In §383 of his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes:
We are not analysing a phenomenon (e.g. thought) but a concept (e.g. that of thinking), and therefore the use of a word. So it may look as if what we were doing were Nominalism. Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description.1
Philosophy basically and essentially is the analysis of concepts. The grammar of our language determines the use of a word, that is to say, the possibilities of its use within the structures of our language. But thought does not completely depend upon verbal language. If this were the case, it would be impossible to distinguish certain ideas from one another in languages which have only one word for two or more ideas. In German, for instance, there is only one word, namely ‘Himmel’, for the ideas of ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’. English, on the other hand, lacks the grammatical structures of instrumental clauses; instead, we can only use an originally ad-hoc construction2, namely the preposition ‘by’ followed by a gerund, a nominalized verb. Nevertheless, both competent speakers of German and competent speakers of English can entertain the respective ideas.
The latter example – that of the grammatical structures of instrumental clauses – demonstrates that we indeed need not be nominalists, although we may mostly think of examples like the former one when we think about different ideas distinguished, or not distinguished, by different words within a language.
It is a renowned characteristic of the grammatical structure, including punctuation, of natural languages not to follow the structure of thinking. Even though the grammatical structures of, for instance, both English and German require us to put a comma before an adversative clause, since the adversative clause is a grammatical unit, we usually pause after ‘but’ in English or ‘aber’ in German in oral speech, if we form our sentences ad hoc. When we form adversative clauses in this manner, we are usually clear that we want to add an objection or antithesis, whereas we are not clear how, exactly, to adjust our thinking to the grammar of our verbal language. Thus, it seems, the structure of thinking may justifiably be distinguished from the structure of thought, for the latter is itself just a concept. The same thought can be expressed by a plethora of rhetorical and syntactical means or variants. The actual underlying thinking appears to make the difference.
Is it, however, merely a difference of entertaining the exact same thing, or does this also relate to the manner of thinking about something? Do the following sentences contain the same thought:
(1) ‘It is raining.’
(2) ‘It is raining now.’
(3) ‘Now it is raining.’
(4) ‘Unfortunately, it is raining.’
(5) ‘Unfortunately, it is raining now.’
(6) ‘Luckily, it is raining.’
(7) ‘Luckily, it is raining now.’
Obviously, the above sentences represent different ways of thinking about the same phenomenon; yet is there also a difference in the underlying structure of thinking, notwithstanding that the thought – that it be raining – be the very same?
Furthermore, does the grammatical structure, in this case of English, restrict the number of possibilities of entertaining the same thought in different ways, or does it only restrict the number of possibilities of (verbally) expressing it?
Could there be thoughts impossible to be expressed verbally? How should, and could, we, if at all, know this?
1. Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Philosophical Investigations; The German Text With a Revised English Translation; Third Edition; Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001; p. 100e. (Emphasis in the original.)
2. Confer: The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21), Volume XIV, The Victorian Age, Part Two; XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time, § 4. Changes in grammar, subsections 32 and 33: http://bartleby.com/224/1504.html.