Sounding the Ineffable — Philosophy

“Experience” and “interpretation” ––reuniting the two pillars upholding contemporary theories of self. This essay uses the concept of sound to challenge the Western essential form of knowledge and engender a thoughtful consideration of non-lexical, experiential knowledge-types.


The self has occupied a central topic in philosophical traditions across place and time. There are two significant philosophical traditions which have reflected on ​the self​. They are the pluralistic and interrelated Hindu and Western philosophies. In this article, I shall scrutinize the distinction between two foundational concepts in Hindu and Western philosophical schools: experience and interpretation.

A core principle of these two philosophies is the creation of categorical distinctions through concepts; i.e. language. These concepts fit together into wider perspectives through which one gains self-awareness. This process is called mediation, and its role in facilitating the existence of the self is heavily debated within these two philosophies. Scholars raise the question of whether all perceptual experience is mediated by conceptual interpretation. Can the self exist without words? In order to engage with this debate, I begin by introducing key concepts in Western and Hindu schools of thought. Following, I contextualize this debate in mystical accounts of self-manipulation. I explore Hindu meditative practices intended to remove thoughts, sensations, and other perceptual phenomena from one’s experience. These practices claim to achieve pure, ineffable consciousness: that is, consciousness without words––consciousness without interpretation. Approaching these claims, I will present the concept of sound as an inevitable link between experience and interpretation.

Hindu and Western Traditions

In the West, contemporary schools of thought concerned with the self are regrouped within continental philosophy. Within this loosely-defined philosophical tradition, the ontological project of self-understanding is undertaken by two theories: hermeneutics and phenomenology. The former describes a theory of interpretation, considering the processes by which the self develops knowledge from, and awareness of, experiences. Ontology, on the other hand, describes the study of experience and investigates the self as an amalgamation of complex perceptions across time. From the 20th century, both traditions are taken together in a hermeneutical phenomenology (most notably with Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Gadamer). The self, therefore, arises as a bidirectional negotiation between experiences and interpretations.

When discussing Hindu philosophies, I refer specifically to the body of Vedic texts and commentaries across the classical schools of thought, or āstika​. Hindu and Buddhist philosophies are practices which are primarily aimed at manipulating the self through states of stilled or emptied consciousness. Indeed, theories of the self dominate discussions within Hindu philosophy (Frazier 2019, 51). In their unique interpretations of, and approaches to, the self, each of the six āstika-s are founded on a separate sutra. In these schools, the mind (manas) is the interface between the self (ātman/puruṣa/jīva/etc.) and the lived world of perceptual experience (pratyaksa). Debates around the distinctions between perceptual experience and conceptual understanding feature prominently in the 5th century CE. Within these debates, questions of concepts and universals — language — are at the root of theories of consciousness and the self.

In the pursuit of self-hood, both Hindu and Western traditions place a central importance on language. In Hindu philosophy, theories of language “exerted a profound influence on Indian philosophy in most of its manifestations” (Philosophy of Language 2018, 3​; 19). Many Hindu philosophers draw direct comparisons between language and cognition​. Paul Griffiths documents the virtual unanimity among Buddhists who relate consciousness together with concepts (vikalpa) (Griffiths, 1990). Among them includes a central “In this world there is no perception of things that is without language [and our] whole perception appears permeated by language” (Wilke 2019, 20). In these theories, consciousness arises as a direct product of “a global network of meaning” (ibid, 20)

The West also places focus on philosophies of language, reaching new heights with the “linguistic turn” of the 20th century. Theories of language and its relationship to the self filtered greatly through hermeneutics and phenomenology. Language, as I will extrapolate below, is taken as the mediator of consciousness. In order to explore the divide between experience and interpretation, I now turn to a specific example within contemporary philosophy: the case of pure, non-conceptual (nir-vikalpa) consciousness.

Mystical Experience and Pure Consciousness

The notion of pure-consciousness is firstly put forth by the long tradition of perennial philosophy. Perennial philosophy identifies pure-consciousness events (PCE) within a category of “mystic experiences” from a variety of belief systems around the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines two key features of mystic experiences: ineffability, and paradoxicality (Mysticism 2019, 6–7). A PCE, as a specific type of mystical experience, consists of an “‘emptying out’ by a subject of all experiential content and phenomenological qualities, including concepts, thoughts, sense perception, and sensuous images” (ibid., 9). This stilling or emptying consists of a state in which access to any stimulus/phenomenon is forgotten. Because the qualities of such a state surpass the conceptual frameworks of language, they are inexpressible (ineffable). That they are ineffable suggests an experience without mediation by concepts or language. This poses a clear problem to philosophers: a paradoxical notion of an unaware consciousness.

“Stilling the mind” is a central aim within Hindu and Buddhist practices. As such, meditative states are often cited for their ability to enable unmediated, uninterpretable experiences. These experiences of pure consciousness are monistic (unitive between the mystic and the divine), introverted (disengagement of sense experience), theurgic (intentionally activated), and largely apophatic (ineffable) (ibid., 4–6). This stilling is brought about by a variety of ways (Franklin 2019, 289).

In response to the perennial philosophers, contextualists (also referred to as constructivists) point out several flaws. Objections to the privileged reflection on PCE in perennial philosophy point out that many religious traditions around the world in fact do not practice PCE, excluding them from (or demoting within) mysticism. Other important criticisms include the destruction of diversity or historical rivalries (Katz 1978). Instead, contextualists adopt the opposing view, claiming that all experiences must be mediated through past conditioning (including language). Beyond this brief introduction, however, I will not consider the perennial-contextual debates in further detail. Rather, I use them to denote two opposing views: an acceptance of experiences of non-conceptual consciousness (perennial), on one hand, and a rejection of such experiences (contextual), on the other. In the next section, I expose the shared foundations upon which both these assumptions are derived.

The Ineffable

In this section, I shall approach notions of the self arising from the comparative philosophical discourse around PCE’s. Presently, I argue that the claim of ineffability within mystical experiences is not a reflection of the experience themselves, but rather, a reflection of a particular philosophical stance on language. Starting from the perennial-contextual debate on linguistic mediation, I consider larger, contemporary perspectives on linguistic mediation. The argument against language, exemplified through the ineffability of mystic traditions, is taken together with discussions of music.

A useful opening to this discussion concerns the question of experiential accounts as the material for discussion. Drawing on Scott’s feminist critique of the historical experience, I begin with the supposition of experience as both “an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted“ (Scott 1991, 797). In this way, experience becomes “that which we seek to explain” (ibid., 780). In her article, Scott argues that the naturalization of experience results from an erroneous “belief in the unmediated relationships between words and things.”(ibid., 796, emphasis added). It is within this conflation of experience with interpretation that I introduce mediation.

In the previous section, the condition of mediation within experience constitutes the divide between perennial and contextual philosophies. However, these two views seem to employ a shared epistemic assumption. In his 2000 article, Jorge Ferrer writes: “perennialism and contextualism heavily depend on the Dualism of Framework and Reality” (Ferrer 2000, 25). Ferrer’s Dualism is the assumption that human knowledge is mediated through “conceptual frameworks that can neither directly access nor fully convey a supposedly uninterpreted reality” (ibid. 26). Ferrer’s argument, itself, is founded on Donald Davidson’s essay, ​On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme​ (2001; 1988; 1974). Here, Davidson challenges the epistemic foundations of the ‘uninterpreted reality’ by highlighting a Catch-22. That is, if unintelligibility necessitates untranslatability, then the untranslatable cannot even be identified to begin with; “we could not be in a position to judge that others had concepts or beliefs radically different from our own“ (Davidson 197). Ferrer interprets this specific quote in a similar manner to Scott’s argument: “giving up this dualism calls us to … the simultaneously interpretive and immediate nature of human knowledge” (Ferrer 2000, 24). In this way, experience and interpretation collapse onto one another.

However, this conclusion is argued in two incompatible ways. The end of Davidson’s essay (quoted by Ferrer) actually dismisses mediation altogether: “In giving up the dualism of scheme and world, we … re-establish an ​unmediated​ touch with the familiar” (Davidson 198, emphasis mine). While all authors seem to agree on the interaction of experience and interpretation, Ferrer/David and Scott have come to confusingly opposite conclusions about mediation: the former claims total non-mediation, the latter establishes complete mediation. It is therefore necessary to further reflect on the notion of mediation, and the linguistic perspective from which it arose.

In her recent article, ​Against ‘Metaphysics Running Amok’​, Silvia Jonas considers two philosophers concerned with linguistic being: Hegel and Adorno. Hegel, she writes, “was convinced that all (significant) knowledge can be expressed in language“ (Jonas, 138). Hegel’s determinism forms a majority of 20th century phenomenology​, against which the perennialists argue. Adorno, in line with the perennialists, criticises language “as ‘totalitarian’ and against which [Adorno] invokes the ‘ineffable’“ (ibid., 138). Adorno privileged the notion of particularity as the precursor to any greater theory, revealing the limitations of language and “the importance of the Ineffable” (ibid., 144).

Writing within the realm of mystical experience, Sallie King’s 1988 article, ​Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism,​ is an explicit reflection on limitations of linguistic mediation through the ineffable. King’s argument is that mystical experiences, which transcend concepts, cannot be expressed (mediated) through words. Rather, King argues that “the body and non-verbal components of awareness have knowledge that reflective consciousness can later examine“ (King 1988, 227). King demonstrates instances of ineffable experience through the examples of listening to music and drinking coffee for the first time; “What is the parallel between music and mystical experience? … Both contain moments of non-verbal cognition“ (ibid., 266) Indeed, King is utilizing the ineffable in order to argue against the overdeterminism of language — she argues against the conflation between language and interpretation​.

I have thus far summarized the role of mediation within experience/interpretation and the self. Inconsistencies within these debates revealed underlying conceptions of language as the essential mediator. Finally, the debate regarding linguistic over-determinism (whether anything lies beyond language) were considered. It is within these inconsistencies that I dig further into the mediating role of language.


Sound occupies an important role in this part of the discussion. First, I establish the importance of sound in both Hindu meditative practices and linguistic theories. Next, through the use of contemporary neuroscience, I challenge the recent Western philosophical conception of language as supra-sonic. By establishing sound as the basis of language, I arrive at my endeavor: to show sensuous experience as inherently coupled with conceptual awareness.

The majority of academic sources in Hindu philosophy discuss the importance of sound. Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism dedicates a section to sound in Hindu practices (Wilke 2018). Rowell, in ​Music and Musical Thought in Early India,​ describes the importance of the voice on musical rhythms and intonations (Lewis 2015). Such aesthetic practices factored greatly into vedic chants and ​mantras​, many of which constitute meditative practices (Wilke, 2018). Chapter 9 of Frazier’s ​Hindu Worldviews​ discusses the importance of recitative chant practices (Frazier 2019). Language itself, the mediating structure of experience, was “associated … with unstructured, non-lexical or incomprehensible pure sound” (Wilke, 2018., 4). This is most notably observed in the syllable oṃ, which relates to Hindu conceptions of cosmic sound. Notably, in Hindu theology, the goddess Vāc represents language/speech/voice (latin: vox).

Wilke focuses specifically on the complex theory of Bhartṛhari, who distinguishes three instances of sound: the sound of speech (vaikharī), the internal sound of thought (madhyamā), and the sound of internal comprehension or consciousness (paśyantī). Within these three terms, “speech and consciousness exist in a continuum” (ibid., 20). It is in the second term, madhyamā, that I find a useful opportunity to connect Hindu philosophy with Western cognitive philosophy. In their awake-surgery studies, Magrassi et al. have documented “electrocorticogram correlates with the sound envelope of the [speech] utterances … even in the absence of speech.” Their study suggests that acoustic sound signals are preserved and recreated in the brain when we employ linguistic thought. Upon a closer review of Western philosophical debates, however, there is no consideration of mediation as organized sonic (or pictorial) signifiers upon which language is built.

In an argument against the ineffable, musicologist Kramer conceives the limitations of language as its primary facilitator for meaning. Kramer reiterates the particularity of various knowledge-types. Pointing to sound, Kramer recalls “that music exceeds language: that music expresses itself — musically” (Kramer 2012, 105). Kramer’s linguistic argument asserts that understanding is facilitated “not by rigid denotation but (only: ​only​) by suggestion, figuration, inflection, intonation, […]” (ibid., 108). It is this malleability, Kramer argues, that language better resembles music.

In his recent article, ​Adorno, Music, and the Ineffable​, Michael Gallope expands on the linguistic considerations of Adorno. Adorno’s accounts, as described above, underpin a perennial philosophy of ineffability that is related to his musical writings: “Adorno’s pronounced interest in music was in part due to music’s perennial associations with ineffability” (Gallope 2020, 427). Gallope’s recent article, however, reminds readers that Adorno’s mediation is ​not​ a-linguistic: “Mediation is always there, even in music” (ibid., 430). What’s more, Adorno’s conception of ineffability was never intended to “preclude or prohibit linguistic expression” (ibid., 429)! In line with Kramer, Adorno views the surplus of meaning in sensuous arts as a call to engage critically with language: “ineffability inspires a loquacious practice of reflection” (ibid., 42).

Simply put, the entanglement of sound with high levels of consciousness should serve as a strong argument for the pursuit of self as ​both​ experience and interpretation. Examining the linguistic role of sound, and which expand beyond verbal language and into music, is also possible with other forms of sense datum. When comparing this to contemporary claims of linguistic mediation or non-mediation, it no longer seems wise to entertain perspectives which view lexical language as the only linguistic potential. Ultimately, systems of linguistic meaning, and the concepts form them, would benefit from diversification.


What does all of this mean for the Hindu and Western philosophies of self? As I presented in the previous sections, the complex discussions around pure consciousness often produce confusion as a result of the separate experience and interpretation. I advocate for awareness of the limitations this places on the discourse around PCE. Discussion of perception and sensations would benefit from being re-explored, accounting for the potential that interpretation and awareness are, in fact, inseparable. Sound, as I have described in this essay, confounds the idea that experience can be had without interpretation. Through a consideration of sound’s sensory and linguistic pluralities, I propose the possibility for addressing the wider variety of sensory phenomena in developing theories of the self.


[1] ​Sound (Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online)

[2] ​Perceptual Experience and Concepts in Classical Indian Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[3] ​Consciousness and Mind (Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online)

[4] ​Phenomenology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

[5] See Stubbs, “Language and the mediation of experience” (1997) for a critique of Sapir-Whorf and linguistic determinism.


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Researcher in comparative musicology; MA Ethnomusicology at SOAS, London.