It's language, stupid!

Nonrepresentational Linguistic Idealism (part 2)

PART 2: LINGUISTIC

NLI is a philosophical position that puts the mind at the centre of reality and language at the centre of the mind. It asserts that thought is linguistic in nature and we can only ever be conscious of linguistic ideas. Language does not represent the physical world but is the world itself. We are language in effect.

In part 1, I looked at the notion of idealism. In this post I will consider what we mean by ‘linguistic idealism’.

Idealism is the philosophical position that the mind is at the centre of reality for us (humans). ‘Linguistics idealism’ is quite simply the notion that language is central to the mind. All thoughts that we have in the mind are of a linguistic nature and anything else that is not linguistic is not mindful. The mind is language in effect.

This position may puzzle some since most people report other type of thoughts in the mind beside linguistic thoughts. The mind can hold, say, an image or have a sensation of an itch. Why are these non-linguistic experiences not part of the mind? NLI does not say that we do not experience these types of thought. It is just that these are not part of the mind. They are not mindful thoughts that we can be conscious of in the same way that language is. They are essentially just activities in the brain that are below the workings of the mind. In order for them to be brought into the mind they need to be tokened in language in some form or other. I discuss this further in a later part of the blog but for now let me just focus on linguistic thoughts.

I assume that all competent adult human beings experience linguistic thoughts from time to time throughout the waking day. (You are experiencing linguistic thoughts now as you read these sentences.) Sometimes these thoughts are very personal and private and we might keep them to ourselves. At other times we express these thoughts in overt spoken (or written) language to others. Most, if not all, of our social structure is built on language. We think in language, converse in language, write down out history and literature in language, discuss politics in language, resolve legal disputes in language, and so on. Without language our social world would be much narrower and more circumscribed.

It is true that the human mind can have other types of ‘thought’ apart from linguistic ones. Most people report seeing images in the mental space from time to time. Or they might report an awareness of a sensation such as an itch or pain, or be aware of an emotion that we are feeling such as sadness or joy. NLI asserts, however, that all these latter thoughts, or mindful activities as they have been termed, are not ‘thoughts’ in the way that linguistic thought is. They are just instances of brain activity occurring at a non-conscious level in the brain. This is a key distinction that NLI makes.

Let me give an example to illustrate the difference between linguistic thought and non-linguistic ‘thought’. Imagine you are viewing a painting in an art gallery. You brain is processing a visual image in front of your eyes. You may see, say, a chair and a bed in this painting. You might notice a window and a table and see that the room is somewhat messy but bright. NLI argues that you cannot have these thoughts just by looking at and viewing an image with your eyes. If you do not process these parts of the image (chair, table, bed, etc) as language then you haven’t really seen them as such. You have seen something but not a chair, table, etc. You could argue that you have seen items such as legs, backs, frames, tops, bed sheets, etc. But NLI would say that even these are linguistic terms so in reality you haven’t seen these items. We might then say that you see shades and colours and edges but even these are linguistic in nature.

So what have you seen in the painting in the gallery if you haven’t seen a chair and a bed, or legs, tops, or even shades and colours? We cannot say what you have seen. The visual world is indeterminate until language is brought into play. It is only when (and if) you token the items in the painting with language that you can actually say that your mind is conscious of these features, and it is only until you token the thoughts such as ‘the room is messy’ that you can say that your mind is aware of this fact. So seeing an image in the mind is not really mindful activity according to NLI. It is just brain activity. Now it may be that off the back of seeing the painting in the gallery you decide to buy a print in the shop or take up painting when you get home. But NLI is not concerned with the outcome of brain activity. It is only concerned with what is mindful to the human – what we can be conscious of – and NLI states that we can only ever be conscious of linguistic thought.

Linguistic idealism

The mind then is at the centre of our human experience and language is at the centre of the mind. Language is the mind in effect and we are language. This does not mean that we can get by without our brains and our bodies. We do need a physical world to support the mind. But it is the mind and language which gives us our conscious experience of life. Without language we would be just another tree in the forest.

You may feel that I am elevating language to some special status in our universe that is not warranted. NLI however does not really look to say which mode is more ‘elevated’ or given priority. NLI is only concerned with describing what is and it assumes that language is something separate from the physical world and is constitutive of the human mind. Granted this may seem like a step too far for you but consider this point: I am arguing the case here, on this website, for NLI and you are reading my arguments. All this is taking place in language. It is language and only language which can argue such a case and only language which can ask questions. The painting in the gallery a few paragraphs back cannot ask questions, neither can the itch or pain sensation that you may have felt. It is only language that can hold questions and present them to the mind. Language is the only domain that is a vehicle for these type of thoughts. Without language we would not have the need to ask what is the mind or what is the physical. We would just be.

Counter-arguments

One argument against this position might be that humans think in some abstract, non-linguistic form which then manifests itself in language from time to time. However if we look carefully at this argument we can see that this can not be the case. Let’s assume first that this type of thought is holistic in nature. What does ‘holistic’ mean? It is generally taken to mean the whole rather than the parts. So assume that a thought occurs in the mind that is holistic in nature. It just appears in the mind without any linguistic structure. But if it is holistic in nature we cannot say what that thought is here and now. I cannot write it out. It is just a blob. No more than this dot at the end of this sentence. The only way we can say what the thought is is to convert it into language. But what is the point of proposing a holistic thinking system that can only be understood in language. If we can only even understand a thought when it is linguistic in nature, then a holistic thought is no thought at all. That is not thinking. That is just the brain being active. There is no useful information in a blob for the human mind. The only thoughts that can be relevant to me here and now are linguistic thoughts.

Let’s consider another possibility. Assume that humans have a language of thought, a mentalese. This has been proposed by some scholars in the past. But this theory suffers from the same problems of the holistic thinking theory. If I have a thought in mentalese it is no use to me here and now until it is tokened in language. And why propose a mentalese that is similarly structured to language when no one has ever observed this mentalese? Why not just take it that language is the thinking system?

NLI takes these counter-arguments and states that the only thoughts that are relevant to the human mind are those which are couched in language. Everything else is just part of the physical, material world and can never be conscious to us (the human mind). It is only when we token something in language that we find it relevant. This happens in the private mind and also in the public sphere. Language is the domain in which we work. It is the domain in which we ask our questions and try to answer them. It is the domain in which we argue and debate and discuss.

Other Idealists

There are not many philosophers who put language at the centre of the human world. Two living proponents are Richard Gaskin and Christian Barth. Gaskin (2021) states that the ‘doctrine of linguistic idealism… is the thesis that the world is a precipitate of language … the whole point of this doctrine is that the world is constituted—all the way down—by its expressibility in language.’ Barth approaches the position from a slightly different angle and terms it ‘Universal Conceptual Lingualism’.

In part 3 of this series, I will look at the final part of NLI which is the notion of nonrepresentationalism. This is probably the most contentious part of the philosophical position and I have not yet found anyone who shares my opinions here.

Gaskin, R. (2021) Language and the World. A Defence of Linguistic Idealism. Routledge.

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