aeon | Scientists working on animal cognition often dwell on their desire to talk to the animals. Oddly enough, this particular desire must have passed me by, because I have never felt it. I am not waiting to hear what my animals have to say about themselves, taking the rather Wittgensteinian position that their message might not be all that enlightening. Even with respect to my fellow humans, I am dubious that language tells us what is going on in their heads. I am surrounded by colleagues who study members of our species by presenting them with questionnaires. They trust the answers they receive and have ways, they assure me, of checking their veracity. But who says that what people say about themselves reveals actual emotions and motivations?
This might be true for simple attitudes free from moralisations (‘What is your favourite music?’), but it seems almost pointless to ask people about their love life, eating habits, or treatment of others (‘Are you pleasant to work with?’). It is far too easy to invent post-hoc reasons for one’s behaviour, to be silent about one’s sexual habits, to downplay excessive eating or drinking, or to present oneself as more admirable than one really is.
No one is going to admit to murderous thoughts, stinginess or being a jerk. People lie all the time, so why would they stop in front of a psychologist who writes down everything they say? In one study, female college students reported more sex partners when they were hooked up to a fake lie-detector machine, demonstrating that they had been lying when interviewed without the lie-detector. I am in fact relieved to work with subjects that don’t talk. I don’t need to worry about the truth of their utterances. Instead of asking them how often they engage in sex, I just count the occasions. I am perfectly happy being an animal watcher.
Now that I think of it, my distrust of language goes even deeper, because I am also unconvinced of its role in the thinking process. I am not sure that I think in words, and I never seem to hear any inner voices. This caused a bit of an embarrassment once at a meeting about the evolution of conscience, when fellow scholars kept referring to an inner voice that tells us what is right and wrong. I am sorry, I said, but I never hear such voices.
Am I a man without a conscience, or do I – as the American animal expert Temple Grandin once said about herself – think in pictures? Moreover, which language are we talking about? Speaking two languages at home and a third one at work, my thinking must be awfully muddled. Yet I have never noticed any effect, despite the widespread assumption that language is at the root of human thought. In his 1972 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, tellingly entitled ‘Thoughtless Brutes’, the American philosopher Norman Malcolm stated that ‘the relationship between language and thought must be… so close that it is really senseless to conjecture that people may not have thoughts, and also senseless to conjecture that animals may have thoughts’.