‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ Conference with keynote speaker Timothy Chappell

Biennial Conference in philosophy, religion and culture, Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5-7th October 2012.

I’ve spent the past weekend in sunny Sydney at an interdisciplinary conference titled ‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’.   It was a great time of head-thumping words and world-changing notions from philosophers, musicians, artists, theologians, literary academics and biblical scholars.  Today kicks off a series of reddresstheology posts as I reflect upon the jam-packed program of papers.  Apart from two lectures from the main speaker, all sessions involved making a choice between 3 or 4 different papers, which was frustrating when you wanted to be in two places at once but testimony to a dazzling array of interesting people to meet during coffee breaks.  I went to papers on music, beauty, poetry, prose and architecture; continental philosophy, integral psychology and theology of various kinds.    The key note speaker for the conference was Timothy Chappell, a philosopher who heads up an Ethics centre at Open University Ethics Centre in the UK. You can check him out here.  As usual, each post in the series will respond to a different paper.

To kick off, I’ll open with my initial gut response to the weekend: that is, after (too) many years of academic study, I still feel like I do not ‘get’ philosophy!  Sitting in Tim’s lectures (which were very good – well delivered, clear and engaging) made me feel like a first year philosophy student, completely disempowered and disoriented by these intellectual surroundings!  For someone who thinks of herself as a postmodern (or maybe these days post-postmodern) person, I find it puzzling that philosophy often leaves me with a desire for objectivity.  Why should I be persuaded by something that comes entirely from internally created human thought?  It doesn’t feel grounded in reality for me, I want (Lord help me) empirical evidence so that I can ‘observe’ something upon which to reflect!  For me, this is quite a surprising and challenging emotional response.

I wonder what this is about?  Is it a problem with the nature of the discipline or is it a limitation of my overly visual imagination?  Sociologists are often criticised for the empirical credibility of their own discipline and theology is rarely grounded in either quantitative or qualitative research, so if empiricism is really my difficulty, I am vulnerable to being criticised for hypocrisy.  Hence, I’m going with the later of my hypothesis: philosophy is frequently not something you can visualise, and this indeed, was the very theme of the conference – how do we make meaning together about that which cannot be seen and that which is resistant to containment by human language?  However, perhaps this is not just my own personal problem, as some critics of Enlightenment thinking identify the dependence on visual information (including that which we can imagine) as a severely limiting criteria for for knowledge about the inexpressible.  Why would we things existence is limited to that which finite human beings can see?  Why should we think language can only function for that we can be observed?

In Tim’s two lectures he had a philosopher’s go at answering this question.  

The major point that has stuck in my brain from the opening session of the conference is Tim’s passion for complexity: we gain much when we resist the urge to reduce explanations to a single answer.  Comparing early and late thoughts of the twentieth century’s philosophy giant, Wittgenstein. Tim argues that later in life, Wittgenstein began to think of ‘simplicity’ as a relational idea.  A meaning, or explanation, can only be simple in relation to a purpose, that is, in relationship with some other purpose, person or thing.  If we are open to language having more than one purpose, then perhaps there are less things that we will decide cannot be expressed by language.  This is related to Tim’s second lecture in which he proposed that there is a variety of categories of knowledge, and that at times we get into trouble describing the inexpressible because we confuse what type of knowledge it is.  In this midst of this I was reminded that Iris Murdoch proposed love as knowledge, by which she meant ‘paying attention’.

All this reminded me of talking to couples preparing for marriage.  Something I introduce to them for improved communication is the phrase:  ‘answer fact with fact, and feeling with feeling’.  Which I mean, not every word that comes forth from your wife’s lips is a fact to be argued with or a problem to be solved.  Not everything that comes out of your husband’s mouth requires empathic attentiveness!

For those of you interested in the technical terminology, Tim suggested three varieties of knowledge, probably a fourth, and possible a fifth.
Knowledge of the…
1.  – how (Knowledge How)
2.  – what (Propositional Knowledge)
3.  – experience (Experiential Knowledge)
Plus knowledge about
4.  – objects (Objectual Knowledge)
and possibly knowledge from
5.  – other persons (Inter-personal Knowledge)

You can hear him yourself via youtube: Timothy Chappell on Personal Knowledge.

And as if to illustrate this search for knowledge which goes beyond the observable, tomorrow I will blog about the first paper I heard on Saturday morning – expressing the inexpressible through music!

One thought on “‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ Conference with keynote speaker Timothy Chappell

  1. Chelle. I love the idea you refer to of knowledge as ‘paying attention’. It’s reminiscent of the Hebrew ‘shema’ (hear / or in the old english, hearken). It’s also inherently relational – as you pointed out. Great stuff and thanks for the summary of what must have been a head-spinning conference.

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