North Texas Objectivist Society (NTOS) Message Board › What is the relationship between one's "thoughts" and one's "

What is the relationship between one's "thoughts" and one's "language"?

Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 241
I've been finding more and more lately it's not my actual thoughts that are the problem but my use of language that is.

I saw this statement on another discussion thread, and thought it merited some separate friendly question and discussion.

Some of us have had some discussions regarding the topic that people seem to get along better in person than in writing. A common explanation that is advanced for this is that "body language" and other cues can help a communication in person. This may be true, but I do not think it fully explains the difference between the “smoothness” and “agreement” as between two people engaging in personal as opposed to written communications.

I think a bigger factor is that in spoken communications, the attentiveness of the listener is not as focused on the words. There is less time and opportunity in the pace of the back and forth of a conversation for one to reconsider a sentence or an argument, replay it, study it, and then say: "What in the world are you saying? -- That doesn't make any sense!" (Preferably politely, of course, if we value the relationship.)

Also, a listener in a personal conversation grants credit and respect for the speaker, especially if he is a friend, and explains away some misstatements or event blatant non-sense: “He couldn’t have really meant that! He probably meant what I think he should be saying and all we would have to do to clarify that we are in complete agreement is stop and take the time to go over it again more slowly. But we don’t need to do that because I am sure we would agree anyway after going through that exercise, so it would be a waste of our time and interfere with our good discussion.” I am not so sure this is true.

Both sides to a conversation tend to do this, merrily moving forward in the conversation all the while thinking they are in complete agreement with each other.

In contrast, I think that written language is analyzed more critically (i.e., even harshly) because the reader expects that a writer should take more care with writing than with the spoken word, and because the reader has more time to analyze each written word and sentence than in the stream of an oral conversation.

Back to the particular quote above, my understanding is that "thoughts" cannot be expressed except in words and language. Thus, one’s words and language must accurately express one’s thinking, both "inwardly" and as expressed to others (except for typographical errors, of course).

I hope I am not messing this up too badly, but I think Ayn Rand once wrote on this topic something to the effect that communication is an inestimable value to people, but that communication is a by-product of language, not its primary function. A person first needs language to think, even on a desert island, and without language people would have nothing to say.

Does anyone have any friendly clarifications or comments on my thinking -- or on my language?

-- Todd
Lathanar
Lathanar
Dallas, TX
Post #: 113
Back to the particular quote above, my understanding is that "thoughts" cannot be expressed except in words and language. Thus, one’s words and language must accurately express one’s thinking, both "inwardly" and as expressed to others (except for typographical errors, of course).

I hope I am not messing this up too badly, but I think Ayn Rand once wrote on this topic something to the effect that communication is an inestimable value to people, but that communication is a by-product of language, not its primary function. A person first needs language to think, even on a desert island, and without language people would have nothing to say.

Do you think in English?

- Travis
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 242
Yes, I do think in English.

-- Todd
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 243
Actually, an interesting question.

When I was a teenager, I spent the summer in a foreign country with my grandparents, who did not speak any English. I learned the language well enough that I could think and communicate basic ideas directly in the other language, without first translating from English in my mind, a laborious and slow step. Toward the end of the summer, I even started to dream in that other language.

But I could not think (or dream) in that other language beyond my understanding and skill with the language. To think about anything for which I did not have the words or skill in that language, required me to revert to English. I could not communicate those things in the foreign language, either.

-- Todd
Lathanar
Lathanar
Dallas, TX
Post #: 114
Yes, I do think in English.

-- Todd

Ok, I don't think in English. I just asked a bunch of our other developers how they think something through and a majority of them explain it as visualizing the solutions and eliminating the ones that won't work. I do not know how to explain what runs through my head, it's definitely not visualization as they explain it, but I am often left searching dictionaries, books, or other places to find terms or phrases that match my thoughts and sometimes, often times lately, come up wrong. Often my questioning is not with an aim to straighten out my thoughts, but rather to figure out how to phrase them correctly.

If you think in English, how do you come up with new concepts for which you do not know the words?

- Travis
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 244
I think that "visualization" is possible for concretes or low-level abstractions, like seeing a dog or a cat in the mind's "eye," but it I doubt it works for high-level abstractions, like for the ideas expressed in your response above. That would be hard to imagine as a "visualization."

By way of further example, we each can visualize our way driving from home to work, "seeing" the streets, turns, stores, etc. But the higher the abstraction, the less we can visualize, for example, it is not possible to "visualize" highly abstract concepts such as "art," "science," or "integrity" -- what would the "image" be, other than a symbol (e.g., a word) for the abstracted concept? Any visualization would be too concrete to express the idea, say, the "Mona Lisa" for art, or "brewing beer" for science, or "Sherry" for integrity.

Visualization may work for finding one's way through certain problems that can be susceptible to visualization, like how to get from one's home to the airport, but not for finding one's way with high abstractions. That is why looking for and finding the “correct” words is important, first for one’s own thinking about the abstractions, second for discussing with others.

How does one make new concepts for which one does not know the words? Make an abstraction and if no word exists, make one up to cover it. People do it all the time. It's called "concept formation." Originally, all words are made up words, such as "fire," "shoe," “air conditioning,” "computer," and "internet." We agree on definitions to foster communication. Another person may choose different symbols for these concepts, which would be fine for that person to think about the concepts, but not fine for communication.

-- Todd
Lathanar
Lathanar
Dallas, TX
Post #: 115
How does one make new concepts for which one does not know the words? Make an abstraction and if no word exists, make one up to cover it. People do it all the time. It's called "concept formation." Originally, all words are made up words, such as "fire," "shoe," “air conditioning,” "computer," and "internet." We agree on definitions to foster communication. Another person may choose different symbols for these concepts, which would be fine for that person to think about the concepts, but not fine for communication.

Taking this and applying it to this

Back to the particular quote above, my understanding is that "thoughts" cannot be expressed except in words and language. Thus, one’s words and language must accurately express one’s thinking, both "inwardly" and as expressed to others

How do you use language to accurately express one's "inward" thinking if your thoughts have led you to places you do not know the terms to express them? If I find that I don't have terminology to convey my thoughts, I look up and find terms that I feel express what I'm thinking. Later, when I use them in conversation, I find that the terminology or phrases I picked do not mean exactly what I wanted them to mean to other people. My command of language is inadequate to convey the exact meaning of my thoughts and often times I get answers that are probably answering the questions my words have phrased but do not address the meaning of the question I meant. Frustration often ensues.

Let me ask you this, are your thoughts/concepts synonymous with words? Do you translate them directly, i.e. they are one and the same? Or do you ever find it's like translating between two languages where a phrase in one translated to the other has a completely different or multiple meanings?

- Travis

This is the type of conversation that requires beer.
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 246
How do you use language to accurately express one's "inward" thinking if your thoughts have led you to places you do not know the terms to express them? If I find that I don't have terminology to convey my thoughts, I look up and find terms that I feel express what I'm thinking. Later, when I use them in conversation, I find that the terminology or phrases I picked do not mean exactly what I wanted them to mean to other people. My command of language is inadequate to convey the exact meaning of my thoughts and often times I get answers that are probably answering the questions my words have phrased but do not address the meaning of the question I meant. Frustration often ensues.

Let me ask you this, are your thoughts/concepts synonymous with words? Do you translate them directly, i.e. they are one and the same? Or do you ever find it's like translating between two languages where a phrase in one translated to the other has a completely different or multiple meanings?

- Travis

This is the type of conversation that requires beer.


Hi Travis,

By "inward" thinking, I mean the “voice” as one "talks" to oneself in one's head. The limit of how well a person can think about abstract ideas is how well, i.e., how rationally and logically, a person can arrange the symbols (words) for the concepts building the ideas.

The limit of how well a person can communicate an idea, assuming a common language, i.e., common definitions for words and rules of grammar, is how well a person can "talk" about them in one's own head in that language (sometimes with the help of pen and paper or computer screen). I am sure the same is true of computer programming -- how well one arranges the symbols of the programming language to make instructions for a computer program is not a matter of vague visualizations, but a matter of precise definitions of each word of the programming, arranged in accordance with its rules of syntax (grammar), with reason and logic.

If one's thinking leads one to places that require new words, i.e., concepts with which one is unfamiliar but that probably already exist in one’s language, the most appropriate place to start looking for words that relate to the idea at hand is a thesaurus. From that, one checks the possibilities in common dictionaries, and then, as necessary, one goes back to the thesaurus, and so on, until one finds the right words. This process, which can be time consuming and tedious, is one way one can find the words for unfamiliar concepts that are already well developed in one's language.

If no word expressing the concept one is looking for can be found to already exist in one’s language, perhaps it is a new concept in that language and a new word for that concept should be coined and defined, or, as is more often the case, borrowed from a well-developed language, usually English.

In response to your question, my thoughts/concepts are not synonymous with words -- they are in words. Like threads are to a tapestry, words are to more complex thoughts/concepts.

The thoughts/concepts can be translated into other languages, but must be in some language or the thoughts/concepts would not exist at all. This is the same for a computer program, it must be expressed in some language of symbols and syntax, or the computer program does not exist.

-- Todd

P.S.
I like beer -- much more so than your average bear. But words have precise meaning, and when drinking beer, I am more likely to speak bear.

More than one beer wouldn't help this type of conversation, except to the extent that it would help us merrily overlook the fact that we may not be communicating as well as each of us would like to believe. Still, there may be some rational basis for this "overlooking," in that "getting along" and minimizing differences can in some ways be helpful to building and keeping friendships, marriages, and society as a whole. Such values should not be thrown away over the slightest disagreements. On the other hand, philosophy and rational thinking are too important to make sloppy with too much beer and good cheer.
Lathanar
Lathanar
Dallas, TX
Post #: 120
By "inward" thinking, I mean the “voice” as one "talks" to oneself in one's head. The limit of how well a person can think about abstract ideas is how well, i.e., how rationally and logically, a person can arrange the symbols (words) for the concepts building the ideas.

The limit of how well a person can communicate an idea, assuming a common language, i.e., common definitions for words and rules of grammar, is how well a person can "talk" about them in one's own head in that language (sometimes with the help of pen and paper or computer screen). I am sure the same is true of computer programming -- how well one arranges the symbols of the programming language to make instructions for a computer program is not a matter of vague visualizations, but a matter of precise definitions of each word of the programming, arranged in accordance with its rules of syntax (grammar), with reason and logic.

Here is my problem. I don't do this. I don't talk to myself. This is why I asked if you think in English, to see if what you described is what you do. When I am programming, if I run into a problem I don't know what to do with right away, I don't sit back and talk it through in my head in English or computer syntax. Often times I figure out the solution without knowing exactly what syntax I'd use to accomplish it, I have to hunt it down in help files. When I've brought this up with others before, back in high school and college, they often relegated it to my not realizing I was doing it. I've analyzed it enough to know they are wrong. I couldn't even begin to comprehend having at minimum 6 different conversations with myself at the same time.

So for me, since I only have my own brain to observe, I can agree that you need language to communicate, but not that it is needed for thought.

-- Travis

P.S.

I enjoy having beers in good company, Saturday good for you?
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 247
Hi Travis,

I look forward to discussing this subject with you in person and in more detail this Saturday!

-- Todd
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