Source: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (1 ed 2007) by T. Eagleton. p. 47 Middle.

We speak of the complex network of meanings of a Shakespeare play without always supposing that Shakespeare was holding these meanings in his head at the exact moment of writing the words down. How could any poet of such prodigal imaginative fertility keep in mind all the possible connotations of his meanings? To say ‘This is a possible meaning of the work’ is sometimes to say that this is what the work can be plausibly interpreted to mean. What the author actually ‘had in mind’ may be completely beyond recovery, even for himself. Many writers have had the experience of being shown patterns of meaning in their work which they did not mean to put there. And what of unconscious meanings, which are by definition not deliberately intended? ‘I really do think with my pen’, Wittgenstein observes, ‘because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.’11


11 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago, 1984), 17e.

I, and not the book, bolded the above.

  • A quote anecdotally attributed to Einstein is "sometimes pencil and paper are smarter than I am" books.google.com/… . What it means is that some "intellectual" exercises, like adding large numbers or manipulating formulas, we can do with pencil on paper but not in our heads, and we can do them "without thinking".
    – Conifold
    Jun 7, 2017 at 22:40

3 Answers 3


This is a quote that is probably easily misunderstood. He goes quite in depth about this in the Blue and Brown books.

Wittgenstein was trying to sort out the muddle he thought was present in the way people thought about thinking. He was trying to argue against essentialism when it comes to meaning. A lot of people previously were trying to identify the common essence to all the thinks we call "thoughts" or "thinking", or any other words for that matter (truth, justice and so on). Philosophers looking at writing might have said something like :

"When I write, I deliberately put the pen on the page, I think about what to say, and then move my hand to write what I had thought of"

Wittgenstein then moves to disagree that when you write you are always "thinking" in the way people assume. He says that there are many different things that could be happening when you write, depending on the situation. You could be signing your name, which doesn't involve any reflection, you could be writing a mathematic proof, where each line you think about in great depth. You could be hesitating while trying to sign a contract, you could be transcribing notes from a blackboard to a copy, you could simply start writing random words. There are a host of different things we call writing, and we forget about this when we assume there is this peculiar presence of a "thought" every time we write. This is partly what he is referring to in his comment - that many times when we write and speak, we do so instinctively, or we do so without picturing anything in our mind.


One of the threads in the Philosophical Investigations is the mutual interdetermination of meaning and usage.

You can think of this (thinking with the pen) as the smallest loop in the feeback-loop between usage and meaning. If usage creates meaning, and meaning determines usage, the actual meaning of what I want to express is affected by how I choose to express it.

In the very act of composing a sentence, I am still deciding what I mean. There is not a single clear and isolated meaning in my thought unconnected with its expression on the page. Without deciding to express it, I might have actually thought something slightly different.

In a slightly more modern framing, Dennet's multiple-drafts analogy, the parallel process of the brain, and the serial story content of the mind (as interpretable memory) are only synchronized in choosing actions. So we only know what we actually mean when we try to say it (or put it in some other expressive medium).


I think he meant that when we write longhand we think differently as compared to when we talk to someone. Once a friend of his had to wait for a 'few minutes' while Wittgenstein finished a sentence before they went to lunch. Four hours later they left for lunch, or supper as it was by then. Once you start writing, you have to get it right, so there is no escape, unless you screw the page up and forget about it. I also think we 'think' differently when we write in longhand, to when we write an email. I am very careful about what I write here, because it may be permanent. An email is usually not important and transitory. Havng said that, only Wittgenstein would know what he really meant.

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