Random thoughts on random topics

Lingyin temple, Hangzhou

Ineffability and judgment

Why would the ineffability of ethics preclude ethical judgments? Of course, if we construct ‘judgment’ as ‘meaningful proposition’ the answer is obvious, but we do not need to do that. Couldn’t a judgment take on a different form, say that of an action, or an attitude? Or do we lack objective criteria for two such judgments to be the same, i.e., wouldn’t we be able to decide whether we agreed on the ethical aspect of an action unless we were able to discuss it? But why would that be the case? (And why think that the ability to discuss does come with any guarantee?)

Although the mark of a happy life can not be expressed, it must be an intrinsic aspect of our actions, not something over and above them. And that suggests that it is accessible even though it is ineffable. In general the question whether we need a verbally explicit statement of ethical principles must be distinguished from the question whether there can be such a statement. For if the answer to the first is negative, the answer to the second becomes immaterial from an ethical point of view. Whether we can do without verbalisations presumably depends on whether other means of conveying ethical principles are available. Would poetry, music, action itself, qualify?

Could we say that the ‘experiences of the second kind’ that Wittgenstein mentions in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ (i.e., not experiences of facts in the world, but experiences that pertain to the world as such), although ineffable, do have an intersubjective potential? I.e., they point towards similar experiences other people may have had in virtue of which they are able to understand what Wittgenstein is aiming at? That would go beyond the mere recognition of other subjects as willing subjects, since it would actually differentiate between people, and could be the basis of moral conversation (instruction, etc.)

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2004

Random thoughts on random topics

Sliema, Malta


There is an interesting parallel between Davidson’s arguments against the analysis of metaphor in terms of simile, and Wittgenstein’s way of arguing that religious expressions are not similes in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’. In both cases the point is that something ineffable is explained in terms of something that is expressible, or to put it differently, that something that does not have cognitive content is equated with something that has. Essentially, it is the distinction between showing and saying that is at stake in both cases.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2001