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Thought And Language
by [?]

Against the assertion that there can be no true language without reason I have nothing to say. But when the Professor says that there can be no reason, or thought, without language, his opponents contend, as it seems to me, with greater force, that thought, though infinitely aided, extended and rendered definite through the invention of words, nevertheless existed so fully as to deserve no other name thousands, if not millions of years before words had entered into it at all. Words, they say, are a comparatively recent invention, for the fuller expression of something that was already in existence.

Children, they urge, are often evidently thinking and reasoning, though they can neither think nor speak in words. If you ask me to define reason, I answer as before that this can no more be done than thought, truth or motion can be defined. Who has answered the question, “What is truth?” Man cannot see God and live. We cannot go so far back upon ourselves as to undermine our own foundations; if we try to do we topple over, and lose that very reason about which we vainly try to reason. If we let the foundations be, we know well enough that they are there, and we can build upon them in all security. We cannot, then, define reason nor crib, cabin and confine it within a thus-far-shalt-thou-go-and-no- further. Who can define heat or cold, or night or day? Yet, so long as we hold fast by current consent, our chances of error for want of better definition are so small that no sensible person will consider them. In like manner, if we hold by current consent or common sense, which is the same thing, about reason, we shall not find the want of an academic definition hinder us from a reasonable conclusion. What nurse or mother will doubt that her infant child can reason within the limits of its own experience, long before it can formulate its reason in articulately worded thought? If the development of any given animal is, as our opponents themselves admit, an epitome of the history of its whole anterior development, surely the fact that speech is an accomplishment acquired after birth so artificially that children who have gone wild in the woods lose it if they have ever learned it, points to the conclusion that man’s ancestors only learned to express themselves in articulate language at a comparatively recent period. Granted that they learn to think and reason continually the more and more fully for having done so, will common sense permit us to suppose that they could neither think nor reason at all till they could convey their ideas in words?

I will return later to the reason of the lower animals, but will now deal with the question what it is that constitutes language in the most comprehensive sense that can be properly attached to it. I have said already that language to be language at all must not only convey fairly definite coherent ideas, but must also convey them to another living being. Whenever two living beings have conveyed and received ideas, there has been language, whether looks or gestures or words spoken or written have been the vehicle by means of which the ideas have travelled. Some ideas crawl, some run, some fly; and in this case words are the wings they fly with, but they are only the wings of thought or of ideas, they are not the thought or ideas themselves, nor yet, as Professor Max Muller would have it, inseparably connected with them. Last summer I was at an inn in Sicily, where there was a deaf and dumb waiter; he had been born so, and could neither write nor read. What had he to do with words or words with him? Are we to say, then, that this most active, amiable and intelligent fellow could neither think nor reason? One day I had had my dinner and had left the hotel. A friend came in, and the waiter saw him look for me in the place I generally occupied. He instantly came up to my friend, and moved his two forefingers in a way that suggested two people going about together, this meant “your friend”; he then moved his forefingers horizontally across his eyes, this meant, “who wears divided spectacles”; he made two fierce marks over the sockets of his eyes, this meant, “with the heavy eyebrows”; he pulled his chin, and then touched his white shirt, to say that my beard was white. Having thus identified me as a friend of the person he was speaking to, and as having a white beard, heavy eyebrows, and wearing divided spectacles, he made a munching movement with his jaws to say that I had had my dinner; and finally, by making two fingers imitate walking on the table, he explained that I had gone away. My friend, however, wanted to know how long I had been gone, so he pulled out his watch and looked inquiringly. The man at once slapped himself on the back, and held up the five fingers of one hand, to say it was five minutes ago. All this was done as rapidly as though it had been said in words; and my friend, who knew the man well, understood without a moment’s hesitation. Are we to say that this man had no thought, nor reason, nor language, merely because he had not a single word of any kind in his head, which I am assured he had not; for, as I have said, he could not speak with his fingers? Is it possible to deny that a dialogue–an intelligent conversation–had passed between the two men? And if conversation, then surely it is technical and pedantic to deny that all the essential elements of language were present. The signs and tokens used by this poor fellow were as rude an instrument of expression, in comparison with ordinary language, as going on one’s hands and knees is in comparison with walking, or as walking compared with going by train; but it is as great an abuse of words to limit the word “language” to mere words written or spoken, as it would be to limit the idea of a locomotive to a railway engine. This may indeed pass in ordinary conversation, where so much must be suppressed if talk is to be got through at all, but it is intolerable when we are inquiring about the relations between thought and words. To do so is to let words become as it were the masters of thought, on the ground that the fact of their being only its servants and appendages is so obvious that it is generally allowed to go without saying.