Friday, June 10, 2011

Ineffable

I've recently come across some examples of one of my pet peeves. Suppose you have a description of something (a waterfall, a thrill, or whatever) and it is described as 'ineffable'. There is a certain sort of person who, faced with this, will say, "Oh, but 'ineffable' means beyond description, and you've obviously spent a lot of time describing it." Sometimes this is presented as a sort of triumph of logical reasoning, a proof that the other person is engaging in 'mental legerdemain' as one example I recently saw put it. In fact, however, it seems to me obviously to be an admission either of a tin ear or of linguistic incompetence on a fundamental level.

Setting aside the fact that the term is often used merely as an intensifier, it's clear enough that 'beyond description' does not mean 'admitting of no description whatsoever' (the oxymoronic meaning ascribed to it by the tin-eared person) but 'admitting of no direct and adequate description', or, to be more precise, 'such that any description I (you, we) could give would either be indirect or definitely inadequate'. When a Buddhist describes enlightenment as ineffable, he's not saying that you can't use the word 'enlightenment' to talk about it; he's saying either that nothing you say about it can be adequate to the experience, or that anything you say about it is only indirect and by way of other things, or both. Ditto when William James talks about ineffability as a part of religious experience. Ditto when Henry James describes Musset's verse as having an ineffable natural grace. Ditto with words like 'indescribable', 'inutterable', and the like. Ditto, ditto, ditto all over the place. This is not something any reasonable person has any difficulty with; this sort of criticism -- itself the real 'mental legerdemain' -- is only possible by an extraordinary act of self-imposed stupidity. Many things can be tolerated in this world; but it is difficult to muster any sort of patience for indescribable stupidity pretending to be clever.

ADDED LATER: Apologies, incidentally, for the rant; but in addition to coming across the examples in question I've also been reading Bentham, and the extraordinarily bull-headed resolve of the man not to understand simple things, combined with his continual tendency to pretend that disagreement with his views is constitutive of fallacious reasoning, never fails to exasperate me.

4 comments:

  1. underverse10:44 PM

    When a Buddhist describes enlightenment as ineffable, he's not saying that you can't use the word 'enlightenment' to talk about it; he's saying either that nothing you say about it can be adequate to the experience, or that anything you say about it is only indirect and by way of other things, or both.

    This is a great example in this context, because the cast of mind that objects to ineffibility is often loathe to admit that lack of a particular kind of experience (like "enlightenment") could be an impediment to effective communication. I think this cast of mind is also often loathe to admit how reliant we are upon metaphor in language, such that we almost never really describe anything "as it is." Reference to ineffibility, used well, is just a reminder that language relies on insight and felt experience to convey richness and depth.

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  2. Vance Ricks10:53 PM

    in addition to coming across the examples in question I've also been reading Bentham, and the extraordinarily bull-headed resolve of the man not to understand simple things, combined with his continual tendency to pretend that disagreement with his views is constitutive of fallacious reasoning, never fails to exasperate me.


    You and Mill both!

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  3. Ocham7:58 AM

    That reminds me of a story -probably apocryphal - from the old Hollywood days when they hired authors with an established reputation to improve the quality of the scripts and the screenwriting.  Reputedly it was not a success - one author wrote at the beginning of a scene "the scene that followed cannot be described in words".  But of course the whole point of a screenplay is to describe in words. 

    But that seems to be falling into the fallacy you describe, if I have understood you.

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  4. branemrys9:50 AM

    It wouldn't be an instance of the error, because the conflict generated in that case is an inconsistency with the ends of a screenplay; that is, it's a practical inconsistency, not a purported self-inconsistency.

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