Art and the Ineffable

Can great art, tapping into the deepest recesses of our collective psyches, serve up objective correlatives of the ‘ineffable’?

The so-called ineffability question in philosophical aesthetics – can art convey or communicate ‘knowledge’ of a different kind than scientific (or propositional) knowledge? – is very much still an open question today. The question itself is predicated on the more general question of whether the very notion of ‘nonlinguistic knowledge’ is itself coherent. Might this perceived ‘ineffability’, as noted above, actually be something of a rhetorical effect, an emotional effect, a deep one no doubt, advanced and sometimes even sublime, but still an emotional effect only? Are certain aspects of human experience and intuited knowledge, in actuality, ‘ineffable’, or might it rather be the case that scientific language, as it pertains to the domain in question, is fully capable of providing satisfactory explanations of the aesthetic experience?

I lean heavily towards the position that there are certain areas of experience and intuited knowledge that are impossible of a strictly scientific translation. For example, like the contemporary philosophers Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn have so powerfully argued, the very nature of consciousness (i.e., that subjective experience of being “me”, or what philosophers call ‘qualia’) may be phenomena wherein physical brain states are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the subjective experience of consciousness itself. In other words, consciousness necessarily involves properties beyond the brain-states we are able to observe in the laboratory. As experiential (phenomenological) qualities not reducible to observable brain-states, such properties need not be supernatural qualities per se but perhaps noumenal facets of a natural reality that we, as human beings necessarily constrained to five senses and finite categories of conceptualization, are simply cognitively closed off from. (This is McGinn’s argument.) Kant really got the ball rolling with all this, with this radical conceptual reformulation.

This approach in philosophy of mind – the philosophical idea that no future laboratory will ever be able to fully account for conscious experience X by equating it with neurological brain-state Y, because the very presumption of what such a materialist theory of mind-brain identity hopes to accomplish is a priori flawed – has become referred to, in philosophical circles, as ‘New Mysterianism.’ For me anyways, it’s one of the most exciting developments in contemporary philosophy of mind, one that discerns the explanatory limits of scientific reductionism, without rejecting wholesale the scientific enterprise ala postmodernism. (Nagel’s seminal 1974 article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, which can be found online, argues this point wonderfully.)

Colin McGinn takes Nagel’s argument one step further (most convincingly, in my estimation), arguing that while consciousness is itself a product of nature, we are nevertheless closed-off a priori from complete epistemological knowledge of the constituents of consciousness. In the same way that a cat, for example, cannot understand abstract mathematics, so we humans cannot reach a complete understanding of consciousness. McGinn agrees with Nagel’s thesis that there may be properties we can never fully grasp, but goes further than Nagel in asserting that there are properties of things we can never fully grasp, ever. “[N]o spatial property will ever deliver a satisfying answer to the mind-body problem,” McGinn writes. Following the general form of Kant’s transcendental argument, McGinn deduces ineffability with respect to secondary properties of things as part of the noumenalistic elements of nature, i.e., those elements that lie outside of human comprehension: “[T]o be is not to be conceivable by us…. [T]he mind-body problem provides a demonstration that there are such concept-transcending properties… [T]he limits of our minds are just not the limits of the reality. It is deplorably anthropocentric to insist that reality be constrained by what the human mind can conceive.”

In a similar vein, Roger Scruton views the ineffability of art as being unbridgeable: aesthetic experience cannot in principle be expressed through language. “The ineffability of artistic meaning,” Scruton writes, “is… simply a special case of the ineffability of first-person awareness.” Leading philosopher of art, George Dickie likewise expresses his doubt that empirical studies can ever elucidate the hard problems of aesthetics when he writes, “I am convinced that the problem of the description of the nature of aesthetic experience is not a task to which the techniques of empirical science are relevant.”

In her writings on the nature of musical ineffability, Diana Raffman’s notion of nuance ineffability points to the lack of conceptual language adequate to describe our perceptual experiences of nuanced pitches and intervals. Although we perceive such nuances, we are unable to represent them with any linguistic precision because such nuances happen too fast and too frequently. It is analogous to the way in which we cannot name each precise shade of colour that is visually perceptible to us (e.g., the large continuum of shades of red when these shades progress towards orange). Raffman does not rule out the possibility that some individuals can obtain significantly refined aural sensibilities (and correlative musical notation) relative to others, nor does she rule out the likelihood that cognitive science will continue to provide empirical bases for understanding aesthetic phenomena. In this respect, Raffman is similar to Nagel in her reluctance to rule out a priori the possibility that science may eventually provide a satisfactory model of qualia (e.g., the aesthetic experience), whereas figures such as Scruton and Dickie are more closely aligned with Colin McGinn.

Again, as living creatures with five finite senses, we are ‘cognitively closed-off’ from ever fully understanding or satisfactorily ‘explaining’ subjective experience. Ditto for the fundamental truths of mathematical knowledge, the axioms of logic, and (I would argue) certain domains of moral intuition and aesthetic appreciation. I would characterize such a position as very Kantian and very Jungian.

All of which leads to the nature of ‘art’ (which music is necessarily a part of). Again, I tend to side with the position that great art is able to transcend (in a non-religious sense) language in the strict sense. In this ability, art may in fact posses transcendent qualities, an ability to at least push to the foremost boundaries the realm of the knowable. Literature and film, for instance, are able to flesh out and meditate upon the most complex of moral dimensions in human affairs. Similarly, more abstract and formalistic art is (arguably) able to convey deep truths about things that propositional language cannot.

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