Monday, September 01, 2008

Some thoughts about a quotation from Martha Nussbaum

“We should not take the absence of the word to be equivalent to the absence of thought” (Martha C. Nussbaum)
Once I wrote down this quotation from Martha Nussbaum but I do not know anymore where I can find it back in one of her books. Therefore, I do not know in what context she said this. However, when I read it again a few days ago, it raised immediately some thoughts within me, for since a long time already I am interested in language and its philosophical and psychological significance and I cannot remain neutral when I see an expression related to language.For many people, the content of this quotation is obvious: why shouldn’t we be able to think without using language? On the other hand, it has been thought for some time by outstanding philosophers that thinking and language are two sides of the same coin: there is no thinking without language and language implies already some way of thinking. As for the first side of the coin, I think that nobody today will deny that what an artist, a painter, a sculptor, a photographer etc. does is a way of thinking without words; that it is a kind of thinking with colour, forms, light or what means the artist uses. What the artist shows is the expression of his or her thinking in a non-linguistic way. As for the second side of the coin, once some scientists thought, to give an example, that using a word told us something about how we thought the world around us looks like. In the meantime, this view has become obsolete in the sense that there appears to be no one-one relation between a language and how the native speaker of this language sees the world. It would indeed be very odd if there was. It would be difficult to fit in new things in an existing language and world view, for example. It would make us too static when something new happened to us. It would also learning a new language with its own categories even more difficult than it already is. Despite such objections, I think that this thesis cannot be completely rejected. And here I defend a minority view. For although it is not so that our native language determines how we see the world, it does give us a first classification scheme, I think. Actually, our language is nothing else than the linguistic expression of our cognitive schema in the sense of Schank and Abelson. However, it is nothing more than that. It is a first guide for dividing the world in categories. But it is as with seeing colours: if we do not have a word for a certain shade of a colour, it does not mean that we do not and cannot see that colour. Under normal circumstances, we can already immediately give a preliminary description of that shade of colour, like reddish yellow, bluish green, and the like, until we have found a better word for it and until we have improved our classification of colour or what it is what we see and what we talk about.

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