Speech is much more different than thought than it seems
So I’ve been listening to the Prof. Jordan Peterson lectures on the Bible recently for a variety of reasons, but I suppose the main one is because so many people in the milieu I exist in are telling me I’m not supposed to. If so many people are saying this man is terrible then I guess that means I need to find out more about what he’s about.
I don’t really want to get into the larger debate about the guy, but I will say he just basically seems like a nice Canadian conservative who both happens to want people to live their best lives and is just antisocial enough that he won’t bend on his worldview because he knows it’s unpopular with the chattering class.
So anyway there’s one part of this lecture, just a couple minutes worth of it really, that I found really interesting and wanted to blog about.
From the transcript:
“There’s this God of tradition and structure. That’s God the Father, who uses the Son, which is more of an active force, and primarily something that’s verbal — which I also think is extremely interesting, because it’s associated not with thought precisely, but with speech. And I think the reason for that is that there’s something to speech that’s more than mere thought. And I think part of the reason for that is that speech is a public utterance, and, at least in principle, speech is something that’s shaped by the existence of everyone else, at least across time.”
So the only part of that that I really want to talk about is the bold part, there’s a lot of context I’m just ignoring because it’s not relevant to what I want to say about it.
You know how sometimes someone says something and it really hits you and you suddenly can articulate something you realize that you’ve known for a very long time but not in a way that you would have ever said it to anyone or written it down, but you knew it?
This idea of thoughts and speech being different in an important way is something like that.
I know that this concept has been haunting me because for years I have been thinking about misunderstandings really vaguely. Misunderstandings always really upset me, so I know there’s something artistic and creative I should mine there to deal with what bothers me about them.
For a long time I have told myself that I should try to write down every misunderstanding that I encounter, but I’ve never written down a single one. Why?
Well it’s not because I’m lazy. I write quite a few things down. I write a lot of things down that hardly matter to me at all. But I seldom write about misunderstandings and I think it’s because when I encounter a misunderstanding I’m working so hard to decide how to address it, how much to address it and how much it matters that my brain has no capacity left to refer back to this vague literary project I want to undertake, you know?
So I never do it.
But I should.
And misunderstandings arise because you say something and you know what you mean by it, but the person listening to you hears some other meaning in it. Now sometimes they willfully misunderstanding or sometimes it’s there own bullshit and insecurity, but sometimes you’ve said something really daft — you didn’t mean to be daft, it just didn’t occur to you that there were other interpretations.
Okay I’m tempted to just delete that last paragraph now that I have written it, because it’s so obvious, but I’m going to leave it just because I think you need to know where my head is at going into this next paragraph — which might also be obvious but I had never said it to myself in quite this way before.
Thoughts feel like speech. At least, for me, thoughts are shaped in words. My thoughts occur like a text, though it’s more like sound. It’s like I hear spoken words in my head. But what’s important about what Peterson said is the fact that that’s not all they are. My thoughts are something like a text but also somewhat very much not like anything that occurs anywhere outside my brain.
Here’s a sentence I like to say sometimes because I know it will reliably be willfully misunderstood by almost anyone that I know that hears it:
For what he wanted to do, George Bush, Jr. was a pretty effective President.
This statement reliably irritates people because they always hear it as: George Bush Jr. was a good President.
Now that’s not what I mean and it’s not even what I said, but that’s how it gets taken, because you’re not allowed to say anything good about the man (or you weren’t until Trump).
But what I actually mean is that, given what he set out to accomplish, he accomplished a decent amount of it. He was true to his own agenda. He got a decent amount of it done. He was effective.
OK, but here’s what I really want to say.
When I say those words in my head, I hear that main thought as a sort of speech inside my head. But it’s never only just the words that are at the top of my mind. Simultaneously there’s all these layers of other words adding character to those words and I can see them all at once, if through mists. But to know there there.
If I look at two women with different skin tones, different hair, different body shapes, different faces and different clothes and I say: “Both of those women are beautiful.”
You might agree with me in the broadest most abstract sense, but you might not agree for all the same reasons.
If one of them is conventionally beautiful and the other has a strange look, it becomes even more layered. I’ve used the same concept to apply to them both but inside my head there’s all these different features I am expressing appreciation for and they aren’t the same features on each one.
As thought, I can see and recognize all those features in the same moment. I can know I am appreciating each in very different ways for very different reasons, and yet I have said the same thing about both and to me it is true in both cases.
Because when you think you can think more things at once. Your brain can softly reference a whole slew of other memories and observations in that moment.
But when you speak that’s all you really get, maybe supplemented a little with some facial expression, body language or gesture but that adds emotional valence, mainly, more than additional text.
When you speak it’s really just the words but thought is effectively hyperlinked, except you can see all the referenced pages at the same time, even if hazily.
And that’s what hit me as so true about this notion that speech is very different in a very important way than thought. Speech is very, very good, but communication remains extremely hard. So far we just don’t really have a way to transmit to each other multiple levels of thought in the same moment with nearly the same fidelity as we can see them in our minds.
And so it remains quite difficult or impossible to ever really make ourselves understood.