Anglican Samizdat

July 8, 2009

Language and thought

Filed under: Words — David Jenkins @ 10:38 pm

From Theodore Dalrymple

The relation of language to thought has long been a philosophical puzzle, one to which no universally accepted answer has yet been given. Is language a precondition or determinant of thought, or thought a precondition and determinant of language? For myself, I incline to the latter view, on the no doubt simplistic grounds that, when writing, I often have the following experience.

I know that there is something I want to say, but at first the right words do not come to express it. They are, I realise, only an approximation to my idea; then suddenly, dredged from I know not where (though it feels like somewhere located near the base of my skull), the right words arrive and I know at once that they are the best possible words in my possession for what I want to say.

I suppose it might be argued that somewhere in my preconscious there is a linguistic representation of what I am at first unable to verbalise, and that my little eureka experience (so delightful that it makes the struggle seem worthwhile) is only a recognition that the words in my consciousness now accord perfectly with those in my preconscious. Be that as it may, it seems to me that my experience suggests that conscious thought, at least, can be pre-verbal, even when it is propositional in nature.

Not every one agrees, of course, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell put forward the rather dismal idea that reform of language – that is to say, the imposition of certain locutions and the prohibition of others – can actually mould the content of thought, making some ideas unthinkable and others unchallengeable.

This, of course, is what politically-correct language is all about. It is certainly what its proponents hope.

I find myself somewhat inclined to Orwell’s view. I have noticed that when a person’s expression of what he thinks is unclear, then the thought itself is also unclear.  And the thought will never be clarified if the right words cannot be found: without clear language there is no clear thought –part of the effort needed to find the right words seems to be subconsciously diverted into clarifying the idea itself.

The very best writers – C. S. Lewis, for example – write with such lucidity that the ideas behind what is written become immediately familiar – to the extent that we are convinced that we should have thought of them for ourselves. In contrast, the meandering prose of, for example Rowan Williams, appears contrived to conceal ideas, not reveal them: the words and thoughts are a tangle together.

So I do think that politically correct language is both intended and effective as a thought straight-jacket.


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