How Do Babies Think?

Baby thinking about this blogDo you believe babies are incapable of all thought for the first year or so of birth?

They are born without language, so it seems to me one of two things must be true. (1) They are unable to think when born, and they gradually become capable of thought as they slowly learn language. OR, (2) They are able to think before learning language, and as strange as it could sound, thought can exist without language.

I believe thought can exist without language. I came to this idea slowly and unwillingly, because I’m so fixated on language, and at first it struck me as impossible. In the last blog entry I used a phrase that implied my belief in thought as being independent of language. It was a deliberate implication, and I knew I was making it, when I wrote, “Our mental processes will find their way into language…”

That implication has provoked a very lively discussion with one reader in an out-of-blog exchange. I have been told rather adamantly that thought cannot exist except with the tools of language. I have insisted, just as adamantly, that every one of us has thoughts that occur with no language involved.

The discussion has been interesting and provoking enough that I will make it the focus of this posting. In doing this, I will try to make you believe what I am saying, but don’t believe me just because I’m right. Think about it. (And Dan, comment on the blog, so that other people can have the advantage of an alternative view, not just what I say. It would be a fine thing to have any other views, from any reader.)

At first, at least for me, trying to consider what thought would be like without language was like asking a fish to look at the water. We cannot discuss any topic without language, we cannot communicate with one another without language, and if we sit and ponder a question, it seems that we cannot even talk to ourselves without words. In support of this view, I was given a quote from Nietzsche, “there is no view from nowhere”.

The implication of that phrase seems to be that without language, nothing exists in our mental conceptions, there is only blankness because words and phrases have not named things and described anything to think about.

I wonder whether there might be disagreement here, at least partially, based on another fact about language—it is almost impossible to agree on exact definitions of words. If the word “thought” means articulated ideas, expressed so that they can be understood (even by the thinker), then yes, language is definitely needed, and without it there is no thought.

If, however, “thought” means any recognizable feeling or image that can pass through the mind, which can afterward be expressed with language, then I think certainly those feelings and images do exist prior to language. My definition of “thought” is broad enough to include such mental activity. I would argue that such feelings and images exist without language, rushing through our heads every day and all day long. I believe, in fact, that such thought without language is a crucial part of our mental function.

I will quote an especially good question that arose in the off-blog discussion, a question that I think touches a profoundly important point about how we use language: “How can we make sense out of our worlds outside of some sort of linguistic framework?” My personal answer is that I don’t think we can make sense of the world without language. When I say that we can think without language, I’m not saying that I believe we can sensibly understand the world without words.

But I’ll go further and argue against myself on that point about making sense. For most of human history, most people could not read and write. And of course once in a while some people were born deaf. Someone born deaf during an illiterate period would neither learn to speak nor ever see a piece of writing. This would mean spending a life entirely without language. Of course there would be signs, gestures, expressions, but no language as we are talking about it. Would a person in this situation, with no language at all, have no thoughts? For me the answer, while perplexing, is obvious. Of course they would have thoughts. And possibly the world would even make sense to that person—at least as much as it makes sense to me (which isn’t much), and I’ve got plenty of language to ponder it with.

Let’s consider more minute evidence of mental function. How do composers write music? Do they use words to work out which notes should follow which? Obviously not, though if we define what they do as not thinking, that will take care of the problem, until you try to talk to a musician. Further, sudden moments of insight or inspiration such as we all have do not occur by means of language. A physicist may suddenly see an image of how space might work, and afterward try to describe the insight using words, and more importantly work out the math for it.

Do the things I’m describing count as thinking? Or is this argument just a question of word definition? It’s not that I don’t love words, because God knows I do, but they are clunky, clumsy things, and while language helps to clarify and generate thoughts, language is not necessary for thought to exist.



Filed under Language

6 responses to “How Do Babies Think?

  1. Dan & Kel

    Let me try this again by quoting The Bard. This is my “definition” of rhetoric.
    “And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name,” or something like that.
    Oh, and music, like math, only makes sense axiomatically. That is, by some symbolic system–like language.

    • I’m going to saw off the limb I’m sitting on here and guess that the Bard is like the Bible, that if I looked through there long enough, somewhere deep in Henry the something I might find a quote for my side. In any case, I don’t see Mr. Shakespeare negating the idea that the mind can contain images without language. It very obviously can. The question would be whether ore not we call that thought. In the audio referred to in SAWK’s comment, there is a researcher who overtly says he just doesn’t consider that thought. He then says that to his mind, a five-year-old is not really thinking.
      I don’t know what axiomatically means, and even after looking it up I still don’t know. But music is a “language” only by metaphor.

  2. for crissakes, david, will you listen to radiolab already? this one specifically discusses whether babies think before they know words.

    • So I did listen to this, all 30 minutes, and I found it fascinating to the point of wowity. The story about the 27-year-old deaf man who suddenly realizes that language exists and begins to cry put me in a state of misty melancholia.

  3. Pingback: Do Babies Think? – Princess Yve Diaries

    • The answer to this question may depend on how we define the word “think”. Does a newborn have logical, coherent thought? I doubt it. But is something happening in their heads? Something rather obviously is, and I call that thinking, especially as it gradually increases into what we do later on.

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