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Thought And Language
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Three well-known writers, Professor Max Muller, Professor Mivart, and Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace have lately maintained that though the theory of descent with modification accounts for the development of all vegetable life, and of all animals lower than man, yet that man cannot–not at least in respect of the whole of his nature–be held to have descended from any animal lower than himself, inasmuch as none lower than man possesses even the germs of language. Reason, it is contended–more especially by Professor Max Muller in his “Science of Thought,” to which I propose confining our attention this evening–is so inseparably connected with language, that the two are in point of fact identical; hence it is argued that, as the lower animals have no germs of language, they can have no germs of reason, and the inference is drawn that man cannot be conceived as having derived his own reasoning powers and command of language through descent from beings in which no germ of either can be found. The relations therefore between thought and language, interesting in themselves, acquire additional importance from the fact of their having become the battle-ground between those who say that the theory of descent breaks down with man, and those who maintain that we are descended from some ape-like ancestor long since extinct.

The contention of those who refuse to admit man unreservedly into the scheme of evolution is comparatively recent. The great propounders of evolution, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck–not to mention a score of others who wrote at the close of the last and early part of this present century–had no qualms about admitting man into their system. They have been followed in this respect by the late Mr. Charles Darwin, and by the greatly more influential part of our modern biologists, who hold that whatever loss of dignity we may incur through being proved to be of humble origin, is compensated by the credit we may claim for having advanced ourselves to such a high pitch of civilisation; this bids us expect still further progress, and glorifies our descendants more than it abases our ancestors. But to whichever view we may incline on sentimental grounds the fact remains that, while Charles Darwin declared language to form no impassable barrier between man and the lower animals, Professor Max Muller calls it the Rubicon which no brute dare cross, and deduces hence the conclusion that man cannot have descended from an unknown but certainly speechless ape.

It may perhaps be expected that I should begin a lecture on the relations between thought and language with some definition of both these things; but thought, as Sir William Grove said of motion, is a phenomenon “so obvious to simple apprehension, that to define it would make it more obscure.” {17} Definitions are useful where things are new to us, but they are superfluous about those that are already familiar, and mischievous, so far as they are possible at all, in respect of all those things that enter so profoundly and intimately into our being that in them we must either live or bear no life. To vivisect the more vital processes of thought is to suspend, if not to destroy them; for thought can think about everything more healthily and easily than about itself. It is like its instrument the brain, which knows nothing of any injuries inflicted upon itself. As regards what is new to us, a definition will sometimes dilute a difficulty, and help us to swallow that which might choke us undiluted; but to define when we have once well swallowed is to unsettle, rather than settle, our digestion. Definitions, again, are like steps cut in a steep slope of ice, or shells thrown on to a greasy pavement; they give us foothold, and enable us to advance, but when we are at our journey’s end we want them no longer. Again, they are useful as mental fluxes, and as helping us to fuse new ideas with our older ones. They present us with some tags and ends of ideas that we have already mastered, on to which we can hitch our new ones; but to multiply them in respect of such a matter as thought, is like scratching the bite of a gnat; the more we scratch the more we want to scratch; the more we define the more we shall have to go on defining the words we have used in our definitions, and shall end by setting up a serious mental raw in the place of a small uneasiness that was after all quite endurable. We know too well what thought is, to be able to know that we know it, and I am persuaded there is no one in this room but understands what is meant by thought and thinking well enough for all the purposes of this discussion. Whoever does not know this without words will not learn it for all the words and definitions that are laid before him. The more, indeed, he hears, the more confused he will become. I shall, therefore, merely premise that I use the word “thought” in the same sense as that in which it is generally used by people who say that they think this or that. At any rate, it will be enough if I take Professor Max Muller’s own definition, and say that its essence consists in a bringing together of mental images and ideas with deductions therefrom, and with a corresponding power of detaching them from one another. Hobbes, the Professor tells us, maintained this long ago, when he said that all our thinking consists of addition and subtraction–that is to say, in bringing ideas together, and in detaching them from one another.