"The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
Agree or disagree?
I disagree and think that in recent decades we have been made by philosophers who think language
is of primary importance to the philosophy of mind, later Wittgenstein, and Lacanian psychoanalysts
to think that entry into the world of the mind starts with language. And that may be so. I'm not at all
sure it is. Kleinian object relations theory allows that we have affective relations with another prior to
language ability and use and modern neuroscience is compatible with object relations theory. Even if
language was the entry into the world it need not constitute its limits. It is the essence of art and
poetry that it offers more than is represented or said. It is the point of metaphor that some things
cannot be directly said and language has to be manipulated poetically in order for us to try to
communicate beyond the limits of ordinary language. Further, as early Wittgenstein said, some things
cannot be put into propositions, only shown.
Object relations theory which is about affective relations with others or emotionally coloured relations
is particularly interesting here, and it is also true that the unconscious does not operate along the
pattern of ordinary language and yet the unconscious is part of our world, our mental life, and our
dreams. So much that is emotional seems to be reduced when put into language, such as "I love
you". But even if behaviour is included as language, I don't think this is true, unless our imaginative
engagement with a poem is behaviouristic. I would say not.
I would tend to agree to a certain extent. There are though, I believe, extensions beyond language
which are very much part of our world. The thoughts and ideas we hold and express are dependant
on language, however, there are sensations which we can hold and appreciate without the use of
language. As I sit here on the lawn at the edge of woodland answering this question, I can feel the
radiation from the sun on my arms, head and body; I can observe the different plants, the light and
shade in the wood, and, somehow, I feel that I do not need any words, any language. Yes, I can
name the daisies, the rosebay, the blackberry blossom, etc.; in fact I could describe the whole scene
in words to someone, but what the personhears and what I feelare two very different things. Feelings
are extremely hard to put into words, in the process the reality is lost and something more artificial is
passed to the listener.
Sensations, then, are personal, they belong to the person experiencing them. Sensations of pleasure,
love, sadness, joy and hope, cannot possibly be expressed in words, but to suggest that they are not
part of our world would be a fallacy. Perhaps the inadequacy of words to express feelings is borne out
by the more tangible idea of offering gifts, a legacy of our more romantic past is still observed in the
gift of flowers, flowers seem to be able to illuminate someone's feelings far better than any words, in
fact there is an old saying, still used in advertising, " Say it with flowers," which indicates that, for
many, there is an inbuilt awareness of the inadequacy of language in certain situations. Does putting
an arm around someone to comfort them mean more to that person than the blurting out of a few
Yes, we need our language, probably the most important and the most amazing attribute presented to
mankind, yes, it would be a strange world without it, but let us not run away with the idea that it
constitutes the whole of our world.
This may seem like a cop-out, but the book from which that claim comes, Wittgenstein's Tractatus
Logico-Philosophicus, ends with another claim: "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following
way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical." Agree or disagree? If
you agree, why are you asking whether we agree with something you yourself admit is nonsensical?
If you disagree, then how could Wittgenstein conceivably be mistaken or lying about how he wanted
his readers to take his propositions?
T. P. Uschanov
Department of Philosophy
University of Helsinki
While I agree with the opinions of Browne and Brandon, I think the difference made between
"feelings" and the world represented by language is not clearly drawn out. Of course Wittgenstein
would not have denied that feelings and subjective impressions and experiences are part of your
"world", but without a proper language they remain your private reality, you cannot share them with
others, and then they remain even problematic with yourself, because you cannot "handle" them: You
cannot formulate "second thoughts" if you cannot formulate "first thoughts" so to say. And in this way
you really are trapped in some sort of cage which is defined by your language: You can look out of
this cage and understand that reality is much more than what is in your language, but you cannot
leave your cage.
Then there are two more points to be seen: Language on the one hand hides and distorts the reality
you percive, but on the other hand it expands your experience. The Greek and Romans of Antiquity
knew of no personal god in the way St. Paul or St. Augustine knew of HIM, and that difference was
the work of language. How could the gospel have spread without language? Some feelings of a
"higher being" or of "mana" are not "The Holy Bible" — and are not "The Koran" or the pali-canon or
other holy scriptures either. In this way language "creates" reality and feelings which without
language would not be "there". One even has asked in this vein if our experience of love was possible
before Sappho and other poets gave it expression in her lyrics. Of course there have been diffuse
feelings of "being in love" before, but they became much more intensive when they were "formulated"
in the words and images of a great poet. Those poets created "templates" for our feelings. Compare
this to the effect of great films: Most people "see" Scarlett O'Hara as "being" Vivian Leigh and Rhett
Butler as "being" Clark Gable. Once more you have both: A restriction on the one hand — why Vivian
Leigh and Clark Gable? There are other actors! — and at the same time an intense imagination, an
impressive imaging of persons and scenes of "Gone with the wind".
So once more: Language not only limits and distorts the way we see the world but it creates our world
in large part. Look up for instance Nelson Goodmans Ways of Worldmaking(1978) on this. In just this
sense we "dwell in the houses of language" or in "towns of language" or in "worlds of language" —
and are not only captivated in "cages of language". A house and a prison and a cage have in
common, that they are "buildings", artificial constructs of men. And language is a sort of
construction-set to build cages, prisons, homes, towns and worlds from it.