While it had long been acknowledged that language is a necessary vehicle of human thought(for example, its usefulness in memorization insofar as we are able to repeatedly represent thoughts to ourselves in order to assist in retaining them, and as a vehicle for communicating thought to others) it was not until the linguistic turn in philosophy, beginning in the 19th century, that investigation of questions of metaphysics was seen as having its most fruitful locus in the investigation of language itself(Lotter, 2005).
One of the most important contributors to this tendency was the philosopher, logician and mathematician, Gottlob Frege. While Frege’s primary preoccupations had to do with questions of the philosophy of mathematics, it is nonetheless true that he believed that human thought depended for its uniqueness and sophistication on the use of language. Indeed, although he was primarily a logician and a mathematician,
“most of the general philosophical issues upon which Frege reflected, aside from his more specialized projects in the philosophy of mathematics, had to do with the nature of thought in general and its relation to logic, to truth, to language, and to the objects it can be about”(Lotter, 2005).
Frege’s belief that language is essential to thought has its background in the epistemological positions of Locke and Hobbes(Lotter, 2005). These two thinkers believed that:
1) Language was essential to memory and to the representation of one’s thoughts.
2) Language is essential as a vehicle of one’s thoughts to other people.
These two functions of language are inseparably connected. To represent thought through the medium of language to another person implies having initially represented it to oneself. To attempt to assist another in exercising intentionality towards our language in order to understand our thoughts, we ourselves must have first exercised intentionality towards our own thoughts(whether or not or to what extent it may be argued that our means of mediating our thoughts to ourselves necessarily entails a linguistic element)(Lotter, 2005).
Language is a necessary element not simply of communicating thought but perhaps more fundamentally of recording and storing it. Indeed, the very fact that it is necessary in order to store one’s own thoughts necessarily implies that it is necessary to communication since
“the very act of understanding the piece of information conveyed requires the person to whom it is conveyed to be able to record it for herself in her own memory; and inasmuch as this requires language, human communication requires language at least on the side of the receiver of information…”(Lotter, 2005).
Frege argues that language is an essential constituent of human thought on three grounds
1) It is language and symbols which allow us to become aware of things not immediately present to our minds through the senses. Apart from language, our awareness would consist of mere fleeting sensory-based reflex responses comparable to that of animals.
2) The use of symbols in language grants stability to perceptions of physical objects. Because of the vividness and force of sense-perception, subsequent perceptions would override whatever fleeting memory one might have of previous sense-perceptions(Lotter, 2005). It is by means of language alone that such perceptions are anchored in the mind and granted sufficient stability such that we can recall them to mind at a later point in time. For Frege, it is “only by using symbols do we enable ourselves to memorize ideas in such a way that we can henceforth call them up more or less at will. In this way, symbols – though themselves sensible – are able, to a large extent, to free us from our dependence on the sensible world”(Lotter, 2005).
On what grounds does Frege believe that symbols have a unique ability to ground our sense-perceptions that mere sensation does not? He argues that language, while a necessary element for both the use and development of our reason, must itself be presupposed to some degree for language to be possible(Lotter, 2005). A degree of bare reasoning exists antecedently to language but requires language in order to develop most fully. It is by means of reason that humans are able to get beyond, so to speak, mere reason and to jettison ourselves into the realm of language in which alone reason has its most advanced workings:
Frege appears to propose a non-vicious circle between reason and language such that, roughly, the former enables us – by its very nature – to hold in memory a small initial assortment of symbols, and such that the use of these symbols then expands our rational capacities to allow for the combinations and application of those symbols, which in turn are stored in the memory to lead to further combinations – as well as to the possible invention of new symbols or symbolic systems – whose use leads to further mental expansion, etc(Lotter, 2005).
3) Apart from the use of language and symbols, humans could never ascend to conceptual thought. It is only by means of application of one symbol to different things that we have the ability to acquire concepts:
according to Frege…we acquire concepts only by applying the same symbol to different but similar things, thereby no longer symbolizing the individual things, but rather what they have in common: the concept…this argument does not show that concepts could not exist without language or symbols; rather, it shows that concepts could not become available to us without language. In Frege’s own terms, it shows that we could not represent to ourselves what a group of similar things have in common, which is what he calls a concept(Lotter, 2005).
Lotter, Dorothea. “Frege and Language.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005 June 4. Web. 2013 July 30.