Language and Communication

By George A. Miller | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
WORDS, SETS, AND THOUGHTS

By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and in effect increases the mental powers of the race . . . . It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important opera. tions which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle--they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

--A. N. WHITEHEAD

Language develops in a social situation and functions to spread information through a group. It enables one person to take advantage of the experience of other persons, and it is our principal weapon for welding a group together for cooperative action. Social control is impossible without a signaling system; even the social insects have a kind of language. Although the social implications must be kept foremost in understanding language, the possession of language offers advantages to the individual other than those it offers to him as a member of a group. A child learns its language in a social situation and for social reasons, but once he has learned it, his whole personal orientation toward himself and his own problems is altered (cf. Mead, 1925).

One of the nonsocial consequences of language is the user's ability to talk to himself. This ability aids him to pose and to solve problems. By means of the language a problem can be described with a set of symbols. The symbols can be manipulated more easily and quickly than can the components of the original problem; many solutions can be tried symbolically before any action is taken. This is not to say that all thinking is verbal manipulation; but certainly the results of thinking are influenced by our symbolic acts.

Thinking is never more precise than the language it uses. Even if it is, the additional precision is lost as soon as we try to communicate the thought to someone else. The importance of a precise language is most clearly demonstrated by the value of mathematical language in science. It is only necessary to compare the Arabic with the Roman system of numbers in order to recognize the tremendous advantage a good notation has over a poor one.

Just how much emphasis to place on language in the study of thinking is still a debatable issue in psychology. Opinions range all the way from

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Language and Communication
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Preface to Revised Edition vi
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Foreword to the Teacher xi
  • Chapter 1 - By Way of Introduction 1
  • Chapter 2 - The Phonetic Approach 10
  • Selected References 46
  • Chapter 3 - The Perception of Speech 47
  • Selected References 79
  • Chapter 4- The Statistical Approach 80
  • Selected References 99
  • Chapter 5 - Rules for Using Symbols 100
  • Selected References 118
  • Chapter 6 - Individual Differences 119
  • Selected References 139
  • Chapter 7 - The Verbal Behavior of Children 140
  • Selected References 158
  • Chapter 8 - The Role of Learning 159
  • Selected References 173
  • Chapter 9 - Verbal Habits 174
  • Selected References 198
  • Chapter 10 - Some Effects of Verbal Habits 199
  • Selected References 222
  • Chapter 11 - Words, Sets, and Thoughts 223
  • Selected References 248
  • Chapter 12 - The Social Approach 275
  • Bibliography 276
  • Index 287
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