On Ineffability

Monday, 8 November 2010 08:05 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
"It's true that I can't directly tell you what it is that can't be said." -- André Kukla
The ineffability thesis, when construed as a thesis, is of course self-refuting: it contends to possess knowledge about the ineffable which under its own rules is impossible. Of course, the natural thing for the ineffabilist is to deny that she is asserting a thesis; the so-called ineffability thesis is simply a bastard sentence, leading to a throwing-away of the ladder, and that claim about the ineffability thesis is also a bastard sentence, and so on unto infinite regress.

At this point the pure philosopher is liable to, understandably, throw up her hands. The ineffabilist has admitted to speaking nonsense, and while she may claim that nonsense may somehow point the way to a higher truth, she has admitted also that even that claim is nonsense! Why should the philosopher take her at all seriously?

At this point, the ineffabilist puts forth both a positive and a negative claim: no one has put forth a claim about truth that does make sense (she would argue), and furthermore by the logic of the pure philosopher, they cannot.

The pure philosopher will no doubt fear that the ineffabilist has introduced an irrational element which threatens to undermine philosophy. The ineffabilist has abandoned any requirement for intellectual rigor, the pure philosopher will argue, by referring everything to an ineffable standard.

This is, of course, true, at least in a sense. But the truth is also that the ineffabilist can assume the standards of intellectual rigor proposed by the pure philosopher, if only deconstructively. She can demonstrate that the philosopher's claims to intellectual rigor are themselves exaggerated. This motivates a deflationaryism towards metaphysics, but this is nothing new.

What separates the ineffabilist from the pragmatist (or more specifically, the neopragmatist) is that the pragmatist, to some degree or other, is a quietist and the ineffabilist is not. By the pragmatist's account, there should be no such thing as pragmatism, or at least no such thing as an overarching thesis of pragmatism. To be sure, she can be involved in specific deconstructive attempts to show a certain way of talking about X has fallen into error by the standards of those doing the talking, but she cannot make the claim that we should stop talking about X. Any coordinated effort to stop talking about X represents a betrayal of pragmatist principles.

But insofar as the extrarationalism of the ineffabilist frees her to speek, it may seem to provide her what might look like an overbroad freedom: there is nothing she cannot say. Again, the pure philosopher finds it hard to take her seriously, to care what she has to say. But the ineffabilist does not expect to be taken seriously, except when she is deconstructively engaging in the language games of her peers. Otherwise, she simply wants to be able to be left to her extrarational appreciation and engagement in peace.

And that's where (transcendental) religion enters the picture. Ineffability, of course, lies at the center of the Christian faith. The Athanasian Creed lays out the Trinitarian doctrine of the Church thusly: "the Parent-God incomprehensible, the Child-God incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, and yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."

Yet transcendental religion is not irrational in the sense of requiring the religionist to hold propositions as true which reason requires her to reject as false. (Or vice versa.) In Christianity, after all, reason is traditionally regarded as one of the primary sources of authority, a leg not only of Anglican's three-legged stool but also of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. Instead, it is extrarational in that transcendental religion steps in with something to say at precisely those moments when reason's limits are themselves met.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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