Rousseau on Writing and Getting Out of the Chaos

Oğuz Albayrak
5 min readApr 2, 2023

Writing is a very essential, yet an overlooked necessity of our thought process. It’s an endeavour which lets us to realize that, our “brilliant” thoughts are lacking the chain of causality, our thoughts have holes, mistakes or dead end convictions. So writing actually affects the writer more than the reader. Because it creates the writer, meanwhile it merely affects the reader. Throughout the history, continuous, careful and informed writing transformed many people into great and renown philosophers. As we can’t imagine a master craftsman that never produced anything in their lives, we can’t think of a philosopher that never explained anything in full depth. Practice is the best teacher. For everybody.

To have some reflection on our unordered messy thoughts that we want to perfect by writing down, we might want to have a look at what Rousseau wrote about his struggle of getting out of the chaos and start writing:

This slowness of thought allied to impetuosity of feeling is something that affects me not only in conversation, but also when I am on my own and working. It is with unbelievable difficulty that my ideas arrange themselves into any sort of order in my head. They circle there obscurely, they ferment to the point where they stir me, fire me, cause my heart to palpitate; and in the midst of all this emotion I see nothing clearly; I cannot write a word, I must wait. Imperceptibly, the great movement subsides, order succeeds chaos, everything finds its proper place; but slowly, and only after a long and confused agitation. … If only I had learnt to wait, and only afterwards to render in all their beauty the things I had seen in my mind’s eye, few writers would have surpassed me.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics)

So the struggle is real, even for great authors. I think everybody has their own way of getting out of the chaos. But always there is a chaos in the beginning. Chaos precedes any fundamental order. I think, if one thinks that it is clear what to write from beginning of an article, that can mean two things. Either the person already talked about the same subject hundreds of times, or we are talking about an overconfidence which will break down into pieces like a glass shattered against the wall, unless we are also talking about a delusion. Thoughts settle and gain weight while one writes. Always feeling complete is a sign of shallow thought process.

The culprit of the chaos is, as I mentioned in the beginning, the impossibility of coming up with a fully-detailed plan before writing anything. Because that would mean, that we already have written the text. Even when we finish, our flow of thoughts will be only good-enough. Many great authors wished to disown their former books in their later life. There is no perfection. Especially if there were initial perfection, there would be no improvements because nothing could improve perfect. What a great life would it be! Do things and forget about them, forever… But well, under the circumstances of the life we are living in, if we don’t know where to start in the beginning, I think that’s a good sign. At least we are aware of the chaos. Awareness is a good tool in the hands of an ever-exercising mind.

What to do with the chaos though? I think the best way to deal with the chaos is reiterating the idea in our mind, pick seemingly suitable piece of the thought and write the first paragraph, even if we don’t like it. We don’t have to keep the first paragraph, the order can always change but the first paragraph will let us learn how to structure our beginning. To continue and to finish succeeds to begin, not the other way around. You can’t get old without getting born.

A directed graph taken from Wikipedia page

We should think of the chaotic soup of thoughts like a directed graph. Not like the one in the picture, a very large and messed up one. Most of these connections will be of wrong or illusionary nature. The messed-upness needs to be improved iteratively while writing down the ideas. Each time we reread the text we wrote, we need to reshape the ideas and reorder the thoughts, by adding and removing sentences, by changing words, by reordering, adding, removing paragraphs etc. At some point, the text will be in a better shape than how the ideas actually reside in our mind. Years later, it will become something that we will need to relearn, like reading from somebody else. I think that’s the reason why it’s possible to find some people talking so irrationally on interviews meanwhile their books are of golden rationality. It’s not that somebody else wrote them, but the method provided a stability.

Writing, is like putting down the graph of ideas on the paper and reorder/reshape to reach something that makes sense at the end. To start this process though, we have to pick one of the connections. One connection that is good enough so that we can start iterating through the ideas by verifying the connections between them. If you want to swim, you don’t get into the stream slowly, you jump so that the cold doesn’t discourage you. As a concrete example of a beginning choice, this article started with the relationship between the thought process and writing, and continued with explaining the chaos that preceded writing, so that we could step into the getting out of the chaos part.

Here comes the “waiting” part that Rousseau is talking about. The waiting part is an optimization game, where we need to wait — actually thinkenough time to consider the possible beginnings and pick a good beginning, but also we shouldn’t wait too long and lose the enthusiasm, and start doing some gardening work instead. Picking a good-enough start, I think, is a very good idea if you don’t want to end up doing nothing. I think good-enough is an overlooked diamond, given our good-enough is not a settling one, but the good-enough iteratively improves, and the good-enoughs are comparable to each other. Nearly everything in life is good enough. A search for perfect generally ends up with an illusion. Illusion can be provided by sophistry, not real craft.

Thus I guess, Rousseau managed it in the right way so that we see him writing a lot, despite his description of the huge chaos in his mind, but he always had this “What if I waited longer?” thought, which I think, is quite normal because it’s hard to see somebody in life that is happy with their choices. If he settled, we wouldn’t see the high quality after his improvements. Let’s keep in mind, we are not reading the sketches.