Do You Need Language to Think?

Back in Berkeley in the 90s, Donald Davidson thought you did. His argument was unless we saw a creature use language we would have no evidence for believing it had thoughts.  All we would see was a creature in a causal relationship with its environment.

But what if a beaver constructed a ship and stocked it with food, went on a journey, checked the winds and when the winds provided evidence of bad weather adjusted its journey by stopping and getting more food for the longer journey?  If the beaver misjudged and overstocked based upon the wind then it mis thought and therefore thought, and this happened without language.


6 thoughts on “Do You Need Language to Think?

  1. How are communication and language separate? Beavers have a way to communicate. They make sounds and isn’t that a language, and they slap the water with their tail as a danger warning. The Beaver could possibly think, “Yikes, here a trap there a trap, everywhere a trap trap”. The tail slapping is probably like a golfer hollering Fore. I kinda’ think everything has a language no matter how primitive. I’m beginning to think plants have communication, and probably language, and ‘shudder’ ….even thoughts. The more I learn the finer the lines are drawn. – – –

  2. I’m not sure I follow your use of the beaver analogy– and I’m usually a big fan of your whimsical analogies. It does call to mind the dog that expects its master next Tuesday etc. but this example seems overly/suspiciously anthropomorphic.

    In any case, my position in respect to the question would essentially be ‘yes’ but, as Susan has demonstrated above, I think that the deeper you delve the more it becomes an exploration of the use/grammar of the word ‘think’.

    • If you had an animal with no language, and it built a sailship and went on a journey and whenever the sails were getting ragged changed its course to get silkworms and grew the silkworms and wove silk to replace the sails, and it could fight other creatures with sailships by making it look like the sails were torn up but then when the ships came close attacking them,and whenever the night was clear it climbed up on the top sail and looked at the stars and changed course, but if you put fake stars up it steered according to the position fo the fake stars and got lost, wouldn’t you say it could think? Even if never used language?

  3. Well, yes, but I might come to that conclusion as soon as it built the sailship; do you need to follow through with the rest of it? If the beaver could comprehend harnessing the power of the wind to alter direction, etc?

    I’m not trying to say at any point that the Beaver doesn’t think. I just mean do you feel this [very enjoyable] anthropomorphic analogy helps the argument? Couldn’t it be reduced to the Beaver, when looking to cross a river, deciding to cross on the thick, steady, sturdy log wedged tightly between the riverbanks as opposed to the rotting, splintered, trembling one that presents another nearby option?

  4. If my sails got ragged, doubtful I’d think of looking for a silkworm. Probably use a sheet or look for a Cabela’s Outfitters. That’s one fine extreme thinking beaver ya’ got there. Does he drink at all?

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