Thoughts happen in language

January 9th, 2011 by Dearbhla Kelly

Thoughts happen in language, that is, without language no thought, just an unintelligible physiological act: neurons firing, biochemical changes. Stuff happens at the neurological level, but the language of neurobiology can’t explain it’s own possibility. Without language the world as we know it doesn’t exist. ‘What is a thought’ becomes ‘what is the world’. Existence precedes essence; ontology reasserts itself as the fundamental ground of knowledge.

What is language? A picture of the world with a one-one correspondence between words and things? Must there be an object corresponding to every word in the language? No entity without identity. The existential quantifier ranges over all, the structures of logic are also fundamental ontology. Language is pharmakos: the disease is the cure. It both obscures and elucidates; to reveal is to simultaneously conceal. Darkness runs into light, light to darkness. Clarity occurs somewhere between. Is it possible outside language? To know in the heart is surely the deepest way to know; yet the language of the heart can’t be spoken in words. It can at best be gestured at. Words are clumsy. Sometimes words are what we have. But from a logical point of view nothing is clearer than the quantifier that has landed on its subject; identity confirms existence.

Words exist but where to clearly locate their referents?

And I paint pictures with my words – not that they picture though, or at least I try to. And yet, they sometimes fall flat. The analytic mind can be so self-regulating. The most effective censor is the one that’s inbuilt. Yeats had just his words from which he  constructed his very own Taj Mahal:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


Sometimes the urge to inquire wins out over the urge to create. Inquiry trumps art. Convergence is the supreme state. Just don’t mention convergence theories of truth. At least not without explaining them.

So what’s a word?

Thoughts – language – world. Language is the giver of life, at least as we want to live it, and words are the givers of language. Yet how to understand a word:

Marks on a page?



Enunciation of a brainstate? Where exactly to locate the brainstate?

Ticket to paradise?





Access point to a world.

Physics can’t explain its own possibility in the language of physics, but words can explain other words. The web of language is over all.

One Response to “Thoughts happen in language”

  1. Gerhard says:

    Thoughts don’t happen in language, they happen “before” language. Never been stuck looking for the right word..? The right word for what? For a thought! And you know exactly when you’ve found it, and when you haven’t…

    It’s quite a common experience for multilingual people, that you’re “hovering” above the words, and a word from the “other” language comes in first, fits your thought better than any word from the language your currently using…

    Think about it… 😉

    Cheers from sunny Kerala

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Photos by Robert Sturman.