Language and Thinking

We take our instruments, our technologies–those artefactual extensions of our practically-oriented capacities–for granted.  This is true most of all of our particular languages–those delimited, structured, historically-developed systems of verbal articulation recorded and regulated by dictionaries and grammar textbooks–which we seldom think of as technology at all.  No technology receives as much use; though, like all things which we use very frequently, we think of it as a tool only when we struggle to find the right words, to articulate some idea which has as yet not crystallized for us into a communicable means–perhaps because the idea is under-formulated or perhaps because we lack the specific tools, the specific words, that we need.

This searching for words obscures something about the connection between language and thinking, however: namely, by inverting the relationship, making it seem as though thinking must “match up” to language; as though language is the metric of thinking, when, in fact, language is the instrument of thinking.  Consider an instance where you struggle to find the right word.  When you do finally discover the “right” word, there is a “eureka” kind of moment, where the thought “clicks” into–what?  It is not simply the satisfaction of your own personal linguistic-framework, but a decidedly intersubjectively-oriented satisfaction.  Finding the right word is satisfying because the thought then becomes communicable.  But is the intersubjective framework of possible communication the determinant of thought?  That is: are all our thoughts capable of completion or validity only insofar as they attain to this framework?

Academics, particularly in the humanities, often use words or phrases in languages other than their own.  Why does an American say jouissance or Schadenfreude, l’appel du vide or aletheia or in media res?  Partly, no doubt, to demonstrate their erudition; and partly, no doubt, as the continuation of a tradition of using the phrases.  But there is also an economy of meaning in the use of such phrases: not only to capture the traditional connotations, but to express a thought which more closely matches those words or phrases than do any words or phrases in the English language.  Why is this?  Why are certain terms capable of adequate translation between languages, while others are not?

We have, at this point, two questions: first, does the intersubjective framework of communication measure our thinking? and second, why does every particular language seem incapable of comprehensively exhausting this intersubjective framework?

To answer the second: every particular language is incapable of comprehensively exhausting the intersubjective framework of communication because thinking, though brought to a completion through language, is prior to and broader than any particular language.  As languages develop, habitual paths of thought are established, in turn committing the words and phrases and structure of the language to signifying those paths.  But thought is less rigid in its ventures than is language; and so thought may depart from the habitual paths, leaving behind the familiar language.  Thus: using foreign expressions or inventing neologisms.

And so to answer the first question: yes and no.  Yes, insofar as communication is an integral part of the purpose of language, and language is a certain completion or perfection–always on-going, never completely complete or perfectly perfect, but completing or perfecting–of thinking.  But also no: for thinking, as prior to language, can never be measured by the products of language; it may be judged through those products–as we can identify a vulgar or subtle mind by the words it produces (and perhaps even a single mind as both)–but those products are not the measure or the standard of thinking itself.

That is: thinking is the mind’s process of disclosing the truth of what is; of getting at a reality which extends beyond whatever feeble conceptions of it we may have heretofore produced.  Language yet has a role in this, for language is the perfection of that disclosure–as stated, always on-going.  To bring to language is to bring one’s disclosure into the realm of communication, yes, but also to open the object of disclosure to further inquiry.  When we attempt to make the structure of language determine the structure of thought, or the structure of thought determine the structure of the disclosed–we fail to allow what is to speak for itself; it hollows out our language and makes an empty shell of meaning.

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