On the Effability of the Ineffable

Ineffable: Beyond expression; indescribable or unspeakable.

There is a paradox in the use of the word “ineffable”: by saying that something cannot be described, the word “ineffable” often points to a common human experience—and thereby communicates. And this is not so different from ordinary words. Many ordinary words are only understandable because of the common human experience and common human nature that we share. (That is the theme of my Linguistics Master’s Thesis. See “Miles's Linguistics Master's Thesis: The Later Wittgenstein, Roman Jakobson and Charles Saunders Peirce.”) Similarly, things that are called “ineffable,” like the pleasure of a sunset, or a mystical experience in a religious context that regularly produces such mystical experiences in coreligionists, or consciousness, are understandable to the many people who share those experiences due to their human nature. (Don’t miss my sermon “The Mystery of Consciousness.”)

One of the big jobs of the Humanities is precisely to express what had previously been ineffable—to be able to point to or evoke feelings and thereby given them a name, even if the name is the length of a novel.

The subject matter of the Humanities is also reachable by science. If anything can be expressed in words or in a painting or in music, then multimedia surveys can ask about it. And once a survey can ask about it, it can be quantified. A good thing, too! Because continuing to improve human welfare at some point involves helping people grab hold of more of the wondrous intangible things that they want. I am proud to be heavily involved in research in the economics of happiness—which is really not just about happiness alone, but about all the wondrous and the quotidian, intangible and tangible things people want.

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