Some Thoughts on Ineffability and Henosis

Linguistically, subjects are described by predicates. It might seem then that if you were to look at a subject without any predicates whatsoever, it would be literally indescribable. Description after all just is predication, and so it is a categorical mistake to try and describe a subject without using predicates: we cannot describe subjects with subjects. The statement “Jack is Jill” does not predicate Jill of Jack. If anything, it identifies the two.

Insofar as description is just predication and plurality involves predicating one thing of many, grammatically plural subjects will be descriptive. As such, if we really are to consider a subject without any predicates whatsoever, then it seems we will only consider grammatically singular subjects. In the previous post, we found reason to conceive of divine plurality as a plurality that does not involve predicating whats of whos; but, if the language of ‘predication’ be permitted here, predicating each who of all, and all of each. While this suggests that such subjects are inseparable from one another, we can still consider such subjects precisely as themselves rather than in relation to the others, and so as singular subjects.

As a metaphysical correlate, individuals are described by predicates. Just as subjects are indescribable apart from predicates, so too are individuals ineffable. This is not to suggest that in the absence of predicates, subjects are just meaningless, empty symbols or that individuals are devoid of identity: individuality is something positive, it’s just that to say the subject is not to say anything about the subject. The practical necessity for personal names despite their descriptive uselessness attests to the substantivity of individuality.

Not only is it a fallacy to infer without any argument that because something lacks describable or ‘effable’ content, it therefore lacks any content whatsoever; it is an absurd view and one that is contrary to our experience.

It is absurd because if no subject or individual is indescribable or ineffable, such as would be the case if subjects and individuals were inseparable from predicates, then we cannot, either in fact or in principle, separate subjects or individuals from predicates in order to distinguish between predicate and ‘subject’ of predication. This view thus collapses everything into predicate, leaving no room for anything to be the subject of predication. But, it can’t be predication all the way down because part of what it is to predicate just is to predicate of something. To preserve this most basic of distinctions, then, we should grant that subjects and individuals are, at least considered in and of themselves, indescribable or ineffable.

One might wonder whether individuals are separable from predicates in reality, or whether the two can only be separated in our minds. But, if the two are inseparable anywhere, then somewhere there is predication all the way down, and we lose our most basic of distinctions. At least if this occurred in the mind, there would still be individuals around to have minds predicated of them; but, to have this collapse obtain in reality would be for things to be absurd in a way that we can scarcely comprehend.

However, even if it was not downright absurd to deny the distinction between predicate and subject of predication, it would still be contrary to our experience: the distinction was only ever made in the first place to reflect our experience of reality. At the very least, we do not experience ourselves to be bundles of predicates, but as those who have things predicated of them.

We have spoken of “considering” subjects on their own and of “experiencing” ourselves as things distinct from predicates, but what are we really doing here? We apprehend through the senses sensible things such as the color red, the smell of pine or the texture of sandpaper, and through the intellect intelligible things such as the respective natures of these sensibles (call them red-ness, pine-ness and course-ness for simplicity). What is it, then, through which we…acquaint with ineffables?

Strictly speaking, it does not seem that this acquaintance can come about through something that is predicated of us because such things belong to us either as part of our matter or of the form of being that our matter comes in. But, the former only enables us to experience sensible reality, and the latter puts us into contact with, at most, intelligible reality. Ineffables, however, are beyond even the intelligible plane. Moreover, ineffables are utterly individual – as subjects qua subjects, apart from any predicates whatsoever – and so cannot themselves be predicated of anything, as they would have to be if what we encountered when in acquaintance with an ineffable was not the ineffable as she is in reality, but the ineffable in an apprehendable mode of being – like an idea, or image. But, if ineffables cannot take on different modes of being (at least without thereby ceasing to be ineffable), then they cannot take on those modes of being which things must take on in order for us to encounter them through our material or formal parts.

All of this is to suggest that it is not through a “part” or a “faculty” that we acquaint with ineffables. But, if it is not through a part of ours, then it must just be us in our own pure individuality: one ineffable relating to another. We do not relate to the ineffable as something that is external to us, and thus as something we need to ‘reach’ through some medium: e.g. we do not “bump” into it, as it were, or “see” her before us. In fact, we cannot encounter ineffables by doing anything; we can’t make them come to us, since any attempt on our part to reach an ineffable would involve the exercising of a power to do so and thus a part. Those who have experience unrequited love will recognize here the utter mercy at which we can be to the autonomy of others.

But, if we do not encounter ineffables through doing, then we must do so through being. That is, what must be happening is that we unify with the ineffable, so that we and it are one. This unification cannot be a reduction of either to the other, or an elimination of who one or both are. Otherwise, we would either not retain our first person perspective as we in fact do or the experience would go entirely unnoticed, since the ineffable would be unrecognizable to us as anything but ourselves.

This becoming one with a singular ineffable is henosis: an unbridled intimacy, utterly naked and unadorned by possessions, austere and yet unfathomably rich.

We seem to have arrived at a surprising amount of agreement with Proclus who, in the fragments we have of his On The Chaldean Philosophy for example, talks about how we achieve henosis in terms of turning inward and folding one’s plurality together, connecting to that unitary type of existence that transcends intellect. What we turn to is our innermost selves; the “flower” of the whole soul, which is the center of unity for all our faculties and being.

The relation between ineffability, mystery and polytheism bears fascinating implications, not only for the telos of life, but for the telos of atheism. We’ll look more into these in the next post, and as we’ll see there, it’s no wonder the world has fallen into disenchantment: by rejecting polytheism, it has buried the ineffable beneath layers of matter and form.