This question has been framed from a reading of Ruth Lydia Saw's book, "The Vindication of Metaphysics", (Macmillan, 1951). It's being termed, the 'parrot' example from pp.50-52. Saw poses a very acutely rendered question concerning whether and what sense can be made of Spinoza's insistence that understanding, that is certainty or truth value, is not comprised of words. So the question, expanded, becomes, is there anything in one's personal experience which one can know for certain and about which one entertains no doubts as to its certainty, but which 'you' cannot express in words? CMS

  • 1
    Is there anything in our personal experience that can be expressed in words? Phenomenal experiences, qualia, etc., as well as what is called knowledge-how, are famously ineffable. Chicken sexing is often cited by philosophers as the ability of some people to consistently tell chicken's sex correctly without being able to tell based on what:"They report not being able to offer the criteria they use to sort the chickens. Nonetheless they are very good at sorting chickens..."
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2019 at 22:34
  • 4
    A baby can know that a hot plate or a clothing iron is too hot to put his hand on it. He tries one time, experiences pain and knows not to do it again. This is knowledge and no words is ever involved. Even my cat is smart enough to know things about its environment although it will never speak or read. Does it qualifies as knowledge in the scope of your question ?
    – armand
    Nov 17, 2019 at 0:59
  • See also: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/67961/33787
    – christo183
    Nov 17, 2019 at 6:06
  • @John Forkosh the answer to this question is definitely yes, that much is clear. Now it is up to you to ask yourself, how is it that you know how to respond to this question? Do you have a massive collection of words in your head, or your mind, or your brain? And do you then select from this collection to respond or is the mass of your personal knowledge comprised of a concatenation of thoughts which contain no words whatsoever? CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 12:09
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    The Title Question and the text question are very different: "knowledge experienced without words" versus "experience that cannot be expressed in words". Nov 17, 2019 at 15:27

5 Answers 5


A corker of a question ! Then to begin an answer ...

Knowledge without words (1) - the math. example

Nineteenth-century German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss used to joke that he could calculate before he could talk. Maybe it was no joke. Recent work casts doubt on the notion that language underlies mathematical ability and perhaps other forms of abstract thinking. Writing in the March 1 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, scientists from the University of Sheffi eld in England describe impressive mathematical abilities in three middle-aged men who had suffered severe damage to the language centers of their brains. “There had been case studies of aphasics who could calculate,” says study co-authorRosemary Varley. “Our new take was to try to identify roughly parallel mathematical and linguistic operations.” Varley and her colleagues found that although the subjects could no longer grasp grammatical distinctions between, say, “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog,” they could interpret mathematical formulas incorporating equivalent structures, such as “59 – 13” and “13 – 59.”

The researchers found ways to pose more abstract questions as well. For instance, to investigate the subjects’ understanding of number infinity, they asked them to write down a number bigger than 1 but smaller than 2, using hand motions for “bigger” and “smaller” and a flash of the eyebrow, indicating surprise, for “but.” Then they asked the subjects to make the number bigger but still smaller than 2 and to reiterate the procedure. The subjects got the answer by various means, including the addition of a decimal place: 1.5, 1.55, 1.555 and so forth. (Philip E. Ross, 'Math without Words', Scientific American , Vol. 292, No. 6 (JUNE 2005), pp. 28-30: 28.)

It appears quite in order to say that the aphasics have some mathematical knowledge while ex hypothesi they have no knowledge of, or capacity to use, language. This is, I suggest, one case of 'knowledge without words'.

Knowledge without words (2) certain knowledge

Well but, someone might say, this is only a case of knowledge without words, not of certain knowledge. Agreed, but if we cannot have knowledge without words, then a fortiori we cannot have certain knowledge without words. That's why the math case is relevant to your question.

But is there any such thing as certain knowledge? If there isn't we can't have such knowledge with or without words (or better: language).

Time to dig deeper:

Knowledge and certainty

What is the connection between knowledge and certainty? The question is vexed, in part because there are at least two distinct senses of "certainty". According to the first sense, subjective certainty, one is certain of a proposition if and only if one has the highest degree of confidence in its truth. According to the second sense of "certainty", which we may call epistemic certainty, one is certain of a proposition p if and only if one knows that p (or is in a position to know that p) on the basis of evidence that gives one the highest degree of justification for one's belief that p. The thesis that knowledge requires certainty in either of these two senses has been the basis for skeptical arguments. For example, according to one kind of skeptical argument, knowledge requires epistemic certainty, and being epistemically certain of a proposition requires having independent evidence that logically entails that proposition. Since we do not have such evidence for external world propositions, we do not know external world propositions. According to another kind of skeptical argument, due to Peter Unger (1975), knowledge requires subjective certainty, and we are never subjectively certain of any proposition. So, we never know any proposition. (Jason Stanley, 'Knowledge and Certainty', Philosophical Issues, Vol. 18, Interdisciplinary Core Philosophy (2008), pp. 35-57: 35; Peter Unger, Ignorance, Oxford: OUP, 1975.)

'The highest degree of justification' of belief involves, so far as I can see, that one's belief is immune from error.

It would be a big mistake, the marching down a bypath, if we considered whether there is certain knowledge in this second sense. The precise question at issue is not whether we have such knowledge but whether such knowledge, if it were possible, could be had without words (or language).

Without words (3) no certain knowledge

'According to the second sense of "certainty", which we may call epistemic certainty, one is certain of a proposition p if and only if one knows that p (or is in a position to know that p) on the basis of evidence that gives one the highest degree of justification for one's belief that p.'

Highly provisionally I want to say that certain knowledge in this sense involves the concepts of a proposition (or statement or sentence), of evidence and of degree of justification of belief. I don't see how someone without language could employ these concepts. Maybe there could be a recognition of evidence without language but how could someone without language differentiate degrees of justification?

I considered the possibility that someone, X, without language might have certain knowledge but not know that they had it - that Y could have third-person knowledge that X has certain knowledge. But if [IF] I am right X could not have certain knowledge because, as I claim, with language X could not differentiate degrees of justification.

Reply to objection

Charles M. Saunders has made a highly interesting and valuable comment:

... any logical assertion which attempts to answer this question relies solely on words. This method does not seem to be adequate for 'describing' certainty without words. (Full comment below.)

This has triggered the following line of thought. 'Can there be certain knowledge without words?' There is a rock bottom problem in answering this question. We are using language to ask about the state of mind of X, who does not have a language. X cannot answer this question, since X lacks language. But can we answer it? To do so we would need both a language (which we have) and also access to the non-linguistic consciousness of X, in order to establish whether X has certain knowledge. We would need to describe X's consciousness, which seems impossible since we can never compare X's non-linguistic consciousness with our linguistic description to tell whether our description is correct.

  • nice work. At the same time, any logical assertion which attempts to answer this question relies solely on words. This method does not seem to be adequate for 'describing' certainty without words. I would like to have this question stand for a bit before answering it. But one point; Spinoza claimed that since words are formed in the 'imagination', they are extremely unreliable and should be used very carefully, beginning only with 'good' definitions (TIE) Par. 94. Think of the process which gives you the substance for this discussion. Is it comprised of Words? CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 12:02
  • @CharlesMSaunders. You raise a vital point. I have tried to handle it (with acknowledgement) in my revised answer. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 17, 2019 at 13:43
  • Let me put it this way, in your first answer, what in your mind does, p, refer to? In your second response, the same question for, x? Not the value, but the object or thought which allowed you to create the term or value? CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 16:02
  • p is a proposition. X is a person to whom the state of mind of believing that p can be attributed. I don't think that if X lacks language, we can safely attribute belief that p to X. It's as if we'd need to be linguistic thinkers and non-linguistic thinkers at the same time to identify belief that p with whatever non-linguistic mental state X is in.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 17, 2019 at 16:25
  • To approach the question from a Spinozan perspective would require a long and involved answer. For the record I think Spinoza got more things right about mind/ body than any other thinker. Not that I limit his achievements to that. You might try a Spinozan answer but it would require a great deal of background-setting. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 17, 2019 at 16:32




The idea that knowledge or belief or learning has to be decomposable into sentence-sized gobbets is probably an illusion of anthropomorphism - Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Chimpanzees who are very knowledgable about politics in their bands often switch allegiances when the political winds shift. Sometimes a loyal supporter of an alpha male will participate in a coup and beat and or kill the alpha male if the alpha male abuses his power. (Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes by Frans de Waal) Do chimps use words natively?

Conscious experience is largely pre-linguistic. Very young children experience the world, and function in it without the use of words. (Psychology of the Child by Jean Piaget)

Intellectuals often give heavy weight to language and forms of knowledge that presuppose rational justification of propositions, but it perfectly ordinary to presume there are forms of knowledge that are not linguistic, for instance, knowledge on how to tie a shoe. One can lack it, or have it in spades, but in no case when we tie our shoes do we rely on linguistic justification. Psychology supports there are distinct memories for each type of knowledge.

A very simple model of having knowledge that is both linguistic and not is that of Gilbert Ryle, who distinguished between knowing-how and knowing-that. (The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle)


Must you refer to a proposition in order to know how to tie your shoe? Or confer with your memory? CMS – Charles M Saunders

One might convey information to others or from others through statements. I routinely give my 4-year old knowledge-that so she may develop her knowledge-how. But the use of knowledge-how can be conducted without linguistic knowledge-that. Ultimately, one needn't invoke propositions to do things. This is obvious to anyone who has ever been in a fistfight. One doesn't reason through blows. In fact, many professional knowledge-how-ers (think athletes) struggle to "keep their minds clear" during performance.

As to the second question, the question is begging. If one conceptualizes memory activation as "conferring", then it presupposes an analogy to proposition exchanges. Conceptual metaphors are quite natural but can be misleading. To avoid being duped by the presupposition, one need only use literal language. When activating memory, is language a requirement? It's an empirical question, and the answer is no; there's even a term for at least on type of memory activation that bypass language: muscle memory.

  • Must you refer to a proposition in order to know how to tie your shoe? Or confer with your memory? CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 15:58
  • @CharlesMSaunders Questions addressed in edit.
    – J D
    Nov 17, 2019 at 16:51
  • Your edits altered my meaning. I intentionally used 'you' purposely.
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 23:13
  • Sorry. Just trying to avoid closure. You already have 4 votes.
    – J D
    Nov 17, 2019 at 23:54
  • @JD- Sorry I don't really understand the system. Thanks for your help. CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 21, 2019 at 23:05

Trivially yes- there are countless direct personal experiences one can be certain about without thinking of them with words. More significantly, perhaps, I often find myself struggling to find the words to convey facts of which I am certain. It seems to me, therefore, that words are a medium for the sharing of knowledge rather than for the possession of it.


Kabir is a medieval mystic poet, a rare exception of one revered and dear to Hindus and Muslims alike.

I was hearing the great maestro Kumar Gandharva render this Kabir song.

Sorry if too cross-cultural to be accessible — He sang with only one functioning lung!!

Here's a poor translation

Ud jayega hans akela
Jag darshan ka mela

Living within this phantasmagoria of visions called 'world'
When the time comes alone will the swan (soul) fly away from this carnival.

Jaise paat gire taruvar ke
Milna bahut duhela
Naa jaanu kidhar girega
Lageya pawan ka rela

As the autumn-leaves falling to the winds of winter are hard to track
So also we know not whither and whence our destiny ferries us

Ab howe umar puri
Jab chutega hukum huzuri
Jam ke doot bade mazboot
Jam se pada jhamela

When our time in this life-drama ends And we are done sycophanting upwards and patronizing downwards
The messengers of death will carry us away — Forcefully if needed

Das kabir har ke gun gaawe
Wah har ko paran pawe
Guru ki karni guru jayega
Chele ki karni chela

Kabir, (author) the servant of God, praises Him and beseeches:
A quick audience with Thee O Lord!

Each to his own karma:
The guru to his and the disciple to his.

Can this experience of meditation on ones own death ever be communicated to another in words? Note particularly the axiomatic solitariness in the last line


Is there anything in one's personal experience which one can know for certain and about which one entertains no doubts as to its certainty, but which 'you' cannot express in words?

The word 'knowledge' sometimes refers to the awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

When we express something in words, we usually compare them with some similar things, situations etc. Some feelings can only be expressed by using words and gestures, emojis etc. That means words are not enough to express all the experiences one has. Similarly, all the experiences of a drunkard or a madman cannot be expressed in words.

When knowledge refers to awareness, certain terms (or experiences) like the ultimate truth, beingness etc cannot be expressed in words. Some eastern philosophies treat some such things not as a mere knowledge as we usually acquire but Darshans. So there is no need to doubt its certainty.

Please watch this video and confirm whether this personal experience conveyed clearly. The Ultimate knowledge about the Ultimate truth must be incomparable. Since incomparable 'knowledge' can't be understood by comparing with other knowledge/ideas, it can't be expressed in words.

Since it is there, 'behind' our mind, this knowledge emerges before our mind works. So it is without words.

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  • @SonOfThought- very respectfully, since my experience in thought has touched upon and admires the Scriptures; this question is more about your own personal common everyday experience of knowing something in your world and of recognizing this knowledge, but not being able to express it in words.
    – user37981
    Nov 17, 2019 at 16:08
  • Often, words are used to convey our ideas to others. I believe all incomparable knowledge is like this because to help to imagine we must be able to compare the acquired knowledge with some other things. This wouldn't be possible in the case of incomparable knowledge..or the ultimate cause of knowledge. Nov 19, 2019 at 16:52
  • Again, we are not discussing 'conveying' anything. Just simply, of what is your internal knowledge base made of? Is it a huge jumble of sentences or paragraphs? Or is it a concatenation of ideas, which have existence on their own but no physicality? CMS
    – user37981
    Nov 20, 2019 at 18:04
  • Ok. This is not about an everyday experience. But I believe I have already answered the last part of your question from another perspective. Eg; Can you say with utmost certainty that the device now you are using to read this comment is working on battery/electricity? I believe your possible answer is 'no'. But with utmost certainty the only thing we can make sure is the 'thing' I mentioned. Nov 21, 2019 at 14:52
  • If you find this answer as a huge jumble of sentences or paragraphs I am ready to delete this. This is a concatenation of ideas about the only one which have permanent existence. Nov 21, 2019 at 15:06

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