February 05, 2012

On trying to capture reality in language

The small volume Philosophy and Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) consists of a series of contributions by Cary Wolfe, Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell and Ian Hacking, each of the latter three commenting on those that precede it. The essays are highly readable and they raise a number of intriguing issues.

In my reading, the essays are more centrally concerned with questions about the limitations of language than with animal life. The theme is adumbrated by John McDowell in speaking of situations "when something we encounter defeats our ordinary capacity to get our minds around reality, that is, our capacity to capture reality in language. That dislodges us from comfortably inhabiting our nature as speaking animals, animals who can make sense of things in the way the capacity to speak enables us" (p. 134).

One situation to which McDowell refers is that invoked in Cora Diamond's essay in the book, "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy". It comes from a poem by Ted Hughes, "Six young men". (The poem can be read at http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/news/news07/102.html .)

The poem is about a photograph of six young men who were soon after all to be killed in the first world war. "The poem", as McDowell expresses it, "is about a kind of impossibility the poet finds in trying to combine that fact [of their imminent death], in a single mental embrace, with the vibrant aliveness with which they are present in the photograph" (p. 132). The poem ends:

To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One's own body from its instant and heat.

The poem connects with experiences with which we are familiar: the very incomprehensibility of the death of those who matter to us and of the thought of our own non-existence, the senselessness of the slaughter of young men in war, the poignancy of a photograph capturing a moment in time that is almost palpably present and yet forever lost.

The question I wish to raise is whether experiences like these actually do throw light on our predicament as speakers. Do they reveal something about the essence of language? Or are they just one way of reacting to a powerful experience?

Here are some things to ponder: I believe some of us are more inclined than others to speak of experiences defeating our capacity to capture reality in language. Do those who do not have this experience miss out on something? Or is it merely a matter of what forms of expression we prefer?

Experiences of the sort hinted at by McDowell seem to be speaker-centred rather than bound up with problems of communication. It is I as speaker who experience my inability to capture the experience in words. It is not a matter of someone else finding my words hard to understand. Indeed, we could imagine a situation in which I tell someone of an experience of mine, and when he responds by saying "Yes I understand" I may react by feeling that he does not understand at all. (Perhaps we could even say that in these situations the criterion of one's being understood is that one's interlocutor should have a sense of not understanding?)

McDowell equates "getting our minds around reality" with "capturing reality in language", and he says that the capacity to speak enables us to make sense of things. Again, it is as if I need language to tell myself what it is I experience; language failing I do not understand my experience. However, there is a special twist to this. It is not that I cannot find the right words to articulate my experience. That would be a different situation altogether. Here the problem is that even the right words (say, "these young men died shortly after this picture was taken") fail to capture the experience - that is what takes me aback.

But if so, what is the understanding that we are missing here? It is not that we are at a loss how to interpret the description: we know what the relevant evidence might be for such a claim, and what follows from it. My suggestion is that the feeling of not understanding is partly constitutive of the experience - of how it feels. In saying that this experience "defeats my capacity to capture reality in language", I am using words in a secondary sense.


  1. Prof Hertzberg,

    there is of course the possibility that "In saying that this experience 'defeats my capacity to capture reality in language'..." i am merely giving expression to the fact that i do not want to capture the experience in words, do not want to repeat it. that what is unspeakable is not always inexpressible, but that one refuses to for emotional or other reasons. "i can't even begin to describe..." might be a way of pushing the horror of something off in order not to relive it. the silence of survivors can be a willed silence.

    it is possible that some horrific experience, can in fact be put into words, but that one just does not want to.

    and there's the question of the expression "capturing the feeling". does that mean that the listener is meant to feel exactly what it is the speaker feels and that this is to be achieved by way of words? when this does not happen is it entirely or always because "the words can't do it"?

    in our talk of moments "when something we encounter defeats our ordinary capacity to get our minds around reality, that is, our capacity to capture reality in language" are we always clear about what it is that language cannot grasp?

    Ezra Pound said it took him six months to write the three lines of "In a Station of the Metro". the experience was clear and vivid, putting it into words took some time. was he in the conundrum McDowell is speaking of? and the result, his poem, does it "capture reality"?

    does language ever "capture reality"? what would it mean for it to do so?


  2. These seem to me very good issues to be thinking about: issues that might be very helpful in the attempt to think clearly about what language is and the kind of importance that it has. The phenomena you are concerned with unsettle certain familiar ways of thinking of language in philosophy – including, perhaps, approaches (inspired by Rhees) that expect a notion of ‘conversation’ to do all the important work here.

    But I do have doubts about an aspect of the way in which you set this up: “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. ….. It is not that I cannot find the right words to articulate my experience. That would be a different situation altogether”.

    I am not convinced by this characterization of a kind of case: a case in which language isn't up to it. One might wonder how one could know that one was presented with a case of this kind. Well, if ‘no proposal is better than any other’ then it might seem clear what could indicate that we had such a case. But are there clearly experiences of which that can be said? You say: ‘even the right words (say, "these young men died shortly after this picture was taken") fail to capture the experience’. It might be replied that it is only in a pretty thin sense that these are ‘the right words’. There are, I guess, familiar cases in which, while I can produce the right words in this sense, it takes someone with skills that I lack (the poet) to capture the experience. The range of cases in which we press beyond ‘the right words’ in this minimal sense seems to me to include much that is important.

    I feel towards the idea of experiences that cannot be captured in language a resistance of a form analogous to that which I feel in connection with some forms of philosophical skepticism. It may involve the curtailing of a form of struggle – in this case, a struggle to find the right words – that should not be curtailed.

    I wonder a bit whether the ways you speak here might not involve some conflation with another thought one sometimes encounters. Roughly, the fact that a vivid description of a sunset is no substitute for the sunset itself is presented as a shortcoming of language. (But this assimilation may be quite unfair. Also, it is possible that what I described as a ‘conflation’ is not as obviously so as the sunset example is designed to make it appear. The expression ‘put it into words’ might be worth thinking more about in this connection.)

    Perhaps more familiar than the suggestion that there are experiences that can’t be captured in language is the suggestion that there are experiences that can’t be captured in a particular language. We learn something about this through Wittgenstein’s question: if we lack the words, then why don’t we introduce new ones? The question unsettles one way in which we may think of language. But, of course, sometimes people do introduce new words: in the sense of appropriate variations on old words that give us just what we need to describe a certain experience. And someone may combine words in fresh ways, or speak particular words in fresh ways, such that we may judge that they have at least come closer to capturing a particular experience. (Though what place, if any, that idea of how we speak the words – tone of voice, surrounding gestures etc – has in the context of this issue is, perhaps, not completely clear.) So the suggestion that there may be experiences that can’t be captured in a particular language may not be completely straightforward (because the notion of ‘a particular language’ may not be completely straightforward.)

    But it is possible that all the above is pointing in the wrong direction. Perhaps, contrary to what I said above, there are cases in which the struggle to find the right words is to be curtailed. The attempt to put it into words is itself a mark of having failed to be struck by the experience in the way that it demands. (And not because one knows one will fail.)

    1. I’m inclined to go the same way as you are. I too have doubts about the idea that it might be a discovery about language that it is not up to the task of describing some type of experience. I didn’t mean to be endorsing that notion, although I wished to present the issue in a way that was open to different ways of responding to it.
      I should like to consider some details in your comment more closely. You speak about cases in which “it takes someone with skills that I lack (the poet) to capture the experience.” What is really involved in “capturing an experience”? Is capturing an experience the same as recounting it, or can only some ways of recounting an experience be held to capture it?
      The word “capture” seems to evoke the image of catching hold of the experience, as it were putting it into a cage and then producing it before an audience. Perhaps an idea of psychological validity enters here. Something like the idea that in being presented with the words, the audience will undergo something similar to the speaker’s original experience. This, it might either be thought, is simply not possible, or it is difficult to do, something that can perhaps only be achieved by a skilled poet.
      A contemporary training in philosophy might tempt one to dismiss this notion as nonsense. This was the idea the classical empiricists had: communication consists in producing experiences in one’s audience similar to those of the speaker. But dismissing it would be too hasty. I believe there is a meaningful use for the notion of capturing an experience, we simply should not think about it along the lines of Locke or Hume. I would suggest that one of the things we may try to bring out in speaking about words capturing or failing to capture an experience has to do with the relation between the speaker, the listener and the experience: saying that words can’t capture my experience may a way of impressing on my listener the significance of the experience. (I think it’s important not to lose hold of the point that the problem of capturing an experience is typically a speaker’s problem.)
      I’m not suggesting this is something you would deny, on the contrary.
      There might be two ways of looking at the problem of capturing an experience in words. (This I believe is connected with your proposal that we may be conflating two thoughts in speaking about this problem.) One is in terms of difficulty, as when it is suggested that a skilled poet might succeed where we give up. I’m rather in sympathy with your suggestion that this may mean curtailing a struggle to find better words - a struggle that perhaps should not be curtailed in many cases.
      (This opens up an interesting question, concerning the nature of the feeling that one is unable to find quite the right words, that - whether permanently or at the present moment - one is not in full command of one’s language. What does it mean to have that feeling? Does it involve the hypothesis that someone else, or I myself on a better day, would be able to find different words that I would then recognize as being exactly the right ones? Also, what do we mean by words that are only so-so but not quite right? What is the nature of the contrast here?)
      The other way of thinking about the problem is that the very idea of trying to convey the experience would be to trivialize it. Saying that the experience cannot be captured in words would be a way of expressing one’s awe before it, a way of emphasizing the power of the experience. No words can do it justice because speaking cannot do it justice.
      Someone might say: “The very attempt to put it into words is itself a mark of having failed to be struck by the experience in the way that it demands.”

  3. I just discovered your blog. Great post. I agree, as you say, that the collection of essays isn't really about "animal" life (which hit squarely home as I was using some of these essays in an undergraduate philosophy class on animals!), but about the human animal's life.

    I agree with Prof. Cockburn's idea that the struggle should not be curtailed (at least not a priori, by, say, an insistence that there are mystical truths that cannot be stated). The difficulty, as you allude, is relational: about how to share a baffling (or awesome, etc.) experience with another. And, as you suggest, it is possible sometimes to communicate it by using words in a secondary sense.

    All of this is like the struggles of religious mystics to "report back." I am currently team-teaching a humanities unit on al-Ghazali and Rumi, and this issue of "expressing the inexpressible" is at the center. Rumi (and other poets like him) show, however, that something relevant to the experience can be expressed, the "spirit" of the experience evoked (though of course this depends upon the listener having an imagination and a good ear).

    I've tried to write some about all of this, looking at Wittgenstein, Freud and Romain Rolland (on the "oceanic experience"), and Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, though I haven't thought about the project in some time, and suspect I have many revisions to make. The (stagnant) draft is here.

    I look forward to future posts!