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Dec 11, 2018

Self Addressed Speech

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Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

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Self Addressed Speech

The Soul Speaking to Itself

Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor, Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1901

Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor, Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1901

“Speech is the body of thought.” A Practical Grammar, S. W. Clark, 1847

My first title for this little musing was “Silent Speech.” That, however, turned out to be inaccurate. As I thought out what had set me wondering about this strange capacity that I, all of us human beings, possess for talking to ourselves, and recalled that “the feeling of wondering” is the source of the “love of wisdom” (philosophia),1 I noticed that self-address is not always silently interior.

Some such speech is uttered (etymologically: outered). Yet, a further wrinkle, not all audible speech spoken to no discernible auditor is in fact addressed to oneself. For years there was a sad case haunting the streets of Annapolis, Maryland: bent forward as if in urgent escape, this man strode along, talking. To himself ? I doubt it; he was probably addressing a deaf world or its divinity. Also, I had a friend of three-quarters century who, in her later years, talked unstoppably. To me? No, it was addressless, interruptible speech, an urge, I think, to hear herself being alive.

These idiosyncratic ways of speaking confirmed a belief of great significance to me: ask anyone what speech “is for” and the answer will be, “Speech is for communication.” To be sure. But not primarily! Speech is first for self-address. Yet, if you’ve ever been requested to send a self-addressed envelope, you’ll have experienced the same slight shiver of weirdness that set off this inquiry.

This sort of musing has a name in professional philosophy: phenomenology, the account of the inner appearances our consciousness produces. Such musing is, as a beginning in wonder, descriptive but may lead to the deep principles of human being.2

Can there be any doubt that we talk mostly internally (setting aside occasional bursts into utterance)? We address ourselves in all the moods of grammar: indicative (asserting), imperative (enjoining), optative or subjunctive (wishing or doubtful), and, above all, interrogative (asking).3

Why can’t I think of speech as primarily communicative? First, as I’ve said, copiousness; whether we live much with others or more alone, the number of words we say to or by ourselves must, I think, outdo the number said to others by a factor—I’m surmising wildly—of ten. Second, because children talk when alone—so possibly to or for themselves—quite a while before they engage in other-directed “conversation” (which literally means to “turn and turn about, together”). Wake up very early, and there he is, about one year old, holding himself up by the railing of his crib and jabbering away in the sweetest, most persuasively human tones, albeit unintelligible to me. In inept child-development terminology, it’s called jargoning. Is he expressing thought? He looks full of meaning. And he stops as soon as this intrusively curious grown-up appears on the scene; he becomes the “infant,” the “non-speaking” human we think he is. And third, how, if I did not converse with myself, would I have anything thoughtful to say to my friends? Everything would be spontaneous and un-thought-out, and none the better for that.

But here’s the puzzle, or better, enigma. Who is taking turns with whom? I ask myself: What does it, what does the Apostle John, mean: “In the beginning was the Word”? What beginning: in time or in being? What word: a name, a common noun? Spoken by whom: the Divinity, or was it not a spoken word at all? I’m reading it in the Gospel of John: is he speaking? But I’m saying it; am I speaking?

Here arises a sub-enigma, the aftermath of a great event in internality, when Augustine observed that his beloved bishop, Ambrose, a man open to all, “retired himself from the clamor of other men’s business” and read—something utterly new to Augustine—“silently to himself.”4 So this question is added: When I read, silently, and take in the words, either scanning them impressionistically (which is our modern mode) or perusing them alertly: does a second or a third speaker enter my consciousness? Is the silent inner rehearsal of written speech an alien or an assimilated reception? For example, when I, not being a Christian, take issue with John, such as: “No, Joshua of Nazareth was not a or the Logos but a Man, at once venerable and dangerous,” am I talking to myself? To him? To whom? Whose is the voice of a text I’ve “internalized”? Surely mine, transmuted into my speech by that salubrious plagiarism called “learning.”

That question returns me to the central issue. Who is that “I,” such that it appears to address itself? What is speech, that it can mediate between myself and me? Incidentally, “I” has a remarkable linguistic feature: no etymology, no aboriginal meaning whence it has evolved; hence, it is a completely original word, without prehistory, and thus without explanatory genesis.5

Yet it will soon turn out that this I, an apparently analytically inaccessible term, acts self-diremptively (that is, self-divisively). To me, it feels like a sort of natural, sound schizophrenia, a split-mindedness, by which the I, taken as a person, a subject with its subjectivity, a consciousness with its self, is all but defined.6 Note, however, that before long, I’ll want to reject the aforesaid version of the question concerning self-address: “What does it feel like?”

Note also that both subjectivity and self-consciousness have somewhat squishy secondary meanings: intense my-own-ness and embarrassed self-awareness. That’s revealing because it distinguishes us human persons from thingly objects, as having what the Greeks call pathe, “affects” (all too often “sufferings”), which we share with animals in broad kind (though surely not in the subtle differentiations we can experience; those seem to require speech).

Perhaps, however, that notion of double-mindedness is not the ultimate description of the phenomenon of self-address. So let me get down to business with three negatives, with three, as I think, false approaches I want to forfend, in order of interiority.

First, I’ve tried talking to myself with utterance muted, with inner speech not involving the soundless excitation in the larynx, the organ enfolding the vocal chords. I can’t do it: I literally can’t hear myself; I seem to have a virtual inner ear that must be addressed by vocalization, albeit muted. If this observation is correct, it seems to me to imply a positive element: speech, spoken aloud or silently, is an embodiment. It is thought made somatic, that is, physical. Inner speech is analogous to inner sight, to the imagination, which is visibility minus matter, as the former is audibility minus sound.

This deliberate and glottal self-address is thus distinguished from “hearing voices.” In its benign form, “hearing voices” usually occurs between sleep and waking, but if it takes over, it can be pathological and dangerous. It betokens that self-communion has yielded to other-possession.

Second, a way of inquiry that has gained much traction—the seeking of similes—seems to me to be misleading because it predetermines an evasive answer. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” is the title of an article concerning the nature of consciousness by Thomas Nagel; it postulates: “[F]undamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for that organism.”7 Now, questions about self-speech are surely questions about consciousness, which both involve self-consciousness and invoke it in the very asking.8 If, however, I follow this formulation and look for likeness, I am precisely evading the challenge of uniqueness. The positive lesson is this: be not beguiled by similes, by likenesses, but remain off-kilter. For either I end up with the mere “feels like an internal dialogue,” which is just, for all its vivid descriptiveness, a figure of speech, or there is nothing like self-address, because “I” and “me” are in fact split. But in that case, I am not sane, so now my thinking is a form of insanity! That’s called “being on the horns of a dilemma.” I must resolve to try to reawaken the feeling itself of self-address and to avoid diversion into similitudes.

The third negative is deepest and least likely to win agreement: when I seek, in general, to embody my mind’s ideas in speech or, in particular, to frame a question and elicit an answer, neither the framing nor the filling of the frame is my doing. It comes to me. Whence is not a question to be shrugged off but to be pursued. The positive implications are two: one, that there is thinking which precedes speech. (A professional term of this preverbal mentation is “mentalese,” but that name presumes much, namely that this fullness of the mind is already speech-like.) And two, that I am in no way creative, that I don’t invent and make up something from nowhere and from nothing. Instead, I am receptive. Thus arise two enigmas as arousing as any: the relation of mind to speech, and the source of ideas in general and of solutions in particular. To me, it seems that these profundities must draw me into regions transcending the hither world of matter-in-motion, of physics, into thither realms of ideas, of metaphysics, up to theology.

Thence arises also this positive aspect: there is something I am responsible, answerable, for, and that is my admitting of the question, my framing of it as a possibly soluble problem, my capturing of it in my abiding attention, and my spotlighting of it by my concentrated focus. But if I am now tempted to distribute question-focusing and -framing between will and intellect, I should recall that, in the great tradition, will and intellect are mutually inclusive and essentially identical, the former being thoughtful desire and the latter appetitive thought.9

Inner speech is analogous to inner sight, to the imagination, which is visibility minus matter, as the former is audibility minus sound.

On, now, to the more directly positive phenomenology. Shakespeare speaks, wonderfully, of “the sessions of sweet silent thought.”10 “Sessions” invokes the “sittings” of courts of law, where judgments are rendered. “Of sweet silent thought”? How does sweet silence go with convicting verdicts (literally: “truth-speakings”)? It goes most excellently, since the feel of much self-address is judgmental: internal closing arguments convicting our opponents, grand orations expressing our judgmental natures—which current opinion bids us hide. “Don’t be judgmental,” we’re told, when we were put on earth to render judgments—on ourselves first of all, to be sure.

But to my mind, our most specific function, most expressive of our species-nature, is the asking of a question. A question is not “questioning,” a subliminally accusatory inquisition. It eventuates, rather, when, having awoken to the strangeness of familiar things, we outline the yet unknown so that, in searching for an answer, we can recognize it when we come on it. In this understanding, a question is a shaped vacancy, a void primed to accept a particular content: “Yes, that’s what I was seeking.” It is the wonder of the recognition of the hitherto unknown, an unexplained ability that turns inquiry into recollection.

Hence the chief question of self-address: who is asking whom? Is the reference made above to double-mindedness, to sane schizophrenia, right? Are we two when we ask ourselves, or are we one and the same?

I used to think that twoness was the answer, led on by Socrates’ claim that the capacity for “thinking-things-through,” dianoia in Greek, is “the accounting (logos) that the soul goes through about the things it might be looking at.” Then, he says that which makes me trust him above all: “I’m not showing you something as if I knew.” With that caveat, he continues:

This is the likeness that presents itself to me: the soul when it thinks-things-through (dianooumene) is doing nothing else but talking-through (dialegesthai) something and herself asking herself and answering, and both alleging and disclaiming.11

Here, Socrates is doing—very hesitantly—just what I’ve forsworn above: likeness-making. And, of course, in his likeness, the soul seems, while thinking-through and talking-through whatever she is attending to, also to double herself, as if there were two “herselves.” Indeed, the crucial preposition here, the prefix dia, “through,” is cognate with duo, “two.” Thus the translation of “dialogue” into German is Zwiesprache, “two-speech,” as opposed to “monologue,” “one-speech.” It seems confusing because it is confusing; it is the crux of the question of inner speech and of the soul and its self-communication, or of consciousness and its self. So seriously: are we two or one, when we address ourselves?

I want to propose an answer that preserves the uniqueness of this event. I call it an event, on the hypothesis that it eventuated—that in the course of our species’ evolution, there was a first time when a first primate was first fully human and said “I,” and then “me,” and soon, “myself.”

There is no simile or likeness that faithfully analogizes this perpetual event to anything.12 Internal asking and answering is not role-playing in which I relocate myself on an internal stage to take the role of the other, be it the one who is nescient or the one who is in the know; both termini of the inquiry-spectrum are simultaneously “for real.” So, I am both at once; this is neither a monologue nor a duologue (actually a dictionary word!). I seem to be veering off into the via negativa of inquiry here, but I think these negative ascriptions have positive implications: this turn-and-turn-about dialogue is not a play I am staging. Whence then does it eventuate?

I think the dialogue is educed by its own subject matter. We live in a world of unknowns, the more the longer we live, because our world gets larger, and we a little wiser. We become more knowledgeable by a very little, but we get a good deal more adroit at framing our ignorance.

A world presents itself to our inner being. Forget whether it comes as itself, or as a sensory appearance, or as a mental image, or as an impression—it comes. It comes as a matter for appreciative or deprecating reception, of marveling or skeptical wondering. I don’t get it; I don’t like it; it feels familiar, it’s a mess, it’s a blessing. So I’m invited by the event, to—apt slang—scope it. That means I survey it, first to delimit its sprawling vagueness and collect it into an object of interest from the outside in; then, second, from the inside out, to find an outline, a frame that determines a question capable of receiving, that is, recognizing, an answer. I think this means that the questioner has some foreknowledge of the answer. Thus, the prescient questioner and the providing answerer are to some degree in the same place, are one and the same.

We have the uncanny ability to push in speech past speech, to say more than we can understand. I surmise that this is because speech, although deforming thought by embodying and externalizing it, yet stays true to it, if imperfectly. There is an old saying: traduttore/traditore, “A translator is a traitor.” Yet he’s also a renderer.

Hence the chief question of self-address: who is asking whom? … Are we two when we ask ourselves, or are we one and the same?

I can think of two elements in this dilemma. One is that the thought within its adequate habitat may well be capable of conjoining, of co-thinking, what in utterance is a paradox in the derogatory sense. I mean that what sounds like transgression in speech may be truth in transcendence.

The other element concerns object-making (“objectification” is the fancy term). By and in speech, we put a fairly sharply outlined object before ourselves. That is to say, we capture in speech (by a process ill understood in cognitive studies) a thought that is “about” the thing. Both the thought and the thinking that “contains” the thought are thought-out thinkings and thinkings that pass into thought. Both are of the same stuff, insofar as whatever thought may be made of can be called “stuff” or even “material.” Yet, when I think a thought (think it, not intuit it13), the thought, the idea, does not blend into the thinking, the operation. Speech can mimic this state of affairs, albeit imperfectly; this capability is called intentionality, which somehow—it is not known how—intends, reaches, snaffles what the word is about and conveys that content to us. Note that this is a theory of speech. There are others: for example, that words are labels (mental name tags somehow affixed to things) or symbols (verbal signs signifying by convention or similarity what particular something is meant).14 In any case, it seems to me that the intentionality of words, their aboutness, images the relation of thought-objects to the containing aboutness of thinking as an operation. Only human mentation seems to be capable of intentionality. (That is why no material contrivance, no “artificial intelligence,” can ever be said to “think” in the experiential sense. It appears that “aboutness” cannot be sensorially represented, that is, turned into a material model, except in that one case, audible speech.)15

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

Speech is very likely to have many features particularly suitable to rendering what we think, at least on the now unseasonable notion that thought and thinking generate speaking and knowing. A prime example is the subject-predicate form of declarative sentences in the languages with which most of us are familiar: it may be that most identifiable objects that enter the mind in thoughts are in fact concretions, coalescences exhibiting properties, and it is of these that we speak.16

I’ll close with a summary. First, however, I should make sure that I acknowledge the partial character of my considerations. I’ve left out, on the low side, the continuous insignificant inner chatter that accompanies our mundane moods. And on the high side, I’ve passed by our high-strung moments, those in which we’re painfully impassioned and driven to unremitting self-inspection and those when we’re happily astir and reveling in pleasant bookkeeping: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”17 And perhaps above all, I’ve left out the triumphantly accusatory silent orations by means of which public whining is forfended.

As I said in the beginning, some of this self-address can border on the pathological. There are those people from whom issue unstoppable torrents of talk when there is a listening ear, though it is not to communicate that they flow. When these talkers are alone, I imagine, the river goes underground—silent speech but probably more in the service of evincing thereness to oneself, more a sort of self-stimulation, than actual self-address, hoping for a reply. My catalogue of the modes of inner speech probably doesn’t begin to exhaust them; I’ve but begun to attend the sessions of sweet silent thought.

Following Socrates, I’ll begin my summary by holding myself harmless; I’ll admit that I don’t know but only conjecture, only figure to myself what I’m saying, well knowing that similitudes are in principle inadequate here. Moreover, a poem comes to mind, though it be both mawkish and brutal (properties frequently conjoined):

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand

—and, the poem goes on: If I could understand what you are, “I should know what God and man is.”18 Read it and think: that little flower is done for; you may understand something, but the thing’s dried up and dead. So the poem is apt to my enterprise. These so-called second-order inquiries, self-self-consciousness, as it were, may—no, will—be destructive of their object; it is just not possible both to think about something and to think about that thinking; the one occults the other. And yet, we do it.

So I must retract some. It is possible, in an iffy, dodgy way, which way is, moreover, in itself illuminating: if we do in fact stand in our way in self-inspection, that does seem to be testimony to our unity, to our being all one.19 So to the summary of self-address:

1. I have an intimation, a mental impending; something demands attention.20 I neutralize my exterior as much as possible: the body is to be in that parenthetical state in which it is ignorable, not so much comfortable as unregarded; intrusive devices are on “off”; there’s time enough to seem like time without end, nullified time.

2. Then I attend wittingly, try to focus, on what is yet without silhouette, to frame the question without being fully in sight of its object.

3. Then I formulate and reformulate it into the linguistic utterance of which I am generally capable by my human species-nature, but which I possess in particular by having learned the conventions, a possession to which someone for whom English is a language learned past infancy might be particularly alert. This is the moment when the inner duologic monologue appears in both its two main enigmatic features: its ambivalence with respect to number and identity of participants, and the mysterious source of its, possibly fresh, content. I, my personal self, am emphatically not the author of the question, which comes from the way things are and the way they address me; nor of the answer, which arrives I know not whence nor how. I contribute only the effort of formulation.

And here, I enter my main conclusion: in inner self-speech I am not addressing me, signifying as grammatical form a direct object and as a psychological condition an objectified other. I am rather speaking to myself, grammatically a reflexive pronoun signifying, even in the oblique case (here dative), identity. This linguistically dyadic speaking is really a duologic monologue: I’m two-in-one—no subterfuge, no “so to speak.”

4. Moreover, such inner speech is also “outer,” is utterance. This speaking mediates between private musing and public declaration; it commutes thinking, an internal activity, into communicating; it’s the outering. To this mediating, commuting, conveying function, silent utterance—both unheard and yet vocalized—is well adapted: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”21Just so, such inner speech, as sometimes survives in writing and is edited out by responsible editors in the interests of linguistic normality, is sweetest to its originator.

5. Finally, the defects of internal utterance, of this unedited self-address—these consist of the contingent disappointments in wait for the speaker gone colloquially public and in the in-principle incapacities of language itself. The disappointment is in the ordinariness that ensues when the off-the-rack suit of linguistic clothing now safely invests our newly housebroken ideas and even presents these homeschooled thoughts in institutional uniform. The in-principle incapacity of speech, while welcome testimony to prelinguistic mentation—welcome because the aboutness of our speech is at stake22—also severely inhibits the verisimilitude, the truth-likeness, of our most determinate conscious mode; we simply can’t render our mind’s apprehension accurately; we are so made as to fall forever short of our own intimations.

A final thought: I am the firmest believer in the commonality of thoughts, the condition of their communicability. Now “common” and “shared” are often identified, which seems to me the loss of a valuable distinction. Bodily, material matter can be shared; that piece I twist off from your kindly shared power bar leaves you with less. Non-physical things, however, are common in their very being. We participate in them not in the sense of taking off a part but of taking our part in being together by means of them.23 Nor need we be actually together for this commonality. The best example I can think of is the silent reading that so impressed Augustine, who is to me the finest of phenomenologists. Millions of us must have read his Confessions, by ourselves, alone. And yet we have it in common, and, if quantity is pertinent in regard to the soul at all, we might say that our lonely reading amplified the book by a factor of a million or more. This is the consequent question: Can the eventuations in our soul, and above all, the address of herself to herself, be under a common description, or are we finally self-pleasingly idiosyncratic (“peculiarly blended”) and incorrigibly eccentric (“off-center”)? Is what I’ve figured out here a description of my particular case or a delineation of the common condition?*

*Annapolis 2018


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