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The limits of my language means the limits of my world

Monday, May 31, 2010

The design lecture about rules made me think. Rules are based on agreements we make and understand. But, what is the function of language in this? And how does language relate to the world and to what we call ‘reality’?
I started reading the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, a book from 1919 by the famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In this book a central question is: how does ‘language’ relate to the world i.c. reality? A question that does interest me and keeps me thinking.

During Wittgenstein’s holiday in Vienna in 1914 the First World War breaks out. It is something with a tremendous impact, hardly to catch in words. In Wittgenstein’s vision, language is something that is ‘hanging’ above the world, it is like a mirror of the world. The question is how language in this concept tells us something about the world. As he describes it, and as I think to understand him, it is like this.

Words have meanings. For example, when I ask for a pencil, the person I apply to knows what I mean en will give me a pencil.
Language is build from complex pieces of language that can be reduced to simpler pieces, that represent simpler pieces of reality. These simpler pieces are in fact a contraction of the most simplest signs that exist: names. Not names in the sense of Peter and Mary, but apart existing pieces language that are in itself meaningless. They only get meaning when we connect them to a primitive, or elementary proposition. Names are like atoms: the most essential signs that cannot be analysed or divided further.

The world, or reality, in itself can be reduced tot primitive objects that can not be further analysed and to which we apply, through language, primitive names. The objects are related to each other, like in a chain, to situations. So that is the analogy between language and reality. They reflect each other in the vision of Wittgenstein in his Tractatus.

With this vision – and that appeals to me – Wittgenstein relativises the power and capacity of thinking and arguing, and also that of philosophy as a serious, and sometimes pretentious occupation. Because, if language is a mirror of reality, language cannot distract itself from reality or place itself above, on a higher level than reality. Thus one cannot say more about reality than there is. To quote Wittgenstein in his own words: About which one cannot speak, one should keep silent.

Wittgensteins philosophy is rational and gives me the feeling that not everything is so complicated as everyone thinks it is. That it is possible to explain the world logically, seems very nice. But as with all logical arguments they don’t say everything about the world. Wittgenstein tries to bring into words the essentials of the world and our perception and reflection on it. But at the same time, he argues that we are very limited, as we are caught in language, which is no more than – a mirror of – reality itself.

I don’t think one can explain the world in words, no matter how well those words are chosen. Words can be misinterpreted because of, for example, differences in cultural backgrounds between people.

As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, the world is built up from logical, mathematical arguments. Beneath every language there is hiding a mathematical logic. But does that mean that I, as a non-mathematician, cannot ever understand the world? And that I will never get through the essence of things? That is hard to accept and besides that, I do not think it is like that.

The question is whether language can describe the reality in all its aspects. Following Wittgenstein, language is limited, as is the reality. But what is the meaning of feelings, religious or esthetic experiences? They count to experience and understand the reality, don’t they? And don’t feelings reach further than language and aren’t they because of that capable to give substance and meaning tot the world without being bound by the limitations of language?

This is what artist Tobias Rehberger once said: ‘’I am very interested in this phenomenon that things are there for something else; the object is not only interesting in its own existence. It’s a kind of tool helping the existence of something else’
In other words: things are, or can be, more than what they are in itself, they can get meaning by their relationship and they may evoke things (feelings, consciousness, knowledge, insights) that are maybe not literally there of visible.

Words cannot describe everything, but are there other means to describe things? If I would be very religious, maybe I would not describe my feelings for god or believe in language, but addres to my feelings – wouldn’t that be enough, because they are very personal? If I cannot express my feelings in words, that doesn’t mean those feelings are worthless?
According to Wittgenstein language is not particular or a private domain, it is a collective domain. When I describe my feelings, I am bound to the rules we have agreed to follow in language and therefore to the limitations of language.

According to Wittgenstein the borders of language are the borders of reality.
‘Logic fills the world; the borders of the world are also her borders.’
He says that people cannot think not-logically because in that case it is not thinking anymore. If we can imagine or think something that is not-logical, it must be logical. Because what you can think or imagine, is logical.

Wittgenstein: ‘What happens in the future, we can not deduce from what is currently happening.’
This would mean that everything is changeable and that you can not know if there is a tomorrow. A nice way to look at the world, with appreciation of the now and actual life.
But is Wittgenstein not a little bit contradictive? If only logical and mathematical arguments are right, and only they can bring us further with knowledge and understanding, wouldn’t they than be very obvious? I can ask for a pencil because we have agreed to call a pencil a pencil. If we hadn’t, I would not be sure in the future that when I ask for a pencil, I really would get a pencil.

And how about the borders or limitations of the world? To explore them, we have to find out from inside the world, from out of ourselves. But to get an objective picture of the world and ourselves, we have to step out of ourselves. Where language ends, there starts an area beside the world, the world where language cannot intrude, the world of god or the unspeakable. A world about which, according to Wittgenstein, we cannot think about, let alone say any reasonable things  – and therefore better keep silent.

It’s intriging: where we cannot think about, we cannot think. Anselmus says that in this area we meet god, as Wittgenstein does also. But it seems strange to me: I cannot imagine that we can not think. By introspection or meditation it seems possible to come to a higher level of consciousness and reach areas you don’t reach by rational philosophy. I agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy cannot say anything about this.

But still I leave open the option that there can exist something, who knows a higher entity, about which I can think and communicate. Why not? People who believe have a feeling about how the world did come into existence and what the higher meaning is of our lives. Probably you cannot say logical things about this, but you still can have a deep feeling about it. And about this feeling, we can think and talk with each other. According to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, that is lost energy. But you can tell things with other means than language. By creating art for example…

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