Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Our Concepts before Learning Language

Discussion: concepts without language (both human and animal), and the learning of language by the deaf and blind (Helen Keller). A possible origin of language. "The very word 'discussion' ..." (Socrates in Xenophon)

Context: the question of logic of language is: how is language with meaning distinguished from language without meaning when discussing philosophical problems? In other words, how is an objective distinction between sense and nonsense to be made?

Topics on this page ...

The Sources of Language. Helen Keller's The Story of My Life (1903)

Note: this continues the topics The concepts of infancy: the human child's concepts before acquiring (or, in Helen Keller's case, learning) a language such as English; and What was the origin of human language? which I elsewhere listed among the eternal questions without answers (if we "make no hypotheses").

If we cannot, and I don't know that we cannot, define the word 'concept' as either 'a rule for using language' or as 'an organizing principle' (classification scheme) here, then how shall we define that word? (Not nebulously -- for we want a tool that is serviceable for understanding, not spreading obscurity.) In the example she gives, little Helen certainly appears to have had the concepts 'ice-cream', 'crank the ice-cream making machine', and 'cold' and 'shivering from cold', and maybe also 'to make', before her teacher began to teach her English.

But now, in her book ... she is describing her behavior (I don't know how broadly she intended her remark when she wrote "if you can call a sensation a thought") using the language she was only taught later: she says "I knew", however, and that is certainly correct in some sense of 'know' (Which -- 'to be able to'? Only in the sense of 'know how to play a language-game'). The only language -- Ah, no, stop right there! for even "crude signs" are, after all, still "signs", and a primitive language (as in "language-game") could be described which made use only of gestures.

The points of reference of a small child. Do all signs need to be learned (and, note, these are signs of language, not "natural signs" as are e.g. storm clouds before a storm)? But does even a puppy need to be taught that a push means "Go" and a pull means "Come"? (Although a dog, just like human being, may refuse to obey these commands -- is that because it does not understand -- i.e. does not have the concepts 'Go' and 'Come'?)

When she was nineteen months old there "came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a newborn baby ... Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different ..." (Chapter 1) She characterizes her state as a "silent, aimless, dayless life" a "walk in the valley of twofold solitude" (Chapter 2); twofold = blindness and deafness, I think. But here would be the most important difference between her state and the state of a puppy or kitten -- that she, unlike them, had the native ability to learn language, and unlike them could be taught the finger-spelling language of blind people that her teacher was to teach little Helen to use.

The signs (gestures) with which she first communicated

I cannot recall what happened during the first months after my illness.... My hands felt every object and observed every motion, and in this way I learned to know [-- 'to know' would mean here 'to recognize', not 'to be able to give an account of what you know to others' --] many things. [She communicated with her mother by making] crude signs. A shake of the head meant "No" and a nod, "Yes", a pull meant "Come" and a push "Go". Was it bread that I wanted? Then I would imitate the acts of cutting the slices and buttering them. If I wanted my mother to make ice-cream for dinner I made the sign for working the freezer and shivered, indicating cold. My mother, moreover, succeeded in making me understand a good deal. I always knew when she wished me to bring her something, and I would run upstairs or anywhere else she indicated. (Chapter 2)

She writes "after I had acquired language" (Chapter 2). However, the quotation above shows that she had concepts -- that she knew how to use "crude signs" before she acquired language -- i.e. before she acquired the English language. But she had many other concepts besides ones which could be put into words if she but knew those words -- although how are we to define the word 'concept' in the case of recognizing e.g. the smell of honeysuckle or the feel of rose petals in the garden? Can an habitual sensation of touch or smell or a remembered requirement for a action (e.g. to lift one's feet up to the next level when climbing the stairs) be called a concept?

That question asks for a definition -- i.e. a clarification of the meaning -- of the word 'concept' (i.e. the possibility expressed by 'can' in the question is logical possibility), because it is not clear how that word is to be applied in those and like cases.

A concept may go from sharp to blunt, from being a useful tool to being a puzzle. The concept 'concept' e.g. has indefinite borders -- indeed, the concept 'concept' is indefinite at its very heart, the word 'concept' thoroughly vague in meaning -- unless we ourselves assign a definite meaning to that word ourselves (as I did when e.g. I defined 'concept' as 'rules for using a word'). So that it is not a question of describing an existing rule of grammar (The self-imposed requirement for such a description would only be self-mystification in this case) -- but of making (or, inventing) a new rule.

Suppose I offered this definition of 'concept': "For any x, if x is regularly recognized by an individual, then x is a concept. (And, of course, this recognition is something the individual's behavior must show.)" So that the texture of a rose petal is a concept, the smell of honeysuckle is a concept; and it is not necessary for the individual to know the words 'texture', 'rose petal', 'smell', 'honeysuckle', or to be able to put into words the feel or smell, and so on, for it to be correct to say that the individual has a concept. (Something like this maybe.)

"Soon I felt the need of communication with others and began to make crude signs." But a "crude sign" is nonetheless a sign (i.e. a conventional sound, an ink mark on paper, a gesture), a primitive language (as in language-game).

Is this the origin of human language - the felt-need and innate ability (ability which the other animals, apparently, have not) to communicate?

One of Helen's earliest companion's was the family's old dog: "I tried hard to teach her my sign language, but she was dull and inattentive." (Chapter 2) And so it is with dogs that the desire to communicate is extremely limited, but not so with human beings, for as the child discovered:

... the desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion.... After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.

It was only when her teacher, Miss Sullivan, came that Helen's "long night" was replaced by the light of knowledge, although not right away, of course. (And here 'to know' can be defined as Socrates did: 'to know is to be able to give an account of what you know to others', and thus 'to know' means 'to be able to put what you know into words'.)

[When Miss Sullivan came, it was as if] I heard a voice which said, "Knowledge is love and light and vision." (Chapter 3)

I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old. On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch ... I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle [to communicate with others]. [She likens her condition to a ship at sea] in a dense fog, when it seemed as if tangible white darkness shut you in ... I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. "Light! give me light!" was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour. (Chapter 4)

What Miss Sullivan was to teach Helen was a thorough-going language, a thoroughgoing way to communicate with others -- and to keep discourse with herself.

From an aimless finger-game to a language game: the patterns touched into the palm of her hand became the words of our language spelled into her hand

Before she remembered the word 'water' she had only been playing a finger game in the palm of a hand: "I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed" (Chapter 4).

[After] I had played with [the doll that my teacher had handed to me] a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word 'd-o-l-l'. I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.

In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words ... But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name. (Chapter 4)

Note: to say that everything has a name is very different from saying that all words are names. But it is just as mistaken. What e.g. is the name of how honeysuckle smells? Well, there isn't one.

"... I held up my hand and made the letters for doll." -- Now I am puzzled: "the letters for the thing [i.e. class of things] doll" versus "the letters for the word [i.e. the common-name] 'doll'" Is there a difference? Yes, there is: it has to be "the letters for the word 'doll'"; for it means nothing to say 'the letters for the thing doll' (unless the doll receives postcards, e.g.). The second combination of words is undefined. Maybe all that can be said here is to avoid any form of expression that obliterates the distinction between a sign and its meaning (i.e. its use in the language). "An unsuitable type of expression is a sure means of remaining in a state of confusion. It as it were bars the way out" (PI § 339).

Why I am discussing these questions? It is because I am very concerned to make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense (the logic of language) and, on my account, the sign-use distinction is needed to make that distinction. (Of course this is a wonderful and deeply moving book! But there is far more to Helen Keller's book than the story of a little girl's life.)

The day she learned language (Her first sign that was a word of our language)

Even after my illness I remembered one of the words I had learned in those early months. It was the word 'water', and I continued to make some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I ceased making the sound "wah-wah" only when I learned to spell the word. (Chapter 1)

That is the background to the event (but whether it was a necessary condition for the event to occur is not a philosophical question, but somehow, I don't know how, maybe a natural science question), an event which was, I think, for Helen Keller the most important event in her life.

[My teacher] brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure. (Chapter 4)

They went into the garden and at the water-pump some one was drawing water, and as Miss Sullivan placed one of Helen's hands under the water, she made the finger-sign for 'water' in the palm of the child's other hand.

Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!

It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had taught me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. (Chapter 4)

What learning a thoroughgoing language meant for Helen Keller's life: "... the door through which I should pass from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship, companionship, knowledge, love." (Chapter 3). Thus no one on reading this book should find it implausible that a girl who was left deaf and blind at the age of nineteen months, and who began learning language only at the age of 6 years and 9 months, and moreover was only twenty-three years old when this book was published, could write such a book. Because if we read the early chapters slowly, and if we think about what she writes, then we realize what language was for her. After her illness she had been left with only the senses of touch, smell and taste; but the senses which a human being most relies on, namely, sight and hearing, she was deprived of. And so language became -- language replaced hearing and sight for her. And I think that if we appreciate that fact, then it will not seem implausible that she could have written this book with all its thought and language just as it is. Further, "In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness" (Chapter 4), but with language, with the ability to communicate in depth with others, that all changed (but whether it was a necessary condition for that change to occur is, again, not a philosophical question, but maybe (or maybe not) one for natural science).

I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. (Chapter 6)

She learns her first "abstract idea"

She then describes how she learned the meaning of the word 'think' (Or in other words, she learned, how to use the word 'think', or, the relationship of one type of concept, namely, abstract idea, to language), that its part of speech (or, category of language use, or, language-game type) is 'name-of-a-process word'. Her teacher touched the child's forehead and spelled the word 't-h-i-n-k' there when Helen was concentrating all her attention on what she was being taught:

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of a process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea. (Chapter 6)

When she writes 'going on in my head', does this show a theory or only a concept -- a picture in this particular case -- of thinking (cf. Z § 223)? The picture "a process going on in the head" -- does it do harm to anyone who takes it as a matter of course that this picture is a picture of a self-evident reality? I don't know. If there is harm to a human being, it lies, not in this particular picture (for there are many others like it), but in belonging to a "Community of ideas". For it may be that it is only when we step outside such a community to ask questions about the nature of mind and thought, rather than simply accepting the pictures that are common currency in our community, that the picture of "a process going on in the head" may confuse us by suggesting false grammatical analogies to us, but not until.

"If thinking goes on in the head, then the head must be the location of the mind -- but what is the mind, then, is it material, simply the sum of the processes of the brain? Of if the mind is spiritual (a ghost like the Platonic soul), then how can it be confined to the head? But if the mind is not in the head then how can thinking be a process going on in the head?" (Something like this e.g.)

When she first visits the seaside, the ocean waves and sea creatures, she writes of one: "It was a great horseshoe crab -- the first one I had ever seen." (Chapter 10). And of course, she had not seen it, but she had experienced the sea with her senses of touch and smell and taste (for there was salt in the water, she learned to her surprise). This is a question of forms of expression (where a synonym for 'see' would be 'encountered'), although in this case it may not be a form that appears to have theoretical content.

And so she is contrasting 'abstract idea' with 'name of object'. And the expression 'abstract idea' or 'abstraction' was taken from "the theory of abstraction", which is a theory of definition or meaning, although, as our present use of the expression 'abstract idea' shows, those expressions have long since drifted free of that theory, in this case to take on the meaning of 'name of something that cannot be touched or taken hold of'. Setting aside the puzzles suggested by the word 'abstract idea', however, I am, instead, trying to understand how Helen Keller learned concepts (-- and, again, not as if 'concept' must mean 'rules for using signs', for she writes "I learned to know many things" years before she learned our language --) in order to make clear to myself the general relation, if there is a general relation, between "concepts" (for I haven't well-defined the word 'concept' yet) and language.

When she learned to read she learned that "each printed word stood for an object, an act, or a quality" (Chapter 7). And I think we can say that by 'abstract idea' she means 'act-words' and 'quality-words' as opposed to 'name-of-object words'.

Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. --

But then, it appears that, the deaf child must actually know -- i.e. be able to give an account to others of the grammar of -- the language it uses, because it must learn that language step by step, always needing to seek out the meaning, the why-for of any particular bit of language's use. Whereas the hearing child often cannot give a grammatical account of the language it hears and repeats, and often does not grasp the meaning that adults give to the language it tries to imitate (cf. PI § 194: "... like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them ..."). The hearing child absorbs its language from the community of speech (as well as the "community of ideas", although that is also the case with the deaf child) it acquires language in, and it very often does this in a mindless way.

-- But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare. (Chapter 6)

"... from naming an object", because for Helen Keller learning language began the way Augustine describes: "As a child I learned the names of things". Cf. below: "Often everything in the room was arranged in object sentences" and "I did not then understand anything unless I touched it".

From the beginning of my education Miss Sullivan made it a practice to speak to me as she would speak to any hearing child; the only difference was that she spelled the sentences into my hand instead of speaking them. If I did not know the words and idioms necessary to express my thoughts, she supplied them, even suggesting conversation when I was unable to keep up my end of the dialog.

This process was continued for several years; for the deaf child does not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and imitation. (Chapter 6)

Remark: I have no memory of my earliest acquisition of language. My mother told me that I did not begin speaking until I was two years old. Before then I would simply point to the things I wanted. But when I did begin speaking, I spoke in complete sentences. And so maybe there are many possibilities even for the hearing child (This is an at least partly an empirical question).

She learns to read printed words

Her "earliest distinct recollection" of her father: "... finding him alone, holding a sheet of paper before his face. I was greatly puzzled to know what he was doing. I imitated this action, even wearing his spectacles, thinking they might help solve the mystery. But I did not find out the secret for several years." (Chapter 2)

The next important step in my education was learning to read. As soon as I could spell a few words my teacher gave me slips of cardboard on which were printed words in raised letters. I quickly learned that each printed word stood for an object, an act, or a quality.

I had a frame in which I could arrange the words in little sentences; but before I could ever put sentences in the frame I used to make them in objects --

That is, she constructed sentences where the words were replaced by the objects which named them -- the doll standing in place of 'doll'? "Words stand for objects", but here "objects stand for words"?

-- I found the slips of paper which represented, for example, 'doll', 'is', 'on', 'bed' and placed each name on its object; then I put my doll on the bed with the words is, on, bed arranged beside the doll, thus making a sentence of the words, and at the same time carrying out the idea of the sentence --

"... the idea of the sentence" -- i.e. the meaning of that combination of signs. (I do not know why the book uses italic print rather than quotation marks for the second listing of 'is', 'on' and 'bed' here.)

-- with the things themselves.

Nothing delighted me so much as this game. My teacher and I played it for hours at a time. Often everything in the room was arranged in object sentences.

From the printed slip it was but a step to the printed word. I took my "Reader for Beginners" and hunted for words I knew; when I found them my joy was like that of a game of hide-and-seek. Thus I began to read. Of the time when I began to read connected stories --

There are sentences, which are combinations of words; then there are combinations of sentences; until there is a story which may be a combination of many sentences. The hearing child acquires language, but the deaf-blind child must learn language; it must be taught how to use our language step by step by step, putting its feet on every stone, apparently.

-- I shall speak later. (Chapter 7)

The classification scheme Helen uses: object-word, act-word, quality-word. But in which categories go the words 'on' and 'is'? How did her teacher explain to her the meaning of the word 'is' in our language -- as its use as a move in a language-game? What move would that be, then? Spatial prepositions such as 'on', 'above', 'below' appear not to be difficult to explain the uses of -- but how do you explain the meaning of the word 'is' as in 'Doll is on bed' (Why not simply say, 'Doll on bed', I would expect the deaf child to ask)?

The hearing child learns to use the word 'is' by repeating the forms of expression it hears others using, but how does the deaf child learn to use that word? By learning and blindly following rules? The hearing child does not ask what rains when "it" rains -- why? does the inclusion of 'it' make sense to the child? But it is the rule we follow in English (although not in e.g. Italian. Cf. in Russian, so I have read, one says 'house red' rather than 'house is red'. Why? I don't know, but it's the rule Russian speakers have to learn and follow).

She ask her teacher, What does the word 'love' mean?

And so Helen wrote about the word 'thinking' that "This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea". But it was not the most challenging one for her to learn.

"What is love?" I asked. [And Helen indicated, half in words, half in gestures, various things, e.g. the sweet scent of violets, the warmth of the sun, but her teacher said that love was not any of those.] Her words [when Miss Sullivan tried to explain the meaning of the word 'love' using metaphors, at first] puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.... I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

This is related to Augustine's picture of language, that language consists essentially of names of things. The child feels the warmth of the sun, but expects to be given another thing to "touch" by way of an explanation of meaning of the word 'love', but there is no second thing, additional to the sun's warmth for her to touch.

For a long time [after discovering the meaning of the word 'thinking'] I was ... trying to find a meaning for [the word] 'love' in the light of this new idea [i.e. "abstract idea" or "non-name-of-object-word"]. [Her teacher explained to Helen, although "in simpler words than these", that, like the clouds, which bring welcome rain to the flowers and thirsty earth after a hot day,] "you cannot touch love ... but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play." The beautiful truth burst upon my mind -- I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirit of others. (Chapter 6)

"Explanation of meaning by means of metaphors." Why did this work, for a metaphor is not a definition? How does a hearing child learn to use the word 'love' -- certainly not be being given a explanation of meaning for that word (Very few adults could describe the grammar of the word 'love'). But when does the child acquire the concept 'love'? Does it need to understand that there are non-name-of-object words in our language in order to learn to use the word 'love'? (Yes, this puzzles me. But you cannot answer a question unless you set criteria for what an answer to the question even would look like.) The relation between concepts and language. That is a conceptual investigation (See previous remark about answering a question before defining the question. But is that how we in fact philosophize or simply how we dismiss an apparently question when it is a mere undefined combination of words? Yes, I need examples).

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word 'love'. This was before I knew many words. I found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me; but at that time I did not like to have anyone kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked. (Chapter 6)

Of her two-fold isolation, she wrote: "In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness". And so, question: what is necessary for a human being if it is to acquire the concept 'love'? (Again, this appears to be a "question without an answer". An idea of Drury's: We should be constantly filled with wonder by these phenomena we take so much for granted.)

Picturing another sense of perception by analogy (e.g. hearing as "a sort of second sight")

I do not remember when I first realized that I was different from other people; but I knew it before my teacher came to me. (Chapter 2)

When Helen Keller arrived at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, she writes that she now remembers "the surprise and pain I felt ... Although I had been told this before, and although I understood my own deprivations, yet I had thought vaguely that since [the blind children] could hear, they must have a sort of "second sight" ..." (Chapter 9)

They could hear -- was that what she imagined hearing to be, "a sort of second sight"? And yet, she could contrast her own senses of touch and smell: is either a "second [version]" of the other? I would not say that. What they reveal to us is complementary (cf. the notion of all sense perceptions being combined in a "common sense"), but it is distinct.

"... a sort of second sight" -- maybe like a bat's sonar, although I don't imagine the child would have been aware of that; she does not explain what she means by 'a sort of'. She does not allude to bats here. That comparison is my own: hearing as "a second sight", that is, a sense perception that accomplishes something similar to what seeing does.

Trying to imagine a sense of perception that one oneself does not possess. You would, I think, have to base your conjectures on the behavior of those who are able to do what you are unable to do. A partial comparison -- for both analogs belong to the sense of hearing -- but in the case of absolute pitch in music -- what would I, who do not possess it, compare that to? The ease with which I recognize words of the English language? Perhaps that is what the notes of music are to those who possess absolute pitch. But you must invent another example for me (for I am not yet philosophizing).

What do a dog's thoughts look like? (A new comparison, or, analogy)

The child through learning language acquires concepts -- or does the child when it learns language add to the concepts it has acquired before it learns language? By means of language the child enlarges its collection (or, catalog) of concepts (or, pool of conceptual resources, or, conceptual tools) -- or does the child only acquire concepts when it acquires language?

The question I ask myself: can there concepts if there is no language? But that is a grammatical question (Logical possibility belongs to grammar). But how can that question be divorced from an enquiry into the facts -- and not only the facts about our language but about our life and the lives of the other animals as well? But philosophical investigations, grammatical investigations, are concerned with the facts in plain view (cf. PI §§ 125-126 and § 435), including very general facts of nature (cf. ibid. II, xii, p. 230).

What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes. (PI § 415)

If there can be concepts without language, then it seems natural to say that, for example, a dog has concepts -- although, what do we know of a dog's soul -- i.e. how are we to apply the word 'thoughts' to a dog? We see the dog's behavior (ibid. § 357: "We do not say that possibly a dog talks to itself. Is that because we are so minutely acquainted with its soul? Well, one might say this: If one sees the behavior of a living thing, one sees its soul"). And indeed its behavior is all I know of the inner (or, private -- i.e. 'private' in contrast to 'open to public view' as behavior is) life of any living thing other than myself -- but not as if I could use language that only I understood to talk about my inner life to myself but not to other human beings (cf. ibid. §§ 210, 208).

Although "words are also deeds" (ibid. § 546) -- i.e. behavior -- how much of the inner life of others can I actually understand? Different meanings of the word 'understand' (language and human experience) determine possibility here. But how long it takes to come to an understanding of the inner life of another human being! And even then, do we not feel that we know that person only in part (cf. ibid. II, xi, p. 223 (another person may be a complete enigma to us), CV p. 74 (a remark from 1948), as well as remarks by Albert Schweitzer, and Franz Schubert)?

"... if a wordless sensation may be called a thought" -- e.g. the sensations she felt the warmth from the sun or when she touched the flowers in the garden, and for which, before she learned language, she had no names -- Would all these have been "sensations" but not "thoughts"? (Only if we bind the grammar of 'thought' to language?)

... when the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them (Theaetetus 189e-190a, tr. Cornford; cf. Sophist 263e)

... thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs. (BB p. 6; cf. p. 16)

But Wittgenstein himself later gives the example of a carpenter working in the wood-shop (cf. Z § 100 faintly, or maybe somewhere else): the carpenter does not talk himself through each step as he works, e.g. when he rip-saws a board: does he say to himself "Push the saw away from you; now pull it back" countless times. Well, but then is he not thinking about what he is doing (he does not want to cut off his fingers e.g.)?

Remembered sensations. Are sensations what a dog's concepts amount to -- i.e. are most usefully characterized as? (Useful to what? To closing this puzzle?) What are a dog or other animal's thoughts like: a succession of sensations (either of sensations, new or recurring, or of the impulses of instinct)?

Suppose we say: "It really is impossible to know what an animal's thoughts are like!" (cf. Questions without answers: "There are imponderables"). Or "An animal's inner life? That is beyond human imagination!" (cf. "Forms of life"). Statements such as these express our attitude towards the facts, for, after all, what would we be willing -- if anything -- to call knowing here (i.e. what criteria would we use to define the word 'knowing' for this context)? What would we call an even plausible description (i.e. the picture that is imagined by man) of an animal's thoughts here?

We make a distinction between (1) things that think, namely, human beings, and (2) things that do not, e.g. stones. And we say that the dog belongs in the first category? But why? -- does a small child make an analogy from man to dog? Not if making an analogy is a use of reason (and I shall confine 'analogy' to that); the small child simply responds to the dog's behavior without reasoning about it. As does the grown man normally. But then why do I say that we seek to make an analogy here? Because here we are trying to do what we do not normally do -- namely, we are trying to imagine what a dog's thinking looks like given that dogs do not use language.

But if we liken a dog's thoughts to a succession of sensations (some familiar -- i.e. remembered (or, recognized) from past experience -- others new to the particular dog) -- that does not look like a simple analogy from behavior to behavior. Do you mean because we are speculating about a dog's inner life on the basis of man's inner life (and isn't man's inner life something that I know only from my own case? Only if 'know' is defined to mean 'experience first hand'; what I know, if we use the word 'know' as we normally do, is that man agrees in the language he uses)? If we are going to talk about thought or thinking without language, then we need a definition of 'thinking without language'. -- So, then, how does man think without words? Well, what does the carpenter do when he compares the lengths of two or three boards -- Need he talk to himself while doing this? And if he does not, then are we to say that his thinking amounts to this: a succession of sensations? Not if by 'sensation' we mean 'touch'. Maybe a more apt word than 'sensation' here would be 'perception': a succession of perceptions. But not if 'perception' = 'percept divorced from any concept'! And so we come back to the word 'concept'. We make an analogy from human thought without words to what, we may imagine, an animal's thoughts to be like: language-less concepts (However, that comparison does not stand up against refutation).

Why do we say of a dog that it thinks? Because a dog learns. Of life-forms that do not appear to learn, we do not say that they think. About the inner life of animals that do not learn we would say that it is a nothing more than a succession of instincts -- i.e. that they do not have an inner life.

The question "How can one think without words?", or, "Is it possible to think without language?" is a grammatical question -- i.e. it asks for an explanation of meaning, a definition.

Are the carpenter's wordless thoughts aptly likened to sensations? "... if you can call a sensation a thought ..." -- If a sensation is placed in the right circumstances it might be natural to call it a thought, e.g. the carpenter's perception-sensation (or series of perception-sensations) that board x is longer than board y. And an example of where it would not be natural? The sensation of scratching one's head when it itches. Thus it apparently is logically possible to make that comparison. And we can call wordless thoughts "perception-sensations" (although that is a definition, not a factual proposition).

We use the expression "human emotions" -- why? Have animals emotions? How do you distinguish an animal's emotions from its thoughts (No, not its rational thoughts in contrast to its irrational thoughts, because there is no such contrast here: there are no criteria for making such a distinction!)? And so we have these grammatical questions.

It's true that a cat can't think a man's thoughts (But only if those thoughts require language?), but a man can't think a cat's thoughts either. That apropos of photographs I have seen of a cat staring wide-eyed at the 2014 Olympic games displayed on a television screen, at the down-hill skier, its eyes tracking the movements on the screen as if it were "watching TV". But what is the cat's conception of what it perceives? (Is this not a a question with no answer.) (Does a cat think about the logic of language? No more than it thinks about God. You cannot say of the cat that possibly it is thinking about God; the impossibility here is logical, that is, of sense and nonsense, where 'nonsense' = 'undefined language', as in: What meaning would the combination of words 'A cat asks itself about the eternal questions' have? Related to this is Wittgenstein's notion "forms of life", and the possibility of understanding another life form.)

Setting criteria for concepts without language (Definition)

Suggestion. That a 'concept' must be both (1) habitual (2) and recognized (or, remembered) by the one who possesses it. Breathing, for example, may be habitual -- i.e. a regular or oft-repeated occurrence, or something consistently done -- without being recognized, that is to say someone may have no awareness of his breathing, but yet it is habitual. So it has to be recognized, not just habitual.

But not everything recognized is habitual, for example, event B may be recognized as a reoccurrence of A; but if event A happens only one or two times, then what would the concept be here (e.g. What name could you assign to it)? But the concepts of language: we don't simply invent those and then discard them; we use them habitually (Concepts are a custom, or, usage, an institution). I think that non-language concepts should, if we're going to use the word 'concept', also be of that type (for otherwise, why use the word 'concept' at all?). I have always used the word 'concept' in the context of talking about language use, so that if I am going to extend the boundaries of the concept 'concept', I should have some justification for doing this -- i.e. some resemblance which I treat as defining (if only in this particular case, that is, in the case of setting a new boundary with this extension) if I am going to speak of "concepts without language".

But on the other hand, it is possible to make a convention and then only make use of that convention for a single bit of writing (as I did with the jargon-word 'customary sign') and then set it aside afterwards. But note that when we do that, we must also define our jargon within that writing: e.g. "Here I am going to use 'x' to mean ..." -- but nonetheless that convention would be a concept ... but again note: that convention would be a language concept, not the working carpenter's wordless-thoughts type concept, and that fact makes the comparison between a language-concept and languageless-concept break down.

So then it seems that we are forced by our chosen analogy to say that: if an animal had language -- or, rather, if an animal could speak man's language, that is, play his primitive language-games (i.e. those dealing with simple names and actions rather than with forms of life unique to man such as humor and "a sense of the higher") -- then the animal would say what man says -- i.e. it could put its wordless thoughts into words, just as the carpenter's wordless thoughts can be put into words. Thus we see that: the type of analogy made here is: an analogy based on a counter-factual conditional. (This also makes clear what the criterion for recognizing a concept is, namely, the public event of: being able to put into words.)

Well, so maybe the only thing our investigation has made clear is that our analogy between man's thoughts without words and an animal's thoughts without words is a counterfactual-conditional analogy: "If an animal used our language, then ... But animals do not use our language." And that is because we are requiring that 'thought' = 'concept', and defining 'concept' as 'what can be put into words'. (Now, but how else can we define the word 'concept' -- i.e. what other way of defining that word allows us to do some work with it in philosophy?)

In H. G. Wells' story "The Country of the Blind", the people have been deprived of the sense of sight for many generations and many words of our language have fallen into disuse (i.e. become "sounds without meaning") among them. And we could say here that "If a sighted-man could speak to him, a born-blind man would not understand him", if e.g. the sighted man used words such as 'to see', 'color'. What is the relation of this is to "If a lion could speak ..."? Would we say in that context that a lion is concept-blind with respect to aspects of human life, and, vice versa, that a human being is concept-blind with respect to aspects of lion life ('concept-blindness')? The comparison has its limit here, however, for in sighted-blind case we are not talking about "inner life" at all.

Animal intelligence

I cannot too much muse
... such gesture and such sound, expressing,
Although they want the use of tongue, a kind
Of excellent dumb discourse. (The Tempest iii, 3)

I want to avoid -- "It is possible to be interested in a phenomenon from various points of view" (PI [§ 108]), and this is mine here -- anything metaphysical -- i.e. essentially hidden from public view -- being suggested by the word 'intelligence' (e.g. Descartes' "in the mind"), limiting myself to what can be seen and heard and verified by anyone.

Animal intelligence. To me this seems impenetrable to the understanding. The question is why it does. And I think it may be because I have only "blind percepts" -- I don't have the concepts (tools) with which to penetrate (understand, make sense of) the phenomenon in the way I imagine must be possible (The "must" is metaphysical, of course: preconception).

I observe the behavior of animals, and those percepts (observations) are not blind; but what goes on "behind" that behavior, the "mechanism" that can explain it, I cannot perceive because I cannot conceive it at all. (And what is the mechanism for man? Discourse of reason: language. Language makes behavior intelligible.)

But on the other hand, models, maps, floor plans, for example, can be developed and followed without language. May that not be the "mechanism" of animal intelligence?

If we contrast "beasts with discourse of reason", namely man, with "beasts without discourse of reason", the second category has many different members (species). If we talk about "instinct" -- i.e. here "intelligence without discourse" -- in this regard, then there is a striking difference between a dog and a goose: what is the relationship between instinct and the ability to learn new things (what one goose knows all geese know, but individual dogs learn different things: all geese live in the same world, each dog in its own)?

When Learning is play, or, Play is learning

For a long time I had no regular lessons. Even when I studied most earnestly it seemed more like play than work.... What many children think of with dread, as a painful plodding through grammar, hard sums and harder definitions, is to-day one of my most precious memories. (The Story of My Life, Chapter 7)

"... it seemed more like play than work." Compare this -- but also contrast this with Wittgenstein's "Children are taught their native language by means of such games", because children who are not limited by deafness and blindness are more often not taught the basic games of their native language, whereas Helen had to be taught the whole of the language which other children take for granted, but which she could not (Remember what language meant to her: the end to her isolation from other human beings, knowledge and love). An example of a game which, so far as I know, all children must be taught, is "adding and take-away", but Helen did not find that particular study to be "more like play than work"; she writes that "Arithmetic seems to have been the only study I did not like" (Chapter 7).

She writes that "Miss Sullivan and I kept up a game of guessing which taught me more about the use of language than any set lessons could have done" (Chapter 8). Again in this instance: to the child, a language-game is a game, and learning is play. (The game of guessing concerned the contents of the gifts her friends would give her at Christmas.)

At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them. When she came, everything about me breathed of love and joy and was full of meaning. ... not every teacher can make [the small child] learn. [The child] will not work joyously until he feels that liberty is his, whether he is busy or at rest. (Chapter 7)

"... feels that liberty is his". Well, this is what makes life worth living -- i.e. being free, and, for me, in the case of studying philosophy: studying what is of interest to me, at the time that it is of interest to me, rather than what has been assigned to me either by school or by life's demands. Thinking about what is important to me in philosophy, even when that work is most difficult ..... although it's not always clear to me whether I am struggling to get clear about an idea -- or only struggling with the way of writing about it. (Although is the idea clear to me if I cannot express it clearly? Not by the Socratic standard.

... I wouldn't say now "Thinking is hard". There is I believe a stage in philosophy where a person feels that. This material I am working at is as hard as granite but I know how to go about it. (Recollections p. 159, a remark made to Drury in 1949)

I now know "how to go about it", or one way to go about it, but I very often have this feeling -- that I want to be elsewhere! Philosophizing is focusing, and I am not good at that.

Theory-formation in the Sciences

The limit of the empirical -- is concept-formation. (RFM iv § 29, p. 237))

What does it mean? Conceiving a problem in such a way that it can be solved is the difference between concept-formation in natural science and in fantasy ("metaphysics") -- i.e. stating clear and practical criteria for solving a problem, a problem which may be either (1) to resolve a conceptual muddle -- which is philosophy's task -- or (2) to verify/falsify an empirical proposition -- which is one of natural science's tasks. As to theory-formation ... we need a definition of 'theory', for which we might maybe use 'a principle for organizing a selection of data' -- and that may be created in any use-of-reasoning subject matter.

Quotation marks and Bertrand Russell

Query: the word 'philosophy' comes from Greek meaning 'love of wisdom'. Do you think that the word still carries that meaning?

The word 'carries' is not the happiest choice of words here. In any case, you should first ask what anyone might mean by calling philosophy "the love of wisdom" (especially maybe what the Greeks may have meant by it, because the Greeks invented the word 'philosopher' before they invented the word 'philosophy').

Russell made use of that definition of 'philosophy' in his essay "Philosophy for Laymen" in Unpopular Essays (1950):

'Philosophy' means 'love of wisdom', and philosophy in this sense is what men must acquire if ...

Notes: does Russell mean: "... and [the word 'philosophy'] in this sense [of that word] is ..." It is also not the happiest form of expression to write 'philosophy in this sense' -- because it isn't clear what you are talking about: can the subject Philosophy itself have a sense [a meaning]? And we would not say that anyone should study a word, which is simply a sign (spoken sounds, marks on paper) and signs are without inherent sense.

But if you wrote "... and philosophy is ..." -- i.e. without 'in this sense' --? wouldn't that be clearer? Or if you wrote: "and the subject-matter of 'philosophy' in that sense of the word is what ...".

But if the definition Russell's uses is simply a substitution rule, could you say instead: "... and love of wisdom is what men must acquire if ..."? Yes.

The forms of expression 'love of wisdom' and 'philosophy' have a different feel about them ... I wonder why -- for if those expressions are synonymous, then should they?

Eh, but it was (I think) Russell in On Denoting who introduced the use of quotation marks to distinguish signs from their meaning (His convention was the reverse of mine: " versus ') -- and if even his own later forms of expression are confusing, then ...

And so, it seems I think, that Russell accepted this definition of the word [rendering of the ancient Greek word into English] 'philosophy' as 'love of wisdom', maybe not as the only one, but as one definition of 'philosophy' that is serviceable.

And I think (because the following is my own idea, or if derived from anyone, then from Xenophon and Plato and Diogenes Laertius's account of the Stoics' three parts of philosophy), we can use the translation or rendering 'love of wisdom', or alternatively: 'yearning for wisdom', or even 'friendship for wisdom', if by 'wisdom' we mean knowledge of (1) how to live our life (ethics), and (2) how to reason soundly (logic), and (3) somehow (I don't know how) what is real rather than illusion (metaphysics -- although usually by 'metaphysics' we mean speculation rather than knowledge (Fichte: idealism is a speculative position) -- although also, pointing out the conceptual limits to our knowing anything may be called 'metaphysics', as e.g. Are the limits of human sense perception also the limits of reality? That is not of course a question natural science can answer).

Could we also say that "love of wisdom" is one historical definition -- i.e. a real definition and not only a conventional definition? But if it is a statement of fact, then is it a statement of fact about language use, i.e. about the Greek philosophers' language usage? Well, what else might it be? (Use your imagination! You cannot philosophize if you cannot dream-up alternative possibilities. What I would not say: 'Philosophy' is the name of a phenomenon, and about the nature of that phenomenon there are various theories.)

Another possible question to ask, however: Is the definition "love of wisdom" so general that it might encompass most anything? Maybe it's not quite that general -- e.g. could taking an interest in gossip be an instance of "the love of wisdom"? Maybe as judged by gossipers? But is that a pertinent example? Suppose those same gossipers said that the correct method of thinking your way to an answer is to mull over [brood] rather than reason about it (i.e. by weighing between reasons for and reasons against, for example)? That would actually be a rejection of philosophy if philosophy is rational, which in the popular sense of the word 'philosophy' it need not be. So that, if you are going to use the definition 'love of wisdom', you maybe should distinguish whether you mean 'philosophy' in the Greek sense or in the popular sense of that word? In my view, and I think Plato's (Republic 475c-d), "Philosophy is the love of wisdom in logic, ethics and metaphysics only".

The collection Unpopular Essays (1950), which I have from the public library's book sale, would belong in Wittgenstein's list of Russell's writings that should "bound in blue" -- i.e. works that no one should read (in contrast to Russell's works about mathematical logic which "all students of philosophy should read") (Recollections p. 112). Although the publisher characterizes this collection of essays as "14 Adventures in Argument", there do not seem to be any arguments, but instead only polemics, making countless claims without citing the sources which, in Russell's view, justify his opinions.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 4 August 2013 : 2013-08-04 and 26 January 2018 : 2018-01-26

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map