A twig or a branch?

I was walking down a country lane the other day when my thoughts turned to the old question of whether thoughts depend on the prior existence of words sufficient to express them or whether we have thoughts without words first and then express them in words afterwards.  Words and thoughts seem somehow to be inseparable.  There seemed to be something intrinsically wrong, however, with the idea that we could not have thoughts unless they were formulated in language, but I could not put my finger on what it was. Engaging in introspection to determine how we function is never easy. As we think about ourselves, we modify what we are seeing.

But as I looked along the lane, I realised that I was seeing things around me, but without being conscious of all their names. I deliberately embarked on a description of what I saw and found that I had to make an effort to do so as compared to my simple awareness of what lay in front of me - I could say that there was a blue sky mottled with cloud and those pieces of tree lying on the side of the lane - I could see their size and shape, but were they twigs or were they branches? A twig is a branch, but a branch implies something bigger than a twig. And so I had not merely to bring to mind the possible categories into which the object may fall, but I had to make a decision of degree about the object before I could use the appropriate name.  I was inevitably drawn to the conclusion that my consciousness of things - their size and form at least - preceded my naming of them.

Indeed, what if I couldn't remember the name of a particular object or did not even know they name of, say, the bird which hopped past me - would it only exist for me if that lacuna in my knowledge was filled? Obviously not. I wouldn't be able to describe it very accurately to someone-else, but I would still have its image in my mind. I could even give it a name if I wanted to - a wuxly' - why not? That word definitely came after the image of the bird in my mind.

It is true that words appear to come into our minds more or less simultaneously with the perception of external images or images internally generated from our memories. This is, however, presumably an adaptation to a world in which the ability to communicate what we have seen quickly is a major advantage for our survival.

As humans, though, we go one step further than simply naming things. On this occasion I had to admit that the problem that I was trying to resolve was the subject of a conversation with myself - using words. I was using logical forms of argument to test the two sides of the proposition. I was conscious of having a provisional view when I started out - that ideas must come first and their expression in words afterwards, but it seemed that I could only really test its validity if I tried articulating it in first one way and then another, so that I could, as it were, hold it up to the light and see whether or not it made sense. It seemed that there needed to be an interaction between the thought and its expression in language in order to resolve something more complicated than a mere description.

This ties in with the fact that as I am in the course of expressing an opinion on something new, I am conscious that I am modifying what it is I am going to say even as I am trying to form the sentences. I am seeing the intended expression of what must be my underlying thoughts and deciding that in the light of the words I had intended to use to express them, either that the words do not adequately express what I wanted to say or that the thought itself was wrong or incomplete.

And so I think that, even as I am talking, I have a process of feed-back between the words and the thoughts which helps me to put my thoughts in order and so, sometimes at least, to express them in a way which makes sense.

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