Click Here

A Thought Experiment

Let’s suppose everyone suddenly forgot their native language and any foreign languages they knew. It’s not clear how far we need or use language to think, but for the purposes of this thought experiment we will assume we can all think as well as we could before we forgot our languages. But just as herd and other animals can communicate with verbal calls or in other ways, it’s seems reasonable to think that we too could develop some form of primitive communication.

Then, one day, it occurs to some enterprising fellow human that since we’re capable of making a wide variety of sounds, it ought to be possible for us to develop a more advanced method of communication. So, full of confidence, he begins arbitrarily assigning sounds to all the objects around him starting with things like house and dog and tree. He calls that category of sounds “nouns.” He quickly discovers however that he has to do the same thing for common actions, such as to come and to go and to eat. He calls those sounds “verbs.” Not long after that he realizes that two new categories of sounds are required, modifiers for nouns such as hard and soft, which he calls “adjectives,” and modifiers for verbs such as slowly and quickly, which he calls “adverbs.” By and by he ends up with all the categories of speech we’re familiar with, proper names, pronouns, propositions, conjunctions, definite and indefinite articles and so on.

At some point in this project, however, he would probably feel disheartened at the size of his task. Indeed, it might well seem to him that the whole business is hopeless because there are just too many things that need to have sounds assigned to them. And yet we know that it’s not hopeless; because from time immemorial groups of people working together informally have invented languages, thousands of them, and without any apparent effort they have passed these languages on to their offspring who have effortlessly acquired them.

I submit that the same thing will be found to be true for the language of ideas, the vocabulary and grammar of which—maxims, aphorisms, lines from Shakespeare and Scripture, bits of poetry and verse, vivid quotes and passages, arguments and intellectual principles (all collectively referred to as aphorisms)—is necessarily a subset of all the things that can be expressed in a fully developed language. At first sight it may seem naive or utopian to think that a language of ideas can be invented, or that there exists a language of ideas waiting to be discovered, a language that can then be acquired (as with the native language) through sufficient auditory exposure. But I contend that it’s not only not utopian, but much easier than it looks. Indeed it’s far easier than inventing a new language, for notwithstanding the estimated 500,000 to one million new books that are published every year, it turns out (in my experience) that there are far fewer major subjects and far fewer essential ideas associated with those subjects than there are words and idioms in a typical language.

Instinctive scepticism is an appropriate reaction to this startling claim. However it shouldn’t be dismissed without being given a chance to prove itself. I suggest the topic “Politics, Politicians & Government” as a good one on which to put it to the test. How many fundamental ideas on this enormous subject have you come across, or have occurred to you, that are not directly or indirectly covered by the remarkably small set of aphorisms/quotes at the link below?

Politics, Politicians & Government

Click HERE for an organized collection of quotes and aphorisms
from the famous and the not so famous.
For more theory click HERE.