Frans 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.