Lost for Words? You’re not the only one.

The seminal 1970s concept album Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Alan Parsons Project begins with the recorded voice of the legendary Orson Welles. In his inimitable voice Welles reads out an extract from Edgar Alan Poe’s Marginalia (1844 – 1849) in which the idea of ineffability is given an evocative and powerful expression. The ineffable is that which cannot or should not be expressed in words. Poe writes,

“For my own part. I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words with even more distinctness than that which I conceived it. There is however a class of fancies of exquisite delicacy which are not thoughts and to which as yet I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt to language. These fancies arise in the soul, alas how rarely, only at epochs of most intense tranquility when the bodily and mental health are in perfection, and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with the world of dreams.”

The ineffable has historically been applied to issues of religious language but some would argue that there are many other areas of human experience where words seem to fail to capture the very essence of something perceived as real. Birth, death, psychedelic trips, self-awareness, strong aesthetic experiences, intuitions to name a few. Given that language is so bound up with the possibility of knowledge one inevitably has to confront the issue as to whether any ineffable knowledge is actually possible. Can we ever claim to know anything which is inexpressible in any human language?

To misquote Wittgenstein, on could say that the limits of our language are the limits of our minds, and therefore of our world and of any knowledge of it. As always with disputes of this type, great minds have aligned themselves with one camp or other. Some such minds recoil at the very idea of ineffability, the possibility that the human mind is not able of capturing by means of words something offends them. For others, ineffability reminds us of our limitations and they accept that there may be things we cannot know, or things we can know but not express in any language. Indeed, some may say that words are not only inadequate in attempts to describe or capture exceptional experiences, they also fall short of fully expressing quite mundane ones. Try describing what eating a perfectly ripe mango is like to someone who never has eaten a fruit, and see how rapidly you run into the quicksands of linguistic inadequacy. The best you will manage will be achieved by means of analogy. Eastern thinkers are notoriously more at ease with the idea of ineffability especially since many reject the very possibility any use of language which is not in some way deficient, or accept as the only real existent as some supremely ineffable Other. Many of them would indeed nod in vigorously assent to what Virginia Woolf calls the “deformity of words.”

One attempt to get around the issue of ineffability has a very long history, it is called ‘Apophasis’, also known as the Via Negativa. This approach simply skirts around the problem by advocating the use of words to describe what something is not, if ordinary language fails to provide sufficient precision to capture the meaning or characteristics of the idea/object encountered. It has mostly been advocated in areas connected with mystical theology and this approach is found in all great religious traditions. It argues that human language cannot describe spiritual/ultimate realities without reducing them to something less than themselves. The options this approach leaves us with are therefore to first, attempt a description by identifying what that reality negatively in terms of what it is not, secondly to use analogical or metaphorical language with its attendant limitations, or lastly as Wittgenstein himself would suggest, by simply refraining from expressing oneself at all. Either way, many feel this is an unsatisfactory way of proceeding. If someone is going to claim to be in possession of some kind of knowledge, the latter should be expressible in some intelligible way to their audience, otherwise one cannot be but skeptical about the cognitive value of what has been asserted. However, no logical exposition of the limits or the perceived incoherence of the Apophathic approach seem to have deterred many from holding the view that some very powerful and often formative experiences are indeed cognitive yet ineffable.

A more recent effort to tackle the potential limits of language was made by the members of the Vienna Circle in the early decades of the twentieth century. They postulated that there are only two meaningful tests for language. Firstly, is what has been stated analytically correct? This means can the statement be verified through pure logic? “A bachelor is an unmarried man” is an analytical statement as it conforms to the proper use of the terms used. Secondly, is the statement synthetically correct? In other words, can the truth of the statement be verified through means of sense-perception (empirically)? “It is raining” is one such statements, it can easily be verified by either looking out of the window or stepping outside and seeing/feeling for oneself. In both cases some kind of knowledge is being conveyed, any statement which could not pass either test had to be deemed meaningless. It is telling that several of the key members of this group quickly abandoned this approach either by watering it down to the point where it made either no sense or was of no practical use (A.J. Ayer), or giving up on it altogether (L. Wittgenstein). It is now considered by the vast majority of contemporary philosophers of language as no more than a short-lived and misguided attempt to objectively set the limits of language permanently.

A brief review of the contemporary literature on the subject of ineffability quickly shows that in many disciplines, from psychology to maths via linguistics to science, there is a sense in which the role and the limits of language are now readily acknowledged. There are too many things in this world which still resist our attempts to ensnare them in the prison of words. Let us not also assume that just because something can be expressed verbally that it necessarily carries with it cognitive value. The central issue seems to be not so much whether some things are beyond the scope of human language, but whether ineffable cognition exists at all and whether it automatically disqualifies itself as true knowledge. When words fail us, maybe it is better and wiser to simply fall silent, I shall therefore do so at once.

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