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Int J Philos Relig (2009) 65:6576

DOI 10.1007/s11153-008-9178-5

Ineffability investigations: what the later Wittgenstein

has to offer to the study of ineffability
Timothy D. Knepper

Received: 2 February 2008 / Accepted: 6 May 2008 / Published online: 14 June 2008
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Abstract While a considerable amount of effort has been expended in an attempt to

understand Ludwig Wittgensteins enigmatic comments about silence and the mystical at the end of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, very little attention has been paid to
the implications of Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations for the study of ineffability. This paper first argues that, since Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations
problematizes private language, emphasizes the description of actual language use,
and recognizes the rule-governed nature of language, it contains significant implications for the study of ineffability, inviting investigations of the ways in which putative
ineffability actually gets expressed rather than speculation about whether there are ineffable objects or experiences. It then undertakes such an investigation in the Dionysian
corpus, finding therein not only grammatical techniques that express inexpressibility
at the referential, illocutionary, and semiotic levels but also rules that underlie and
govern these techniques. Finally, it shows how a recovery of the ordinary uses of ineffability might help dissolve the metaphysical problem of ineffability, thereby bringing
ineffability back to the everyday.
Keywords Ludwig Wittgenstein Pseudo-Dionysius (Dionysius the Areopagite)
Ineffability Mysticism Religious language Religious experience
It was in my first semester of graduate school that I had the good fortune to register
for both Steven Katzs course in early Jewish mysticism and Juliet Floyds course
in Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations. In the former, I learned that certain
mysticsalbeit a remarkable dearth of Jewish onesclaimed that certain things are

T. D. Knepper (B)
Department of Philosophy and Religion, Drake University, 216 Medbury Hall, Des Moines, IA 50311,



Int J Philos Relig (2009) 65:6576

ineffable; in the latter, that all language, even so-called private language, is rule-governed. At the time this got me wondering: if one wanted to talk about putatively
ineffable things, how might one do so? How might one say what cant be said? What
grammatical techniques would be employed? What rules would govern those grammatical techniques? And if these techniques and rules could be identified, would
anything important thereby be learned?
To me this topic seemed obvious. But I was then, and continue still to be, surprised that it is relatively ignored by scholars of Wittgenstein and mysticism alike.
While a considerable amount of effort has been, and continues still to be, expended
in an effort to understand Ludwig Wittgensteins enigmatic comments about silence
and the mystical in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP), very little attention
has been paid to the implications of Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations (PI)
for the philosophical investigation of ineffability.1 True, Wittgenstein did not directly
address the issue of ineffability in the Philosophical Investigations. But given that the
Philosophical Investigations problematizes private language, emphasizes the need for
philosophers to describe actual language use, and recognizes the rule-governed nature
of language, it contains significant implications for the study of ineffability and also
gives reason to believe that the later Wittgenstein may have thought differently about
By private language, Wittgenstein tells us he means a language in which words
refer to immediate private sensation that can only be known to the person speaking
and not to anyone else (Wittgenstein 2001, 243). In the words of P.M.S. Hacker, such
a language is essentially, not contingently, private (Hacker 1990, p. 3). But if it is so
private, claims Wittgenstein, then its speaker would be able neither to identify nor to
re-identify her experiences. For, as Wittgenstein says in PI 261, identification of an
experience (as such-and-such) requires the use of public categories:
What reason have we for calling S the sign for a sensation? For sensation is
a word of our common language, not of one intelligible to me alone. So the use
of this word stands in need of a justification which everybody understands.
And it would not help either to say that it need not be a sensation; that when he
writes S, he has somethingand that is all that can be said. Has and something also belong to our common language.So in the end when one is doing
philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.But such a sound is an expression only as it occurs in a particular
language-game, which should now be described.
And, as Wittgenstein suggests in PI 262, re-identification requires the use of public
criteria of similarity:

1 For surveys of both the older ineffabilist reading of TLP and the more recent therapeutic or resolute

reading of TLP, both of which turn in large part on an interpretation of Wittgensteins enigmatic comments
about silence and the mystical at the end of TLP, see Hutchinson and Read (2006). See also the therapeutic
readings of TLP in Crary and Read (2000). For recent treatments of Wittgensteins philosophy of religion
that underscore his enigmatic comments about silence and the mystical in TLP but ignore the implications
of PI for the philosophical investigation of ineffability, see Barrett (1991) and Clack (1999).


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It might be said: if you have given yourself a private definition of a word, then
you must inwardly undertake to use the word in such-and-such a way. And how
do you undertake that? Is it to be assumed that you invent the technique of using
the word; or that you found it ready-made?
Now although these Wittgensteinian investigations of private language arent directed
against the claim that mystical experience is ineffable, they do fit this case. If mystical
experiences are entirely unmediated and absolutely ineffableas is often argued by
their exponents and proponents2then they are essentially (not contingently) private,
absolutely (not partially) incommunicable. But if they are essentially private, then they
cannot be identified and re-identified as absolutely ineffable, since ineffability is a public category and judgments of ineffability require public criteria of similarity. Instead,
the later Wittgenstein might say that the claim that some experience is ineffable is a
grammatical claim (rather than an empirical one).3 Put differently, Wittgenstein might
agree with Wayne Proudfoots assertion that ineffability is a rule that governs a certain
discourse about religious experience (rather than a phenomenological characteristic
of that experience).4
The later Wittgenstein might also say that, since mystics typically do not pass over
in silence that which they claim they cannot speak about, philosophers of religion can
and should describe the ways in which mystics attempt to say what cant be said. Here
Wittgensteins comments about description and explanation in PI 109 are pertinent:
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.
And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved,
rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such away as to
make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them.
Such description, however, is not an end in itself. Rather, Wittgenstein counsels philosophers to describe the actual use of language in order to bring words back from the
metaphysical to their everyday use (Wittgenstein 2001, 116). Description is therefore something like a first step in late-Wittgensteinian therapya necessary means
of becoming aware of and learning to control our constant temptation to misconstrue
the ordinary. Here I think we have both a prospect and a problem for the study of ineffability discourse. The prospect seems obvious enough: instead of trying to explain
the experiential foundations of ineffability discourse, instead of attempting to ascertain whether mystical experience is actually ineffable, philosophers of religion should
seek simply to describe the ways in which mystics actually speak about putatively
ineffable objects and experiences. But the problem here involves what seems to be the
oxymoronic notion of the ordinary use of ineffability. How, really, can philosophers of
religion bring back ineffability from its metaphysical use to its ordinary use? And
can they clear up metaphysical misconceptions of ineffability by doing so? These are
2 See especially Stace (1960) and Forman (1999).
3 See (Wittgenstein 2001, 251, 295, 371, 373). For comparison to the grammar of intentions and sensa-

tions, see 247, 248.

4 See especially Proudfoot (1985).



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difficult questions, ones that cannot be properly answered until at least a few actual
descriptions of ineffability-use are in place, ones that will therefore be deferred until
the end of this paper.
Prior to this restoration of ineffability is not only the description of the grammatical
techniques of ineffability but also the identification of the linguistic rules that underlie
and make possible such techniques. This later investigation draws on Wittgensteins
recognition that language is rule-governed. But while Wittgenstein indicates on the
one hand that linguistic rules are established publicly and obeyed as a matter of custom
and training (Wittgenstein 2001, 198, 199, 201, 202, 206, 219), he suggests on the
other hand that rules are not rigid and inflexiblethey do not clearly circumscribe
and regulate, and they do not absolutely determine future use (Wittgenstein 2001,
68, 69, 193, 194). Here lie two more important insights for the study of ineffability.
On the first hand, ineffability discourses are governed by socially established rules
rules that, ironically, make it possible to speak about what cannot be spoken about.
On the second hand, however, such rules do not straightjacket authors of ineffability
discourses such that they are unable to go against them. In fact, the expression of
inexpressibility seems to require at least some measure of rule-resistanceanother
point that I will need to defer until a description of some techniques and rules of
ineffability is in place.
For all three of these reasonsthe critique of private language, the emphasis on
description, and the recognition of rulesit is likely that the later Wittgenstein did
think differently about ineffability. However, even if this were not the case, these reasons are still good reasons for taking Wittgensteins later philosophy as an invitation
to think differently about ineffability. Such thinking differently in this case requires
questioning differently. Instead of asking whether there are ineffable objects or experiences, philosophers of religion should be asking how putatively ineffable objects or
experiences are expressed.5 Or, to put this question into quasi-Wittgensteinian speak,
instead of asking whether one must pass over such objects and experiences in silence,
philosophers of religion should be asking how one plays a language game with a
term that is taken to denote an ineffable object or experience. Not only is such an
approach faithful to the spirit of the later Wittgenstein, but it is also more tractable
and fruitful. Whereas the phenomenological content of mystical experience is not
accessible to scholars, at least not in the prelinguistic way that it would need to
be in order to resolve the traditional question of ineffability, the linguistic expression
of inexpressibility is.6 And whereas reports of supposedly ineffable experiences are
always inextricably bound to public categories in such a way that renders it impossible to determine whether these experiences are actually ineffable, these reports can be
cross-culturally compared in such a way as to bring some understanding of the similar
and different ways in which humans attempt to speak about that which they claim is
To give some idea of what such a Wittgensteinian investigation of ineffabilitydiscourse might involve, I will attempt just such an investigation here. And I will do

5 I am indebted here to Sells (1994).

6 By the traditional question of ineffability, I mean Are mystical experiences ineffable?


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so in the corpus of the sixth-century Christian Neoplatonist known as PseudoDionysius, a body of literature that not only is arguably the first rigorously apophatic
work in the history of Western philosophy but also contains some of the most creative
strategies for expressing divine inexpressibility.7 To locate these strategies, it is first
necessary to know both where and how to look. Regarding where to look, the speech
act naturally divides the field into three sites: referring acts within the speech act; illocutionary acts at the speech act, and symbol systems above the speech act. Regarding
how to look, linguistic rules of ordinary discourse greatly assist in the identification of
grammatical techniques of inexpressibility expression insofar as such expressions are
frequently at odds with such rules. The below investigation of Dionysian ineffability
discourse will therefore draw on three sets of linguistic rules, one for each of these
three linguistic sites: John Searles rules of reference within the speech act, Searles
rules of illocutionary force at the speech act, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnsons
notion of primary metaphors above the speech act.
Within the speech act, the most prominent of Dionysius techniques are what I will
call hyper-predication and negation. Although Dionysius hyper-prefixes many different types of terms, particularly pertinent here are the intelligible properties sourced by
the divine names.8 Sometimes Dionysius hyper-prefixes these properties one-by-one,
for example in the very opening line of the Mystical Theology where Trinity is identified as hyper-being, hyper-god, and hyper-good (MT 1.1, 997A). Other times, however,
Dionysius cuts to the chase, so to speak, hyper-prefixing all such properties at once,
as in Divine Names 5.8 where God is called hyper all as hyper-beingly hyper-being
before all (DN 5.8, 824B). Given the standard translation of the Greek hyper as the
English beyond, this grammatical technique serves to remove God from the domain
of identifiable entities, thereby thwarting reference to God. If God is beyond all the
properties sourced by the divine names, then God cannot be identified as something in
particular. And if God cannot be identified as something in particular, then, according
to Searles theory of reference, God cannot be referred to (Searle 1969, p. 88).9 The
same holds true for at least one form of Dionysian negation, aphairesis, Dionysius

7 Although the author of the Dionysian corpus claimed to be the first-century Dionysius the Areopagite

who converted to Christianity after hearing the apostle Pauls sermon about the unknown God (Acts 17:34),
twentieth-century scholarship has been able to date the Dionysian corpus to the late-fifth/early-sixth century
(and therefore refers to the author of the corpus as Pseudo-Dionysius). The Dionysian corpus itself is composed of four treatisesCelestial Hierarchy (CH), Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH), Divine Names (DN), and
Mystical Theology (MT)and ten epistles (EP). Due to the literal inaccuracy of Colm Luibheids Paulist
Press translation of the Dionysian corpus (Pseudo-Dionysius 1987), I have translated all quoted passages
from the Dionysian corpus directly from the critical edition of the Dionysian corpus (Pseudo-Dionysius
1990, 1991) in a way that makes them more literal but unfortunately therefore less readable. In doing so, I
have consulted the translations of both Luibheid and John D. Jones (Pseudo-Dionysius 1980).
8 Note that Dionysian divine names are not primarily names. Rather, they are divine powers that source
intelligible properties to participating beings. Only because of this can these properties be hymned of
God (either positively or negatively). For more on Dionysian divine names, see my forthcoming Three
Misuses of Dionysius for Comparative Theology.
9 Searles theory of reference holds that (singular definite) referring expressions succeed insofar as they
pick out or identify some particular object by means of an identifying description. Note that predicate
expressions also serve as a means of identifying the referent and therefore are taken here as a type of
identifying description.



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method of hymning God by removing properties from God.10 At its most rigorous
and systematicfor example in the final two chapters of the Mystical Theology (MT
45)aphairesis turns away property after property, thereby indicating that nothing
may be used to identify, and therefore refer to, God. Dionysius second key term
for negation, however, suggests a different interpretation of these negative terms, for
according to the logic of apophasis, such terms, when applied to God, should be interpreted preeminently (hyperochically) rather than privatively (steretically) or lackingly

It is customary for theologians to negate (o)

the things of privation

with respect to God. Thus, scripture calls the all-shining
light invisible (o o), and that which is greatly-hymned and many-named
ineffable (o) and unnamable (o),

and that which is present in

all things and discoverable from all things incomprehensible (o)

and inscrutable (o).11 (DN 7.1, 865BC)
But as I have often said, one must understand the divine divinely. For one must
arrange in order non-intellect (o) and non-sensibility (o) to God
and not in terms of lack ().12
in terms of preeminence (o

(DN 7.2, 869A)
These passages suggest that, when Dionysius writes not-p, what Dionysius in fact
means is preeminently-p, excessively-p, perhaps even the paradoxical more-p-thanmost-p. And the same is again true for hyper, though this time under a different
translation. For if hyper is translated as the English above or overand it most reasonably canthen it connotes the state of having something in excessive measure
(rather than the state of being beyond or across something, as in the first meaning
of hyper above).13 Despite this ambiguity, however, all of these techniques serve the
same referential endthat of frustrating the identification of God by removing God
from the domain of identifiable things. Thus, although hyper-predication and negation
convey, on the one hand, a sense of being utterly separated from something and, on
10 When translating from the Dionysian corpus, I have translated aphairesis as removal and apophasis
as negation (as seems to be common translational practice outside of Dionysian studies); however, I have
tried to leave these terms untranslated in the main body of the paper so that the English term negation can
function inclusively of both of them. For more on aphairesis and apophasis in the Dionysian corpus, see
my forthcoming Not Not: The Method and Logic of Dionysian Negation.
11 Note that half of Dionysius (eight) uses of apophasis either contrast it with steresis or elleipsis or

compare it to hyperoche (Cf., EP 4, 1072B; MT 1.2, 1000B).

12 Cf., EP 1, 1065A, which, like DN 7.2, 869A, does not employ the term apophasis but does argue against

a steretic or elleiptic interpretation and for a hyperochic interpretation of negative terms.

13 The ninth edition of Liddell and Scott lists the following meanings for hyper (when used with an accusative prepositional object): (I) Of place (in reference to motion): over, beyond; (II) Of measure: above,
exceeding, beyond; (III) Of number: above, upwards; (IV) Of time: beyond (i.e., before, earlier than); (V)
In some dialects: on behalf of, concerning. At least two different spatial relations seem to be conveyed
here: a sense of being over or above something (vertical height); and a sense of being beyond or across
something (horizontal distance). Moreover, these different spatial relations suggest two different logical
meanings: in the first case, an overflowing measure of something; in the second case, a complete separation
from something.


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the other hand, a sense of possessing something to a greater degree than the highest
possible degree, both senses thwart reference to God by taking away those things that
humans might use to identify God. These are two Dionysian strategies for expressing
inexpressibility within the speech act.
At the level of the speech act itself, Dionysius utilizes less frequent though equally
interesting grammatical strategies to express divine inexpressibility. Here I focus on
just two of these techniques, ineffability assertion and ineffability hyperbole. Ineffability assertionthe simple assertion of the ineffability of Godcomes in a number
of different variations. In some cases Dionysius asserts alpha-prefixed terms such as
unnamable (anonumos), ineffable (arretos), and unspeakable (aphthegktos) of God. In
other cases Dionysius denies positive terms such as name (onoma) and speech (logos)
of God. And in still other cases, for example the very last chapter of the Mystical
Theology, Dionysius denies the methods of position (thesis) and removal (aphairesis)
of God:
There is neither position nor removal () of it at all. Making positions
and removals () of what comes after it, we neither posit nor remove

of it, since it is hyper all position, being the perfect and sin
gular cause of all, and hyper all removal (`
), being the
preeminent absolutely free of all and beyond the whole.14 (MT 5, 1048AB)
All these instances of ineffability assertion play a crucial role in the Dionysian corpus,
culminating the removal of individual properties from God by denying all position
and removal of God whatsoever. But while this technique seems perfectly intelligible on this account, it is technically self-defeating, according to Searle, since its
illocutionary point of assertion cannot be achieved on its propositional content of
unassertability (Searle and Vanderveken 1985, pp. 151152).15 The assertion that
one cannot name or speak about God is itself a naming and speaking about God;
the removal of removal is itself a removal. And Dionysius second illocutionary
techniqueineffability hyperbole, the assertion that God is hyper name and speech,
hyper position and removal, hyper even ineffability itselfencounters not only this
very same difficulty but also an additional difficulty engendered by the ambiguity of
hyper. For while the assertion that God is hyper effability probably means that God
is beyond effability (rather than preeminently effable), the assertion that God is hyper
ineffability seems to mean that God is preeminently ineffable (rather than not ineffable). Nevertheless, the overall meaning is in both cases the same: God cannot be
spoken of since God is on the one hand beyond effability, on the other hand preeminently ineffable. And this overall meaning is again technically self-defeating since
Dionysius is again speaking about that which Dionysius claims cannot be spoken.

14 Note that this passage not only denies thesis and aphairesis of God but also asserts that God is hyper

thesis and aphairesis. The latter claim will be discussed later in this paragraph.
15 According to Searle, any single speech act is self-defeating if (1) the illocutionary point cannot be

achieved on the propositional content, (2) the illocutionary point cannot be achieved with the required
mode of achievement of the illocutionary force on the propositional content, (3) the propositional content
is inadequate, (4) the preparatory conditions are impossible to presuppose, (5) the psychological state is
impossible to express.



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These are two Dionysian strategies for expressing inexpressibility at the level of the
speech act.
And at the level above the speech act (i.e., the sign-system), Dionysius employs
both conflictive visual metaphors and conflictive spatial metaphors to symbolize the
dwelling of God.16 Although Dionysius frequently uses metaphors of darkness to symbolize the inscrutability of God, Dionysius is very clear that this darkness should not
be understood as a privation of light.17 Darkness, rather, is a preeminence of light
light so bright that it renders unknowable the God who dwells in it. Dionysius God
is therefore so unknowable that God dwells in luminous darknessdarkness so dark
that it is paradoxically brilliant, light so brilliant that it is paradoxically dark. This is
nowhere more clearly said than in Epistle 5:
The divine darkness is the unapproachable light in which it is said God
lives, being invisible through its preeminent (

o) brightness, and
` hyper-being gift of light.
being unapproachable through its excess (o

(EP 5, 1073A)
This is the conflictive visual metaphor God dwells in luminous darkness. Its tension lies in three common experiences: although excessive darkness and excessive
light both inhibit seeing, these contrary states never obtain at one and the same time
and in one and the same way. Implicitly drawing upon the primary metaphor knowing is seeing, Dionysius can therefore convey the preeminent unknowability of God
through the paradoxical conjunction of two contradictory extensions of this metaphor:
unknowing is excessive darkness, and unknowing is excessive light.18 This conflictive visual metaphor is then incorporated into one of Dionysius spatial metaphors for
Gods dwellingthe divine mountain, the apex of which is enshrouded in luminous
darkness. Although scattered throughout the corpus, this metaphor is most frequent
in Mystical Theology: the opening prayer asks God to guide Christians to the hyperunknown and hyper-brilliant highest summit of mystical scripture where the simple,
absolute, and unchanged mysteries of theology are veiled by the hyper-light darkness
of hidden silence (MT 1.1, 997AB); the first chapter later describes Moses as one
who, having made the ascent up the divine mountain, enters into the truly mystical
darkness of unknowing, in which he shuts out every knowing apprehension and is
united surpassingly to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge
(MT 1.3, 1000D-1001A); and the remaining four chapters first describe and then per16 I say above the speech act or at the level of the sign-system since these conflictive metaphors are
usually produced by tensions between speech acts (rather than within speech acts).
17 See, for example, MT 1.2, MT 1.3, MT 2, EP 1.
18 According to Lakoff and Johnson, knowing is seeing is one of perhaps hundreds of primary meta-

phors, which are widespread if not universal means of understanding and speaking about abstract concepts
by systematically structuring them in accordance with concrete bodily experiences (Lakoff and Johnson
1999, pp. 4559). As such, knowing is seeing possesses both a gestalt, which bestows internal coherence upon abstract concepts by structuring them in accordance with the natural dimensions of bodily
experience, and several entailments, which bestow external coherence upon abstract concepts by interconnecting them to other concepts through overlapping experiential implications (Lakoff and Johnson 1980,
pp. 7786, 8796). In the case of the Dionysian metaphor God dwells in luminous darkness, two of these
extensionsunknowing is unseeing due to excessive darkness, unknowing is unseeing due to excessive
lightare experientially incompatible.


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form the ascent from last things to first things through the removal of perceptible
symbols and divine names from God (MT 25). What is conflictive about these (and
other) uses of the mountain metaphor is that they represent God as dwelling in what
would normally be considered spatially inconsistent locationseverywhere, on high,
and nowhere. Although God is the entire divine mountain, dwelling everywhere by
virtue of the divine names that process intelligible properties to beings, God dwells
on the summit of the divine mountain, calling beings to ascend thereto. And although
beings may ascend to the divine summit by removing perceptible symbols and divine
names from God in order of accuracy, what they find when they arrive there is a
cloud of unknowing that not only renders all of these names equally inaccurate
but also removes God from any knowable spatial location. Here Dionysius draws on
two mutually inconsistent metaphorical extensions of height.19 On the one hand, the
primary metaphor up is more suggests that, as one ascends the divine mountain, one
encounters things that are more and more divine and finally encounters the God who
possess all of these things; on the other hand, the primary metaphor up is unknown
suggests that, when one finally reaches the apex of the divine mountain, one encounters
not a superabundant divinity but nothing at all. Dionysius seems to want his mountain
metaphor to convey all of these possibilitiesdivine omnipresence, hierarchy, and
obscurity. Hence, it is, like the metaphor of luminous darkness, conflictive. These are
two Dionysian strategies for expressing inexpressibility above the speech act.
Having described several of Dionysius grammatical techniques for expressing divine inexpressibility, a later-Wittgenstein-inspired investigation of ineffability next
unearths the rules that underlie and make possible such techniques. Three such rules,
one for each of the levels of grammatical techniques above, immediately suggest
themselves. Within the speech act itself, Dionysian reference and predication is governed by the rule: Identify God as that which cannot be identified. At the level of the
speech act, Dionysian illocution is governed by the rule: Speak of God as that which
cannot be spoken. And at the level of the symbol system, Dionysian symbolization
is governed by the rule: Symbolize God as that which cannot be symbolized. These
rules, however, represent a rather shallow and unsophisticated way of reading the corpus, one that fails to recognize that the Dionysian God is not simply unidentifiable,
ineffable, and unsymbolizable. On the one hand, Dionysius God is identifiable, effable, and symbolizable insofar as God both is and is the source of the divine names
that process intelligible properties to beings. On the other hand, Dionysius God is
not even unidentifiable, ineffable, and unsymbolizable insofar as God is hyper even the
binary categories of un/identifiable, in/effable, and un/symbolizable. A Wittgensteinian
analysis of Dionysian grammatical rules differentiates these respects, distinguishing
the ways in which Dionysius God is identifiable, effable, and symbolizable; is not
identifiable, effable, and symbolizable; and is not even unidentifiable, ineffable, and
unsymbolizable. Here, however, since the first two of these positions seem clear enough
19 According to Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphors more is up and unknown is up have a very different

experiential basis (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, p. 21). The primary experience of the metaphor more is up
is the observation of rising and falling levels of piles and fluids as more is added or subtracted (Lakoff
and Johnson 1999, p. 51). The primary experience of the metaphor unknown is up is that of finding it easier
to grasp something and look at it if it is on the ground (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, p. 54).



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(given the explication of Dionysian techniques above), I reserve my comments for the
claim that God is not even or hyper ineffable. Immediately below I offer two explanations of it, each of which draws on one of the senses of hyper explicated above and
returns to one of the Wittgensteinian issues deferred above.
When Dionysius says that God is hyper ineffable, Dionysius first of all seems to be
saying that the binary opposition in/effable is a category mistake with respect to God.
We might imagine Dionysius saying this in opposition to the claim that, if Dionysius
asserts that God is ineffable, then Dionysius has predicated the property of ineffability
of God and thereby belied his assertion that God is ineffable. Dionysius assertion that
God is hyper ineffable therefore functions as a ratcheting up of the dialectic of transcendence. The problem with this ratcheting move, however, is that it too predicates
a property of Godin this case, the property of being beyond the binary opposition
in/effabilityand so it too must be negated. This is a process that can never really
end, a game that can never finally be won, for it is technically impossible to say what
cant be said. But it is also a game that is never really lost since the ineffability of God
does get conveyed in this relentless ratcheting. (Thus it would be overly-simplistic to
pronounce that Dionysius either succeeds or fails to say what cant be said.) Another
way of putting all this is in terms of rule violation and obedience: grammatical techniques that violate certain rules are governed by other rules, which in turn are violated
by other techniques, which in turn are governed by still other rules. Here, Wittgenstein,
despite his apparent belief that religion is a hopeless running against the boundaries
of language (Wittgenstein 1993, p. 44), gives us a model of sorts for an analysis of
rule codification and resistance in his investigations of the linguistic phenomena of
going against rules and making up and altering rules as we go along (Wittgenstein
2001, 201, 83). Although all language is rule-governed, such rules do not prevent
authors and speakers from going against them, altering them, and making up new rules.
The attempt to express inexpressibility, in fact, requires relentless rule resistance. But
every act of rule resistance is itself an act of rule creation and obedience. This is the
dialectic and paradox of negative theology.
When Dionysius says that God is hyper ineffable, Dionysius might also be read as
saying simply that God is really preeminently transcendent and therefore really unlike
anything humans can think or say. Although this at odds with the usual interpretations
of the Dionysian corpus, it is supported both by Dionysius many assertions about the
nature and operation of God and by a Wittgensteinian recovery of the ordinary uses of
ineffability. Now, let me first say that I am again uncertain what Wittgenstein would
have made of an attempt at recovering the ordinary uses of ineffability. Nevertheless,
I again believe that there are good reasons for taking Wittgenstein as invitation to such
a project, not least of which is the fact that the goal of philosophy for the later Wittgenstein is that of dissolving so-called philosophical problems by bringing words
back to their everyday use (Wittgenstein 2001, 116, 122, 133). And what are the
everyday uses of ineffability? Three readily come to mind: hyperbolic ineffability, the
claim that something is possessed in so great a measure as to be ineffable; experiential
ineffability, the inability to put certain experiences into words, especially intense or
complex experiences that flood the senses all at once; and protective ineffability, the
reluctance to put certain things into words due to the belief that doing so somehow
distorts or sullies them. How does this description of the ordinary language of inef-


Int J Philos Relig (2009) 65:6576


fability help to dissolve the metaphysical problem of ineffability? It helps to cure us

of the temptation to misconstrue ordinary experiences of relative ineffability for the
metaphysical notion that certain things are absolutely ineffable. It helps to cure us of
the temptation to reify that which is simply difficult or undesirable to articulate. In the
case of the Dionysian corpus, then, it helps us see that, despite Dionysius claim that
God is ineffable, Dionysius has plenty to say about the nature of God, most importantly that God is the source of all (by means of non-arbitrary divine names). (Note
that this must be true even if God is beyond the categories of being.) Dionysius God
simply cannot be absolutely ineffable.20 And therefore Dionysius claim that God is
hyper ineffable should be read as something like the attempt to indicate divine transcendence through creative linguistic hyperbole. Dionysius God is so preeminently
transcendent, so unlike anything that humans can say or think, that God is not only
ineffable but also hyper ineffable.
These are the contributions that the later Wittgenstein makes to the study of
ineffabilitya problematization of mysticisms private language, an emphasis on
the description of ineffability discourse, an appreciation for rule obedience and violation in ineffability discourse, and a call to return ineffability to the ordinary. Whether
these contributions are ones that conflict with Wittgensteins enigmatic comments
about silence and the mystical in TLP of course turns on how these comments are
interpreted. Nevertheless, it is at least clear that these contributions go beyond those
of TLP.

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20 Relevant here is David Humes claim in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Hume 1985) that
if on the one hand God is absolutely ineffable then there is nothing at all that one can say about God, and
if on the other hand God is more likely this rather than that (e.g., benevolent rather than malevolent) then
God is not absolutely ineffable.



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