In some cases, the voice of conscience may take the form of internal speech, and we may engage in dialogue with ourselves about our past and present actions. We may talk to ourselves about what we should or should not do, and we may ask ourselves what we should or should not have done.
Internal speech as the voice of conscience may precede external speech, which may take the form of publicly acknowledged responsibility for our past actions. The voice of conscience may in some cases bring to conscious awareness thoughts and feelings that would otherwise not have been recognized and articulated. It may praise or condemn our past or present actions, and it may serve as a guide to possible future courses of action.
The voice of conscience may tell us how to atone and make amends for our past errors and moral failures. On the other hand, it may be silent if there is nothing to praise or condemn in our moral conduct. It may also be silent if we are lacking in conscience as a moral capacity, and if we are motivated by purely selfish or narcissistic desires and concerns.
Conscience as a moral faculty may also reserve judgment about actions that are morally neutral or inconsequential.
For each of us, the voice of conscience may have distinctive characteristics. It may reveal a varying degree of urgency, intensity, persistence, resonance, and persuasiveness. It may be only one of many inner moral voices to which we may listen, such as the voice of reason, the voice of wisdom, the voice of compassion, and the voice of understanding.
The voice of conscience may always be present within us, or at least may always be accessible to us, if we retain the capacity for self-criticism and humility. However, it may have varying degrees of immediacy or remoteness with regard to our conscious awareness of it.
To the extent that it may reflect the attitudes, opinions, and judgments of individuals other than ourselves, we may engage in dialogue with a variety of voices when we listen to it, and we may reflect on our actions from a variety of viewpoints.
The voice of conscience may also be the voice of inner experience, the voice of the internal world of thoughts and feelings, the voice of the inner psychological world.
What then does the state of speechlessness connote? That we are unprepared to express our thoughts and feelings? That we are so surprised, shocked, or amazed by events that we find ourselves unable to put our thoughts and feelings into words? If we can have experiences that truly render us speechless, then thinking and feeling may not necessarily require speech as a medium of representation. There may be “speechless thought,” or thinking that occurs without internal speech. Indeed, internal speech as the voice of conscience may require the capacity to articulate thoughts and feelings.1 If we cannot articulate our thoughts and feelings, then we may not be able to coherently formulate our moral judgments, and we may not be able to speak intelligibly to, or engage in substantive moral dialogue with, ourselves.
However, we may also in some cases hold ourselves morally responsible for our inability to articulate thoughts and feelings, and if we regard such an inability as a moral failure, then the voice of conscience may bring this to our attention and reprove us.
On the other hand, there are some things that we might very well say aloud that we merely say silently to ourselves in order to avoid social dissonance or conflict.
Internal speech produced by the voice of conscience may be monologic or dialogic.2 Insofar as it simply dictates principles of moral duty, it may be monologic, but insofar as it allows moral questioning and invites moral reflection, it may be dialogic.
The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1934) describes inner speech as speech for oneself. Inner speech is directed inwardly rather than outwardly, in contrast to social speech, which is addressed to others, and which serves the purpose of communicating with others.3
The Canadian psychologists Alain Morin and James Everett (1990) describe inner speech as a mediator of self-awareness and self-knowledge. They suggest that the extent to which we use inner speech may partially account for the extent to which we have self-awareness and self-knowledge.4
The Spanish philosophers Agustín Vicente and Fernando Martinez Manrique (2011) explain that the concept of inner speech should not be confused with the concept that there is a language of thought (or the concept that thought requires a representational system corresponding to a language).5 Thinking may occur with or without inner speech.
The habit that we may often develop of silently talking to ourselves while we are performing daily tasks may in some cases be a consequence of our experience of internal speech as readers and writers of verbal and non-verbal texts. Just as we may listen internally to the sounds of the “words” we are reading, so we may listen internally to the sounds of the “words” we are writing. Internal speech may occur when we imagine ourselves reading a text aloud or when we imagine ourselves hearing the voice of an author reading a text to us. The imagined voice of the author may in fact be quite different from the author’s actual voice. It may be tempered or conditioned by our own subjective attitudes and personal experiences.
The voice of conscience may be singular, insofar as each person may have his or her own individual voice that is in some way distinguishable from other voices.6 At the same time, it may be plural, insofar as individual voices may unite to express a shared or collective conscience.
1Caryl Emerson, “The Outer Word and Inner Speech: Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and the Internalization of Language” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Dec 1983, 245-264), p. 255.
2Simon McCarthy-Jones and Charles Fernyhough, “The varieties of inner speech: Links between quality of inner speech and psychopathological variables in a sample of young adults,” in Consciousness and Cognition, 20 (2011), p. 1586.
3Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language, edited by Alex Kozulin (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), p. 32.
4Alain Morin and James Everett, “Inner Speech as a Mediator of Self-Awareness, Self-Consciousness, and Self-Knowledge: An Hypothesis,” in New ideas in Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 3, (1990) pp. 337-356
5Agustín Vicente and Fernando Martinez Manrique, “Inner Speech: Nature and Functions,” in Philosophy Compass 6/3 (2011), p. 209.
6Dmitri Nikulin, On Dialogue (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), p. 41.