On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking

I was emailed this beautiful little essay by the convenor of a workshop I’m participating in next week. It’s on the value of discussing ideas with others rather than trying to work things out alone. The final paragraph on the foolishness of examinations is a particular highlight.

Long-live the reading-group! Death to examinations!!


From Heinrich von Kleist, ‘On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking, in Heinrich von Kleist, Selected Writings, edited and translated by David Constantine, London: J.M. Dent (1997), 405-9.

If there is something you wish to know and by meditation you cannot find it, my advice to you, my ingenious old friend, is: speak about it with the first acquaintance you encounter. He does not need to be especially perspicacious, nor do I mean that you should ask his opinion, not at all. On the contrary, you should yourself tell him at once what it is you wish to know.

[Using his sister as an the example of this practice]

[It is not] by skilful questioning she brings me to the crux of the matter, though that might often be the way to do it, I daresay. But because I do have some dim conception at the outset, one distantly related to what I’m looking for, if I boldly make a start with that, my mind, even as my speech proceeds, under the necessity of finding an end for that beginning, will shape my first confused idea into complete clarity so that, to my amazement, understanding is arrived at as the sentence ends. I put in a few unarticulated sounds, dwell lengthily on the conjunctions, perhaps make use of apposition where it is not necessary, and have recourse to other tricks which will spin out my speech, all to gain time for the fabrication of my idea in the workshop of the mind. And in this process nothing helps me more that if my sister makes a move suggesting she wishes to interrupt; for such an attempt from outside to wrest speech from its grasp still further excites my already hard-worked mind and, like a general when circumstances press, its powers are raised to a further degree…

It is a strangely inspiring thing to have a human face before us as we speak; and often a look announcing that a half-expressed thought is already grasped gives us its other half’s expression. [Bold is mine]

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. Indeed, there may be no worse opportunity in the world for showing oneself to advantage than a public examination. Besides the fact that it offends and wounds our sense of decency and incites us to recalcitrance to have some learned horsedealer looking into how many things we know who then, depending on whether they are five or six, either buys us or dismisses us: it is so difficult to play upon a human mind and induce it to give forth its peculiar music, it so easily under clumsy hands goes out of tune, that even the most practised connoisseeur of human beings, even he, not being acquainted with the one whose labour he is assisting at, may make mistakes. 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 has whom they have been examining.

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