Frans de Waal on language and cognition

BonobosFrans de Waal has published an excellent essay on the relationship between language and cognition in Aeon magazine. Both de Waal and Aeon are very much worth paying attention to, which is why I’m devoting this post to the essay, entitled “The link between language and cognition is a red herring.” Though, as it turns out, that link isn’t really a red herring.

de Waal begins by pointing out that the desire of a number of scientists working on animal cognition to “talk” to their objects of study is rather weird, since animals clearly don’t talk and even if they could — as Wittgenstein argued, and de Waal reminds his readers — we probably wouldn’t understand their meanings.

Moreover, he continues, it is by now well known that when humans themselves verbally explain their own feelings and inner thought processes we cannot trust such explanations. All too often they are the result of after-the-fact rationalizations rather than clear insights into one’s own mental processes. (I do agree with that, but as I pointed out in the past, let’s not take that line of reasoning too far, or all human communication, including scientific one, goes out the window.)

In fact, says de Waal, his “distrust” of language runs deeper, because he is not convinced of the allegedly fundamental role that language plays in the thinking process. Here is where things become interesting, and where I diverge at the least in part from the author.

If language is foundational to thought, de Waal writes, then “speaking two languages at home and a third one at work, my thinking must be awfully muddled. Yet I have never noticed any effect, despite the widespread assumption that language is at the root of human thought.”

Let’s set aside the contradiction inherent in the fact that de Waal is now asking to trust his privileged insight into his own thought processes, something he said a few lines above we shouldn’t do for people in general.

I too speak more than one language and haven’t noticed any particular muddling up of my thought processes, but that seems irrelevant to the issue of the relationship between language and thought. For one thing, I also sense very clearly that I alternatively think in one language or the other, but never both. Even when my Italian sentences come out mixed with English words (or, more rarely, vice versa), that’s because my brain tends to think in one mode or the other, and occasionally has troubles switching back and forth, attempting instead to “translate” a given sentence on the fly from, say, English in my mind to spoken Italian, or vice versa.

A better point brought up by de Waal is our more than occasional inability to express our feelings and emotions using language. Though, again, this seems far less of a conclusive argument that it appears at first. I would argue that feelings and emotive states are not examples of thinking, and that it is therefore not at all surprising that we have a hard time articulating them to others. Indeed, cognitive therapies are in part about thinking through our feelings, so to speak, in the attempt to understand and alter them, if they do not lead to constructive behaviors.

de Waal mentions Jean Piaget, who was not about denying thought to pre-verbal children, and concluded therefore that cognition is independent of language. Setting aside that Piaget’s theories have come under a significant amount of fire in the intervening decades, I think it is a bit of a fals dichotomy (if we want to use the language of informal fallacies) to cast the relationship between language and thought as all-or-nothing. Surely some thinking goes on in both pre-verbal children and a number of other animal species (most likely other higher primates), but that doesn’t mean that language isn’t thereby a precondition for more sophisticated thinking, especially of the analytic type.

Rather surprisingly, de Waal admits that “I consider humans [to be] the only linguistic species. We honestly have no evidence for symbolic communication, equally rich and multifunctional as ours, outside our species,” a refreshing admission of human exceptionalism by a leading biologist.

Of course he also immediately adds that “critical pieces [of human-like behavior] such as power alliances (politics) and the spreading of habits (culture), as well as empathy and fairness (morality), are detectable outside our species. The same holds for capacities underlying language.” Again, this is true, not surprising (given that humans evolved from other animals), and insufficient to deny a major role of language in the thinking process.

It is therefore a bit puzzling when de Waal concludes his essay by stating that “the manifest reality of thinking by nonlinguistic creatures argues against the importance of language.” It most certainly doesn’t. Rather, it points toward the idea that thinking, just like morality — another major interest both of de Waal and mine — evolved gradually on the basis of instinct, and yet made a huge leap forward when Homo sapiens (and, possibly, some of our closest, now extinct, relatives) came on the evolutionary stage. Language is not necessary for low-level thinking, but it is certainly required for the sort of complex, captivating communication — like de Waal’s own books and articles — that human beings are the only species on earth capable of producing.

166 thoughts on “Frans de Waal on language and cognition

  1. Daniel Kaufman

    Brodix: One feels hot. The hot feeling is not a representation of hotness. A representation is always a representation *of* something. The two belong to entirely different categories and the problems associated with each — the problem of qualia and the problem of intentionality — are completely distinct problems in the philosophy of language and mind.


  2. brodix


    I don’t doubt they are distinct. My left and right hands are distinct. I’m just pointing out ways they are also related.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Herbert

    Hi Dan,

    It is hardly manic to clarify and seek clarification.

    I understand the claim now, it is that concepts require words and not just some language that may or may not be verbal.

    I am not sure if you understand my objection – for example that I have witnessed a child who has no language who still employs concepts and that if he can do that then concepts do not require words.

    But, OK, if you won’t comment on whether or not you think that child is using concepts, then I am happy to leave it at that.


  4. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: I have commented on it. As clearly as I can. I said that to ask precisely when the child has the technique as opposed to when he is still learning it is to misunderstand how techniques are acquired.


  5. davidlduffy

    “Prelingual” and “preverbal” concepts are widely discussed by cognitive linguists. Mandler [2010] lists the 30-odd visuo-spatial concepts or “image schema” acquired by infants that they almost certainly share with other animals (viz the recent article claiming cats were surprised when nothing fell out of a open box with an object in it when it was turned upside down). I think one point is that “container” is a generalized concept that they have long before their vocabulary expands beyond terms for specific containers such as “cup”. Our inferences that these concepts are held are based purely on performance of the child or animal.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Robin Herbert

    Again, I am having problems understanding why I do not find your account clear.

    For example:

    I amassed a number of citations in support of that idea, including one that said, essentially, that concepts are rule-governed techniques for the use of words and that one acquires them much as one acquires other techniques: i.e. by way of practice in their correct use. You then described a person who does just that.

    Now you understand that the child did not have any expressed language and his received language was limited to a partial comprehension of the word “no” and a recognition of his name.

    He had no words.

    So, you say that when he procured his brother’s help in learning the correct swipe to go under an obstacle in the game he was playing, or asked his father to transfer the video he made from his father’s phone to his ipod or when he successfully found a way of transferring the video himself – all without the need for any words – he was practicing the correct use of a rule-governed technique for the use of words.

    Do you see how this is unclear? He had no words. It would be a few months before he would point at the sky and say “moon” and begin his journey to language.

    I cannot see how successfully achieving his objective without the need for any words whatsoever can be called practicing techniques for the correct use of words. In many ways his ability to get by without words was a hindrance to his acquiring language.


  7. Robin Herbert

    Hi Dan,

    To summarise, your responses seem to indicate that you think that the child had some sort of verbal language at that point. If I understood that you understood that the child had no verbal language at that point then we could get past that.


  8. Robin Herbert

    Hi davidlduffy,

    The problem is that those studies are clearly of infants who acquire language in the normal way. I am talking of a boy who had no language at the age of two when he was acquiring the normal interests of a two year old – computer gaming, making videos etc. He certainly does not share that with any of the other animals.

    Personally I do a lot of high level and technical thinking non-verbally. This is not so uncommon – for example Temple Grandin who did not learn to speak until she was three and a half thinks in pictures. I think partly in pictures and partly in patterns, partly verbally.

    I think it is important because if you assume that there is only one kind of thinking you leave people behind. I have furious arguments with my kids’ teachers because they say that my kids should not progress to more difficult tasks until they can answer simple multiplication questions quickly. They say that this is important. But my kids will likely never be able to do that. I get high distinctions in University maths courses, but if you ask me what 8 x 7 is I will take a few seconds before I can answer.

    People have to understand that different thinking is not necessarily lesser thinking.


  9. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Robin,

    I agree with you entirely that it’s useful to not limit what we call “concepts,” to language based notions. Daniel disagrees, though I’m sure that he’s far too intelligent to have failed to understand our arguments. But then if we are indeed correct (and it truly can be no more than an “if”), then the reason that our arguments must have failed to persuade him, should be that he’s now become too invested to the contrary position. We all make such invests of course.

    Recently you and I were discussing my own belief in determinism. I argued that under a perfectly determined human existence, your presented objections become straightened out given the imperfect perspective of any conscious subject. You were not convinced. But since I believe that I did present a strong case, and that you happen to be a very intelligent person, I decided that your investment to the contrary was too great for me to overcome. Thus I moved on, as you migh as well with Dan. The problem however, is that we still have just over 4 hours until Massimo puts out his next “weekend edition.” Fortunately for me, I’ll be asleep at least until then.


  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Eric,

    What I am invested in is what can reasonably be demonstrated to be the case.

    I just happen to think that the set of things that can reasonably be demonsrated to be the case is rather smaller than most people seem to think.


  11. Robin Herbert

    Hi Eric,

    You will also recall that we each meant completely different things by “determinism” and thus were talking at cross purposes.

    All this raises a question for me “Can there be such a thing as a public language?”


  12. Coel

    I am talking of a boy who had no language at the age of two when he was acquiring the normal interests of a two year old – computer gaming, making videos etc.

    I find that sentence rather amusing — it’s only for rather recent generations of two-year-olds that those would be “normal interests”. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Dan and Robin,

    One thing that vexes me in your exchange is that Robin keeps asking Dan how he accounts for the case of a child who has yet to acquire language but who seems to have acquired concepts, with Dan’s reply being that it is a mistake to ask when precisely a child gains certain abilities.

    But Robin is not asking a “when” question at all! Robin is asking about a child who has no language abilities but who has seemed to acquire some concepts. The question is not when this child acquires concepts or language, but how Dan can account for such a child at a point before the acquisition of language but apparently after the acquisition of some concepts.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. brodix

    When language is the filter and channel through which we communicate, it does tend to dominate the understanding of experience, as like much of experience, when it is exercised a lot, it gains strength. Though to say this makes it foundational to conceptualization, rather than a tool to express it, is a bit like mathematical platonism. The map becomes the territory for those most invested in the map. Someone heavily invested in language might well see their world in terms of words expressed, as a mathematician will tend to see more clearly the patterns, rather than the processes giving rise to them.

    It’s a bit like saying the chisel carves the statue. In a very limited and basic sense, it is true, but the larger reality is far more complex.


  15. marc levesque


    I felt de Waal’s essay was not all that clear, and I agree with your commentary.


    I think children can be said to start learning language before they start actually speaking with words, and how proficient a child is before their ‘speaking out loud’ gets going could be highly variable. I don’t think that preclude concepts without linguistics but I think that may have been what Dan meant.


    “it makes even *less* sense to ascribe concepts to non-linguistic creatures, as representations have semantic — i.e. referential — content”

    If I’m following you right I don’t understand why it can be said that non-human animals can’t have (or do) referential content without linguistics.

    On Fudor, I think the idea of ‘mentalese’ is interesting but I think in the same way it can be said that there is no private language as individuals participate in a linguistic community, it can be said there is no private biology as individuals participate in a genetic species.


    I think I also don’t understand why, as if slighted it seems to me, a lot of people seem to be emphasizing the qualitative differences between non-humans and humans as if we didn’t already know or as if others were denying it.


    ” The two cats ‘talking’ [my quotes] ” :


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