Can We Think without Words?

Immanuel Kant, who said space and time are apriori notions, that is, inside our heads

Are language and thought one and the same? Can we only know reality through the medium of language?

Donald Fagen, one of the geniuses behind Steely Dan, in his autobiography Elegant Hipsters, traces entire subcultures spawned by Count Korzybski’s General Semantics. The basic idea of the book is succinctly summarized by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct: “General Semantics lays the blame for human folly on insidious ‘semantic damage’ to thought perpetrated by the structure of language.” (Language Instinct, p.46). Add to that the famous phrase of the Count, “The map is not the territory.”  

George Orwell famously wrote that once Newspeak replaced English, Ingsoc will no longer need torture and surveillance, since heretical thought will no longer be possible. Can freedom exist when the word no longer means freedom? Fagen, in his book, draws a straight line from Count Korzybski, whose books such as Science and Sanity, were embraced by the Golden Age of science fiction writers including Robert Heinlein and none other than L Ron Hubbard! Count Korzybski: Godfather of Scientology! Talk about unintended consequences!! He also influenced the hippies and New Age thinking, reaching Fritz Perls of gestalt therapy and the wavy gravy Esalen Institute. The list goes on: neuro-linguistic programming, Buckminster Fuller, Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 fame), the  transhumanist movement, which is about fusing humans with technology. This list is by no means complete.  

I too have long believed language, thought and reality to be so interwoven as to be inseparable. When I read Stranger in a Strange Land a zillion years ago, I was captivated by the notion that Michael Valentine Smith, the human raised on Mars, derived his powers from the Martian language. Initially, when he was first brought to Earth, he was troubled by slippery human language, where the words were so variable. Using English was like trying to lift water with a knife. “Grokking”, to think and use Martian was to think in ways that more precisely fit reality and therefore permitted greater control and harmony. It became a kind of initiation into the religion springing up around Smith. Further, as emphasized by Steven Pinker, in his The Language Instinct, the Count’s views were seemingly backed up by the “scientific” investigations of people like Benjamin Lee Whorf, affirming that  “the foundational categories of reality are not ‘in’ the world but are imposed by one’s culture.”  

I write this blog because this is what I believed for decades, but I am discovering that I have been wrong. It is hard to deep 6 beliefs held for a lifetime. I thought that language shapes our perception of reality to such an extent that it is almost a substitute for reality, even the experience of reality itself. I am thinking of life changing literature, beautiful prose and poetry. But, according to Steven Pinker, it is “wrong, all wrong.”

With my background in linguistic philosophy, I thought when I decided to plunge again into philosophy as my spiritual path to truth, I would brush up on some of the scientific literature on language, and chose Steven Pinker as my mentor. I have barely reached page 50 of The Language Instinct to discover that some lifelong assumptions about the relation between language and reality are mistaken.

There is NO scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speaker’s ways of thinking.  to be continued

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