Thought and speech

Thought and speech are intimately bound up. Although not everyone does this, I think entirely in an ‘inner dialogue’ – that is, the process of thinking is just the process of talking to myself. Ideas like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis* suggest that thought is either totally, or largely, the manipulation of language.

So, how do we go about reasoning with language?

Well, one way is to write. We start writing about a subject not to expound on it, but to explore it. We don’t know at the top of the paragraph what we’re going to say at the end.

For a while, I’ve used a journal or computer as a supplement to my memory and as a thinking aid. I find I can reason further with a pen and paper than I can just talking to myself. The act of writing something down is an act of clarification; stuff on the page often makes more sense than stuff in my head because I have to use decent grammar and finish sentences and paragraphs. Things get interesting when you want to see how lots of your ideas work together. Let’s say, for example, that I’ve written a bunch of stuff on philosophy and on games. Imagine that I have written notes entitled

  • Why I am a utilitarian*
  • Why I am an existentialist*
  • Ain’t games fun?
  • Sportsmanship

And let’s say I’ve recognised some possible connections between those notes; the fun from games relates the the ‘greatest happiness’ principle of utilitarianism, and fun games to sportsmanship, and sportsmanship to the responsibility of existentialism. F’r’instance.

How can I connect these up? Maybe these might form the basis for a larger piece of thought, if these atomic pieces of thought could be bound up into ‘molecular’ essays.

Anyway, I’ve rambled from one subject straight into another. Damn language.



22 responses to “Thought and speech”

    • Interesting stuff.
      I think you might be interested in reading Mindware, a book I have a great deal of affection for that was teh main set text for my Computation and Consciousness course – one of THE best set texts I had in the philosophy part of my degree if just for its approachable style. In general it’s got some reading that relates to the ideas you seem to have been thinking about a lot recently. In particular, as relates to this current post, I recommend Chapter 8: Cognitive Technology: Beyond teh naked brain Section C – The Bounds of Self, and Chapters 5-8 as supplementary. This deals particularly with the idea that our minds and thoughts could be seen as extending beyond the brain, that our minds are embedded in our bodies, our actions, our perceptions, and the environment. It challenges the idea of the Perceive, Analyse, Act structure and presents a more intergrated model. This seems to be very much along the lines which you have been thinking, particularly the way it discusses the way an artist’s sketches are necessary for the artist’s development of ideas.
      Generally Mindware is an excellent introduction to cognitive science, particularly as it relates to computation and consciousness, but it is centred around teh topic of A.I. I’d be more than willing to lend you either Mindware and/or the coursebook of photocopies that acted as a supplement to the main text, though I’d recommend buying Mindware, if you have a mind to – if just to avoid my rather excessive highlighting. Particularly the articles written by Dennet and Fodor may interest you as regards the content of mindware (thoughts, feelings etc.) as well as the articles on the existence of Qualia – considering our recent discussion on them.
      I only wish I had the info more to hand in my brain. But I appear to have done something of a Mind-dump since the exams.
      Hope these are useful recommendations. And yay to more Utilitarian Existentialists!

    • the diagramming is one of the things ariadne’s gonna be looking at providing, showing you relationships between ideas.
      So 1) you identify the atomic ideas, and
      2) you bind them together graphically into networks.

  1. Why I am a utilitarian
    So… would you execute a random healthy person if their organs would definitely save the life of one sick person and had a 1% chance of saving another and all people involved were the same age, intellect and, in fact, the same in every other way?
    If not why not?

    • The first thought is no, because what you’re looking at trying to do is raise everyone’s standard of living. Living in a society where the meat wagon can randomnly come round and kill you isn’t gonna be a fun place to live. Even if the average age were a month older.
      Anyway, the point was about connecting ideas in networks, rather than the quality of the ideas themselves…

      • *laugh* You are somewhat dodging the issue. We are already living in a society where a disease can randomly come around and kill you. Assume for the sake of argument that the killing and harvesting of organs could have been carried out in such a way that it appeared to everyone involved apart from you that the person killed looked like they were the victim of a disease. So society at large would be unaware of the trade you have made. If you prefer you can also have the memory of your decision wiped from your brain.

      • You are somewhat dodging the issue.
        I’m only dodging the shifting goalposts 😉
        First up, let me know when this is possible. Real hypothetical situations are never this easy.
        Second, you’re kinda putting me in the position of a government who control a state health service. And they have to make decisions like this all the time, because they have limited cash. Where do we invest money to save the most number of lives? Do we buy incubators or hire careworkers for the elderly? Do we research new drugs or buy more of the old ones?
        Do I want to make that decision? No. Maybe that’s moral cowardice. I don’t know. Certainly, if you expand the example from 1:1.01 to, say, 1:50, the answer starts to be clearer (would you sacrifice one for fifty other lives) but even then, I don’t want to make those decisions.
        I guess I’d rather focus on the much more positive side of ‘how do we make life enjoyable?’ – which was what I was thinking when I thought about games and utilitarianism. Is it morally good to play board games, given that it raises several people’s levels of happiness?

      • *grin* I know but I like checking that utilitarians really ARE utilitarians because it seems “obviously right” until it’s explored thoroughly. I used to be a convinced utilitarian until the consequences were put to me.
        Is it morally good to play board games, given that it raises several people’s levels of happiness?
        No — you are depriving them of the time that they could have spent connected to a machine which would directly inject electricity into their pleasure centre and make them feel incredibly happy and euphoric.

      • Ah. So it is at least an attempt at moral action, since it’s offering the opportunity for happiness? It’d only be wrong if you forced people to play. Like the terrible north korean cleudo chambers. Or monopoly at christmas.

      • Hmm… if you are making a constrained choice between forcing people against their will to play monopoly at christmas or sit watching TV and digesting clearly you should morally force them to play monopoly because they WILL enjoy it if it kills you. However, if you have the choice to force them to have wires strapped to their heads and electricity powered directly to their pleasure centres until they die you should probably do that. (And then the same to their grieving relatives).

      • Could you describe why it is “silly”? The example is taken from a philosophy course about utilitarianism and is apparently a standard critique of the stance.

      • In clarification – consider the rules that ultimately benefit society – e.g. The Harm to Others Principle, and the principle of Liberty based on that principle.
        Clearly organ harvesting goes against the Harm to Other’s Principle and the individual’s liberty – unless they have freely chosen to give up their organs, in which case it is a different matter (probably involving letting it happen as long as teh indl is of sound mind etc. etc.)

      • Wow – you replied before my post went up – yet my post still makes sense. Yes it is a traditional example – it is also highly dodgy and, at least at base level, easily defeated. Of course Once one gets into teh detail, the debate between Act / Rule Utilitarianism and other forms of ethical grounding is vastly more complex.
        I wrote and essay on it once, that went something along the lines of: Act Utilitarianism – no, it is faulty; Rule Utilitarianism = yes, it is great. BUt I felt it was too complex to repeat on Live journal having not looked over the details for three years.

  2. OUt of interest, I looked up that old essay. It deals specifically with Act and Rule Utilitarianism, rather than them in teh context of ethics as a whole, though it does consider relevant objections to both. If you’re interested, you can read it at:
    Although please bare in mind that it was written three years ago, to a deadline and a word limit, and not all of what it says particularly aligns with my current views – in particular, the conclusion. I no longer feel that one must discover a list of rules – though I think basic rules like The Harm to Others Principle can help us work out others. I would also argue, now, that in the case of the sado-masicist brother and the innocent by-stander it is more clearly better to save the innocent one than one’s brother, though to save one’s brother is understandable, and by no means entirely reprehensible.
    Also, the esay is missing some explanatory tables. I have lost the tables. I think teh essay survives the loss, but some points may be obscured – my apologies.

  3. The greater question is actually where does ‘thought’ originate. Deepak Choprah, and other metaphysicists, believe its source lies in a higher dimension to which we are all connected, like drops of water in the ocean, we are individual water molecules yet together form something greater than us all. Language is just a filter, often imposing limitations on the original thought. I’m only reasonably adept at one language. I’ve often wondered how my thinking might change if I knew other languages.

    • A friend of mine is trilingual; Yann (winolj) is half-polish and half-french and has lived for about 10 years in england. IIRC, he says the ‘voice in his head’ switches the language it’s speaking 😉
      Also, in a short talk with we talked about the different words a culture uses for colours and the effects on that country’s aesthetic… She’s an english girl teaching in russia, and (again IIRC) she thinks the russians have more words for bright colours, and have a taste for more garish art… circumstancial, but interesting nonetheless.
      I wonder if the place to look for this is in poetry? Different languages would, presumably, be better at describing different things.
      Also, (and I’m just braindumping here) different languages have words with no direct translation; schadenfreude in german, for example. Being able to express things as a single word probably makes it more likely to appear in writing and thinking. I’ve personally started inventing words to express certain exact concepts that don’t have an existing word – makes reasoning in that easier…

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