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
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.
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 types of memory activation that bypass language: muscle memory.
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
There appear to be two differing types of answers that we receive when we ask ourselves in what does our certainty concerning our knowledge base consist. One wile we consciously query. This response appears to come to us as a series of sentences, paragraphs and phrases; like, I know that I was born, I understand logic to a certain degree, I am confident that my grasp of epistemology has some basis, etc. The other is much more subtle and difficult to observe. This is that accumulated bulk of the 'core' of knowledge which we draw from whenever we participate in discussions, or write papers, etc. This information appears to come more or less unbidden and not in any type of language. This type of certainty was the type of knowledge that Berkeley was referring to when he observed that as far as he could ascertain, he had no access to any 'abstract' ideas. All that he could 'observe' were thoughts about, objects, people and things.(The Principles Concerning Human Knowledge). The author whose book prompted this question was Ruth L. Saw. Her book, The Vindication of Metaphysics, referenced earlier, is interesting on a number of fronts. There are no footnotes or bibliography. She applies a questioning methodology to Spinoza's epistemology to attempt to tease out his intended meaning. What she finds is, as best as she can speculate, that Spinoza was advocating a new type of understanding and therefore of certainty. She terms it 'reasoning clearly'. There is neither the space or time or even the need to elaborate on this here. The point behind asking this question was to pose it to this very intelligent group of SEP members, to begin to introduce a new potential into the schema. One where human intelligence and accumulated knowledge appears to be the sole and only reliable resource necessary for any type of philosophical investigation. No footnotes, no bibliography, no 'expert' testimony; just one human mind exercising its innate and organic function of attempting to understand, with clarity and certainty. Thank you to all who participated, especially to conifold for his chicken and egg rendition. Perhaps the people who can sense chicken genders could be termed 'candled people'. CMS
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. Though some feelings cannot be expressed in words we somehow convey them using words and gestures.
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.