A picture can speak 3 million words

Can you think without language?

Primitive man: hand ax and hunting require thinking skills

It is not a question of whether, but what one can think without language. If we go back in human history, then language as we know it today did not develop until about 200,000 years ago at the earliest. Back then our direct ancestors were all in Africa; and the early Neanderthals were already on the move in Europe.

But already millions of years ago primitive humans were using tools that they made themselves, above all hand axes, of course. To make a hand ax, you have to think a little. Early humans also hunted animals in groups. Here, too, they had to proceed systematically; that also requires thinking.

Babies think too. But what exactly?

The question can be approached by looking at early childhood instead of early humanity: We would all probably allow a small baby, even if it is only a few months old and cannot speak, to think anything; that something is going on in his head. The question is: what?

Tying shoelaces: requires brains, but no language

Or let's take a look at ourselves: What do we think all day long? We think a lot in terms of images and ideas that actually don't need any language. When you think back on your vacation, you won't do it in words, but in pictures. There are also complicated thoughts for which language is precious little. This quickly becomes clear when you imagine having to explain to someone just using words how to tie a shoelace or how to keep your balance on a bike. Such things require brains, but not necessarily language.

The high form of abstraction

On the other hand, there are of course certain forms of thinking, certain cognitive performances that are clearly linked to language. This applies to everything abstract, everything that cannot be thought in pictures, and thus of course a large part of scientific thinking as well.

So we can assume that even without language, small children have a kind of intuitive physics: They know and learn to understand that a pacifier that you let go of falls on the floor. They do not need any language for this. But language is necessary in order to derive a gravitational force or something even more complicated like a law of conservation of energy from this or similar processes. Because words like force and energy are highly abstract terms. Abstract means: We create analogies. And here language helps us very significantly by giving us the opportunity to describe sometimes very different phenomena such as hot water or the movement of bodies with the same terms - in this case "energy" - and in this way to establish relationships between things that we would otherwise never associate. That is the high form of abstraction.

Pictorial negation of a fact is inconceivable

But it is also much easier to start with the very elementary logic. Close your eyes and imagine the following sentence in your mind's eye: "I'm not driving to work today." What do you see in front of your eyes? Probably yourself, how you drive to work. We can visualize a state of affairs, but we cannot imagine the negative of a state of affairs. That is to say, in order to be able to "think" such a simple logical process as negation, we seem to use the language after all.

The text and audio of this post are licensed under the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Creative Commons license.