Are there vital limits to what we can capture in language? Philosopher Martin Shuster presents a short geographical sketch of the unsayable, drawing on the work of Stanley Cavell, Walter Benjamin and others to explore the connection between silence, humanity and our history.
Writing about silence is likely less peculiar than talking about it, but nonetheless it strikes me as a strange thing to try to do, similar in spirit perhaps to the variously attributed quip that, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (often attributed to Elvis Costello or Frank Zappa, but likely originating with the comedian Martin Mull). Nonetheless, here we are. My aims in this short essay are to focus on one very limited aspect of silence, and do so in an even smaller context: philosophical discourse. What is it that is ultimately unsayable? And what might then a ‘map’ to silence look like?
An easy way set up the issue that I want to bring out is by thinking about what compels or produces silence for and amidst humans. There are, of course, the variety of ordinary situations: disagreement, shock, coldness, shame, fear, respect, and so forth. I put these aside because I think they can largely be understood as moves within a language game, susceptible to the pragmatic allowances animating and animated by distinct cultural, social, historical (and thereby also, political) sedimentations and evolutions. Instead, I want to focus on a more ambitious topic, namely the unsayable itself, the sort of thing that compels silence because there is simply nothing that can be said (as opposed to more ordinary situations where things are, say, left unsaid—with the caveat, of course, that such a distinction is likely fuzzy and thereby more like a continuum; to see what I might mean here, think of the experience of amazement).
The unsayable is something that has occupied theologians and mystics for quite some time; it has also struck poets and writers, especially in the modern period. Its impulses are equally wonder and sublimity as much as horror and trembling. At a very high altitude view of things, it is possible to see Western discourse about the unsayable (apophaticism) as motivated by two conceptual discourses and lineages: as William Franke puts it in his A Philosophy of the Unsayable: “one based on the ineffability of the singular existence, whether of God or of the individual human person or event, and another based on an ineffability inherent to language itself.”(96) On one hand, any such discourse might be motivated by the inability of the human epistemological apparatus to capture properly an event or experience or phenomenon (or whatever). In such a case, why can our human apparatus not capture the phenomenon in question? Because it is the sort of thing (used here just as a logical place-marker, not as a term taking an ontological stance) that cannot be captured. On the other hand, another way by which such discourse might arise is through the mechanisms of language itself, if language is understood as perpetually tied to surplus or overflow, whether expressive, figurative, linguistic, or whatever. (To make sense of this option, think, merely as an exercise, of how Kant frames a strand of his thinking about reflective judgment in the Critique of the Power of Judgement, where what is significant is that the phenomenon in question–say, beauty–is incapable of being exhausted by conceptual capacities, but it is not thereby non-conceptual or a-conceptual, it is still conceptual, through and through, it is rather merely unstable, indeterminate, inexhaustible). In this way, there just is no (stable) phenomenon here, but it is not a problem of our conceptual capacities.
Stressing this conceptual and historical framework can allow us to bring a couple of issues into view. First, note that our shared abilities in language suggest two sites where silence persists, indeed must persist, as an option. As Stanley Cavell notes, the possibility of “word projection”—our ability to project old and current words into new contexts, where such contexts are true forms of novelty, presently inexpressible, but because linked to and dependent for their projection on an entire form of life, capable of being understood, even if entirely new—is essential to language. Its possibility, in turn, is absolutely and everywhere dependent exactly on a shared language. As Cavell puts it in his In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism:
Language puts us in bonds, that with each word we utter we emit stipulation, agreements we do not know and do not want to know we have entered, agreements we were always in, that were in effect before our participation in them. Our relation to our language—to the fact that we are subject to expression, victims of meaning—is accordingly a key to our sense of our distance from our lives, of our sense of the alien, of ourselves as alien to ourselves, thus alienated. (40)
The broader form of life in which we are embedded allows for our language, its parameters never entirely within our grasp, our abilities in language never to be known in advance. In part, this is because such parameters are not entirely up to us: the threat of skepticism in all of its guises just is a perpetual worry (the possibility of someone ignoring, refusing, or misunderstanding me, or of me misunderstanding another or myself, just to name a few options). In another part, these parameters are themselves historically evolving; we thus feel “alien to ourselves”, “alienated”, as Cavell stresses. If there is something unsayable here, it depends on history: the history of the human form of life as well as the language that animates and accompanies it; and such a history is forever closed off to us (even despite our best efforts at history and historiography). History is closed off here because the silence that arises is one tied neither to our epistemological capacities nor to any sort of metaphysical realism: history is not the sort of thing that is knowable in this way, its meaning exactly always is incomplete, because the meaning of history depends both on how it is understood by us, and on how it is always underdetermined, leaving out some perspective or other.
To bring out one important significance of this last point, take an aspect of Walter Benjamin’s work. What’s crucial for Benjamin–speaking again from a very high altitude view–is that history is written by one group of people (the victors). Any such history, however, necessarily neglects the equally important views of another group (the vanquished). This is one way to understand Benjamin’s critique of Hegel’s procedure as a historian, notably in the Phenomenology of Spirit). In many ways, Hegel’s historicism is commendable to the extent that it allows for the (alleged) solution to many philosophical problems by showing how they originate due to particular times and places, i.e., are historical. Furthermore, Hegel’s historicism is essential to his project, there is a reason that Hegel changes the title of his book from the Science of the Experience of Consciousness (a sort of ‘transcendental’ procedure about conditions of possibility) to the Phenomenology of Spirit: he truly believes that philosophical problems are themselves historical, a focus on the ‘spiritual’ exactly suggests that history and sociality are essential to any proper understanding of human consciousness. But if that is the case, then that history can always be disputed, and therefore the project of the Phenomenology is continually capable of refinement, indeed problematization
All of this suggests a silence born equally of humility as of respect, curiosity as much as uncertainty; it suggests that an element of who we are, as historical beings, is fundamentally and perpetually unsayable (this is one way to motivate the significance of Benjamin’s messianism). What prompts a space for silence here—unlike in ‘traditional’ apophatic discourse—is neither anything about ultimate reality itself, nor about our conceptual capacities. Instead, it is our history. And it is understood that our history is exactly that—our history, unfolding, sedimented, and relational. In this way, what suggests silence—what institutes the unsayable—is something that might be termed the moral or the ethical, i.e., the fact that we are who we are, and only so amidst others (for better or for worse). The most basic procedures of philosophy, but equally also of history, literature, music, indeed any human endeavor, of human life, are open, incomplete (but not thereby incompletable – agreement is possible, but it must be achieved). What anyone is doing and what anyone is, and what’s significant and what’s not, is perpetually open to and under revision (again, for better and for worse). With Richard Rorty, we might say, all there is, is conversation; no conversation, though, without silence.
Thus, my sketch of the map is complete, marked always already by one landmark: you are here.