I'm a physicist, but I do like philosophy, so I was arguing with a friend about what comes first: Ideas or the language/symbolism?

More Precisely:

If we define thinking process as: a kind of abstract process that enables some object to deduct results or solve problems, but not as specific usual biological/machine process, anyway we assuming this object has the ability to understand or has concessions.

Language of thought hypothesis supposes that there should be kind of syntax, but I was arguing that it's not required, because some times even we are humans (this is just example of thinking process) getting some splash of ideas/solution without really "thinking" about it (in the seance that defined above) and without using symbolism (I we can't say that unconscious using symbolism anyway because the splash happens mush faster than our brain ability to interpretate or manipulate symbols .

  • I found a similar question What came first, language or consciousness? anyway here I assume that we are concessions , I'm more interested on if we can build constructive Ideas without language/symbolism.
    – TMS
    Oct 28, 2012 at 19:36
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    This is probably (non-obviously) a cognitive science question. All sorts of thinking appears to happen subconsciously and non-linguistically. But I assume you know this...so...maybe I misunderstand your point. Are you sure it's not a cogsci question?
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 28, 2012 at 20:13
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    @RexKerr: I'd think what the OP is trying to ask is the question whether there is a "language of thought" (or whether this hypothesis is necessary in some way). @ TMS: Could you take a look at plato.stanford.edu/entries/language-thought or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_thought_hypothesis and tell us whether your question concerns this subject? This is definitely on-topic!
    – DBK
    Oct 29, 2012 at 13:09
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    @DBK: Yes that exactly! thx now I know how to name it right! most interesting thing there is : "These problems are those that show that machines with a LOT syntactical framework very often are much better at solving problems and storing data than human minds, yet much worse at things that the human mind is quite adept at such as recognizing facial expressions"
    – TMS
    Oct 29, 2012 at 20:34
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3 Answers 3


There is current research on the topic, which so far indicates that language is just one module of thought, and many others can operate independently. But it's an active area of research in cognitive science now, and if you doubt that experiments yield insight into it, first review some of the research. (In particular the PNAS paper.)

Anyway, I think it's CogSci's turn to work on this problem for a bit--it's really quite a new area, and we've yet to find out whether it fundamentally upends our intuitive understanding that informed philosophical approaches (as has been the case for the nature of perception), or whether it's a morass of messy facts and data that can be cut through with principled reasoning (i.e. philosophy). Right now my bet's on the former.

Edit: more nails in the coffin of the conscious-language-first hypothesis. Turns out you subconsciously do arithmetic and parse short sentences. Whatever is going on in there is pretty complex and nonobvious.

  • I thinks it the most reasonable answer till now.
    – TMS
    Nov 2, 2012 at 11:46
  • I think all my tries to take this out of CogSci get failed :(
    – TMS
    Nov 3, 2012 at 9:38
  • @TMS They did no fail. It is possible to think without words. Your answer. Words and other nice things inside (u called them thoughts) are interconnected like creator and creation. We can create language but language can also create us. Today like this tomorrow like that. There is no first and second. They are side by side.
    – Asphir Dom
    Oct 3, 2014 at 22:47

Working purely introspectively, it seems clear we think first then make language. In my own case I stare at problems and intuit solutions, and the cast about with pencil and paper to elucidate why I think the thing that I think. Sometimes working on paper causes me to abandon an idea, it doesn't stand up to symbolic manipulation. More usually, working with paper causes me to become conscious of plenty of good and interesting reasons for thinking the thing I was thinking.

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    Introspection is dangerous, and may not be consistent from person to person. I've asked people whether they think without language, and some answer that there's always an internal monologue (making it seem like the answer is "no, it's always in language") while others (fewer, but with myself as one of them) say that the translation to language is a separate step. Which all leads me to believe that we can't introspect our way anywhere--either feeling for how it happens could be incorrect.
    – Rex Kerr
    Nov 1, 2012 at 22:29

We have very good examples of people raised without language, and beyond the threshold of the ability to acquire it, who nevertheless 'think'.

Deaf people in cultures who do not have a critical mass of deaf citizens to develop conventions for dealing with them like sign-language or ideograms, or methods of teaching reading as a first language mode, are numerous enough to study.

There is very good reason to believe that they think, as they can act out stories for one another and engage in something like both dramatic and comical dialog though those. But the process is extremely slow.

Some of those people can learn language later in life, but others live out their entire lives this way. Your question presupposes that they have some kind of underlying syntax, but, if so, they fail to discover it in one another. Very seldom do these communities evolve a real language. To me, if that syntax is somehow 'really there anyway' this seems unlikely, as they spend fifty or sixty years confined to one another's company in very small groups, because those with language do not have the patience to enter into their interchanges.

After acquiring language, even individuals raised this way have difficulty rejoining these groups, as the painstaking process of conveying enough detail to be understood becomes too trying for them.

So I think your conclusion is true, that language does not need to be the basis for thought.

As to the speed of precipitation being an indication that symbolic thinking is not taking place, I do not agree. The brain is massively parallel, so symbolic thinking can take place sub rosa, a little bit at a time in many different times, hidden from view. (I am psychoanalytically inclined, so I hold definite biases as to how this happens that are less-than-defensible philosophically. But I think it is still quite true.)

A thought may pass into conscious perception all at once, but you do not think only, or even primarily, or even 'more', when you are 'thinking'.

  • I wasn't speaking about the language in the context of informative communication between humans, but as symbolic thinking.
    – TMS
    Oct 3, 2014 at 21:05
  • @TMS The data bears on both. You are asking a thoughtexperiment question but it has a real-life instantiation. It may be impossible to stop thinking in grammatical terms once you start, but it seems you do not have to get there in order to exhibit intelligence. One would have to really stretch to assume these folks are each thinking in some personal language, but that they never manage to communicate the forms of that language to one another and converge their pantomime into syntax over whole lifetimes. It seems the idea of language comes in from outside, or not at all.
    – user9166
    Oct 3, 2014 at 21:10

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