1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Thought and Language

(Part 69)

(J) Intellection (cont.)

Thought and Language

nThus while it is possible for thought to begin without language, just as arts may begin without tools, yet language enables us to carry the same process enormously farther. In the first place it gives us an increased command of even such comparatively concrete generic images as can be formed without it. The name of a thing or action becomes for one who knows the name as much an objective mark or attribute as any quality whatever can be. The form and colour of what we call an "orange" are perhaps even more intimately combined with the sound and utterance of this word than with the taste and fragrance which we regard as strictly essential to the thing. But, whereas its essential attributed often evade us, we can always command its nominal attribute, in so far as this depends upon movements of articulation. By uttering the name (or hearing it uttered) we have secured to us, in a greater or less degree, that superior vividness and definiteness that pertain to images reinstated by impressions: our idea approximates to the fixity and independence of a percept (comp. p.57 above). With young children and uncultured minds – who, by the way, commonly "think aloud" – the gain in this respect is probably more striking than those not confined to their mother-tongue or those used to an analytical handling of language at all realize. [76-1] When things are thus made ours by receiving names from us and we can freely manipulate them in idea, it becomes easier mentally to bring together facts that logically belong together, and so to classify and generalize. For names set us free form cumbersome tangibility and particularity of perception, which is confined to just what is presented here and now. But as ideas increase in generality they diminish in definiteness and unity; they not only become less pictorial and more schematic, but they become vague and unsteady as well, because formed form a number of concrete images only related as regards one or two constituents, and not assimilated as the several images of the same thing may be. The mental picture answering to the word ‘horse" has, so to say, body enough to remain a steady object when under attention from time to time; but that answering to the word "animal" is perhaps scarcely twice alike. The relations of things could thus never be readily recalled or steadily controlled if the names of those relations, which as words always remain concrete, did not give us a definite hold upon them, -- make them comprehensible. Once these "airy nothings" have a name, we reap again the advantages a concrete constituent affords by its means that which is relevant becomes more closely associated, and that which is irrelevant – abstracted from – falls off. When what answers to the logical connotation or meaning of a concept is in this way linked with the name, it is no longer necessary that such "matter or content: should be distinctly present in consciousness. It takes time for an image to raise its associates above the threshold; and, when all are there, there is more demand upon attention in proportion. There is thus a manifest economy in what Leibnitz happily styled "symbolic," in contrast to "intuitive" thinking. Our power of efficient attention is limited, and with words for counters we can, as Leibnitz remarks, readily perform operations involving very complex presentations, and wait till these operations are concluded before realizing and spreading out the net result in sterling coin.


[76-1] Ruskin, in his Fors Clavigera, relates that the sight of the word "crocodile" used to frighten him, as a child so much that he could not feel at ease again till he had turned over the page on which it occurred.

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