How to make our ideas clear

This text is sent to my advisees at the start of the spring 2019 semester.

In modern day with vast information at our fingertips and suggestions of content displaced every time we click or touch, it’s important to keep in mind that our mind can be overwhelmed and lose clarity. Yet the earliest lesson that students should demand a school to teach is, how to make our ideas clear.

For this, I here borrow the title of Charles Peirce’s 1878 article and some of his ideas about ideas, in his exact words.

“To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought. It is most easily learned by those whose ideas are meager and restricted; and far happier they than such a wallow helplessly in a rich mud of conceptions.”

“A few clear ideas are worth more than many confused ones. A young [person] would hardly be persuaded to sacrifice the greater part of [one’s] thoughts to save the rest; and the muddled head is the least apt to see the necessity of such a sacrifice. [It is] a person with a congenital defect. Time will help, but intellectual maturity with regard to clearness comes rather late, an unfortunate arrangement of Nature, inasmuch as clearness is of less use to a [person] settled in life … than it would be to one whose path lies [in front].”

“It is terrible to see how a single unclear idea, a single formula without meaning, lurking in a young man’s head, will sometimes act like an obstruction of inert matter in an artery, hindering the nutrition of the brain, and condemning its victim to pine away in the fullness of his intellectual vigor and in the midst of intellectual plenty.”

“Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has waked up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away … and the essence of his life gone with it.”

Full text of the article is at