A series of posts has recently nudged my interest in language and thinking. George Siemens, in his short post Tool making and language, drew our attention to Edmund Blair Bolles' post, The Idea of Language.
In it, Bolles posited that “the ingredients of speaking and toolmaking are similar. Both require a brain capable of complex imitation and a community that wants to share information. Toolmaking also requires hands capable of shaping tools, while speech requires a throat capable of vocalization.”
Different than chimps
Like the capability of making tools, the ability to use speech is an acquisition most humans own from birth. Peter Turney, in his post Meditation, Language, and Evolution, broaches the idea that meditation “seems to involve stopping or altering the internal monologue that usually fills our consciousness.” He posits that “this constant flow of language, is the main thing that distinguishes us from our nearest living relatives, the chimps.”
Peter thinks of the “human mind metaphorically as a chimp mind with language processing bolted on top.” But in the evolutionary history of humans, there must have been a time when language was a lesser part of our thinking and communicating. Even without language, our ancestors still had to think.
In order to think about complicated or complex ideas, humans today find a need to have the vocabulary of these in order to think about them and relate to one another. I believe that our ancestors must have been experts at thinking abstractly. They would not have had a ready vocabulary to help them with their thinking.
Higher order thinking skills need vocabulary. But our ancestors, at the evolutionary stage I refer to, would not have had that vocabulary, nor even perhaps the language ability, but they still had to think.
Trying to think without vocabulary is difficult to do. But in a creative artistic pursuit, such as in music, or fine art, or even in poetry when thinking on the lines of J K Baxter’s matrix of a poem – not the words and form – the mind thinks abstractly and is facile in that mode. Language gets in the way of this facile thinking.
Many who are adept at this mode of thinking simply curtail the use of vocabulary. What Peter refers to as ‘language processing’ is simply shut down. He sees advantages to "moderating the language layer" and suggests that "humans are in the middle of an ongoing evolutionary process; that language has not yet been fully integrated with our chimp cores."
Language may obstruct
I believe that language can get in the way of some modes of abstract thinking. Even the most highly skilled in the use of language have complained about the words getting in the way of what they wanted to express. William Wordsworth did and many poets have met this same impediment. Chicken-and-eggish though it may seem, it is understandable if you ascribe to the idea that words and language actually limit, rather than extend, some if not all forms of creative thinking.
Music extemporisation is a mode of thinking I’m familiar with. It is not unlike meditating. It has a similar calming and relaxing effect that is also prolonged, bringing about a feeling of at-one-ness most often met in playing jazz music, a genre based on extemporisation.
It’s curious that musicians who are site-readers and who are skilled in the notations and language of music, can often find it inordinately difficult to extemporise. I cite an example of this in Yehudi Menuhin, who had to admit that he could not improvise while he was dueting with Stephane Grappelli. That mode of thinking was beyond him, despite his undoubted superb skill with the violin.