There is a lot of work in philosophy on language, and very little on curiosity. In the field of psychology, after 1950s, research on curiosity has intensified, and in philosophy, a new field called Curiosity Philosophy has been developing only in recent years. As for the curiosity-language relationship that is the subject of this article, as far as I know, I am the only researcher that has published in the world; on the one hand, it gives me the excitement of discovering a new field of thinking, on the other hand it makes me feel very lonely.
Interestingly, almost everyone who thinks about curiosity emphasizes that there is an important link between curiosity and asking questions, but it does not make a transition from the question of the relationship between curiosity and language use. Can an entity that is not capable of asking questions wonder? Do I need to have a language to ask questions? Let’s say you play a game of throwing a ball in the park with your dog; you threw the ball between the trees while he was not looking, and he did not find it; with a confused expression he runs from there to there. In this case, can we say that your dog is wondering where the ball is? I think the majority will say “yes” to this. If this is the right answer, here is where your dog asked himself, “Where’s the ball?” Can we conclude that he asked? I think this time most of you will want to say “no”. I think this is because there is a general understanding that the ability to ask questions only exists in language-speaking beings like us. In fact, this is also a bias. Perhaps even if dogs don’t speak language, You can ask. If they can’t ask, how can a dog wonder where the ball is? Let’s go back to the people. We are not only beings who are curious, but also beings that can express our curiosity by asking questions in the language. In this way, we can share our curiosity. Moreover, as those who are curious about the same thing, we can come together and try to find the answer to our question together; through language we can create a phenomenon that we can call “common curiosity”. Without such a faculty, it would not be possible to create science, philosophy, mythology, literature, religion and even advanced art forms.
“All people want to know, by their very nature,” Aristotle said at the very beginning of his famous work called Metaphysics. Although this so-called concept of curiosity does not pass, it is defined as a desire to know curiosity in a very common view. The important question arises here: is wondering in our nature? I think most of you will say “yes”, I think this is the wrong answer. When we establish the relationship of curiosity with the use of language, why would I think so? First of all, let’s determine that wondering is not just wanting to know. While a student is trying to pass an exam on a subject he has never been interested in, he may want to know some things necessary to succeed in the exam, but we cannot say that he is curious if he has no interest in the subject. On the other hand, not every wonder may want to know. A jealous husband, who suspects that his wife is cheating on him, may wonder if his wife has a secret lover, but may prefer not to learn, that is, not to know, in fear of losing his wife. Although this classical curiosity definition that we will extract from Aristotle is wrong, it contains an important truth in it.
There must be an unknown to wonder. This is the first condition to wonder, but not enough to wonder. For example, a chimpanzee does not know if there is life on other planets in the universe, but he does not even wonder, even if he is intelligent, he probably cannot wonder. Why? Because he is not aware that he does not know. Maybe it’s a unique feature. How come we realize something we don’t know? It seems as if there is a paradox here. On the one hand there is awareness, on the other hand, if ignorance, but awareness requires knowing, it is as if a contradiction arises. This problem is implicitly discussed in a dialog of Plato. Menon says:
“How is it possible to search for something? If we know it, there is no need to look for it, if we do not, we cannot know what we are looking for.”
This reasoning, referred to as the Paradox of Menon in the philosophical literature, expresses our problem indirectly: how is it possible to be aware of what it does not know? Interestingly, the discussions on this paradox in philosophical literature did not relate the subject to this question. To answer this, I will use a very controversial concept in the history of philosophy: mental representation.
In order to be aware of something, we have to represent it in our minds. The simplest form of this may be imaginative representation. When I notice the palm tree in front of me, it leaves a mark on my mind, thanks to this visual image, I can represent it in my mind. A cat looking at the same tree may have a similar image. But mental representations of language-speaking beings like us can go beyond simple images and gain conceptual content. Unlike the cat’s, I can represent the tree as a palm tree. The concepts we acquire through language increase the power of representation so much that we can represent not only what we experience, but also what we never experience or even know. To understand how the linguistic representation of the unknown is established, it is necessary to look at one of the main distinctions of language philosophy: meaning and reference.
There may be linguistic expressions that we all grasp but none of us know what it refers to: it is very easy for us to grasp the term “the planet that is the closest life on earth”, but it is so hard to know the planet it refers to; maybe we will never be able to discover it. This kind of expression can sometimes be a sentence that expresses a right or wrong thought: Even if we grasp the phrase “there is liquid water on Mars”, we may not know whether it is a phenomenon that corresponds to, that is, whether the thought it expresses is correct.
Thanks to our ability to form such linguistic expressions, we can wonder. By combining the concepts of what we experience and partly know, we are beings who can establish the concepts and thoughts of what we do not experience and do not know. It is possible to ask questions and wonder. Contrary to what Aristotle says, this ability may not be in our nature. Let’s say that fifty thousand years ago, people most likely spoke a language, but perhaps they did not yet have the power to conceptualize what they did not know. Having a language does not indicate that the speakers of that language have the ability to ask questions. The structures that we call “question sentences” in human languages may have appeared much later. A simple language is not enough to conceptualize and represent the unknown in mind, to be able to express it as a question, and to wonder what is unknown as a result; a very special meta-language is required.
Not only do we form thoughts on the world through language, but we also have the ability to think about our thoughts. In this way, we can subjecute a concept or thought and realize that we do not know its equivalent in reality. The relationship between wondering and this very special use of language is one of the most fundamental issues for understanding people.