Does our language determine the character of "religious experiences"? I don't mean merely 'influence', but, as I explain in the next paragraph, whether religious experiences of a certain nature are completely inaccessible (impossible) without knowledge of a particular language.

While I've taken an interest in religion, I've read almost nothing originally in the English language (even if you include the King James Bible). And, while I have no huge problem with religious writings in translation, I was wondering which, if any, religious or mystical thinkers limited the nature of religious and mystic experience to those who are acquainted with essential texts, especially whether these are in some sense untranslatable to other languages.

Do philosophers have anything to say on the universality of religious experience, especially in terms of language?

  • 3
    Linguistic determinism was once in vogue, see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. But empirical studies found little evidence that languages have such awesome powers.
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2019 at 4:22
  • i'm downvoted again for awful reasons again. how is this unclear, cos of the word 'mysticism' i mean wtf @Conifold i'm talking specifically about mysticism, not 'in vogue'
    – user38026
    May 11, 2019 at 6:03
  • I did not downvote, and why do you care? If language does not determine intellectual/cultural inclinations generally, it does not determine "sense of the divine" in particular. People tended to put too much stock in it during the linguistic turn, it is over now.
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2019 at 6:07
  • ok sure. well, i've always associated the discredited versions of LD with different colours, stuff like that. it's much easier to imagine how different lexicons, let alone verbal knowledge, can influence how we think about other concepts like 'divinity' @Conifold
    – user38026
    May 11, 2019 at 6:12
  • 1
    Easier? It would determine the more sophisticated templates without affecting the simpler ones? The strong "language shapes reality" Whorfianism few believe today. Perhaps you should replace "determine" with something like "influence", and look into weak neo-Whorfianism.
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2019 at 6:26

3 Answers 3


Languages are not completely inter-translatable as, to take an easy example, anyone knows who has (tried to) translate from Classical Greek into English : Classical Greek has words for which we do not have precisely corresponding terms and concepts in modern English. 'Arete* don't quite mean 'virtue' or 'excellence'. Eudaimonia doesn't exactly mean 'happiness' or 'well-being' or ...

'Mandarin/ English' translation encounters the same problem.

I believe that for Muslims the clearest perception of the Qur'an's teachings can be obtained only if the text is read in Classical Arabic. Translations are of value but not fully adequate to the message of the sacred text. Why should this not be so ? And if it is so, this has implications for the religious experience undergone in reading the Qur'an in English rather than in the original. In this sense 'language determines religious experience'.

  • not sure if i upvoted just cos i agree!
    – user38026
    May 11, 2019 at 23:13
  • Seems quite a good reason to me for upvoting ;)- And I support my answer with argument. Do you consider or suspect that argument to fall short in some way ? Anyhow, I appreciate the comment and look forward to questions & answers from you. Welcome to PSE. All the best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 12, 2019 at 9:32
  • ha, i've been around a while. the argument is good, but not quite rigorous enough, i felt, to be philosophy
    – user38026
    May 12, 2019 at 19:07
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    I might add that the wording of the question is not quite philosophically rigorous either. 'Determine' - a tricky word in need of elucidation. (I explained the sense in which I used it.) Also the question is strictly ambiguous: determine the occurrence of religious experience or determine the precise character of the experience which occurs?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 12, 2019 at 19:18
  • thank you! that is very helpful. i think you're right, and was just assuming that the word had been seen in philosophical contexts enough times for most people to have an intuitive grasp on it same as any word
    – user38026
    May 12, 2019 at 19:30

Michael Polanyi claims (page 7)

...all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

If that is the case the relationship suggested in the title is backwards. Our tacit sense of the divine determines the explicit language we use to understand it. Polanyi's The Study of Man provides an introduction to his views on personal knowledge.

For a list of positions similar to Polanyi's see labreuer's question: What is an "unarticulated background"? labreuer asks and lists sources that likely would answer, Yes, to the following: Does a sentence only mean something because it draws on knowledge outside of itself?.

labreuer references Michael's Polanyi's tacit knoweledge, Charles Taylor's unarticulated background, Wittgenstein's form of life, "social fact" from the sociology of knowledge, and Jung's collective unconscious.

What may not be effective in one translation of Pierre Reverdy's poetry may be resolved with a different translation, a commentary, or through re-reading after a period of time as one's "personal knowledge" of the poetry develops.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The logic of tacit inference. Philosophy, 41(155), 1-18.

  • "one's 'personal knowledge' of the poetry develops" well, yes, i see what you're saying, though i'm not sure we really have "knowledge" of the divine, and i suppose that was sorta what motivated the question.
    – user38026
    May 10, 2019 at 19:12
  • @another_name I agree that we don't know much about the divine relying only on our own reasoning abilities, which is a form of explicit knowledge. The poetry would try to stimulate the tacit knowledge we have so that our understanding (personal knowledge) grows. The same would be true if we were studying logic or mathematics. The explicit knowledge on the page doesn't always make sense at first reading. As the personal knowledge develops, it becomes clearer. May 10, 2019 at 19:18
  • hm. well i've read a little (not vast) scholarship on e.g. celan, and i'm not sure he's communicating any religious truth ('knowledge'), either. maybe i should read more lit criticism about this exact question, to get a better feel for it. thanks!
    – user38026
    May 10, 2019 at 19:21

What is language?

I would describe language in a general sense as a mechanism for communicating ideas. When two speak the same language, theoretically, communication of their ideas is optimal; however, two speaking different languages may well be able to effectively communicate ideas. In fact, two speaking no words at all can communicate ideas.

Does language depend on ideas, or ideas on language?

I would contend that it is language that depends on ideas, since humans develop the latter prior to the former during development.

How do ideas form?

Ideas seem to form when sensory input filters through predispositions and assumptions, if they exist. If that is how ideas form, then they are even more fundamental than language, but are initiated by input.

What is our input?

Our input seems largely based on space-time, which is merely a conception based on perception. However, we receive input of non-space-time concepts through their indirect observation.

Indirect observation can only take us so far, though, as it is based on the measurement of things directly observable, which, again, is based on space-time capacity.

What is divine? What is mystical?

If those are qualities we assign to extra-dimensional manifestations, then those perceived manifestations are indirect observation of phenomena otherwise unobservable to us; if they are indirectly observed, then it is their interactions with our observable universe that will serve as our sensory input.

It is not language that determines our sense of the divine and mysticism, but the mechanisms responsible for creating the ideas that necessitate language at all. Therefore, our sense of the divine and mysticism is space-time-bound.

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