The limit of (your) language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve always taken this to mean I need to extend and enrich the scope of the languages I know. I would acquire new vocabularies, unlock new concepts, and weave new routes of thoughts.

But the past 8 months or so, I realised it can also mean that there are truths beyond what language is able to unlock, and I need to transcend language to experience them.

That language only allows access to a small subset of truths that are knowable and describable.

That words are just a bunch of pointers and symbols — mere approximation. That all words are generalisation to different degrees. We can’t be precise about everything.

Words are always wrong and we can only try to get less wrong. There is always a gap between our inner & outer experience and the words we use to describe them.

The word “knowing” here is a good example. When we use English, it’s not as obvious that there are more than one way to “know”, that “to know” can have multiple meanings. while in Sanskrit, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Greek, there are separate words to describe two “types” of knowing [1][2]:

  1. knowing about: knowledge of facts. Information abstracted out of the context of the world, book learning, things you can Google, propositional knowing. e.g. I know Steve Jobs
  2. knowing of: knowing of a person, place, aspect of being, through personal experience / contact. embodied knowledge that you can’t acquire outside of personally witnessing the uniqueness of the subject at hand, wisdom, the experiential knowing (“getting”). e.g. I know my best friend from college
  • In Sanskrit: “vidya” (विद्या) vs. “nyan” (ज्ञान)
  • In German: “wissen” vs. “kennen”
  • In Spanish: “saber” vs. “conocer”
  • In French: “savoir” vs. “connaître”
  • In Italian: “sapere” vs. “conoscere”
  • In Greek: “xéro” (Ξέρω) vs. “gnorízo” (Γνωρίζω)

And at the same time, this supports the point of the original saying by Wittgenstein where having two distinct words facilitates us to more easily think more clearly about a concept.

I’m not saying that optimising the breadth and depth of our language is a useless effort. But the most common pitfall of this mindset is forgetting to step back and recognise the limited realm that language provides.

We can actually communicate without words. Communication goes beyond words.

We can actually think without words. Thinking requires more than words.

But, we cannot do well without words and symbols. Words allow us to convey some of our inner experience. Being able to point at our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and communicate (share) them is arguably the most important aspect to our wellbeing as human beings.

But, don’t let the limits of language be the limit of your world.

Sidenotes / tangents to explore in other posts

  1. the Dao that can be named isn’t the real Dao
  2. above I said something like ‘two “types” of knowing’. this is also a mere pointer, imprecise and non exhaustive assertion
  3. images are another kind of symbol that we use to attempt to externalise what’s happening in our inner world
  4. reading (literate culture) is a relatively new concept in the history of human civilisation
  5. I’d like to highlight another important aspect of ’embodiment’ here — a juicy thread in itself.
  6. the Old English knowen came to dominate over the Latin sapere or cognoscere (source)

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