Ben Holloway

Have You Thought About That?

Someone might say, “I know what I think, but I can’t find the words.” How do you react? Do you imagine the person having a perfectly well-formed thought in their mind, but being unable to find the words to match?

If there is a thought that is separate from words, then that thought is either well-formed or not. In order to tell if that thought is well-formed, we need some way to conduct a test. It is difficult to image what this test might be like. Do we gaze at it for a while, observing its well-formedness? And what does a well-formed thought look like? The most obvious test for a well-formed thought is whether one can put it into words. If one cannot, then it is not a well-formed thought.

On the other hand, if the thought is in words, then one doesn’t have a thought unless one uses a language. On this view, when I think about something, I think in sentences. This seems eminently plausible. I have been attempting to catch myself in the act of thinking and I am usually doing so in English sentences. The only times I am not thinking in sentences are when I am imagining a picture or having an emotion. But as soon as I think about something, I use English.

Peter Carruthers suggests that the experience of not being able to put a thought into words is similar to seeing a puzzle one is sure one can solve but have not already done so. One might be sure that one can form a thought, but find it much more difficult than one thought it would be. In other words, like the unsolved puzzle, a difficult-to-express thought is a thought that one has not yet had:

“what happens is that I know (or believe) that there is a thought to be had, and am confident that I would recognize it if I found it. In fact I am struggling to find – or to have – a thought of a certain sort, not struggling to express a thought which I have already entertained.”

Peter Carruthers, Language, Thought and Consciousness, 57

I’m inclined to go with Carruthers on this one. If someone says, “I know what I think. I just can’t put it into words”, I’m going to think that the person is being optimistic about coming up with a thought rather than having a thought for which he or she cannot find words.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.