Inner Speech and “Thoughts” (II)

This post concerns a second picture that’s found in the article “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought” by Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente. This picture is one that’s shared by these authors as well as by those they criticize. It’s the idea that inner speech ‘brings thoughts to consciousness’, ‘makes thoughts conscious’, or enables us to ‘monitor our cognitive processes’. These phrases suggest that the meanings of sentences we produce in inner speech are somehow already there in us before we inwardly say them.

It is important to note that these already-present meanings need not be supposed to be in a natural language format. But the picture that ‘bringing to consciousness’ suggests is that the meanings of what’s going to be said in inner speech are already there in some format or other, and need only to put into into linguistic form in our inner speech.

This picture contrasts with what I’ve suggested in Your Brain and You. The view there is that a bit of speech – whether inner or overt – can perfectly well be the very first time that a cognitive product occurs that has the meaning of what is said in the speech. On this view, inner speech need not correspond to, or ‘match’, or bring to consciousness, something that already has its meaning.

Of course, it may correspond to something already formulated. This happens, e.g., when we recite in inner speech a poem that we have memorized. The point is that there need noi be any such precursor, in any format. The argument, in very brief summary form, is that there has to be some time at which some meaning is first represented in us – if that were not so, we’d have to suppose, absurdly, that everything we are ever going to think is already fully formulated in some way in us. But if there has to be a first coming together of ideas to make a meaningful assertion somewhere, it may be that an episode of inner (or overt) speech is that very first coming together.

Martínez-Manrique and Vicente have a very plausible argument for their picture and against mine. Inner speech, they correctly note, is often fragmentary, but we generally feel that we know what we mean. On their view, this feeling would be explained by our having a thought that is already there, that is given only a fragmentary expression. The fragmentary expression is good enough, because we have a more complete thought in mind.

I think, however, that what we actually have in our consciousness, besides the fragmentary inner speech, is only a sense of confidence that we are able to go on to fill in what was not actually stated in our inner speech. And, usually, our confidence is justified –  we are able to go on in a coherent and useful way. But this ability does not require that there is already a fully formulated representation of a complete thought somewhere in us. It requires only that we are (usually, though not always) able to go on more or less successfully. And going on successfully requires only that our cognitive processes continue to operate in an organized way. We cannot deny that they can do this – they have to be able to do it if we are to cope with living. It adds needless complexity to suppose that they have to do it twice, once in non-linguistic format and then in linguistic re-format.

Let’s illustrate the difference in views with one of Martínez-Manrique’s and Vicente’s examples. Perhaps I say, in inner speech, only “The meeting!” If I reflect on this later, I will be inclined to feel that I knew which meeting I meant, and when it is (or was) to take place, even though I didn’t say anything about that in my inner speech. It seems ever so natural to think that these other, unstated matters are already there “in thought” and that if I go on to say more about the details of which meeting I meant, I am linguistically formulating matters that were previously put together in some way.

But all that’s required for me to know what I mean is that I am well enough organized to go on appropriately. For example, I might start hurrying to get to the meeting, or, if it’s already over, I might start preparing apologies to appropriate individuals, or start rehearsing excuses. If I feel that I can go on appropriately, and in fact do so, it will be tempting to think I had all the particulars fully formed in mind when I exclaimed to myself “The meeting!”. But that hypothesis, however natural, seems unnecessary. A “just in time” organization that provides appropriate details when they become relevant will lead to the same results, with a simpler set of assumptions.

A “just in time” view also seems to be a good account of our occasional failures. Suppose I have a regular weekly meeting, but for special reasons it’s been canceled this week, and I’ve made other plans. It’s possible that ten minutes after the usual time, I’ll suddenly think “The meeting!” and have a surge of anxiety. Then, almost immediately “Oh no! Canceled. Whew!” It’s hard to imagine that the second part of this was “already there”; it would seem to be a case where the eruption of the cancellation into consciousness just is the inner saying together with relief from anxiety. These later occurrences are products of our cognitive processes, of course, but they need not be conceived as a reformatting of something that those processes have already produced.

[The article referred to is Fernando Martínez-Manrique and Agustín Vicente, “ ‘What the . . .?’ The role of inner speech in conscious thought”, The Journal of Consciousness Studies 17(9-10):141-167 (2010).

There are several interesting posts about inner speech on Eric Schwitzgebel’s web site: go to .

Besides what’s in Your Brain and You, I’ve discussed inner speech in my “Thoughts Without Distinctive, Non-Imagistic Phenomenology”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70:534-561 (2005) and “A Frugal View of Cognitive Phenomenology”, soon to appear in T. Bayne and M. Montague, eds., Cognitive Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press). ]


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