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Language

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1. Does thought depend on language?

We human beings may not be the most admirable species on the planet, or the most

likely to survive for another millennium, but we are without any doubt at all

the most intelligent. We are also the only species with language. What is the

relation between these two obvious facts?

Before going on to consider that question, I must pause briefly to defend my

second premise. Don't whales and dolphins, vervet monkeys and honey bees (the

list goes on) have languages of sorts? Haven't chimpanzees in laboratories been

taught rudimentary languages of sorts? Yes, and body language is a sort of

language, and music is the international language (sort of) and politics is a

sort of language, and the complex world of odor and olfaction is another, highly

emotionally charged language, and so on. It sometimes seems that the highest

praise we can bestow on a phenomenon we are studying is the claim that its

complexities entitle it to be called a language--of sorts. This admiration for

language--real language, the sort only we human beings use--is well-founded. The

expressive, information-encoding properties of real language are practically

limitless (in at least some dimensions), and the powers that other species

acquire in virtue of their use of proto-languages, hemi-semi-demi-languages, are

indeed similar to the powers we acquire thanks to our use of real language.

These other species do climb a few steps up the mountain on whose summit we

reside, thanks to language. Looking at the vast differences between their gains

and ours is one way of approaching the question I want to address:

How does language contribute to intelligence?

I once saw a cartoon showing two hippopotami basking in a swamp, and one was

saying to the other: "Funny--I keep thinking it's Tuesday!" Surely no

hippopotamus could ever think the thought that it's Tuesday. But on the other

hand, if a hippopotamus could say that it was thinking any thought, it could

probably think the thought that it was Tuesday.

What varieties of thought require language? What varieties of thought (if any)

are possible without language? These might be viewed as purely philosophical

questions, to be investigated by a systematic logical analysis of the necessary

and sufficient conditions for the occurrence of various thoughts in various

minds. And in principle such an investigation might work, but in practice it is

hopeless. Any such philosophical analysis must be guided at the outset by

reflections about what the "obvious" constraining facts about thought and

language are, and these initial intuitions turn out to be treacherous.

We watch a chimpanzee, with her soulful face, her inquisitive eyes and deft

fingers, and we very definitely get a sense of the mind within, but the more we

watch, the more our picture of her mind swims before our eyes. In some ways she

is so human, so insightful, but we soon learn (to our dismay or relief,

depending on our hopes) that in other ways, she is so dense, so uncomprehending,

so unreachably cut off from our human world. How could a chimp who so obviously

understands A fail to understand B? It sometimes seems flat impossible--as

impossible as a person who can do multiplication and division but can't count to

ten. But is that really impossible? What about idiot savants who can play the

piano but not read music, or children with Williams Syndrome (Infantile

Hypercalcemia or IHC) who can carry on hyperfluent, apparently precocious

conversations but are so profoundly retarded they cannot clothe themselves?

Philosophical analysis by itself cannot penetrate this thicket of perplexities.

While philosophers who define their terms carefully might succeed in proving

logically that--let's say--mathematical thoughts are impossible without

mathematical language, such a proof might be consigned to irrelevance by the

surprising discovery that mathematical intelligence does not depend on being

able to have mathematical thoughts so defined!

Consider a few simple questions about chimpanzees: could chimpanzees learn to

tend a fire--could they gather firewood, keep it dry, preserve the coals, break

the wood, keep the fire size within proper bounds? And if they couldn't invent

these

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