Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Gradual Creation of Thoughts While Speaking

The German poet Heinrich von Kleist published in 1805 an essay, entitled "On the Gradual Creation of Thoughts While Speaking."[1] In it, he argued that speaking engenders thinking, and that this is the way it should be, not the other way around.

We often have no clear idea what we want to say when we begin to explain something to someone else. Kleist argues that not only should I not try first to get clear on what I want to say by just thinking about it, but that the effort to put it into speech will actually be more helpful, "because usually I already have some sort of obscure notion, which is remotely related to what I am looking for. If I just begin boldly enough, my mind will complete what it has begun. The muddled idea is going to pressed and shaped into a new form of clarity, while I progress in speaking. To my astonishment, the thought will be fully completed as soon as I have finished the sentence. I may mix in inarticulate sounds, draw out the connective words, use an apposition where none is needed, and use other tricks to extend my speech in order to find time for the fabrication of my ideas in the workshop of reason," but I should not be worried, as the result is a new thought.

"This kind of speaking truly is thinking out loud ... [and] language is in such circumstances no hindrance (Fessel) ... but is like a second wheel, running parallel to [thinking] ..." Speaking and thinking go hand in hand. Some people would argue that this supposed contrast between language and thought is a misguided theory anyway, and that language is one of the necessary conditions of the possibility of thinking in the first place.

What I find more interesting is the claim he makes on the basis of these observations, namely that it is "not we who know; it is first and foremost a certain condition, in which we happen to be, that 'knows.'"[1] As Lichtenberg put it, we should say: "there is thought," and not "I think," just as we are wont to say "there is lightning" or "it is raining."[2]

It appears to me that writing exhibits the same feature in an even more pronounced way. We find out what we think by writing it down, and we know little that has not been put into that condition. The condition, in which we happen to be when we know, is not independent of its "external" expression whether it be in speech or writing.

A good software application should facilitate this process of thinking.

1. "Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden."

2. "Denn nicht wir wissen, es ist allererst ein gewisser Zustand unsrer, welcher weiß."

3. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: "Hierher gehört was ich an einem andern Ort gesagt habe, daß man nicht sagen sollte: ich denke, sondern es denkt so wie man sagt es blitzt" (L II, 806).

1 comment:

brownstudy said...

That reminds me a bit of the story of the computer lab that instructed the students to describe their problems to a stuffed teddy bear sitting on the counter BEFORE describing it to a support technician. Often, by simply describing their problem aloud, the students solved the problem themselves. Before, the problem had been inside their heads and -- I'd venture -- afterward, by putting their thoughts into sequence and narrative, they had ordered their thoughts and taught themselves something.

The language that the the thought happens is rather like inviting the muse, isn't it? The writer Elizabeth Gilbert did a great TED talk recently (should be up on the TED site), where she now thinks of creative ideas as happening to her or as things that need to be caught, rather than sweated over. She thinks it can help reduce the angst creative artists put themselves through.

Thanks so much for surfacing these passages from your reading and studies. I love it.