Effing the Ineffable

Big Questions online - 4/11/2010

How do we express what cannot be said?

Thomas Aquinas, who devoted some two million words to spelling out, in the Summa Theologica, the nature of the world, God's purpose in creating it and our fate in traversing it, ended his short life (short by our standards, at least) in a state of ecstasy, declaring that all that he had written was of no significance beside the beatific vision that he had been granted, and in the face of which words fail.

His was perhaps the most striking example of a philosopher who comes to believe that the real meaning of the world is ineffable. Having got to this point, Aquinas obeyed the injunction of Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus concludes with the proposition: "that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence." But Aquinas was exceptional. The history of philosophy abounds in thinkers who, having concluded that the truth is ineffable, have gone on to write page upon page about it. One of the worst offenders is Kierkegaard, who argues in a hundred ways that the ultimate is inexpressible, that truth is "subjectivity," that the meaning of life can be given by no formula, no proposition, no abstraction, but only by the concrete experience of surrender whose content can never be given in words.

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