Save the Name: On Philosophy and Silence


by M. Munro

to s., with love

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.[1]

If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about.[2]

“Philosophy undoubtedly has something to do with the experience of silence”[3] – that much is clear. What’s not at all clear, however, is nevertheless not what you might think. The question, that is, is not about what philosophy has to do with silence. Rather, the question here is one of discretion (and so one as to how philosophy might live up to its name, as it comes down from the Greek, “the love of wisdom”): How might one begin to delineate the relationship between philosophy and silence, in words, without attempting to say what that relationship is?

“One day Subhūti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.

‘We are praising you

for your discourse on emptiness,’ the gods whispered to him.

‘But I have not spoken of emptiness,’ said Subhūti.

‘You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,’ responded the gods. ‘This is the true emptiness.’ And blossoms showered upon Subhūti as rain.[4]

A “discourse,” then, neither spoken nor heard, yet indubitably delivered, one recollected in a brief written record of a no less brief exchange, began at a whisper, in “this,” the “true emptiness,” a clue perhaps: “Philosophy,” not wisdom itself, but the love of it, whose propositions accumulate like blossoms, may perhaps be said to “succeed” – to succeed silence, worthy of it, its “experience” – only on condition that it “endures the without-name, without finding in this its own name.”[5]

The sheikh of the Khalvati order in Istanbul, Sünbül Efendi, in looking for a successor, sent his disciples forth to get flowers to adorn the convent. All of them returned with large bunches of lovely flowers; only one of them – Merkez Efendi – came back with a small, withered plant. When asked why he did not bring anything worthy of his master, he answered: “I found all the flowers busy recollecting the Lord – how could I interrupt this constant prayer of theirs? I looked, and lo, one flower had finished its recollection. That one I brought.” It was he who became the successor of Sünbül Efendi, and one of the cemeteries along the Byzantine wall of Istanbul still bears his name.[6]


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 108.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993), 101.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, “The Idea of Silence,” in Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 111 [111].

[4] Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and PreZen Writings (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Press, 1985), 60.

[5] Agamben, “The Idea of Silence,” 111.

[6] Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 46. Schimmel relates that the story was told to her by friends in Turkey.

About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Philosophy for Militants (punctum books, 2017).

Image by Mark Ramsay via Flickr (cc).