Graduation Year



I can recall the first time I learned to take a fish off the hook after catching it. My grandfather and I were fishing in a river near my home in Connecticut, the sun shone off the yellow of a pumpkinseed sunfish's belly. After removing it from the hook, I put it in a five-gallon pail of water. Despite the clarity of the things I do recall, there are those elements of this memory that remain wholly inaccessible to me. I cannot remember whether it was late spring or early autumn, what color my rod was, or if there were already other fish in the bucket. When I try to fill in these details – these missing pieces of an otherwise whole memory – I find myself confronted with a familiar, yet unusual, sensation. As I describe these circumstances and the sensation at hand, I am sure many people can identify with this feeling of near-remembrance. However, there are no words to directly describe this specific sensation; it is what philosophers call a quale, a sensation that can only be known through experience. Experiencing the Ineffable investigates this sensation, and the potential for art to evoke otherwise incommunicable ideas, through a journal-length essay and a body of artwork. The essay examines the sensation at hand, and similar sensations, through a combination of philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and aesthetic theory. The body of artwork, composed of 14 photographs, is carefully arranged within a viewing space in an attempt to evoke the same quale that the essay examines.


Joseph O'Brien was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa Liberal Arts Scholar Award for his research. For more information please see the press release.

obrien_ineffable_slides.pdf (6495 kB)
Slide show of photographs included in the exhibit "Experiencing the Ineffable".