What comes first: ideas or words? The paradox of articulation | Aeon Essays


is an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is the author of Articulating a Thought (2019).

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I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them – and I hardly know anymore when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.
– From Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche

‘What is it about the proposal that strikes me as so disturbing?’ Reading through an article describing a local government measure, I feel opposition rising within me. Normally, forming an opinion about such things would take me some time. But not here. The proposal instantly strikes me as unjust. My reaction is not just intellectual; it is visceral. My emotions are engaged. My imagination is exercised. As I imagine the proposal playing out in practice, the distinctive brand of injustice seems to be jumping out of every word on the page.

I decide to sort out my problem with the proposal in writing, by replying to the colleague who forwarded me the article. ‘It’s unfair!’ Impatiently, I blurt out the kernel of what bothers me about it. But the statement is so general as to be almost empty. ‘Heavy-handed. Quietly authoritarian. Positively harmful.’ More words suggest themselves to me and, after a few false starts, I regain my confidence and press the formulation forward with each sentence. I edit some words, and the correction puts everything in order. Reading over what I wrote, I recognise that, even though there is room for elaboration, at this moment these words accurately capture my position. I have found the words to express my thought.

The gulf between our solitary thoughts and the words that would convey them to others constantly confronts us all. The thoughts we struggle to articulate might be as momentous as a transformative moral epiphany or as ordinary as an insight into a movie or the hurtful behaviour of a friend. They might seem hopeful or alarming, frivolous or serious, lead us to find value in certain things, or worry about others. They might be thoughts that we long had but never articulated or instantaneous insights in which something entirely new and unfamiliar suddenly comes to mind. In many cases, we articulate these thoughts in order to get clear on what they are; we wouldn’t bother making the effort if they were clear to us already