Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/Thought and Language



MODERN philosophers and psychologists have acknowledged in no equivocal terms the great debt which thought owes to language. They have unhesitatingly admitted that without language little progress could have been made in the development of the thinking powers and their product, knowledge. It has been conceded to be the principal expression of thought and feeling, and the chief means of communication between one mind and another. Many writers upon the science of mind have even deemed that, before proceeding to an examination of the mental powers and their exercises, some analysis of language as the supreme instrument of thought was a "necessary preliminary" (Mill's "Logic").

Notwithstanding these emphatic and cordial tributes to the importance of linguistic systems to the growth of intelligence, proceeding both from the Lockian and the Kantian side of philosophical debate. Professor F. Max Müller is not satisfied with the position thus accorded to language in its relations to psychological science. He comes forward to contend[1] that thought without language (or its equivalent embodiment) is not possible, that the science of the growth and development of language is the only true science of the growth and development of mind, and that "this revelation of the oneness of thought and language means a complete revolution in philosophy" (vol. i, p. 50).

It is not needful for us to speak of Professor Max Müller's right to be heard on any subject to which he devotes his attention, nor of his erudition, his agreeable literary style, the service he has rendered to science and literature, nor of the lovable personal character of the man. All these things everybody allows. Our purpose then, is—premising that "The Science of Thought" is full of interest, and displays, as usual in his books, the author's great philological learning—to examine the main thesis of the work; to determine, if possible, whether it is true, and, if so, whether or not it effects any "revolution in philosophy."

"The Science of Thought" is not a general psychological treatise. It is an adjunct to the science of language, to which it belongs, rather than to psychology. It is less expository than polemical, and the gist of the work is the argument to prove that thought (in the author's meaning of the term) depends absolutely upon language, and that the way to study the human mind is to study human language.

Of course, it is essential to note carefully in the first place the author's use of the term "thought." His book has aroused quite a controversy already, and a dozen or more letters on the subject have been published in "Nature," and reproduced in "The Open Court," of Chicago. They are from the pens of Francis Galton, the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Hyde Clark, Mr. T. Mellard Reade, George J. Romanes, and others, with replies by Professor Max Müller. They present various considerations to show the error of the latter, such as the cases of deaf-and-dumb people, sudden aphasia in disease, and the results of personal introspection. Mr. Galton in one of his letters charges that Professor Müller has not told the reader what he means by "thought," to which the author rather indignantly replies that the definition is found on his first page, which at least it is usual for reviewers of books to look at, if they go no farther. After so explicit a direction, we certainly shall not incur the reproach of saying that there is no such definition; but, in our judgment, the author would have succeeded better if he had left his definition more indefinite.

Professor Max Müller means by thought "the act of thinking," and by thinking "no more than combining." "I think, means the same as the Latin cogito, namely, co-agito, 'I bring together,' only with the proviso that bringing together or combining implies separating, for we can not combine two or many things without at the same time separating them from all the rest. Hobbes expressed the same truth long ago, when he said that all our thinking consisted in addition and subtraction." "Much, however, depends upon what we combine and separate," and bence we must consider the material of our thoughts, "the elements which we bring together or co-agitate." These are sensations, percepts, concepts, and names. These, though distinguishable, never exist in reality as separate entities. "No words are possible without concepts, no concepts without percepts, no percepts without sensations." The author then attempts to show, in reverse order, that "sensations are impossible without percepts, and percepts without concepts, just as the cloth is impossible without the threads, and the threads without the wool." This made out to his satisfaction, the argument follows that concepts are impossible without words—hence percepts and sensations are impossible; and thus thinking is not possible without language.

It would be much easier to deal with Professor Müller's reasoning if it were not complicated by various qualifications of the above simple statements, which make his meaning somewhat doubtful. He declares in one place that "thoughts may exist without words, because other signs may take the place of words. Five fingers or five lines are quite sufficient to convey the concept of five between people speaking different languages, possibly between deaf-and-dumb people who speak no language at all." Thus, it seems, we are to consider language as consisting of other signs as well as words. This, however, is not to affect the general proposition. Again, the author does in his book concede that we can reason without words, but in his letter to Galton of May 15, 1887, he declares that this "is no more than reasoning without pronouncing words." It is "symbolic, abbreviated, or hushed language," which "presupposes the former existence of words." Moreover, in this same letter, he avers that "sensation, passions, and intuitive judgments. . . clearly require no words for their realization." He also implies that seeing, feeling, acting—all may take place without what he terms thinking, "Instantaneous and thoughtless action is often more successful than the slow results of reasoning." But without seeking for further illustration, enough has been noted to show that Professor Müller has not clearly and consistently developed his own doctrine.

If thinking is bringing together or combining, addition with its complementary subtraction, the question arises, whether we are to apply the term to the combining into unity which is necessary in every act of knowing, in order to make that presentation of an object to the subject which is cognition itself, or to that combination which we ordinarily designate by the term association. My eye rests upon a patch of color on the wall; the cognition of this as an object involves "co-agitation" or combining. Surely we are not asked to believe that the presentation of this to the mind as an integer, and the holding of the mind's attention upon it, is impossible without language! It can not be that this is thinking in Professor Müller's intended sense of the word. Rather, he means association. "The very moment we become conscious of a percept, or of an individual object, we have to comprehend it under something else, and thus to begin to conceive it, even if it be under the most general categories of our mind. . . . Any green, as soon as it is perceived as this green, is ipso facto perceived as like unto other greens, and as unlike yellow and blue; it is conceived as something which we afterward call color." These words aim to express the natural process of association which occurs in every mind, indeed, and Professor Müller's chief point is that this can not take place without language.

Let us consider for a moment the author's division of the material or elements of thought into sensations, percepts, concepts, and names. The question is at once suggested. Why are not names, percepts? A name is certainly a word, or set of words, and a word is nothing to our intelligence except as brought or to be brought to our ear or eye by the ordinary processes of sensation, and perceived by our intelligence. We may, it is true, invent a word by our constructive activity, but it is at once objectified, and when communicated to others it is to them a percept. Whatever may be its offices besides, it is at least this. Its additional office is by itself, or in conjunction with other words, to constitute a name; and a name is a mark or a symbol, serving the double purpose to recall to ourselves some previous object of cognition, and to make it known to others. This is accomplished according to the laws of association and representation. Kames, then, are certain symbolical percepts, which, by the processes of reintegration recall past experiences. Now, it is idle to say that word-percepts are essential to this course of mental operation; one green will recall another green without any word being needed. The picture of the Matterhorn before my eyes instantly brings back to me the Matterhorn as I saw it from the Riffel; this suggests the Breithorn, Monte Rosa, my view from the summit of the latter, and a whole train of personal recollections, just as infallibly and certainly as the word Matterhorn, which I find on the printed page. I do not deny that in the train first suggested words interpolate themselves; but I maintain that the picture of the Matterhorn reproduces in my mind the actual sight without need of the intervention of any name, and before the name occurs. Now, suppose that the picture be one of a mountain I have seen, but of which I do not recall the name. I remember at once the visual appearance; the words "mountain," "peak," "horn," "pic," "ice," etc., do not come to my mind, nor does any one of them nor any word or name. The sight I beheld is there, and then I try to think of the name of the mountain or the locality. So that if Professor Müller means to declare that we can not represent or associate ("combine or co-agitate") except by the use of language, intending by language articulate words, certainly universal experience negatives his assertion. But, if under language be included everything which recalls to the mind something else, his statement reduces itself to the proposition that we can not think (that is, combine, associate) without mental objects to associate, and that every mental object is a portion of language. To assert this would not be a "revolution in philosophy," but we might properly call it a revolution in the science of language.

Let us now consider the formation of concepts or general notions upon which the author lays so much stress as supporting his theory. Professor Müller brings forward the doctrine of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, that "a general is nothing but a particular idea annexed to a general term—that is, to a term from which a customary conjunction has a relation to many other particular ideas and readily recalls them in imagination." It can not be doubted that there is substantial truth in this statement, though it needs qualification, but it does not prove Professor Müller's point. There must, indeed, be a fundamentum in every general notion, a nucleus, a type, a symbol. When we have in our minds the general notion horse, we have some particular horse, either remembered or constructed in imagination from former experiences of horses. With this goes the cognition that there are other objects like this one. To elucidate, I may, perhaps, be permitted to quote from a former analysis of my own:[2] "Whatever association brings up the concept evokes the cognition of one or a small plural number of individuals which are either remembered as wholes or constructed out of remembered parts, and with which is associated the idea that there is a number of objects not definitely recalled which are similar to the individuals before the mind in the particulars characterizing the concept. . . . When we think of man, we remember a particular man, or imagine one; or the mind runs over the representations of several men, after which it rests content with the idea of an indefinite number of men about the same as those ideally presented." Now, the office of a name in such a connection is to furnish a connecting link in thought between a present cognition (or experience generally) and past ones. When I see a moving object in the distance, and as it comes nearer I identify it, I doubtless think by saying to myself, "It is a man." But if I see a strange creature, the likeness of which I had never seen but once before, and which, so far as I am concerned, is nameless, when I observe the second, the first is recalled, and identification takes place. This is just as much thought as if there were the intervention of a name. Suppose I see a third creature, which, by representative association, I class with the other two. Common characters are noticed, and I begin the formation of a general notion. This is completely done by the mere association of any striking resemblance, as a horn, a spotted skin, a peculiar howl, an odor. Any one of these peculiarities may form the nucleus or mark which will recall the creature, and knowledge of it can be communicated to others by gesture, by a picture, or by a word. Thought consists in identification and discrimination in present and past experiences, and between the two. Predication is the expression of a judgment, and a judgment is a cognition of agreement or difference; this takes place constantly without language, which latter only facilitates the processes of association. Indeed, a little reflection will convince us that language itself is not logically possible without prior thought. For a word or a name only becomes such by a process of thinking. It must be first fixed by association before it begins to do duty. Before I cognize an object, as a horse, the term horse itself must have become associated with other objects which have come into experience. If the attaching of a word horse, a percept, to another percept—a horse actually seen, as the mark of the latter, is not thinking; then the association of the horse seen with the word horse established as a mark of past experiences can not be thinking, for the two processes are precisely the same. The truth is, that both processes are thought. We may freely admit a great deal that Professor Müller asserts; but when we follow out his own propositions to their proper sequences, we find that his thesis is only true on the hypothesis that language and objects of cognition are convertible terms. People ordinarily understand that language consists of articulate words. Communication of one mind with another may take place by gestures, facial expressions, contortions of the body, inarticulate sounds, or by simple touch. But none of these are properly language. Written words are symbolic of spoken words, which are themselves articulations of the voice, and, while the former perform the office of concentrating, recording, and perpetuating mental experiences, as do many other symbols, their essential character, as language, consists in their relation to articulate communication.

While our author declares himself to be an evolutionist in general, certainly in the science of language, he brings out as a prominent consequence of the truth of his theory of thought, the untruth of that particular doctrine, commonly known as the Darwinian—namely, that man is descended from lower forms of animal life. This Professor Muller asserts to be impossible; and the proof is that animals have no language or any capacity to form language. "If concepts are impossible without names, . . . we then have a right to say that the whole genus man possesses something—namely, language, of which no trace can be found even in the most highly-developed animal, and that therefore a genealogical descent of man from animal is impossible." It may be admitted freely that animals have sensations and percepts; they feel, they perceive, they remember, they act. But concepts they do not have. They are without the power of forming general notions. This is evidenced in +the fact that they are without language, concepts being impossible without names. Now, it is quite obvious, to the casual reader even, that Professor Muller has destroyed his own argument on this point by his previous positions. For he takes considerable pains to prove that percepts are impossible without concepts, and sensations without percepts. He maintains that no perception occurs without a generalizing movement. "All percepts are conceptual." This being so, what becomes of the claim that brutes, with feeling and ability to perceive, do not form concepts? And if, as the author reluctantly does in one place, we concede that perception may exist with only "incipient concepts," what should prevent the development of the generalizing power in successive individuals to the degree that it is found in the highest intelligence?

The considerations adduced by Professor Müller on the question of the origin of species, and the descent of man, present nothing, therefore, for the "Darwinian" to answer, except the fact that man has articulate language, and brutes do not have it. This fact has been allowed its full weight in the great discussions upon the descent of man, of which our limits will not permit us to give even a résumé. It is sufficient to remark that whatever strength may lie in the argument from this circumstance, its force is not great enough to countervail the many converging proofs of the Darwinian hypothesis; and, further, we may safely reiterate with Darwin that "the faculty of articulate speech in itself does not offer any insuperable objection to the belief that man has been developed from some lower animal." Indeed, the wonder is that Professor Müller's own philosophy of mind should not have caused him to see that the difference between the mind of the brute and the mind of man is one of degree, not of kind. He lays great stress on the unity of mental action. The mind is one in all its exercises. There is no sensation without perception, and so forth, as already instanced. If, then, he can not doubt that a lower animal has some intelligence, the inference must be that the essential characters of the other mental exercises are in the animal's intelligence, at least in embryo. We may believe that Professor Müller is right in much of what he says as to the unity of cognitive exercises. Attention to an object presented, association and representation, are the primary mental processes, and each is necessary to the other. Given these, all the products of thought that we designate by such terms as concepts, inferences, fictions, memories, are readily explicable and their relations to each other made manifest. The chief difference between the mind of man and that of the brute lies in the complexity of association and representation. Man's inferences reach farther, and bis generalizations are higher, more complex, and more abstract. It is the same sort of difference which subsists between the intellectually cultivated man and the savage, though, of course, this difference is greater when we compare man with even the higher brutes. But in the latter the same processes are observable. They attend, they associate, they represent; they feel and they act; they have nervous systems; they have mental communication. I see no escape from the conclusion that they generalize, and I would not be at all surprised if it should some time happen that an ape be taught to use articulate language.

Much more might be remarked in refutation of Professor Müller's thesis, but I have probably already tired the reader's patience. I hope enough has been said to show that this learned author has not even brought out a clear and consistent statement of his own position, much less to have effected any "revolution in philosophy," I have not discussed his theory of the formation of roots in language, for such a discussion seems unnecessary after the examination thus far made into the nature of thought. Nor do I stop to consider his lament over the neglect of Kant among later English thinkers. I can see no evidence that Kant has been neglected or failed to receive the attention that is his due; but all this is quite irrelevant to Professor Müller's argument. As for the latter it is self-contradicted in his own book, and any thorough analysis of mental operations would, as seems to me, independently demonstrate its fallaciousness. Altogether, the impression made upon the reader of "The Science of Thought" is that of a work written by a man, who, possessed by his favorite science, endeavors to use it for the explanation of all other sciences without much reference to the results which an unbiased and dispassionate study of those sciences would yield.

Professor Müller informs us that his book was written for himself and for a few friends, with whom he has been traveling for many years on the same road. We are grateful for the permission to join this band of peripatetics for the while, and, if pressing duties elsewhere oblige us to part from them, we can cordially thank Professor Müller for a charming entertainment, reserving, of course, to ourselves that liberty, which all good society allows, of afterward abusing the company.

  1. "The Science of Thought." New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887. 2 vols., pp. 325, 330. Price per vol., $2.

    "No reason without language,
    No language without reason."

  2. "A System of Psychology," Chapter L, Longmans, 1884.