Language Serves Not Only to Express Thoughts, but to Make Possible Thoughts Which Could Not Exist Without It

Bertrand Russell? Neil Postman? Apocryphal?

language09Dear Quote Investigator: The relationship between language and thought is complex. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell held the provocative belief that some thoughts could not exist without language. I believe I read this assertion in a book Russell wrote, but I have not been able to relocate the apposite passage. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1948 Bertrand Russell published “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits” which included such a claim. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Language serves not only to express thoughts, but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it. It is sometimes maintained that there can be no thought without language, but to this view I cannot assent: I hold that there can be thought, and even true and false belief, without language. But however that may be, it cannot be denied that all fairly elaborate thoughts require words.

Russell illustrated his point with examples of mathematically infused knowledge:

I can know, in a sense, that I have five fingers, without knowing the word “five”, but I cannot know that the population of London is about eight millions unless I have acquired the language of arithmetic, nor can I have any thought at all closely corresponding to what is asserted in the sentence: “The ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter is approximately 3.14159.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The cultural critic Neil Postman referred to Russell’s remark in his 1979 book “Teaching as a Conserving Activity”. Postman slightly modified the quotation by replacing “express thoughts” with “express thought”: 2

To speak new words in new ways is not a cosmetic activity. It is a way of becoming a new person. It involves learning new things and seeing the world in new ways. “A name,” Socrates said, “is an instrument of teaching and of distinguishing natures.” Twenty-three hundred years later Bertrand Russell made the same point: “Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.”

In 1992 a letter published in the “Los Angeles Times” included an instance using the singular “thought” instead of “thoughts”: 3

Bertrand Russell once said, “Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” A de-emphasis on English in a country whose primary language is English is, however unintentional, a handicap to the intellect.

In conclusion, in 1948 Bertrand Russell did make a stimulating remark about language. During the following years the statement has occasionally been slightly altered.

Image Notes: “Hello” in various language from Maialisa at Pixabay. Portrait of Bertrand Russell from Wikimedia Commons. Logarithmic formulas from geralt at Pixabay. Images have been altered, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Alex Carstensen who sent QI an instance of the quotation. Her inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. )

Notes:

  1. 1948, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits by Bertrand Russell, Section: Part II: Language, Chapter I: The Uses of Language Quote Page 60, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1979, Teaching as a Conserving Activity by Neil Postman, Chapter: Language Education in a Knowledge Context, Quote Page 151, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1992 October 9, Los Angeles Times, Letters to The Times, Suit Over Test of Teachers’ Skills (Letter to the editor from Van Ajemian, Montebello) Quote Page B6, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)