“Effing the Ineffable”

I read a short article yesterday by English philosopher Roger Scruton. And here I hadn’t thought people were allowed to call themselves philosophers anymore without being snickered at, and had to be “professor of philosophy” or some such. It’s cool that some people can get away with it though. anyway, he wrote a small article this week, Effing the Ineffible, about the curious way in which we humans, especially the philosophers (and theologians, and prophets) among us so often say that a certain feeling or vision cannot be put into words, and then proceed to write page after page of words, seeing if perhaps our intuition was wrong; perhaps we can put it into words if we just work long enough, try hard enough, are educated enough, sensitive enough to the language. However, Scruton asserts:

There is nothing wrong with referring at this point to the ineffable. The mistake is to describe it. Jankélévitch is right about music. He is right that something can be meaningful, even though its meaning eludes all attempts to put it into words. Fauré’s F sharp Ballade is an example: so is the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa; so is the evening sunlight on the hill behind my house. Wordsworth would describe such experiences as “intimations,” which is fair enough, provided you don’t add (as he did) further and better particulars. Anybody who goes through life with open mind and open heart will encounter these moments of revelation, moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. When they occur it is as though, on the winding ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window, through which we catch sight of another and brighter world — a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter.

[…] What do our moments of revelation have to do with the ultimate questions? When science comes to a halt, at those principles and conditions from which explanation begins, does the view from that window supply what science lacks? Do our moments of revelation point to the cause of the world?

[…]But no, there is no path, not even this one, to the cause of the world: for that whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence — as Aquinas did.

Read more. Fair enough, I suppose. But that’s not all there is, for the world would be a poorer place without our records of people’s attempts to “eff the ineffable,” especially by mystics and saints, and sometimes by philosophers. Perhaps even without philosophers who devolve into expressions about the wording of the world as numinous beings conceal and unconceal themselves on the metaphysical plane. I wouldn’t be willing to insist on the value of that last, though.


2 thoughts on ““Effing the Ineffable”

  1. I would make a case that effing the ineffable has value because it allows the sharing of indescribable experiences you have with someone who does not have that experience. Reminds me of my relationship to music. No matter how hard I try I can never feel music in my soul. If a musician never put his ineffable feelings into words then that would be a side of the human experience I would never have known was there.

    • That makes sense.

      It also seems useful in cases where perhaps people have had the same experience, but don’t know they have, because they never go through the trouble of trying to communicate it. I would take CS Lewis’ writings on “joy” as a case of that — he means something very specific when he speaks of Joy or Desire which are not quite the usual connotations of the word, and which tend toward the ineffable, like the evening light upon the hill, but eventually I do suppose that I know what he means, at least a little, and am glad he at least tried to express it.

      But perhaps that takes his Joy out of the category of “ineffable” and places it in that of “difficult, but not quite impossible, to describe?” But then how would one come to know what that is of which we cannot speak?

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