Thinking before you speak

Alex asked:

Hi. I’ve been thinking about how we as humans speak and communicate. ‘Always think before you speak.’ a famous quote, but is it really applied to reality.


Do you think while you speak? If so, how?

When speaking, do you think in whole sentences before you speak, meaning you think the whole sentence in your head, and then proceed to utter the thought, OR do you talk and single words/ single thoughts gradually pops into your head Example: You say: ‘There’s a problem’ and you say ‘There’s’ and then ‘a’ pops into your mind, and then you say ‘a’, and then at last you hear ‘problem’ in your mind and say it.

If you’re to present something or to hold a speech to an audience, is it different from what you might do in everyday conversations?

Or maybe your thoughts aren’t said in your mind to a full extent? As for instance when you’re speed-reading. You kind of get glimpse of the word, but still might understand it without verbally saying the whole word inside your head.

Do you even think 3 sentences ahead?


If you’re reading to understand, perhaps a factual book, do you pronounce the words you read verbally in your mind, or do you just look at the words?

Furthermore, do you fixate on one to two words at a time, or do you somehow manage to fixate your eyes and gather 45 words (or even more) per fixation? (peripheral vision).


When listening to other people talk, how does your mind react? Does your mind gradually repeat instantly the words you hear? If you close your eyes when listening, do you still think/hear the words in your mind, as if they were your own? Or do you not repeat the words inside your head, but just listen in another kind of way?

I’ve been looking for answers for years. I’m truly grateful, thank you!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In a way, you have answered your own question. The saying, ‘Think before you speak’ is good advice, but not intended as a philosophical theory about the nature of thought and speech.

If a police officer stops you and asks why you are speeding, it is probably best not to say the first thought that comes into your head, but rather whatever will give you the chance of getting off with a caution. A contrite apology looks like the least worst option.

As a philosophical theory, the notion that we anticipate every statement that we speak out loud with a mental equivalent is a non-starter. And yet, there is a certain way of viewing the mind that makes this theory seem inevitable. This is typical of philosophy, that a simple and accurate account of the facts requires that we resist various philosophical temptations that lead us to veer into nonsense.

For example, on a strict reading of Cartesian dualism, an action of the body (vibrating one’s vocal chords) is preceded by a mental action (thinking the thought). This leads to the idea that, somehow, one does ‘think the thought’ prior to articulating it in speech, but it ‘happens too quickly’ for us to observe it. What a wonder!

This is a good example of the kind of question that Wittgenstein considered in his Philosophical Investigations. We are confused about ‘logic’ or ‘grammar’ of our own language, and led to form all sorts of false or nonsensical theories in order to explain what we do, when we speak, or read, or etc.

So my advice would be: read Wittgenstein!


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