Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Maybe someone who knows more about psychology can help me. I studied psycho-linguistics pretty intensely as an undergraduate, so my concept of thought and speech is driven by de Saussure and his notions of the signifier and the signified. To put it ridiculously simply, there is the thing itself and there is the word that signifies it. Our brains latch on to this in thought and in speech. To different degrees, of course, most of us see an image in our head when we read or hear, for example, the word "castle."

As a generally binary machine, when it comes to language, the brain works, linguistically, in comparison and contrast. If we see a thing run across the road in front of our car at dusk, we immediately compare it to everything we know it is not, until we reach a  conclusion: it must have been a deer, because it was not a dog or a rabbit or a ketchup bottle, based on comparisons of size and everything else. This, of course, happens in a fleeting second. (Though, I swear, one time a gorilla ran across interstate 95 in front of me as I drove in for a Phillies game.)

Anyway, with all this in mind, I was thinking about my dog, with whom, on vacation, I am spending a lot of time this week. I can't help but wonder how a creature without language thinks. She gets upset (in a strange place) if we leave her and go out. How does she process this? She can't think: "I am sad because my family is not here."

I can't believe (and I don't think animal behaviorists believe) that dogs operate under only instinct. Clearly, they think. They solve problems, etc. Sometimes, my dog looks at me imploringly while I eat a sandwich. What is her thought process? I get that she sees food and wants it (instinct). But she also knows that I will give her a piece before I am done (conditioning).

But there is no language in it. There is no: "If I wait long enough and sit up straight, Dad will give me a piece." There is only reaction to the situation.

We do that, too, but under a constant barrage of signifiers and signified things and concepts.

It's really astounding. But, if I think that last thought without words, what is it? A feeling of...what? It just is what it is. If that is so, are dogs purer philosophers than we are?


  1. Hey Mr. Matt, I've been keeping up with your blog as much as possible during the summer. (Lazy summer days are becoming more scarce as the weeks go on.) Anyway, a few days ago I read a thread on reddit talking about thought without language, it's pretty interesting if you'd like to check it out. This blog entry reminded me of the top comment about a quote from Helen Keller, I think it's sort of relevant.

    1. Hey, Joe! Thanks for the link. Will check it out. Thanks for keeping up! Enjoy the rest of the summer.