I. The Problem Stated
One of the best-known facts about mystics is that they feel that language is inadequate, or even wholly useless, as a means of communicating their experiences or their insights to others. They say that what they experience is unutterable or ineffable. They use language but then declare that the words they have used do not say what they want to say, and that all words as such are inherently incapable of doing so.
According to the Mandukya Upanishad the unitary consciousness is "beyond all expression". According to Plotinus, "the vision baffles telling." In a passage which I shall quote more at length later, Eckhart says that "the prophets walking in the light . . . sometimes were moved to . . . speak of things they know . . . thinking to teach us to know God. Whereupon they would fall dumb, becoming tongue-tied. . . . The mystery they found there was ineffable."
And modern Europeans and Americans who report having had mystical experiences feel the difficulty just as much as do the ancient or classical mystics. R. M. Bucke says that his experience was "impossible to describe". Tennyson says that his was "utterly beyond words". J. A. Symonds states that he "was not able to describe his experience to himself" and that he "could not find words to render it intelligible". Arthur Koestler says of his experience that "it was meaningful though not in verbal terms,"
Probably hundreds of similar statements could be collected from all over the world.
On account of these facts, James and other writers have listed "ineffability" as one of the common characteristics of mysticism everywhere and in all cultures.
What are [all the writings by these mystics] actually describing if they are not describing [their] experiences and insights?
2. Alleged Scientific Revelations
As a rule mystics claim the introvertive experience of the One, or the extrovertive experience of the oneness of external objects, or both. They generally confine their claims to these two kinds of experience. But it occasionally happens that a mystic will allege that he also has had mystical revelations of the truth of propositions in science or general knowledge, which would ordinarily be considered as lying wholly outside the territory of mysticism. And in such cases these mystics usually profess themselves as entirely unable to tell anyone what the truths were of which they received mystical knowledge.
(Follows a discussion of revelations that St. Francis Xavier had about the truth of the human sciences that manifested in an infused intuition but that after lasting for twenty four hours, like a veil fallen, found himself as ignorant as before.)
It is related of Herman Joseph that: God . . . showed him the firmament and the stars and made him understand their quality and quantity. . . . When he returned to himself he was not able to explain anything to us.
(mg: This is a strong synchronicity with my brief encounter in the early part of my samadhi ascent with the awesome totality of collective knowledge that during the experience quickly vanished into irrelevance (with no details remembered upon awakening). It is worth noting that this numinous body of knowledge seemed to be exclusively concerned with how "things" worked as opposed to spiritual insight). It is totally understandable due to the rarity of this feature in mystical accounts that Stace would be dismissive of it as delusional as shown in his following commentary.)
It seems probable that claims to mystical revelations of astronomical or other scientific truths of which the mystic can subsequently give no account are delusions which are in principle capable of psychological explanation.
3. Common-sense Theories
An examination of the major documents of the world's mystical literature will leave any sensitive reader in no doubt that the alleged ineffability of mystical experience cannot be explained by any of the psychological principles which apply to our common everyday consciousness. The mystics believe that their special kind of consciousness does not differ merely relatively and in degree, but rather absolutely and in kind, from the common consciousness. And as they alone are in possession of both kinds, they alone are in a position to know.
It is not indeed impossible that they may be mistaken about their own experiences; but it is more likely that the mistake lies with those who would explain away those experiences because they are unable to believe that anything exists which they cannot themselves see or comprehend.
Just as [the commonplace man] tries by every possible logical trick and device to reduce the mystical paradoxes to the level of commonplaces, so here he will endeavour to explain away the mystic's difficulty with language by reducing it to some common and well-known kind of difficulty with words such as everyone can experience and understand. The result may be a number of commonsense theories of which two examples may be given here.
(a) The Emotion Theory.
...when the depths of human personality are stirred, we fall silent. The emotion theory of mystical ineffability merely extends these psychological generalizations to cover the case of mystical consciousness.
The perception-like basis of the experience is the apprehension of the undifferentiated unity.
Mystics range all the way from the hyperemotional kind, such as St. Teresa and Suso, to the calm and serene kind like Eckhart and the Buddha.
It is the vision itself, not merely its accompanying emotions, which is said to be inexpressible.
It is, of course, difficult to document or prove in a paragraph or so any statement about "the whole weight of the mystical tradition". But in one sense the whole of this book is a documentation of it- or at least of the basic incommensurability of the mysticaI consciousness with the common consciousness, the impossibility of reducing the first to the second, which is at the root of the mystic's difficulty with language.
(b) The Spiritual Blindness Theory.
It has been said that the impossibility of communicating a mystical experience to one who has not had such an experience is like the impossibility of communicating the nature of colour to a man born blind. The non-mystic is spiritually blind. This is the reason why the spiritually seeing man, the mystic, cannot communicate what he has experienced to the non-mystic. This is the cause of ineffability.
Firstly, the fact that the idea of a colour cannot be verbally communicated to a person who has never seen one is only a particular case of the general principle of empiricism as enunciated by Hume. It is impossible to "frame an idea" of any simple impression or quality unless one has first had experience of it.
The principle applies, of course, not only to colour but to any kind of experience whatever, sensory or nonsensory.
The second objection to this theory is that it puts the difficulty of the word barrier on the wrong side of the speaker-hearer relation. If a seeing man says to a blind man "it is red," the seeing man has no difficulty in uttering this. Nor is there anything wrong with the description. It may be perfectly accurate.
The experience of seeing red is in no sense indescribable. The difficulty of understanding what the description means lies on the side of the blind hearer.
But in the case of the mystical experience, it is the mystic who experiences the word barrier. It is he who says that the experience is unutterable and indescribable.
It is the unintelligibility of the experience, the impossibility of understanding it, which renders it ineffable.
4. The View That Mystical or Religious Language Is Symbolic
The mystics constantly reiterate the statement that their experiences are "beyond the understanding," "beyond the intellect," "beyond reason".
"Subtler than the subtlest is this Self, and beyond all logic. . . . The awakening which thou hast known does not come through the intellect," says the Katha Upanishad.
The theories which we are to examine in this section seek to explain ineffability as being due to an incapacity of [understanding, intellect, reason or logic] to deal with mystical experience. ...all four words may be taken as importing one or another aspect of the mind's use of concepts.
...mystical experiences being unconceptualizable are also unverbalizable. For this reason ineffability is not a matter of degree, as for example the emotion theory supposes, but is absolute and ineradicable. Such is the common theory.
(Follows a presentation of various apperceptions of both extrovertive and introvertive experiences regarding their ineffability and concepts of God- referencing passages from Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Eckhart and the Upanishads.
[There is] an apparently insoluble difficulty...for any theory of absolute ineffability.
The metaphor theory of mystical language may claim to be supported by the fact that much of the language used by mystics about their experiences is undoubtedly metaphorical.
The metaphor theory was developed in an impressive way by Rudolf Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy. He holds that the religious experience of what he calls the "numinous" is incapable of conceptualization.
Finally, the theory of metaphor, like the Dionysian theory, implies absolute ineffability. It implies that all the descriptive words used are metaphors. Therefore the experience cannot be called an "experience" or "mystical" or "ineffable" or "it" or even "unknowable" unless these words are metaphors. If so, the experience can only be "unknowable" in the sense that God is unknowable to a dog. There could not be such an experience in the human mind any more than there could be an idea of God in the consciousness of the dog.
5. Suggestions towards a New Theory
Thus all theories have broken down, and we have found no solution to our problem. I shall accordingly try to suggest a new theory...the common-sense theories are not in my opinion entitled to any respect.
But the theory that the language of the mystic is symbolic - of which we have distinguished two versions - is an altogether different matter. It has behind it an enormous weight of authority and tradition. It is the product of the thinking of men who were either themselves mystics or were at least soaked in the literature of the subject...And yet the objections to it which we have pointed out seem quite unanswerable. We have therefore no choice but to abandon it and try to find some other solution.
...our problem is, What is it about the understanding - other than the mere fact that it is the faculty of concepts - which produces in the mystic a sense of extreme difficulty with language...
Our new theory will begin by pointing out that there are in reality two problems concerned with alleged ineffability, not one; and that failure to distinguish between them has made both of them insoluble to our predecessors.
First, there is the problem of whether words can be used during the mystical experience. Secondly, there is the problem whether they can be used after the experience when it is being remembered. Plotinus makes the right distinction, and in fact briefly states what I believe to be the correct solution. "In this apprehension," he says, "we have neither power nor time to say anything about it. Afterwards we can reason about it."
Mystical experience, during the experience, is wholly unconceptualizable and therefore wholly unspeakable. This must be so. You cannot have a concept of anything within the undifferentiated unity because there are no separate items to be conceptualized. Concepts are only possible where there is a multiplicity or at least a duality.
Hence even the experience in memory has been supposed to be unconceptualizable and unutterable. But, since mystics do in fact use words about it, it has been wrongly supposed that they can only be symbolic. This in its turn leads, as we have shown, to a hopeless impasse.
From here to the end of the chapter when I speak of "mystical experience" it is to be understood that I am speaking of remembered mystical experience.
Let us try the hypothesis that the mystic's use of language is like anyone else's. He often uses words which are literal and correct descriptions of his experiences. Of course he often helps himself out by the use of metaphors. But so do all other users of language.
(Follows examples of literal language used by mystics referencing passages from The Mandukya Upanishad, Suso, Eckhart, Abulafia, Suzuki, Ruysbroeck and the commonality in the use of the words for "unity", "void", "nothing", "undifferentiated" in a Christian or Buddhist context- that are non-metaphoric)
It may be urged that the examples of literal language which have just been given are all negative in character and describe the negative aspect of the paradox, and that mystics have never denied that their negations are meant literally. They say that the experience is formless, shapeless, soundless; also that it is "not this, not that".
The issue concerns positive descriptions. Can any words be used literally of the positive or plenum side of the plenum-vacuum paradox? It is here that the test comes; and it is only the positive words that are alleged to be symbolical. It is in fact only the positive side which is alleged to be ineffable.
(Follows discussion of issue that epithets cannot be sharply into positive and negative with examples from Aurobindo, Jakob Boehme, Ramakrishna)
We must now return to the crucial question which we left unanswered on page 299. If we assert that the language of the mystic - though of course it includes its fair share of metaphor, of unclearness, of ambiguity, and so on - is basically literal and a correct description of what he experiences, what becomes of ineffability?
The laws of logic are the characteristic rules of the operations of the understanding. But the laws of logic do not apply to mystical experience. Is this the root of the mystic's difficulty with words; and if so, precisely how?
(Follows an examination of how the mystic is conflicted in applying literal language to describe an experience that defies the laws of logic that results in psychologicaly confusing the paradoxicality of mystical experience with ineffability.)
...concepts arise only when the experience is being remembered and not while it is being experienced. The remembered experiences of many persons resemble each other and constitute a class which is contrasted with various kinds of nonmystical experience. This explains how such words as "experience," "ineffable," "mystical," "it," "unknowable , regarding which a difficulty was raised, can be used. They are applied to it only when it has become a memory.