The Limits of Language, the World Beyond Thought
“The illusion of a separate sense of self is a shadow cast by grammar.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
– Shakespeare, from Hamlet
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you’ve likely noticed that tucked into the language of a group of people is a mentality, their way of seeing the world and themselves. What they value, how they think. Some common examples are having special terms to identify maternal and paternal sides of the family and exactly how family members are related (because the social structure matters that much), special pronouns to use with elders to show respect (because some societies still respect their ageing people), and dozens of words for snow. I always found that becoming proficient in another language gives the key to understanding the people and culture.
How we label the world is how we perceive the world. As Wittgenstein’s quote suggests, it goes beyond reflecting what we value — language shapes our thoughts and our reality. At least to some extent. Maybe the reason why we do think there is a self that is separate from others and the outside world — this dual reality — is not because that’s the truth, but because that’s how we think. Because “me” and “you” is in our language. It’s at least worth some contemplation. It’s only our entire perception of reality, after all.
If we have no words for something, it becomes hard to describe, perhaps even to understand. But not impossible to conceive of. Look at the visual arts and music and how they express what is beyond words. Even poetry, in its craftiness, seems to use words to express what is beyond those words.
And when our way of thinking evolves and our language falls short, we invent new words (think of the new pronouns slowly coming into use as many people are thinking of gender beyond a limited binary system).
But I wonder if language is still slowing us down, is ultimately limiting our minds. Limiting innovation, new ideas, progress, the evolution of our consciousness.
If it is, what are our options?
Are we to discard our language? Doesn’t seem practical.
Should we create a new one and become proficient enough to use that as our primary language? A new language that dissolves duality, separateness, judgment? Any volunteers? (Some like these and these have already been created.)
Or should we just keep reforming our current language, trying to keep up with our changing world and minds?
But ultimately, we’d still be left with language, albeit improved, and language is inherently limiting.
In the end, words are but mere pointers. They cannot completely grasp reality, or truth, or every possibility. But used skillfully, they can point to more.
Here’s another invitation. To be closer to ultimate truth, to be truly innovative, to be free from past conditioning and time altogether, perhaps we could dwell more often in spaces that transcend language, both spoken, written, and thought. Seek silence. Where, in the spaces between thought, ineffable truths can bubble to the surface of awareness. Where truly new ideas can manifest. Limitless. Possibility.