Monday, July 20, 2015

The Thinkable and the Unthinkable

The term “unthinkable” may be used in a variety of ways. It may, for example, be used to refer to that which is unimaginable, inconceivable, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, or indefinable. It may also be used to refer to that which is virtually impossible or almost completely out of the question (presupposing that there is indeed a corresponding question that may be formulated by thought).
      When we say that something is “unthinkable,” we may in some cases mean merely that we consider it to be very improbable or highly unlikely. For that thing to become actual reality may therefore be for it to be taken as an example of the "unthinkable" becoming thinkable.
      The “unthinkable” may also in some cases be merely that which is considered to be socially inappropriate for, or forbidden within, a given setting or context. The "unthinkable" within a given setting or context may be that which is barred or prohibited for a given person, group, network, or community. The occurrence of that which has previously been considered "unthinkable" may thus in some cases be perceived as disruptive, disturbing, unseemly, appalling, or shocking.
      The “unthinkable” may also sometimes be a specific thought content, idea, or concept that is forbidden and that we are told, taught, or ordered not to think about. It may also be that which it is illicit or impermissible to think about. To “think the unthinkable” may therefore be to disobey moral, religious, social, legal, or governmental dictates and to violate conventional norms. The “thinker of the unthinkable” may in some cases be a kind of ground breaker, innovator, or visionary, and in other cases a kind of law breaker, apostate, heretic, or revolutionary.
      A given mode of speech, thought, or conduct may be made "unthinkable" by a given moral, religious, social, or professional code or by a given religious, social class, political, or cultural ideology. For a given code or ideology to gain power or become predominant within a society may be for the thinkable to become "unthinkable" or for the "unthinkable" to become thinkable. The thinkable within a given code or ideology may be "unthinkable" within a different code or ideology.
      Under an authoritarian system of government, the “unthinkable” may also be that which has been declared by the state to be beyond the limits of the thinkable or sayable. To “think the unthinkable” or “say the unsayable” may therefore be to risk censure or incur punishment for having transgressed the limits of the sayable or thinkable. The thinkable may be a realm that is governed by the state and that is enforced by means of thought control.1
      The “unthinkable” may also in some cases be merely that which we have been too shortsighted or careless to think about. We may in some cases describe a situation or event as “unthinkable” merely because we have been too thoughtless to conceive of its possibility.
      Some examples of events that are often described as “unthinkable” include natural disasters, environmental catastrophes, devastating industrial accidents, worldwide disease epidemics, stock market crashes, sudden collapses of government, mass shootings,2 terrorist attacks,3 war crimes, and other acts of violence and destruction.
      The “ungraspability” or “unthinkability” of some facts, events, or situations may also be expressed by colloquial expressions such as “I don’t get that” or “I can’t quite get my head around that.”
      Thus, it may be important to distinguish between the literally unthinkable and the figuratively unthinkable, as well as between the unthinkable in theory and the unthinkable in practice. It may also be important to recognize and delineate those situations and contexts in which the unthinkable can become thinkable and the thinkable can become unthinkable.
      To say that something is literally unthinkable is to say that there are boundaries or limits to what we can think, and that there are boundaries or limits beyond which we cannot think of, or think about, something. What then are those boundaries or limits? How may we delimit or demarcate the domains of the thinkable and the unthinkable? Can such domains overlap?
      If there are limits beyond which we cannot think, can we ever know or recognize those limits? If we were able to know or recognize those limits, then would we perhaps also have to be able to know or recognize not only the thinkable, but also the unthinkable? Thus, Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, says that in order to draw a limit to thinking, we would have to think what cannot be thought.4
      To say that there are limits to what we can think may also be to say that there are limits to what we can conceive of, imagine, hope for, desire, trust in, be disappointed by, be angered by, agree with, disagree with, believe, disbelieve, remember, forget, know, talk about, dream about, and understand.
      The literally unthinkable may be that which transcends words or concepts, and that which exceeds or surpasses the limits of thought. But if there are limits to the thinkable, are there also limits to the unthinkable?
      The thinkable is all that can be thought, including all that has been thought, all that is being thought, and all that has not been but will be thought. On the other hand, the unthinkable is all that cannot be thought, including all that is not being thought (because it is incapable of being thought), and all that has not been and never will be thought (because it is incapable of being thought).
      To think about something may be to make it an object of thought. The unthinkable may therefore be that which cannot be made an object of thought. To be able to distinguish between the thinkable and the unthinkable we may also need to be able to distinguish between what can and cannot be made an object of thought.
      Some important questions to be answered include: Are the limits of language the same as the limits of thought? Can language express everything that can be thought? Are there limits to the expressive capacity of language? Can pure intuition transcend the limits of deliberative thought? Are there things that can be recognized or known purely intuitively and that transcend our ability to think deliberatively about them?


1Noam Chomsky, “The Bounds of Thinkable Thought,” in The Progressive, Vol. 49, Issue10 (Oct. 1985), pp. 28-31.

2Todd Zwillich, “Stop Saying Mass Shootings Are ‘Unthinkable,’” June 24, 2015, at

3Phil Rosenthal, “9/11 attacks unthinkable, not unimaginable, as events prior show,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 11, 2011, at

4Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922] (Mineola, Dover Publications, 1999), p. 27.      

Listen to radio news correspondent Todd Zwillich explain why we should "Stop Saying Mass Shootings are 'Unthinkable'"

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