Have you ever been overtaken by a thought whose content seems indescribable, at least initially? Perhaps it happens to us all, but we are usually able to gloss over the difficulty and, by trial and error, attempt to describe it nonetheless. I wonder how often the problem in translation even rises to conscious awareness however. After all, are thoughts really verbal? And what about feelings? Am I only able to interpret things that arise in my head in the same way that a poem by, say, the German poet Rilke, with all its lyrical qualities and culturally specific idioms, can be rendered into English? Are the resulting contents always necessarily approximations?
Maybe I have been allotted too much free time in my retirement, and my mind keeps wandering off the sidewalk, but once I happened upon an essay by Eli Alshanetsky, a philosopher at Temple University in Philadelphia, I simply could not get it out of my mind. He asks what may seem like a simple, yet unquestionably profound, question: are you excavating existing ideas, or do your thoughts come into being as you speak? ‘The gulf between our solitary thoughts and the words that would convey them to others constantly confronts us all.’
How can I be sure that what I eventually describe is actually what my thought conveyed to me? As Alshanestsky observes, ‘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.’ But, unfortunately, it would seem that ‘Philosophers of knowledge influenced by René Descartes have focused almost exclusively on cases in which our knowledge of our thoughts is effortless and instantaneous.’
I suppose this raises the question of just what is it for a thought to be clear? And how do we then make it clear -or is that even possible? Well, one observation sheds some light on the problem: ‘The philosopher Daniel Dennett in 1991 quoted E M Forster’s quip ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’, affirming that ‘we often do discover what we think … by reflecting on what we find ourselves saying.’
But, does what we might say really reflect the thought, or is it a reworking -a translation- of an idea that cannot otherwise be conveyed? Is it an example of the eternal problem of translators everywhere: unless the expression of a sentence, say, makes sense to others in a form they can understand and appreciate, the translation is unhelpful. ‘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… 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… 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.’ Remember, the thought likely did not initially arise in words, so how could we ever know whether or not we expressed its content accurately, or actually changed its meaning by superimposing words -translations- on it?
Nietzsche’s words from his Beyond Good and Evil go a fair way in articulating the problem: ‘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.’
It might seem that ‘language functions not only as a medium for expressing thoughts but also as a means for developing them.’ And yet, ‘cognitive science increasingly reveals, our thinking doesn’t run on a single track, like a serial computer, but seems to be organised into a variety of facilities, or modes of thought, that loosely communicate with each other. The jagged nature of the interaction might be responsible for the sense of fissure within the mind, reported by many writers and thinkers. Language is just one mode of thought, with its own characteristic parameters and limitations. Though it uniquely affords us with a distanced perspective on our thoughts, it is only an imperfect instrument for capturing them.’
Hmm. I’m not sure that I’m any further along in my quest to adequately explain the occasional epiphany that my aging neurons have inadvertently fumbled together. Fortunately epiphanies are rare, and if ever I have something close to an inspiration I usually manage to stuff it quietly into an interior closet. I suppose I shouldn’t expect others to want to know all the clever things I think, but sometimes an idea is just too exciting to stay in a closet and it opens the door on its own when I least expect it.
I had what I considered was a profound insight about my relationship with Nature the other day; I was sure that for one beatific moment, I was finally At One with it, and since I happened to be in a forest at the time, that I also partook of the Spirit of the trees around me. I decided I just had to tell my friend Brien about it. He’s the one who spends the days sitting on his porch drinking beer and watching Sheda, his pet tree, waving at him in the wind.
I negotiated my way across the unkempt lawn he manages like his hair, and sat down beside him on the extra seat he always saves for me.
“Brien,” I started, “I’ve just had an epiphany about Nature: I experienced the Oneness of it all… especially trees,” I added, knowing his fondness for Sheda.
He opened a beer for me and sat back on his chair. “And…?”
I tried to recapitulate the revelation, but short of whispering “I felt One with Them” and throwing my arms out wide to indicate that I meant all trees, and not any one particular specimen, I found myself at a loss for any more explanatory words.
Brien stared at me for a bit, had a sip of his beer, and then leaned forward in his chair again. “Do they wave at you?” he asked after a further moment’s reflection.
I considered the question, and then shook my head after tasting my beer. “No,” I said, “I don’t remember that…”
“Or could you hear them whisper anything… sort of like they were sighing?” he explained.
I shook my head again, now uncertain whether I’d had an actual epiphany.
He rested his eyes gently on my cheeks for a second. “Then I don’t think they’ve realized you want to be one of them.” He placed his now-empty can on the floor beside him and reached for another. “Maybe if you hang around with them more, they’ll accept you, eh?”
I wasn’t sure if Brien actually understood what I was trying to explain to him, until I noticed Sheda waving at him like a friend, when he looked her way. There was not a breath of wind, and he glanced at me with a little knowing smile on his face. “Ready for another beer?” he asked, and sat back in his seat to stretch his legs.