ludwig wittgenstein - limits of language (2008)


The twentieth century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had a profound effect on the world of analytic philosophy. Upon writing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein identified relationships between language, the self and the world.

We shall specifically look at section 5.6 where the analysis of self and the world start. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” seems to suggest a fundamental difference in my relationship with the world:

“The world is my world.”

“Wittgenstein, [3], 5.641, pg. 70”

This is to say, my language is limited to what words I know. And thus, my world is limited to these words. The extent of my language creates parameters within which I interpret the world, in the same way that a menu is not a meal.

“The semantic route tries to grasp language from the inside. From this point of view language is my language… I have to think the method of projection…I have to judge the world…”

            “Hacker, [1], p.77.”

We cannot help but judge the world through our language; it is our method on projecting and explaining the exterior, physical world. It is precisely through my measurements of my world that I reveal the limitations I impose on it, because of my language limitation.

“Language can only express contingent truths.”

            “Hacker, [1], p.79”

What I do not know exists, I cannot express in words. In other words, if I’m not aware of something, then I cannot speak of it. It is only when something enters my awareness that I can use language to describe it. And so, Wittgenstein seems to say language is limited to what one knows to exist. If for example, I only knew how to describe something as “acting quickly without much thinking” then, to my knowledge, it is the closest description I could say in accordance to my breadth of lexis, otherwise I would have used the word “impetuous”. Taking this example on a larger scale, my being as a person, the words I use daily, the word choice I use to talk to people and act upon, my thinking itself, and in some ways, visioning what is possible and what is not (language as impacting decision making) is a limitation of my private world.

“We cannot think what we cannot think; so what cannot think we cannot say either.”

            “Wittgenstein, 5.61, p.68”

According to Wittgenstein, for one to understand a language, one has to understand the substance and appearance. The appearance being a propositional sign, an object, or thing. The substance being the mental accomplice. This substance must be applied by me. The appearance of something, the sign, only constitutes to substance from my own will to do so.

The appearance of the world is visible to all, the objects and materials. But it is to each individual will that creates the mental accompanying meaning. The substance is the lens in which we conceive the world, and this lens is the only one there is. Wittgenstein knows this because there are no other possibilities: we only have language:

“For there is no language but language and therefore no conception of the world other than the one that language gives. This conception is my conception.”

“Mounce, [2], pg. 92”

This line of thinking can be seen today in conjunction with the theory Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mirroring Wittgenstein’s distinction of appearance and substance:

“The “map” is your mind, or own perception, and the “territory” is reality, the physical world that exists independently of your experience of it.”

            “Bavister, [4], pg.19”

Ultimately, this substance, or “territory”, may indeed be what theists would label some kind of personal expression of the soul, the “metaphysical self”. The substance seems a double edged sword; it identifies your personal input and mark on the world as a living being, but at the same time, severely limits your ability to interpret appearances in the world.

Our substance is similar in essence, to most things that limit us.

“The metalinguistic soul is, as it were, the blind spot upon the retinal image...the boundaries of the blind spot determine the visual image.”

            “Hacker, [1], pg. 77”

From the limits of what we can see in our vision creates our mental accompaniment of it. It sets our limits: one cannot see through his eyes and watch a film in the cinema while at the same time use them to drive a car. While it is obvious to see physical limitation (for example, our two arms) can only do so much at one time, Wittgenstein’s specific impact on thinking was that he put it in the context of our mental perception within the appearance of the world.

However, despite what Wittgenstein has said, it is improbable that language alone gives birth to our world. Our view of the world is not only created by what we say. Language itself has its limits on its impact. What about our actions? Can they distort and create a certain perspective on an individual? For example, if I do one thing in a particular way, and it works, I may try to do this same technique on a different subject.

What about natural order affecting the way we think? As we age and grow older, this too can significantly change the way in which we evaluate the world. This may also be demonstrated in how the world works; the seasons changing, the flowers growing and so on.

“The solipsist… wishing to deny the independent reality of the world, in maintaining that only he and his ideas are real… the idea of his self as an object standing.”

            “Mounce, [2], p. 92”

For solipsists, it is only this substance that creates our world. Here is where Wittgenstein conjoins solipsism with realism: identifying that the self is not an object, but rather, a part of the world in which self can manifest:

“What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that “the world is my world””

            “Wittgenstein, [3], 5.641, pg. 70”

And thus, although Wittgenstein does say that language creates our limits of the world, it is critical to note that our limitation and substance of the world is only so because of the world. Our self is manifested into the world and can only be so because of appearances. There seems to be limitation on both sides: on appearances in the world, and of our mental image of them.  It is in both of these that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

If we look at language as an appearance, something outside the self, and take the example of it in the context of an essay that one is reading but did not write, we begin to sense language as a tool for judgement. If an essay is written for example, in simple words, limited diction, a fairly basic but understandable and clear essay. Limited lexis can invoke a judgement of limited scope, and thus suggests limited grasp on a subject. A person’s intellect and character can be visible (but not necessarily accurate as it is the self’s judgement on a particular work) through what one writes.

If we take this example further, to an essay of high articulation, complex and varied diction, may try to indicate that the author is an intellectual academic. And thus, it is our own judgment (substance) of an appearance (essay) that has effected our mental conception of the writer, purely because of language used. Language limitation implies character limitation (examples: limited knowledge, limited effort, limited grasp, and so on: whichever the self imposes onto it).   

But what of simplicity? Should not that be valued? In the book “Politics and English language” George Orwell outlines six rules for writers, two of these include:

“Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

            “Orwell, [5], point II and V.”

So how are we to go about judging and assessing work? Surely one who goes about following Orwell’s guidelines may have to sacrifice the ability to appear sophisticated and highly articulate.

As Wittgenstein points out, our (individual and private) substance will always effect the way in which we represent the world (and in this case, an essay). It is this substance that separates an enthusiast from a critic, a follower and a rebel.

To conclude this point, not only does “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” seem true in what the self speaks and writes, but is also apparent in what the self reads and hears.





[1] P.M.S Hacker                    Insight and Illusion: Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience, Clarendon Press Oxford, 1972.

[2] H.O. Mounce                     Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: An Introduction, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1981.

[3] L. Wittgenstein                 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, 1961

[4] S. Bavister                         NLP, Teach yourself publication, 2004

[5] G. Orwell                           Politics and the English Language, Horizon, 1946