“A thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words. Precisely because thought does not have its automatic counterpart in words, the transition from thought to word leads through meaning. In our speech, there is always the hidden thought, the subtext. Because a direct transition from thought to word is impossible, there have always been laments about the inexpressibility of thought…”

~Vygotsky, Thought and Language, p. 251


The inexpressibility of thought. It is something that all of us are forced to think about at various times in our lives. Or, if you are like me, at various times in the day.

You see, there are so many moments when I want to express the ideas running through my head, but just can’t seem to find the words.

Can you relate?

I suspect so.

Because, as the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky observes, this dilemma appears to be part of the human condition.

The clouds of our thoughts precipitate words, but, in doing so, inevitably lose part of their original composition. There is always a hidden subtext to the language we use, one that can only be read by uncovering the motivation behind the words being communicated.

Vygotsky notes that “[t]hought is not begotten by thought; it is engendered by motivation, i.e., by our desires and needs, our interests and emotions” (Thought and Language, p. 252).

How often do we fail to attend to the desires, needs, interests and emotions that shape the words of those we come into contact with?

How often do we feel misunderstood because people have failed to recognize the motivation behind what we are trying to say?

The answer, I am fairly certain, is often.

In fact, I think the frequency of our misunderstandings is increased by our tendency to project our own motivational subtexts onto the words of others. When we encounter a statement, we interpret it through the lens of our own desires, needs, interests and emotions.

As a result, we fail to see the thought behind the words.

I think this is where empathy comes in.

The ability to put oneself in another’s place. To make space in our minds for the thoughts of someone else. To feel the meaning of what they are trying to convey to us.

It’s an ambitious task, to be sure.

But I am convinced it is a worthwhile one.

Because, if we are able to empathetically engage with the thoughts of the people we meet, light will shine through the clouds. And what happens when light and rain meet?


A beautiful spectrum of understanding that can only be achieved through different forecasts of human experience.

So if you are having a cloudy day, take heart. The inexpressibility of your thought just might manifest as a lovely rainbow in somebody else’s life.