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: 1
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: 2
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.
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩