“You can only think of something if you think of something else.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, In Praise of Love [2001]

Although it is nearly the last line of a film, this statement could serve just as well as the first line of a philosophical treatise, a psychological experiment, or a poetic manifesto. It tries to say something essential about all kinds of thinking. And although it seems like a simple, casual remark, it deserves to be unfolded carefully: it is packed with surprising and far-reaching implications.

In fact the sentence should be translated more literally, because it is presented as a general statement:

“One can only think of something if one thinks of something else.”

Let’s begin by asking how many different ways it might be true.

—It could be a statement about the discontinuity of thoughts: every effort to think about something is forced to take detours. Whether it is due to the complexity of neural pathways or the multivalence of our means of expression, thinking can never follow a straight, unerring line. So we can’t think “something” because we think “something else” instead.

—It could be a statement about the interrelatedness of things: you can’t think anything in isolation, because you always need context, or contrast, or comparison. So we can’t think “something” because we think “something else” as well.

—It could be a statement about the unconscious: every conscious thought stirs up unconscious thoughts (or vice versa). So we can’t think “something” without thinking “something else” in spite of ourselves.

—It could be a statement about the impossibility of thinking anything: as soon as it begins to take shape, every thought breaks up in distraction and displacement. So we can’t think “something” without thinking “something else,” over and over again.

—It could be a statement about the learning process: in order to think something now, you have to have thought something else already. Learning thus depends not only on memory, but a kind of maturity; knowledge requires the ability to accumulate and compare thoughts. So we can only think “something” new because  we are able to think about how it builds upon “something else.”

Everything depends on the “something else.” On one hand, it can be understood as a kind of necessary metaphor or technical supplement, making each thought more precise through the articulation of other thoughts.  On the other hand, it can be understood as an inevitable digression, condemning every thought to incurable vagueness and drift.

The difference between these views hinges on the question: what kind of relationships exist between “something” and “something else”? Are both of them equally material, equally visible, equally illuminated? Can we go back and forth between them? And most importantly: in the effort to think “something,” are there certain kinds of “something else” that work better than others?

This is where Godard’s method leads: instead of trying to pursue knowledge about “something” through speculative argument, by trying to nail it in place, we should look elsewhere, for the best “something else.” For any given image, find another that creates the best thought between them.

It may be the condition of thinking that we cannot help thinking of something else, but it is the virtue of thinking that this detour gives thoughts their form.