In the realm of human experience, both emotions and colors possess an ineffable quality, challenging our ability to fully articulate them through language. This resemblance highlights a fundamental question about the nature of our perceptions and feelings: How can we communicate the essence of such subjective experiences when words fall short?

Drawing parallels between the difficulty of describing a color to someone who has never seen it and the challenge of conveying the depth of emotion, I'm seeking philosophical insights or theories that might illuminate this conundrum. Specifically, I'm interested in developing a process or platform that transcends traditional verbal and self-reflective methods for expressing emotions, aiming to capture their nuanced and subjective nature in a more tangible and describable way.

Are there philosophical theories or perspectives that address the challenge of communicating or understanding the ineffable aspects of our experiences, particularly emotions? How have thinkers across history approached the limitations of language in capturing the full spectrum of human emotion and perception? What insights from philosophy might guide the creation of a tool or method that enables individuals to express and share their emotional experiences with greater nuance and fidelity? I am especially interested in interdisciplinary approaches that bridge philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and technology. The goal is not only to enhance emotional literacy and empathy but also to explore new territories in understanding the fabric of human experience. Any guidance, theories, or references to relevant works would be greatly appreciated.

  • Not sure why you're singling colour out. Taste is less clearly delineated and smell even less so ie they are more 'ineffable'. See for why taste/smell are likely more primal than sight
    – Rushi
    Commented Mar 1 at 4:55
  • I didn't mean to single out color, just using it as a reference for ineffable concepts, further, I believe that there are concepts far beyond our sensory inputs which can be called ineffable. Commented Mar 1 at 5:25
  • 1
    Since you already placed ineffable feature to such concepts or aspects, how can you expect any communicating which is public effable by its nature without logical contradiction? After all there's a reason why the channel communicating and understanding of concept of qualia as subjective experience leads to the famous philosophical hard problem unless some error theory is invoked... Commented Mar 1 at 6:10
  • care to explain further? Can you provide me with some studies on the topic that will help strengthen my understanding of the topic? Commented Mar 3 at 0:37
  • This is a great question. @DoubleKnot simply means that if it is ineffable as you suggest, by definition it is impossible to communicate. But obviously, implicitly the question is: to which extent is this ineffable? (After all we continuously try to to convey emotions, impressions etc.) and can we in some way circumvent this impossibility?
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 6 at 23:22

3 Answers 3


Looking at this from another perspective (after the suggested approach from Huxley, this answer aims at sketching Heidegger view on the question) and in some kind of frame-challenge way, we could ask: why are you even surprised at all about the ineffable aspect of emotions? If you look naïvely into this question, with anything that you are trying to say, there will always be a fundamental gap between the thing and what you can say; whether speaking of emotions or plain objects.

Take the blue chair that sits in my garden. This description is specific enough for you to find it and yet, at the same time, this description, made of letters themselves forming words, has nothing to do with my chair, made of wood and with chipped paint. Nothing you can say about the chair can give me the same impression of seeing the chair—that is you can't replicate the phenomenon of the chair through the language.

At first sight, this may seem like a very childish distinction. But this precisely shows how deeply etched in ourself is the idea, or to some extent the myth, that naturally, we can "communicate" the chair (even if we can't communicate our emotions). And a great part of Heidegger approach to phenomenology is to emphasize (again) this shortcoming of the language. And this is done in order to unveil what was veiled by our overconfidence in the language (what was obstructed was, at first in SuZ, the phenomenological dasein).

Let us take a look at his conference Identität und Differenz. In this complicated talk, he starts with the study of the law of identity. He explains how the usual formulation, "A = A", conceals the deep ontological meaning that this law bears (namely that "A is itself the same with itself"—which now deals with A in his Being). And this concealing caused by "representational thinking" (das vorstellenden Denkens, the thinking which heavily relies on the language which gives a factice unity through abstraction) is not different from the concealing of the phenomenological blue chair behind the sentence "the blue chair". (As mentioned, by not being being aware enough of the essential difference of those two chairs, we tend to see one for the other--hence the veiling.)

And so, dealing with the relation to Being that can be occulted by formulations like that of the law of identity, he writes:

How can such an entry come about? By our moving away from the attitude of representational thinking. This move is a leap in the sense of a spring. The spring leaps away, away from the habitual idea of man as the rational animal who in modern times has become a subject for his objects. [. . .] What a curious leap, presumably yielding us the insight that we do not reside sufficiently as yet where in reality we already are. Where are we? In what constellation of Being and man?

(Wie aber kommt es zu einer solchen Einkehr? Dadurch, daß wir uns von der Haltung des vorstellenden Denkens absetzen. Dieses Sichabsetzen ist ein Satz im Sinne eines Sprunges. Er springt ab, nämlich weg aus der geläufigen Vorstellung vom Menschen als dem animal rationale, das in der Neuzeit zum Subjekt für seine Objekte geworden ist. [. . .] Seltsamer Sprung, der uns vermutlich den Einblick erbringt, daß wir uns noch nicht genügend dort aufhalten, wo wir eigent-lich schon sind. Wo sind wir? In welcher Konstellation von Sein und Mensch?)

And so, leaping away from the representational thinking, from this idea that we can "communicate" the chair, you would see that nothing has changed and that, at the same time, everything looks different. The things would appear to you at the same time more clearly (as you will see them unobstructed, as they give themselves) but more distant (as you won't have the control on those—or impression of control—that the representational thinking was giving you).

And now, if we agree with this development, we se how your question dissolves itself. We can't communicate emotions as much as we can't "communicate" a chair and when trying to, when lacking restraint in our relation to things—that is not respecting their remoteness, which itself is the condition to their proximity—we simply make ourselves less attentive for the things and conceal those behind our attempts.

Now, to be complete this answer should also address the possibility of another language in Heidegger thought. Instead of trying to describe, in the sense of capturing the meaning (as does the "metaphysical language", the language on which the representational thinking rests), there is the possibility to simply point outwards, towards the thing in its phenomenological apparition (and so this is not the same pointing out as that suggested by Huxley—this one wholly stays part of the metaphysical language.). This language is called "poetical language" and is a very important of late Heidegger thought. This language, in its restraint, does not obstruct but rather points toward the world (in its phenomenological sense). The proximity of the two, of the phenomenological world and the poetical language is, among many things, what Heidegger hears in the famous citation from Hölderlin, "poetically, man lives on this earth". This is however a very complicated aspect of Heidegger thought that I am not sure I can address correctly.


One modest approach or rather characterisation of this phenomenon is that of Huxley. He writes about the idea of "island universe" in The Doors of Perception.

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies - all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes. Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to Permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or "feeling into." Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent. The mind is its own place, and the Places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different from the places where ordinary men and women live, that there is little or no common ground of memory to serve as a basis for understanding or fellow feeling. Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.

The idea is simple enough: with the tons of experiences we accumulate in our everyday life, we have a rich "pool" of recollections (the universe) that we gives us a lasting but personal access to those ineffable things. But this universe is so personal that it is also an island. We can't hope to communicate those experience, as in getting those across. However, it is possible that the person we are speaking has had similar enough experiences—in which case, this experience that we share can be used to get ourself understood. In such a case, we haven't communicated the uncommunicable, we have rather gestured toward that thing which was already in the island universe which faces us.

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    This "gesturing toward" itself is reminiscent of the more complex but maybe richer thought of Heidegger on the subject of the language. I'll try to write another answer which deals with the Heideggerian view on the question.
    – Johan
    Commented Mar 6 at 23:54

It doesn't need to be this profound -- we face similar difficulties when trying to explain what is a chair. And, I'm sure, this is hard for the same reason it is hard to describe color perception or emotions: this is not what language is for!

Humans evolved language for the purpose of knowledge sharing. By knowledge here I mean John Locke's complex ideas or Kant's concepts. Those are parts of an interactive 3-d simulation of the world -- the simulation that we can piece together in our imagination and then run on our visual cortex "hardware". This simulation is a virtual machine (virtual reality) that consists of simpler parts. Those, in turn, can be broken into simpler models still until we reach the lowest level -- Locke's simple ideas or Kant's intuitions. Your idea of the color red, or of a chair are the examples of these atomic ideas. They cannot be broken any further because they are statistical in nature1 -- or to be more precise, they are statistical models distilled from your life experiences to date.

So this is what language is for. Its purpose is to describe our complex models, our visualization of reality -- but not our atomic ideas. The latter we simply label with commonly agreed terms2 -- like, again, "chair", or "red", or "sad". And we gradually learn and refine our statistical models by observing what other people apply those labels to.

1 You can also imagine a complex idea of a chair as a sum of its parts. This, however, is different from the simple (statistical) idea of chair as a category -- the furniture pieces you would call a chair (rather than a stool, or a love sit, or а car seat). Unsurprisingly, this dichotomy can lead to miscommunications -- it is not always apparent whether the other person refers to their rational understanding (their knowledge) of the subject, or their intuitive ideas of it.

2 And that's why those words are often culture / language specific. The same Japanese word refers to both green and blue. Or the Russian word for chair has a more narrow meaning than its English counterpart (i. e. in Russia they would categorize a kitchen chair as a stool).

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