Thinking is an odd sort of enterprise. It is spaceless, yet it has certain features of spatiality. For instance: I puzzle over an issue for weeks, making virtually no progress, and then read a billboard or see a preview on a video I’ve rented, and suddenly things fall into place. I feel as if I’ve reached a peak, and can see the valley and horizon beyond that has been hidden from me. All of a sudden, things move pretty rapidly, until I come to a new “peak” and have to struggle up that one.

Another instance: I spend a day researching something, and make significant progress. Then I put it aside for several days. When I pick up the issues again, it takes a good hour, or more, to get back to the “place” I was when I left the research off. This is not merely a matter of remembering the facts and thoughts I had before. I can look at my detailed notes, and mentally repeat everything I was thinking several days before, but that in itself doesn’t get me back to the “place” I left off. It’s more a matter of feel and flow and rhythm than it is of remembering the facts. The intervening days have interrupted the flow, and I need to find it again; I’ve gotten out of rhythm, and though I still remember and can repeat all the dance steps, I need to get dancing again before I can make progress.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart