Thomas Hofweber is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Munich in his native Germany before getting his PhD from Stanford University. He taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor before moving to Chapel Hill. He works in metaphysics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mathematics.
One of our main intellectual goals is to come to know what reality is like. But are we human beings the kinds of creatures who have the capacity to answer central questions about reality such as whether the material world is all there is, whether there is a God, or whether there is an objective purpose to human existence? If we have reason to think that we are limited in what we can know then humility in our intellectual endeavors would be especially apt. There are two ways we could be limited in what we can know, which correspond to two tasks we must complete in order to know something. First we must represent a certain fact in thought or language. Second we must determine that this representation indeed represents the world correctly. One possible limitation of human knowledge results from an inability to determine whether a representation is indeed accurate. We might be able to represent that the universe is expanding, and wonder whether this is indeed the case, and yet not be able to determine whether this is the case. But there is also a possible further, less familiar, source of a limitation to human knowledge which relates to the first task a knower must complete. We human beings might be limited in what facts we can represent in thought or language in the first place. Thus we might be limited in knowing such facts, since knowledge would require that we first represent them, and second determine that the representation is indeed accurate. Any fact that we human beings can not, in principle, represent in thought or language we can call an ineffable fact. If we had reason to believe that some facts are ineffable for us then this would support that we are limited in what we can know. But do we have reason to think that we are limited in what we can represent in thought or language, that is, what we can represent conceptually? And do these reasons support that we are bound to remain ignorant of large-scale questions about reality? Although we can’t argue for there being ineffable facts by example, since specifying any alleged example would require representing what cant be represented, there are nonetheless a number of strong arguments that support that we are limited in what we can represent conceptually. There are arguments from analogy, more mathematical arguments, arguments tied to the structure of the human mind, and others. My project hopes to make progress on the question whether there are facts ineffable for human beings. In particular, I hope to get clear on what reasons we have for or against there being ineffable facts, how vast the ineffable might be, and what the significance of arguments for the ineffable is for what we should conclude about our conceptual limitations and the aptness of the virtue of intellectual humility.