William James thought that ineffability was a defining characteristic of mysticism; 'the subject of' a mystical state 'immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words' (James 1902:371).
James seems to have believed that the mystic's difficulty is akin to that which we encounter when we try to express other unusual or deeply emotional experiences. Others have thought that it is a consequence of the nature of the experience's object. However it is to be explained, though, mystics do seem to experience 'some [special] difficulty about verbalization' (Stace 1960:79).
Ineffability can be interpreted in at least four ways:
1 Nothing can be truly said of the experience and/or its object.
2 No true literal assertions can be made about them.
3 All true literal assertions about the experience or its object are negations or descriptions of their extrinsic features. We can say something about the experience's causes and effects, for example, or describe its object as the ground of the world or as the object of universal desire. But we cannot give a positive, true, and literal description of the experience's and/or object's internal characteristics.
4 The most adequate language is paradoxical in the sense that it violates laws of logic.
The first two claims should not be taken seriously. For one thing, they are self-stultifying. If one says that nothing can be truly (or literally and truly) said of mystical experience or its object, one means to say something literally true about them. If the experience or object are ineffable in the first or second sense, one cannot truly (or literally and truly) say that they are. The claims are also false. Mystics successfully describe their experiences, and some of the things they say about them are literally true. (That they have a positive affective tone, for example, or that they are empty of conceptual content.) Some of their descriptions of their experience's object may also be literally true. (That it is a-spatial, for instance, or a-temporal.)
The fourth claim is also dubious. There are two ways of interpreting it. The first is Stace's. True literal descriptions of the experience or its object violate logic. The second is that our best attempts to express the mystical datum violate rules of logic (and so are not literally true). We saw that Stace's claim is false. The second cannot be summarily dismissed. Paul Henle has demonstrated that some (true) thoughts cannot be expressed in some languages. (He shows, for example, that there are algebraic schemes in which attempts to express a+b=b+a or b-a ? a-b result in empty tautologies or contradictions.) It is thus possible that some truths (e.g., those the mystic is trying to express) cannot be expressed in any known symbolic language without violating rules of logic. Whether this possibility is realized, however, is doubtful. Peter Moore suggests that we should distinguish between autobiographical accounts of mystical experience (those of Teresa, for example, or Suso), 'impersonal accounts' which describe mystical experience in general and abstract terms (for example, the works of John of the Cross, or the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing), and theological and speculative accounts of the experience's apparent object (for example, Plotinus' Enneads, Eckhart's speculative theology, or Samkara's reflections on the Atman-Brahman). As Moore points out, genuine paradox most often occurs in speculative accounts of the experience's object and only rarely in autobiographical and impersonal accounts of the experience itself.
The third claim should be taken seriously. Stace is correct in thinking that the special difficulty in describing mystical experience lies in its object. It is significant that a long and respectable tradition maintains that the intrinsic features of this object can only be described negatively and symbolically.
For example, the Pseudo-Dionysius claimed that the only 'intelligible [conceptual] names' of God are names of forms such as The Good, or Life, or Wisdom. These names express God's relation to the world. Thus 'The Good' expresses his boundless outflowing. God can also be described symbolically by applying the names of creatures since every created being is a (potential) theophany or manifestation of him. The truth is most closely approximated, however, by negating the content of intelligible names and symbols, 'advancing through the negation and transcendence of all things...towards that which is beyond all things' (Rolt 1957:152). So God can be truly (albeit inadequately) described although we must ultimately cease to 'see or know [that] we may learn to know that which is beyond all perception and understanding' (ibid.: 194).
Rudolf Otto's position is similar. The object of numinous feelings can be characterized in two ways. We can 'schematize' the 'numen' by such rational concepts as unity, necessity, and completeness. But these should be understood negatively. Necessity, for example, negates contingency and dependence. We can also employ 'ideograms'. Ideograms denote properties which elicit feeling responses analogous to those evoked in numinous encounters. The numen, for example, evokes religious dread. Since this is analogous to fear, we can indicate the property of the numen which evokes dread by using a term ('wrath') which refers to a property that typically arouses fear.
Symbol theories are sometimes criticized on the grounds that metaphorical assertions are only intelligible to those already possessing a non-metaphorical understanding of the metaphor's subject. Hence, the mystic's metaphors cannot help the non-mystic. But this objection is not compelling. The theories in question identify the subject of predication by negative and extrinsic predicates. These are understood literally. One can also understand a metaphor if one is directly acquainted with its terms. For example, I understand 'The sound of a trumpet is like scarlet' because I know what scarlet looks like and what trumpets sound like. Mystics believe that they are directly acquainted with the objects they describe. But they also typically assume that there is sufficient continuity between their own experience and that of non-mystics to make their descriptions at least partially intelligible to the latter.
General discussions of ineffability are helpful but inconclusive. A careful examination of individual mystics is needed to determine the senses in which they do and do not claim that their experiences are ineffable. Steven Payne, for example, has examined relevant passages in John of the Cross.
Although John says that 'the delicateness of delight in this contact is inexpressible', and speaks of being reluctant to describe this state because he fears he will not do it justice or will mislead his readers, this is the 'familiar "ineffability" associated with any profound emotion'. The main source of difficulty is the absence of 'sensible and intelligible species' (i.e., sense impressions and the concepts abstracted from them). John accepts the scholastic view that human knowledge proceeds by abstracting from sensible species. He also appears to think that 'an X is strictly and properly described only by...a "name" associated with a sensory "form" or intelligible species of X'. Sensory images and concepts are excluded in the mystical state, and God's essence cannot be grasped through sensory forms and concepts abstracted from them. Neither the mystical state nor its object, then, can be 'strictly and properly described'. It does not follow that we can say nothing about them. Although the mystic's knowledge of God is 'obscure' and 'general' (since it is 'unmodified by the boundaries of form, species, and image') John explicitly states that it can be described 'in certain general terms' and expressed in 'figures and similes'. Proper weight must also be given to his success in conveying the nature of his experience (Payne 1990:29-30, 100-2). An examination of John of the Cross provides little support for the first, second, and fourth ineffability theses.
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