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Ancient Ideologies of Ineffability and Their Echoes

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Ancient ideas about the limits of what can be put into words demonstrate the popularity of the notion that language is a guide to truth, even if that truth is defined by the limits of language. Two ancient and one modern example all locate truth in a reality that can be tracked both by the possibility of and the inherent failure of definition. Ancient exegetes started with the basic concept that words were both names for objects and the best formal representations of divinity. Yet names were not capable of fully defining ineffable divinity. These two ideologies—that names formally represent divinity and yet fail to completely describe divinity—coexisted in a delicate balance. The theme of divine ineffability, first articulated as part of a theology emphasizing the complete power of the deity over matter, has been adopted by modern scholars and converted to a theory to locate reality in hard-to-define personal experiences. The ineffable as what cannot be spoken about shifts focus from divinity to the self (the locus of modern experience).

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