W.T. Stace

Mysticism and Philosophy

Chapter 6: Mysticism and Language


I. The Problem Stated

[p.277] 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," and of his own [p.278] attempts to describe it that "to communicate what is incommunicable by its nature one must somehow put it into words, and so one moves in a vicious circle." 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. But this word "ineffability" is only the name of a problem, not something the meaning of which we understand at once. The problem which we have to face can be put in a number of interconnected questions. What is this difficulty about the use of language which the mystic feels? Why can he not express himself in words? And how is it that, if he cannot describe what he experiences, he nevertheless does write and speak about it often with great eloquence and force? What are his words actually describing if they are not describing his experiences and insights? How do his words function?

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.

They may give one reason or another why they cannot tell us. Or they may give no reason at all. But it is desirable to discuss these cases here and to come to terms with them. We shall find every reason to regret that such claims have ever been put forward, and to exclude them from our further consideration of mysticism.

St. Francis Xavier wrote as follows: [p.279]

It seemed to me that a veil was raised before the eyes of my spirit, and the truth of the human sciences, even those which I had never studied, became manifest to me in an infused intuition. This state of intuition lasted about twenty four hours; then, as if the veil had fallen again, I found myself as ignorant as before. (Italics mine. WTS) [1]

Evidently St. Francis, after "the veil had fallen," found himself unable to describe or explain the knowledge which he had learned and forgotten. The passage has every mark of irresponsible utterance. What particular sciences were included in his revelation? Which of their propositions were seen to be true? Or does it mean that he came to know all the truths of all the sciences in detail?

It is one thing to have a revelation of the goodness of God, and quite another to claim that the truths of astronomy, biology, or chemistry have been revealed during a mystical experience and then forgotten. That something of this sort was meant may perhaps appear more likely if we compare St. Francis Xavier's statement with another rather similar case. 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. He said simply that his knowledge of creation had been so perfect and so intoxicating that no tongue could express it. [2]

The meaning of this passage at any rate is clear. Herman Joseph was claiming an ineffable knowledge of astronomy. It is essential to observe that the physical sciences consist entirely of propositions, and that propositions are logical structures which as such must be capable of verbal expression. A proposition cannot be ineffable; it is already actually or potentially a verbal structure.

Genuine claims to mystical ineffability are quite different. What is said to be ineffable is a concrete experience which no proposition can describe. Assertions that scientific truths are revealed in mystical trances and then [p.280] forgotten should be dismissed as delusions. We need not of course question the truthfulness and honesty of such persons. But their unacceptable claims are probably explicable in ways which do not impugn their honesty.

J. B. Pratt quotes Professor Leuba as saying that "we sometimes awake from a dream feeling that in it we have solved some difficult problem but cannot remember the solution.The present writer remembers an occasion on which, in a conversation with a friend after a dinner which had included a handsome supply of wine, he perceived as in a flash of revelation, and communicated to his friend, the truth as to "what Plato really meant", but in the morning he was quite unable to remember even the smallest item of what the revelation had been.

Professor Pratt also mentions the psychological feeling of intense conviction with a minimum of intellectual content. And William James noted the possibility that a man may "sweat with conviction" without having any idea as to what it is that he is convinced of. 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. One must add that such claims are fortunately quite rare. The vast majority of mystics do not make them.

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 [p.281] unable to believe that anything exists which they cannot themselves see or comprehend.

If then the mystics are right, their special kind of consciousness is such that it cannot in any way be understood in terms of the common consciousness or its categories, because they have nothing in common except the fact of being consciousness. The difficulty with language is therefore probably a function of the difference between the two kinds of consciousness. It is probably not due to any of the causes which sometimes make some of our everyday feelings or experiences difficult to put in words. And it cannot be explained in terms of ordinary psychology.

But here as always the commonplace man with his lack of imagination, his inability to believe in anything beyond the range of his own experience, will try his best to drag the mystical down to his own level. Just as he 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. Probably many more are possible.

(a) The Emotion Theory.

Emotions are more shadowy and elusive, less sharply outlined, than the conceptual structures of thought when these latter are clear and distinct. Hence words tend to fit emotions rather poorly. But over and above this, there is another fact about emotions which is relevant here. The deeper our emotions are, the more difficult they are to express. Tennyson spoke of "thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears".

Perhaps he meant feelings rather than thoughts in the narrow sense of conceptual ideas. And no doubt if they were too deep for tears they would be too deep for words.

Of our surface feelings we talk freely. But 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. Ineffability, then, becomes a matter of degree. The experience of falling in love — at any rate for the first [p.282] time — may render the lover speechless.

The mystic experiences profound blessedness and joy, sometimes ecstasy and rapture. There may also be feelings of awe and reverence for what is sacred and holy in his experience. The depth of his emotions accounts for his difficulties with words.

It is not necessary to contend that there is no truth whatever in this theory. That the mystic experiences emotions which are "too deep for words" is no doubt a fact and may add to his troubles with language. But it is my contention that this theory taken by itself is quite insufficient to bear the weight of explaining mystical ineffability.

We observe in the first place that mystical experience is not mere emotion, nor even chiefly emotion. Its basic element is more like a perception, though "perception" too, the mystic will feel, is not the right word. The perception-like basis of the experience is the apprehension of the undifferentiated unity. And the affective tone which this carries is, in the greatest mystics, quiet and serene rather than very emotional.

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. Eckhart, it will be remembered, tells us that "reasonable satisfaction is a purely spiritual process in which the highest summit of the soul remains unmoved by ecstasy" and that "these emotional storms of our physical nature no longer shake the summit of the soul:"

Yet both Eckhart and the·Buddha find the mystical consciousness ineffable. In the case of Buddhism the mystical consciousness is called nirvana; and this is invariably represented as beyond expression. These considerations show that the emotion theory relies on overemphasizing the role of emotion in the mystical consciousness and paying no attention, or too little attention, to its other aspects.

But this is not the main point I would make against the theory. The most important thing to emphasize is that the whole weight of the mystical tradition is against the theory and supports the view that there is some logical difficulty, and not merely an emotional difficulty, which interferes with the mystic's free expression of his [p.283] vision in words. 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.

For the rest one can only assert at the risk of appearing dogmatic that he who is satisfied with the emotion theory and feels nothing in himself with which it jars must either be comparatively ignorant of the writings of the mystics, or — if he is well acquainted with them — must be lacking in insight and sensitivity.

(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.

There are two fatal objections to this theory. 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. It therefore no doubt applies to mystical experience. But the very fact that it applies equally to every kind of experience renders it useless for explaining the ineffability of mystical experience. For if this is all that ineffability means, then all kinds of experience — colours, smells, tastes, sounds — will be ineffable in the same way. But the ineffability of mystical experience is plainly understood by those who speak of it to be a unique characteristic possessed only by that kind of experience and not shared with other kinds. Otherwise there [p.284] would be no point at all in stating that mystical experience is ineffable.

No one says that colour experiences are ineffable merely because words cannot communicate them to a blind man.

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. No doubt the nonmystic hearer may also experience difficulty. He cannot "frame the idea" which the mystic is trying to communicate. And the theory which we are discussing does explain his difficulty. But this is not the difficulty which the theory sets out to explain, namely, the unutterability which the mystic says he feels.

Look again at what J. A. Symonds writes. He disliked the experience partly because, he says, "I could not describe it to myself. I cannot even now find words to render it intelligible" (my italics). It is the unintelligibility of the experience, the impossibility of understanding it, which renders it ineffable.

This puts us, I am sure, on the right track. Ineffability is caused by some radical defect or incapacity of the human understanding or intellect. We have now to follow this clue.

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. [3]

"This Self," [p.285] of course, is the Universal Self, the One, which is known in the mystical experience. "Such enlightened men," says Ruysbroeck, "are . . . lifted above reason:"[4]

"When is a man above mere understanding?" asks Eckhart, and replies, "When he sees all in all, then a man stands above mere understanding." [5]

"Reason is in abeyance; and intellection," writes Plotinus. [6]

What are the meanings of the words "understanding," "intellect," "reason," "logic"; and what relations do these bear to one another? As the words come to us in the mystical literature, there is, I think, no difference between "understanding" and "intellect:' They refer to the capacity of the mind to use abstract concepts. They mean what Kant called "the faculty of concepts." There does not appear to be any clear distinction in the literature between intellect and reason, nor between reason and logic.

Perhaps the four terms may sometimes be distinguished from one another. But in general all four words may be taken as importing one or another aspect of the mind's use of concepts.

The theories which we are to examine in this section seek to explain ineffability as being due to an incapacity of the understanding or intellect to deal with mystical experience. The usual account of the matter asserts that mystical experience is inherently incapable of being conceptualized. It can be directly experienced, this theory states, but it cannot be abstracted into concepts.

But since every word in language, except proper names, stands for a concept, it follows that where no concepts are possible no words are possible. Therefore 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.

The theory should explain why mystical experience is unconceptualizable. In the case of introvertive experience, the reason might [p.286] be that it is an undifferentiated unity, empty of all empirical content, formless and void. There are in it no distinguishable items. But concepts depend on there being a multiplicity of distinguishable items. The mind notes resemblances and differences between them and arranges those which resemble each other in certain ways into the same class. The idea of the class is the concept. Hence where there is no multiplicity there can be no concept and therefore no words.

This view must presumably be adapted to meet the case of the extrovertive type of experience. The difficulty is that in this kind of experience the sensuous manifold has not been eliminated. Perhaps one should say that, although the multiplicity of sense objects is there, yet the Oneness which is experienced as shining through from beyond or behind them contains in itself no multiplicity and hence is inapprehensible by concepts.

The experience is, as it were, a mixture. One part is physical and sensuous, and to this of course concepts apply. It is wood, stone, grass, etc. This is not in itself mystical at all. The other part is the One. This alone is the mystical element, and this is unconceptualizable.

The general principle of the theory, the unconceptualizability of the experiences, has the important backing of Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Eckhart. Indeed, almost the whole of the history of Western mysticism is behind it. Thus Plotinus declares:

Our apprehension of the One does not partake of the nature of either understanding or abstract thought as does knowledge of other intelligible objects, but has the character of presentation higher than understanding. For understanding proceeds by concepts, and the concept is a multiple affair and the soul misses the One when she falls into number and plurality. She must then pass beyond understanding.[7]

The essential point is here clearly made that concepts depend on multiplicity and can therefore find no foothold in an experience which is wholly unitary.

Passing over Dionysuis for the moment to return to him later, we [p.287] may note that Eckhart, writing much more vaguely than Plotinus, nevertheless supports the same view. He says:

The prophets walking in the light . . . sometimes were moved to return to the world and speak of things they knew . . . thinking to teach us to know God. Whereupon they would fall dumb, becoming tonguatied foi three reasons.

First, because the good they knew by sight in God was too immense and too mysterious to take definite shape in the understanding. . . .

Another reason was that what they had gotten in God rivalled God's very self in its immensity and sublimity and yielded no idea nor any form for them to express.

Third, they were dumb because the hidden truth they saw in God, the mystery they found there, was ineffable.[8]

This passage is very muddled. Since the second alleged reason does little more than repeat the first, the three reasons are for all practical purposes reduced to two. The first is the immensity and sublimity of the experience. But if immensity and sublimity were put forward as the only causes of ineffability, this would tend to encourage the view that the alleged ineffability is an exaggeration intended to express the emotions of the experiencer.

Immensity is just as easily expressible as minuteness. A billion miles is as easily expressed in words as an inch. The sublime, in so far as that differs from the immense, may take one's breath away so that one cannot talk, or may seem, as the phrase goes, "too wonderful for words" but is not in any strict sense incapable of being described by language. To find the appropriate language for the sublime is one of the special tasks of the poet, and the fact that nonpoets cannot do it does not make it ineffable.

But if we look again at Eckhart's sentences, we see that a deeper thought emerges. He tells us that the vision cannot "take definite shape in the understanding" and yields "no idea or any form for them to express" It is the formlessness, the lack of any definite shape, which is here said to make the experience ineffable. Since the experience is the empty void, without specifiable [p.288] content, there are no definite forms on which the concept can fix. The formless is the same as the empty or void. It is "not this, not that " And since every concept or word stands for a this as distinguished from a that, no concepts or words are possible. Thus Eckhart also supports the theory of unconceptualizability.

This theory of ineffability may or may not be acceptable. We are at present engaged in exposition and not in criticism. But even if we leave criticism till later in order to examine the full implications of the theory, nevertheless we see at once that it leads to an apparent impasse. The mystic does in fact use language which at least has the appearance of being descriptive of the experience. He tells us, however, that his words do not in fact describe it even partially.

It is not that the description is not adequate. It is that the experience is totally indescribable and that therefore his words are not really descriptive. The problem that then arises in an acute form is, How do the words of the mystic in fact function? And on this question there have been on the whole two views which we may call respectively the Dionysian theory and the theory of metaphor.

(a) The Dionysian Theory. The unknown author who miscalled himself "the Areopagite," thereby implying that he was an associate ot St. Paul, is believed actually to have lived in the fifth century A.D. We shall call him simply Dionysius. He taught in an extreme form the view that no words apply to the mystical experience, or to God. He writes of the Divine: .

It is not soul, or mind. . . . It is not order or greatness or littleness. . . . It is not immoveable nor in motion nor at rest, and has no power, and is not power or light, and does not live and is not life . . . nor is it one, nor is it Godhead or goodness . . . nor does it belong to the category of nonexistence or to that of existence . . . nor can any affirmation or negation apply to it.[9]

Theorists of ineffability usually take refuge in negatives. They teach that positive words cannot be applied to the Supreme, but seem to think that negative words can.

Thus the Upanishad speaks [p.289] of it as "breathless, soundless, odorless, colourless, mindless," etc., or simply as "not this, not that." But "colourless", "mindless", "actionless", etc., are as much words as are their opposites, and therefore they stand for concepts.

Moreover, there is no such thing as a pure negative. "Dead" is a positive term, and we do not avoid it by calling it "nonliving". Rest is as much a positive concept as motion. That all negation is determination is as true as that all determination is negation.

Dionysius understands this, as is shown by the last sentence of the quotation just given — "nor can any affirmation or negation apply to it". Strictly speaking, this leads to an infinite regress. The Upanishad says that the Supreme is "not this, not that"; but should have added, "not `not this not that,"' and then, "not 'not "not this not that," "' etc.

But Dionysius realizes that we then have the problem posed by the fact that words are nevertheless used of the Supreme, including the words in which he denies the applicability of words, the problem being, How then do the words function?

He tries to solve this problem in his book The Divine Names, and he deserves great credit — and should endear himself especially to philosophers of the present day — as being one of the earliest, if not the first, among philosophers to discuss the problem of linguistics as applied to religious language.

His theory is far from clear, but its general tenor is that God in himself transcends all predicates, even "One" or "good" or "love " , but that the attributes we predicate of him are really predicates of his manifestations or "emanations" which we apply to him symbolically.

In general terms, "the manifestations of God" means the world of finite things, including finite souls. For instance, we call him "One" and "Unity" because by him we are unified, i.e., our faculties are unified, and we ourselves enter into union with him in mystical illumination. We call him "wise" and "fair" because all things in the world are beautiful, unless corrupted. God is the cause of the world, although not in the temporal sense of the word "cause" according to which a cause precedes its effect in time. We call God good because he is the cause of good things. We call him existent because he is the cause of existent things. Deity, says Dionysius, [p.290] "is the cause of all things, and yet Itself is nothing because It superessentially transcends them all" [10]

Dionysius seeks to express God's transcendence of all words by the continual use of the word "super," or "supra." God is neither existent nor nonexistent but he is superexistent. He is not one or unity, but super-one or superunity; not excellent, but supraexcellent, not even divine but supradivine. But "superexistent" is after all a word, so that if God is above all words he should be called supersuperexcellent, and so ad infinitum.

We may briefly bring out the objections to the theory.

1. What is the justification for calling God the cause of all things? If the word "cause" is literally meant, the theory contradicts itself since "cause" must be just as inapplicable to God as any other word. But if "cause" is like other words, i.e., if it applies to the manifestations of God and not to God himself, then when it is used of God it must mean that God is the cause of the causality which appears in the world. But then he cannot himself be the cause of causality but only the cause of the cause causality. And so ad infinitum.

2. If X is the cause of Y, and if Y has a certain quality q, this affords no justification for calling X q, even symbolically. For instance, it would make no sense to apply.the word "liquid" to a fire because fire causes liquidity in a piece of wax. Nor would it render such a usage more sensible to say that fire was only being called liquid symbolically.

3. The theory of Dionysius makes God's ineffability absolutely ineffable. If we do this, we can never justify the use of any language whether the words are positive or negative, whether they are used literally or symbolically.

The theory of symbolic language does not help Dionysius. No word whatever ought to be used. We ought not to call the mystical experience an "experience," nor "mystical" nor "ineffable". We should not say that "it" is not this, not that, because the word "it" does not apply.

In short, it would be unknowable to us not merely in that relative sense in which, for example, Herbert Spencer — whether sensibly or not —spoke of an unknowable power. [p.291] This unknowability would be only relative because it implies that we do know something about it, for instance that it exists and is a power, but that its other characteristics are quite beyond our grasp.

Absolute ineffability, as posited by Dionysius, would mean that the something called ineffable would be outside our consciousness altogether in the sense in which God is presumably outside the consciousness of a dog. It may plausibly be supposed that God is absoIutely unknowable to a dog. A dog could not think "God is unknowable to me". Only a being conscious of God, or at least conscious of some meaning which he attributes to the word "God," could say "God is unknowable to me".

If ineffability were absolute in the way the theory of Dionysius implies, then not only should we say that he ought not to have written his book, but we should have to say that it would have been impossible for him to have done so, because the entire subject matter of his writings could never have entered into his mind at all.

We reach here the thought, expressed, I think, both by Hegel and by Wittgenstein, that to be aware of a limit is to be already beyond the limit in thought.

If there is an absolute limit to our knowledge, then it must be one of which we are unaware and do not even suspect. The same is true of thought and knowledge. For words are the objectifications of thoughts. If the mystical consciousness were absolutely ineffable, then we could not say so because we should be unconscious of such an experience; or in other words, we should never have had such an experience.

This criticism, of course, is an apparently insoluble difliculty not only for Dionysius, but for any theory of absolute ineffability. We shall meet it again.

(b) The Metaphor Theory. The difference between the Dionysian theory and the metaphor theory is as follows. According to Dionysius the word X if used of God means that God is the cause of X. According to the metaphor theory if the word X is used of God, it means that X is a metaphor for something in the actual nature of God himself or in the mystical experience.

Both views may be regarded as versions of the theory that the mystic's language is [p.292] symbolic. Another way of expressing the difference between them is to say that in the Dionysian theory the relation between symbolizandum and symbol is causal, whereas the metaphor theory implies a relation of resemblance.

Resemblance is, of course, always the basis of metaphor or analogy. In the phrase "to take arms against a sea of troubles" two distinct metaphors are employed (and mixed together). There is a resemblance between trying to overcome troubles and physical fighting with weapons against an enemy. And there is a resemblance between a "sea" of multitudinous raging waters and a multitude of troubles.

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. "Darkness" and "silence," as we have seen, are common metaphors for the introvertive mystical experience. What is metaphorically described by them is the emptiness or voidness of the experience. Darkness resembles the void in that there are no distinctions in it. All distinctions are lost in the dark, as all distinctions (as Eckhart says) are lost in God.

Eckhart also invents his own peculiar metaphors for this voidness. He calls it "barren," the "desert," the "wilderness," and so on. The reason is that the barren desert is void of all life (or is so pictured in the imagination). Ruysbroeck uses the metaphor "the wild sea" in much the same sense. This leads to the question, If "darkness," "silence," "desert," and so on are justified as metaphors by their resemblance to the empty void of the mystic's experience, how then is the phrase "empty void" justified? Is that in turn a metaphor of something else? We shall return to this question in due course.

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. Nevertheless the religious man sees some resemblance, perhaps very faint, between a characteristic of the religious experience and some nonreligious quality of something in the natural world. He then uses the name of the natural quality as a metaphor for the characteristic of the experience.

For instance, the experience [p.293] in one of its aspects is said to produce feelings of religious "awe." Hence God is, in this aspect of his being, spoken of as awful, dreadful, wrathful, terrifying, and so forth. But these words "awful", "dreadful," and the rest are names of natural nonreligious qualities of natural objects, and none of them is literally applicable to God. The characteristic of the numinous experience which they are struggling to express is in fact ineffable.

But awe, dread, etc., bear some sort of resemblance to the feelings which it arouses. They are the nearest natural nonspiritual counterparts of the genuine spiritual nonnatural feeling. Hence they are seized on as metaphors to give some faint idea of the numinous quality, or perhaps to evoke it in those who have not had the experience.

Unfortunately the whole metaphor theory seems open to fatal objections, although the present writer once espoused it.

In the first place the theory contradicts itself. For it supposes that X may be a metaphor for something in the unconceptualizable essence of God or the mystical experience. A metaphor implies a resemblance. But wherever there is a resemblance a concept is possible. X can only be a metaphor for Y if X resembles Y in some way. But any two resemblant things can be placed in a class because of the resemblance. Therefore to say that X is a metaphor for something in the essence of God is to say that the something can be conceptualized.

In the second place, metaphorical language is only meaningful and justifiable if it is at least theoretically translatable into literal language; or if, at any rate, the thing or the experience for which the metaphor is supposed to be a symbol is before the mind as a presentation — whether there happens to exist a word for it or not. In other words, the user of the metaphor, or whoever is to understand it, must already know what it is meant to symbolize.

The metaphor can only operate to bring before his mind what he already knows or has experienced. It cannot produce a knowledge or experience which he did not have before. If A is used as a metaphor for B, both A and B must be before the mind and also the resemblance between them which is the foundation of the metaphor. If this is not the case, we have what is usually called "meaningless [p.294] metaphor."

The conditions of meaningful metaphor are duly met when the mystical void or emptiness is called a darkness or a desert. For not only are the concepts or images of deserts and darknesses well known, but what is meant by voidness is also known. Thus both terms, the metaphor and its meaning, are present to the mind.

But the problem which now presents itself is this, If "desert" is an intelligible metaphor for the void, or for the undifferentiated unity, how are these phrases "void," "undifferentiated unity," etc., being used? Is this literal language, and does it apply in its literal sense to mystical experience? To admit that this is so would plainly contradict the concept of the ineffable. We should have found both concepts and words for what was supposed to be unconceptualizable and unutterable.

Either "undifferentiated unity," "the void," "obliteration of multiplicity," and the like, are literal descriptions of the mystical consciousness or they are metaphors for something else. Suppose we call this something else A. Then either A is a literal description or it is a metaphor for B. Either we proceed to infinity in a futile search for meaning, or the series comes to an end somewhere. Suppose it comes to an end at X. Then X is either a literal description or a meaningless metaphor. The only reasonable conclusion from this reasoning is that the symbolic theory may be true in the trivial sense that some words, such as "darkness," are metaphors, but that it is false when it says that no literal description is possible, and that all words used by mystics about their experiences are metaphorical or symbolic.

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. [p.295]

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. I am deeply conscious of the temerity of such an undertaking. What I have called the common-sense theories are not in my opinion entitled to any respect. They appear to me to be the work of men who either have little knowledge of the subject of mysticism or, if they have book knowledge, are lacking in insight and in sensitivity.

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 were deeply sensitive to its appeal. Its supporters include the greatest names in thc history of Western mystical thought. It goes back in the Western world at least to Plotinus and from him descends through Dionysius to the modern world.

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.

We admitted on an earlier page that the emotion theory, though unsatisfactory as a final explanation of the matter, is not without an element of truth. It may well be that whoever experiences, at any rate for the first time, the blessedness or joy — the peace which passeth all understanding — which the mystical consciousness brings, may be rendered for the moment almost speechless by the depth of his emotion. And no doubt this is sometimes a part of what is in his mind when he says that what he has experienced is beyond all words.

But it is not to be supposed that this goes to the root of the matter or exhausts what has to be said about it. It is evident that a much more radical type of explanation is required and that in the last resort the mystic's struggle with words is due to some kind of [p.296] logical difficulty and not merely to an emotional block.

The agreement among mystics who have expressed themselves on the subject is that what they variously call the understanding, the intellect, or the reason is incapable of handling the mystical experience, and that this is at the root of their trouble with words. Language has been moulded by the intellect as a tool for its special purposes. These statements may be true but are too vague and imprecise to constitute a philosophical explanation of ineffability. What we have to find out is, What precisely is it in the nature of the understanding which causes the difficulty with words?

We can see how the theory that mystical language is always symbolic and never literal has arisen out of an attempt to answer this question.

The understanding is what Kant called "the faculty of concepts". Although the word "faculty" is out of fashion, what Kant said is basically correct. It is true that thinking, reasoning, understanding, as distinguished from immediate perception, consist in the use of concepts. It was therefore quite natural to suppose that the proposition that the understanding is inherently incapable of handling mystical experiences is equivalent to the proposition that concepts cannot handle it.

This in turn seemed the same as saying that it is unconceptualizable. And since all words, except proper names, express concepts, it would follow that words cannot apply to mystical experiences. Since for this reason the words which mystics use cannot be literal descriptions, they must be symbolical. This all seems to follow as a matter of course. But unfortunately this line of attack on the problem leads, as we have seen, to a hopeless impasse.

And yet in some manner it is the way the understanding works which is the cause of the difficulty with the use of words. Hence 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, a feeling that the words which he actually uses never succeed in expressing what he wants to say ?

Our new theory will begin by pointing out that there are in reality [p.297] 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." [11] In other words we cannot speak of it when we have it, but we can afterwards. We have only to elaborate this theory in full.

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. Within a multiplicity, groups of similar items can be formed into classes and distinguished from other groups. We then have concepts and therefore words. Within the undifferentiated unity there is no multiplicity, and therefore there can be no classes, no concepts, and no words. We cannot, for example, at that time class it and speak of it as "undifferentiated," for this is to classify it as distinct from what is differentiated. We cannot speak of it as "unity" or the "One" because to do so is to distinguish it from multiplicity.

But afterwards when the experience is remembered the matter is quite different. For we are then in our ordinary sensory-intellectual consciousness. We can contrast the two kinds of consciousness. Our experiences can be seen to fall into two classes, those which are differentiated and multiple and those which are undifferentiated and onefold. Since we now have concepts, we can use words. We can speak of an experience as "undifferentiated," as "unity," as "mystical," as "empty," as "void," and so on. [p.298]

The result of confusing these two quite different situations has been disastrous. It has led to the theory that even a remembered mystical experience cannot be spoken of except in symbolic language. Theorists have supposed that the impossibility of using concepts during the experience is also characteristic of the remembered , experience.

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.

But this is plainly not the whole story. It would seem to imply that after the experience there is no difficulty at all in speaking about it and that the experience is then in no sense ineffable. But the whole literature of the subject makes it clear that mystics do in fact find great difficulty in describing even a remembered experience and still tend to say that it is ineffable. We have now to address ourselves to the solution of this new problem.

We have to begin by pointing to something which is very obvious. namely, that whatever the difficulty may be which the mystic feels, he does in fact normally overcome it. He says that he is speechless, but words break out from his lips. He does actually describe his re- membered experiences, and his descriptions are often highly successful and effective. The only alternative to admitting this would be to say that his statements are either meaningless or false. For either he does a succeed in communicating at least some part of the truth about his experience, or his words are no better than a sound of escaping steam.

If he does successfully communicate the truth about a part of his remembered experience, however small that part may be, then he must have given a true description of that part of his experience. And in that case he must be mistaken when he supposes that no language can ever apply to remembered mystical experience.

From here to the end of the chapter when I speak of "mystical ex- perience" it is to be understood that I am speaking of remembered mystical experience. [p.299]

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. This suggestion does not of course preclude the possibility that he may often make mistaken statements of various kinds.

In this respect also we are to suppose that he is like other people who may be quite sincere and truthful in their intentions.

But of course it will be asked what, on this hypothesis, becomes of ineffability? Are we not denying it altogether? Our problem is to explain the mystic's difficulty with language, not to deny that there is any difficulty. These questions are of course crucial. At present I will say only that I do not deny either the existence or the seriousness of the mystic's difficulty with words, and I will shortly propose a new explanation of it.

But I will postpone that explanation for the moment. I wish first to re-examine the actual language which mystics have used from this new point of view. We may learn something from looking at the sort of phrases and wording which they employ. From this point of view I will go back over some of the quotations describing mystical experiences which we have given in Chapter 2.

The Mandukya Upanishad tells us that the "unitary consciousness" is nonsensuous ("beyond the senses") and that it is a unity "in which all multiplicity is obliterated" These statements are of course very paradoxical and may be disbelieved by a sceptical reader. But that is not point. We are asking what kind of language is being used.

My point is that it is not at all like metaphorical or symbolical language. Metaphors and symbols generally consist in sensuous images. But the language here is abstract. "Nonsensuous" is itself an abstract concept. It presupposes a classification of experiences into sensuous and nonsensuous and assigns mystical experience to the latter class. "Unity" is also a highly abstract concept and not a sensuous image. No one would think of using the word "unity" as a metaphor of anything.

The same remarks apply to the statement that in the experience "all multiplicity is obliterated:' Whether this is [p.300] true or false, the language in which it is expressed is plainly meant to be a literal description. It is not in the least like the language of metaphor.

We can easily distinguish this from the metaphorical language which mystics do of course often use. By way of contrast let us take a few examples of their metaphors. When Suso describes his experience as "a glorious and dazzling obscurity," he is plainly using metaphors. So is Eckhart when he speaks of the soul as "flowing full flood into the unity of the divine nature". Or to be more precise, "flowing full flood" is a metaphor, but "the unity of the divine nature" is not.

Abulafia is speaking metaphorically when he refers to the breaking down of the separateness of the soul from the infinite as due to an "untying of its knots". Suzuki, speaking of the dissolution of individuality, says that "the shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at the moment of satori". Ruysbroeck writes of the introvertive experience as "the darkness in which all lovers lose themselves". In general, "darkness" and "silence" are among the commonest of all metaphors used by mystics.

Ruysbroeck's "darkness in which all lovers lose themselves" is a metaphor for what in his own language is elsewhere called the "undifferentiated unity". But "undifferentiated unity" is not in turn a metaphor for anything else. It has all the marks of literal language. That it is a literal description is also evident from the way in which the unity is reached. One empties the mind of all sensations, images, and thoughts — of all particular empirical contents. What is left is an emptiness.

It is true that according to the mystics this emptiness, which is darkness, is also the shining forth of a great light. It is not merely the vacuum; it is the vacuum-plenum. But the undifferentiated unity is a description of the negative side, the vacuum. Since the multiplicity of particulars has been obliterated, it is a unity. And since there are no distinctions of one particular from another, it is undifferentiated. Plainly this is a literally correct description — if of course one believes that such a state of mind is ever reached, which is not now the question at issue.

When Eckhart says [p.301] that "in God all distinctions are lost," he is describing the same state in slightly different, but equally literal, language. When the experience is spoken of as the "void" — whether in a Christian or in a Buddhist context we have another literally correct word for the same thing. The same is true of the frequent use of the words "nothing," "nothingness," etc, which likewise signify the negative aspect of the plenum-vacuum paradox.

Anyone who wishes can of course insist that such words as "unity " , "void," and "undifferentiated" must be being used symbolically. But this is mere dogmatic assertion for which no reason either is, or can be, given. It is in the nature of the case impossible to suggest what is the meaning of these words if they are taken as metaphors. Metaphors for what? The only possible reason for calling them metaphorical would be that the theory of the symbolic use of mystical language requires it, and that we are determined to uphold that theory no matter what the evidence shows.

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:' These it will be said are of course literal statements. 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.

To this there are two replies.

In the first place, it is impossible to divide epithets sharply into positive and negative, as our critic's view presupposes. Perhaps emptiness, voidness, and undifferentiatedness may pass as negatives. But consider the descriptions given by mystics of the experience of the dissolution of individuality. Nearly all of them use such phrases as "fading away," "melting away," "passing away" into the infinite or the divine. Of course "melting" and [p.302] "fading" are metaphors. But the literal language for the process will say — as Koestler actually does say [12] — that the "I" or the individuality ceases to exist as a separate ego.

If it be said that the cessation of the existence of something is equivalent to its nonexistence and is therefore negative, the logic of this must be denied. Ceasing to exist is just as positive a process as beginning to exist. Death is as positive as life. Negatives usually imply positives. The extrovertive mystics usually say that nothing is dead. Is "dead" a positive or negative state? No doubt it means "not living." But "living" also means "not dead."

In the second place, the positive side of the plenum-vacuum paradox is often described by such positive epithets as "good," "supreme good," "creative," "sacred," "divine," or their equivalents. I can see no reason for thinking that these are not literally meant. So also surely are the words used for the emotional aspect of the experience — such words as "bliss," "joy," "blessedness," and "peace."

If these are said to exceed all language, this is merely to admit that element of truth in the emotion theory to which we have already referred. A doubt may be raised about the epithet of creativeness. It will be admitted that this is a positive idea, but it may be doubted whether it is ever alleged to be a part of the experience or whether any language is ever used asserting it.

I would remind the critic of the examples given on pages 175-76 and would requote here Aurobindo's description: "Those who have thus possessed the calm within can perceive always welling out from its silence the perennial supply of the energies which work in the universe". There is no reason whatever for supposing that this language is symbolic.

The examples so far given are all taken from descriptions of the introvertive type of experience. The situation will be found similar it we examine the language used to describe extrovertive experiences. Says Eckhart, "All is One," and this is the general formula of that type of experience. He exemplifies the meaning of this by saying that the wood, grass, and stone are not separate and distinct from one another, not many things but one. As usual it is open to any critic to reject this description on the ground that it is self-contradictory.

But [p.303] there is nothing in the wording to give any ground for supposing that it is metaphorical or otherwise symbolic. It may be compared to a statement to the effect that a square is circular. Neither the fact that this sentence is self-contradictory nor anything else about it would suggest that the language of it is metaphorical.

Going to other examples, we note Jakob Boehme's words, "I recognized God in grass and plants"; and N. M: s affirmation that everything which he saw out of the window, including broken glass and bottles, was "urgent with life," and that the life in himself and the cat and the bottles was one and the same life; and Ramakrishna's perception that everything in the room was "full of consciousness" and "soaked in . . . the bliss of God". The language in all these cases is that of literal and nonsymbolic description, however wild the statements may appear to common sense.

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 includcs 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? Does not our theory as thus far stated deny it entirely? We must try to make it clear that this is not so, that we recognize the problem and have at least a tentative suggestion to put forward as to how it is to be solved.

It is plain that the mystic feels that there is for him some sort of unique struggle, block, or barrier in trying to use language to communicate his experiences to other men. Other men of all kinds, men who are not mystics, often find difficulty in expressing their feelings or thoughts in words. As we have seen, this is especially true of deep emotions. But it is evident that the mystic has some special difficulty which he believes that he does not share with nonmystics. And it is evidently in some way due to the fact that his experience is beyond the reach of the intellect or understanding. However, the common view that it is the conceptual character of the understanding which is the source of the trouble — in other words, the view that ooncepts as such cannot apply to the experiences of the mystic — has been shown to be erroneous.

[p.304] What else is there then about the understanding which renders it, or seems to render it, unable to grapple with mystical experience. There is only one possible answer. 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?

In its primordial nature the understanding is that operation of the a mind by which it distinguishes and discriminates one thing from another thing, X from Y. To do this is not in itself to form a concept. Concept formation is derivative from this. It arises because it happens that there are usually many X's and many Y's. Hence we develop the habit of putting all the X's in one pile and all the Y's in another pile. This is concept formation. Implicit in these proceedings are certain rules. We must be sure to keep all the X's in the X pile, and all the Y's in the Y pile. The rules for doing this are called the laws of logic.

In making concept formation dependent upon the existence of a plurality of X's and a plurality of Y's, we are not denying the logician's point that there can be a concept of a unique entity or even the null class. Psychologically there could hardly have been such classes if concepts had not originally been constructed on the basis of their having a plurality of members.

The result is that we have three things which are different from one another although each is an inseparable aspect of the understanding — namely,

(1) the act of discrimination (noting differenccs),

(2) the act of concept formation (noting similarities), and

(3) the rules for performing these acts, viz., the laws of logic.

The result is that it is possible to use concepts correctly and yet to disobey the laws of logic. This is what the mystic does. If he says of his experience, "It is x," this is a correct statement, i.e, a correct application of the concept x. He then adds of the same experience, "It is not-x." This is is also a correct use of the concept, since the experience being inherently paradoxical has both the characteristics x and not x.

How does this explain the mystic's claim that his experience is ineffable? My suggestion is as follows. The language which he finds [p.305] himself compelled to use is, when at its best, the literal truth about his experience, but it is contradictory. This is the root of his feeling of embarassment with language.

And he is embarassed because he is, like other people, a logically minded man in his nonmystical moments. He is not a being who lives solely in the paradoxical world of the One. He lives mostly in the space-time world, which is the territory of the laws of logic. He feels their coerciveness in the same way as other men. When he returns from the world of the One, he wishes to communicate in words to other men what he remembers of his experience. The words come from his mouth, but he is astonished and perplexed to find himself talking in contradictions. He explains this to himself by supposing that there is something wrong with the language. He says that his experience is ineffable.

He is in fact mistaken. The paradox which he has uttered has correctly described his experience. The language is only paradoxical because the experience is paradoxical. Thus the language correctly mirrors the experience. But he had said first of his experience, "It is x". The next moment he fmds himself compelled to say, "It is not-x". Hence he then supposes that his original statement "It is x" was wrong. And similarly if he began by saying, "It is not-x," and then afterwards, "It is x," he supposes, when he makes the latter statement, that "It is not-x" was wrong. Thus whatever he says seems to him to have been incorrect since he always has to contradict it. Thereupon he blames the language.

It should be noted that we are giving what may in a sense be called a psychological explanation of the matter. The mystic in saying that no language can express his experience is making a mistake. He does express it in language--often very well and very impressively. Therefore what has to be done is to explain how he comes to make this mistake. The explanation can only be psychological. The explanation is, in a word, that he confuses the paradoxicality of mystical experience with ineffability.

But the basis of the psychological explanation lies of course in the logical difficulty of the paradoxes. The fact that he is confused implies that he is not himself conscious [p.306] of the mistake he is making and hence that he could not himself give the explanation of the matter which we have given here. He is, often enough, a poor logician, a poor philosopher, and a poor analyst. He does not understand the root of his own trouble with language. He only vaguely feels that something must be wrong with what he says and is perplexed by this. What I have tried to do here is to attempt to analyse his strongly felt but inarticulate dissatisfaction with what he says about his experiences.

A possible objection to our theory may be briefly noted and answered. Have we not admitted that where there is no multiplicity there can be no concept and therefore no word? But our theory implies that certain words are literally descriptive of the experience and therefore must express concepts. The reply is that 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.


1. Quoted by J.B. Pratt, The Religious Consciousness, New York, The Macmillan company, pp. 407-408

2. ibid, p. 408

3. The Upanishads, translated by Swami Pravadhananda and Frederick Manchester, New York, Mentor Book MD 194, New American Library of World Literature, 1957, p. 17. (Originally published by the Vedanta Press, Hollywood california. Copyrighted by the Vedanta Society of Southern California.)

4. p. 95 above

5. p. 64 above

6. Plotinus, Works, translated by Stephen McKenna, New York, New York Medici Society, Enneads VI, IX and XI

7. ibid. Enneads VI, 9

8. F. Ffeifer, Meister Eckhart, translated by C. de B. Evans, pp. 236 and 237

9. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, translated by C.E. Rolt, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1920, Chap 5

10. ibid, Chap. 1.5.

11. Quoted from paragraph 3 of the selection from Plotinus in the present writer's The Teachings of the Mystics, New York, Mentor Book, Ne American Library of World Literature.

12. pp. 120 - 121

W.T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy

W.T. Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

W.T. Stace: Theory of Existence and Knowledge

The problem of evil assumes the existence of a world-purpose. What, we are really asking, is the purpose of suffering? It seems purposeless. Our question of the why of evil assumes the view that the world has a purpose, and what we want to know is how suffering fits into and advances this purpose. The modern view is that suffering has no purpose because nothing that happens has any purpose: the world is run by causes, not by purposes.
         ... W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind