online: 14 may 2004
modified: 18 may, 7 june 2004

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14 may 2004 thinking of everything (without words?)

13:10 A panorama of central London... The clouds, the sky, the expanse of air and city seem to me so much more than any tower or dome or crane or tree or spire, or even person, me too, or any bird or wasp or dog or job or shop or house... the time of day, the moment, is the whole of this, itself if seen from space is just a small part of a small part of a vastness without end so it seems. Does infinity exist outside the word, the idea sublime, the impossibility of sensing it or even imagining in any concrete way... ?

As I watch, an industrial-looking mist or smog is thickening over south London but the nearest few miles are clear and brightly lit by sunlight from the west. A few people are sitting together on the grass at the bottom of the hill and a child on a distant swing is making it go as high as possible. The clock strikes seven and many birds are now talking, if that is what they do in the evening, and I can hear shouts of children from further up the hill behind me. A woman with a naked shoulder is climbing the hill and small boys are fighting and tumbling in what looks to me like friendliness. Another woman walks past singing an endless song in a language I don't know, she seems absorbed in it and oblivious of others - and I like that.

I climbed the hill and near the top entered dazzling sunlight. A man is blowing scores of shining bubbles that sail in the wind about 50 metres before they burst spontaneously. He runs after one and tries to eat it. Everyone stops to look at the view and talk and sit and point to buildings that can be identified.

Time to walk on and get some exercise. It's now 7:30.

I pass a patch of thistles, about 100 square metres. There are dried oak leaves beneath them and no grass whatever - but there is thick grass all round this patch. How is it that one type of plant can exclude another?

Walking beneath trees, half lit by sun, half dusk and peace, I feel strands of gossamer across my nose and face. No people here, just trees and birds and smaller plants, awaiting the night, in stillness. And insects and animals I cannot see or hear, and the history of this little forest as an entity. I see my shadow cast on a glinting holly bush. People are shouting outside this wood but inside all is still. Is this a church of nature? I'm feeling well today.

20:15 Sitting by pond 2. What is this diary? It's part of nature's self-awareness, a part of knowledge good or bad, attention paid to each thing equally as far as that is possible. No purpose beyond. And does this answer exclude invention? Not so. The whole of what's perceived is partly that and the world itself is of unnatural nature, whatever we mean by these words.

A silent man walks by as if in thought. A swan moves effortlessly across still water and a woman with folded arms walks slowly by as if she too is thinking. And I am thinking in these words, I think, though some deny it*.

And moving: our muscles and bodies move, how does it happen, how do our supernatural thoughts become the actions of our legs and arms and hands and eyes and tongues, our bodies? Is that a question it's possible to answer?

21:50 Evening has become night and I'm editing this on an i-mac.

*My friend Cedric Wisbey, in his idealist philosophy, states that thinking does not entail the use of words. I find it difficult to believe him but I think he could be right. I'm sending this to him for comment.

18 may 2004 here is his reply:

Wordless Thought.

My friend John Chris Jones has cited me as someone who believes that words are not necessary for thought. The purpose of this paper is to discuss this.

Firstly, is the question important? Yes, I think it is important for someone interested, as I am, in metaphysical questions. I suppose that people, who are interested in this way, divide into two classes, the Materialists, and the Idealists. The Materialists contrive to believe somehow, that their minds are only certain chemical reactions in a portion of grey matter. The Idealists, on the contrary, suppose that the grey matter is merely an idea in their own, or a physiologist's mind. The Idealists divide again into two groups, the Solipsists, who think that theirs is the only mind there is; and those who suppose that other minds also exist, and that there is some reason to suppose this. The question under debate is important for this latter class of thinkers. The argument is simple. Language is obviously something that has evolved in a society. The existence of a society of different people, and therefore of different minds, is therefore essential for there to be language, and therefore, on the present assumption, for there to be thought. Therefore any thinking solipsist is necessarily in error.

I do not, myself, accept this argument, because my introspection indicates to me that I am quite capable of thinking without the use of language. I am not however a solipsist, as anyone can see, because I am discussing these questions, and for obvious reasons no solipsist would waste his time doing that in public. I therefore must have established in my own mind, reasons for supposing other minds to exist. How I actually do this, is the subject of my essay 'Induction and Metaphysics', which I shall not try to summarise here, except to say that in it I conclude that other people, and their minds are similar to my own.

Much of my past thinking exists in my memory in verbal form, that is in English, which is my native language. This is consistent with two opinions. Either I thought non verbally, and then translated my thinking into words, and remembered it in that form; or, alternatively, my thesis here is wrong, and I did, and perhaps always do, think in words. The first of these opinions is made more probable by the fact that, any thinking which I stuff into my memory, as opposed to the thinking that I instantly forget, is remembered because it seemed likely to be useful later, in explaining myself to other people, either reporting work, or justifying actions, or giving a warnings, etc. Anything remembered for this sort of reason, would, in general, be more useful in verbal form; and therefore I may well have formed the habit of remembering all significant thinking in this form. This consideration at best leaves the question open. What is needed is some example of non-verbal thinking; preferably in the mind of the person reading this, that I can cite.

Clearly I have a difficulty in doing this, which is not the result of any possible error in my thesis. I naturally do not know what is in your mind. If however, I assume the view noted above, that your mind is rather like mine, it might be deemed sufficient if I were to cite some thinking in my own mind which is non verbal. This brings me up against a second difficulty, again unconnected with any possible error in my thesis, I am necessarily writing this essay in words, so the very fact that I succeeded in citing a supposed 'non verbal' thought, would clearly indicate that it was after all not a non verbal thought. For instance, were I to cite an internal debate whether I could scratch this itch in my back more conveniently with my left hand than with my right, the reader might perhaps, in kindness, concede that maybe that kind of trivial debate is sometimes non verbal, but the very fact that I have cited it, proves that this particular instance was verbal, or at least verbalisable.

I shall therefore have resource to indicating an intellectual curiosity about myself, which I have never previously discussed with anyone, in the hope that it will cause the reader to remember some peculiarity in his own experience of life, which is similar in having the implication that some concepts he sometimes uses have no translation into his native language. I am not suggesting that it is likely that other people think, like I do, in fortnights, but they may do other idiosyncratic things, which, if they think about them in this context will establish my point, at least for them individually.

I do not know why I think in fortnights. I have done so as far back as I can remember, and it may well have its origin in some childish confusion, long forgotten. The days go round a kind of oval, one week in one direction and the next week in the other direction, with the weekends at the two ends. Now you may ask me, does one week go to the left, and the next week to the right? and the answer is 'no'. Does one go up, and the next down? 'No'. Does one go away, and the next forward? 'No'. Is there a real difference between the two directions? 'Yes, quite clearly'. If it is clear, say what it is? 'I cannot, for there is no word for it. Mention of it has never been relevant until now. It is as definite as any spatial concept can be, but it has no relevance to any concept formed from experience of the visual world. It might perhaps be best, were I to confess why I am so sure of my opinion about non-verbal thinking. I spent the leisure of several years discussing with myself my metaphysical opinions. There was no opportunity in those years to discuss them with anyone else. When eventually the opportunity for such discussion arose, I found to my surprise, that clear and valid arguments could not be presented, because key concepts, which I had used in my own mind for years, were inexpressible. Given time to think, I was later able, after working on them for a bit, to present them in the form of familiar nouns qualified by familiar adjectives. Of course when such an hiatus in my presentation of my opinions occurred, I sounded to other people as if I had been confused, and had just perceived the error of what I was saying. Inside I knew that this just was not the case. I had simply not needed previously to use language when discussing these matters, and had gradually over time, dropped the habit of translating my thinking into English before committing it to memory. Indeed, looking back, I seemed to remember times when I had stopped myself pausing before going on to the next stage of an argument in my mind, with the reflection, 'this is philosophy, not chemistry [my profession], so I don't need to pause to do that'.

The other relevant consideration is the question how a society of non-thinking beings ever set about constructing a language. This will be a sufficient argument to convince a Materialist who believes in the reality of the historical past, including all the stuff about apes turning into men. An Idealist, however, who rejects such history as rank Materialism, or at least, more reasonably, supposes that at the stage of the debate when basic metaphysical questions are being investigated, the reality of history is an open question, will not be convinced by it. A society of thinking, language using beings may have existed since the beginning of time.

© 2004 Cedric Wisbey

To obtain a free CD of Cedric Wisbey's essay 'Induction and Metaphysics' please write to him at

cedrichhwisbey3 at

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