Questions, questions, questions

For me, one of the many losses of the last year is that of the free monthly magazine The Bridport Times. I say this in a very selfish way because its demise deprives me of the opportunity to write up and publish my reflections on the monthly meetings of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group that I organise. I know that I often refer to this group in my weekly posts, but I’ve decided that from now on I will devote the post immediately following these meetings to this task. Sorry, but there you go. It’s my blog, and if you don’t like philosophical reflection I can only respond by saying that you should!

How we operate, both virtually (at the moment) and actually (when we can all meet again in a pub), is that a member of the group proposes a topic that interests them and prepares a short introduction to provoke discussion. We then discuss. Simples. The topic for our meeting last Wednesday was: What is the link between language and thought? Having read and considered what the person introducing this topic had prepared, three questions came immediately to mind: 1. Do we need language in order to think? 2. What is thinking anyway? Having acquired a language(s), can we think outside of it/them?

In asking the first question I mean language in the widest sense of the term and want to include sign language, music and art in addition to the spoken (and written) word. Which, for me, immediately raises the further question: What do we mean by language in the first place? For present purposes let’s assume that a language is any system of expression and communication where there is some link between a signifier (a word, symbol or note) and that signified (something that can be experienced by our senses). Is a baby crying for milk using language? Is it using its cry (signifier) in order to ask for its mother’s milk (signified)? Or is it simply responding to a sensation of hunger in an automatic way that requires no thought? Is thinking present right from the start of a baby’s life, before it has developed any language? Or is it something that develops as a consequence of interactions with its parents / family / community?

Which brings me to the second question: What actually is thinking? I think it highly likely that all animals have, to some degree and in a variety of different ways, some type of cognitive map that allows them to navigate and interact with their environment. But does having such a map constitute thinking? For me, thinking involves the both ability to ask questions of this map and to imagine alternative maps – maps of an environment that ‘the thinker’ is not actually in at the present. John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher, considered “thinking as a means to the end of dispelling doubt, doubt being a mental state that creates visceral pain that people will do anything to eliminate.” Could it therefore be the case that for humans, and other animals to some degree, experience has proved these maps to not always be reliable, and that in order to survive we have had to acquire the ability to question them and to develop means for raising their degrees of certainty?

And finally, can we step outside of language in order to examine it more objectively? Or are we condemned to being trapped within language and being forced to examine it from the inside? And perhaps more fundamentally, if our thinking is always trapped within language will we ever be able to fully understand language? Can we understand what thinking is by thinking about it? Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later work, saw language as a game. Language games, he argued, were rule governed, but these rules were not fixed and differed from language to language and over time. But more importantly, he argued that there was no ‘meta-game’, no game of games, no point of view outside of our language games from where we could stand back and appraise the relationship between language and reality.

Personally I warm to Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, but am forced to admit that I can answer none of the questions I asked above with anything approaching certainty. In fact I would probably go further and say that none of the questions raised within our Philosophy in Pubs group can be answered with certainty. However, that by no means devalues their asking. I think more can be gained by the asking of questions than can be by the supplying of answers. If you think like this, if you value a well-formed question more than a clever answer perhaps you could consider either joining our group, or one of the many others scattered across the country. If you would like more details, contact me.

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