The Gradual Perfection of Thought While Speaking

As you may have noticed, I’ve been revisiting my old blog this year and reposting them here in only lightly edited form. It’s interesting to compare my thinking back then against my views now. Actually, it’s sometimes a bit disturbing to see how little my thinking has changed. This is especially relevant in the case of today’s repost, which is about a little essay by Heinrich von Kleist: “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (English translation here). I first wrote it back in 2013, as a lead-in to discussing the distinction between thinking and knowing. Instead of simply setting these two “states of mind” in opposition to each other, we can approach them as mutually supporting “mental processes”. Since first posting it, it looks like my thinking has in fact changed a little, perhaps under the pressures of the age. I’ll get to that at the end.

First, let me address some delicate (indeed, delicious) issues of translation. Consider the word “Verfertigung”. I’ve seen it rendered both as “formation” (PDF) and “construction” (PDF). I like Laura Martin’s translation of “Verfertigung” as “perfection”. After all, to “per-fect” something is to “do” (facere) it “completely” (per-), that is, to “finish” it. And “finish” is actually the root of the German word, namely, “fertig”. When Kleist speaks about the situation in which the mind is already “finished” with a thought (“wenn der Geist schon … mit dem Gedanken fertig ist”) he is using the same root. The only way to keep the association as explicitly in English would seem to be to translate “Verfertigung” as “formation” and then talk about about how a thought might be “already fully formed in the mind”. Or, like I say, we can render it, perhaps more implicitly, as “perfection” and “finished”.

Now to the importance of speaking as such. Kleist focuses on private conversation and almost denigrates public speaking in the traditional “prepared” sense. The kind of talk Kleist is encouraging us to engage in is the spontaneous, honest expression of our ideas, even if it is clumsy and halting, and certainly even though the thought is unfinished, half-formed, under construction. The gradualness of the process of perfecting a thought is important because it indicates its permanent incompleteness. That is, no thought is ever actually perfect; rather, it is undergoing a process that is directed towards perfection. A thought is never finished. To borrow that phrase from the U.S. constitution that Obama made famous in 2008, what we need is a context in which to develop our thinking towards an always finally imperfect but ever “more perfect” state.

The classroom ought to provide such a context, but it has largely stopped doing so because students (under the influence, perhaps, of either their parents or their future bosses) are demanding that teachers tell them not what they think, but what they know. They are expecting to learn the truth, not perfect their own thinking. They want to be able to believe what they are told. That is, teachers are expected to see classroom instruction as a kind of public speaking in which they deliver a prepared message in the most effective way possible. It is no longer proposed as an occasion upon which teachers might discover what they think by hearing what they say. And, by the same token, an occasion on which to discover that they are wrong by hearing what their students think.

Teachers are asked to pretend, we might say, to be perfect in their engagement with students, who are likely (indeed, they are trained by the culture of evaluation) to complain about the teacher’s performance, after holding them to an impossibly high standard: what we might call the “instant perfection of thought”. That is, the students are expecting instruction to introduce clear and distinct ideas into their minds that will require no further reworking by the students themselves. Students can, accordingly, be expected to confidently evaluate their teachers at the end of every semester. In practice this means that after every class the students are less likely to ask “What did I learn?” than “How was class?” That’s long before the process in which they are involved can be expected to yield definitive results. In fact, for many students, since both they and their teachers have misunderstood it, the process never begins.

I remain worried about the state of higher education—indeed, specifically, the state of university teaching. Even more specifically, I’m worried about the disconnect between what teachers actually know and what they talk about in classroom. It is impossible to learn what someone else knows without letting them say what they think. Back in 2013, I was thinking mainly about the positive pressure to express only “finished” thought to the students. Today, we’re increasingly conscious of the problem of keeping our classroom content within the bounds of good taste, of adhering to a certain “correctness” in our expression.

And on this point I do think I’ve moved a little since 2013. It’s always with some trepidation that I raise this question with students in my talks about writing, for example. But I think I’ve developed a pretty good six-minute bit on it. After all, if knowledge is a conversation then we have to let each other struggle and even stumble through it, discovering what we think and what others think about our thoughts. We can’t let “correctness” become the name of an absolute, irrevocable judgment, rendered at the moment our words are uttered. Rather, it should be the always partial, ever gradual achievement of a social process by which we actively “correct” each other, make each other more perfect, if only slightly. We should be exposing our ideas to criticism, and thus letting ourselves stand corrected when we’re wrong. We should not be exposing ourselves immediately to instant censure of thoughts and feelings, on the assumption that our words always already perfectly reveal what’s in our hearts and minds. Indeed, we must hope that our hearts and minds can undergo change — what Kleist so evocatively calls a “gradual perfection”. Let’s keep talking.

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