What Kinds of Things Are Incommunicable in Language?

I’d like to talk about what kinds of thing are incommunicable in language and what that really means. I don’t have it all in one beautiful system, but I’m looking forward to being mortified by how wrong this post sounds when I come up with such a system.

One thing I want to setup is that there is no “But you couldn’t describe an incommunicable thing in this post because this post is in language.” gotcha-moment in this post, and I don’t believe that’s a very relevant train of thought, at least not the way I think people mean “incommunicable”.

Three things:

  1. It is very hard to conceive of things that are incommunicable. This does not mean they do not exist, but that labeling them and finding a definition for that label is almost impossible so the label doesn’t tend to stick onto anything. You can have a feeling, and then not be able to describe it, but what it is will often drift and be reinterpreted in different contexts. This is essentially an argument about the difficulty (and probably impossibility) about having a very meaningful notion of qualia.
  2. There are many things that are difficult to communicate in a given discourse. This is not magic: consider trying to explain the idea of rapport or 撒娇to someone who barely speaks your language. (Leftover in China by Roseann Lake does quite a good job of explaining 撒娇, but I still don’t think I would have 100% got if I hadn’t had a native speaker I live with to act out scenes, point to examples, and give me information that I, personally, was sensitive to.) If that seems like “cheating” to you, then I’m going to have to disagree. The concept of recursion ([Google’s definition is good]) is often unintuitive until someone is brought into a certain mathematical discourse. The normal perception is that this is a matter of “knowledge”, but it’s just as much a matter of the kinds of definitions you are capable of manipulating in a discourse. People are sometimes disappointed that their partners do not love them “the same way” they expect to be loved. This is difficult to specify at the outset, because there is not enough shared context, so that even if you know how a past lover failed you, it is difficult to specify what you are looking for in love with some new recipient unless it is highly transactional or conventional. I would argue most people have needs in love that do not fall into the “purely conventional” idea of love, but that even profound self awareness does not give them the ability to express what they need to well-intended strangers.
  3. Ah, but most strangers aren’t purely well-intended and that is the pragmatic kicker! Because communication is largely about trust: we are hesitant to send signals we feel will be lost or misinterpreted, and we expend real energy taking risks and considering them. If language were as transactional as “I have an intended meaning, and I will say words until you understand it.” then things might be a bit easier, but there is a real mental effort in deciding what words to put forward in a given context, and in some contexts there is not enough free energy lying around that explaining an idea is even possible. This is basically why I no longer discuss my ethical stances with most people—I simply do not have faith people will take the time, and I am tired as soon as I bring it up due to weariness, so I must plan ahead to make the attempt. If there is routinely never energy to do so, such things are, effectively, incommunicable.

Deeper theories and more examples to come, but this will have to do for now.

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