Excerpted from my forthcoming:
Independent thought is critical thought – it is the critical faculty at its best: the faculty of identification, evaluation, discernment, grasping.
Thought, in turn, is accomplished by means of language, which is precisely why the more you understand the words you’re using, the clearer and more streamlined will be your thinking. This is also the reason that vocabulary-building, as they used to call it (a term I’ve always liked), develops thought. Because in a very real sense, growing your vocabulary grows your thinking.
The primary advantage of language is that it facilitates thought.
Communication is not language’s primary purpose or function – insofar as communication presupposes that one first has thoughts and ideas to communicate.
Have you ever noticed that finding the right word for something clarifies your thinking almost instantly, the moment you discover the word? Have you noticed how a clear explanation brings precision and order into your mind? This is also the reason that the more you’re able to articulate your thoughts and ideas – on paper or aloud – the more your true level of understanding is disclosed. In this way, building a vocabulary – in other languages as well as your native – develops your brain and the power of your brain: it does so specifically by developing your faculty of apprehension, which is the human apparatus of reason in action.
Thus the art of independent thinking is, in addition to everything else, the art of human comprehension by means of language — “language as thought,” as Oscar Wilde described it, when he was referring to the independent thinker as, in his words, “the critic as artist”:
“Because there is no mode of action, no general form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals, and so it’s only by language that we rise above them, or above each other – by language, which is the parent, and not the child, of thought,” as Oscar Wilde also so beautifully and brilliantly expressed it – and then, in the same dialogue, continued:
You asked me the use of criticism [in art]. You might just as well have asked me the use of thought…. It is [critical thinking] that makes the mind a fine instrument. We in our educational system have burdened the memory with a load of unconnected facts and laboriously striven to impart our laboriously acquired knowledge. We teach people how to remember, yet we never teach them how to grow. It has never occurred to us to try and develop the mind in a more subtle quality of apprehension and discernment. The Greeks did this, and when we come into contact with the Greek critical intellect we cannot but be conscious that, while our subject matter is in every respect larger and more varied than theirs, theirs is the only method by which this subject matter can be interpreted…. The only thing that can purify [the ignorance of the community] is the growth of critical thought. It is this, I say again, which, by concentration, makes all culture possible…. It is the knowledge that the development of the human race depends upon the development of the individual, and where self-culture has ceased to be the ideal, the intellectual standard is instantly lowered, and, often, ultimately lost.
— Oscar Wilde, The Critic As Artist, Part II