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North American Philosophical Publications

The Ineffabilities of Mysticism


Author(s): J. Kellenberger
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 307-315
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of the North American Philosophical
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American

Philosophical

Quarterly
4, October
1979

16, Number

Volume

VI. THE

OF MYSTICISM

INEFFABILITIES
J. KELLENBERGER

I
mystics sound the theme of ineffability.
They say of God, the Godhead, Brahman, or

MANY
some

other

or

that He,

mystical
object,
or
or
is free
expressed,
or
be
thought
perceived,

described
cannot

of

It, cannot
all names,

or

cannot

"ineffability"

or

escape

be

the Areopagite
Dionysius
(the Pseudo
are
and
of
illustrative.
Dionysius)
John
Ruysbroeck
says of the incomprehensible
presence of
Dionysius
that it "plunges
God
the true initiate unto the
of Unknowing

wherein

renounces

he

to

is attaching
or

problem

such
one

Put

paradox.

In

what

the different

ineffability

employed

shall

be

the

more

focus

some

P. Alston

itself. William

on

the

get a slightly different


one

that

way).4
We

have

ineffability,
which
gives
these

two

Certainly
same

the

that Dionysius

problem

draw

"Ineffability."3

one

aware

be

that

explicitly

encountered

rise

to a

semantic

two
and

self-defeating
come

one

to

recognized,
broad

self-defeating

paradox.

But

ways of understanding

Hindu

versions
there

are

ineffability

of

the

will

be

what

on

as

such

mysticism,

we

claims
to me,

least

four

paid

of mystical

mystical
as

or,

etc. Here
as

Second,

tradition,

or

the

soul,

noted.

First,

be God,

the mystical
for St. John

may
object
the Upanishads,

in

adequate

objects. There
to be

classes

significant

com?

Many

not

is said to be ineffable may


or Brahman,
or
Being.

the

examine.

have

be

an

the

object
of the
"inward

supreme

object is a Truth.
be the self, as in the

as for Meister

Eckhart.

And, fourth, the mystical object may be the mystical


itself. Of course a single mystic might
experience
affirm ineffability of objects in two or even all four

of
of

classes;

Perhaps
paradox.
same
the
thing.

they give rise to different

literature. We

source

the mystical
knowledge. Here
Third, the mystical object may

(a

each

at

Cross,
wisdom"

by the

accounts

epistemic,

of

features

several

commentators

to the variety

Godhead,
is a Being

the

awareness

of

possibility

just
one

accounts

finer-grained

we

Dionysius

concepts

discuss

constructions

in mystical

primary

ineffability
it seems

that which

of the paradox,

formulation
can

are

If

Our

upon

attention

this

pursued

and

or

T. Stace and William James.


Throughout we shall pay heed to the objects of the

various

is Unknowable
unless It, or He, is
is one
problem in this formulation
or

awareness

ago
from

quotation

:
How

is epistemic

mystical object
knowable? The
of

years

in his article

isolate

themselves have said ;although we shall also

mystics

that it seems can succeed only if it defeats

form of the paradox


we

object

single
even
in

meanings,

shall

with

concerned

concept.

mentators,

expressing

Indeed,

paradox.
different

ineffabilities we examine, including coher?


of
and applicability
ence, conceptual
implications,

or

description

of

if not all of which

different

can

"ineffable"?a

us,

senses

fine-grained

many

we

follows
of

W.

as

as

fact,
show

work.

number

or
the mystical
object be incapable of description
expression if it can correctly be said to be indescrib?
able or beyond expression? How can it be ineffable if
it can correctly be said to be ineffable? The paradox
in this form is semantic. It has to do with describing
the mystical

will

II

all

utterances
mystical
:
it
is
How
this
way

at work,

fn

another,

literature

mystical
of different

self-defeating
use
several
may

mystic
the same

the apprehensions
of his understanding
[and is
to
Him
that
is
Unknowable."1
united]
wholly
Ruysbroeck
speaks of a "Divine fruition in the abyss
of the Ineffable."2
There

to

one

from

different

a number

are

there

be

known.

Darkness

are
definitely
some
attention

instance,

of the

on the other
but,
an
experience
to be

endeavor

that

In

it could

the

sections

attentive
that

1The
the Areopagite, tr. by C. E. Rolt
Mystical
Theology, I; Dionysius
(London,
1940), p. 194.
2 The Adornment
ch. 4; The Teachings of theMystics,
ed. by W. T. Stace
of the Spiritual Marriage,
3William
P. Alston,
The Philosophical Review, vol. 65 (1956) pp. 506-22.
"Ineffability,"
4 The Divine
the Areopagite, p. 151.
Names, VII,
3; Rolt, Dionysius

to such
follow

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for
that,
in some

is not. We

possibilities.
some
four

(New York,

3?7

be

is ineffable

sense for a mystic while God

definite

other

hand,
of God

i960),

shall

primary

p.

169.

AMERICAN

308

PHILOSOPHICAL

forms and various secondary forms of ineffability are


distinguished. More could be produced. Some could
be

The

combined.

as a definitive
workable

are

offered

categories

of

typology

of distinguishable

schema

not

meant

as a

but

ineffability,
forms.

QUARTERLY
2.

In a second

it.
experienced
This
sense,
to

primarily

Ill
i. First, then, to say that the mystical
object is
ineffable is to say that it cannot be shown or revealed to
those who

seen

not

have

or

the

lack

experience

for

"only
Divine

the Emanation

Essence."6

that the Super-Essential


sense
It

be

or

Being,
Existent

articulated,

for

Emanation

as

Its

Nature
he
the

Substance
Existence,
are all
from whom

Absolute

and

Transcendent

Transcendent

the

suppose
uninitiated.

that

his words
It remains,

can in no

of God

to "celebrate"

proceeds
Cause

and

and

Nature,
and
Eternity

the

however,

God's

passages

this

to
form

Nature.

5
Enneads, VI,
6 The Divine

cited

is it

the mystical

of it [a mystical
state of mind]
subject
immediately
that no adequate
says that it defies
expression,
report of
can be
its contents
in words.
It follows
from this
given
that

must

its quality

us
gives
a weaker,

here

stronger
entails

be directly
experienced
to others.8
transferred

or

imparted

James

and

the weaker.
but

have

two

it

is

senses

the

the

weaker

not

"ineffability,"
of which
he
stronger
concerns

that

to which
be

of

; it cannot

says
in a

stronger
turn to the

shall

We

present?according
cannot
cal state

the
or

imparted

quality
transferred

it. James

experienced

us

at

of a mysti?
to those
on

goes

to

say

that
in this peculiarity
than
like
feeling

All

things.

Nature
that

practiced.7

in The Varieties tells us :

Pre

We should observe that the mystical


object for
both Plotinus and Dionysius
in these passages is the
One or God. More exactly, for Plotinus,
it is that
with which the soul becomes One and, for Dionysius,
it isGod's Super-Essential Nature. But for neither in
the

secon?

perhaps

The

clear

all

and

found

James

the

Time,
the

penetrates

reveal

known
being
been

who
of

Creator

of ineffability is perfectly consistent with there being


spoken truths about the divine or God, even in His
Super-Essential

attaches

first,

speaking

moment,

Does Dionysius
truths
suppose that he is articulating
about God's Nature? He might well. Certainly
he
could consistently. But, like Plotinus, Dionysius does
not

the
and

experience

mean

not

does

Goodness,

which

Unity

but

of the Absolute

Dionysius

Again,

mystical

with

as we
are
here,
mystically,
speaking
are
things and perfections
[of union with God]
as they are, not when
and understood
they are
after and practiced,
but when
sought
they have

For,
Divine

understanding.

is "unutterable,"

which

Nature,

to celebrate

contrast

in

says:

be

Dionysius also employs this sense in The Divine Names


when he says that it is not his purpose to reveal the
Super-Essential

that

it.

experienced

requisite

to say

of "ineffability"

truth, but not to the other mystical


darily tomystical
objects. It is this sense, it seems, that St. John of the
Cross employs in the Dark Night of the Soul when he

This sense seems to be the sense of Plotinus in the


Enneads when he says :"The divine is not expressible,
so the initiate isforbidden to speak of it to anyone who has
not beenfortunate enough to have beheld it himself."b
is referring to the practice of the mystery
Plotinus
religions, but he accepts it as well-advised.
Clearly
can be said of the
he is not saying that nothing
divine : initiates are forbidden to speak of the divine
because they might. Rather, Plotinus is saying that it
is pointless or worse to speak of the divine to those
who

sense

mystical object is ineffable is to say that it cannot be


imparted or transferred to others who have not directly

experience.

tr. by Elmer O'Brien


9, 11 ; The Essential Plotinus,
1 ;Rolt, Dionysius
the Areopagite, p. 131.
Names, V,
7Dark
Peers
(Garden
Night of the Soul, tr. and ed. by E. Allison
8William
(New York,
James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
9
James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 371.

what
For
because
states

to another

mystical
states of

has never

who

or worth

the quality

it seems,

James,

states

feeling
are
like

feeling

are more

states
intellect.
of

No

had

like states
one

of

can make

a certain

in

feeling,

it consists.9
are

states
mystical
are
ineffable

and

states.

us

But

let

ineffable
mystical
ask: Must

someone have had an experience for its quality to be


imparted to him by a description or is it sufficient for
him to have had similar experiences? And what is
meant by "impart the quality of a mystical
state"?
Does it mean
induce the experience? Or does it mean
communicate
the

former,

would
out

an

idea

then

of

meant
If James
of the experience?
course
this sense
of "ineffable"

hold for all experience,

imparting

mystical

ing an idea of what

states

sense

of

impart?

they are like. If he meant

Indiana,

1964),

City, N. Y.,
1959), pp.
1902), p. 371.

162-63.

(Indianapolis,

not rule

but it would
in the

p. 87.

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(My emphasis.)

the

THE

INEFFABILITIES

latter, then it is not clear that feeling states in general


are ineffable in the sense that emerges.
of
Although,
course mystical
states still could be.
In

sense

whichever

case,

any

of

is

"impart"

intended, when something is ineffable in this second


sense, it still can be described. Even if the mystical
state were ineffable in accord with this sense, the
still could describe, and possibly truly de?
mystic
his

scribe,

as

experience

or

ecstatic

as

with

union

OF

are

us

let

at

look

sense.

stronger

James's

In

this sense to say that the mystical object is ineffable is


to say that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its
can

contents

be given

in words.

states, that is,


James applies this sense to mystical
but
with
mystical
only slight modifi?
experience;
cation it can be applied to other mystical objects as
well. It is roughly this sense, applied to the Godhead,
and
Brahman,
to the semantic

other

that we

experience
the sense was

as

spective

us

let

However,

mystical

paradox.

it appears

then
mystical
which

it relates

or

were

other

mystical
this

he

lem,

did,

suggest,

this

a new

gained
in

the

sense

that

is this important?

Why

to

object
into

of

the mystics.

per?

was

he

Although

James

com?

had

induced

or Eckhart

Dionysius

It is because

was.

commentators

justified in drawing
implications. Mystics
give us
propositions whose gnomic sense is to be clarified by
context

themselves,

of mystical
be quite
may

the Godhead
forms."

Alston

semantic

utterance

and
Eckhart

opaque.

is "free of all names


uses
paradox.10

this

quotation
But what

of

utter?

their

are

its

and

construction,
commentators

of

creation

be

may

considering.

let us allow

aside this reservation,

sense

third

its extreme

in
a

in

extreme

its

construction

that the

has

appli?

Still it would not rule out knowledge of the


to which
it applies, only com?
mystical
object
in words. Moreover
that knowledge
it
municating
would
leave it open whether
is a
inexpressibility
function of a) our languages and their concepts or b)
the human ability, or inability, to understand and to
cation.

express.
IV

which,
says

by
that

and void of all


to

generate
help
means
Eckhart

turn

4. We

now

to

what

be

may

most

the

pregnant category of mystical


ineffability. To say
that the mystical object is ineffable in this sense is to
say

that

our

it transcends

concepts.

is the sense employed when it is said that


union of the One or some other mystical
mystical
not graspable with our limited concepts.
is
object
This sense is distinguishable
from the last in that, for
this sense, the cause of the inapplicability
of our
This

are
to be understood
and mystics
in very
different
us marks
or criteria
Commentators
which
ways.
give
we are to look
as embodied
in
with
upon
propositions
a clear
we are
and from which,
sense,
consequently,

the

sense

third

paradox,
worth

at all

in
oxide
by nitrous
to merge
and
which
through
not a
of Hegel,
he was
appreciation

paranormal
experiences
which
seemed
opposites

mystic

because

and not a mystic.

mentator

context

the

correct,

sense

the mysticism

in

understood

rise

gives

not describe

could

any

applicable.
try to put
to

that

objects,
If this sense

If this sense entails that themystical object cannot be


described, then it seems that James does just what he
should not do. He gives us four "marks" of mystical
states, one of which is their ineffability. That is, he
describes them. And so it seems he runs afoul of the
semantic paradox. But if James fell into this prob?

the

better

ance. It is true that some mystics, like St. John of the


Cross, come closer to affirming ineffability with the
full force of this third sense, but the extent to which

Setting

3. Now

300,

that the Godhead,


like God, is one and simple. In
as
we
shall
see, mystics'
general,
ineffability claims

God.

he

MYSTICISM

concepts

objects.
In fact,
there
however,
different
notions
subsumable
mary
4a.

this is clearly compatible with one's


saying that the
is one and simple, for he immediately
Godhead
says

sense.

We
name

No

The

notion

formed

from

experience
in connection
able.

shall

the

themselves,

concepts

derived

here
sense
of

are

a number
under

consider
from

to the mystical

be applied

sense

spiritual

that

it
it has

are

concepts
if we
lack

will

names
be

mystics

sense

we

use

inapplic?
have,

at

to this quasi-philosophical

is "so
not

can

experience

the

object,

of
St. John
of
theory
meaning.
draw
such a view when
he
upon
secret
cannot
wisdom
be
named
because

pri?

object.

concepts
several
enough,

Interestingly

rather

fourth

several.

expressible
and
experience,

the mystical
our
with

of

this

is that

least in places, paid heed

cannot
by

lies with

clearly

not with human limitations of expression. This sense


too can be applied to the entire range of
mystical

the

Cross

seems

to say
why
or described:

tries

so

simple,
entered
into

and

general
the understand?

to
the
it
so

or cloaked in any form or


ing enwrapped
image
to
sense."11
From this, for St. John of the
subject

10
Alston,
op cit., p. 506.
"Ineffability,"
11Dark
Night of the Soul, pp. 159-60.

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AMERICAN

310

Cross,
cannot

it follows

that

be

or

named

comments

Several
we

First,
mune

upon

and

imagined

that

name.

are

St.
assumptions.
of meaning
theory

as

theory

are

There
to

and

this,

the

claim rests upon

effability

not

with

problems
extent

such

in?

mystic's

such a theory it is heir to

four

All

four

three

of
are

) Concepts
not

cannot

the

of

in?

sense.

fourth

to God

is no

there

extrinsic

attention:

(1) Only
mystical
This

are inapplicable

toGod
with

characterized

say

that He

of God

of quantifying

question

we
and

mercy,
trace

all

in the sense
the

precision

of

can

of
correctly
speak
we
cannot
with
wisdom,
concrete
manifestations
the

these

"Nothing

construed

at

and

tive words.

The

is not

words
positive

W.

T.

Stace

for

between

Light,

nega?
out,

and negative
be

may

the absence

are
points

these

positive

:Darkness
as

to

attributes

can be said to be

as Stace

here,

to the

not.

to it, God

absolute

and

are

"Darkness,"

is that the distinction

that

are applicable

words

problem

senses

subsidiary

words

According

"Unknowable"

taken

as

the

as

the

of Darkness,

negative.

true description
there
it says what the mystical

(2) Whatever
mystical
object,
This

God's

with

is of
object

the
is

as

in the

sense

stong

allows us to affirm ineffability


object,
construction

mutatis

in the

use.

commentators

of God

mutandis).
as well. We
will

it is
Each

must
and

once

in?

of

thus: "God cannot be

he expresses
in

the

a way

be

positive
more
the

literal

terms."

When

this
are

to be

ruled

way.
some
out,

between
this

And
distinguishing

Is "God is ineffable"
assumes

Alston

characterization?

of

of

problem

not ineffability

presence

in
there

of distinguishing
characterizations.

and positive.

negative

negative

it

is.

be thought of just as well


as

something

the

of

absence

Alston

offers

discuss

it under
theology,

term or characterization
is chosen,
(3) Whatever
in the sense
that no
is not-that,
the mystical
object
can
or characterization
to it.
term
apply

The mathematical
twenty-five

(or of another

or
of the via negativa,
the heading
negative
12
Alston,
op cit., pp. 520-21.
"Ineffability,"
13
Stace, The Teachings of theMystics,
p. 134.

I believe,
negativa,
fourth
construction

something?

these

is when

cor?

via

the via negativa


understood
to this view
if according
are
characterizations
which

positive
then
there

love,

is self-defeating

constructions

can be said of God"

the

Alston's

characterized

between

confidence
of

of

version

responds

negative
raises

is omnipotent,
His
power.

attributes.
None

negative.
least
four

negative

Dionysius.13

of the

are

object;
positive
is a view
that

But might

While

mystical
fourth

deserve

Clearly,

way.

way

object
are

practising

nature.

intrinsic

can speak of God only in a highly abstract

(3) We

mystical
There

statement

general

characterizations

in the last chapters


of The Mystical
Dionysius
Theology tells us the many things that God is not he is

sense

in the

of His

be

can

we

the most

Perhaps

interpretations.

of it is this : the only possible

positively

science.
While

in the
4c. The via negativa is traceable toDionysius
even
to
but
in
it
is
his
several
West,
open
writings

effability, which

the semantic

our

of

species
:

inapplicable

of His

(2) Concepts

to escape

to speak only

it is possible

that He
of

are
them

near

constructions

different

that are designed

features,

be

utterly

in his article on ineffability,

suggests

that

to

not.

principle.
4b. Alston

paradox.12
are
Here

sense

secondary

the

ineffability claims of St. John of the Cross, they are to


be understood as consistent with some things being
object. St. John of the
sayable about the mystical
Cross can still say of the secret wisdom that it relates
toGod and the soul's journey to union with God. We
find here again, then, that a mystic's
ineffability
claim is better understood
by seeking the light of
further things said by the mystic than by deducing
to be a clear
is assumed
of what
implications

end,

next

the

comprises

im?

of

John
not

we
in
bear
of course,
should
its problems.
Although,
can
as well
as
bad
that mystics
mind
nonmystics
give
we
reasons
should
for a true
claim.
But,
secondly,
are
we
to understand
the
this:
however
observe

effability

which

I think.

here,

mystics

came to
the British Empiricists
unlike that which
then no idea and no
hold : if no sense experience,
meaningful

QUARTERLY

considered.

should be made

theoretical

relied

Cross

be

described.

observe

should

to

it cannot

PHILOSOPHICAL

is neither

do not apply
concepts
same
in
this
way,
no
concepts
negativa,
This
intended.
object

truth that the square of five is


nor
green
to mathematical
third
apply
seems

not-green.
truths.

construction
to God

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to be

or

of

Color
In
the

to the mystical
to Dionysius'
close

the
via

THE

sense at the end of The Mystical

INEFFABILITIES

Theology, where

OF

he

can

nor

is It darkness,
any affirmation

can

the reason

to It to name

attain
nor
or

negation

does
construction
of
problem
distinguishing
terms

and

it seems

truth;
to It.14

apply

characterizations.

to reinstate

to know

or

the

On

transcends

all

have

Alston's

paradox.

of all things,
Cause
unique
of Its simple and absolute
by the pre-eminence
free from every
limitation
and beyond
them

which

things,

transcends

and

beyond
(4) Whatever

our

affirmation

concepts.
term or

and

uses our
mystic
to
contradictory

all.15

Stace

say.

That

One,

Stace

is

stirring,

still,

it

overtakes

the

Isa

swifter

those

than
are

who

it stirs not.

and

It is far, and
near.
likewise
It is inside all this, and it is outside

all

this.17

view of ineffability
has intrigued philo?
and
several
to explicate and
have
tried
sophers,
defend it. Among
those who have are Paul Henle18
This

favors

from

example

never

though
standing
....

running
It stirs

is chosen,

that

an

thought...

in the sense that the


object is not-that,
resulting proposition will always be false.
to this construction,
the proposition
According
"God does not exist" is false and the proposition
"God does exist" is equally
false. Indeed any
proposition relating to God will be false. This is the
view

to
of it, he must
resort
concepts
speak
to say what
statements
he means.

provides

Though

of Dionysius'

our

transcends

of Him.

Upanishad

the mystical

construction

God

Here too supportive passages from mystical writ?


ings can be cited, passages inwhich a mystic seems to
fall into contradiction
in trying to say what he would

nature?

negation,

characterization

though
truths

4d. To say that the mystical object is ineffable is


to say that it is beyond our concepts in that, when the

goes

be said to be ineffable

consistently

say

VI

If we allow this passage to clarify Dionysius'


intent,
then perhaps we can allow that the Cause of all
may nevertheless

for Dionysius,
can
still we

other

the perfect
and
by being
and transcends
all negation

affirmation

seen,

concepts

It may

be edifying, however, to look at what Dionysius


on to say in the next few lines:
It

It,
nor

not bring with


it the
and
between
negative

This

positive
hand

It or

or error,

is It light,

31

religious beliefs about God. In the final sorting, this


I believe,
is a philosophical
creation
construction,
and should not be conflated with the previous one as
it was practically
understood by Dionysius.
As we

says:
nor

MYSTICISM

and

K.

G.

as well

Pletcher,19

as W.

T.

Stace.

Stace

since for Dionysius God in himself is unknowable,


everything we say of Him must, strictly speaking, be

adopts this view inMysticism and Philosophy, slwork


written eight years after Time and Eternity and one in
which he rejects the evocative
Stace
such a construction
of the
false,
says.16 Clearly,
theory of mystical
via negativa,
a strain
on
that he held in the earlier work.
and of ineffability,
the
In
puts
language
is false, then its Mysticism and Philosophy Stace insists that the mystic
logical principle that if a proposition
can
denial is true. Religious propositions would not have
"It is x" and "It is
say of his experience
correctly
it seems.

denials,

In

fact

this

view?that

not-x,"

everything

said of God is, strictly speaking, false?was


held by
Stace himself in Time andEternity, a work inwhich he
held, not surprisingly, that the function of religious
discourse
Such
the

was
a view

semantic

not
as

descriptive,
this contains

but
a

there

paradox:

solely

unique
is no

describing God as ineffable because God


described.

However,

the

the utter unintelligibility


tices (prayer, worship,

cost

of

such

of

paradox

in

is not being

a resolution

Given

nature

of all those religious prac?


and more)
that require

language

tradictory.

"the

the mystic's

of things
"The
described

correctly
is

this

furthermore,
The

that

is

correct

de?
is com?

the mystic

But he is not at fault,


pelled to use is contradictory.
nor is there any fault
to language, for
attaching
Stace.

evocative.
resolution

and,

scription.20

language

experience
rors
the

it

experience,

that his description


which
paradox
his experience,"

is only

is paradoxical."

he

will
has

The

in

says,

because

contradiction

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pp.

has
for

the
mir?

experience.

14The
the Areopagite, pp. 200-201.
Mystical
Theology, V; Rolt, Dionysius
15The
the Areopagite, p. 201.
Mystical
Theology, V; Rolt, Dionysius
16
Stace, The Teachings of theMystics,
p. 133.
17
W. T. Stace, Mysticism
and Philosophy
(London,
i960), p. 255.
18Paul
and Semantics,"
Henle,
"Mysticism
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 9 (1949), pp. 416-22.
19G. K.
and Ineffability,"
American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 10
Pletcher,
Contradiction,
"Mysticism,
(1973)
20
and Philosophy, pp. 304-5.
Stace, Mysticism

the

be con?

uttered

Stace

paradoxical

is

201-n.

AMERICAN

312
As

Stace

implication
can
ments

and

recognizes,
this view
of

it

emphasizes,

that

an

is

state?

contradictory
correct.
For

be meaningful
and
utterances
is no
there

mystical

PHILOSOPHICAL

in

Stace,

contradiction

be?

tween affirming and denying;


that is, for Stace,
while the conjunction of both is fully contradictory,
there is no contradiction
in the sense that the
correct. Stace, as he
is
still
conjunction
descriptively
sees
the
usually does,
mystical
object as mystical
he
and
the
presents
experience,
mystic's
linguistic
as one that arises from his effort to
perplexity
describe

his

experience.

Stace's

Accordingly,

apol?

ogy for this concept of ineffability applies only when


the mystical object ismystical experience. However,
the mystical object said to be ineffable in this sense is
not

an

always

In

experience.

fact

in Stace's

quo?

it is the One. This


tation from the Upanishads
construction of ineffability, it seems, if applicable at
all, can be applied to any and all of the four classes of
mystical objects we noted.
In support of this concept of ineffability Stace
But let us look at
quoted from the Isa Upanishad.
on
to
what the Isa Upanishad
say. The One (or
goes
it
says,
Self),
has

is radiant,
all; He
bodiless,
invulnerable,
of sinews,
the seer,
pure, untouched
by evil. He,
self-existent
has duly distributed
thinker,
all-pervading,
to their
endless
the objects
years
through
according
filled

devoid

natures.21
These

it

tradiction.

Moreover,
use a

who

sometimes
as

understood

real

seems,

can

be

said

it is quite
contradictory
do not mean

that

possible
mode
of

those

expression
utterances
to be

their

contradictions.

con?

without

This

may

be

the

in The Divine Names.


case, for instance, for Dionysius
he says there that God is known from all
While
a

Intuition,

ledge

is not

and

things

himself

known

distinction
Language,

that

transcends

from

any,

between
or Name"

he

has

knowledge
and

another

in a "communion

is obtained

before

"by
know?

If the mystical

language.
this

dom,

expressed

allows

it

that

Where

propositions.

is the ineffability
to an

attaches

?The

can

itself

area

of

one

then,

ineffability

be

area

ask,

might

being posited here

that

import

This

extends

beyond

is such that it is
the strict sense of

meaning.
propositional
cognitive but not captured by
It is as though mystical
propositions.
propositions
had a cognitive
and
shadow, beyond
language
beyond the strict import of propositions
spoken or
in which lay their greater significance.
unspoken,
Mystics who draw upon this sense of "ineffability"
are inclined to distinguish
two kinds of
between
or

knowing

one

be

may

Dionysius

understanding.

and shortly we shall look at what he says


to
this construction. One not unfruitful
pertinent
this distinction
is as that between
way to understand
knowing that a proposition is true and understanding the
the
full significance of what is known. So understood
is between knowing that and a kind
crucial distinction
a
of understanding. The
first has as its object
truth. The second does not. The first is
proposition's
such mystic,

without

possible

second.

the

the first. Knowledge

yond

like

understanding,
However,

The

second

that cannot

understanding
let us not
confuse

be?

goes

This

deepen.

generally,
this distinction

can

with others. The distinction here is not that between


knowing that some proposition is true and understanding
what is known in the sense of being able to deduce all that is
entailed by that proposition. Nor is it the distinction
between knowing that someproposition is true and having
some understanding (or knowledge) of the objects named by
that proposition. Mystics may well understand what
they know in both these senses, but neither is the
sense

we

need

here.

an

The

understanding

import?an

of

understanding

and

articulation

we

distinction

need,

rather,

knowing that someproposition is trueand

is that between

which

the mind."22

is a spiritual wis?

object

construction

given a propositional
expression in language. If the
or the soul or mystical
is
God
mystical
object
a
it
allows
of
experience,
consisting
description

deepen.

things,

mystics
at least

QUARTERLY

that

extrasematic
proposition's
nature
which
resists
by its

is inexpressible

in propositional

form.

VII

fact,

4e. To say that the mystical object is ineffable is to


say that it is beyond our concepts in that it, or its
has a cognitive
import that extends
description,
a

this

strict

propositional
it
construction

we

need

not

go

As a matter

as far as
mysticism.

Let

us

of

recall

Ivan Ilych and his realization


that, truly,
Tolstoy's
he would die. What he realized was not the truth of
"I shall die." He had known all
the proposition

expression.
along
to some
when
is allowed
that,
can
find
in
the mystical
be
extent,
object
expressed
21The
tr. and ed. by S. Radhakrishnan
(London,
Principal Upanishads,
22The Divine
the Areopagite, p. 152.
Names, VII,
3; Rolt, Dionysius

beyond
In

let us look for an illustration.

Now

that
we

that
try

no new

to

proposition
Ivan's
specify

truth

was

cognitive

that he has

1953), p. 573.

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true.

Moreover,
change,

realized.

He

we

has

THE

no new proposition.

deduced

a new

discovered

Nor has he empirically


even

not

truth,

"I

soon

shall

cannot

he

or as any

articulate
satisfactorily
new
truth.
It is his
arriving

as

the

at

this

new understanding
that is marked by Ivan Ilych's
and behavioral
emotional
profound
change.
In the case of mystical
truths it is sometimes
deeply felt by the mystic that it is not accurate to give
what can be formulated in language as the object of
understanding. Given such an insight, there are still
two

courses

to the mystic.

open

On

the

one

he

hand

truth cannot be ex?


say that the mystical
might
in
the
itself resists
pressed
proposition
language:
statement. This is the reaction of St. John of the
Cross

secret

the

regarding
that there

allows

are

wisdom.

expressible

course

This

that it itself can be


truth, but denies
mystical
as an expressible
formulated
The
proposition.
to say that,
second course would be for the mystic
while his mystical
truth can be stated as a prop?
its

osition,

greater

cognitive

places

follows

perhaps

seen,

the

course.

second
or

supposes,
articulated

Dionysius
can be
truths

about

at

least
the

As we

have
that

allows,

of

above).
that

Its

and

Super-Essential

simple

But at the same time Dionysius

there

is a realm

(sec. V

nature

absolute

could
not

of understanding

insist

who

mystics

are

inclined

In The Mystical
"ineffability."
the true initiate being

toward

of

knowledge

he

whom

possesses

thus
a

sense

by

knowledge

that is wholly
of
rejection
that exceeds

all
his

understanding.23

I; Rolt, Dionysius
3; Rolt, Dionysius

in that

is obtained

transcends

the

the knowledge

he

and

mind,

that

of God

language.24

employs

It is not an implication
of this construction
of
ineffability that we cannot discover and speak truths
about God or some other mystical object. Rather it is
an implication
that these truths have realms of
of strict
significance opaque to our understanding
sense.
this
While
construction
would
propositional
insist upon the cognitive shadow of mystical prop?
ositions, it would not deny that they have express?
A mystic affirming
ible content qua propositions.
in
this
construction,
then, could, like St.
ineffability
or

Anselm

logical

St.

Thomas

their

strict

to

seek

Aquinas,

trace

of religious propositions

implications

not

he would

However,

meaning.

the

arising

think that such an enterprise could even in principle


exhaust the cognitive import of those propositions'
or begin
to touch upon "the
full significance
Divinest Knowledge
of God."

VIII
We

have

seen

just

stand mystical
are

gories

four

these four cate?

ineffability. While

not

or definitive,

exhaustive

to under?

ways

primary

do

they

serve,

I think, to acquaint us with the range of meanings


that may be intended by the mystics. There ismore
than

tasks.

one

mystical
remains

First,

we

out.

it turns

ineffability,
to
accomplish
set before
should

two

small

but

useful

a number

ourselves

of divers things mystics say about the mystical object


even though they conceive it to be ineffable in some
sense.

we

Second,

this

section,
Some
of

mystical

the
the

object,

claims. The

second
divers

in

next

the

many
range

and

last
say

the

others

we

section.

about

the

it to be

they conceive

have

not.

in The Divine Names,

the unutterable
seen,
can in some
sense be

at

look

brief

first we shall do in

mystics

things

even though

we
have
seen;
ineffable,
is a
Here
of the
sample

For Dionysius

take

should

functions of ineffability

as we have

of God
Nature
Super-Essential
in the "celebration"
articulated

of It or Its Emanation.
Elsewhere
in the same work
that
allows
the
ineffable
Dionysius
Super-Essential
Godhead can be said to be the Cause and Origin and
Being and Life of all creation, but also, to those who
have

And in The Divine Names, as we have seen, Dionysius


draws the distinction again. There he says that "the
23The
Mystical
Theology,
24The Divine
Names, VII,

this with

of

Theology he speaks of

united by his highest faculty to Him


Unknowable,

this

contrasts

touched

In fact he draws just the sort of


by these propositions.
of
distinction?a
distinction
between
kinds
I
is
drawn
by
knowing?that
suggested
typically
those

which

It now

Nature of God or Its Emanation


(sec. Ill above);
and, as we have seen, in The Mystical Theology he says
of It that It transcends all affirmation and negation
by being the Cause of all things and by the pre?
eminence

of God"

Knowledge

not

is

significance

in another
but lies elsewhere
thereby captured
area
is
which
This
reaction
beyond language.
logical
issues in the concept of ineffability we have before us.
While
St. John of the Cross where he speaks of
in
inward wisdom follows the first course, Dionysius

31

communion

from
a

about

propositions

MYSTICISM

Divinest

die,"

for this too he had already come to know. Rather he


has more deeply realized the import of an old truth,
something
old
truth

OF

INEFFABILITIES

fallen

away,

a Voice

that

recalls

them,

and

Power of Renewal
to those who have
and Reform
more
are known, for
stumbled. These
and
things

the Areopagite, p. 194.


the Areopagite, p. 152.

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AMERICAN

3H
because

Dionysius,
Like many
saw

ges,

are

they

despite,

God's

with,

compatibly

Scripture.25
it emer?

Dionysius,
of divine

source

as

Scripture

and

in

revealed

believers

nonmystical

PHILOSOPHICAL

truth?

ositions

the

being

and

speak,
saw
we

we

of whom

God,

that

can

speak.
of
affirms

nevertheless

Eckhart

that it is one and simple. Eckhart also


the Godhead
to talk about
in the
is nothing
that
there
says
there is only unity ;
because in the Godhead
Godhead
he

and,

God

to affirm,

the

between

difference

is the difference

the Godhead

and

action

on

goes

and

between

nonaction.26

and

spiritual.
seen,

would
surely
reason
for saying

He
his

for, as we
be
it cannot

this,

say
that

so general, and so
expressed is that it is so simple,
would
of
the
Also
St.
Cross
say,
John
spiritual.
of Divine
because he does say, that the wisdom
is the language of God to the soul,
contemplation
the soul pen?
that through its mystical
knowledge
etrates

"the

veins

of

science

the

of

and

love,"

it

that

to union with

the soul journeys

is the road whereby

upon
even
may

be multiplied,

drawing

as well.
traditions
clearly,
Quite
mystical
a
an ineffability
he
makes
when
claim,
mystic
or express
to talk about,
the
describe,
proceed
other

For
mystical object. Nor is he using only metaphor.
St. John of the Cross the inward wisdom is literally
spiritual. It is perhaps worth noting that in examples
such

as

these

several

simple,

curring:

Whether

mystical
characterizations

what

are

they

or

understanding,
ours but not

applicable

are

two ways

we

the

of

the mystic's.
would
hand,

other

the

course,

bear

one

or

functions

secondary

assume,

until

the

have

a clear

relating

to assert

we

confused.

Or

confused

and we

what

can

he means

reason

that

shall be helped
by

"ineffable,"

the mystic

is not

to understand
or a

surrogate

assert

But

in?
are

there

to

reasons

the

These

ineffability.
are

to, and

to

accommodated

of ineffability we

concepts

of

is done

the mystical

by

the mystic's
profundity.

be

of

dimension

mystical

experience

of an ineffability

there

related

Closely

expressed.

this

though

in some
be

may

effort to signal the depth of his sense of


Both of these functions have to do with

affective

function

of the bliss or
even

experience,

such

One

experience.

the intensity

that the experience,

insisting

cannot

sense,

functions of the ineffability

the mystic's

is to express

ecstasy

the

to

is

as well,

relationship

relate

function

to

that if the mystical


object is ineffable, then
can
it and the mystic
said
is
be
about
nothing

is

on
approach,
shown
other?

discussed.

claim

com?

can

that

paradox

claim
sense.

by, some of the different

and

We

the

the functions
ineffability
literature. At one level, of

another

feel compelled

mystics

alongside
here.

a
second

of

function

in

effability

that

ineffability.

of a

of what

regardless

generating
The

let us reflect on
Finally
claims perform inmystical

these

reason

speaker's

IX

to find

object's
can

with

says.

of prop?

that the mystic


is trying to say something
wise,
coherent with his ineffability claim and would look
to the details of the mystic's writings to discern what
it is, leaving open the possibility that several senses of
"ineffability" will be encountered.

tend

reason

better

are

When

nonactive,

the soul, a truth,

isGod,

mystics

experience,

to the mystical

plementary
There

object

re?

keep

unlimited,

absolute,

the mystical

or

characterizations

he

: after all, it is felt, the implications

Some of the secondary


could

examples

else

speaker wants them to be. Accordingly,


philosophers
and others tend to favor the first way of reasoning.
But there is a danger here of refuting without

God.27

These

what

concern

undue

without

says, or would say, of the


that it is simple, general,

St. John of the Cross


ineffable inward wisdom
have

at

looking

like to trace the implications

intentions
position

in places God is unknowable


For Eckhart
and
can
In other places he
what
be named.
beyond
of which we
the Godhead,
between
distinguishes
cannot

by

expression,

Philosophers

Unknowable.

Earlier

QUARTERLY

is nothing

images.28
Other
secondary
than
other
objects

mystical
is imageless,

be to indicate

claim may

to describe

functions
experience.

in terms

relate

experience.
another

appropriate
to
such

One

mystical
function

to do with
of
the cognitive
dimension
having
to
is
that
the
admit
mystical
mysticism
object is
beyond

human

human

comprehension.

or Brahman

human

imagination,
or even

conception,

or

If the mystical

object

isGod

an

admission

can

Nirvana,

such

25The Divine
the Areopagite, pp. 52-55.
Names, I, 2-3; Rolt, Dionysius
26 Sermon
B. Blakney
(New York,
1941), p. 226.
27; Meister Eckhart, tr. by Raymond
the very heart of God," while visible actions are at one
For Eckhart
the inner process of virtue "draws its value from God?from
remove and "derive
from the inner process of virtue."
their goodness
{The Book of Divine Comfort in Blakney, Meister Eckhart, p. 60.)
27Dark
Night of the Soul, pp. 161-63.
28
this function
and the first cf. Ninian
Smart, Reasons and Faiths
(London,
1958), p. 71.
Regarding

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THE

INEFFABILITIES

serve to help define the mystic's relationship


to the
object. If the mystical
object is God, this
to the admission
is not unrelated
that

mystical
function
God's

ways

Other
mystic's
instance,

cannot

be

fully

comprehended.

as well have to do with


to the mystical
object.
relationship
functions
the mystic

may

be

to

concerned

give

the
For
due

;or he may be
respect to theMystery of the Godhead
or
to
to
God
avoid
avoid
striving
belittling
limiting
the One; or he may be striving to set aside the
conceit of his knowledge. Again the mystic may be
to approach
the mystical
object with
endeavoring
reverence
silence,

and
as was

humility,

to

worship

with

reverent

OF

MYSTICISM

315

All of these concerns


literature,

including

those

are discernible
last named,

Jacobs

for his comments

to

concerns

spring

from

religious

motives.

Most

if not

all of the great mystics were religious, we should


recall. And
this recollection
should help us to
that
the
had
mystics
good reason to speak
appreciate
as well as good reason to remain silent. They did
speak. The categories of this paper, I hope, help us to
understand
how they could speak, even of the
ineffable mystical object, and do so consistently with
their ineffability claims.29

Dionysius.

toWilliam

have

to such a mystical
the mystic's relationship
as
or
or
God
the
One
object
Being. Many of these last

do with

California State University, Northridge Received October 31, igj8

291 am grateful

in mystical

which

on a first draft

of this paper.

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