Struggling to put words to an idea

This post on things that universities should teach students is a lovely read in its own right. However the final point really stood out to me:

That if they haven’t, at some point, found themselves struggling to put words to an idea that they feel strongly about but can’t explain adequately, then they’ve missed an opportunity to learn.

I’ve long been a little bit obsessed with this experience, without being able to explain why in a way I’m satisfied with (appropriately enough). I guess my hunch is that much of what we subsume under the term ‘creativity’ grows from, resides in or otherwise responds to this discursive gap: the (productive) distance between what we are trying to say and what we can say given the ideational resources available to us. In many cases I think people withdraw from this gap because it can be threatening or frustrating. Could we see an important goal of higher education as being to help people develop the capacity to live in the gap in a productive way? 

I wrote a paper about this (in relation to sexual identity rather than education) which I never tried to get published. I’m wondering if i should try and work it up into something publishable after all. 

2 thoughts on “Struggling to put words to an idea

  1. I can think of a number or reasons why this phenomenon could be of particular interest to you.
    1) There’s a silly idea (sometimes spouted by social constructionists) about how people cannot think things for which they have no words, and this is a pretty clear example of how that is totally wrong.
    2) The above mentioned social constructionist notion is a (verifiable wrong) attempt at expressing the ways that agency is constrained by structure. I get the sense that although (like pretty much any sociologist) you agree that both structure and agency are important, but that your personal interests lean towards agency and the sorts of novel things that people an create in response to their circumstances.
    3) The fact that the idea is (at least at first) difficult to express suggests (although I’m not always sure correctly) that the existing discourse doesn’t have a good way to express it.

    However, I’m not sure that this feeling of “it’s hard to put into words” necessarily indicates a “discursive gap” (though it depends on what one means by this.) I’ve had numerous experiences where I came up with some idea, only to discover later that some famous philosopher had more-or-less expressed the same idea a long time before. A quote that has stood out in my mind comes from “Time and the verb: A guide to tense and aspect.” Although he’s writing about tense and aspect, the basic idea applies to many other things:

    The consequence of [ignoring works of the past] is constant reinvention of the wheel and repeated announcement of the imminent appearance of the squared circle. In research for this book, I have come across more than one publication which presents as novelties proposals already put for–or rejected–by Aristotle, Jespersen (1924), Reichenbach (1947), and others in between.

    Another possible situation where one has difficulty putting an idea into words is that the idea isn’t well formed, and it’s more of a gut feeling than anything else. As an undergrad, I took several religion and/or philosophy classes, and in multiple of them, we covered Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. Something that I found fascinating was that it’s pretty clear that the large majority of people–regardless of their religious views or lack thereof–have a gut feeling that the argument is invalid. However, watching students newly introduced to it attempt to explain why it’s wrong (because they really want to say that it’s wrong), these are often a sort of incoherent attempt at logic to justify a feeling that it’s not valid. (And philosophers from Anselm’s day to the present have offered a rather diverse array of attempts to justify the intuition that it’s invalid.)

  2. Yep I think those are all true! Particularly (1) – once you look at in this light, it’s hard to see how anyone could see this position as coherent, let alone correct.

    I actually used to teach philosophy of religion to college students and I used to find Anselm’s argument fascinating – v intellectually formative to realise that “it’s obviously stupid!” isn’t an intellectually acceptable dismissal of it.

    I get what you mean about other people having formulated stuff – that ties in though I think. It’s a case of “I was trying to say X” – you realise what you were striving to say when you encounter someone who’s said X with a much greater clarity than you were able to. Does this entail an identity between the two positions in spite of their different formulations?

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