August 23, 2012

Writing and talking at the same time

In Part I, Chapter XXVIII of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a scene in which Prince Bolkonski is writing a letter and talking to his son at the same time. The prince is not interspersing the writing with the talking; Tolstoy is clearly conveying the notion that he is formulating a written message while saying something different to his son.
                      Through this description Tolstoy is giving us a sense of the Prince’s lively and restless character. It struck me, however, that this is not something I could imagine happening in real life. It is not just that formulating oneself in one way in writing and in another way in speaking at the same time is very difficult; I’d wish to go further and say that they can’t intelligibly be carried on in parallel. Nor, for instance, do I think one could contribute to one conversation in sign language and to another orally at the same time. Though one may obviously write and say out loud what one is writing at the same time.
                      It’s not, of course, simply that one can’t do two things at once: one can walk and chew the proverbial gum at the same time, or tie one’s shoelaces and whistle a tune, or talk and drive, etc. And one could talk while signing one’s name, and possibly write while reciting a poem. It’s as if what becomes possible is to say and write different things at the same time and mean them.
                      I think there is an important philosophical point here, but I don’t think I’m philosopher enough to bring it out.
                      Would this be the way to think about it: in order to imagine this happening, we should have to think of two persons (two speakers) inhabiting one body?


  1. I have been following your blog for several months, but only now do I have something to say. So here goes.

    I don't think there is anything problematic about talking and simultaneously thinking about what to say in three minutes' time. (Perhaps in response to objections that one expects to be made in two minutes' time to what one is saying right now; or perhaps in an attempt to move the conversation into another subject altogether after having had one's say.) So even if it is impossible to "say and write different things at the same time and mean them", one can (as it were) mean something and at least draft a second meaning simultaneously in the back of one's mind. And it strikes me that this draft can be quite detailed, up to and including the exact form of words one plans to use when putting the matter verbally in three minutes' time. (How do I know this? By introspection, I'm afraid.)

    And I don't think there can be any talk about two minds inhabiting one body in this case. So, does the unrealistic and "wondrous" nature of Prince Bolkonski depend on the second meaning-activity being carried out in writing and not just mentally? And could one draft a letter, or at least make disjointed notes for a letter, while talking to someone else about something else? (Think of the jottings people make while talking on the telephone.) In that case, is it the finished and polished nature of Prince Bolkonski's end product that is wondrous, and not its being in written form?

    I find myself drawn to thinking about the inability to be like Prince Bolkonski as a mere contingent physiological or psychological limitation of humans. But if it is one, this does not necessarily mean that it is uninteresting to philosophers. Like some phenomenologists, Wittgenstein seems to have found it philosophically relevant that humans are, as a matter of contingent empirical fact, limited psychologically and physiologically in the way they are. For instance, he refers to the fact that humans cannot take in some exceedingly long mathematical proofs at a single glance (RFM, p. 150), or even tell at a glance "that |||||||| and |||||||| are the same sign" (PR, p. 125). He also writes: "A curious analogy could be based on the fact that the eye-piece of even the hugest telescope cannot be bigger than our eye" (CV, p. 25).

    From a completely different angle, I was reminded of Heinrich Böll's short story Es wird etwas geschehen, where employees of an industrial concern outdo each other at managing simultaneous cognitive tasks. This grows to ridiculous extremes, and the I-narrator ends up having thirteen telephones on his desk. It is quite relevant that this is comical, but at the same time uncanny in a way that is hard to put into words exactly. The final paragraph seems to suggest that the story is a satire on the cult of industrial efficiency in Nazi Germany, in which case the uncanniness would strike just the right chord. Prince Bolkonski too is uncanny (to me), but it is not clear (to me) in exactly what way.

  2. It seems that there is an important difference between simultaneous saying and thinking on the one hand, and simultaneous saying and writing on the other hand, though I’m not sure why this is so. This is connected with the way the problem of simultaneous speaking and writing is vexing – rather in the same way as the colour incompatibility problem: we are agreed that two different colours can’t be in the same place at the same time, and that speaking and writing different things can’t be done by the same person at the same time, but we’re perplexed as to the nature of the incompatibility.

    As I said, I don’t think it can be (just) a matter of a limit to human skills. That’s why the talking / thinking situation is different: there doesn’t seem to be any logical limit to the number of things a person may think about between one moment and the next. (Neither is there a logical limit to the number of balls a juggler may keep in the air at the same time, though thinking is different since it isn’t an activity that takes time – or should I say: requires time.)

    I’m still inclined to think that the problem has to do with the fact that *the whole person* is engaged in meaning what she says or writes. (Admittedly, it is easier to see this when we think about speaking than about writing.)

    The Böll story is both amusing and thought-provoking. In part, it seems to be a comment on empty uses of words like “happen”, “action”, “mourning”. You’re right that the final sentence does give it a sinister aspect; I wouldn’t have thought about that.