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    On The Concept Of Shaping Thought With Language
    By Samuel Kenyon | February 24th 2013 09:12 PM | 28 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Samuel

    Software engineer, AI researcher, interaction designer (IxD), actor, writer, atheist transhumanist. My blog will attempt to synthesize concepts...

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    Psychologist Lera Boroditsky says she's "interested in how the languages we speak shape the way we think" [1].

    This statement seems so innocent, and yet it implies that language definitely does shape thought1. It also leads us to use a metaphor with "shape."

    Causes and Dependencies

    Does language cause thought? Or at least in part? Or is it the other direction--thought causes language?

    Is language even capable of being a cause of thought, even if it isn't in practice?

    Or in an architectural sense, is one dependent on the other? Is thought built on top of language?

    Or is language built on top of thought?

    Does language influence thought at all, even if one is not dependent on the other?

    When people talk about language causing thought or vice versa, are they talking about language as a mental module (or distributed functionality) or the interactive act of using language?

    The Shaping Metaphor


    The metaphor of "shaping" seems to be useful, as in "does language shape thought?" The metaphor is thought is a shapeable object.



    If I give you a chunk of clay, and you use tools to turn it into a detailed car model, that doesn't mean that clay is based on your tools or that the tools are the key cause of the clay's form.



    But it does mean that the tools (under control of an agent) can in fact shape the clay. Other things can shape it as well, such as your hands. Which shaper is used might be very important. Without the tools--just your bare hands--you might end up with something quite ugly instead of the detailed car.



    Of course, the mind might not be like clay at all, even if the brain kind of looks like a mushy blob. Informationally, a network like the mind is not necessarily a pliable mass or lacking in structure.

    The shaping metaphor doesn't distinguish between the principal cause (the hand that shapes) and the instrumental cause (the tools used by the hand for shaping). This is very important. For example, Mary convinces Bob that fish are vegetables. Does this mean that Bob's mind has been modified by language? No, not as the principal cause. The principal cause was Mary's action. Language was the instrumental cause--the tool used.

    So shaping might be a useful metaphor at a very course granularity, but it also hides a lot of crucial details.

    Causing a Way of Thinking


    Lera Boroditsky describes her results of studying a group of people whose language and thought use absolute coordinates (e.g. north, west, south, east) instead of body-relative coordinates (e.g. left, right).
    What I came to this community to find out was whether the way people think about space also affects the way that they think about time. I had done a lot of work trying to understand how we build our representations of time. One consistent claim has been that we build representations of abstract things, like time, out of more concrete things. The way we build complex knowledge is to take simpler building blocks and then use the power of language to combine these building blocks into more and more complex ideas. Time seemed to be an example of that; people take spatial representations, make an analogy or metaphor from space to time, and that gives us more complex ideas of time. But of course, that whole story I just told you about how ideas of space underlie our ideas of time suggests that if people think about space differently, they should also think about time differently. So if you find two cultures that think about space in very different ways, they should also think about time in very different ways.

    That's what Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out. I gave people a really simple task. I would give them a set of cards, and the cards might show a temporal progression, like my grandfather at different ages from when he was a boy to when he's an old man. I would shuffle them, give them to the person, and say "Lay these out on the ground so that they're in the correct order." If you ask English speakers to do this, they will lay the cards out from left to right. And it doesn't matter which way the English speaker is facing. So if you're facing north or south or east or west, the cards will always go left to right. Time seems to go from left to right with respect to our bodies. If you ask Hebrew speakers to do this, or Arabic speakers, they're much more likely to lay the cards out from right to left. That suggests that something about the writing direction in a language matters in how we imagine time. But nonetheless, time is laid out with respect to the body.

    But these folks, the Kuuk Thaayorre, don't use words like "left" and "right." So what would they do? How will they lay out time? Well, it turns out they do it from East to West. If a person is sitting facing south, they will lay out the cards from left to right. But if they're facing north, they will lay the cards out from right to left. If they're facing east, the cards will come towards them. That's a pattern that we had just never seen with any American. That's a radically different way of organizing time. It's a way of organizing time that's in a different coordinate frame, in an independent coordinate frame from what you see with English speakers or Russian speakers, and so on. That shows a really big difference in cognitive ability, where a five year old in one culture can do something that an eminent professor in another culture cannot do.

    Of course, those results don't necessarily show the causal flow of differences in language to differences in thought. Her statement that we might "use the power of language to combine these building blocks into more and more complex ideas" ignores the possibility that she was dealing with building blocks internal to the mind.

    Earlier experiments by Stephen C. Levinson and colleagues purported to show linguistic patterns determining spatial orientation thinking. These experiments were critiqued by Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman [2], who found that language itself may not be the primary cause of spatial orientation. Also, the evidence they collected suggests that humans, human infants, and rats actually choose an orientation strategy based on context (such as the availability of landmark cues).

    Li and Gleitman ended their paper with this:
    Turning the tables, we take the present finding of the robustness of human thought to variation in linguistic usage patterns to be an optimistic one. All languages have the formal and expressive power to communicate the ideas, beliefs, and desires of their users. From this vast range of possibilities, human communities select what they want to say and how they want to say it. This stance is at its core the same one that explains why the Elizabethans habitually used terms for falconry and we do not, and why English-speaking vacationers at Aspen and Vailfind it natural to develop terms like sugar, powder,and granule to amplify their heretofore impoverished means for discussing the state of the snow on the slopes. In the end, its the thought that counts.

    Conceptual Metaphors


    Earlier I described "shaping thought" as a metaphor. Metaphors can be conceptual, used internally with mentalese, not just in language. Or as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson defined it [3]:
    The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.

    Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphor Theory considers linguistic metaphors to be evidence of the underlying conceptual system. The mind uses a metaphorical framework for thought and actions. Languages have metaphors because that is how we think internally.

    The space and time relationships mentioned in the previous section may be conceptual metaphors. And the space-time conceptual metaphors may be the cause of how they are used in language and actions.

    A Systems Approach


    There may be another approach that could support a partial form of linguistic control of thought. This would be a systems approach. The brain is part of a body which has a history. And outside of that body is an external history accumulated from many bodies interacting. We have the context of culture and the context of everyday communication with other similar organisms.

    The nature of this biological plus cultural system of systems involves many feedback loops at varying degrees of scale and with various interfaces. To propose that evolved biological organisms and human cultures do not have feedback loops would be amazing. And yet, many scientists dealing with psychology and/or neuroscience try to ignore systems, however, in order to focus on manageable focused chunks.

    Something else to consider is that given how much of our cognition is not thought (conscious and subjective), how much of language influences are subconscious? For instance, priming uses language as an instrument for changing a person's behavior.

    The systems approach might lead to a feedback loop view where in some contexts language can determine certain ways of thinking at the same time that thought determines language.


    1. In this blog post I’m using the term “thought” to mean the subset of subjective conscious cognition.

    References

    [1] "ENCAPSULATED UNIVERSES: A Conversation with Lera Boroditsky", Edge, 19 Feb 2013.
    [2] Li, P.&Gleitman, L. "Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning," Cognition 83, 2002, pp. 265–294.
    [3] G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 2nd ed. University Of Chicago Press, 2003.

    Image Credits

    1. In Dialogue

    2. sjb4photos

    3. FrogMiller

    Comments

    vongehr
    Seen this about how language may effect thought(fulness) about future (?):
    www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money.html
    SynapticNulship
    It's an interesting correlation. It seems plausible that some methods of cognition that we develop during ontegeny could be tuned by cultural-linguistic concepts that are more precise (or less precise) in comparison to other cultural-linguistic contexts. But I don't know if there's any solid proof for that causal arrow yet.
    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps I'm missing something, but it seems to me that one of the prime examples of this problem existed in Helen Keller.  I can't imagine anyone arguing that prior to learning language she had no thoughts, yet language would have provided a structure with which to express those thoughts.
    "When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".
    http://www.percepp.com/hkeller.htm
    This is one of the difficulties I expect occurs when trying to extrapolate the degree of consciousness that exists in animals.  It is clear that they are thinking, but we can't imagine how they can think without the feedback that is language.  How does my dog recognize itself without having a mental concept of "I", despite having no language to express it [at least as far as we know].

    Despite our own sense of consciousness, I believe it is nearly impossible to acknowledge it without resorting to an internal dialogue.  It is our concept of "I" and "self" which dominate such thoughts, otherwise we merely process the sensory data but we don't have a context until our internal dialogue structures it for us.

    In other words, if you are looking around you, you may take in all manner of visual input, but as soon as you focus, or as soon as you attempt to put it within the context of being conscious, you automatically resort to internal language. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    But how many, if any, of internal-to-the-mind patterns are equivalent or isomorphic to spoken or written languages?
    Gerhard Adam
    I would say it's all isomorphic, since without language there is no internal dialogue.  That's the point Helen Keller raised in her statement about her experience before she learned language.  In her view, it equated to nothing less than consciousness.
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    I don't buy that language causes consciousness. How did words like "I" and "me" ever get produced if our minds didn't already generate those concepts? I think perhaps the interesting mechanism which Keller may have been trying to get at (although her deaf and blind state may have made things a bit different than non-deafblind development) is how the "I" and "me" mental symbols are first generated in the mind's development. And since mental symbols can be non-linguistic, I would say it's not guaranteed that the first "I" and "me" symbols are linguistic.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't buy that language causes consciousness.
    I would agree, but I think we have to be careful with terminology here.  In my view there is a difference between consciousness versus conscious awareness [i.e. self-conscious].  Many animals would fall into the former category, but the latter is only from the state of where one is "aware that they are aware".

    Just for myself, I've tried to think about my own state of consciousness when I'm looking at something.  In trying to recognize the differences in my mental state of I'm just casually looking around, versus when I try to be "conscious" of the fact that I'm looking around.  It always seems like the former case is non-specific, while the latter involves actively assigning yourself to the experience.  In other words, it always feels like we are aware of being conscious, only when we consciously think about it and assign verbiage to it.  In that respect it almost seems like an artificial construct.
    I would say it's not guaranteed that the first "I" and "me" symbols are linguistic.
    Again, I would agree, but the "I" and "me" symbols are linguistic when we wish to make the assignment mentally.  Prior to such an assignment we are certainly conscious of being some entity that is interacting with the world, and we are certainly aware of ourselves as being that entity.  However, in my view, this is done simply as a perspective.  It is the assignment of "I" and "me" that allows us to view that interaction as another level that allows us to think about ourselves thinking about ourselves.

    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
     It always seems like the former case is non-specific, while the latter involves actively assigning yourself to the experience.
    That reminds me of ideas expressed arising from the split brain experiments, and, IIRC, the themes of William Calvin. It goes like this: the right side of the brain is more holistic in its representations whereas the left side is very much about the focused attention; the latter being consistent with a heavy concentration of dopaminergic afferents to the left frontal lobes while the 

    right frontal lobes have more norepinephrine afferents. Dopamine is very much about attention.


    I would argue the above dichotomy more correctly relates to the right and left frontal lobe functions. I am currently reading Kaufmann, "Reinventing the Sacred" and once again, when it came to the question of consciousness, just like I did with Penrose, I wanted to throw the book across the room. To Kaufmann's credit he does assert that his speculations are very speculative, it does go down it must be Quantum to explain consciousness, and prior to the discussion even states that we typically invoke the most complex concepts to explain consciousness. The Quantum explanation, at least as elaborated by Kaufmann, Penrose, and Hammeroff, is too often contradicted by some obvious empirical facts about our cognition. As one wit stated, anti gout drugs destroy microtubules so one would expect an declination in consciousness from the same. 


    Gerhard it correct to clearly distinguish between being conscious and consciousness though I find his idea of "observing his state of consciousness" to be impossible. I can observe myself being conscious but I cannot observe my consciousness because as that old Zen dude stated: The sword cannot cut itself. 

    The distinction between conscious and consciousness may be better approached through some rather mundane neuroanatomy. Put simply, the observation of the external world is largely conscious, what we call consciousness is more about the observation of our internal state. The frontal lobes have sparse sensory inputs but massive intra-cerebral connectivity. Damage to the frontal lobes can completely change a person, and psychosis is very much about frontal lobe issues though that is simplistic. The distinction between consciousness and conscious is not qualitative, it rather represents a profound difference in what is being observed. One observes the outer world, the other observes the internal observations and selects those which become what we label as consciousness. 


    Anyways, I'd probably wrong, I'm used to that. But I do tire of the way so many people seek "the most complex concepts" to explain consciousness. That could be the first and fatal mistake in so many investigations into this issue. If I bother Gerhard I may email you some more thoughts on this issue. 
    Gerhard Adam
    I find his idea of "observing his state of consciousness" to be impossible.
    I should probably have been more clear, because I agree with your point.  What I was trying to express was simply that when we go about our various activities, we simply engage in them without expressly noting or feeling that; "I am now going for a walk" or "I am now driving my car".  In other words, we simply do these things without specifically thinking that "we" are specifically performing these tasks.  It is only when we try to think about being conscious that we introduce such language into the experience.

    Overall, my point is that we never routinely think about experiencing consciousness until our attention is drawn to having to explain what we are doing.  I'm probably still not explaining it very well, but the objective was to try and imagine if my dog is not consciously-aware, but merely conscious, then what would it feel like to inhabit such a world, making the choices one makes, and responding.

    If you call your dog's name, does he think ... 'Oh, he means "me"'?  Since the dog clearly recognizes his owner, does it make sense to expect that he doesn't recognize himself?  When a dog plays and gently bites your hand in a kind of "mock fight", does the dog think ... "Oh I must not bite too hard"?

    If not self-conscious, then how does the dog determine who is controlling the strength of the bite?  Does it even make sense to have such a conversation, trying to imagine making individual choices without requiring a sense of self?   It is in this regard, that I find the greatest difficulty, because I can't tell if I'm simply incapable of imagining a sense of awareness that has no internal dialogue to examine one's own actions, or if it is truly a requirement.
    Damage to the frontal lobes can completely change a person, and psychosis is very much about frontal lobe issues though that is simplistic.
    As you indicated, does this mean that our consciousness is simply a story our brain tells us, based on our history and the narrative we've constructed as to the type of person we are?   After all, if damage can change someone's personality, then it would argue that such a thing isn't intrinsic at all, but rather is artificially constructed.  The reason why I say it is artificial is because our sense of ourselves is as much a product of our history as anything, and yet we may find that our history, itself, is suspect if there are events that we remember incorrectly or even never occurred.  In that sense, it would be provide a strong suggestion, that our personality and the consciousness we associated with being "ourselves" is simply a story we generate and doesn't exist as an intrinsic trait of the brain's functioning.

    Again, this is supported by the evidence that damage can result in a personality change, which means that our conscious self doesn't exist, until our brain constructs the story.  If we can no longer recall that story, our brain simply makes up a new one and we become a different person.
    Mundus vult decipi
    John Hasenkam
    Putting on my thinking music for this... Atrocity Exhibition, Joy Division ...

    It is only when we try to think about being conscious that we introduce such language into the experience.
    Yes, and language is linear which creates certain difficulties in explaining the whole of experience. Basically, a picture paints a thousand words. Temple Grandin does report that she "thinks in pictures" and I suspect that because language so predominates in our lives, especially our interpersonal lives, that we tend to neglect thinking in pictures. Yet there is some slight evidence to suggest that creative thinkers think in pictures. In Buddhism there is the idea that true experience is not about language at all but is the experience without thought, the ongoing encounter with our sensations. Thus(archives), 


    The idea of Zen is to catch life as it flows. There is nothing extraordinary or mysterious about Zen.
    ibid, page 75

    So long as one is conscious of space and time, Zen will keep a respectable distance from you, your holiday is ill-spent, your sleep is disturbed, and your whole life is a failure.

    ibid, page 82

    How wondrously strange, and how miraculous this!

    I draw water, I carry fuel.
    quotes Zen poet, page 83


    Zen attempts to take hold of life in its act of living; to stop the flow of life and look into it is not the business of Zen.
    ibid, page 111

    It is like a flash of lightning, there is no room, no time, in Zen even for a thought to be conceived.

    ibid, page 113


    Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism
    -------
    But in our cultures, all cultures, we must think in language, we must create a narrative of our lives. 


    The language issue also touches on narratives. We are continually being prompted to tell the Story in our Eyes. But the story is always a very particulate account of our lives it  not an imagining of the course of our lives. There is a little known branch of psychiatry - Narrative Psychiatry, which I imagine has its intellectual story line beginning with the Campbell-Jung mythopoetic themes. There is substance to it, we often rely on finding the right story for our lives. For some that story is readily provided by their culture, for others the story they attempt to reify simply is not possible for their particular state of being and perhaps that is what causes depression and anxiety. While the too ofteny fallacious model of biomedical psychiatry asserts that depression must be understood by neurobiologically in the good ol' days it was noted that depressives often expected too much of themselves. I would adjust that by suggesting they were trying to live the wrong story. 
    When a dog plays and gently bites your hand in a kind of "mock fight", does the dog think ... "Oh I must not bite too hard"?
    A terribly difficult question. My housemate's dog and myself love to play this little game. I can simply look at Shika with a certain stance and she will immediately start prancing about, running around the lounge room. My housemate says no-one else can make his dog act like that and I don't know what it is but I knew what to do straight away to induce that behaviour in Shika. She loves it, even baits me to play that game with her. 



    Kaufmann cites the example of a dog that was lying in the backyard with a baby in a crib. A rattle snake appeared and reared up to strike the baby. The dog jumped in front of the striking snake and was bitten several times but oh so thankfully survived(possibly dry bites by the snake). 


    In The Age of Empathy by Frans De Waal tells a remarkable story of how after a whale had been rescued from crab nets by various divers instead of just swimming away it came right up to each diver and "nudged" them, for all intents and purposes saying, "Thank you". I highly recommend this book, it will challenge many common assumptions about animal behavior. 


    A couple of weeks ago I watching a program in which dolphins were jumping from the water. A friend suggested the usual Darwinian explanation, that this was just practice to avoid predation or a display of sexual prowess. I replied, Gee, you think they just might be having fun? Why do we think animals only do things for some Darwinian  purpose, why can't animals experience fun?


    In all the above examples, if humans did those things, we would ascribe consciousness as the prime reason for their actions(and fun!). Mammals do experience consciousness and an increasing number of studies are revealing that many mammals have at least a proto language. This even extends to some bird species, ravens in particular. It is not consciousness as we experience but it is consciousness. A radical behaviorist once suggested to me that it is possible to instill a sense of self into dogs. Interestingly, in those rare cases of humans raised by animals, these individuals never seem to develop the same sense of selfhood that we have. Echoes of Helen Keller there. 


    So yes Gerhard, I think the story of our lives is integral to our consciousness. I also believe those Zen dudes were onto something with the idea that we can experience life independently of those narratives and I suggest for some people struggling with existential issues the problem is that they are living the wrong story. I think Jung's idea of individuation, Maslow's self actualisation, and enlightenment,  highlight that it is possible, though admittedly it often requires great effort, to transcend our own narratives, to realise at a deep level the story of our lives is just a story, not the reality of our lives. 


    Hope this helps. 



     

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Hope this helps.

    Definitely helps! Wonderfully written comment John.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Stellare
    I measure how well I know a language by my dreams. If I am able to dream in a language that means I know it very well beyond a certain level. And that again, to me means, that I also have incorporated a certain difference in the way I think.

    One of my motivations for learning Chinese is to experiment with my own brain to see if I will alter significantly my way of approaching and thinking about the world. I started to suspect that there are other differences than just using other words particularly after doing an expedition in Tibet. There was something other than just the language that made it difficult to communicate. It was conceptual.

    When I am with friends that speak several languages and we all know the same subset of them, we tend to switch effortlessly between them using one language to express one concept and another language for another concept depending on the ability of the language to express the targeted concept.

    Also, I use my brain differently today than when I was younger. It seems to me that I structure information very differently. I have a distinct feeling my brain has developed. It might not be better, actually it may very well be it is completely destroyed. hahaha

    The point is, that I find it intuitively (As you can tell I haven't done any research on the topic) to be true that different languages make you think in different ways  or shaping your thoughts as you say.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    SynapticNulship
    The point is, that I find it intuitively (As you can tell I haven't done any research on the topic) to be true that different languages make you think in different ways  or shaping your thoughts as you say.
    Whenever a concept is popular and intuitive I get suspicious. I am not convinced yet that learning different languages of the same modality causes differences in thought (or ways of thinking) aside from thinking about the language itself.

    I started to suspect that there are other differences than just using other words particularly after doing an expedition in Tibet. There was something other than just the language that made it difficult to communicate. It was conceptual.

    Something very important to consider is that symbols do not contain inherent meaning. So when you learn something new during the process of learning a new language, it isn't contained in the language itself. You have to learn the underlying concept which is represented by a symbol in the language.
    Stellare
     "earn something new during the process of learning a new language,"

    My experience in China and Tibet that I referred to had nothing to do with learning languages. It was human interactions rather than the language itself. I wasn't studying the language at the time.

    I do not know how many languages you speak or how extensive your international experience is, but I can say that based on my knowledge of 8 languages and international interactions for several decades have me pretty certain that there are different concepts of thoughts depending on language and culture. In fact, that is what I find so enriching and keeps me going in spite of the frustrations and the frictions and misunderstandings that also comes from being a citizen of the world.

    The topic you raise and discuss is very interesting, and I think it is absolutely smart to assume the opposite of what I am convinced of too. It probably will lead to a deeper understanding of the issue.
     
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    SynapticNulship
    I do not know how many languages you speak or how extensive your international experience is, but I can say that based on my knowledge of 8 languages and international interactions for several decades have me pretty certain that there are different concepts of thoughts depending on language and culture.
    Can you give an example of a concept of thought that depends on language?
    Stellare
    I suggest you take a closer look at the idioms in different languages.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    "Psychologist Lera Boroditsky says she's "interested in how the languages we speak shape the way we think" [1].
    This statement seems so innocent, and yet it implies that language definitely does shape thought"

    ....definitely implies....? as opposed to implies? or definitely does?
    Is this a mis-shaped thought? or just ambiguous language?
    The interaction of Language on Thought and Perception of Reality is the subject of the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, and has been bandied about without much resolution, but much bias.

    SynapticNulship
    ....definitely implies....? as opposed to implies? or definitely does?
    Is this a mis-shaped thought? or just ambiguous language?
    Thanks for the feedback. Apparently my intended meaning was not properly conveyed. What I meant was that Lera's statement includes the premise that language shapes thought. However that premise may not be sound.
    John Hasenkam
    Blogs are a good example of how language shapes thought. Not so much in these days but I used to frequently visit a blog where some political-economic types confidently proclaimed they had it all figured out economic and social wise. Very abusive, very derogatory of anyone who disagreed with them. So out came the devil in me ... 
    I pretended to be one of them and thus was welcomed onto the forum. I gave myself time to carefully examine their ideas and offer supporting evidence because most social or economic ideas even when wrong do have supporting evidence. Additionally I wanted to give myself time to explore what gems may life within their proclamations of all things true socio-economic wise. That certainly influenced my thinking in some areas, enough to change my mind about some social issues but more in a continuum than categorical sense. It was the "force" of their language, the confidence in their proclamations, that helped me shift my thinking. But it never shifted far enough to become a tribal member; especially given I ranted against their continual insulting of anyone who disagreed with their views. That's where the problem for me started. 

    I became more of an asshole, I became more intolerant of differing views, I too often launched into others with venom and spite. Their language shaped my thought, I need to now rid myself of that nastiness. But not on that forum, that is the game they play and it is an easy game to play. I really annoy them now because in their eyes I am apostate. Nonetheless in order to counter the unfortunate language habits I have developed I must stay away from that forum, I cannot consciousnessly(not consciously!) counter the influence they have on my own language. 

    The above is another example of why I think accusations of groupthink are too often silly. We are all subject to groupthink. 



    SynapticNulship
    I would say that is the use of language as an instrumental cause to modify thought not the primary cause. Certainly what you experienced with political blogs could have happened in any human language, right? And aren't these methods of thinking--and the tribal us-against-them mindset--a mental predecessor to the expression of such thinking?

    John Hasenkam
    That be true Samuel.
    This is something I came across a while ago, a strange comment that Chinese scientists were learning English in part because English allows more creative thinking. The two links below might throw some light on that(I haven't read them but think you might find them interesting.)

    Why Isaac Newton was not a Chinese


    Mandarin Chinese use more of their brain than English speakers to understand language

    As always, there appears to be a difference in approach between the two cultures of science and not-science (or science and the arts as described by C P Snow). Observation of nature often helps to simplify complex explanations.

    I tend towards the Li and Gleitman observation summarised as "the evidence they collected suggests that humans, human infants, and rats actually choose an orientation strategy based on context (such as the availability of landmark cues)":

    Users of Sanskrit (c. 800 BCE to 1000 CE) and Sanskrit-related languages (last thousand years) in India face East into the rising sun for most, if not all of their personal rituals and performances - consequently, their right hand extends or points to the South. Subsequently the word for South came to designate the right hand side, and still does to this day, even in the modern languages, around 2-3000 years later.

    This example might be of use to psychologist Lera Boroditsky in explaining the response of the Kuuk Thaayorre by observing that the Sun travels from East to West. It would seem natural for the Kuuk Thaayorre to construct their notion of space and time by the only consistent regulating phenomenon apparent to and agreed by them as individuals within a collectivity. Any temporal sequence would then have to mirror the trajectory of the Sun, regardless of which other direction the individual may be facing.

    This raises the question (to my mind at least) - whether this re-designation of a specific context based cue as personal spatial orientation has affected either the thought behind the actions, or the language used to describe these actions. The answer seems, simply, yes on this illustration at last. It provides both a word, and a concept, or maybe a signifier and a signified. At a basic level then, language and thought coincide, although the arbitrary nature of this coincidence is modified by convention. Whether and when these concepts are then extended to other (possibly abstract) notions and phenomena, the (re-)figuration remains constant, leading to what we later refer to as a metaphor.

    What many of the other approaches described above in your post, and in the comments section, seem to me to be discussing is not the link between language and thought, nor whether language shapes thought or vice versa, but rather what responses by humans to external phenomena are structured or shaped by language and thought working together, and not how these responses shape human thought and language.

    {In view of some of the personal experiences that inform some of your commentators, I readily declare my conflicts of interest as having been trained as a generic physicist, researched in aerospace materials, fluent in languages ranging from Latin, Greek and Sanskrit to Swahili, Hindi, French, English, Gujarati amongst others, experience in computing, a degree in translation, and current postgraduate research looking at cultural responses of diasporic communities to legal and social thought and philosophy.} I hope this establishes some limited credibility on my part.

    I will be happy to accept any comments, including corrections as necessary.

    SynapticNulship
    What many of the other approaches described above in your post, and in the comments section, seem to me to be discussing is not the link between language and thought, nor whether language shapes thought or vice versa, but rather what responses by humans to external phenomena are structured or shaped by language and thought working together, and not how these responses shape human thought and language.

    I think I may be on the same page as you (or maybe not?). In the comments here, what I am noticing is a tendency to use the evidence of thinking changes and/or learning in correlation with obvious language changes and then assuming that language is the cause.

    The fact that most if not all methods of communication that we use can be referred to as a language (even when communicating with computers we call it a "language") means that any external influence of cognition, be it thought or subconscious, will be correlated with some use of language. But that doesn't mean it's the language itself that does anything. A language may echo a set of categories, concepts, etc., but those are not in the language.

    I think the emphasis should be more on the interactions, both intra-mind and inter-agent and agent-within-environment. And there's the developmental aspect that is always important for mental phenomena (and is mentioned a lot on my blog here).
    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps it would be appropriate to provide an example of a situation in which a thought or cognition occurs without language? 
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    thought: rotate a shape in your imagination (or determine if a given shape is in fact a rotation or mirror image of a known shape, such as a letter).

    Also, take any English sentence which has any ambiguity at all. The various interpretations of that sentence are certainly being thought about, yet the thoughts cannot be in just the language English since that is ambiguous and non specific enough.

    cognition in general: driving, dancing, anything involving sequences of specific body movements
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not sure about the first unless you're referring to something which is almost reflexively recognized.  If so, it would [in my view] by in the same category as your third example of driving, etc.  In that those situations don't include language, because we don't engage in them consciously.  As soon as we become consciously aware of what we are doing, language appears.

    The second example, is peculiar because it is specifically targeted to language, so I'm not sure how that fits in.  In fact, a strong argument can be made regarding the role of language in shaping thought when such words [written or spoken] give rise to humor.  Clearly what makes us laugh at a joke is the juxtaposition of circumstances that surprise our cognitive processes with an unexpected twist.   Similarly we are all familiar with reading stories that cause emotional effects, which also indicates that we are much more attuned to language to influence our cognitive processes.  Certainly such circumstances aren't merely mental abstractions, but they become actual short-term experiences [i.e. exercising our imaginations].
    Mundus vult decipi
    SynapticNulship
    Similarly we are all familiar with reading stories that cause emotional effects, which also indicates that we are much more attuned to language to influence our cognitive processes.
    Not at all. It is true that humans are very story oriented--indeed there seems to be a revival lately of using narratives everywhere, even in business, because of how effective they are. And yes reading stories (or listening or watching movies) can cause emotional effects. But that does not necessitate language as the cause. Or perhaps I am misunderstanding what your point is. Of course a story has to be communicated in some manner or else it's not a story. Language is the means in which the story is communicated. And it's not at all a perfect conduit. Everybody interprets a story slightly differently. In the case of vocal copies, everybody recounts it slightly differently. The best parts are sometimes the details that are left out because the person experiencing the story will fill that part in with personally relevant concepts. This is very evident in horror stories / films. What you don't see can be more scary than what you do see.

    Certainly such circumstances aren't merely mental abstractions, but they become actual short-term experiences
    Sure...using internal symbols which are not all linguistic.
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually after I posted, I realized a situation of where thoughts occur without language; in dealing with animals.  This is a kind of unconscious "language" or communications mechanism.

    In particular if someone is trying to lead an animal that may be a bit fractious or at least somewhat more independently minded, it becomes very clear.  Most people that aren't used to animals tend to try and lead and then watch closely to see if the animal is following [or walking along side].  However, this creates a problem since often such "looking" is interpreted by the animal as acknowledgement of their leadership and the problem may become aggravated.

    Instead what one has to do is to almost deliberately ignore the animal and simply lead with an attitude of expectation that causes the animal to acknowledge your leadership.  After all, animal leaders don't ask for permission or acceptance, they simply command it.

    Now, it should be understood that I"m generalizing to a great degree, so that one will see quite different behaviors if an animal is wild, or if it is well-socialized to the individual involved.  However, as a general rule, it is that kind of simple communication that governs what happens.  In short, the more self-conscious we are, the less authority we have in such a relationship.

    It may not be the best example, but it does illustrate your point about having thoughts without the necessity of language.
    Mundus vult decipi