Mini-Feature: Rational Thought Without Language?

Can rational thought exist without language?

"In beginning was the word..." but the word for "word" in that sacred text is "logos," which also refers to reason, both within human beings and throughout nature itself. What differentiates human beings in traditional western thought according to thinkers like Aristotle is our intertwined potential for rational thought and language. The connection between the two is tight. Let me suggest that reason itself requires an inner word or language in the sense that there is an understanding of things and their relation to each other in the mind that is not the same thing as what we perceive outside ourselves. There is thus a way in which language in the deepest sense (a sign of something else) always exists coterminously with rational thought. But the verbal expression of that thought in a particular shared language, of course, is not necessary for rational thought to occur. We can think while remaining silent or thinking about particular words, per se. Still, a particular language does indeed arises necessarily from our ability to reason: man naturally names the animals in Genesis as a kind of first act. But these are very deep waters indeed, and much is hidden within them.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


If rational thought could exist without language, I don’t know how we’d know it, much less access it. Reason and logic are so bound up with language that it’s hard to spin up even a fantasy form of communication that doesn’t involve it.

And it’s even difficult to see the point in trying to express the communications of lower animals in other terms. What could be more rational than (e.g.) emanating odors or conveying feelings that other animate beings pick up on so as to fight, flee, collaborate, kill, or procreate? Even subrational thoughts or sub-thought communications express and lead on toward patterns of life intelligible to rational thought.

Nature—it’s knowable... although, importantly, the truth about nature and the nature of truth both involve certain mysteries, including the mystery OF the ineradicability of mystery, that rational thinking must not get hung up on trying to master through explanation, and which may not even be communicable through thought, reason, or speech alone.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Animals don’t have language in the human sense of a symbolic system of communication. Yet they are capable of simple calculation, making informed decisions, and figuring out problems. They remember things, and pass tests demonstrating their consciousness of other minds.  

At the same time, they don’t appear to do much in the way of conceptualization. They don’t reflect on their capacity to think, develop heuristics, or unite with their colleagues to improve the world for their future generations. They are good learners, but not very good teachers. 

So it is pretty clear that animals are capable of ratiocination without the use of symbolic elements. But whether humans can do the same thing is another question. If the language function is hardwired into our brains, maybe we are unable to think without it. One hears stories about prodigal geniuses who can perform complex calculations instantly, seemingly without any symbolic intermediation—maybe they have some shortcut. 

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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Aristotle says that all thought is "phantastic"—a lovely word meaning couched in phantasmata, which are the sense perceptions of the world that impress themselves upon our soul. No thought is really possible without this phantasmagoria, which is a kind of language—or rather, which is structured in the same underlying way as language. What do we do when we speak? We use audible or visible symbols and tokens to stand in for our experiences of things in the world. When we think—even if it's in images—we do something similar: we reproduce the form of something—of a color, of a sight, of a sound—in the matter of our souls. 

Merely to visualize things is to encode their essential structure into our souls much as it is encoded into matter "out there." Even this is rational thought, because the world is rational—i.e., structured with discernible rules of proportion, order, and harmony. That this is so suggests to us another mind in which all these forms are ultimately encoded—for whom creation is itself a kind of language, spoken into being and repeated in our microcosmic minds.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind