Franco De Crescentis
The Ineffable Silence
We face the world in a silence. Each of us a body equipped with carnal powers which shine a light on the landscape of meaning we are born into. Our perception is primary; it has been the source of meaning from the beginning. It is the access to truth because it is primary. Words are the vehicles of what does not know how to speak, and yet it is there behinds all things said. This is the carnal experience of the world and all its lights. The texture of the world that we each experience in our everyday life is incapable of a true duplication. It cannot be described or explicated by any stretch of our language without still being only a second version of it; that is, not the actual lived through texture of it. Our attempts to explain it fail because what ‘it’ is - is always something other than what we say it is; whatever we call it is only a measure of substitution to make it understandable. The carnal texture of the moment is without equivalent and may even be called ineffable. It is impossible for us to grasp the medium we aim to grasp because we approach it from that same medium; any attempt to circumscribe a moment when we were totally involved in the world is a failed attempt because we are, in that moment when we attempt it, also totally involved in the world. When we do this we are in a sense, begging the very question. Before the world as we experience it is instituted into words there is a mute world.
This is where our actual living in the world takes place. It must then be the origin of all truth, and also truth’s original origin therefore it must itself be the most paramount truth of all! ‘Truth’ as we once knew it, may not be the truth at all or where we have placed it may not be where it ought to have been placed. When we speak of truth we mean it as in truth of things as they really are. The only place we will find things as they really are is here; in the on-going moment, in our encounters with the flesh of the world, or in the carnal texture of things like love, anger, light, sound and all the various things of which give life to our inner domain. What is most real and most true, we will find, is also what is most mysterious.
In terms of our brute contact with the world all of us have the same sort of setup, in that each of us is a body that is, beneath its skin, a living incarnation or embodiment of the living system of meaning that the world gives us and that we have acquired over time. The living system of meaning is the sedimentation of ideas into things, all brought together as a wholeness of wholes for the gaze of a perceiver. In our lived experience of the world each of us are like the tip of the spike of a fleeting arrow of the present which, does not fly through a void, alone and in nothingness, but tears through the wind of a living world of meaning with the momentum and resonance of the past. Thus, pure being in the world is the only truth.
Anything postulated as an ‘objective’ truth turns out to be a contrived, arbitrary notion that is a result of an over-zealous reflective consciousness and leads us on a path towards much confusion. This path leads to such unnecessary distinctions as subject and object, soul and body, or ‘res cogitans’ and ‘res extensa’. But before reflection we are aware of no such distinctions. In our natural approach to the world we are perceivers before we are thinkers. Descartes ‘I think’ is given to us only by way of abstraction that is founded on our perception. Reflection turns away from perception and sees ourselves and others as different ‘points of view’ on the world and runs into a contradiction when it learns that there could never be more than one consciousness that constitutes the world and this is absurd. Our vision on the world however, passes over this contradiction and complies with common sense because in the pre-reflective it is taken as banal that each of us has our own consciousness. All of these ‘objective’ truths amount only to a second-ordered notion of the true flesh of being. Truth lies in the in what is concrete; what is first-order. And this is can only be primordial perception where all meaning is grounded and which precedes reflection in kind of animated silence.
The silence is animated because it is filled with words. There is a communication of things in the world and our minds because everything that is visible has a name and a meaning that is layered on the world and composes the veil before our eyes. The phenomena in our vision thus provide us with statements and questions which elicit our responses. The things in our world speak to us and provide us with thought and we respond with our behaviour towards them in a straightforward way. All things visible to us have their own dimension of ideas, with which we are surrounded by in our lived experience of the world that is itself a wholeness of these wholes. It is the entire interrogatory interplay of the dimensions of ideas that manifest as one single context and one single world that is the center of the entire universe of ideas that we live and move around in spontaneously (1).
We play a part in this world, and have a conversation with it. We don’t just mindlessly react to stimuli but rather our responses are elicited by a sort of question posed by our milieu, by the situation and one’s experiential data that has been acquired from being in the world i.e. one’s life. The meaning that is superimposed on the world that we see is not distinct from that which we see, rather it is its invisible core and without it, we couldn’t see at all. The world we are thrown into is system of meaning that we inherit in ourselves, embody, and make a part of us. It forms our eyes and gives us our vision.
To be a perceiver is to be an incarnation of the system of meaning by the forming of a sediment of acquired meanings. Sedimentation is the settling of cultural ideas into things. It creates a world of thought for-us, composed of a layered sedimentation of all the monuments of our history of mental processes. This sedimentation allows us to rely on our acquired judgements and meanings of the past just as we can rely on things that are before us. It is like our panoramic view or veil that gives us our vision on the world. Never being a completed process but one that is constantly changing with each new experience. Our present experiences and thoughts augment the meaning of our past which in return revises or updates the meaning of the present. The present always has with it the presence of the past.
Our sedimentation enriches our present consciousness and enables things to offer us meaning and by just our looking at them. The meaning shown to us by things is not a result our adding concepts on to objects that requires an effort of synthesizing the various elements in order for them to be seen or understood but rather the meanings are properties of the objects themselves (2). The world shows itself to us as a universe of Gestalt forms; that is to say that there is cognition of the world at the level of perception. All things have their un-detachable logic or reasonableness that is given to our understanding as soon as our gaze meets by the stratification of the world measured by the retained meaning of our past perceptions. Our eyes are set upon a horizon; the entire landscape of meaning in the world. This horizon is itself a type of being, a living system of “potentiality of consciousness” (3). We stand before it and are completely caught up in it; being a part of it and totally involved with it.
Before we are thinkers, before we can reflect, we perceive an immanent reason in all things. Our nature of embodiment forces us to see the meaning. We are all condemned to this meaning in a sense because we simply can’t see the world without that meaning being attached to what we see. It is the living encounter of our glance with the things in the world that the world itself solicits. We stand before a landscape of words; there is a ‘variant of speech before our eyes’ (4) where cognizing occurs as easy as blinking and, just like blinking, occurs voluntarily and involuntarily. This amounts to a sort of conversation between the dialectic and the forms of the world.
This is the nature of our being in the world, that is, of our being here, right now. Naturised consciousness is a perceiving consciousness that lives amongst a great spectacle of meaning that shouts its words out at us (or sometimes whispers) and we don’t hesitate to respond. Phenomena are identified with words for us. We perceive phenomena and know them by their name. Hence why we cannot place what something is so long as we cannot remember its name (5). The world and that which shows itself to us is only measurable in terms of that which is possible for us to say about it. For example, take the experience of a pain. In describing a pain we are limited in what we can say about it (in the way there is a limited amount of words offered to us) to make it known for others and ourselves. We use terms to describe our pain like a ‘sharp’ or ‘stinging’ sensation. The words and meaning that are summoned when we express a phenomenon is the meaning and words that that phenomenon offers us. We feel something and immediately identify it with pain and can describe it further as the sharp or stinging kind. In doing so we believe that with our words, the meaning of the phenomenon is duplicated and in principle anyone who hears us describe our pain knows what it would feel like and understands us. We can only recognize some thing by knowing its name. A things name, and the meaning that comes along with it, is recognizable to anyone who shares the same sort of cultural sedimentation. We can also only recognize our own thought process by putting it into an expression. Our speech is our thought; they are indiscernible (6). We are ignorant of our own thoughts and ideas until we have responded to their mute statements by our behaviour; that is by gestural expression or speech. It is the expressing of our thoughts to others or to ourselves that make our thoughts known to us. ‘Speech in the speaker does not translate ready-made thought, but accomplishes it’ (7). It is without any effort that we use language to reach the silence and duplicate or substitute with words, what it is saying to us without.
This sedimentation of meanings which are available to perception constitutes the invisible. They form a transparent layer on the things we see in our vision; they hide behind them like ghost that we feel the presence of but do not see. The invisible must not be understood as some contrary entity of the visible but rather as its ‘lining and depth’ (8). The invisible is the idea or existential meaning that is the depth of everything visible. A sign becomes part of the sediment in one’s culture when it comes to be related to an experiential meaning. Thus each object we see has a layer of existential significance.
For example, a cup is for me to drink out of, a car is for me to drive. Every phenomenon has its existential character attached to it and is hidden from our vision. Our behaviour towards phenomena thus sheds some light on the invisible aspect of things. The invisible is, for example, the ‘unknown force’ that calls a certain mode of behaviour towards a cup, or rather, what makes thing a cup and not a baseball. It is impossible to recall when I learnt what a cup was for or rather how to appropriate my behaviour towards it in order to use it. But this mode of behaviour towards the cup comes straightforwardly without any question. I feel thirsty and without any attentive thinking process I reach for the cup and take a sip. My behaviour towards the cup sheds light on the invisible. The invisible are the ideas hidden behind the sensible. Like the idea that makes the cup’s use for me indistinguishable from it being just an object. The thing and its context is a statement to which we respond with our behaviour.
Our world is an intertwining of the visible and the invisible and gives us such commonsensical notions like; that even though we can only see three sides of a cube at one time, we ‘know’ that it has six sides though they are not at all visible to us or that there is a back of the house even though our standing at the front blocks our vision of the back of it. In each passing moment in the world what we see is only a single profile of the world. However, what we perceive is more than what we see. What we perceive involves not only the visible but its depth of meaning; not a single profile, but a panoramic view. The entire horizon of which we face is seen through a veil whose fabric is interwoven with the threads of the visible and the invisible.
In a measure to get at the core of the question of how things act on our mind, some attempt to reach ‘pure’ ideality by separating the meaning from the sensory object. However, they are misconceived in their approach because the meaning (the invisible) cannot be detached from the sensible. They are connected to the things in the world like a physical reality we have yet to discover. It is as if by design that we are unaware of the forces or laws that elicit our modes of behaviour towards the things in our visible world. All the things perceive in our inward domain have their inherent logic and reasoning that is offered to us by them and that we cognize immediately and straightforwardly when our gaze touches upon them without any mindful scrutiny over whether what we are experiencing is actually real or not. Of course it’s real! Nothing could be more certain than this for us. And all of this certainty is found without any recourse to scientific notions or extensive endeavours into reasoning.
Too many people (scientists and philosophers alike) have went forth into under the misconceived assumption that the veil through which we see the world can be lifted so as to allow us to see things as they really are. This is where they presume the ‘pure’ ideality resides and that once discovered can be circumscribed and made explicit. They come to identify what is real as the objective and the lived through as only the apparent. However, a problem arises. Take for example, the diagram we often see of our solar system. This wonderful depiction shows the sun and its ten planets each in orbit around it. A curious person may ask when looking at this diagram; where is this picture taken from? And really what the answer would amount to is; ‘no where.’ But all of the observations that took place in order to produce such a diagram of our solar system all occurred here on earth and also in the moment, in the lived through by some ‘experiencor’. All the scientists who made these discoveries took their meaning from experiences lived through; they too were, ‘experiencors’ at the times of their observations. Thus any truth that they discover is a truth that originated in the here and now.
The scientist and philosopher both make the mistake of believing that its possible to lift the veil but any attempt at describing a world without it refused by their own existence because they will always be a perceiving body which is the origin of observations of the world. To lift the veil is to have no vision at all. The invisible is deeply tied to the visible. It is a latent stratum of meaning that is the outline of the visible and cannot be separated and made into a second positivity (8).
Our notions or ideas such as light, sound, love, or hate could not be given to us as notions or ideas except in a carnal experience. Before light and sound are circumscribed and made into theories, before love and hate is described, the carnal texture of these notions are experienced existentially; that is, they are originally lived-through experiences. It is by carnal experience that we find ‘the occasion to think them’ (9). These notions owe their authority to and have their origin in the existential experience of their carnal texture. It is the existential experiences of the carnal texture of ideas that constitutes the invisible; they are laid down on the sensible in a transparent form.
Love is possibly a good example of this, or more specifically ‘being-in love’. The meaning of this phrase would mean nothing at all without its inherent relation to the intense carnal experience of it. Some of us would admit to having felt what it’s like to ‘be in love’ while others would admit to having never felt it. There is undoubtedly something that it is or something that it’s like to ‘be in love’. The carnal experience of love is the origin of our notions of it and without it the notions would not exists.
The problem for the scientist or for the philosopher is that he tries to grab onto the ideas that our carnal textures evoke, he attempts to circumscribe them and see the world unveiled when to do so is in fact as impossible as looking at the contours of one’s own eyes. Our eyes and the veil are in fact not distinct at all.
However, explication of our ideas need not be rendered as useless. Rather they should just be put in their proper place; as only being secondary versions of the true flesh of being that are given a sort of second life (10). Explication of the idea is not that same as having the idea itself. What we have in the end is only second-version of them which is given a sort of second-life in our perception. The experience of hate or love can, for example, inspire us to create great works of art that can further evoke us and open new dimensions of thought. Their carnal textures are thus echoed to a multitude of incarnated lives. Cities are built, nations are divided, created, destroyed, lives are lived and so on and so on; everything takes place in the echoes and resonance of ideas.
These second-lives however are not the same in nature. The true essence of our ideas is the flesh. When our ideas are expressed, a second version of them comes to life in the words and it is then that we say that we ‘understand’ what we were feeling. Love (to use the same example as before), is an intense carnal experience that, for some of us when we first feel it, may be quite overwhelmed by its intensity and not quite understand what is going on until we have expressed it in language. The mysterious feeling inside is substituted with the words to make it known, to others and ourselves, what we are experiencing (9).
This mysterious feeling or carnal texture is always under a disguise. This is the invisible which is permeated into everything sensible. Every sound I hear has behind it an idea and the same applies to every smell I smell, every taste I taste, every thing I see, every word I use; everything that I perceive. The invisible inhabits the world and there would be no world for me without it. The experience of all these things in their flesh is the pure ideality. Our vision itself has a carnal power of cohesion that has no recourse to concepts. The pure ideality gives us the world as it is for us; it is not alien to the flesh, it is the flesh.
The pure ideality or ultimate source of meaning then is not to be found outside of the world of concrete, but inside the every whirling whirlpool of the world. Truth must then be placed where we too are placed; facing the horizon of a universe of ideas that each have their own dimensions that will never again be closed and that give birth to newer dimensions which themselves will never again be closed. The truth then is an ever changing truth on a continuum and perception is the very experience of that continuum of truth.
As we have seen, our carnal experience of the world can never be duplicated by our expressions without only ever amounting to a second version of it. If our being in the world is what is Real and True, we are left with a very mysterious notion of the real and true. It is something of which we can only touch the surface of with our words. It is a non-absolute truth of which we must pass over in silence. Whenever we call it something, it is something else. Perhaps it is ineffable.
We say that something like being in love is a difficult thing to describe and that perhaps the feeling is ‘too great’ to be put into a single four lettered word or whatever. It is truly what is before its being put into words that is the true phenomenon. Though something of the original does remain in the expression it is not the same in nature. The expression of an idea is merely the trace of the original. Nothing of the original is provided except in transparency of the words that substitute its essence. In attempting to reach the pure ideality, pure essence, or pure flesh of something like love, we are left with ‘only a bit of verbal material on our fingers’ (11). Therefore, nothing may be said of this pure dumb experience of the world without being something different from it altogether. Hence, it might be fit to call it an ineffable truth.
We are left with only one way of reaching pure ideality and that is by simply living it; taking part in it. To be in touch with it is achieved only by being involved in it. The true carnal texture of things cannot be brought to life again except as a second version, it can only be truly encountered in the spontaneity of things. Anyone who seeks contact to with it deliberately retreats from it in the measure that they approach because they too are in their body and cannot escape facing the horizon. To see without it would be to not see at all. It is only by taking part in the spontaneity of every day life that we reach the pure ideality and what is real. We are most in touch with it when we allow ourselves to be carried along in its rhythm and like the performer put ourselves at the service of the sonata.
‘The Visible and the Invisible’ (I&V) by Merleau-Ponty
I&V, p 155
I&V, p 149
I&V, p 155
‘Phenomenology of Perception’ (PoP) by Merleau-Ponty, p 177
I&V, p 19
PoP, p 178
I&V, p 150
I&V, p 153
‘Phenomenology of Language’ by Merleau-Ponty, p 89