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Daily RC Article 98

Language, Self, and Society: Bridging the Divide Between Human and Animal Experience

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There is no evidence that animals, even apes, possess language, can form concepts or can think abstractly. There is no evidence, in short, that they are symbolic creatures. And without symbols – without language – an animal may be able to react to the world, but it cannot in any significant sense, think about it, nor have beliefs about it. … For an animal, therefore there can be no distinction between itself and its picture of the world, in other words an animal cannot be self-aware. And without an awareness of self, it cannot separate the world as it is from the world as it seems. For animals, their picture of the world is the world. …

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Because we possess language, we do not simply have experiences, desires and needs, and react to them. … Humans are aware of themselves as agents, and of the world towards which their agency is directed. Because we can distinguish between ourselves, our thoughts and the world, we can debate, discuss and negotiate among ourselves about the world and our relationship to it, we can talk about morals and norms.

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But if language is a necessary condition of being able to think about the world, it is not a sufficient condition. To understand this, we need to return to a problem: the problem with the Cartesian view of the world. Descartes believed that he would doubt everything apart from his own existence for if he did not exist, he could not doubt his existence. For Descartes, therefore, the only certainties were the thoughts in his head. The mind, in the Cartesian world, is the private possession of the individual. No one else has access to my mind just as I can never have access to yours.

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But the Cartesian approach raises a central problem: how do I know who ‘I’ am and what I mean by ‘self’ or what a ‘thought’ is? How do I know the meaning of pain, as opposed to its sensation? Feelings are internal, known only to me, but meanings are external. One answer is that we cannot understand anyone else’s inner world. We can simply infer that, for instance, another human being is in pain because he is acting as I would if I were in pain.

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The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein showed that if the only things of which I was certain were the contents of my own mind, then I would not be able to communicate those contents to anyone else. For language is a public activity, words get their sense by being attached to publicly accessible conditions that warrant their application. Language provides the means to bridge the gap between our private worlds, because language is itself a social activity. … Paradoxically, then our inner feelings are not located entirely inside our heads. They are also the products of our existence as social beings.

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According to Descartes, knowledge of one’s own mind is the starting point for knowledge of other minds. But Wittgenstein reminded us that without knowledge of other minds it is impossible to have knowledge of our own. Far from inferring other humans’ experiences from our own, we can only truly know what goes on inside our own heads by relating to other humans. No animal possesses either language or a social network like ours. Therefore, it is simply not valid to assume that they have inner experiences as we do.

The article questions animals' possession of language and symbolic thinking, arguing that without language, creatures lack self-awareness and cannot distinguish their world view from reality. Human language enables us to negotiate ideas, morals, and norms, bridging our inner worlds through social interaction. It challenges Descartes' view of the mind as purely private, highlighting Wittgenstein's idea that language, being a social activity, connects our inner lives and shapes our understanding of self and others, a capacity not found in animals.
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