At several places in MSOU, I referred to the possibility of understandings of our human situation which do not lend themselves easily, or at all, to the likelihood of summary in words. For the most part, my references to such possibilities were simply "flagged" for possible future attention by readers, but on at least one occasion I was alerted by a careful reader to the dangers of identifying issues I clearly had no intention of pursuing more rigorously in the final text.
As I remember that reader's critique, I also remember my reluctance to acquiesce in omitting a particular problematic statement. (It refers to the work of Susanne K. Langer, and still appears, mildly attenuated, on page 81, with an end note that steers readers to what they would need to do to explore its implications.) What I have now come to realize, is that I was myself ambivalent about essaying to walk very lightly over some very deep waters.
I have been more fully experiencing that ambivalence recently as I have attempted to come to terms with the whole question of ineffability. Several events began to congeal into evidence that I had been touching on an issue that may well be central to the possibility of achieving a species-wide understanding of the nature of our human condition. In the book itself there are at least three other occasions on which I edged towards confronting the issue, and then subsequently withdrew to a "safer" distance. Some of you may remember the reference to Isadora Duncan's explanation of why she needed to perform a particular dance. Yet others may be able to connect that with the separate references to Einstein's and Whitehead's reflections on the difficulties they experienced in trying to put ideas into words. The important unifying issue for Duncan, Einstein, and Whitehead, was that each accepted that they were engaged in converting what was occurring without words into some form that would enable those inner representations of both feeling and awareness, although probably ineffable, to be transmitted to others. In some ways, Duncan and Einstein were, I think, more fortunate than Whitehead. Duncan found her dance; Einstein found the necessary mathematics; Whitehead struggled to find the words. Anyone who has embarked upon Whitehead's magnum opus Process and Reality will recognize the enormity of the task that Whitehead set himself. There were virtually no existing words for the processes he was trying to elucidate. The result, as more than one analyst has commented, is that Whitehead's book is marked by an almost impregnable "monumental opacity." This is of course regrettable, but was it also inevitable, given what Whitehead was trying to do? (Perhaps another quick look at Johanna Seibt's article on Process Philosophy, previously mentioned in the post "Once more, the cosmos and us" would serve to remind readers of the difficulties he faced––and those we face in attempting to read him!)
Lest all this heavy stuff grind us to an absolute halt, let me offer a different point of entry . . .
I was very taken, a few years back, with Terry Eagleton's speculation––in his The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007)––that the potential meaning of life is conveyed by considering the example of the interacting of a small group of jazz musicians as they realize themselves and one another in their common participation in creating their music. The relevant paragraphs may be found on the book's final pages. Eagleton's book is not only delightful, but it also reminded me of a similar analogy that I had been contemplating for some time. (It didn't quite materialize into a post on this blogsite but I've a feeling it still might!)
Music is of course non-verbal. Nevertheless, it clearly has multiple significances for us, none of which can be adequately summarized in words. In the same way, great visual art does something that is only inadequately achieved by other modes of representation. Similarly, poetry, drama, dance . . . and so on. The reference to Susanne K. Langer in my book is owed to the enormous potential insights of her assertion that there are forms of feeling that words simply cannot express. When I experienced myself in the very midst of the creation of meaning (in the post "Discovering our Self.") I think I was experiencing something of what Eagleton was putting his finger on, and which is also elucidated in the functioning of a symphony orchestra, where every different participant is realizing not only him or herself, but also the meaning of the music, and the insights of its composer, because the reciprocal need for one another is a given, and all willingly subordinate their own independent identities to a common, shared, transcendental identity––an identity that requires both their own uniqueness, and their intuited common purpose. That is not only a conceivable objective for humankind, I think, but an eminently achievable one, whether or not we have adequate words for it.
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