Conscious thought depends on language?

After I tell people that conscious thought depends on language, I am often faced with a scrunched up face, shortly followed by a “Huh? What does that even mean?”

A simple experiment will illustrate my point. Come up with a phrase and then say it very quietly in a barely audible whisper. Then, repeat the phrase and proceed to lower the volume until eventually you are talking to yourself without making a sound. Now, repeat the phrase in your mind, and pay close attention to whether and in what sense that thought is merely subvocal speech. What are the phenomenal differences between quietly whispering and thinking in words? In my own case, it seems plainly evident that a great deal of thinking is merely subvocalization accompanied by conscious access at the level of intentions and meanings. Developmentally speaking, we learn to talk before we learn to talk to ourselves. As Sellars, Heidegger and many others have emphasized, we start off in the public world and must learn to eventually consciously turn inwards and understand ourselves.

How is this possible? It is not just a matter of communicating at a low pitch. Conscious thinking is of course accompanied by consciousness. The subvocalizations are always accompanied by conscious access at the level of meanings. To be conscious of the syntactical elements and not the meaning is to break down the very function that language and thought evolved for.

What does it mean for subvocalizations to be “accompanied” or “accessed” by consciousness? That sounds kind of like spooky Cartesian thinking, right? In order to naturalization this notion, we must understand that subvocalizations are accompanied by what Julian Jaynes called the Analog I. The Analog I is what “does” the introspection. Jaynes thought it was similar to Kant’s notion of the transcendental ego, but I’m not a Kant scholar so I don’t  really know. The Analog I is an analogical construct that is generated at every point by what it is an analog of. An analogical construct exists purely in the operational sense. It is a functional process, not a thing.

What does the Analog I map onto? Simply put, it is an analog of our own body and what we can do with it. Because the bodily eye can perceive objects and separate them spatially and temporally (even when we are nonconscious, as blindsight and other phenomena clearly demonstrate), the mind’s eye can perceive thoughts and separate them spatially and temporally. The mind’s eye can also be cast out into the world as when we are consciously controlling our visual attention. Because the body can grasp and manipulate an object, the mind can grasp and manipulate an idea. Because the body can speak a sentence, the mind can think a sentence. And most importantly (and most controversially), because the body can understand the narratological milieu of social life and nonconsciously develop communication skills, the mind can act for a reason and think in terms of folk propositional psychology (belief/desire logic).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have done a brilliant job of explaining how these mind metaphors work. So has Raymond Gibbs. Check out the epic bibliography in the back of Lakoff and Johnson’s groundbreaking masterpiece Philosophy in the Flesh. There is just so much evidence supporting the idea that conscious thought and higher-order cognition depends on the prior understanding of language and narrative. I’ve always thought that the conclusions of that book have been swept under the rug. People say, “Oh, yeah, they found out that metaphor is important for thinking. That’s cool, but we already knew that, no big deal”. Almost everyone has failed to realize or discuss the radical nature of the book’s conclusion, particularly in respect to how philosophy and cognitive science is currently being done and the kind of language games being employed in the literature.

Daniel Hutto is another brilliant contemporary researcher who has amassed a mountain of evidence and theoretical reasoning to support the idea that theory of mind and folk propositional attitudinal reasoning depends on exposure to the right kinds of narrative practice and social interaction seen in human child-parent relationships e.g. the grammatical logic of agent-based storytelling and predication. The evidence that metarepresentational thinking depends on mastery of the appropriate sociolinguistic skills is overwhelming. Studies of congenitally deaf people who never learned a language until adulthood are particularly striking examples of what kind of “mental paradigm shift” happens when you learn that every thing has a name, including yourself. Realization of this opens up entirely new ways to perceive and interact with the world. Developmental psychologist and evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello says that language allows you to do at least three things:

  1. parse the world into events and participants;
  2. view complex events from various perspectives that connect either more or less well with the current joint attentional scene; and
  3. create abstract constructions with which they can view virtually any experiential phenomenon in terms of virtually any other (action as objects, objects as actions, and all kinds of other conceptual metaphors)

It seems then that we can construct a plausible naturalistic account of conscious thought and how it develops in childhood without losing sight of its experiential richness, its “interiority” or private nature, and its remarkable complexity. My dualist friends would probably still object to this account of thinking, but I don’t think anything could satisfy them.


Check out this excellent Radiolab podcast about this very idea: Voices in Your Head



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

3 responses to “Conscious thought depends on language?

  1. I know you mentioned Sellars and Heidegger, but doesn’t the idea of consciousness as subvocalization sound strikingly like Wittgenstein’s “no private language” argument?

    • Gary Williams

      That sounds interesting, but I haven’t studied Wittgenstein in depth so I couldn’t say. I’m not sure I have ever grasped the full implications of the private language argument. Could you elaborate?

  2. Matt McEver

    You should definitely read Wittgenstein, Gary, going by this post I think you’d find a lot to agree with. I was thinking Wittgenstein before I even read the comments. I can see why subvocalization would remind one of the “no private language” argument, though it seems pretty different to me. Not to be pedantic, but Wittgenstein didn’t actually make a single coherent “no private language” argument, its just kind of a debate that grew out of a lot of different observations on language from Philosophical Investigations. The basic jist is that it would be impossible for someone to formulate a language intelligible only by themselves, because it would be incoherent according to the sociolinguistic rules that inform their own language-consciousness. There’s a lot of debate over what exactly Wittgenstein would say about the private language argument, but the underlying point of Philosophical Investigations (and of your post) seems to be that language developed as a social tool and the way that consciousness functions is shaped by this tool.

    I also enjoyed Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, I’ll have to read Philosophy in the Flesh.

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