A lot of words about no words: Yang Silence

Wittgenstein's awesome quote, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is a really great example of the kind of tortured verbing that makes formal philosophy so damn hard to read for most people.  It should be noted, too, that Wittgenstein was himself a beautiful and shockingly clear writer.  (The fact that a big chunk of his work is in the philosophy of language probably helps with that.)  But I like him as an example, because if you've read him, you know that it's 100% not lack of his skill at wordsing that's making any of it difficult. 

That philosophy is hard reading is pretty much canon, inside and outside the field.  Some of it is translation and age, sure, but sometimes it feels like the material demands it, too.  Kant is brutally un-fun (unless you're a masochist like me), but a few hundred years of smart people still haven't figured out to say those exact things any better, really. 

Language just seems to fit some topics like department-store clothes fit your seven-foot-tall friend; it's doing the job, but hardly gracefully. 

And that's one reason I love Wittgenstein's words above, in particular:  I feel like they hide another layer of meaning beyond the philosophical, and that that other layer is a spiritual truth. 


I love silence, as a thing.  (It feels like a cousin to sleep somehow, doesn't it?)  It's also one of those concepts where, when we say the word to each other, we can be fairly certain of fuzzily hitting the same area of meaning; but as soon as we try to be any clearer, to bring into focus exactly what we mean, it falls apart — and quickly.  You and I could literally start now and argue for two dawns and not come close to agreeing on what "silence" "is". 

Not as unrelated as it it seems:  verbs matter a lot here.  (Wittgenstein also famously says something that basically tracks exactly with (while preceding a lot) a former President's hedge that "it depends on what your meaning of is, is".)

Did you notice that there's basically NO verb in the quote up top?  It's basically an equation:  [Whereof one cannot speak] = [thereof one must be silent].  It's two nouns, variables really, set to moral equality (not identity; I didn't use == on purpose).  All the actions are happening in the reader, who must choose what to do about these mysterious (but at the same time obvious) things about which I cannot speak.

…I don't know how relevant this is to you, but it's crazy relevant to me.   My life is FILLED with things about which I cannot speak, for one reason or another; and I mostly experience them as a burning urge to do something about them.  They are huge and powerful, some of those things; some of them seem like the secrets to Life, The Universe & Etc., or elsewise incredibly valuable.  And they don't fit into words, even worse than philosophy doesn't!

Well, here Wittgenstein agrees with the sages and plenty of religions, mystic and not.  From christian and buddhist vows of silence to the occult "to know, to dare, to will, to keep silent" — the general idea, at least, seems to be in agreement on both sides of spiritual/philosophical fence.  (Yes, I'm being broad in taking just Wittgenstein to represent Philosophy.  No actual claim is intended there; I'm just not exploring other views for space reasons.)  Now, Wittgenstein was working in analytic philosophy, and his quote there (which is the last line of his one book-length work, wowz) is probably (? I mean I'm guessing, but being that it's high-end academic philosophy…) not intended to be spiritually poignant. 

But it is.  Because when you project Wittgenstein's artfully precision-machined language onto the deep, fuzzy, ancient feelings that cause spiritual people to turn to silence, you get, I think, a new view.

What do I DO, about the $thingswhereofIcannotspeak?  I feel I must do something.  To try and speak, or write, or think, or express or communicate; to at least point to the Big Huge Wait A Fucking Minute stuff.  I feel like we're swimming in the ocean and a freaking whale just brushed my leg and I can't even conceive of how big it is or what hand-signals to wave to people to describe it, but damn I urgently need to try.  (LOL I just accidentally stated my whole life pretty well, right there.)

But this isn't a whale; a whale is a type of animal, just like me.  This is stuff that doesn't fit in philosophy, or even in language, because its reality, its nature, is simply in a dimension in which verbalization doesn't work.  Our emotions, our body and senses, some of us can interface with this stuff, be aware of it, experience it and be changed by it — but we can't get our minds around it, for definitional, physics-ish* reasons.  These $thingswhereofIcannotspeak are packets of truth about the nature of me; understanding them means shifting to a perspective, a dimension if you want, where words don't work.  Or think of it this way:  The "filters" that are employed in producing words, or even wordless thoughts, also filter out the spectrum in which we can experience $thingswhereofIcannotspeak.  If we want to "see" them, we have to stop using one of our most essential and normal filters; and once we turn it back on, the thing evaporates, like something amazing that can only be seen in the dark.

Wittgenstein, in his wonderfully gruff way, wants philosophers to stfu about some things.

Buddha stares at you and shrugs, smiling apologetically.

The Witch laughs off your question.

And I'm over here, pondering the verb for some reason, tied up in what "is" is.  Or specifically, what "be" is.  One must be silent.

What is it, to be silent?  Is it simply not speaking (like a philosopher choosing to ignore or not answer a question)?  Or speaking of other things instead (like a witch refusing to give up their secrets)?  Or refusing to speak, as a spiritual practice (like nuns)? 

I'm getting used to mulling things like this over with the Chinese ideas I know "on deck", as it were, and that's been helpful here.  Because I'm learning that for every verb, there's a yang way and a yin way to do it.  A lot of our fuzziness comes from missing this — but I think especially when it comes to silence, and here's why.  Most verbs, or most that I've noticed, everybody assumes they mean the yang thing when in fact the yin way may be a) more appropriate and b) completely different.  (I did a writeup on yin punch-throwing that explicates this nicely I think; will have to dig for it.  Might be on www.yieldandovercome.com?) 

But when it comes to silence, I think we assume we mean the yin, and ignore/forget/don't realize that there's also a yang way to be silent.  There's being silent, and there's being silent.  Or being silent, and being Silent.  Draw it how you want.  But it occurs to me that when Buddha looks at you with that deep, still, holy-shit stare and says nothing, he's not just sitting there.  His silence is doing a thing.  (You may not have experienced this directly, btw, but I have, both from an enlightened person and a few others who were being so in that moment.)  Yang silence isn't just a spiritual thing — people do it automatically in some cases, though it's a sign of a higher-functioning person to use it this way, I think.  (Smarter action heroes use silence as an effective quip, etc.) 

So now, tying together that whole BS bocquet, I feel like I kind of have an answer to a question that, maybe until I read Wittgenstein, I wasn't quite sure how to frame:  "What do I do about these things whereof I can not speak?"

And maybe the answer, "be silent", changes in meaning with the question, with the type of $thingwhereofIcannotspeak I'm dealing with.  Maybe in some circumstances you shut up; others you laugh it off or change the subject; and others, you practice active silence

I think that's plenty for now, and it's Sunday morning so it's meditation and study time (yay!), but I'll probably hop back on this train later — and am excited to hear your thoughts, if you have any.


*sorry about that :P 

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the wall).
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3 Responses to A lot of words about no words: Yang Silence

  1. puredoxyk says:

    That's a perfect example of "yang silence" or using being silent, Tri — nice thoughts, and thank you for sharing them!  To go ahead and dive into those weeds, there's also a great Chinese word — mu, translated often as "no-thing" — that I think is probably pointing right at this idea of deliberately, as an action, not-doing.  (I've also heard it explained as a not-doing, distinct from doing but also distinct from just abstaining from doing, too.)  We could also go nuts and call it "yang laziness", or "abstaining with force", or lots of things…none of it very poetic :D — But I think you get it, and isn't this a really wild, nifty, hidden and somewhat magical part of Doing Stuff?  I feel like seeing possibilities like yang silence is opening up a whole underworld of options for deliberate action — practical options, not mystical ones, but important and usually mysterious from our normal point of view, and therefore super fun to ponder.

    Thanks for pondering with me!

  2. Tri says:

    I appreciate you practical approach to the question of ‘being silent.’  I think most of us know what it’s like to experience something that seems to come from outside ordinary experience, and then give in to the almost irresistible impulse to put it into words.  If it’s an experience we had when with someone else, we can almost watch our attempts to put it into words degrade whatever was shared.

    You bring up the Buddha, and whilst many people take the view that he was a mystical dude, careful reading reveals an imminently practical guy.  He famously remained silent on 10 occasions when people came to him with questions.  The questions were all such that to answer them would be to willingly enter into the trap of misleading speech.  In other words, the questions were framed from such a thoroughly essentialist (or you might say reductionist) perspective that any spoken response would either affirm essentialist thinking or stray into nihilism.  And in these ten instances, Buddha chose to avoid that trap by remaining silent. 

    The silence in this sense wasn’t an absence of speech or a vacuum (or, as you put it a ‘yin’ silence), but a pointing out (a pointy ‘yang’ silence), an instructive silence.  Anyone who cared to sit down and have a think about why the Buddha didn't answer his question had the opportunity to discover as a result a hidden level of reality that some say is ‘ultimate’, but that is certainly a level of reality that can never be fully, accurately be captured in the net of words.

  3. ze says:

    Suppose you can hear my thoughts, if I think them loud enough, and in sufficient silence?

    Well, I, for one, clearly have much to learn on the subject, anyway.

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