Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Gradual Perfection of Thought while Speaking

I am grateful to Oliver Reichenstein (HT Andrew Shields) for reminding me of Kleist's illuminating little essay, "Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden". It allows me to get into the important distinction between thinking and knowing without simply opposing these two "states of mind", which are also, of course, mutually supporting "mental processes".

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. 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.

Teachers are asked to pretend, we might say, to be perfect in their engagement with students, who are likely (indeed, they are trained) to complain about the teacher's performance, after holding them to an impossibly high standard: what we might call "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 (and in practice this means after every class; the students do not ask "What did I learn?" but "How was class today?"). 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'm increasingly worried about the state of higher eduction—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 think.

On Thursday, I will continue this discussion in relation to what happens in the journal literature. Unfortunately, this is also too often seen as the public communication of "finished thought" than part of an imperfect conversation about ideas. In general, I think what has happened is that we have grown impatient with the slow process of thought. Kleist is right to remind us that it is a gradual one.

5 comments:

Presskorn said...

Kleist's essay has received a bit of recent attention due its being quoted in full in Zizek's new magnum opus Less than Nothing (2012), which predictably connects it to Hegel and Freud... To me, it seems like one the first clearest statements of what Ole Fogh Kirkeby would later call "translocutionarity"....

Presskorn said...

Errata: ...due TO its ... like one OF the...

Thomas said...

I didn't know about Zizek. Thanks. I'll have to have a look.

I guess it's also an example of Weick's "recipe for sensemaking": "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" Doesn't OFK use that expression too? I've traced it to Forster and Wallas (both in books from 1926, Weick cites the latter.

But the difference, it seems to me, is that Kleist proposes an actual improvement of the thought, not merely a bringing-it-to-mind. OFK might say something similar, I don't recall.

Presskorn said...

You are enlightening me about Weick. I had no idea that this was his recipe for sensemaking (and yes, OFK uses that exact expression)...

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