Are thoughts distinct from natural language and if so how can 'thought' be defined so this might be established if it is in fact the case?

I am asking in response to a question elsewhere in 'Stack' asking for a single word that for 'something that knows only of its own existence'. If such a something exists it would have to be 'God' because it would have to account for all existence that it experiences as being itself, and that is generally how a theistic God is defined.

However, is knowing the same as or distinct from thinking? and is thinking the same as or distinct from language processing? and is language called language because of its communicative and conceptualising functions and uses?

Or, does thought precede any kind of conceptualisation. If concepts are formed separately from language, then from what might thoughts be formed? Are concepts distinct from language whether natural language or any cognitive process with a conceptualising function, and is there any means by which these questions can be approached that does not utilise language?

Are there things (and somethings) that cannot be known?

And, does any of this matter?

  • 1
    This seems more appropriate for Philosophy. A lot of philosophy involves language, but nothing really particular to the English language.
    – Mitch
    May 9, 2022 at 18:34
  • 1
    Up until about a century ago, almost everyone believed that language was simply a transparent image of thought. We have since learned that this is not the case, and that both language and thought are difficult to define and distinguish. One of the reasons for this is that individuals vary so greatly in their thoughts and their linguistic behaviors.
    – jlawler
    May 9, 2022 at 18:44
  • 2
    This looks like a duplicate of the Linguistics SE question Are language and thought the same?. I don't think this has anything to do with English (being only one language of many that exist).
    – Laurel
    May 9, 2022 at 18:54
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    This universal question depends on your philosophical stance. Plato called your thoughts/conceptualisation as ideas which may be good or bad, natural language could be regarded as a tool to express such ideas, making them explicit from hidden. Of course there're other stances such as Jerry Fodor's language of thought... May 10, 2022 at 16:54

3 Answers 3


Imagine a race of deaf mutes, who have never experienced language of any sort apart perhaps from rudimentary signs. Do you imagine them to be incapable of thought? Our everyday experiences tell us that we can know and appreciate facts independently of our ability to express them in language, which suggests that language is a tool for expressing thought, rather than being the essential currency of thought. To take a trivial example- imagine contemplating a complicated object. You will be able to appreciate its shape and understand how the various parts of it relate, but you will almost certainly struggle to articulate what you see in a way that conveys a vivid and exact description to another person. To take a more subtle example, I enjoy answering questions about special relativity on Physics SE, and often I find myself knowing for certain what concept I need to convey and yet the search for words with which to express it clearly might take several minutes of additional thought.

  • +1 Love me a good Gedankspiel.
    – J D
    Oct 4, 2023 at 12:03
  • @JD you are very kind! Oct 4, 2023 at 12:05

Thoughts are not distinct from natural language , they are extension of it. Language of pain and pleasure and attractive and unattractive are intrinsic to life. We learn how to express our deeds through voice , ears , tastes , smells , mind( human mind is more intelligent than other animals), legs and hands in such a way that we move away from pain and unattractive, and move towards pleasure and attractive. We devise strategies for that. Humans spread those strategies for the welfare of their friends and families etc by devising tools like language , cooking, thinking ,cultivating etc. We think in some language like English, Chinese ,Hindi etc. Before verbal language , it was the language of pain and pleasure, attractive and unattractive. Verbal language and therefore thinking is built upon the language of conditioning.

Knowledge transcends thinking. Without thinking you can know things. However you can not think properly unless you know. Thinking utilises language therefore language processing is involved in process of thinking. Concepts and conceptualisation is part of knowledge gathering. Concepts come first then thinking.

  • +1 I would suggest that language literally speaking requires a grammar and so communicating pre-grammar might be symbolic but pre-or proto-linguistic and that concepts are not linguistic but are prior to it as a type of thinking.
    – J D
    Oct 4, 2023 at 11:33

The idea language fundamentally shapes thought, is called Linguistic Relativity. Formally it has been called the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, but for various reasons it's not a good name (like them not stating a clear hypothesis, and them not having worked together, and most importantly that far more general issues are considered under the topic than in their work).

A distinction is made between strong and weak linguistic relativity. The strong version says, if a language doesn't have a word, the thought that goes with it should be impossible. Orwell's fictional language Newspeak from his book 1984 explores the idea of strong linguistic relativity, or determinism of thought by available words. Fortunately, there is basically no evidence for this strong form. I would look to Hofstadter's book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking for why: words don't exist as isolated tokens, they are meshed in what Wittgenstein called modes of life. He said:

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings.” ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The weak form of linguistic relativity, is basically unarguable and has plenty of evidence: that language influences how we think. For instance The way you see colour depends on what language you speak. I would interpret the weak form of linguistic relativity in terms of organising experiences into salience landscapes.

Solitary animals like octopuses and bears, are clearly capable of solving problems, implying they can make efficient abstractions - thoughts. We know octopuses in particular just don't interact enough to have language, so in many ways the complexity of their minds is a puzzle. They lost the shells their nautilus relatives kept, long before the rise of mammals or birds, so it's thought the adaptive arms-race may have been key, plus their complex genetics. They have an amazing ability to predict how to manipulate predators and prey, in ways that we can watch them learn and hone in their short lives. Their wrapping themselves in loose shells to defend from sharks is probably the most advanced tool-use we know of outside of the mammals. So, it seems their intelligence is linked to 'seeing into' the minds of predators and prey, and this links to their heightened 'seeing into' objects. We call this intersubjectivity. And it seems to be more fundamental to complex thought, than language. We can look at language as a method of amplifying and networking intersubjectivity. Discussed here: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? I would then describe language as essential to complex concepts, ones that go beyond the capacity of one mind, or one lifetime.

I would argue the key distinction with knowledge, is from information. Information is just a record of data, sensations, etc. Knowledge situates us in relation to the information. Discussed here: Does knowledge require consciousness? In this sense thought and knowledge are possible without language, like the octopus situates itself.

You say:

word that for 'something that knows only of its own existence'. If such a something exists it would have to be 'God' because it would have to account for all existence that it experiences as being itself, and that is generally how a theistic God is defined.

I don't agree with any of that. What reference do you have for god being defined like that? The precise details of whether god is outside Creation, the nature of omniscience or the limits of god's knowledge, have been extremely important to theists and the causes of schisms. Bandying about loose definitions pulled from the air, is just no way to have a productive discussion.

What you describe, "something that knows only of its own existence", is exactly Descartes' source of fundamental certainty: 'Cogito ergo sum'. Which absolutely does not define a deity.

  • Upvoted for your usual thoroughness. You claim because octopuses problem-solve, they are capable of abstraction. But an abstraction is a linguistic artifact produced from generalizing over other linguistic artifacts, if I'm not mistaken. fMRIs show we can visualize, so it's likely the same for the octos. To perceive and manipulate entities doesn't require abstractions, only percipience.
    – J D
    May 11, 2022 at 15:12
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    @JD: Octopuses when observed learning, take a long time to open their first screwtop job, then get quicker. Implying some kind of conceptual framing generalising that problem. We see this with using coconut shells, or loose seashells - it's not a specific material, but an idea of tool use, that has been generalised. There's some indication they have less long-term memory, or are less likely to move strategies into it, based on them forgetting solved problems like turning a key in a lock. The social self of monkeys is another (pre- or) non-linguistic abstraction.
    – CriglCragl
    May 11, 2022 at 15:34
  • Ill give it some more thought. I have a murky view of what exactly constitutes a rule, sorry.
    – J D
    May 11, 2022 at 17:56

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