Post Captain is the second book in Patrick O'Brian's series of naval historical novels set in the Napoleonic wars era (thanks to the Crooked Timber crew for the recommendation). Toward the end, Dr. Stephen Maturin is at the opera, but he finds it "poor thin pompous overblown stuff" and cannot enjoy it:
A charming harp came up through the strings, two harps running up and down, an amiable warbling. Signifying nothing, sure; but how pleasant to hear them. Pleasant, oh certainly it was pleasant [...]; so why was his heart oppressed, filled with an anxious foreboding, a dread of something imminent that he could not define? That arch girl posturing upon the stage had a sweet, true little voice; she was as pretty as God and art could make her; and he took no pleasure in it. His hands were sweating.I find this (like a lot of things in good literature, now that I think of it) phenomenologically astute but philosophically naive. Certainly the idea of "thinking [only] in words" suggests a crude picture indeed, of the sort (rightly or wrongly) attributed to artificial intelligence types – and which provokes phenomenologically-motivated accusations of a "myth of the mental" (e.g. in Dreyfus) and calls for recognition of "non-conceptual [mental] content" (not, as I understand it, to be confused with "qualia" – but maybe I'm the one who is confused).
A foolish German had said that man thought in words. It was totally false; a pernicious doctrine; the thought flashed into being in a hundred simultaneous forms, with a thousand associations, and the speaking mind selected one, forming it grossly into the inadequate symbols of words, inadequate because common to disparate situations – admitted to be inadequate for vast regions of expression, since for them there were the parallel languages of music and painting. Words were not called for in many or indeed most forms of thought: Mozart certainly thought in terms of music. He himself at this moment was thinking in terms of scent.
[Suddenly, from his box Stephen espies, in the crowd below, the woman whom he has been chasing for more than four hundred pages, with little success – only just enough, in fact, to maximize his frustration.]
Stephen watched with no particular emotion but with extreme accuracy. He had noted the great leap of his heart at the first moment and the disorder in his breathing, and he noted too that this had no effect upon his powers of observation. He must in fact have been aware of her presence from the first: it was her scent that was running in his mind before the curtain fell; it was in connection with her that he had reflected upon these harps.
Surely, we feel, our minds – and our experiences – contain more than words. That our hearts leap and our breaths catch, or that our (verbal) thoughts are affected, subtly or otherwise, by bodily phenomena and multifarious subconscious associations cannot be denied. The faculty of language – the "speaking mind" – is only one of many contributors to the experiential makeup of our conscious selves. It is natural to reach, as we all do at times, for an image of trying, and often failing, to "put into words" something which must perforce exist "outside" language but which is still part of our experience. Still, I would resist the idea that there are "thoughts" antecedent to their linguistic manifestations, or that music and other arts are "parallel languages" which can communicate thoughts which (what we would have to call, now non-redundantly) "verbal language" cannot. (Or as my undergrad professor put it, when I spoke of the sort of experiences Stephen here discusses: "why do you want to call these things 'thoughts'"?)
Let's look first at the idea that words are (language is) "inadequate because common to disparate situations." This has been a common refrain in philosophy from the Greeks through Derrida. Here's another German on the matter, writing some seventy years after Stephen's night at the opera, but one hundred years before the real-life author of Stephen's ruminations:
Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates in our equating what is unequal. No leaf every wholly equals another, and the concept "leaf" is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be "leaf"—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form. ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense", The Portable Nietzsche, p. 46)Nietzsche scholars like Clark hurry to point out that Nietzsche later abandoned his youthful skepticism about truth (the oft-quoted subsequent paragraph in "Truth and Lie" tells us that "truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are"), reminding us that this essay was a) published only posthumously, and b) written some 15 years earlier than his most mature writings (an eternity in Nietzsche-time). Still, even here the point is not to accept but to reject the idea that the origin of our concepts means that there is some more perfect reality which (due to their humble origins) they necessarily fail to capture. This is an anti-skeptical point, one which Nietzsche retained throughout his career.
But let's turn back to the properly skeptical point with which this anti-skeptical point is easily conflated (one which later Nietzsche does reject). Even if the Platonic Leaf is an illusion, what about those "unique and wholly individualized original experiences" from which our concept of "leaf" is abstracted? If our concepts necessarily fail to capture (not the pure abstraction, but instead) these individual differences, then it seems that here too our language is inadequate. Yet it is only so if one has a distorted conception of what it is that language is supposed to do, which is not to duplicate individual experiences but instead to express beliefs (and other "mental states" like emotions) and communicate truths about the world (often, which may be the source of some of the confusion here, both at once). Even when the problem is not that language fails (in its necessary finitude) to achieve pure generality, but the seemingly opposite point that it fails (in its necessary generality) to achieve pure specificity, the result is a fatal temptation toward Platonic (or Cartesian) abstraction and reification, and a corresponding anxiety (or conviction!) that language necessarily conceals rather than reveals (or communicates).
Here's a leaf. Is it not a leaf? We just agreed that it is. So "this is a leaf" is true, and not an "illusion." But this other leaf is also a leaf; so "this is a leaf" fails to capture the specific "leafiness" of either of them. True enough, much has been left out. But so what? (What should we say, "this is a leaf, but it's an illusion to believe that it is"? Hogwash.) So say more: this particular leaf is green, small, smooth, wet. These too are merely words, generalized from many greens and smalls and wets. Even the precise hue (say, 7CFC00), the size in microns, the precise amount of water on its surface, everything I can possibly "put into words," will not get us across that metaphysical gap (once so construed) between universal predicates and irreducibly individual thing. You cannot describe to me – language cannot capture – the leaf-in-itself.
Okay, but this wasn't really our problem. Your concern in speaking to me was not after all with a posited leaf-beyond-experience (whether an ideal Platonic Leaf or a specific Cartesian leaf-in-itself) but instead your own experience, communication of which need not require such fictions as leaves-in-themselves. Here too, though, the same problem seems to arise. You had some experience which you want to communicate to me. Of course I can't be you, so I can't have your experience. Yet it still can seem as if even though I cannot be you, there is some thing, a (specific) "experience" of yours (distinct from you, that you are "having", such that that identical experiencer – you – then go on to "have" another such, etc.) which your words necessarily (alas) fail to communicate to me. That such things cannot be transferred whole from your inner theater to mine isn't the fault of language. Even if you handed me the very leaf in question, to look at and touch for myself, I still wouldn't have your experience, even the one I did have was thereby very much more "like yours" than the one I had merely listening to you describe it. This "failure" just doesn't have the philosophical significance it can seem to have: that there is, like the leaf-in-itself, an experience-in-itself which can be conceptually detached from your having it, and which I may thereby "fail" to have due to imperfections in the medium of transmission. In my view, once we've established that I can't be you (or, again, that words aren't "the same as" the things which they denote or describe), that turns out to be the only metaphysically relevant consideration – which as a triviality cannot support the philosophical weight put on it by the sort of realism which results in the sort of skepticism in question, which sees language as "cutting us off from reality" (or each other) rather than opening it up to us.
It is of course true (another triviality) that music or painting can evoke experiences which language cannot – that there are qualitative differences which, as subjects, we automatically project back onto their "objects" qua experience. We naturally speak here too of "expression"; yet there is no reason to think of these arts as "parallel languages," or languages at all. I liked Garry Hagberg's book Art as Language, which goes into these matters very clearly indeed (as the Amazon reviewer rightly notes), so I won't go into them here. I would just suggest that "expression" (whether artistic or linguistic) has connotations not simply of communication, but also of manifestation or even creation, which can help suppress the urge to posit some distinct entity which it can fail to copy adequately – while yet leaving in place the triviality that there are plenty of ways in which an "expression" (of something) can indeed fail (and corresponding locutions, such as Mozart's musical "thought").
For more on the idea of "thinking in terms of scent," I imagine there would be a lot about that in this book, the movie version of which I just saw last week. Interestingly, while I imagine some people reacted to the story's move, toward the end, from highly implausible (even in cinematic terms) to completely impossible, with an annoyed "oh, come on," I found that the move actually relieved that pressure rather than increasing it to intolerable levels – as now it became easier to see the story as purely allegorical fantasy (which of course it always was) rather than an attempt to make (still fanciful) sense on the literal level. (I speak abstractly in order to avoid spoilage.) The film (by Tom Tykwer of Lola rennt fame) renders the experience of scent in visual terms very well (although there were a few too many shots of sniffing noses), and I imagine the book's appeal depends on its success in the corresponding rendering in verbal terms.