Friday, March 18, 2011

Can bad writers be good thinkers? Part 1 of THE UNITY OF LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT

The Unity of Language and Thought Series. Part 1.

According to a common view, “good enough” writing—a modicum of quality—suffices. If persuasiveness of argument and lucidity of expression are independent factors, a superior product is resource-wasting overkill. Contesting the common view is the doctrine asserting language and thought’s unity. I owe Bryan Garner the idea of applying the doctrine to legal writing:
In law, the quality of writing matters. Good writing can win cases, and bad writing can lose them. To some, this notion is self-evident. But to others it's dubious at best.
What explains these markedly divergent views? Ultimately, the disagreement hinges on the extent to which a given lawyer understands that language molds every human thought. Language is embedded in the very way in which you perceive the world. Thus, it's impossible for a judge to focus exclusively on the merits of a case without being affected by the language used to express those merits. (B. Garner, The Winning Brief.)
The concept of the unity of language and thought itself I owe to the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky:
Speech [read writing] does not merely serve as the expression of developed thought. Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed but completed in the word. (L. Vygotsky (1986) Thought and Language.)
Succinctly, “Thought is not expressed by language but takes place in it.” (Ibid.)

Vygotsky’s psychology emphasizes that we think by means of “inner speech”; hence, the terms conveying an argument co-determine its construal and effectiveness. The linguistic character of thought is the essential reason the quality of expression matters.

Anyone who denies that thought and language co-determine a brief’s persuasiveness should find an occupation not involving writing briefs, but the implications of the unity of thought and language go further than this truism about persuasiveness. The unity applies, I claim, not only to writing’s reception but also to its production. The unity of language and thought implies:
1) Good writing requires deep thought;
2) Deep thought requires good writing.
To personalize, good writers are good thinkers and good thinkers are good writers.

Point 1 is less contentious than point 2: vacuous thoughts don’t challenge a writer’s skill; Point 1 is also less interesting: a low order of intellectual depth provides ample space to demonstrate incompetence (hence, competence by comparison). In principle, intellectual shallowness limits expressive power, but in practice it does so weakly.

Point 2, on the other hand, makes a strong, contentious claim. It precludes that popular construct the "homespun philosopher" and rejects the populist tenet that many great thinkers go unrecognized because they're inarticulate.But to avoid unwarranted contention, we must be precise about the meanings of both "thought" and "good": Point 2 doesn't claim that the human intellect rests entirely on literary skill. Only deep thought—coherent multistep reasoning with abstract concepts—requires written expression to flourish. To take a familiar example, a trial attorney who is an incompetent writer but is quick on his feet, alert to testimonial incongruities, and shrewd in negotiation need function only in oral mode. To claim the attorney is a poor thinker is at best ambiguous: such attorneys are, in any event, reasonably intelligent. The claim isn’t that bad writers are stupid.

Nor is "good thinking" good in the sense of being correct. Deep thinking constructs theories that are capable of being true about complex matters involving abstractions. A usage point helps clarify. When shallow thinking is applied to complex abstract matters, we call the result stupid. When deep thinking about the same matters goes very wrong, we instead call it crazy, and crazy thought retains at least the possibility of accuracy: you can’t reasonably reject it without comprehension, whereas shallowness disqualifies thought concerning abstract topics. Good writing doesn’t necessarily deserve consideration, but on such topics, bad writing deserves disregard. Properly understood, the claim—contentious enough as it is—asserts that deep thinkers must be capable writers because writing is part of the thinking process.

With this clarification, the claim still conflicts with the received view, but a certain universal writing experience refutes the received view by demonstrating that writing quality sets a limit on thought quality. The experience is that of arriving at profound insights during writing’s course. We can’t devise a complete plan predicting our conclusions; writing lives its own life and decides its own destiny. Unforeseeable insight proves that thought without written expression would be impoverished.

Intellectual discovery continues to surprise experienced writers —revealing how counter-intuitive is the dependence of thought on writing—despite their coming to accept its occurrence intellectually. But though suggestive, unforeseen discovery doesn’t quite prove the relationship between the quality of writing and the quality of thought. A gap remains between the proof that deep thought requires writing and the conclusion that it requires high-quality writing. In the next entry, I intend to close the gap.

Next entry: Good thinkers are good writers.


  1. You say that “Thought is not expressed by language but takes place in it.” In other words, abstract thought is necessarily linguistical. This disagrees with my introspection.

  2. How do abstract ideas occur in your introspections: as inchoate ideas or as images? Would you provide an example with details?

  3. My thoughts are not visual, nor are they composed of any sensory imagery. More precisely, my thoughts can be visual or verbal when I'm imagining images or dialogue, but they are usually nonsensory. Actually, I often try to word my thoughts after thinking them, so my thoughts have a large verbal component.

    For an example, here is a segment of my thoughts while thinking about what to post here: I noticed that my recent thoughts were all verbalized. I decided that this is because they were all thoughts that I was considering writing down. I was about to verbalize this insight, but I stopped. I wondered weather my stopping was me biasing my thoughts to fit this insight. I decided that it was not. All this was nonverbal; the words describing it only came much later.

    By the way, verbal thought to me doesn't make much sense. When you have an internal monologue, how do you come up with the next words to say to yourself, if you don't already have an implicit understanding of the concept you want to say to yourself? And if you do have such an understanding, why do you bother saying it? My guess is that verbal thinkers have the instinct of verbalizing thought so ingrained that they have trouble distinguishing a thought and the words for it.

    1. I appreciate your exactness. Our difference concerns whether you unconsciously embellish your unverbalized ideation when you verbalize it, so it seems integrated despite not being. If you would answer another question: Can you recall today--without verbalizing it--an unverbalized thought you had yesterday? If so, how do you retrieve it (without word or image as cue)?

    2. Yes, I can remember thoughts from yesterday, although it is difficult. I don't carefully record my thoughts as I think them. For these particular thoughts, I remember the situation in which I was thinking them. Otherwise, I would have no way to know when they occurred. However, for these I have a cue. Usually when I recall a thought, I'm not thinking about any specific situation when I thought that thought, but rather the idea in general. Here the cue is whatever thought that makes the idea relevant.

      When you suggest that my nonsensory thought is not integrated, or earlier when you offered the possibility of me having "inchoate thoughts", you are suggesting that nonsensory thought exists but cannot form complex coherent combinations. Meanwhile, my experience is that thoughts are not verbalized without an explicit effort.

    3. Will respond shortly. Sorry I haven't been able to because of a technical issue.

  4. I don't find that our introspections disagree. "Abstract thought is linguistical" doesn't mean it involves subvocalization. Vygotsky's inference was based on developmental data; it wasn't intended to be introspectively self-evident.

    One point in my entry is technically wrong, and this might have misled you. I say we "think in inner speech," but that wasn't Vygotsky's claim or the claim I intended; inner speech seems to be defined as subvocalization, but that proceeds by further stage so thought is structured by language but automatically rather than by ("conscious") controlled processes.

    The question of what differentiates thinkers who are said to be verbal from those who aren't is an interesting question, although I don't think they are distinguished by whether their thought is linguistic. I'll offer my guess: verbal thinkers are more apt to resort to subvocalization when they encounter difficulties in their thinking.

  5. I believe that thoughts can be transcribed and delivered in many ways. But most commonly, we can express it through writing and more likely get understood if we write it right.

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