Kleist on Speech and Thought

Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle.

That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination…. And if such young people, even the most ignorant among them, do most often achieve good marks this is because the minds of the examiners, if the examination is public, are themselves too embarrassed to deliver a true judgement. For not only do they themselves feel the indecency of the whole procedure: we should be ashamed to ask a person to tip out the contents of his purse before us, let alone his soul: but their own intelligences come under dangerous appraisal and they may count themselves lucky if they manage to leave the examination without having revealed more shameful weaknesses than the young finalist himself whom they have been examining.

Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking” (tr. Constantine)

This essay is fundamentally about misspeaking, and how the brain and the mouth may not each be able to do the work of the other, or else may have to do the work of the other. There is little value assigned to misspeaking because it only adds to the effort the listener has to make in understanding the speaker, and no one likes making additional effort. But because it points out those clashes between the two tracks of speech and thought, I would rather have stumbling speaking than polished oratory.

I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a very well put-together student, and I asked him how he was able to so easily hold forth on any number of topics. He said that he remembered entire paragraphs of content, verbatim, about various subjects that interested him, and so it was just a matter of recalling and speaking them. I envied this talent because, as I explained to him, I never repeated myself verbatim. When speaking, I always started from some abstract, non-verbal items of cognition and rederived the words on the spot, and this extra effort required always caused me to slip up a bit, always caused me a bit of uncertainty that no doubt revealed me as a neophyte. Now I wonder if this tendency wasn’t/isn’t in fact due to what I think must be the horrible boredom of memorizing actual text rather than much more abbreviated and efficient concepts.

So misspeaking to me is a sign of the play (as Kant would say) between concept and language and between speaking and thinking, as opposed to the dead recitation of words that people have memorized so that they no longer remember the actual meaning or many possible meanings. Or as Wilhelm von Humboldt puts it:

In speech the energy of the mind breaks a path through the lips, but its product returns through our own ears. The idea is translated into true objectivity without being withdrawn from subjectivity. Only language can do this; and without this translation into an objectivity which returns to the subject–and such a translation occurs, even though silently, whenever language is at work–the formation of concepts and hence all true thought would be impossible…For language cannot be regarded as a substance which is present, which can be apprehended as a whole or gradually communicated; it is something which must be constantly produced, and while the laws according to which it is produced are defined, its scope and in a certain sense the manner in which it is produced remains indeterminate…Just as the particular sound mediates between the object and the man, so the whole language mediates between him and the nature that works upon him from within and without. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.

Forget the indeterminacy and one half has gone missing. Most writing and speech is dead.

Update: An apropos reblog of a short Kafka parable:


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

One Comment

  1. antonia
    3 November 2009

    what i also really like about Kleist and v.Humboldt is how they need the presence of another person in order for language to come into fruition. and that language is an energeia. there was a good essay by gadamer taking this up, also the examsituation but i don’t know anymore which one. and there is a wonderful passage in the dualis essay of humboldt about this communicative aspect too…

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