This essay is, in a way, impossible to write. That is, it is not possible directly as it refers to what cannot be said and the limits of language. However, where there are non-linguistic spaces whose interior are beyond what can be said, they are surrounded by linguistic references that show up where those spaces are. Such non-linguistic spaces and what they contain may therefore be indicated indirectly, but the content cannot be understood or described as they are experienced by the use of language. Elsewhere I have called this ‘the bit in between’. What one is encouraged to think about by this, as with talk of non-linguistic spaces, are those features of our life experiences and understanding uncovered, and uncoverable, by language. Imagine a crude net dragged through our experience and understanding of life. It picks up the chunky objects and assembles them for mutual inspection, but a vast amount is simply unnetable, like the watery ocean itself that this metaphor alludes to.
This should lead us not to overvalue language, or perhaps, to put it another way, not misunderstand it and overestimate what it can do. We can do this by not ignoring – and sometimes, it seems, denigrate as unimportant – what is beyond its grasp. For what is beyond its grasp is the very heart and core of what often matters most in our lives: the very feel of living. It is this that draws us through our lives and allows us to shape as we may what, for us, gives life meaning.
The issue is how one is to handle and deal with experiences in one’s life, such as the feeling on a particular occasion of the wind on your face while walking along a cliff top by the sea, something one may remember and what means, in a way you do not fully understand, a great deal to you.
The issue is how one is to deal with experiences in one’s life, such as the feeling on a particular occasion of the wind on your face while walking along a cliff top by the sea.
What can one say about it? Well, I’ve referred to. I’ve described the circumstances of the event’s occurrence. But none of what is said describes what the experience is like. Nor do the words alone evoke the experience. In order for any reference or description to the experience to give anyone any idea what the experience is like they would have had to have had some experience similar to it. Even that would not be complete and take you to the experience, for let it be noted, the experience is particular.
The grasp of language fails in two ways on this occasion. The first is not to be able to say anything about the had-quality of the experience itself. The second is the perhaps necessary inability of language to say anything about the particular experience as language terms refer to universals.
However here we are indeed concerned with a particular experience and the “had-quality” of it as a particular experience, whatever similarities it might have to other experiences on other occasions, for an essential part of any had-quality and its meaning, is the precise nature of it on that occasion.
I should be clear that I am not talking about some mystical realm as alluded to by Wittgenstein: that of which one cannot speak but can only manifest itself. Rather the opposite. It is the significant part of our life that is perfectly everyday, and yet is beyond expression in words. No evoked mysterium is required or implied. Rather we know what we are referring to by ‘the wind on your face’. It’s just that although we may be able to say that is what we are talking about, we can saying nothing about what that is by the use of language alone, and indeed language alone contributes nothing to an understanding of that to which we refer. We may refer, but we cannot give it sense by means of language. Only the experience of it can do that.
We have no need to dream up elaborate and unlikely thought experiments where people are locked in all black and white rooms, know all the laws of physics, and yet know something new when they at last see a red rose.
For the limits of language, language of which physics a subset, are all there before us in the everyday. For there is no description or account of the wind on your face (nor of the experience of seeing a red rose) that could give you any idea at all what the wind on your face was like to have – you have to experience it to know. This is not because language is inadequate, but rather because its function is not to convey those parts of our life – indeed it cannot do so. Language can only refer to those things we have experienced, it cannot give one an idea of them, it cannot present their content. If it appears to do so, this is because we habitually and unconsciously strap onto the words the content of that to which the words refer. If it appears otherwise, just imagine you had only the words, and then think how far that would get you toward understanding the life-experiences the words refer to. In fact the words alone would not even carry a hint that there is a content, as yet unexperienced, that the language refers to, at all.
Language can only refer to those things we have experienced, it cannot give one an idea of them, it cannot present their content.
One might think that one could refer to other experiences that a current one might be likened to, and therefore the had-quality conveyed that way. But of course this would be a regress and would not show that language alone could convey what it is like to have those experiences, for again one would have to have had them for it to mean anything to you.
What language can do is talk about the structure of the relations between experiences, but the content of those experiences is a closed book to it. Only the experiencing of those experiences opens that book. One might say language accesses only the ‘–ology’ part of their phenomenology, not the phenomenon.
The everyday is an inarticulable set of encounters with the world, where the content of the consequent experience is only present as something understood in having those experiences, and on which language as conveyer of their content has no purchase and provides no understanding whatsoever. This I think could be regarded with wonder and delight: that we can just stand and experience the world, before which language is silent, and that this presents the core of the greatest significance and meaning that being alive has.
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Dr John Shand is a Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the Open University. He studied philosophy at the University of Manchester and King’s College, University of Cambridge. He has taught at Cambridge, Manchester and the Open University. The author of numerous articles, reviews, and edited books, his own books include, Arguing Well (London: Routledge, 2000) and Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014).
Cover image by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash.