Issue #68 December 2023

Philosophical Prolegomena to Fiction and the Unsayable

Lorser Feitelson, "Genesis #2", (1934)

How can fiction do philosophy by showing the unsayable? This is the question tackled by Timothy Cleveland (2022) in the “Philosophical Prolegomena to Fiction and Philosophy,” as he terms his work: Beyond Words: Philosophy, Fiction, and the Unsayable. The purpose of this paper, is to understand Cleveland’s project and attempt to follow in its footsteps trying to unravel the paradox of showing and saying to the best of our ability. And importantly enough, to appreciate the role of fiction in that endeavour. To initiate or make visible an alternative way of doing philosophy.

Picture the death of all lyricism. A wasteland devoid of prose, poetry and literature, including all forms of creative self-expression descended therefrom; no pop, no hip-hop or stand-up, no trace of the contemporary novel. As Plato (2013) envisioned in the ideal society of his Republic: “Homer, Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are beyond recollection, banished from the books” (Cleveland, 2022). A pure techno-scientific world; the rational state continues to grow through the developments of logic and mathematics under the strict supervision of the philosopher king. Only state-sanctioned fiction, a kind of organized transgression, is allowed as an alternative means of persuasion for those too prone to irrational deviance.

A city subservient in its entirety to a controlled philosophical method would, according to Cleveland, have to pay dearly, and not just in obvious currency, like the non-existence of great artistic oeuvres, but more interestingly; the banning of all poetic fashion might actually be self-defeating, undermining its own ends” (Cleveland, 2022). If the ends of an all-pervasive rationality are to secure knowledge and certainty, then ridding the city of all artistic and “irrational” elements would result in the excommunication of all novelty – the necessary condition for the growth of knowledge. “Lost would be a crucial way of expanding the language into new linguistic and conceptual territory, and sometimes pointing beyond the bounds to reveal something literally inexpressible, certainly at the time, if not forever, ineffable. This route to the growth of knowledge would be forfeited” (Cleveland, 2022). By censoring the poetic, Plato reduces the unsayable to silence and in refusing to attempt, however imperfectly, to show the ineffable, knowledge ends up in a state of isolation and eventual decay.

Being a philosopher, Plato had a vested interest in sending the poets into hypothetical exile. If art can indeed teach us something valuable that cannot be stated in a clear dialectical or propositional form, then lyricism could pose a serious threat to the unquestioned sovereign authority of the philosophers. Philosophy privileges truth and generality, while art tends to emphasize the particular without excluding the false. Madness through artistic intoxication is an overwhelming sense of difference, a loss of unity; a violent falling away from the universal and a descent into the particular. By placing herself at the limit of reason and language, the artist explores the hidden avenues of the unsayable, where philosophical argument can only arrive late. Such courageous headship on the part of the discipline, which at the same time declares to be more than a philosopher’s hand-maiden, would prove subversive to a state run exclusively by philosophers.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a model case of an attempt at addressing the philosophical paradox of language and the unsayable. Cleveland (2022) draws parallels between Wittgenstein and Buddhist logic. Both argue that the limits of language are revealed by language itself. Language points beyond itself to the domain of the ineffable. Despite its apparent assent to the Platonic ideals of clear transparency, the Tractatus is in the end a radical critique of logical rigour. Wittgenstein claims that the most important things cannot be expressed by means of language, not in any deductive or rational manner. The most important things can only be shown. The claim resonates with his other infamous statement, that philosophy should only be done as poetry. Cleveland’s contention is that art, fiction, literature etc. can and often do show us, discursively even, something that cannot be put into systematic conceptual form. Something that cannot be said. The unsayable emerges likewise with Kant through a slightly different light. The noumenal realm appears as the domain of the ineffable, which similar to both Wittgenstein and Plato, delegates the unsayable to the sphere of silence. We can only speak of the noumenon in the negative sense, as that which it is not. Cleveland (2022) suggests the act of naming the ineffable is an incorrect strategy for trying to elucidate something concerning the limits of language. Instead, he offers an alternative way of trying to navigate the murky waters by refusing to speak of “it” in terms of either noumena or any kind of object/entity at all. This, he argues, is misleading. “Instead, let’s just say, negatively, that which is unsayable is something that cannot be said. This is not to attribute anything positive to that which is unsayable. It is simply to admit there is that which cannot be articulated, to admit there is a limit to what can be expressed in language. From this point on, I will use the expression “the unsayable” only as a ‘façon de parler’ for that which is unsayable” (Cleveland, 2022). The qualification is far from trivial and utterly minimalist. In a way, Cleveland reminds us to be extra careful when speaking of that which is unsayable, in order not to ascribe any positive properties to it, so that we do not place unnecessary limits on our investigation.

Followed by what seems to be an implicit side-critique of phenomenology,1placeholder Cleveland discusses the paradoxes involved with attempts at trying to communicate our first-person experiences to someone. Especially, the intimate and very private category of our olfactory sensibilities. The difficulties we encounter in trying to describe a characteristic odor, the way in which we often unwillingly begin to draw on numerous literary techniques to express something so difficult to put into either spatial relationships or some type of metrics, is directly symptomatic of our strange relationship with the unsayable. And that’s just a simple example. Things get complicated with the “colour red” thought experiment. Cleveland asks us to imagine the following scenario: A woman called Mary; a colour-blind genius physicist placed in a room. More than just a scientist Mary is a “super-physicist” in the sense that her knowledge of the universe and everything in it, is not limited to the current state of scientific knowledge. She understands the world completely, yet she has never experienced the colour red. In this sense, experiencing the colour red is, according to Cleveland, a good example of showing the unsayable. Despite the apparent completeness of Mary’s world, if she did suddenly see a red patch, that would add to her knowledge of the world, but not in any logical, cumulative or rational sense. Such acquaintance with the ineffable would extend her knowledge of things, but not in a way that she could anticipate or be able to articulate.

Direct acquaintance is the most concrete type of concept, since it refers to an incomplete object – experience. It is in a way a pseudo-concept. Pure experience is unmediated by any conceptual system. Arguably, such direct acquaintance, sensation, concrete experience or what we could alternatively term the dominance of the object, is what drives artistic creativity. Seeing the colour red is the most particular “concept”, in the sense that it operates as a bridge between the conceptual and the experiential; the unsayable. It marks a conceptual limit. One could also conceive of the ineffable as a rupture in the order of things, a strange yet necessary discontinuity placed at the core of our language. Cleveland’s central argument, is that this very rupture is what informs the philosophical process, no less than any dialectical or propositional method, contra Plato. In analysing Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy through T.S. Eliot’s (1965) essay What Dante Means to Me, the author paints a vivid picture of how poetry can “manifest” (Cleveland, 2022) the unsayable. It is without a doubt a fascinating feat, bordering on the mystical, how poetic language negates itself and somehow manages to become picturesque, yet remain discursive.

Poets provide us with the perfect samples. Lyricism conjures up concepts and makes them directly perceptible via written word. This is very strange, but without a doubt a perfectly plausible interpretation of what Wittgenstein means by showing. “Poetry, or literature in general, might show us something philosophical we can directly perceive, instead of theses, theories, or arguments we can say or articulate in sentences” (Cleveland, 2022). But how does poetry achieve this? Especially considering the fact, that absolute subjectivity is by definition incommunicable. How does art make emotion, a unique experience, into a social object? How can different people read Dante, while simultaneously coming to an agreement concerning some particular verse and the feeling communicated therein? A whole new dimension of show and (don’t) tell opens up. From the way in which Cleveland speaks about fiction, we must draw the conclusion that the writer objectively shows us something through the written word. The artist is communicating an experience through a meticulous method. It is directly perceptible in the work. This is important. The audience grasps what is shown e.g. on the stage, with the same certainty as a mathematician derives a theorem, it is only a different mode of comprehension. The rigour of the demonstration remains the same. We are faced here with a philosophical problem. How does a private first-person experience i.e., a sensation ‘x’, get translated into a third-person public discursivity via poetic expression?

Lorser Feitelson, "Untitled, from the series, 'Magical Space Forms'", (1969)

Before we answer, or fail to provide an answer to the question, let us follow Cleveland in making a distinction between two senses of the term ineffable: The trivial and the non-trivial one. The non-trivial sense of the ineffable, is the ineffable “in principle” (Cleveland, 2022), we will return to this. An example of a trivial sense of the ineffable is whenever a subject or a certain historical period, a community or so forth, is limited by a straightforward epistemic constraint. Where it is only a matter of time, the state of science, computational power what have you, until something unknown becomes known. Needless to say, such one-dimensional conception of the ineffable is, as Cleveland notes, philosophically uninteresting… or is it? A similar instance of the trivially inexpressible is when someone is tied down with duct tape covering their mouth, we will not waste our time with this example either. One of the more interesting cases of the unsayable has to do with our inability to express something infinite. This is also a physical constraint as per us being finite beings. Further down we have the entire domain of various religious experiences, from vegetarianism, to drunkenness to drug-induced visions of the messiah as so many instances of inexpressible limit-states, yet everywhere we meet with the same difficulty of drawing a sharp boundary. “I have belabored, writes Cleveland (2022), “these points in order to emphasize just how difficult it is to characterize what it means to be ‘in principle’ ineffable and to draw attention to the challenges of drawing a sharp line between the in principle ineffable and the trivially ineffable.” And indeed, as we continue falling down the rabbit-hole of attempted classifications of the ineffable, we notice that the distinction between the trivial and the more interesting; in principle ineffable cases becomes harder to maintain as different authors, including the public at large, have different tastes and preferences for their various ineffables. Perhaps there isn’t all that much to gain in making the distinction and insisting that only the in-principle-ineffable has any significant philosophical import?

According to Cleveland (2022), Wittgenstein’s Tractatus presents a good example of an attempted demonstration of the in-principle-ineffable. Famously enough, Wittgenstein’s (2021) picture theory aims to demonstrate that the relationship between language and the world is of a projective kind; words are literal pictures (like hieroglyphs) of the things they represent by mirroring the structure of states-of-affairs. This is what Wittgenstein calls the logical structure of language and the world. At the same time however, there is always something that is shown by propositions in the act of their standing-in for reality as literal decoys of the things they represent. What is shown (not said) by propositions is their pictorial-form, i.e., that which enables them to say something about the world in the first place. What is shown therefore is the condition of possibility for saying and representation as such. Unlike the Kantian conditions of experience; transcendental forms of time and space, with Wittgenstein, the ineffable is “built-into” language itself. The mere existence of language and its ability to express thoughts displays something unsayable about human experience.

We can think of language as either infinitely expandable or not. Either language can grow and eventually include new content and therefore express what was previously inexpressible, or language is structurally limited and therefore there is always (at all times) something that is in principle, not only temporarily, but permanently, unsayable. Cleveland’s central argument therefore takes the form of a constructive dilemma:

[ IE → ∃x t(x) ] ^ [ ~IE → ∃x (X) ] → [ IE v ~IE] → [ ∃x t(x) v ∃x (X) ]

x = df. The Ineffable

X = df. The ‘In Principle Ineffable’

IE = df. Infinite Expansion (“Language is Infinitely Expandable”)

IE v ~IE = df. Either Language is Infinitely Expandable or It is not

IE → ∃x t(x) = df. If Language is Infinitely Expandable, then there is something unsayable (x) at some given time (t).

~IE → ∃x (X) = df. If Language is not (~) Infinitely Expandable, then there is something that is In Principle Ineffable (X) at all times.  


The main contention being, that for both IE or ~IE we are left with something “philosophically interesting” (Cleveland, 2022), which is either ‘t(x)’ – something unsayable at a given moment, or ‘X’ – something in-principle-unsayable. And let us not underestimate the importance of ‘t(x)’. Ineffable in the t(x) sense is no less interesting than the in-principle-ineffable (X). From a historico-philosophical standpoint the history of science speaks of an outstanding collection of contingent ineffables. They shaped our current understanding of the cosmos. With each new development in science, we would be confronted with the limits of our language, some great minds would invent a new way of speaking about i.e. falling bodies, biological life, microscopic entities etc. and each epistemic transformation would enable the emergence of new t(x) objects re-arranging the discursive rules of saying and seeing. Contingent unsayables, their coming to life and withering away, traces the various transformations in our regimes of show and tell: Paradigms, theories, political structures, ways of life. Whether we speak of the ineffable in the ‘X’ or in the ‘t(x)’ sense is not decisive for Cleveland. What matters is that fiction, poetry or literature, are able to communicate, to show the unsayable in a way that cannot be dismissed as philosophically irrelevant.

There is yet another case of showing discussed in Beyond Words. A pragmatist interpretation of showing is the one offered by Philip Kitcher (Cleveland, 2022), where, as Kitcher grants, showing is more effective than saying, however, that which is shown can also be said, (just as well). In this case, it is showing the sayable, which counts as an instance of something philosophically interesting. Cleveland distances himself from this interpretation emphasizing not just the importance of showing, but of showing something inexpressible. As it turns out, Kitcher’s conception of showing and the role of literature does not fall far from the Platonic assimilation of myth into the activity of reason and rational governance. “The philosophy is in the showing, but the philosophy shown can be said” (Cleveland, 2022). Lyricism here again operates as the philosopher’s secretary offering no more than examples, instances and various thought experiments, which help assess and re-assess one’s beliefs in a rational manner. In this pragmatist conception, it really isn’t the case that poetry can inform philosophy in the strong sense, but only as a kind of reminder of what philosophy has neglected or forgotten within its own domain. There must be more to prose, philosophically speaking, than a series of simple-sample thought experiments. Nowhere is this more visible, then with certain situated language-games one encounters throughout different media. Art is often capable of communicating something in a manner that is perfectly clear without in the least allowing for its subsumption under a general or universal rule. In this sense we encounter irreducible particularity in art, which cannot be grouped under a general concept. Best we can do is devise a rule for the local regularity or a “passing theory,” as Cleveland (2022) references Davidson’s (2005) A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, to account for a linguistic freak accident. A philosophically interesting pathology of language.

Approaching crescendo, Cleveland (2022) writes: “My interest here is in the unsayable and in the literary arts’ ability to show that which cannot be said literally and how in doing so it can contribute to our knowledge in a way that eludes philosophy confined to the use of reason and argument and the critical reflection and refinement of our beliefs.” The central thesis is now fleshed out. The task is not to show that poetry can also do philosophy, nor that it can do all the same things philosophy can do but differently. The point is that poetry can do philosophy in a way that philosophy (as classically conceived of) cannot. And it does so by showing; by giving us a direct acquaintance with an emotion. This happens, according to Cleveland, through a masterful deployment of structure i.e., the literal perceptual elements of the artwork. It happens physically. In the case of poetry, it would be sound. The phonetic arrangement of a poem, like a musical score, dictates the spectrum of possible interpretations when the poem is read aloud, but it is the acoustic elements of the poem which move the audience and either fail or succeed in kindling the right emotion. But the “right” emotion could be a simple one, such that could easily fall within the domain of the sayable. Great poetry can manifest previously unknown psychological states and bring to life emotions we did not know we had or (until that moment) did not have at all. An artist shows us an indescribable quasi-object by copying its structure, its contours or narrative coordinates (words on a paper). She circles around the “object” and transfers it directly, without mediation, without representation. The audience becomes the object. The object dominates. The subject vanishes and re-emerges transformed, beyond what he previously thought being human meant. This is precisely how art can place philosophy in a relationship with the ineffable. Art can desubjectify and expand philosophy by showing it something new.

Giorgi Vachnadze is a Foucault and Wittgenstein scholar. He completed his studies at New Mexico State University and the University of Louvain. Vachnadze’s research focuses on philosophy of language and discourse analysis. Some of the questions and themes addressed in his work include: History of Combat Sports, Ancient Stoicism, Genealogies of Truth, Histories of Formal Systems, Archaeology of Science, Ethics in AI and Psychoanalysis. He also runs the youtube channel The Silence of Savoir.

Works Cited

Cleveland, T. (2022). Beyond Words: Philosophy, Fiction, and the Unsayable. Rowman & Littlefield.

Davidson, D. (2005). Truth, Language, and History: Philosophical Essays Volume 5 (Vol. 5). Clarendon Press.

Dante A. & Palma M. (2021). Inferno. W.W. Norton & Company.

Eliot, T.S. (1965) “What Dante Means to Me.” In To Criticize the Critic, 125–35. London: Faber & Faber.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Routledge

Plato, P. Emlyn-Jones, C. J. & Preddy, W. (2013). Plato Republic. Harvard University Press

Plato P. (2020). The Essential Plato. Open Road Media.

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2021). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Centenary Edition. Anthem Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2010). Philosophical Investigations (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons


Cleveland nowhere discusses the philosophical method of phenomenology, but he does repeatedly claim that first-person experience cannot be communicated in any literal i.e., scientific sense – something that Edmund Husserl attempted to do throughout his philosophical career.


December 2023


Philosophical Prolegomena to Fiction and the Unsayable

by Giorgi Vachnadze

Berkeley/Norinaga/Marx; Awareanalysis, Part 1: exchange, discourse, morality, feelings

by Raphael Chim

Freedom (of the Will) Resolved

by Ermanno Bencivenga

The Zombification of the Public Forum

by Christopher Brown