A Theory of Ineffability

Dissertation, University of Toronto (Canada) (1981)

This thesis takes as its aim the development of a theory of mind which allows the explanation and justification of ineffability claims in the context of mystical experience. Such an account, if it is to be useful, cannot start from the assumption that cognitive experience can be partitioned into linguistically accessible and inaccessible domains; it must, rather, be an independently defensible theory which makes such a division natural, and which locates mystical experience in the latter region. The approach which I adopt involves enlarging the data base to include other cases of alleged ineffability in the hope that by conjoining the content of those experiences with that of mystical experience, a general pattern will emerge. The cases considered comprise claims made by artists, claims made on behalf of prelinguistic children, and claims made with respect to the representational capacities of formal languages. ;The structure of the argument is as follows: ;A critical examination of extant theories reveals that none is fully satisfactory; but that an approach grounded in empirical psychology is more likely to yield understanding than one which focusses on purely semantic analysis of mystical utterances. Many things which mystics and writers say about their experiences suggest that their conscious mental activity may, at times, be of a non-standard type--one characterized by a non-logical organization of thought, an absence of a sense of self, and ineffability. These features also characterize a type of mental activity, which Freud distinguished for independent reasons, and which he termed 'primary process'. ;However, Freud's standardly recognized descriptions of this type of mental activity provide no explanation for why this conjunction of characteristics occurs. I suggest that a functional account of primary process in terms of the schematic neurophysiology of Freud's 'Project' may provide the answers needed. To remedy deficiencies in the 'Project' itself, considerations from Piagetian developmental psychology are introduced. The resulting theory is a co-ordination of several different levels of psychological, empirical, and philosophical investigation. ;I note a superficial structural similarity between the resulting account of mystical ineffability claims and many accounts of ineffability in the domain of formal semantics; but there proves to be no significant isomorphism at the level of explanation and justification of such claims. I conclude that ineffable experience in the psychological domain results from conscious access to a type of mental activity which occurs when the neurophysiological organization whose subjective side is a phenomenological 'sense of self' dissolves
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