This is my review on the concept of "beyond word":

  • Taoism and Buddhism seems to share that wisdom can't be grasped intellectually. In Zen practice, the koans are presented as nonsensical questions so that the readers have to abandon their conceptualization to see the reality via sudden awakening.
  • Kant's transcendence says that there is a priori knowledge that we can know before experiencing the object.
  • Hegel's absolute idea involves development from contradictions, which seems to share with the yinyang model of Taoism.
  • Wittgenstein said "the limit of my language is the limit of my world".
  • Derrida's deconstruction criticizes logocentricism, that everything is just a play of words, and there is no truth or meaning at the beginning.

Is my understanding correct? Does this belong to metaphysics, ontology, epistemology or phenomenology? How do they relate to each other and to science?

For background, my Vietnamese culture is immersed in Taoism and Buddhism, and I have a background in physics. I think the koan asking "how to light a candle without match" is no different to the kid's riddle "how to put an elephant into a fridge", because the first step is to open the door, so to be able to shift your understanding (and therefore your reality) to see the unexpectations, you... just do it. It is also no different to "how to bring a man to the Moon", which is just what science does. Math is "beyond words" too, and in physics we have this saying: "shut up and calculate". Dalai Lama is very interested to see if sciences can explain Buddhism or not, and many reputable scientists have discussed about Buddhism too, so I think we can safely say that they are talking at the same thing in different languages?

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    Hegel's absolute idea involves development from contradictions, not really a good summary. They develop from apparent contradictions -- but this just shows the limits of a prior way of thinking.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 11:04
  • 2
    Similarly, I think you're miswording Kant pretty badly...
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 11:05
  • But I'd grant you the Taoism, Buddhism, and Derrida examples.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 11:05
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    @rus9384 I think it's not in the realm of impossibility, but in the realm of nonsense
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 12:54
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    Maybe a bit late to bolt in, but I think that the Aristotelian nous as a contemplation on a deep truth that cannot be expressed in logos - language - should be part of that list as well as Hölderlin's Being. You describe Kant's transcendental, but actually, this is based on knowledge, i.e. linked to language. Hegel's method aimed at dialectically coming to sublime all contradictions and thus end ineffability by his "science". Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer, Ricoeur) elaborated Wittgenstein's insight of the link between life-world and what can be uttered in language.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 12:13

2 Answers 2


You are talking about a difficult topic that deserves a lot of thought. The reason why existential truths are beyond words is that Reality outruns the categories of thought. Kant saw this. Bradley explains it in his metaphyscial essay Appearance and Reality.

Zen koans are designed to achieve certain effects, one being a recognition that all intellection depends on the use of contradictory and complementary categories. Reality would be a Unity, however, and so these categories must be abandoned for a description of it. Thus 'Tao that is eternal cannot be spoken' and 'True words seem paradoxical'.

Bradley writes that the use of predication in metaphysical language is necessary but illegitimate. It would be illegitimate because Reality outruns the categories of thought and thus the subject-object form of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein and Derrida have other reasons for their comments on language but Hegel, Kant and Zen roughly share a metaphysical view by which language must be transcended for truth. Or, to put it another way, dualism must be overcome for unity. The point here is that language is inevitably dualistic just as are our thoughts.

The 'elephant in the fridge' example you give is not a koan. A koan has a certain stucture and purpose and teaches a certain approach to analysis. The candle and match example tells us something about dualism. Many koans ask us to reconsider the dualism inherent in our thoughts. They are not simply absurd questions but are carefully formulated. They ask us to consider the possibility that Kant was right about the categories of thought and see that that a fundamental theory must abandon dualism for non-dualism.

Nicolas de Cusa uses the phrase 'beyond the coincidence of contradictories' to decribe the Ultimate he has seen in his vision and this is an elegant way to say 'beyond the categories'.

I would ignore Wittgenstein and Derrida and examine how the Perennial philosophy explains the limits of language. Hegel and Kant are worth a read but they struggled to get to the bottom of things. Buddhist philosophy would be the easiest way into the topic.

The entire topic is summarised and explained by Lao Tsu's remark 'True words seem paradoxical'. This would be the case because for metaphysical or fundamental truth we must avoid the dualism inherent in ordinary language and employ a language of contradictory complementarity. This cannot properly capture the tuth but may at least be rigorous.

The topic is too deep and difficult to explain here but there is an extensive literature.

You ask - "Is my understanding correct? Does this belong to metaphysics, ontology, epistemology or phenomenology? How do they connect to science?"

Your understanding will be correct when you have understood Zen koans and the Tao Te Ching. Not an easy task but doable. These ideas belong in metaphysics, ontology, epistemology and phenomenology. I would say they connect with every area of knowledge without exception. They would connect with science wherever science examines foundations and fundamentals thus in theoretical physics, the foundations of maths, consciousness studies, logic, depth psychology, cosmology and so forth.

I'll come back and recommend a book if I can think of one that deals specifically with this topic. Usually it's dealt with as part of a much broader disussion.

  • Thank you so much for your input. I've update the bit about the koan, can you check it out?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 12:02
  • @Ooker - I feel your question is still quite muddled but is also still a good one. The central question about the limits of language is clear enough to start a discussion. I don't like the word 'nonsensical' as applied to Zen koans but they may seem so pre-reflectively so fair enough. Your bullet-points seem dodgy to me but they aren't crucual ro the question.
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 11:59
  • Dodge? Can you elaborate more? What words would you recommend instead of "nonsensical"? "Absurd"? Or "seemingly nonsensical"?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 12:38
  • I suppose I was referring mainly to the comment about Zen and 'nonsensical' questions and the remark about Kant seems not quite right if it refers to knowledge of the object - but this is pedantic and it doesn't matter to the question.
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 7:23
  • Can you elaborate more on why "how to put the elephant into the fridge" is not a koan? I don't see how it's different with "how to light a candle without match". "Just do it" in science is no different to "see the real reality" in Buddhism I guess?
    – Ooker
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 3:26

Mysticism, the realm of non- or anti-conceptualism, can certainly be a domain for rascals, to make statements that are so contentless they sound deep, and thus avoid further discussion or critique.

It should be noted, Zen masters were not in such a position. Many times students or wise women would ask a question of a master in front of an audience, which while seeming relatively straightforward is actually a challenge about subtleties of doctrine, or practice, or realisation, or spiritual capacities. Most koans occured originally in the 'transmission of the lamp' genre of Ch'an literature, that is they were about the transmission of awakening that confirmed masters as holders of the lineage. So there is a lot more going on than simply running up against the limits of language. An example.

This is the story of Yunyen's (or more often attributed to his student Dongshan Liangjie, founder of what became the Soto school) final enlightenment: http://www.abuddhistlibrary.com/Buddhism/C%20-%20Zen/Modern%20Teachers/John%20Daido%20Loori%20-%20Dharma%20Talks/Discourse%20Yunyen%27s%20Insentient%20Beings%20Preach%20the%20Dharma.htm The context for this is the arising of the doctrine of the Buddha nature of insentient things http://buddhism.org/kr/koan/Robert_Sharf-e.htm more or less, the idea of non-dualism between minds and world. This is problematic for wider Buddhism, which interprets phenomena in the world as the results of mind, as arising out of karma, making for an apparent contradiction between early Buddhist texts and the Nirvana Sutra. Yunyen's understanding and response, is not just about the fundamental emptiness of conceptual categories, it is also about dealing with exegesis and practice, older and newer terminology, and the ongoing process of affirming that awakening is universal and accessible by all, not only those who are monks and scholars (the view which gave rise to the whole 'sudden illumination' approach). The wording is careful, and precise.

I would observe from this, that anti-conceptual thinking is not necessarily anti-intellectual thinking. There is a big picture, the aims of Buddhism to end suffering, and provide tools for people to let go of unhealthy ways of being. Buddhist thought has to be understood in that context, metaphysical speculation is endlessly condemned as a pursuit for it's own sake. But, it can serve a healthy purpose, where set up as the ladder which is left behind after climbing it, the boat which is left on the bank after crossing the river. Ontology and epistemology are affirmed as not for their own sake, but being aimed at finding a healthier more wholesome way to be. See Seung Sahn's Zen Circle teaching for an affirmation of how manifesting oneness, emptiness, magical thinking, and being directly present, are not 'fundamental truths' but only tools to affirm our fundamental freedom with, and be harnessed only 'to save all people' https://www.kvanumzen.hu/en/weekly-teaching/zen-circle

I interpret Wittgenstein's core insight as that our ability to make sense of the world, is not located 'privately' in ourselves, in a Cartesian pineal gland, but in our community of understanding, most clearly expressed in language. Expressing the non-localised nature of our consciousnesses. This can be related to karma, where also we are subjective manifestations of wider conditions, phenotypes of causative genotypes, able to act to some small degree on these structures but absolutely relying on inheriting them to exist at all. In this picture, we have to understand emergence of cultures of thought on language, just as we do impacts of our biological inheritence on language, we cannot attain 'direct access' to the world through language. There are also in this view language games which don't neccessarily need to be refuted, but can simply cease to be played, judged by a 'therapeutic stance' outside of language. This is Wittgenstein's motivation and purpose, certainly in his later work.

The 'rascal's' non-dualism and anti-conceptualisation, must be distinguished by their motives. Is the aim to end discussion, evade critique, gain control or power? Or is the recognition of these aspects of reality being used to untangle contradictions, to cut Gordian knots (the bodhisatva of wisdom has a 'diamond sword' for this), to liberate and empower people? Wisdom must be useful, or be able to be made useful. Conceptual linguistic words are not funame tally bad but can be, 'beyond words' is not fundamentally better, it can also be misused. Our fundamental motivations are a choice, arising from a fundamental freedom in how we choose to redefine ourselves, and reorientate all other ideas. In that sense, they are beyond words. But like a ladder, or a boat, words may be esse tial for us to navigate to that freedom.

There is probably a lot more that can be said, on Kant & Hume's different motives, but enough words :)

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