This is a relatively tentative post. I’d welcome your thoughts on it.
Thought and Language
My sophomore year of college, a friend, who was a senior at the time, posed an interesting question. Being the graceful person she is, she laid a hand across her bed and sighed. “Does it seem to you that this curriculum is geared towards men?”
I paused, not sure what to say. I immediately had the wrong impression; normally when these questions come up, it’s associated with the accusation of sexism. But in class, everyone was respectful of everyone else, regardless of sex. No sexism involved. (For the most part. I’m still occasionally frustrated about our discussion of A Doll’s House, but we’ll talk about that another time.)
It wasn’t until two years later, my own senior year, that I started to understand what she was talking about.
Abstract vs. integrated
We studied mostly philosophy; the philosophy of logic, natural philosophy, the philosophy of the soul. The list goes on. And as it goes on, it gets abstract. I liked it. I enjoyed it. I was good at it.
But right around the crown of philosophy, metaphysics, I understood what my friend had meant. The curriculum was geared towards men because abstraction is more the way they think. Women tend to think about integration, to thrive more in applied philosophy, thinking about real people in real situations. Thinking about how this abstract concept will effect each individual life.
When you think so differently, you tend to speak differently, to use your own language. The men were learning to think, and in some ways, the women were learning to think as men do. We were learning to speak men’s language, and the men didn’t even know.
I’m sure it’s similar to the experience of some of the foreign students. Their first languages may be Spanish, Portuguese, or Nepali, but while at school in America, they primarily speak in English. The better they get at it, the less anyone remembers that English isn’t their first language.
In the same way, the better women get at thinking and speaking about abstract thoughts, the less anyone remembers that it’s not her favorite language. And sometimes she can lose sight of it, too.
Again, this isn’t any kind of sexism. I think women are better able to climb inside the heads of others, to learn their metaphorical languages, to know what they want to say, and sometimes what they don’t want to say.
When I was in Spain, most people spoke to me in English. This wasn’t because I thought I was better than them in some way. It was because they knew English and wanted to practice it, and my Spanish was still in-the-works. English was the meeting-ground of our minds, minds that wanted to meet. And that was a gift that we both appreciated.
11 thoughts on “Thought and Language”
I think there is something to what you are saying. I am not sure, however, what you mean by integration. I have thought that women generally want to apply the philosophy or abstract thought to concrete situations, but I find that that also stop one from seeing the connections that the idea in reality has. Thus, the importance and beauty of thought which is manifested by seeing how everything is connected is not exactly natural to men or women. Rather, I think that both must work towards it. Does that make sense?
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I think I’m using integration more loosely than you… Can you give an example of the problem you’re seeing?
I meant that, while it’s natural for men to enjoy thoughts for the sake of thoughts (e.g. God is wholly simple), it’s more natural for women want to see those thoughts change concrete realities (e.g. How can I become more like God in His simplicity?). Both ways have strengths. Both have weaknesses. Consciousness of it can help us appreciate the strengths and work on the weaknesses.
As for integrity in the stricter sense–the connection of realities through ideas so that they become a beautiful whole–I guess I’d say that’s natural to men and women (rather than neither). I think that these two different metaphorical languages are each an attempt, coming at it from a different direction, to do that. Does that make sense?
I think I agree with you. I really like how you express it as different languages, and that women can more easily understand the male way than vice versa.
I also think that the love of abstract thought common to men is always in danger of not being about reality, but just about ideas, or worse, just words. This is especially true for young men. At the same time, they often love thinking, so they go on to make a life of thought more often than women, and hopefully are able to think more integratively as they get older.
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That seems very true to me. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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