• Thoughts
May 25, 2016


Don’t worry, this isn’t a trick question, and we’re not offering a trick answer. You already buy thoughts all the time. When you buy books or newspapers, or magazines, or any other so-called reading material. When you pay to go to the movies or to watch them at home on your television. When you pay to access the Internet in order to do any or all of the above, or in order to interface with other Internet surfers, or with friends or family members or potential love interests. You are already buying something, whenever your money allows you to engage with or in any other way have someone else’s thoughts—and someone else, in this vast and constantly expanding trade, is selling.

What you are paying for, you and everybody else, is the privilege to think what someone else is already thinking (or has already thought). Of course you (and everybody else) are only really purchasing the right to experience the thought, to know it, as some people put it, or to try to know it. You may be paying, more generally, with the hope of knowing what’s going on in the wide wide world, or in order to learn what a certain person or persons think about a certain event, or what they think about some thought or set of thoughts that some other person had. Or maybe you’re paying with the hope of being entertained by what a certain working imagination has produced over a certain span of time, through a certain measure of effort and perhaps in collaboration with a bunch of other busybodies: a story, a serial, a play, a comic strip, a philosophy, a political organization, a fantasy role-playing environment, etc. Whatever it is, you pay, and even—look out!—you’re paying right now.

Again, don’t worry: we all do. We all buy all kinds of thoughts, some strung together more or less skillfully, others not (but hey)—still others, maybe most, scraped into haphazard combinations, often without style or purpose or talent, and often, honestly, without hope or merit of any enduring interest—and for the most part we do this (you and me and everybody else) because, broadly speaking, to experience a thought is a good sight more satisfying—and to the point—than to think one up yourself.

Well, in the first place, you may not actually be able to think up a thought. Many a subtle mind will, on a daily basis, try and fail. Still, supposing you do have the ability, a decent thought requires (as you know) real time and real work for its articulation, whatever form it ultimately takes. And what sort of time do you have, really? What sort of work are you really willing to do? And have you considered that by the time this new thought is ready for sharing—ready, that is, to be experienced—it will have to have been looked over and re-arranged from top to bottom, perhaps several times? And has it occurred to you that even if, eventually, this thought is going to successfully penetrate the marketplace of ideas1, even so, whatever at first seemed exciting or profound or original in it may well by the time it’s been squeezed out appear to its producer(s)—assuming they’re still alive2—little better than a commonplace, and in the best of cases hardly distinguishable from the labor and tedium its creation demanded: neither glorious, nor wise, nor original, but perfectly stale and lifeless, a mere artifact, a bauble, and no longer an enchanting one. Sure, others might enjoy the thought now, but what about the person or persons who had to sweat and struggle to come up with it? What about you?

Experiencing a thought, on the other hand… Well, what’s the simplest way of doing that? Reading? Listening? Watching? Sure. It’s a matter of ordinary perception. And however you perceive it, it’s just like having the thought yourself. The only substantial difference is that in the one case it’s a long, drawn-out, possibly fruitless process, while in the other the hard part has already been done. That is to say, when experiencing someone else’s thought, you get to experience the thinking all at once, at the very moment of perception, without any of the toil or insecurity or, who knows, pure bloody madness that gave birth to it—without any unnecessary excreta getting in the way of your enjoyment. All of the thought’s value is there at your disposal, self-contained and fully operational: the only thing left for you to do is to think it. Or, more precisely, refer to it. But the effect is largely the same. They have a dream, you have a dream. Same dream! Of course, in this scenario, it isn’t really your thought—no, indeed. You may have thought it, in a rather loose sense, processed it, reading or listening or watching as you were, but you weren’t its author, plainly, and so you’d never claim or even imagine claiming the idea or poem or whatever it was had actually originated with you. That would be dishonest, plainly, even absurd. Or, should we say, it would have been.

Sometimes, admittedly, a thought is just a thought. If you’re thinking about whether to wear a blue shirt or a white one, or if you’re thinking about the protein content of a new brand of diet shake, or about your favorite uncle’s 1963 Pontiac, those aren’t the sorts of thought that demand attribution. Which doesn’t mean they can’t or oughtn’t be attributed to anybody, only, as your mother likes to say, “Who cares?”

But how about, for example, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Now, a lot of people have this thought, or have had it, in the sense that a lot of people think or have thought it. How many? Maybe billions over the millennia—and it’s fair to say most anyone who’s thought it once, will think it again and again through the course of their lives. No doubt you’ll grant the ubiquity of what we call “The Golden Rule,” but will you as readily grant its provenance? Most people chalk this one up to Jesus Christ, and some smaller number will be able to place it among the recommendations of his so-called Sermon on the Mount. A smaller number still might support a more ecumenical position, that the sentiment expressed in the Golden Rule had already been formulated by many different thinkers across many different civilizations before it ever lit up the mind of the Son of Man. They’d be getting off track a bit, but they wouldn’t be wrong. And similar cases could be made for other such folk-wise phrases or sentiments that end up, for one reason or another, settling in the mouth of some ideal folk-representative: Jesus, Einstein, Confucius, MLK.

When, however, we get to notions like, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker,” attribution is more precise, with both the idea and its form almost inextricably bound to the author (or at least, in Shakespeare’s case, to the author’s name). The originality of concept is not what’s at stake here: certainly the Law of Identity predated Romeo & Juliet, and no one would argue that Nietzsche invented the value of resilience. No, what matters here is the whole package. The German philosopher, for instance, may never have intended his maxim as straightforwardly as it’s typically received3, but he did re-shape it just so, and now untold millions repeat it at soccer practice, in pop song lyrics, in penitentiaries, have it printed on tee-shirts and inked on their flesh, and when the curious observer enters an approximation of those words into their favorite search engine—“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”—it is with his name they are associated, instantly.

And now: imagine if Nietzsche—famous depressive and, finally, lunatic that he was—could have had his glory without all the anguish. He couldn’t have, perhaps; he was born to a different time and place; but you, here and now… you just might.

Schedule an in-person consultation with our catalog of fully original, fully vetted, thoughts. Choose from pithy, tweet-able phrases or longer, more elaborate constructions. Mix and match, but don’t overthink it. Our inventory is 100% digital, protected with 256-bit encryption, and ready for instantaneous delivery. For all transactions and inquiries, or to request a free sample, contact our exclusive ThoughtSeller™ broker. You may also, to abet the ongoing sensation of trying these sorts of thoughts on, visit our Patreon page or donate to us directly, and become another important source of lifeblood for this particular simulacrum.

The purchase of any thought in our collection entitles you the buyer to full ownership and rights of use for said thought, in perpetuity. All fees, profits, royalties, etc., generated by re-sale, publication or other use of the thought become the buyer’s sole property, along with all copyright, intellectual property and other privileges commonly understood to belong to the originator or “thinker” of a given thought. You the buyer are, in effect, paying for the right to refer to yourself as the “thinker” of this thought, and for all rights that would normally follow therefrom. We, in accepting payment for the thought, agree thereby to renounce all future claims on it, and to destroy to whatever degree possible and/or practicable, any and all traces of said thought’s veritable pedigree, up to and including—naturally—any record of your ThoughtSeller™ transaction. For the industrious among you, we are also here to serve as full-service brokers, so if you have thoughts to sell, please consider our unique qualifications for connecting you with potential buyers. As “thought agents,” we charge our clients a flat, one-time fee of 25% on all sales, for which all terms of our standard agreement also apply. Of course, potential sellers are welcome and indeed encouraged to price their thoughts according to their own sense of value. None too ambitious, none too humble. The market, as ever, will bear what it can bear.

  1. The prevailing idiom.
  2. Without belaboring the point, we might here take a moment to reflect upon the paradigmatic cases of Van Gogh and Kafka, two towering figures of modern art in their respective fields, neither of whom entered the marketplace during their lifetimes in any meaningful way. -Lcx
  3. See also, for contrast, Pierre Reverdy: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Well and good. And each day brings its own new challenge, which doesn’t kill us, and so—what incalculable strength we must be accumulating! And yet comes the day we die, and this, to follow the logic, at the very height of our powers: powers which, by all available evidence, were acquired not in order to avoid death but only in order to bear it. Tremendous weakness would have served us just as well.” (Le livre de mon bord, Mercure de France, 1930-36.)

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