Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ineffability and Silence

During my period of silence here, I've been thinking about things that are hard to express--that is, the "hard to eff" as opposed to the "ineffable." I've been writing some things about this, in part, looking at remarks Wittgenstein makes about "the mystical" (in the Tractatus) and claims in the "Lecture on Ethics" that speaking about ethics involves "running against the boundaries of language."

Wittgenstein notoriously claimed in the penultimate section of the Tractatus that all of the things he said in the book are nonsense, and then in the final section that, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." There's a huge literature about what this is all about. However, the more I've thought about it, the more I tend to agree with Michael Kremer's claim that the final passage of the Tractatus, "strictly speaking, forbids nothing" (in "The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense," Noûs, 35:1 (2001), p. 57.

Of course we must pass over in silence whatever we can't speak about--precisely because it is not possible for us to speak about whatever that is. That is, Wittgenstein is not saying, "There are certain things we shouldn't try to talk about." We can talk about whatever we can talk about. But he was, I think, saying something specifically to philosophers--namely, that there are certain things, or areas of discourse, which can't be "grounded" in a philosophical theory. (This includes ethics.) We can, as individuals, talk about ethics, make ethical claims, and adopt ethical positions and live our lives accordingly. But when philosophers do such things, they aren't doing anything in addition to what the ordinary person does (though they might do it with a different vocabulary, or with more precision).

At any rate, I'm rather tempted by the view that things we are often inclined to describe as ineffable are really only "hard to eff" and that the "limits of language" don't hit up against a wholly alien realm of "inexpressible" truths. Rather, the limits of language is just where other modes of expression--such as art, music, and physical gestures--take over. This would mean that even if there are things we must utterly pass over in (linguistic) silence, there are still other modes of expression by which we can reach out to others, and, as it were, break the silence. And often, our efforts to insistence about just how much "words can't express X" actually end up expressing quite a bit about X!


  1. I don't know what to make of his Lecture on Ethics. It's as if he wants to secure from ridicule a form of discourse whose value he finds in its expressive rather than representational import. An expression of a particular sort of wonder which perhaps lends itself to misunderstanding and self-misunderstanding by virtue of the linguistic forms in which it issues. In this sense, despite so much unhappiness and self-torment, it might be quite true that he had "a wonderful life."

  2. Rob (sorry I'm just responding): I'm not entirely clear how to connect the last thing you say to the rest, BUT it seems like what you say about expressive vs. representational import is right, though there's trouble afoot with the notion "expressive."

    E.g. I don't think, and have argued ad nauseaum, that "expressive" would mean the same thing here for LW as it would for the emotivists. At the same time, I think there's a decided split between what LW thinks he can say qua philosopher and what he can say qua himself... way to read this (the LE) is as an early version of LW's later emphasis of the many legitimate roles language can play (and thus why one can't really have a "crystalline" theory of language, as he seemed to be going for in the TLP).