Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion

Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion

Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion

Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion


Scharfstein describes the extraordinary powers that have been attributed to language everywhere, and then looks at ineffability as it has appeared in the thought of the great philosophical cultures: India, China, Japan, and the West. He argues that there is something of our prosaic, everyday difficulty with words in the ineffable reality of the philosophers and theologians, just as there is something unformulable, and finally mysterious in the prosaic, everyday successes and failures of words.


Frank E. Reynolds

Notions of the all-encompassing power of language and word have been ubiquitous in the history and philosophy of religions. So too, has been a recognition of the inability of language and word to give full expression to the realities that constitute and engage human beings and the world in which they live. These two religiously crucial intellectual options have been formulated in various times and places and in various genres associated with myth, philosophy, and poetry; they have, in various situations, been the focal point of highly sophisticated disagreements and debates; and attempts to reconcile them, both in theory and in relation to practice, have been legion. But the issues that these options raise (either separately or in juxtaposition) remain at the very heart of many contemporary reflections and disputes not only in religion, philosophy, and aesthetics, but in the social and natural sciences as well.

In the present volume, Ben-Ami Scharfstein tackles these perennial issues of language, ineffability, and their relationship in his own very distinctive and illuminating way. Adopting a boldly comparative strategy that combines empirical description and imaginative interpretation, Scharfstein presents "classic examples" of both positions. His examples range over a wide variety of cultures, including especially those of India, China, and the West. What is more, Scharfstein utilizes his carefully honed descriptions and analyses to prepare the way for the presentation of his own insights and conclusions.

Through his empirical descriptions and analyses Scharfstein skillfully constructs a very compelling argument for the pervasive power and necessity of language on the one hand, and for the coexisting impor-

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