Thinking without speech


When I stop and think about something I hear voices in my head, a continuous string of speech that forms arguments about the best way to do something or not. A debate rages in my head and it is as if my mind is trying to convince me which way to go. I don’t know if this always happens or only when I am aware of it.

It is the same when I read. The words are aloud in my head.

It was Descartes who proposed that the only sure sign that an organism has a mind is its use of creative language, novel and innovative, appropriate to situations, coherent and engendering in our minds new thoughts and ideas. Without language you have no mind.

Rousseau held however that although the organ of speech is natural to man, speech itself is nonetheless not natural to him. Speech can only be learnt, it is not innate as the variety of languages and dialects across the world will testify.

This has led me to think. Do we need language to be able to think? Is it only possible to put coherent thoughts together if they can be verbalised?

There must be times when I don’t need to verbalise to think, when kicking a ball or eating a sandwich for example, but it’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat in that if I stop to think I can hear the words. 

Although there is no real evidence to confirm it, Albert Einstein is reported to have said ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ 

To understand requires explanation and explanation requires language. Therefore to understand requires language. To think about something we speak which leads me to wonder which came first, thought or speech?

I might have to think about it.

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