‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.’
As I see it, roughly the same problem plagues consciousness as language: our inability to really step outside of what we are describing, because what we are describing is the means by which we can describe (or do) anything. This obviously doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about either language or consciousness – only that there seem to be built in limits for what we can sensibly say on either subject.
Wittgenstein’s early logical atomism obviously fails here – so a naïve positivism with regard to thought, language and consciousness won’t do. While I’ve articulated my own views on language being a fundamental part of the makeup of reality, I think any kind of linguistic idealism is as bankrupt as Wittgenstein’s atomism – so either naïve atomism or idealism with regard to thought, language and consciousness are out of the picture.
So, then, what can we say about thought, language and consciousness? We have apparently arrived nowhere – but let’s see if we can pull together some coherent thoughts.
Language, while obviously crucial to our being able to communicate and understand, is not all there is to thought and consciousness – as Fr. Stanley Jaki notes:
‘For language is not thought itself, even if it should be considered the most important expression of thought…were a word or a sentence thought itself, translation from one language to another would be impossible, nor could one explain the availability of alternative sentences within one language. If words were thought itself why should one grope for words to express an already clear though? If words were thought itself, how could entirely different phenomes stand for the same idea, and how could one in fact be conscious of ideas without uttering words? Evidently, thought implies more than can be contained in purely physical entities acting as symbols.’ (Fr. Stanley Jaki, ‘Brain, Mind, and Computers’, p. 214)
While the above quote is in context of refuting idealistic frenzies of artificial intelligence, it makes a solid point: language is not thought, and thought cannot be restricted to a physicalist account of consciousness.
Thomas Reid’s ideas on consciousness may be of some use here – further musings on that will be forthcoming.