How Can I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?

Graham Wallas? E. M. Forster? André Gide? Anonymous Little Girl? Anonymous Old Lady? Herbert Samuel? W. H. Auden? C. S. Lewis? Arthur Koestler? Christopher Hollis?

Dear Quote Investigator: Pre-verbal and non-verbal thoughts are vitally important. Yet, there is an intimate relationship between thinking and using language especially when analysis and reflection are required. A family of comical remarks reflect this connection:

  • How can I know what I think till I see what I say?
  • How can I tell what I think till I know what I’ve said?
  • I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1926 book “The Art of Thought” by Graham Wallas who was Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London. Wallas suggested that the processes of thinking and expressing were entangled for the poet because the precise selection of words was crucial to success. Wallas attributed the saying under examination to an anonymous young girl. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1926 Copyright, The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas (Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of London), Chapter 4: Stages of Control, Quote Page 106, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” A modern professed thinker must, however, sooner or later in the process of thought, make the conscious effort of expression, with all its risks.

The next match known to QI appeared in the 1927 book “Aspects Of The Novel” by the prominent literary figure E. M. Forster who discussed the recent novel “Les Faux Monnayeurs” (“The Counterfeiters”) by André Gide. Gide’s complex work employed a novel-within-a-novel framework, and its plot was presented via fragments. Forster stated that the novel was “all to pieces logically”.

In the following passage, Forster attributed the saying under examination to an old lady in an anecdote. The phrase “distinguished critic” was a humorous reference to the old lady:[ref] 1927 Copyright, Aspects Of The Novel by E. M. Forster, Chapter 5: The Plot, Quote Page 152, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Another distinguished critic has agreed with Gide—that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her nieces of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. “Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!” she exclaimed. “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Her nieces, educated young women, thought that she was passée; she was really more up to date than they were.

Thus, the saying was popularized by both Graham Wallas and E. M. Forster although both disclaimed credit for authorship. Instead, the words were ascribed to two anonymous figures: a little girl and an old lady. The saying has also been attributed to Gide. The passage above is not easy to parse. But QI believes that the attribution to Gide is based on a misreading of Forster.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1928 Forster’s book was reviewed in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania. The reviewer incorrectly ascribed the anecdote to Gide:[ref] 1928 April 28, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aspects of the Novel Clarified by E. M. Forster: Reviewed by Edith Darrow Goldsmith, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The author illustrates the prevalent confusion in the plots of modern novels by the anecdote taken from Gide of the old lady who disdained logic, “What rubbish!” she says, “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?”

In 1934 Sir Herbert Samuel employed the saying together with a variant while speaking in the U.K. Parliament. His remarks appeared in the Hansard[ref] 1934 May 7, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons Sitting, Orders of the Day: Supply, Speaking: Sir Herbert Samuel, Constituency: Darwen, volume 289 cc741-821. (Accessed on December 10, 2019) link [/ref] and in “The Manchester Guardian”:[ref] 1934 May 8, The Manchester Guardian (The Guardian), House of Commons: Government and Empire Trade, Quote Page 14, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

It reminded him of the little girl who said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say” (Laughter.) The Minister of Agriculture asked, apparently, “How do I know what I want till I see what I do?” (Opposition laughter.)

In 1943 “The Bennington Evening Banner” printed a variant ascribed to a political figure:[ref] 1943 December 14, The Bennington Evening Banner, Our Foreign Policy Fixed, Says Austin, Quote Page 1, Column 5,Bennington, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say” was the way Senator Austin referred to his present position on the subsidy issue. He frankly told his audience that he was still listening to evidence and said he would not take a stand until he “saw the issue clear”

In 1945 “The Sketch” of London printed a version:[ref] 1945 January 24, The Sketch, Motley Notes by Alan Kemp, Quote Page 30, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

. . . the well-known Chatty Woman: “How can I know what I think until I have heard what I’ve said?”

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar printed a thematically related statement attributed to the English writer Horace Walpole who died in 1797. Oddly, this is the first evidence for this statement know to QI:[ref] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Evan Esar, Section: Horace Walpole, Quote Page 210, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) [/ref]

WALPOLE, Horace, 1717-1797, English author, letter writer, and antiquarian.
I never understand anything until I have written about it.

In 1949 “Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor” included a short piece about a lady described as a “perpetual talker” who was asked if she ever thought with deliberation about what she was planning to say:[ref] 1949, Fun Fare: A Treasury of Reader’s Digest Wit and Humor, Section Remarkable Explanations, Quote Page 208, The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

“Why, no,” said the lady solemnly. “How on earth could I know what I think about a thing until I’ve heard what I have to say on the subject?”
— Murl Corbett

In 1956 the “Chicago Tribune” ascribed an instance to the English-American poet W. H. Auden, and pointed to a 1948 book by Auden:[ref] 1956 May 2, Chicago Daily Tribune, Rimes and Remnants by D. A., Quote Page 16, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“How can I know what I think till I see what I say?”—W. H. Auden in “Poets at Work.”

In 1961 scholar W. N. Ince also credited Auden with the saying:[ref] 1961, The Poetic Theory of Paul Valéry: Inspiration and Technique by W. N. Ince (Walter Newcombe Ince), Chapter 4: The stages of poetic creation, Section 3: Composition: The poet at work, Quote Page 140, Leicester University Press, Leicester, England. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Auden was making much the same point when he wrote:
How can I know what I think till I see what I say?

In 1962 W. H. Auden published “The Dyer’s Hand And Other Essays”. Auden carefully credited the saying to the old lady in the tale relayed by E. M. Forster:[ref] 1963 (1962 Copyright), The Dyer’s Hand And Other Essays by W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden), Part One: Prologue, Section: Writing, Quote Page 22, Faber and Faber, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E. M. Forster—“How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.

C. S. Lewis was a notable fantasy author and lay theologian who died in 1963. Lewis’s literary executor, Walter Hooper, described a conversation during which Lewis employed a version of the saying:[ref] 2007, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963, Edited by Walter Hooper, Section; Preface by Walter Hooper, Quote Page xvi, HarperSanFrancisco: A Division of Harper Collins Publisher, New York. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

He told me that the thing he most loved about writing was that it did two things at once. This he illustrated by saying: ‘I don’t know what I mean till I see what I’ve said.’ In other words, writing and thinking were a single process.

In 1964 anti-totalitarian writer Arthur Koestler employed the saying:[ref] 1964 Copyright, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler, Part 2: The Sage, Chapter 7: Thinking Aside, Quote Page 174, Hutchinson & Company, London. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

The vital importance of language as a thought-crystallizer was perfectly described by little Alice who, on being admonished to think carefully before she spoke, indignantly exclaimed: ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’ For it is, of course, undeniable that in some forms of intellectual activity language is not only an indispensable tool, but that the stream of language actually carries the thought, so that the processes of ideation and verbal formulation become indistinguishable.

In 1968 “The New Yorker” printed an item containing a variant together with a citation:[ref] 1968 October 26, The New Yorker, (Short humorous item), Quote Page 136, Column 2, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) [/ref]

There is a certain wisdom in the quip made by a psychologist at Woods Hole: “How do I know what I think until I feel what I do?”—Jerome S. Bruner in “The Process of Education,”1960.

In 1987 “The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century” credited the saying to a political figure and presented a 1946 citation:[ref] 1987, The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century: A Dictionary of Quotations, Compiled by Frank S. Pepper, Topic: Thought, Quote Page 359, Column 2, Peter Bedrick Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

How can I know what I think until I have heard what I have said?
Christopher Hollis (Conservative MP for Devizes).
Quoted News Review 12 Dec 1946

In 1990 Charles Handy who was a professor for many years at the London Business School credited the saying to an anonymous Irishman:[ref] 1990 (Copyright 1989), The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy, Part One: Changing, Section 3: The Theory, Quote Page 67, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

I am a great believer in so-called Irish Education, named after the Irishman who reputedly said, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”

In conclusion, in 1926 Graham Wallas attributed the expression to a little girl. In 1927 E. M. Forster attributed the expression to an old lady. Both of them helped to popularize the saying. W. H. Auden also used the saying, but he referred back to Forster.

Image Notes: Illustration of ear listening from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been retouched and resized.

(Great thanks to Lee J. Rickard whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Rickard mentioned the citations for Wallas and Forster. Thanks to previous researchers such as Nigel Rees who explored this topic in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” in 2001. Many thanks Jesse Sheidlower for accessing “The Art of Thought”. Special thanks to Jim Cina who told QI about the citation containing the C.S. Lewis attribution.)

Update History: On December 13, 2019 the Walter Hooper citation was added.

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