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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.

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  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)