January 29, 2012

The paradox of language failure

People sometimes say they have an experience that words cannot convey. These occasions may be of different kinds. There are trivial cases like Hume's claim that we cannot convey the taste of pineapple to someone who has never tasted it. And there are more dramatic cases as when someone who has lost a child says that it is impossible to convey what the experience is like to someone who has not gone through it.

I would suggest that there is something paradoxical about this notion of words failing us, about the idea of a task to which words are unequal.

The task, for one thing, is undeniably linguistic: conveying experiences is the sort of thing we do with words (unlike feeding people, or keeping them warm - words can't do that either, but we would not call this a shortcoming on the part of words).

In the ordinary kind of case, if I try to give an account of an experience and fail, the failure, as it were, is in the language I use. Speakers may disagree on the right description:

"It wasn't really a chaos, just a roomful of people bustling with activity."

"He didn't really hit you, it was more like a friendly pat on your shoulder."

"The columns may look straight but really they get broader the further up you go."

"It wasn't so much that I felt betrayed as that I was mad at myself because I should have seen it coming."

In these cases, getting the description wrong is a shortcoming on the part of the speaker, not on the part of language. But to say that an experience cannot be conveyed is to claim that language isn't up to it. You can't even attempt to describe it: no proposal is better than any other. Nor can you try to overcome this problem by trying to reform the language. (Cp Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 610: "James: 'We lack the words.' Then why don't we introduce new ones? What would have to be the case for us to be able to?")

The deficiency, it seems, is not in this language or that, rather here we are up against a limitation of language, of speaking, as such.

We apparently judge how language measures up against something that is not linguistically articulated. But how can this be done? It seems to require that we step outside language and compare it with reality. And this is what seems paradoxical.

Is there some non-paradoxical way (or ways) of understanding such claims?


  1. This kind of thing has puzzled me as well. And I do think there is a less paradoxical way of approaching it.

    There are two kinds of examples:

    (1) "I lost a child - and the experience cannot be conveyed by words."
    (2) Something indescribable happens in plain sight.

    In (2) we could put things like quantum phenomena, that we really don't know how to use words to describe. (Logical paradoxes may pose a similar problem.) But we can also try to imagine that something completely unexpected and inconceivable happened. (My computer suddenly changes into a fire that doesn't burn, etc.) I think these cases don't create a *linguistic* paradox in any obvious sense: we simply don't know what to think and cannot agree on a single correct description or explanation. In principle, this problem can be fixed by further research.

    And for (1)-type cases I am inclined to say that they are just analogous to Hume's trivial case. So you are right: people seem to be imagining a role for words which they could never have. For of course a speaker who utters (1) *does* describe both what happened, by "I lost a child," and her experience, by "The experience cannot be conveyed by words."

    So the intention behind the latter half of (1) may have been: I can only describe it by saying it cannot be described, and by this I mean that one really has to have had a similar experience to understand the experience.

    1. About (1): I agree that to say “The experience cannot be conveyed in words” may itself be considered a way of conveying the experience. As for your last remark, that one has to have had a similar experience in order to understand it, it is something one often hears, yet it does not seem straightforward to me what it means.

      On the face of it one might take it to be an empirical hypothesis, but this is hardly how it is intended. How would one know, anyway? Is it by experience? Has the matter been empirically tested? Anyway, the claim is too vague even to admit of testing. What would count as “having had the same experience” and as “understanding the experience”?

      All the same, perhaps such a claim has some connection with experience. One may have found that people who have suffered a similar affliction (or who are close to someone who has) will be able to handle a person’s grief in a more understanding manner, will know what to say and what not to say in a way someone who had not will not. More generally, they might have some sense of the proportions of such grief. On the whole, they would have a key to thinking about the situation of the bereaved. (But then I suppose there are people who have suffered bereavement and are yet insensitive to that of others, and vice versa.)

      I should like to suggest, though, that what people usually mean when they say that someone else cannot understand an experience is something rather different: they want to mark a community of suffering. Perhaps such a remark will go with feeling a certain way in the company of a fellow sufferer, with feeling that certain things need not be explained. (In a similar way, someone who has gone through the experience of frontline combat, or who has battled a drug addiction, or had a nervous breakdown, may feel more comfortable around others who have had the same experience. I’m imagining that the sheer awareness of this kind of shared experience may make a difference, regardless of consequences.)

      As for type (2) cases, I’d like to get back to them later.