What comes first: ideas or words? The paradox of articulation | Aeon Essays
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Language functions as a medium for expressing thoughts and as a means for developing them.
The act of expression exposes the gaps and carelessness of our thinking. This common experience could tempt us to think that whenever articulation is hard, and we finally arrive at the formulations, we add something new to our initial thoughts. This is only part of the picture. Our thoughts can be more definite than what we can readily articulate.
Articulating a thought takes sensitivity, flexibility, attention and care. Once the process is started, we can become absorbed in it and allow it to be unimpeded by internal censorship or constraint.
If we recognize the underpinnings of our own responses, we can control them. Getting clear on the thoughts within us can lead to liberation.
To succeed in articulation, we need to chisel away at imprecise words, while guarding against words that would blur what we think.
We often discover what we think by reflecting on what we find ourselves saying. Immediately articulating our thoughts can also come out of us as buzzwords that might hardly reflect what we think at all. (eg, 'What a mess!') These words could come as a result of habit and obscure your thoughts even from yourself.
We can learn more about a thought by drawing on a certain kind of knowledge of it. It is not explicit knowledge you can find in textbooks but a form of implicit knowledge.
We can better recognize the correct words of this knowledge by an analogy with simpler forms of recognition. Our recognition of the words that match our thoughts is the result of our immediate experience.
The careful searching for words we need stands in tension with the ignorance we hope it will remedy. The clarity we want seems to consist in the knowledge that we're thinking some specific thought.
Jean-Paul Sartre touched on this paradox when he stated: "This is indeed what linguists and psychologists have perceived … they believed that they discovered a circle in the formulation of speaking, for in order to speak it is necessary to know one's thought. But how can we know this thought as a reality made explicit and fixed in concepts except precisely by speaking it?"
The knowledge of our thoughts can be effortless and instantaneous. Other times, our thoughts are obscure and we must work hard to gain clarity.
Trying to understand the process of turning thought into speech can illuminate the deeper challenges we face in articulation. It can transform our relation to our own thoughts, and help us develop our ideas in other areas.
Language has its limitations. It is an imperfect instrument for capturing our thoughts.
The spectrum between cases where we start with definite thoughts and cases where we construct thoughts is vast.
On the one side, some painters allow the medium and chance to dictate the result, such as Jackson Pollock. On the other side, some use even the smallest details to support their initial idea.
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