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: 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.

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

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

We Must Be Willing To Get Rid of the Life We’ve Planned, So As To Have the Life That Is Waiting for Us

Joseph Campbell? E. M. Forster? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Life often presents us with unexpected obstacles and challenges that require us to rethink our assumptions. The following pertinent statement has been attributed to the expert in mythology Joseph Campbell and popular English novelist E. M. Forster:

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.

I have not been able to find a solid citation for either. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Joseph Campbell died in 1987, and In 1991 Diane K. Osbon published “Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion” which consisted of material she selected and edited. The following text appeared in a section titled “In the Field”, and Osbon stated that she had collected the words directly from Campbell. The section contained “favorite expressions of his, recorded in my journals over the years in his company”. The layout of the phrases below mirrors the formatting in the book. 1

We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.

The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.

The text provided a close match to the sentence under examination although the precise phrasing differed. The final sentence employed a metaphor based on the shedding of skin, e.g., snakeskin.

QI has been unable to find substantive evidence supporting the ascription to E. M. Forster who died in 1970. He received credit for a version of the saying in 2002.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading We Must Be Willing To Get Rid of the Life We’ve Planned, So As To Have the Life That Is Waiting for Us

Notes:

  1. 1991, Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, Selected and edited by Diane K. Osbon, Quote Page 8 and 18, HarperCollins, New York, New York.