2 Words and ideas seen as tools

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It is often suggested that words and ideas function as tools, but it remains difficult to find this principle clearly expressed. A few examples are presented below.

There is some question whether the present article should be considered "original research" and therefore removed from this website which aims to contain only encyclopedia articles. An effort has been made to restrict the following discussion to straightforward presentation of the established points of view of selected experts, and its should therefore not constitute "original research."

Dennett’s "Tools for Thinking"

A cogent presentation of ideas as tools can be found in an article by Daniel C. Dennett
, entitled " Making Tools for Thinking" (in Dan Sperber, ed., volume on Meta-representation, 1997 conference at Simon Fraser University, final draft 1998).

In this article, Dennett refers to Wolfgang Köhler’s early (1925) experiments with chimpanzees, noting that:

    Köhler’s apes did not just sit and think up the solutions. They had to have many hours of exposure to the relevant props—the boxes and sticks, for instance—and they engaged in much manipulation of these items. Those apes that discovered the solutions—some never did—accomplished it with the aid of many hours of trial and error manipulating. Now were they thinking when they were fussing about in their cages? ... What they were attending to, manipulating and turning over and rearranging were boxes and sticks, not thoughts.

But while the apes were manipulating sticks instead of thoughts, Dennett suggests that human beings manipulate words in basically the same way that apes manipulate sticks:

    The primary found objects, of course, are words, which, like the blacksmith’s legendary tools, are tools for making more tools.

Thus, as Dennett expresses it, words are tools, and as such they are also tools for making other word tools.

Other examples of words as tools: Wittgenstein and Mumford

"Words as tools" appears to be a theme in the work of the philosopher Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s position, which was stated in his "Philosophical Investigations," is explained in a paper by Jenee Jerome entitled "Investigations of Private Language" (2002, Prism, University of Wisconsin):

    Wittgenstein rejects the idea that words stand only as labels for objects, thereby producing the meaning of those words. Instead, words are placed back into the context from which they were taken, from the actual use. The use of a word is then taken to be its meaning. Early on in section 11, of the Investigations, Wittgenstein describes this position by considering words as tools that can used in a variety of ways

In other words, a word is not just a passive label attached to an object, it is something that gets actively used, manipulated, by person employing it. It is the way a word is used that determines its meaning, and not the contrary.

Wittgenstein’s view of words as tools is also referred to in the following extract from the summary of a thesis written by David Shainok at Columbia University in 2005, entitled: Words as tools: An investigation into the normativity of meaning (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke). The author is referring to Wittgenstein’s "Rule Following Arguments" (FRA):

    The core of my thesis is that knowing the meaning of a word involves knowing how to use it. I argue that a successful solution to the problems raised by RFA will employ Wittgenstein’s analogy between words and tools. The use of words is similar to that of tools, hence like the use of a tool, the use of a word should be evaluated according to the results that it yields in the world (which naturally appear only after it has been used).

This author thus adds that if we manipulate words in a way similar to that in which we manipulate tools, this implies that we can evaluate the effectiveness of our word use by the results that it yields in the world.

The theme of "words as tools" also appears in the work of Lewis Mumford, as noted in the following sentence from the Wikipedia article about the Whole Earth Catalog:

    Another thinker admired by Brand and some of his cohorts was Lewis Mumford, who had written about words as tools.

A relevant forum discussion about how Mumford viewed words as tools can be found on a website about gardening! A participant on this forum refers to Mumford’s distinction between a tool and a machine, according to which a "tool" lends itself to manipulation, and a "machine" lends itself to automatic action. The participant notes: "Some argument could occur about what exactly ’manipulation’ could be, but I take it as ’directly used in the human hand.’"

Another participant replied that Lewis Mumford might not have agreed with the definition of "tool" as "directly used in the human hand," citing the following passage from Mumford, which suggests that words are tools:

    It has not been for nothing that the word has remained man’s principal toy and tool: without the meanings and values it sustains, all man’s other tools would be worthless.

To which the first participant replied:

    Words as tools, aye? That is quite a broad definition. Not sure if one could have a meaningful discussion about technology if a word can be a tool, and vice-versa.

This last response indicates one possible objection to the view that ideas are tools.

The Development of Ideas as Implements according to Constructivist Epistemology

The individual’s use of ideas as instruments is a major focus of the philosophical perspective referred to as "Constructivism" or "Constructionism". This perspective views all human knowledge as "constructed", rather than necessarily reflecting external reality. Thus constructivists argue that external reality (the "thing in itself" or "ontological reality") is incoherent as a concept, since there is no way to verify whether reality as we perceive it correctly matches the external reality.

Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx are early examples of thinkers who suggested that our representations of reality are socially constructed, but they referred to processes operating throughout society, rather than within the individual.

In psychology, constructivists study how the individual’s conception of the world is built up or constructed, much as one builds a machine by piecing together separate elements.

The study of how the individual’s mental structure is formed was pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who worked in the field of developmental psychology. Vygotsky was interested in how a child’s development is guided by interpersonal communications and the surrounding culture. He studied how children learn and how they play, and developed a theory of the inter-related development of language and thought, set out in his book "Thinking and Speaking". Vygotsky postulated that the child’s capacity for silent "inner speech" develops from the child’s social use of oral language, as explained in this extract from the Wikipedia article about Vygotsky:

    Language starts as a tool external to the child used for social interaction. As she grows into her second year, the child uses this tool to guide her own activities in a kind of self-talk or "thinking out loud". Initially, self-talk is still very much a tool of social interaction, tapering away to negligible levels when the child is alone... Gradually, however, self-talk is used more as a tool for self-directed and self-regulating behavior. Around the time the child starts school, her self-talk is no longer present, not because it has disappeared but rather because speaking has been appropriated and internalized.

Working along the experimental lines traced by Vygotsky, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed a complete theory of the cognitive development of the child. His theory describes four development stages, as follows:

  • Sensori-motor stage: from birth to age 2 years (the child experiences the world through movement and the senses, and learns the permanence of objects)
  • Pre-operational stage: from ages 2 to 7 (acquisition of motor skills)
  • Concrete operational stage: from ages 7 to 11 (the child begins to think logically about concrete events)
  • Formal operational stage: after age 11 (development of abstract reasoning)

Piaget describes the development process as a repeating cycle, with the following steps:

  • The child performs an action which has an effect on objects, and the child notes the action and its effects
  • Through repeated actions, with variations in different contexts, the child is able to differentiate the various elements and their effects (reflecting abstraction)
  • Through the repeated actions, the child is also able to identify the properties of objects by the way different kinds of action affect them (empirical abstraction)
  • By repeating this process across a wide range of objects and actions, the child establishes a new level of knowledge and insight

This process allows the child to construct new ways of dealing with objects, and new knowledge about objects themselves. Once the child has constructed these new kinds of knowledge, he or she starts to use them to create still more complex objects and to carry out still more complex actions. This process is generally gradual, but once a new level of organization of knowledge is acquired and proves to be effective, it is rapidly generalized to other areas. As a result, transitions between stages tend to be rapid and radical. When the knowledge that has been slowly gained at one stage leads suddenly to a new higher stage of insight, a "gestalt" is said to have occurred.

Piaget thus shows how children progressively organize their knowledge into increasingly complex structures, gaining an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the kinds of rules that govern both external reality and internal mental processes (such as logical rules, including the distributive law and the associative law). This is again an example of how we make "tools for thinking".

A parallel but less solid trend in constructivist epistemology is Alfred Korzybski’s theory of General Semantics. Korzybski envisaged his General Semantics, which is distinct from the separate subject of grammatical semantics, as a sort of mental hygiene that would enable individuals to avoid the conceptual errors that can result from our use of language. Korzybski emphasized that human experience is filtered through mediating systems such as sensory organs, the nervous system and linguistic constructions. He therefore advocated that we should develop a "consciousness of abstracting", in order to remain aware of the inevitable gap between our perceptions and reality. This is summed up in his formula "The map is not the territory", in other words, that the words should not be taken for the things that they describe. Korzybski influenced the social scientist Gregory Bateson. Bateson in turn influenced the founders of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which purports to be a psychotherapy based on constructivist principles, but is generally considered to be a pseudo-science.

Ideas seen as Instruments in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Ideas are considered to function as instruments in the psychotherapy known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which was originally developed by Albert Ellis in the early 1950s. Ellis called his approach Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, or REBT. As explained in the Wikipedia article on REBT:

    Fundamental to REBT is the concept that emotional suffering results primarily, though not completely, from our evaluations of a negative event, not solely by the events per se. In other words, human beings on the basis of their belief system actively, though not always consciously, disturb themselves.... Irrational beliefs prevent goal attainment, lead to inner conflict, lead to more conflict with others and poor mental health. Rational beliefs lead to goal attainment and more inner harmony.

Ellis thus suggested that much human suffering and inefficiency is caused by irrational ideas in the individual’s belief system. (In Wikipedia, the link to "belief system" forks to either religion or world view. The second meaning seems to be closest to what is addressed in REBT: see the subheading "Weltanschauung and cognitive philosophy" under the Wikipedia world view article. This subheading notably refers to the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the nature of a particular language influences the habitual thought of its speakers. This again suggests that word structures are instruments which fashion our perception of the world.)

If irrational beliefs can cause unhappiness, then the promotion of rational beliefs can be therapeutic. Quoting again from Wikipedia:

    REBT is an educational and active-directive process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating tendencies which in nature are unrealistic, illogical and absolutist, and then to forcefully and emotionally dispute them, and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones.

Concurrently with Ellis, the psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck independently developed a similar approach, called Cognitive Therapy, while Arnold A. Lazarus introduced the term "behavior therapy". According to Wikipedia, cognitive and behavioral techniques are often combined into "cognitive behavioral treatment", arguably the primary type of psychological treatment being studied in research today.

Cognitive therapy thus illustrates how "rational ideas" can be viewed as instruments for the self-improvement of the patient’s emotional life.