Swimming is to Water as Knowing is to Language

When we think about knowing and not knowing, the known and the unknown, sooner or later we have to start thinking about language. Language is the currency of knowing. Realizing this is like swimming for years before realizing that you were not just swimming – you were swimming in something – water. Analogously, we are not just thinking, we are thinking in something – language.

Swimming in fresh water is different than swimming in salt water and both are different from swimming in oil, mud or wet concrete. Thinking in one language is different from thinking in another. And thinking with one vocabulary set is different from thinking with another.  Language cannot be separated from thinking. And what we think determines what we know – or at least that is the question I want to open up.

When I was a teenager I had a friend named John.  One night he was trying to explain something and couldn’t say it clearly. As his friend I taunted him saying that he didn’t know what he was talking about. In frustration he blurted out, “I know it, but I don’t understand it!” I almost fell over laughing at what I thought was ludicrous statement. Now years later and after having read many pages of philosophy I realize that John was actually making a profound point (although I doubt he realized it) that I had no way of appreciating at the time.

I put forth that understanding, aka knowing, is something that can only happens in language.* Think about it. Can you know something without knowing it in words and sentences? Take for example the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Can you know that fact in any other way except in a sentence that says, “The Earth revolves around the Sun?” If you can, then how do you know it other without using words?

Maybe this seems too “abstract” a piece of knowledge. Let’s pick something simpler. Can I know that blue is my favorite color without resorting to the use of language? You might say that of course I know what my favorite color is without having to have a sentence in mind that tells me it is. It might be true that when you see something blue it makes you feel more pleasant than seeing any other color. But feeling pleasant when you see a color isn’t the same as knowing that is your favorite color. In fact, feeling pleasant when you see a certain color isn’t the same thing as knowing you feel pleasant when you see that color.

What do we mean when we say we ‘know’ something? Usually we mean that we are holding something in the mental space of our mind that corresponds to something that is true outside of our mind in the world. You can perceive the color blue and you can perceive a pleasant emotion arise in you , but that isn’t the same as holding in your mind the idea that this color is my favorite color, or even that I like this color. Those ideas are abstractions deduced from the original perceptions.

There is a long road that must be traveled before our experience of pleasure at seeing the color blue and the thought that “blue is my favorite color.” And that thought when it appears always comes as a sentence in your mind.

If it is true that everything we know we know in language then what we know is dependent on the language at our disposal and our skill in using it. And what we believe to be true is similarly limited by the language at our disposal and our skill in using it. If it is not true and there are other ways of knowing then what are those ways?

*Please note that I am specifically talking about the language of the written word, but language in the widest sense can include any symbolic system of communication from the dances of some native cultures to the mathematics of science.