In the form in which it comes, a thought is a sign with many meanings, requiring interpretation or, more precisely, an arbitrary narrowing and restriction before it finally becomes clear. It arises in me – where from? How? I don’t know. It comes, independently of my will, usually circled about and clouded by a crowd of feelings, desires, aversions, and by other thoughts, often enough scarcely distinguishable from a ‘willing’ or ‘feeling’. It is drawn out of this crowd, cleaned, set on its feet, watched as it stands there, moves about, all this at an amazing speed yet without any sense of haste. Who does all this I don’t know, and I am certainly more observer than author of the process. Then its case is tried, the question posed: ‘What does it mean? What is it allowed to mean? Is it right or wrong?’ – the help of other thoughts is called on, it is compared. In this way thinking proves to be almost a kind of exercise and act of justice, where there is a judge, an opposing party, even an examination of the witnesses which I am permitted to observe for a while- only a while, to be sure: most of the process, it seems, escapes me. – That every thought first arrives many-meaninged and floating, really only as the occasion for attempts to interpret or for arbitrarily fixing it, that a multitude of persons seem to participate in all thinking – this is not particularly easy to observe: fundamentally, we are trained the opposite way, not to think about thinking as we think. The origin of the thought remains hidden; in all probability it is only the symptom of a much more comprehensive state; the fact that it, and not another, is the one to come, that it comes with precisely this greater or lesser luminosity, sometimes sure and imperious, sometimes weak and in need of support, as a whole always exciting, questioning – because every thought acts as a stimulus to consciousness – in all of this, something of our total state expresses itself in sign form. – The same is true of every feeling. It does not mean something in itself: when it comes it first has to be interpreted by us, and how strange this interpretation often is! Think of the distress of the entrails, almost ‘unconscious’ to us, of the tensions of blood pressure in the abdomen, of the pathological states of the nervus sympathicus – and how many things there are of which the sensorium commune gives us hardly a gleam of consciousness! – Faced with such uncertain feelings of displeasure, only the expert anatomist can guess the right type and location of their causes, whereas everyone else, in other words almost all men for as long as they have existed, searches not for a physical explanation of this kind of pain but for a psychological and moral one. They misconstrue the body’s actual ill humors by fetching from their store of unpleasant experiences and fears a reason to feel so bad. Under torture, almost anyone confesses himself guilty; under a pain whose physical cause is unknown, the tortured man subjects himself to an interrogation as long and inquisitorial as it takes to find himself or others guilty: – like, for example, the Puritan who, as a matter of habit, made a moral interpretation of the ill humor resulting from an unwise lifestyle: as the pangs of his own conscience.
Notebook 38, June – July 1885 paragraph 1