Thinking and Speaking
Thinking and Speaking
Is thinking a type of speaking? There is a tradition that says it is: thinking as “saying in one’s heart”, the language of thought, voices in the head, thoughts as sub-vocal speech. The idea is that just as we produce outward speech by using our speech organs so we produce inward speech when we think: thought is silent soliloquy. Thinking is the occurrence of inner speech acts; it might even be the internalization of outer speech acts. The process of thinking is a process of speaking. Certainly, inner speech exists, so isn’t it natural to suppose that inner speech is what constitutes thought? True, we also hear words in our imagination, but thinking is more active than hearing, so it is preferable to align thinking with speaking rather than hearing. Writing is another process that relates us to language, but it seems implausible to suppose that the mind is writing when it thinks (on what and with what?). Thus people have tended to identify thinking with speaking words not with hearing or writing them. Is this a defensible position?
Sundry objections spring to mind. First, are the organs of speech employed when a person thinks? Evidently not, since the larynx can remain at rest—and there is no sign of a parallel larynx in the brain. So this must be speech without speech organs. Still, it may be said, the brain must contain some apparatus that governs thought, so there has to be something analogous to speech organs. Hmm. Second, is thought as much of an action as speaking is? Granted, thinking is voluntary (like imagining), but is it really always an intentional act? Don’t thoughts sometimes just occur to us without any initiating intention? Aren’t some thoughts reflexive? Here it may be said that acts of speech can also be unintentional and reflexive. Maybe so, but there does seem to be something to the point that thinking is a lot less intentional than speech. Third, perception is not naturally construed as a type of speech—we don’t contemplate “talking eyes”—so why should thought be aligned with speech? Couldn’t thought be like perception: not voluntary, generally reflexive, and not word-oriented? Couldn’t it be more like reading? In reading we see words and simultaneously have thoughts: the reading is voluntary (though not always, as when a big sign heaves into view), and yet it is perception-like. Is the mind actually reading words when it thinks? The brain writes them and the mind reads them: is that what thinking is? This is no doubt an ingenious idea, but none too intuitively appealing. We therefore return, somewhat morosely, to the speaking model, given the unease occasioned by these misgivings and worries. There is a feeling that we have not yet nailed the problem, though the killing objection hovers elusively in the vicinity. While it is true that language features in our thought processes in the form of inner speech, it seems wrong to identify thinking with speaking. Speaking might accompany thought without being thought. But why is this exactly?
I think the answer has to do with the contingency of the link between sound and meaning. The most dramatic way to see the point is to note that you can say something by uttering a sentence you don’t understand, but you can’t think something by uttering a sentence you don’t understand. You can utter a sentence of a foreign language and say something meaningful, but you can’t have a thought just by uttering a sentence inwardly that means the content of the thought. Thus you can rehearse a sentence in your mind, possibly in preparation for uttering it, and not thereby think what the sentence expresses; you might just like the sound of the sentence. To think with a sentence you have to grasp its meaning. You think meanings but you say sounds: so thinking can’t beinward utterance. All the sounds of English sentences could pass through your mind in the form of grammatical strings and yet you may understand none of them—in which case you will not be having the corresponding thoughts. Or consider malapropism: you can utter the wrong word and say something you don’t mean, but there are no malapropisms of thought—no cases of thinking a thought you don’t intend to think. In thought you can’t say one thing and mean another, because there is no slack between the word uttered and the proposition meant. There are no slips of the tongue in thought. You can indeed use the wrong word in a sentence that you inwardly utter, but that just shows that thinking is not inner speaking. Speech, inner or outer, can aid thinking, but that is not to say that it is thinking. It is not sufficient to think that p to inwardly utter a sentence that means that p. Nor is it necessary, since surely many animals (and many humans) can think thoughts without inwardly uttering sentences. They need concepts (or something like them) but they don’t need words for concepts—they don’t need to intone words to themselves in order to think. There is such a thing as wordless thought.
What, then, is the process of thinking? It is not the process of speaking, or of hearing, or of writing, or of reading: it is none of these language-oriented processes. And why should it be—why should thinking mimic these other processes? We don’t report thought by saying that the thinker inwardly said a sentence to himself; we talk as if thinking is another sort of process entirely. Descartes doesn’t say, “I inwardly utter sentences, therefore I am”. This is a theory of thought not a mere synonym of “think”—and it is not a very good theory.  The problem is that it is hard to come up with anything better: we gravitate to this theory because we can’t think of an alternative. We think we know what speaking is, so we propose that thinking is just like that—except that it isn’t. What it is, though, remains obscure. 
 Strictly speaking, the considerations advanced here don’t count against the idea of a language of thought—a symbolic system encoding concepts—though they count against the idea that such a language is spoken. Fodor used to say that a sentence of LOT is “tokened”, a neologism that studiously avoids the idea that thinking literally involves speaking. What such tokening is remains unclear (this is not necessarily an objection). Tokening is what any type does when it generates an instance of itself; it is not specific to mental processes, let alone thought processes.
 Notice how unhelpful introspection is here: we can’t just read off from introspection what thinking is. Nor is conceptual analysis particularly helpful. Yet we are thinking all the time; it should be the most familiar of mental processes. But when we ask what exactly thinking consists in we quickly hit a brick wall. It is even hard to say what it is like to think. Thinking is a bit of mystery, is it not? I think, but I don’t know what thinking is.
Inner speech is the output of thinking, yet also an input, just as reading and the speech of others is. The reflective graspability of one’s own thoughts is a unique condition on the forwarding of one’s own intelligence, much (well, sometimes) to the advantage of the person. Less literate creatures have only their behaviour to reflect upon, to the extent they are capable. I sometimes think cats prowl the boundaries.
Thinking includes imagining, visualizing, reflecting, assessing, associating etc — and these are non-speaking and mostly non-linguistic modes of thought.
5 minutes of Chomsky answering a question on a close subject https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YXXGHwmogU
And this, for fun (and if it is not funny to someone it is yet another important point about THINKING), from Derrida: “Thinking is that which we already know we have not yet begun to do.”
People tend to slide from a faculty of mind being symbolic to its being also an instance of speaking, probably because speaking is our de facto paradigm of the symbolic.
Thinking involves induction, deduction or abduction, in the service either of understanding or decision-making—all else is idle twiddling of thumbs. Good quote from Derrida, though—ever aspiring to bewitch.
I remember trying to get through Whitehead’s, “Modes of thought”. I couldn’t detect one straightforward line of inquiry or argument into the damn thing. Just a load of abstract vaporizing. Captivating nonetheless. If it’s true that what can be said can be said clearly, it’s equally as true that what can’t be said can’t be said but unclearly , .It’s true, though, that some thoughts, however vibrant-seeming with clarity, never find a path to fidelity in expression. —
The trick is to approach depth with lightness. I wouldn’t know how to be unclear if I tried, but some people are brilliant at it.