In this brief essay, I want to explain why we should take the concept of ineffability seriously. I define ineffability as the concept of what’s in principle resistant to conceptual grasp and literal linguistic articulation. I want to suggest that it makes sense to think there are ways of experiencing and evoking what can’t be stated in propositions—in other words, that it’s possible, in a sense that I’ll elaborate, to “eff” the ineffable. The philosophically interesting cases of ineffability clearly aren’t the trivial ones encountered, for example, by a person who is gagged and can’t talk. Remove the gag, and any ineffability is also removed. I’m interested instead in the rarer cases where the ineffability also feels meaningful to us. We might think we’ve already had this kind of experience—perhaps while gazing at a beautiful sunset or within arm’s reach of a favourite artist at a live concert—but a philosophical account of ineffability demands a bit more than this hazy intuition.
So I’ll start with a closer look at meaning, and rehearse an argument put forward by David E. Cooper which has formed the basis for my own work on the topic. Cooper adopts the perspective of phenomenology: the philosophical study of ‘phenomena’, the structures of lived experience. For him, to explain something’s meaning is to explain its relation of appropriateness to some broader context, ultimately to the context of human life. So, for example, we explain a coffee cup’s meaning by articulating its relation of appropriateness to our concepts and practices related to brewing and drinking coffee. The cup has its own unique contribution to make to this broader context, and its meaning just consists in that distinctive role. But coffee drinking represents one of many sets of concepts, perspectives, and practices which, together, make up human life. Phenomenologists call this sum total the Lebenswelt—a German term meaning “lifeworld”. But here we encounter a problem. If meaning is explained relationally, and ultimately in terms of appropriateness to life, how can life itself be understood as meaningful? If life were not meaningful, then the meaning of coffee cups (and everything else) would have to consist in a relation of appropriateness to something meaningless. And a relation of appropriateness to something meaningless isn’t really meaning at all, because the meaninglessness of life would unavoidably infect everything that contributes to it. If life itself were meaningless, all meaning would simply evaporate. It would be both logically mistaken and psychologically impossible to continue living as we do in the complete absence of meaning.
So there must be a context beyond life in terms of which life’s meaning can be explained. But it would be circular to claim that this broader context is invested with the very same concepts whose meaning we invoke it in order to explain. We would then ultimately be explaining the meaning of our concepts in terms of those concepts themselves, and the explanation would be no further advanced. So, to avoid the circularity, we’re committed to a broader context that can’t be invested with any of our concepts: in other words, we’re committed to the idea of what can’t be conceptualised or literally articulated. We can conclude that the meaning of life, and therefore the ultimate meaning of everything that constitutes life, must be explained in terms of the concept of ineffability. And in my view, there could be no better reason to take the concept of ineffability seriously.
But ineffability has always had its detractors. In a seminal 1956 paper, for example, William Alston ('Ineffability', The Philosophical Review, 65.4 (1956): 506–22) highlighted a paradox that ineffability claims apparently involve. We must be able to say enough about a supposedly ineffable object to secure reference to it, identifying it as that to which the ineffability applies. But if we can say even this much about an object (as we must of any supposedly ineffable object) that object can’t by definition be ineffable. In other words, even the bare, essential claim “x is ineffable” seems enough to violate the ineffability of x. This logical problem still leads some philosophers to reject ineffability wholesale. But if the idea of an ineffable object is incoherent, perhaps we should look somewhere other than among objects for a coherent account of experiences of ineffability. If fact, we must keep looking if we want to hold on to the essential idea that meaning exists.
Cooper’s argument says that it’s impossible, without circularity, to invest the ineffable with any of the same concepts, and so forth, with which life itself is invested—whose meaning was initially in question. But an important corollary is that the concept of existence must be included among these concepts. Here’s the polish philosopher, Lezek Kołakowski reading the so-called “father of phenomenology”, Edmund Husserl. From the point of view of lived experience,
“Existence” itself is a certain “sense” of an object. Consequently it would be absurd … to say that an object “exists” independently of the meaning of the word “to exist”—independently of the act of constitution performed by the consciousness. (Husserl and the Search for Certitude (London: Yale UP, 1975), 65)
More recently, Silvia Jonas (Ineffability and Its Metaphysics: The Unspeakable in Art, Religion, and Philosophy (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016) has carefully ruled out “objects” as plausible candidates for philosophically interesting cases of ineffability. She suggests instead that we understand the metaphysics of ineffability in terms of “Self-acquaintance”, direct phenomenal knowledge of our Selves (the reference point of indexical self-ascription of properties). But crucially, this is an experience in which the “object” turns out to be nothing other than the “subject”—our primitive point of view on the world, for which there are any objects at all. I think it’s for this reason that at the end of her book, Jonas begins to use the terms “experience of ineffability” and “ineffable experience” interchangeably. If the “subject” has become the “object” of an experience which for that very reason shipwrecks the subject–object distinction, it will in that case be quite natural to say that an “ineffable experience” amounts to an “experience of ineffability” and vice versa.
From a different angle, I follow phenomenologists like Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers to argue to similar effect: that experiences of ineffability shipwreck the subject–object split. I think that split is best viewed, with the American pragmatist, John Dewey, as a useful distinction to be transcended rather than a dichotomy. A dichotomy is a dualistic way of construing a distinction, which renders the potential relationship between the distinguished items unintelligible. So dichotomies—say, between mind and body, reason and passion, fact and value—create a familiar range of thorny philosophical problems that Dewey thinks will remain for ever intractable.
So, in contrast to this dichotomising approach, the French phenomenologist Marcel ('On the Ontological Mystery', The Philosophy of Existence, trans. M. Harari (London: Harvill, 1948), 1–31, p. 8) distinguishes between a “problem”, which can be dissolved by rational thought within the subject–object distinction, and a “mystery”, which eludes such objectification. He defines a mystery as “a problem which encroaches upon its own data”, in other words a question in which the questioner is inextricably caught up. And the ineffable mode of reality which the German psychiatrist and philosopher Jaspers calls “Transcendence or God” is for him strictly interdependent with human existence. He views human existence and Transcendence as opposite poles of reality as a whole, which he calls “the Encompassing”. And while it’s possible, for the provisional purposes of analysis, to say that Transcendence lies on the objective side and existence lies on the subjective side, Jaspers insists on their interdependence. Human existence is only realized in the presence of Transcendence, and Transcendence is, as it were, created in the same moment that it’s revealed to us. Jaspers sets this out as follows:
The encompassing that we are confronts the encompassing that is Being itself: the one encompassing encompasses the other. The being that we are is encompassed by encompassing Being, and Being is encompassed by the encompassing that we are. (Philosophical Faith and Revelation, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Collins, 1967), 71.)
So if these philosophers are right, the experience of ineffability shipwrecks the subject–object distinction. It isn’t an experience of some object or set of objects, logically separable from ourselves—the subjects—or from the world. Rather, it amounts to a different view of the meaningful fabric of the human world itself, where subject and object continually overlap and encompass one another. The concept of ineffability evokes the condition of meaning that suffuses human experience itself and is logically inseparable from it.
This leave us with a final question: given that there can be experience of ineffability—if not cognitive knowledge of it, or true propositions about it—can we evoke the ineffable? Can we cultivate a sense of ineffability in ourselves and in other people? And, if so, how?
I suggest that we’ve already been doing this for centuries. In ritual performances, poetic language, and works of art, we embody in material form (in marks on paper, in utterances, in dramatic gestures) what resists cognitive grasp and literal articulation in prosaic language. While a friend can tell us in detail after the event what the concert was like, it’s no substitute for actually being there. When we experience these cultural forms, we’re experiencing what Jaspers calls “ciphers of Transcendence” phenomena that embody the ineffable in the only way that it can be embodied.
Unlike objects that signify or represent other objects (like a road sign indicating a nearby tourist attraction), ciphers are ambiguous with regard to the subject–object distinction. They’re subjective in the sense that they depend on us in the same way that language is a human creation. But at the same time, they’re objective: like any spoken language, ciphers are appropriated from cultural and intellectual traditions that are older and greater than we are—and will most likely outlive us as well. By being subjective and objective at once, ciphers can evoke the ineffable, which transcends the distinction and outruns our cognitive and literal linguistic grasp.
But while road signs and languages can always be translated, ciphers remain indecipherable. When T. S. Eliot says in The Waste Land, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” only the most pedantic reader would try to translate the poetry into prose, insisting that Eliot made a category error because a handful of dust can’t literally contain fear. When we read this phrase as a cipher of the ineffable, we see that the poetic language evokes what’s already there, embodied in the sonority, the emotional and cultural resonance, of the poetry itself. Wittgenstein makes this point about paintings. We don’t have to believe that a painting is factually or historically accurate to have the feeling that it’s telling us something—something important. But Wittgenstein says, “I should like to say: “What the picture tells me is itself.” That is, its telling me something consists in its own structure, in its own lines and colours” (Philosophical Investigations, § 523).
So I end with the thought that there’s a whole range of cultural phenomena, from religion, through high culture, to pop culture, that we can read as ciphers of the ineffable. And read in this way, these phenomena can be recognized as the most valuable things we have. They’re our only means of “effing” the ineffable—on which the meaning of life itself ultimately depends.