The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Although no thinker exists totally outside of his environment, Ludwig Wittgenstein came close. His work was based to a great extent on introspection and rigorous analysis, and his analysis of language set the intellectual climate for much of the twentieth century. One of his most basic concepts is that language is a “game” in which we all participate; it is a social phenomenon which can be described but not explained.

Because of this aspect of language, we begin to blur the distinction between things-in-themselves and the words which represent those things. We think that the words floating about in our minds have Meaning (with a capital M), separate and distinct from us thinking them. However, Wittgenstein points out:

When I think in language, there aren’t “meanings” going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Language is a series of learned abbreviations and approximations which can never fully capture the entire contextual web associated with what we mean when we speak. Wittgenstein shows that everything that can be said can be said clearly, but not everything can be said. Specifically, direct experience can not be coded into language. Thus, the very essence of our experience of life can not be communicated.

Those things which can not be communicated are what Wittgenstein calls the mystical. It is upon reaching this point in his thinking that Wittgenstein, thinking that he had resolved the issue, wrote: “Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must be silent” and ended the one and only book he published while he was alive. With this statement, he agrees with centuries of Christian mystics, and this is why mystics are so hard to understand.

TAKE AWAY: “I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.” — Tom Lehrer 🙂