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

… (a) seemingly contradictory observation is that articulating our thoughts, in the hard cases, is a purposive activity that doesn’t simply consist in producing words mechanically, in a kneejerk way. The words that immediately come out of us when we are struck by our thoughts (eg, ‘How outrageous!’, ‘What a mess!’) might hardly reflect what we think at all. They could come to us as a result of habit, their repetition by other speakers, or just our affinity for the way they sound. The danger of giving in to the mindless flow of such words was highlighted by George Orwell, who in ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) warned that the buzzwords that fly in most readily will ‘construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.’ To succeed in articulation, we need to chisel away at imprecise formulations, while guarding against any words that would blur or change what we think.

The careful selection that we exercise in the process stands in tension with the ignorance that we hope it will remedy. The point of searching for words, in the hard cases, is to clarify what we’re thinking; and the clarity that we’re after seems to consist in the knowledge that we’re thinking some specific thought. At the same time, our choices of words make sense to us, and so it seems that we must make them for a reason. But it is hard to see how we could have a reason to accept or reject any words if we don’t already know which thought we’re trying to express.
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