How important is it for us to have secret thought processes? Should we always reveal what we think? These are important questions, with powerful implications, which need thinking through.
Imagine for a moment what would be revealed to others, if there were no secrecy and no censorship of our innermost thoughts. What if all of our private our thoughts were displayed to those around us, if thought bubbles appeared above our heads? How might this affect our lives, our relationships, our world?
The philosopher Hanna Arendt felt that thought involves ‘that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking’ (“two-in-one”). In an article entitled ‘Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship II ‘, Arendt underlines the importance of an inner dialogue between two parts of the self, ‘me and myself’, in which issues can be thought through and discussed internally, The two parts need to have agreement, in order for the person to be clear and just in their dealings with others.
What is central to such thinking is the development of an integrated and ‘whole’ personality. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that aspects of the self are not split off, divided from our consciousness. If we are able to achieve this internal integration, then the inner conversation will be an open one, in that the inner arguments can be balanced, with thoughts and ideas freely accessed.
This internal dialogue is an important aspect of thinking with which we can all identify, but perhaps we may not have given it much of our attention. These silent whisperings are a part of everyday life. Sometimes they are not so silent; we have all sub-vocalised, or heard others whispering to themselves, as they work out their thought-processes.
This silent thinking is also powerfully explored in David Lodge’s fine novel Thinks . Lodge’s principal character, Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science, is studying human consciousness. Messenger records his own thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness,’ as a way of researching into ‘the structure of thought.’
In Lodge’s novel, Messenger believes that ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking’. We need the secrecy. Messenger’s lover, Helen, underlines the reasons why she will not allow him access to her own secret thoughts ostensibly for his research. She emphasises the importance of privacy and of concealing thoughts to ‘maintain our self-respect’, which she views as ‘essential to civilisation.’
It is interesting to consider just how central is this secrecy of our thoughts to the maintaining of civilised behaviour in the world. Arendt also regards this private, internal reasoning process as essential to the avoidance of committing evil deeds. Without it, we would act without consideration, without standards, without internally questioning our morality.
Shakespeare has characters in two of his plays utter the phrase that ‘Thought is free’ (The Tempest and Twelfth Night.) This is true. We are free to think whatever we choose. However, freedom of thought is different from freedom of speech. Speaking our thoughts without consideration can be dangerous and hurtful.
We cannot always say what we think if our thoughts are offensive or likely to imperil others. Internal, personal editing, and sometimes censoring the expression of some thoughts is essential. In democratic societies there are often laws that prevent dangerous and criminal thoughts and ideas from being expressed publicly, such as those that involve as racism and sexism. Whilst some people may harbour such thoughts, they cannot be expressed legally in public.
The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, in a poem entitled Silentium, implies that thinking can be dangerous and he counsels us to keep our thoughts to ourselves:
Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
We are urged to recognise the impossibility of a thought being expressed clearly and truthfully:
What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.
This last line is, indeed thought-provoking. Can we ever understand another’s thoughts, once they are spoken? Or is it better to keep silent, as the poet says?