The Limits of My Language Are the Limits of My WorldJune 27, 2021
Wittgenstein’s Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus is perhaps the most banned text in the history of philosophy in the 20th century. The English translation of the book, which is only around 70 pages, consists of highly condensed and technically numbered explanations.
To fully grasp the significance of the Tractacus, it is necessary to place it in the context of philosophy. The fact that Wittgenstein talks about the limits of my language and my world firmly links him to a philosophical tradition that goes back to the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant, in his “Critique of Pure Reason”, “What can I know?” and “What are the ones that will forever stay away from human understanding?” attempts to explore the limits of knowledge by asking questions such as One of the reasons Kant asks such questions is that he believes that many of the problems in philosophy stem from our failure to recognize the limits of human understanding. By turning our attention to ourselves and asking questions about the necessary limits of our knowledge, we can solve or eliminate almost all the philosophical problems of the past.
Tractacus did what Kant did. Wittgenstein tried to clarify what could be said meaningfully. Wittgenstein tries to draw the limits of language, and therefore the limits of all thoughts, just as Kant tried to draw the limits of reason. He does this because he suspects that most philosophical debates and disagreements are based on some fundamental mistake about the way we think and talk about the world.
Despite all their apparent complexity, Wittgenstein’s main ideas in the Tractacus are actually based on a very simple principle; both language and the world are formally structured and these structures can be broken down into their components. Wittgenstein tried to reveal these structures of language and the world and then to show how they relate to each other. In doing so, he strives to reach a series of far-reaching philosophical conclusions. If we want to understand what Wittgenstein means when he says that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”, we need to understand what he means by the words “world” and “language”, because he does not use these words in the everyday sense we understand. When he talks about language, his debt to the British philosopher Bertrand Russell is revealed.
According to Russell, an important figure in the development of philosophical logic, everyday language is not sufficient to speak clearly and precisely about the world. Yet he believes there is a “perfect language” that will overcome all traces of ambiguity, and so he develops a method for translating everyday language into what he calls logical form.
Logic deals with what are known as propositions in philosophy. These propositions can be thought of as assertions that we can evaluate as true or false. For example, the expression “The elephant is very angry” is a proposition, but the word “elephant” is not. According to Wittgenstein’s Tractacus, meaningful language should consist only of propositions. He writes that language “consists of the sum of propositions”.
Now that we know more or less what Wittgenstein meant by language, we can now look at what he means by “the world”. Tractacus begins with the assertion that “The world is all that is as it is”. While this may seem primitive to be a little blunt and vulgar, it is not clear what Wittgenstein means by this statement when taken alone. It continues: “The world is the sum of facts, not things.” Here we can find a parallel between Wittgenstein’s treatment of language and his treatment of the world. For example, it may be a fact that the elephant is angry or that there is an elephant in the room, but the elephant itself is not a phenomenon. From this point on, it becomes clear how the structure of language can be related to the structure of the world.
Wittgenstein says that language “designs” the world. He formulated this idea during World War I when he read about the case in a newspaper in Paris. The case concerns a car accident, and it has been re-enacted with models to represent real cars and real pedestrians so that those in the trial can understand it. These model cars and pedestrians are able to depict the originals because they relate to each other in exactly the same way as the real cars and real pedestrians involved in the accident. Similarly, all elements in a map are related to each other, just like the real terrain represented by the map. According to Wittgenstein, a design shares logical form with what it represents. It is worth noting that we are talking about logical designs, not visual designs. Wittgenstein explains what he means with the following example: The sound waves produced in a symphony performance, the notes of that symphony and the pattern formed in the flutes of the gramophone recording the symphony share the same logical form.
According to Wittgenstein, “Design is so tied to reality, it extends to it.” And in this way he can depict the world. Of course, our design may not be correct. HE