limits of language

last edited on June 10, 2018

In the book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (a book he later repudiated) Wittgenstein famously wrote that "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." In the Preface, he added that "... what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense.".

Like the equally famous "If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.", this is an example of a seemingly simple statement that commands instant assent, yet becomes confusing if we begin to unpack what exactly it means.

First of all, Wittgenstein's comment about language is a metaphor, that there are limits (Grenzen, literally "borders") perhaps like the ocean limits the land, or a cliff limits a path. But in the real world there is something on the other side of a limit, and we feel we can understand and describe what is on the other side of the limit. But Wittgenstein seems to feel that in some way we cannot go further, but there is no further to go, at least if we want our propositions to make sense.

Perhaps a better metaphor would be the way there is no space or time outside of the curved space-time of the universe, but we are here mostly substituting another metaphor that equally befuddles the understanding.

Are there limits to language?
Perhaps we can speak of limitations of language. (It could be argued that we can talk about and "understand" everything.)
((In other ways, we "understand" very little about our world.))

Here are some candidates for things we cannot understand on language:

  • sex and drug experiences
  • food
  • music and all art,
  • traveling
  • what it would be like to be a different person
  • what it would be like to be in a different culture

In language can only think about, or understand the world, in terms of our concepts. Some things cannot be said, because some things are experiences.

Often we assume that the world is a conceptualizable entity. ("Entity" or "thing" is one of our favorite general concepts.)

  1. Concepts may not be as clear as we think they are, and
  2. The world may never fit into any but the most general, and therefore noninformative, concepts.
  3. Our minds are far too weak to comprehend the multiplicities of the world. The best proof of this is our inability to describe things that are right before our eyes: why do we like pets or music.

[ back ]