March 31, 2010

Words, Thoughts, and Images (1)

In this installment and in the next two or three we are going to discuss what language means by clarifying the connections among words thoughts and images. Many people, including language professionals as well as laypersons, see thought as existing independently of language. Of course, thinking can go on in the absence of language, otherwise no infant or nonhuman for that matter, could think; and to claim that they cannot think would be out of the question. The question often asked is ‘Is their thought without language?’ To me, this sort of question begs a different sort of question. “Is all thinking the same”? If you recall what I explained in the previous Blog and despite what you may have heard about the so-called language of bees, trained apes, parrots, your favorite pet cat, or dog, animals don’t have language—humans do.

Bear with me as I try to sketch the differences. First, images. Many people say, “I think in images not words. Of course you can translate these images into words, after the fact, if you had a mind to. But what does this prove”? Let’s say you are a person who claims to think in images. You have an image a of cat on a mat, and indeed you can quickly dress it out as ‘ The cat sat on the mat.’ But if the cat’s got your tongue, you could draw it; if this failed, you might be able to point to actual cats and mats in the room.

The test above is far too simple. Let’s try something more like ‘My trust in you has been shattered forever by your unfaithfulness.’ Can you conjure up a mental image to which this sentence matches up? My guess is that you drew a blank or you replayed the sentence again or something similar. If you did that however, you would be thinking in words not images? Let’s continue on this topic. What sort of feeling did you get when you read the second sentence? Did you have that certain feeling, that precise feeling—not just a vague sense of resentment but also the uniquely hurtful sense of betrayal that an act of infidelity provokes? Is it possible to have such a feeling if you didn’t know what trust was, or what unfaithfulness was, or what it meant for trust to be shattered? While there may be some thoughts and feelings we can have sans language there are a great deal many more we can’t.  Even “The cat sat on the mat” turns out not to be what it seems to be.    

 Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in the early ‘90s, offered a “thought experiment” to illustrate the snags that get connected with thinking in images. Imagine he said, a purple cow, in a much detail as you can. Now say “which way was the cow facing, whether it was chewing cud, whether its udder was visible, and what exact shade of purple it was.” Dennett remarked that many respondents couldn’t answer these questions. What about you? So this time let’s get back to the cat on the mat and try describing it. Was it a Persian, Siamese or a Calico stray? Were its whiskers long or short? Did it have that smug grin of the vanishing Cheshire Cat that gave Alice advice or did it somehow look displeased about something? Did it look well fed? Was the mat a doormat? What color was it? Ws it plain or did it have a pattern? If it had a pattern could you describe it? Where was the mat, outside or inside? Was it old or new? Was it clean or dirty? 

 Now translate you thoughts into words? Could it be translated simply as “The cat sat on the mat.” Is that cat Persian, Siamese or perhaps it was a Japanese Bobtail (mike)? Was the mat tatami, rubber, or cloth? Was it a car mat, a doormat, tablemat, or a floor mat? No, you say, “It’s just a cat” and “just a mat.” But there is nothing in nature that is just a cat or just a mat. Everything that is a cat has to be some kind of cat, Persian or Japanese Bobtail or whatever, and it has to have all of its own, temporary or permanent, features. The same goes for every mat. But therein lies the rub. The more specific you describe your image, the less it is like what you intended to say. If you wanted to think the thing you were going to say, you would have had to imagine vague blobs with the tags “cat” and “mat” on them. Or, as Dennett suggests, you would think something like “I’m imaging a purple cow” or cat. But that’s thinking in words. Thus, you merely thought were thinking a thought and dressing it up in language 

david8b at 09:22コメント(5)トラックバック(0) 



1. Posted by ライター募集   September 16, 2011 02:38
2. Posted by 秋華賞 2011   October 07, 2011 20:43
秋華賞 2011枠順で着順予想を立てろ!勝利のサインが見えてくる!一般には漏れない裏情報も公開中!
3. Posted by 天皇賞 秋 2011   October 20, 2011 00:44
天皇賞 秋 2011大予想!他にはない圧倒的な情報力で今年のレース展開を徹底分析!緻密なデータで勝ちにこだわります!
4. Posted by グリー   November 01, 2011 04:24
5. Posted by 第36回 エリザベス女王杯 2011   November 04, 2011 03:13
第36回 エリザベス女王杯 2011 競馬予想は最新情報がモノを言う!緻密なデータで今回は勝ちにこだわります!




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