This article was last modified on March 23, 2011.

Language and the Training of Thought

Language and thought are strongly intertwined, but how? “The conviction that language is necessary to thinking (is even identical with it) is met by the contention that language perverts and conceals thought.” [Dewey: 141] Some believe that language and thought are one and the same — try thinking with out doing so in words — while others feel that thoughts are pure, and words are but a limited means to express them. If you have ever had a thought you could not phrase in a manner you felt most captured your feelings, this may sound reasonable to you.

There are, says philosopher and educator John Dewey, three views of how thought and language are connected: One: “they are identical”; two: “words are the garb or clothing of thought, necessary not for thought but only for conveying it”; three: “while language is not thought it is necessary for thinking as well as for its communication”. [Dewey: 141] Possibilities one and two are outlined in the opening paragraph, while the third option is more of a middle ground or compromise between the two, and the view that Dewey accepts.

Dewey says that if we say “language is necessary”, we are also saying “signs are necessary”, because they are the same. [Dewey: 142] Or, at the least, language cannot be expressed without signs. Language and words are just signs of things, and the signs can change. “Canis, hund, chien, dog — it makes no difference what the outward thing is, so long as the meaning is presented.” [Dewey: 142] Dewey seems to be suggesting a “theory of meaning”, that two things are the same if they share the same connotation. And for the purposes of language, that may be good enough — if I say “dog” and Gunter says “hund”, we mean the same thing.

What is possibly the most amazing about the use of signs is that they can take the place of actual, physical events. “When we can make the word rain, we do not have to wait for some physical forerunner of rain to call our thoughts in that direction.” [Dewey: 143] Words are signs for meanings that need not be present. “Arbitrary linguistic signs are convenient and easy to manage.” [Dewey: 143] This use of signs is even more handy when talking of non-physical things like “sadness” or “God”.

Simply pointing at an object is temporary, but “a meaning fixed by a linguistic sign is conserved for future use.” [Dewey: 144] Continuing with the idea of “rain”, because we have a sign (word) for this phenomenon we are able to conjure up its imagery even when it is not around. While we could do it more generally by saying “water falling in little drops”, the word “rain” is much more clear. English even goes further and can specify the imagery of rain with “downpour”, “sprinkling” and similar terms.

“Learning, in the proper sense, is not learning things, but the meanings of things, and this process involves the use of signs”. [Dewey: 146] While our senses can detect millions of things, there is no practical understanding or application of them until there is meaning or a way to express them. Since it would be nearly impossible to show how rain evaporates, forms clouds and then precipitates, imagine the difficulty of understanding such a thing without words.

One of the best ways to learn is to realize our own ignorance, as opposed to the “ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions” which “gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with a varnish waterproof to new ideas.” [Dewey: 146] Such problems seem to arise most often in politics and religion, where man is most passionate but least knowledgeable. An acceptance of things not understood replaces any true critical thinking.

The study of language is the most universal of studies because it “is continually used in all studies as well as in all the social discipline of the school”. [Dewey: 148] Whether studying science or literature or any niche, the key to any study is the understanding of the language used. To help a student learn and grow, Dewey recommends “enlargement of the pupil’s vocabulary”, “rendering its terms more precise and accurate” and the “formation of habits of consecutive discourse.” [Dewey: 149] For those hoping to extend their schooling, it is helpful to “distinguish between one’s active and one’s passive vocabulary”. A student (or person in general) understands far more words than they ever speak or write. To grow, those words should move from passive to active. This helps create further nuance, and incidentally helps others learn by exposing them to more refined terms.

Language is important, but to be really effective a considerable vocabulary is needed. Dewey asks us to think of a time when “learning an appropriate name for what was dim and vague cleared up and crystallized the whole matter.” [Dewey: 143] And, by extension, the more terms we know, the more clear our world should become.


Dewey, John. How We Think Barnes and Noble, 2005.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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