Marina Abramovic during ‘The Artist is Present’ exhibition at MOMA, 9 March 2010 in New York. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Life’s most meaningful experiences can leave us tongue-tied. What can be said, let alone understood, about the unsayable?
In 2010, the artist Marina Abramović performed for 700 hours at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a piece called The Artist is Present. It involved her sitting still in the middle of the gallery’s soaring atrium, wearing one of a selection of striking, block-colour dresses that pooled over her feet. Members of the audience could come and sit with Abramović, and face her across a table or empty space, in silence. The emotion and intensity of their responses was astonishing. Some laughed; many cried. Arthur Danto, the late Columbia University philosopher and art critic, compared his time with Abramović to ‘a shamanic trance’, and described the show as ‘magic’ in The New York Times. More than 1,500 people came and sat with Abramović, and 750,000 attended as observers. A recurring sentiment among the visitors was that the performance was a deep revelation for which words were not sufficient. If this is true, then something about it was ineffable.
We’re used to the idea that some of life’s most meaningful experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to describe. But what, precisely, does it mean to say that something is unsayable? Philosophers from Arthur Schopenhauer to Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton have tended to see ineffability as a mere mark of the extraordinary, rather than being something extraordinary in itself. Yet I’d argue that we should take the concept of ineffability seriously – that we should ask what it is and where it comes from.
Clearly, this enquiry is full of pitfalls. If something is beyond words, then it’s hard to get a handle on what, if anything, it means. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, was convinced that it was nonsensical to try to speak about what lies outside the limits of language. Even so, he wrote an entire book about what cannot be said, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), concluding with the observation: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’
We might never be able to eff the ineffable, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s comic detective Dirk Gently. But perhaps we can pinpoint the nature of the thing that can’t be expressed, or find a way to describe what it consists of. I believe that there are at least four possible candidates for a non-nonsensical answer: ineffable objects, ineffable truths, ineffable content, and ineffable knowledge.
First, can there be such a thing as an ineffable object – a being, a thing, an entity? The Daoists of ancient China, for example, believed in something called the ‘Dao’, the source of all reality that transcended characterisation. A similar idea animated the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who claimed that some sort of indescribable ‘One’ lay behind all existing things and was the guiding principle of reality. Over the course of the European Middle Ages, Plotinus’ idea of the ‘One’ was slowly absorbed into the notion of God, transferring the source of ineffability from the fundamental order of reality to the creator of that order. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides argued that, since God cannot be compared to anything in the world, the only way to describe Him was by means of negative attributes, by describing what He was not.
There’s a trivial sense in which all objects are ‘ineffable’: we can express sentences and propositions, thoughts and emotions, but never objects themselves. I can describe a chair to you but I cannot ‘express’ a chair – simply because chairs are not the kinds of thing that can be transported via language. However, this is surely not what ancient and medieval philosophers had in mind. Rather, they were convinced that there was at least one object (the Dao, the One, God) that could not be captured by means of ordinary human language, because no description would do it justice.
From the perspective of analytic philosophy, however, this theory is difficult to maintain. Let’s define ‘D’ as the property that makes the Dao unique. D thus refers, first, to whatever is unique about the Dao’s nature; second, to what distinguishes the Dao from every other object in the world; and third, to whatever it is that makes the Dao ineffable. The analytic philosopher can respond to these claims with an argument put forward in 1989 by the philosopher William Alston. Attributing a property to an object implies having formed a concept of the property, which in turn implies having cognitive access to it (that is, we must have formed some idea of what having that property would entail). But if a property is cognitively accessible to one person, then in principle it must be cognitively accessible to other persons, too. It can thus become the meaning of a term in their language. That means it’s possible for an expression to signify the property that uniquely characterises the Dao, God or the One. So the somewhat romantic idea of a profound, ineffable object is not tenable…