An invitation to say what you don’t know

To ask you to say something that you don’t know might initially seem like I’m asking you to do the logically impossible. This is because we often imagine that words first form themselves in our minds before we say them out loud: so in effect you always know what you are going to say and can’t really say anything otherwise. But, this ‘blueprint’ conception of the mind, where a thought exists as a kind of design to be delivered, has been discredited in many different fields – most prominently in psychology. The fact is that we don’t choose what thoughts present themselves to our conscious mind and it would be impossible to conduct a fluid conversation or write anything down if you had to stop and picture what you were going to say before you said it. Your brain needs to work much more efficiently than this. Moreover, as we all know from experiencing the anxiety that can come with telling jokes – especially in front of people you don’t know so well – you can’t always be sure that what you have said will have the effect you wanted it to have: its meaning hangs in the air while others respond. Even if you are on your own you can often find yourself  saying things out-loud or having a conversation with yourself to work out what it is that you intend to say – not that this necessarily clears things up.

One argument that really helped me when I was giving a talk about Interior Monologues – the voice in your head – was put forward in Concept of the Mind by Gilbert Ryle. He makes the simple but really quite penetrating point that we have to learn to read out loud before we can read silently to ourselves. Ryle, who has a knack for writing things in a pointed way puts it like this:

“This trick of talking to oneself in silence is acquired neither quickly nor without effort; and it is a necessary condition of our acquiring it that we should have previously learned to talk intelligently aloud and have heard and understood other people doing so. Keeping our thoughts to ourselves is a sophisticated accomplishment […] People tend to identify their minds with the ‘place’ where they conduct their secret thought. They even come to suppose that there is a special mystery about how we publish thoughts instead of realizing that we employ a special artifice to keep them to ourselves.”

You are tricking yourself to think that the words in your head are somehow more primary than the words you might say out loud. They are already formed on a sea of other conscious activity.

If we get past the ‘blueprint’ conception of the mind (which becomes completely ridiculous when you think of larger entities like speeches or novels) then it opens up a lot of possibilities for rethinking the world in a much more generative, responsive and intuitive way. I think blogs can be quite immediate ways of putting down thoughts, not quite spontaneously – as most good blogs have been planned and edited  – but in a speculative sense. There’s a collective sense of the blog – akin to wikipedia – that means an idea can be clearly seen as part of an ongoing string of thoughts and ideas, rather than as some kind of static present meaning. You can say something to find out what it means rather than assuming you know what you say.

So, in the spirit of this blog I’d like to invite you to say what you don’t know. Drop some words in the comments section, whether free association, the first thing that comes to mind or a more formulated bit of sophistry… and we’ll see where it takes us. You could even leave a strand of text from a book near to hand and see if someoneelse can pick it up and play with it as an idea. Let ‘if’ flow…



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