Is it possible to think without words?

I’m back at college… more long words: epistemological, ontological and eschatological (loosely translated ‘how did we get ‘stuff’/what is ‘stuff’/what will happen to ‘stuff’ in the end)

I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to think without words? It must be: children who can’t yet speak can still think. Even my dog ‘thinks’ but how do either of them do this ‘thinking’ without having words to do it?

Not having a speechless infant to observe, I’ve had to resort to watching Bobby, my dog. I’ve realised he  ‘thinks’ in two ways: he ‘thinks’ with the colours of emotions and he ‘thinks’ under the pressure of appetite.

He definitely experiences emotion. If I tie him up outside a shop and disappear inside, he cries, howls and whines in a way that would have people calling the RSPCA. He clearly experiences anxiety.

On the other hand, say the magic word ‘walk’ and he is joy unbounded. He will bark solidly for sheer delight (the only time this is permitted) for the whole time it takes you to find your gloves, put on your wellies, coat, find your keys, programme your ipod… then retrieve the gloves from under the dining room table where he has ‘cunningly’ (but somewhat predictably) hidden them.

Here is a picture of ‘Joy Unbounded’:Then there is frustration: he has a particular bark that means ‘I need help’. Neither of us could describe it but it’s very distinct and what it normally means is ‘my toy has gone under the sofa, come and do something about it NOW’.

Then there is contentment: this is stretched out belly up in front of the fire with all four paws in the air.

Finally, there is misery: ‘You’re leaving me here? How could you?’  The misery look is either a totally deflated ‘flat on the floor’ effect:

Or he achieves a sulk by sitting in his bed with his back towards you throwing the occasional insulting look over his shoulder.

Bobby also ‘thinks’ in appetites: ‘Feed me’, ‘Let me out!’ and ‘Must Roll in That’ being his response to a) hunger b) the need to pee and c) the smell of fox poo.

All this ‘thinking without words’ has helped me to see that there are levels of ‘knowing’ stuff that are not intellectual and don’t require words.  There is the ‘knowing’ that we experience through our emotions (‘I am loved’). The ‘knowing’ we experience through our appetites (I’m hungry). And a ‘knowing’ that we can sense in our spirit (‘I’m not alone’). The Bible says that the Holy Spirit of God ‘bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:16)

To fully experience life, love, and the universe we need to cultivate all these ways of knowing and not just expect to understand life by walking down the same old word-filled track that only engages our intellect and not our souls.  Not for nothing did Jesus say ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength‘.

Lord, I want to see you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly, please don’t let all the long words come between us.

3 thoughts on “Is it possible to think without words?

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  1. As a dyslexic it is the words that cause me problems as my best thoughts are in pictures. For this reason I know the layout of the local roads but struggle to name them and, even worse, I know who somebody is, where I met them, what they look like but I can’t remember their name; that little tag is missing from the picture. As a result my family have to get used to me trying to describe people I meet at church every week because the ‘little tag’ has just gone missing.
    You are right that we all need to learn to love the mystery that is the triune God with our complete being. As St Francis put it “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

  2. Sheila – I believe it depends on your definition of the word ‘think’.

    I am not sure that it is possible to ‘think’ in the more literal sense of the word without language to construct the thoughts. Words are the construct that we use to think inside.

    However, I’m far from being an expert. I would recommend reading some Steven Pinker maybe, or even someone like Wittgenstein if you’re interested in the way in which language interacts with our thinking and epistemology.

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