I was chatting with a fellow systems designer today who told me that when we first met my OS design project seemed more advanced than his. The more I tried to place the year we met, the odder this impression seemed. Eventually he told me that my precise use of words and names for my ideas made them seem more refined than his.
It turns out that he thinks in pictures and gestures. This is hardly the first time I've heard that idea but it always just baffled me previously. You know all those people who advise you to think of something visually or other-than-linguistically when you want to memorize something? That "advice" never meant anything to me either. The whole concept of non-linguistic thinking seemed incomprehensibly alien. What else are you supposed to think with?
Well, I understand it now. It has nothing to do with thinking. My friend uses pictures and gestures as referents to memorize ideas and concepts. The same way that I would use names. Now, the idea that naming isn't thought is hardly novel. Richard Feynman, that world-class evil fucking asshole wrote about how his father taught him that knowing the names of a bird in 10 different languages says absolutely nothing about the bird.
(And let me say that it is a majestic tour de force for him to have left an impression of himself as easy-going and folksy in his books when I heard he was a sadistic torturer who enjoyed destroying his students' self-confidence just to make himself seem all-knowing and better-than-them. He was also the biggest hypocritical fucking idiot in physics since he correctly diagnosed the cause of Einstein's lack of productive work later in life and then ... proceeded to emulate him!)
So anyways, names are not ideas. Big deal. That doesn't mean anything until you can actually explain what ideas are in the first place. That turns out to be absurdly simple if you know exactly what synthesis and analysis are. Or maybe I've got that turned around since I think I figured out what ideas are before nailing analysis and synthesis. Or maybe I did them simultaneously, since these questions are so closely related.
What's an idea? An idea is a chain or graph of concepts. The relations between the concepts are themselves some of the most fundamental concepts. Some of these are structural identity, essential identity, association, negation, opposition, and implication. An idea is a TOPOLOGY OF REFERENTS. Think of a web with words at every intersection. Unless you're a non-linguistic thinker in which case the words are replaced by gestures, pictures or pictures of paths.
What's a concept? A concept is a contiguous shape in an N-dimensional scatterplot. I highly recommend reading this essay on machine learning if you want more details. It's what made me understand synthesis and exactly what space concepts are shapes IN. Beforehand I only knew that concepts had a sort of shape, and that they were fuzzy, and in some people could be ridiculously malleable. In a few, concepts get systematically broken down into subcomponents.
So what does thinking non-linguistically mean? It still doesn't mean anything and it is still absurd. But no less so than thinking linguistically. Because you don't think with words. Words are merely placeholders. Symbols with no intrinsic meaning whose meanings is arbitrarily imposed on them from without.
And what does this mean for non-linguistic thinkers? Well, it means they're at a severe disadvantage in communicating anything. Because keystrokes are extremely fast and drawings are extremely slow to generate, even on paper. Their brain's use of non-linguistic referents presents an enormous obstacle to communicating their thoughts. Or even writing them out in a diary and forgetting them.
Most importantly, it means people with a refined use of names (or language in general) are not necessarily better thinkers. Neither more analytic, nor synthetic, nor even more intelligent.