haiku, humor, music, philosophy

Wordless Wisdom

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Can there be such a thing?  Tho unable to offer a strong argument, I believe so.  Let’s start with something easier.

There can be wordless knowledge.  The canonical example is how to ride a bicycle.  There is much that can be said about riding a bike, but how to do it cannot be put into words and/or formulas.  Millions of children know how to ride their bikes w/o knowing anything about the underlying physics.  On the other hand, one can have the physics down cold and still not know how to ride.  Many kinds of knowledge can and should be written down, but definitely not all.

Verbal and nonverbal knowledge can work together, which is the main reason that baseball teams have hitting coaches and pitching coaches. To keep this post simple, I will ignore that possibility for wisdom. Sometimes it is better to be simplistic (with an understanding about wiggle room) rather than precise (but ponderous).

The notion of wordless wisdom is not preposterous, despite the conditioning we inherited from Socrates asking people to tell him what virtue is and then being dissatisfied when the only verbiage they can supply is a list of a few virtues, with or w/o “and so on” after the specifics.

I am among the many people whose response to some great pieces of music goes beyond ordinary enjoyment.  The last movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata seems to hint at something important (as well as beautiful) that resists verbalization.  Maybe it is just subjective; other music lovers have differing lists of transcendent works.  Maybe putting “just” in front of “subjective” is unwise.

If the foregoing sounds addled, let me proclaim my (slightly qualified) devotion to Wittgenstein’s Laws:

  1. What can be said at all can be said clearly.
  2. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

My only reservation about #1 is a request for a footnote remarking that clarity often does not come easily.  With #2, I see a little wiggle room in interpreting “be silent” (or “schweigen” in the original German text).  Does it rule out images?  Instrumental music?  Singing in a language the listener does not understand?  Fortunately for me, I do not understand enough Latin to get distracted by the words in sacred music and thereby risk misunderstanding the nonverbal wisdom it conveys.

Ad honorem: Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179

Mystic visions or
migraine headaches? Whatever.
Her music lives on!

Memo to Mystics

Unless you can grab
bubbles, you cannot put your
wisdom into words.