Can we have thoughts without words?

Shube doo wap doo wap. We all think notes, tones. We remember melodies, guitar riffs, drum beats. The fact that creatures as musical as us have seriously questioned whether we can have nonverbal thoughts for so long should stun us. Should it concern us, since it indicates entire realms of human behavior bracketed from clear understanding? It does clearly show the lack of theoretical reflection we have brought to the arts and music. Such thoughts may be facilitated by our verbal ability, and such thoughts often come with many linguistically mediated memories as well. But thoughts without words are commonplace, and they do of course differ in intensity.

It is said that when Beethoven, who went deaf in his later years, wanted to hear his favorite piece of music, he would lay on his sofa and light a cigar. The notes, tones, textures of symphonic complexity would play before his imagination. Few of us have imaginations like Beethoven’s. But many of us find ourselves humming tunes, remembering melodies or moving to rhythms only playing out in our own imaginations. Music of course isn’t the only medium through which we are able to think without reliance on words. Painters often think nonverbally when deciding on textures, color schemes, patterns. Babies, too, appear to be thinking without words when they interact with us before having learned speech, signalling their wants indexically and laughing with delight when they get what they want or screaming with discontent when they don’t.

In philosophy, we have long under-theorized non-linguistic forms of communication, non-verbal forms of interaction. Yet thoughts without words surround us and permeate us. Music provides one of the most promising avenues for gaining clarity about such non-verbal communication and for challenging the prevailing linguistically centered view of rationality.


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