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Tuesday, March 22, 2022


 In NYRB in the latest issue, Martha Nussbaum, in laudable defense of animal rights, talks about how language is not so crucial to our everyday life.  After all, she say, we think in images too, and our thoughts do not take the shape of Henry James sentences:  

"This [overestimating the importance of language] is a double error. First, it overstates the centrality of language in human life. Despite what novelists tell us, most of our daily mental life is not lived in words. Often we think in pictures or tunes, and when we think in language it is in choppy fragments, far from the prose of Henry James."

I, for one, do live my life as novelists say, narrating to myself everything that happens. The idea that because the sentences are not well formed, or aesthetically well developed, is hardly the point. (For most people it is more James Joyce than Henry James.) There are probably hundreds of words a minute going through my mind. I notice this when I am meditating, in other words, when there is a deliberate effort to stop, or at least to slow, the narration. This is not easy, or even possible, to do. Not all thought is verbal, but "most" of it is, for "most" people. And I doubt, somehow, that Nussbaum herself is a non-verbalizer, thinking mostly in images or tunes.  

There is more. The very possibility of formulating these arguments takes place in language. Specifically, its capacity to reflect on itself, metalinguistically.  However marvelous bird song is, it probably lacks the capacity to reflect on its own importance. Cardinals don't write articles in the NYRB to compare their song with human language.  

She tries to address this too:


"Then there is what we may call the false lure of metacognition: the idea that reflexive self-consciousness is the be-all and end-all of intelligence, and that we humans are unique in possessing it. Again, this error is double. First, we ourselves reflect about our own mental states much less than we often claim. Most of our lives are lived with simpler first-order awareness."

Once again, I probably reflect on my own mental states every hour of every day. The word "most" is doing a lot of work here.  

Good causes do not need silly arguments. We can recognize that not all thought is verbal, and that other creature have vocalizations wonderful in their own way, without falling into this kind of special pleading.        

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