, she could utter almost perfectly. And now, when a word doesn't come to her mind, she can quickly get around it by describing it, almost completely fluently. I know, this is just anecdotal evidence, but I posted it because it might point into an interesting direction, I'm sure this condition has some good medical literature.
    – vsz
    Dec 11 '15 at 15:50
  • @vsz, maybe try rephrasing your response to make your point more obvious? In this case, it seems like an interesting example: even just one example of someone who can think but struggle to use language shows that such a thing is possible. Dec 11 '15 at 23:08
  • @vsz I think you might be using articulate differently than I am in my comment. I don't mean vocalize. There's an extremely unclear feature repeated in your comment that makes it seem like she still has the concepts that used to have words with them, and that makes it very unclear whether it's fair to say her cognition is not linguistic even if the name of the word is now gone from her head.
    – virmaior
    Dec 11 '15 at 23:55

One approach is to extend the computational theory of mind, as Cort Ammon points out, and consider any form of neural activity as a from of computation. The answer becomes trivial: Animals think because thy process information using neurons. But we can do better than that.

We could reverse engineer your problem: How did language evolve? Before there was writing, language was a series of sounds. High order animals that clearly display some level of thinking also tend to communicate with sounds (Dogs, apes, dolphins and whales, etc...). Chances are their thought processes involves a bunch of sounds in their head as well. Not as precise as humans, but still precise enough that scientists now consider Orcas to have distinct cultures.

Douglas Hofstadter, in his book "I am a strange loop", has a section (or chapter) I forget, called "On souls and their sizes". In it he posits that, there isn't a specific break between animals and humans, but that instead there is a gradual increase in complexity of their abilities of self perception. The complexity of thoughts possible also followed a similar gradient. Presumably the animals would perceive themselves using the same types of symbols they perceive the world with, so that is how their thoughts are structured. Animals with an advanced sense of smell might associate smells with their mental images instead of sounds for example.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Thomas Nagel, who wrote an article called "What's it like to be a bat?". He starts from the fact that we have no way of figuring out what the thoughts and emotions of bats are, because they are just too darn different from us. Based on this, he concludes that consciousness is irreducibly subjective and cannot be brought to a materialist/physicalist explanation. Ultimately, he arrives at a dualist position, meaning that for him, thoughts and consciousness require some dualistic mental substance to exist, even in animals.

  • Although it is possible to recall images, sounds, smells and touches, they are not a major part of 'conscious' thought. Most of our thoughts are sub-conscious. Conscious thought is often for planning to speak with others, and we treat ourselves as another person. It is easy for the idle language center to eavesdrop on the planning center and create sentences just short of talking aloud (sometimes our tongues even move around as though speaking). An animal might internally hear itself 'yelp' or whatever it would plan to do, but it probably has no higher thoughts that 'it is aware of'.
    – amI
    Dec 11 '15 at 19:13
  • @aml see the link I posted about Orcas. Dec 11 '15 at 19:18
  • Orcas have more language than 'yelp', so I agree that they have more awareness. I think there is a spectrum of consciousness, and I still think that 'self-awareness' relates to language, which evolved to communicate with others, but is also used to 'communicate with oneself'. I don't think any animal has an internal dialogue that is more complex than the language[s] it could share with other creatures.
    – amI
    Feb 10 '16 at 18:36

It depends on what you do consider "thinking" - just now I am thinking about your question and I formulate those worlds directly in English in my head, even if English is not my born or more used language. But i think about answering the question in words, while my hands operates the keyboard independently.

I send command like "copy my thought in words on keyboard", "correct this typo" not "type letter A then type letter B then C", not in terms "move index finger little left, then push it down", not in forms "flex this muscle and release that one".

Does that mean, that writing on internet forum (with corrections) using standard keyboard and widespread text editing features of major browser does not need to "think"?

When I drive car, my body does a lot of work, like steering the wheel, shifting, braking, I look at other cars and avoid crashing to them, I look at traffic lights and signs and change my plans accordingly WITHOUT formulating it in words in my head - I can talk with friends on the way and use my language skills for totally different target. I could "remember back" what I did and formulate it in words (changed shift from 5 to 4, while braking and steering little left ...),but usually I do not do it. Does that mean, that driving from center of one city to the center of another, finding parking place there and park car does not involve "thinking"? Many really intelligent beginners would have problems even with the parking alone and would use a lot of words verbally (or just in head), many of which would be not publishable.

If you play with ball, you just "catch it", not solve ballistic equations in symbols and floating point arithmetic. You can describe it in such means later and get to better understanding what happened, or you can practice that and get better at that field. Your dog can "catch it" without special mathematics ability or "words" :)

So if you define "thinking" as "manipulating words", then animals probably cannot "think", but also driving in heavy traffic or using computers does not need "thinking"

If you change the definition to "solve problems in changing environment and with respect to previously learned things and with anticipating future development of situation" then you need not necessary "words" for such activity.

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    'Does that mean, that writing on internet forum (with corrections) using standard keyboard and widespread text editing features of major browser does not need to "think"?' - certainly seems like it sometimes! :p
    – Coz
    Dec 11 '15 at 17:11

Cort Ammon has given a very good answer...and even better "fair warning."

You question is perfectly okay, but so exceedingly broad that is can reach into nearly all corners of philosophy, from definitions of consciousness and "life" to the role of language and "representation." To answer it one would have to usefully limit the definition of "word" and of "thought," which entails a huge chunk of modern philosophy.

Philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to define what distinguishes "animals" from "humans," usually settling on something called mind or soul or reason or language or symbolic systems, etc. For Descartes and his followers the line is quite distinct, and animals are far more like machines. Today, when we see machines simulating human "thinking" such boundaries blur. Moreover, research does show certain "language" skills in animals, so boundaries blur on the organic side as well.

Your question might be framed in many ways, but I think of two that could avoid an endless quest into the nature of human consciousness. First, what are the limits of nonhuman organic reactivity and generalization or "animal consciousness"? Second, what are "words"? What is the difference between a human saying "there is an eagle" and a monkey warning cry indicating "eagle!" Do both involve representation? Is it a matter of degree?

My own preferred framing is to look at all of these terms quite abstractly, as "communication." We can almost use this as a synonym for "society" or even "life." All lifeforms, even plants, must in some sense "communicate" between physical instantiations to continue and "re-present" themselves. This ghostly power of "communication" can be stored and transferred in various ways. All entail cells and membranes that must exclude some "communications" while remaining permeable to others. Human utterances appear to divide and redistribute experience in peculiar ways that slow and modify the physical continuum of "action" and "reaction" or "cause" and "effect." Animals do not appear to be so "loosely coupled."

But at this point in my late-night answer I am reminded that words induct us into an infinite regress from which healthy animals appear to be exempt.


Warning - this is not my area of professional expertise, but a lay observation.

When very young children learn a language for the first time, a concept ("book") and its corresponding sound are taught at the same time and are intricately linked, so they may not even recognize them as distinct. If they are exposed to a bi-lingual environment from the earliest age, they are forced to distinguish between the concept, and the representation. There may bs a single visual representation, but there are now multiple linguistic representations.

It is my belief that this leads to a more complex neuronal processing of language, and that this is fundamental in the ability to pick up additional languages (since it is only when you learn your second language that you have to start making this distinction). So a child that is bilingual from birth develops different wiring.

Animals that don't have an explicit language as we understand it can still have the conceptual processing layer, where concepts are associated with sounds, smells, tastes, emotions... Language is really just a cherry on top.


I wanted to provide some further reading; this thread was addressed rather explicitly in the 1970s with Jerry Fodor's Language of Thought Hypothesis...


which fed into a discussion about the "systematicity" of language and thought (loosely, the ability for thoughts or propositions to be combined according to systematic rules), and the implications of this for philosophy of mind.

In particular, this sparked a debate between those who felt that we necessarily think in a systematic language (on Fodor and Pylyshyn's side) and "connectionists" who invoke ideas such as "sub-symbolic mental representations" to avoid such a necessity.


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