How do we know if it makes sense to talk about a reality we can’t express with words?

It is difficult to express in words what that feeling is that you might have at Christmas. “Feeling Christmas-y” might come when there’s a chill in the air or a sparkle of tree lights. There are feelings that are real to us but which cannot be pinned down in words; the deep sense that the universe has (or doesn’t have a purpose), or the feeling of loyalty to a friend. You can’t say what it is but you know that it’s true.

Of all the art forms – poetry, literature, music, art – which has the most effective language for expressing ideas? In Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” he express the feeling of the withdrawal of religious faith in our world. And yet the poet is never satisfied that language accurately pins down the idea. There will always be a gap between the experience and the words used to communicate it. On the other hamd some people think that the arts don’t just represent the world; the literary, visual and performing arts make the world.

Perhaps the most accessible art form is music given that the language of music can be understood by people with different languages and cultures. Debussy’s Clair de Lune might express a mood that could be identified by people who do not share a common spoken language, so another example of a reality that cannot be expressed by words alone.

If you listen to Mahler 5, could you also adequate put into words how the music made you felt? If you can would you expect other people to agree on what emotions are being communicated in the piece?

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