How We Think

Chapter 13: Language and the Training of Thought

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I. Language as the Tool of Thinking

Ambiguous position of language

SPEECH has such a peculiarly intimate connection with thought as to require special discussion. Although the very word logic comes from logos, meaning in differently both word or speech, and thought or reason, yet " words, words, words " denote intellectual barrenness, a sham of thought. Although schooling has language as its chief instrument (and often as its chief matter) of study, educational reformers have for centuries brought their severest indictments against the current use of language in the schools. The conviction that language is necessary to thinking (is even identical with it) is met by the contention that language perverts and conceals thought.

Language a necessary tool of thinking,

Three typical views have been maintained regarding the relation of thought and language: first, that they are identical ; second, that words are the garb or clothing of thought, necessary not for thought but only for conveying it; and third (the view we shall here maintain) that while language is not thought it is necessary for thinking as well as for its communication. When it is said, however, that thinking is impossible without language, we must recall that language includes much more than oral and written speech. Gestures, pictures, monuments, visual images, finger movements anything con-

for it alone fixes meanings

(171) -sciously employed as a sign is, logically, language. To say that language is necessary f or thinking is to say that signs are necessary. Thought deals not with bare things, but with their -meanings, their suggestions; and meanings, in order to be apprehended, must be embodied in sensible and particular existences. Without meaning, things are nothing but blind stimuli or chance sources of pleasure and pain; and since meanings are not themselves tangible things, they must be anchored by attachment to some physical existence. Existences that are especially set aside to fixate and convey meanings are signs or symbols. If a man moves toward another to throw him out of the room, his movement is not a sign. If, however, the man points to the door with his hand, or utters the sound go, his movement is reduced to a vehicle of meaning: it is a sign or symbol. In the case of signs we care nothing for what they are in themselves, but everything for what they signify and represent. Canis, hund, chien, dog it makes no difference what the outward thing is, so long as the meaning is presented.

Limitations of natural symbols

Natural objects are signs of other things and events. Clouds stand for rain; a footprint represents game or an enemy; a projecting rock serves to indicate minerals below the surface. The limitations of natural signs are, however, great. (i) The physical or direct sense excitation tends to distract attention from what is meant or indicated.[1] Almost every one will recall pointing out to a kitten or puppy some object of food, only to have the animal devote himself to the hand pointing, not to the thing pointed at. (ii) Where natural signs alone exist, wee are mainly at the mercy of external happenings; we

(172) have to wait until the natural event presents itself in order to be warned or advised of the possibility of some other event. (iii) Natural signs, not being originally intended to be signs, are cumbrous, bulky, inconvenient, unmanageable.

Artificial signs overcome these restrictions

It is therefore indispensable for any high development of thought that there should be also intentional signs. Speech supplies the requirement. Gestures, sounds, written or printed forms, are strictly physical existences, but their native value is intentionally subordinated to the value they acquire as representative of meanings. (i) The direct and sensible value of faint sounds and minute written or printed marks is very slight. Accordingly, attention is not distracted from their representative function. (ii) Their production is under our direct control so that they may be produced when needed. When we can make the word rain, we do not have to wait for some physical forerunner of rain to call our thoughts in that direction. We cannot make the cloud; we can make the sound, and as a token of meaning the sound serves the purpose as well as the cloud. (iii) Arbitrary linguistic signs are convenient and easy to manage. They are compact, portable, and delicate. As long as we live we breathe; and modifications by the muscles of throat and mouth of the volume and quality of the air are simple, easy, and indefinitely controllable. Bodily postures and gestures of the hand and arm are also employed as signs, but they are coarse and unmanageable compared with modifications of breath to produce sounds. No wonder that oral speech has been selected as the main stuff of intentional intellectual signs. Sounds, while subtle, refined, and easily modifiable, are transitory. This defect is met by the system of written

(173) and printed words, appealing to the eye. Litera scripta manet.

Bearing in mind the intimate connection of meanings and signs (or language), we may note in more detail what language does (I) for specific meanings, and (2) for the organization of meanings.

I. Individual Meanings. A verbal sign (a) selects, detaches, a meaning from what is otherwise a vague flux and blur (see p. 121); (b) it retains, registers, stores that meaning; and (c) applies it, when needed, to the comprehension of other things. Combining these various functions in a mixture of metaphors, we may say that a linguistic sign is a fence, a label, and a vehicle all in one.

A sign makes a meaning distinct

(a) Every one has experienced how learning an appropriate name for what was dim and vague cleared up and crystallized the whole matter. Some meaning seems almost within reach, but is elusive ; it refuses to condense into definite form; the attaching of a word somehow (just how, it is almost impossible to say) puts limits around the meaning, draws it out from the void, makes it stand out as an entity on its own account. When Emerson said that he would almost rather know the true name, the poet's name, for a thing, than to know the thing itself, he presumably had this irradiating and illuminating function of language in mind. The delight that children take in demanding and learning the names of everything about them indicates that meanings are becoming concrete individuals to them, so that their commerce with things is passing from the physical to the intellectual plane. It is hardly surprising that savages attach a magic efficacy to words. To name anything is to give it a title; to dignify and honor it by

(174) raising it from a mere physical occurrence to a meaning that is distinct and permanent. To know the names of people and things and to be able to manipulate these names is, in savage lore, to be in possession of their dignity and worth, to master them.

A sign preserves a meaning

(b) Things come and go; or we come and go, and either way things escape our notice. Our direct sensible relation to things is very limited. The suggestion of meanings by natural signs is limited to occasions of direct contact or vision. But a meaning fixed by a linguistic sign is conserved for future use. Even if the thing is not there to represent the meaning, the word may be produced so as to evoke the meaning. Since intellectual life depends on possession of a store of meanings, the importance of language as a tool of preserving meanings cannot be overstated. To be sure, the method of storage is not wholly aseptic; words often corrupt and modify the meanings they are supposed to keep intact, but liability to infection is a price paid by every living thing for the privilege of living.

A sign transfers a meaning

(c) When a meaning is detached and fixed by a sign, it is possible to use that meaning in a new context and situation. This transfer and reapplication is the key to all judgment and inference. It would little profit a man to recognize that a given particular cloud was the premonitor of a given particular rainstorm if his recognition ended there, for he would then have to learn over and over again, since the next cloud and the next rain are different events. No cumulative growth of intelligence would occur; experience might form habits of physical adaptation but it would not teach anything, for we should not be able to use a prior experience consciously to anticipate and regulate a further experience. To be able to use

(175) the past to judge and infer the new and unknown implies that, although the past thing has gone, its meaning abides in such a way as to be applicable in determining the character of the new. Speech forms are our great carriers: the easy-running vehicles by which meanings are transported from experiences that no longer concern us to those that are as yet dark and dubious.

Logical organization depends upon signs

II. Organization of Meanings. In emphasizing the importance of signs in relation to specific meanings, we have overlooked another aspect, equally valuable. Signs not only mark off specific or individual meanings, but they are also instruments of grouping meanings in relation to one another. Words are not only names or titles of single meanings; they also form sentences in which meanings are organized in relation to one another. When we say " That book is a dictionary," or " That blur of light in the heavens is Halley's comet," we express a logical connection an act of classifying and defining that goes beyond the physical thing into the logical region of genera and species, things and attributes. Propositions, sentences, bear the same relation to judgments that distinct words, built up mainly by analyzing propositions in their various types, bear to meanings or conceptions; and just as words imply a sentence, so a sentence implies a larger whole of consecutive discourse into which it fits. As is often said, grammar expresses the unconscious logic of the popular mind. The chief intellectual classifications that constitute the working capital Of thought have been built up for us by our mother tongue. Our very lack of explicit consciousness in using language that we are employing the intellectual systematizations Of the race shows how thoroughly accustomed we have become to its logical distinctions and groupings.

2. The Abuse of Linguistic Methods in Education

Teaching merely things, not educative

Taken literally, the maxim," Teach things, not words," or "Teach things before words," would be the negation of education; it would reduce mental life to mere physical and sensible adjustments. Learning, in the proper sense, is not learning things, but the meanings of things, and this process involves the use of signs, or language in its generic sense. In like fashion, the warfare of some educational reformers against symbols, if pushed to extremes, involves the destruction of the intellectual life, since this lives, moves, and has its being in those processes of definition, abstraction, generalization, and classification that are made possible by symbols alone. Nevertheless, these contentions of educational reformers have been needed. The liability of a thing to abuse is in proportion to the value of its right use.

But words separated from things are not true signs

Symbols are themselves, as pointed out above, particular, physical, sensible existences, like any other things. They are symbols only by virtue of what they suggest and represent, ie. meanings. (i) They stand for these meanings to any individual only when he has had experience of some situation to which these meanings are actually relevant. Words can detach and preserve a meaning only when the meaning has been first involved in our own direct intercourse with things. To attempt to give a meaning through a word alone without any dealings with a thing is to deprive the word of intelligible signification; against this attempt, a tendency only too prevalent in education, reformers have protested. Moreover, there is a tendency to assume that whenever there is a definite word or form of speech there is also a definite idea; while, as a matter of fact, adults and children alike are capable of using even precise verbal formulae

(177) with only the vaguest and most confused sense of what they mean. Genuine ignorance is more profitable because likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open-mindedness; while ability to repeat catchphrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas.

Language tends to arrest personal inquiry and reflection

(ii) Again, although new combinations of words without the intervention of physical things may supply new ideas, there are limits to this possibility. Lazy inertness causes individuals to accept ideas that have currency about them without personal inquiry and testing. A man uses thought, perhaps, to find out what others believe, and then stops. The ideas of others as embodied in language become substitutes for one's own ideas. The use of linguistic studies and methods to halt the human mind on the level of the attainments of the past, to prevent new inquiry and discovery, to put the authority of tradition in place of the authority of natural facts and laws, to reduce the individual to a parasite living on the secondhand experience of others -these things have been the source of the reformers' protest against the preeminence assigned to language in schools.

Word as mere stimuli

Finally, words that originally stood for ideas come, with repeated use, to be mere counters; they become physical things to be manipulated according to certain rules, or reacted to by certain operations without consciousness of their meaning, Mr. Stout (who has called such terms " substitute signs remarks that " algebraical and arithmetical signs are to a great extent used as mere substitute signs. . . . It is possible to use signs of this kind whenever fixed and definite rules of opera-

(178) -tion can be derived from the nature of the things symbolized, so as to be applied in manipulating the signs, without further reference to their signification. A word is an instrument for thinking about the meaning which it expresses; a substitute sign is a means of not thinking about the meaning which it symbolizes." The principle applies, however, to ordinary words, as well as to algebraic signs; they also enable us to use meanings so as to get results without thinking. In many respects, signs that are means of not thinking are of great advantage; standing for the familiar, they release attention for meanings that, being novel, require conscious interpretation. Nevertheless, the premium put in the schoolroom upon attainment of technical facility, upon skill in producing external results (ante, P. 5 1), often changes this advantage into a positive detriment. In manipulating symbols so as to recite well, to get and give correct answers, to follow prescribed formulae of analysis, the pupil's attitude becomes mechanical, rather than thoughtful; verbal memorizing is substituted for inquiry into the meaning of things. This danger is perhaps the one uppermost in mind when verbal methods of education are attacked.

3. The Use of Language in its Educational Bearings

Language stands in a twofold relation to the work of education. On the one hand, it is continually used in all studies as well as in all the social discipline of the school; on the other, it is a distinct object of study . We shall consider only the ordinary use of language, since its effects upon habits of thought are much deeper than those of conscious study.

The common statement that " language is the expres-

Language not primarily intellectual in purpose

(179) -sion of thought " conveys only a half-truth, and a half-truth that is likely to result in positive error. Language does express thought, but not primarily, nor, at first, even consciously. The primary motive for language is to influence (through the expression of desire, emotion, and thought) the activity of others; its secondary use is to enter into more intimate sociable relations with them; its employment as. a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge is a tertiary, and relatively late, formation. The contrast is well brought out by the statement of John Locke that words have a double use, "civil " and "philosophical." "By their civil use, I mean such a communication of thoughts and ideas by words as may serve for the upholding of common conversation and commerce about the ordinary affairs and conveniences of civil life. . . . By the philosophical use of words, I mean such a use of them as may serve to convey the precise notions of things, and to express in general propositions certain and undoubted truths."

Hence education has to transform it into an intellectual tool

This distinction of the practical and social from the intellectual use of language throws much light on the problem of the school in respect to speech. That problem is to direct pupils' oral and written speech, used Primarily for practical and social ends, so that gradually it shall become a conscious toot of conveying knowledge and assisting thought. How without checking the spontaneous, natural motives motives to which language owes its vitality, force, vividness, and variety are we to modify speech habits so as to render them accurate and flexible intellectual instruments ? It is comparatively easy to encourage the original spontaneous flow and not make language over into a servant of reflective thought; it is comparatively easy to check and

(180) almost destroy (so far as the schoolroom is concerned) native aim and interest, and to set up artificial and formal modes of expression in some isolated and technical matters. The difficulty lies in making over habits that have to do with " ordinary affairs and conveniences " into habits concerned with " precise notions." The successful accomplishing of the transformation requires (i) enlargement of the pupil's vocabulary; (ii) rendering its terms more precise and accurate, and (iii) formation of habits of consecutive discourse.

To enlarge vocabulary, the fund of concepts should be enlarged

(i) Enlargement of vocabulary. This takes place, of course, by wider intelligent contact with things and persons, and also vicariously, by gathering the meanings of words f rom the context in which they are heard or read. To grasp by either method a word in its meaning is to exercise intelligence, to perform an act of intelligent selection or analysis, and it is also to widen the fund of meanings or concepts readily available in further intellectual enterprises (ante, p. 126). It is usual to distinguish between one's active and one's passive vocabulary, the latter being composed of the words that are understood when they are heard or seen, the former of words that are used intelligently. The fact that the passive vocabulary is ordinarily much larger than the active indicates a certain amount of inert energy, of power not freely controlled by an individual. Failure to use meanings that are nevertheless understood reveals dependence upon external stimulus, and lack of intellectual initiative. This mental laziness is to some extent an artificial product of education. Small children usually attempt to put to use every new word they get hold of, but when they learn to read they are introduced to a large variety of terms that there is no ordinary opportunity to use.

(181) The result is a kind of mental suppression, if not smothering. Moreover, the meaning of words not actively used in building up and conveying ideas is never quite clear cut or complete.

Looseness of thinking accompanies a limited vocabulary

While a limited vocabulary may be due to a limited range of experience, to a sphere of contact with persons and things so narrow as not to suggest or require a full store of words, it is also due to carelessness and vagueness. A happy-go-lucky frame of mind makes the individual averse to clear discriminations, either in perception or in his own speech. Words are used loosely in an indeterminate kind of reference to things, and the mind approaches a condition where practically everything is just a thing-um-bob or a what-do-you-call-it. Paucity of vocabulary on the part of those with whom the child associates, triviality and meagerness in the child's reading matter (as frequently even in his school readers and textbooks), tend to shut down the area of mental vision.

Command of language involves command of things

We must note also the great difference between flow of words and command of language. Volubility is not necessarily a sign of a large vocabulary; much talking or even ready speech is quite compatible with moving round and round in a circle of moderate radius. Most schoolrooms suffer from a lack of materials and appliances save perhaps books and even these are " written down " to the supposed capacity, or incapacity, of children. Occasion and demand for an enriched vocabulary are accordingly restricted. The vocabulary of things studied in the schoolroom is very largely isolated; it does not link itself organically to the range of the ideas and words that are in vogue outside the school. Hence the enlargement that takes place is often nominal,

(182) adding to the inert, rather than to the active, fund of meanings and terms.

(ii) Accuracy of vocabulary. One way in which the fund of words and concepts is increased is by discovering and naming shades of meaning that is to say, by making the vocabulary more precise. Increase in definiteness is as important relatively as is the enlargement of the capital stock absolutely.

The general as the vague and as the distinctly generic

The first meanings of terms, since they are due to superficial acquaintance with things, are general in the sense of being vague. The little child calls all men papa; acquainted with a dog, he may call the first horse he sees a big dog. Differences of quantity and intensity are noted, but the fundamental meaning is so vague that it covers things that are f ar apart. To many persons trees are just trees, being discriminated only into deciduous trees and evergreens, with perhaps recognition of one or two kinds of each. Such vagueness tends to persist and to become a barrier to the advance of thinking. Terms that are miscellaneous in scope are clumsy tools at best; in addition they are frequently treacherous, for their ambiguous reference causes us to conf use things that should be distinguished.

Twofold growth of words in sense or signification

The growth of precise terms out of original vagueness takes place normally in two directions: toward words that stand for relationships and words that stand for highly individualized traits (compare what was said about the development of meanings, p. 122); the first being associated with abstract, the second with concrete, thinking. Some Australian tribes are said to have no words for animal or for plant, while they have specific names for every variety of plant and animal in their neighborhoods. This minuteness of vocabulary repre-

(183)-sents progress toward definiteness, but in a one-sided way. specific properties are distinguished, but not relationships.[2] On the other hand, students of philosophy and of the general aspects of natural and social science are apt to acquire a store of terms that signify relations without balancing them up with terms that designate specific individuals and traits. The ordinary use of such terms as causation, law, society, individual, capital, illustrates this tendency.

Words alter their meanings so as to change their logical functions

In the history of language we find both aspects of the growth of vocabulary illustrated by changes in the sense of words: some words originally wide in their application are narrowed to denote shades of meaning; others originally specific are widened to express relationships. The term vernacular, now meaning mother speech, has been generalized from the word verna, meaning a slave born in the master's household. Publication has evolved its meaning of communication by means of print, through restricting an earlier meaning of any kind of communication although the wider meaning is retained in legal procedure, as publishing a libel. The sense of the word average has been generalized from a use connected with dividing loss by shipwreck proportionately among various sharers in an enterprise.[3]

These historical changes assist the educator to appreciate the changes that occur with individuals together with advance in intellectual resources. In studying

Similar changes occur in the vocabulary of every student

(184) geometry, a pupil must learn both to narrow and to extend the meanings of such familiar words as line, surface, angle, square, circle; to narrow them to the precise meanings involved in demonstrations; to extend them to cover generic relations not expressed in ordinary usage. Qualities of color and size must be excluded; relations of direction, of variation in direction, of limit, must be definitely seized. A like transformation occurs, of course, in every subject of study. just at this point lies the danger, alluded to above, of simply overlaying common meanings with new and isolated meanings instead of effecting a genuine working-over of popular and practical meanings into adequate logical tools.

The value of technical terms

Terms used with intentional exactness so as to express a meaning, the whole meaning, and only the meaning, are called technical. For educational purposes, a technical term indicates something relative, not absolute; for a term is technical not because of its verbal form or its unusualness, but because it is employed to fix a meaning precisely. Ordinary words get a technical quality when used intentionally for this end. Whenever thought becomes more accurate, a (relatively) technical vocabulary grows up. Teachers are apt to oscillate between extremes in regard to technical terms. On the one hand, these are multiplied in every direction, seemingly on the assumption that learning a new piece of terminology, accompanied. by verbal description or definition, is equivalent to grasping a new idea. When it is seen how largely the net outcome is the accumulation of an isolated set of words, a jargon or scholastic cant, and to what extent the natural power of judgment is clogged by this accumulation, there is a reaction to the opposite extreme. Technical terms are banished;

(185) " name words " exist but not nouns; " action words " but not verbs; pupils may "take away," but not subtract; they may tell what four fives are, but not what four times five are, and so on. A sound instinct underlies this reaction aversion to words that give the pretense, but not the reality, of meaning. Yet the fundamental difficulty is not with the word, but with the idea. If the idea is not grasped, nothing is gained by using a more familiar word; if the idea is perceived, the use of the term that exactly names it may assist in fixing the idea. Terms denoting highly exact meanings should be introduced only sparingly, that is, a few at a time; they should be led up to gradually, and great pains should be taken to secure the circumstances that render precision of meaning significant.

Importance of consecutive discourse

(iii) Consecutive discourse. As we saw, language connects and organizes meanings as well as selects and fixes them. As every meaning is set in the context of some situation, so every word in concrete use belongs to some sentence (it may itself represent a condensed sentence), and the sentence, in turn, belongs to some larger story, description, or reasoning process. It is unnecessary to repeat what has been said about the importance of continuity and ordering of meanings. We may, however, note some ways in which school practices tend to interrupt consecutiveness of language and thereby interfere harmfully with systematic reflection. (a) Teachers have a habit of monopolizing continued discourse. Many, if not most, instructors would be surprised if informed at the end of the day of the amount of time they have talked as compared with any pupil. Children's conversation is often confined to answering questions in brief phrases, or in single disconnected sentences. Expatia-

(186)-tion and explanation are reserved for the teacher, who often admits any hint at an answer on the part of the pupil, and then amplifies what he supposes the child must have meant. The habits of sporadic and fragmentary discourse thus promoted have inevitably a disintegrating intellectual influence.

Too minute questioning

(b) Assignment of too short lessons when accompanied (as it usually is in order to pass the time of the recitation period) by minute " analytic " questioning has the same effect. This evil is usually at its height in such subjects as- history and literature, where not infrequently the material is so minutely subdivided as to break up the unity of meaning belonging to a given portion of the matter, to destroy perspective, and in effect to reduce the whole topic to an accumulation of disconnected details all upon the same level. More often than the teacher is aware, his mind carries and supplies the background of unity of meaning against which pupils project isolated scraps.

Making avoidance of error the aim

(c) Insistence upon avoiding error instead of attaining power tends also to interruption of continuous discourse and thought. Children who begin with something to say and with intellectual eagerness to say it are sometimes made so conscious of minor errors in substance and form that the energy that should go into constructive thinking is diverted into anxiety not to make mistakes, and even, in extreme cases, into passive quiescence as the best method of minimizing error. This tendency is especially marked in connection with the writing of compositions, essays, and themes. It has even been gravely recommended that little children should always write on trivial subjects and in short sentences because in that way they are less likely to make mistakes, while

(187) the teaching of writing to high school and college students occasionally reduces itself to a technique for detecting and designating mistakes. The resulting self-consciousness and constraint are only part of the evil that comes from a negative ideal.


  1. Compare the quotation from Bain on p. 155.
  2. The term general is itself an ambiguous term, meaning (in its best logical sense) the related and also (in its natural usage) the indefinite, the vague. General, in the first sense, denotes the discrimination of a principle or generic relation ; in the second sense, it denotes the absence of discrimination of specific or individual properties.
  3. A large amount of material illustrating the twofold change in the sense of words will be found in Jevons, Lessons in Logic.

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