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Wittgenstein argued that there are limits to what language can do, and that our attempts to use language to describe the world can sometimes lead us into confusion and error. He believed that many philosophical problems arise from our attempts to use language to express things that are beyond its capacity to represent.

But one thing is I don't think he was able to exactly point out what these limits are and come up with a list of propositions on what language can do and language cannot do. Is this true or not?

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    1st statement: agreed. 2nd: no. the basis of Tractatus is the logic of Principia and the attempts to solve logical puzzles: Russell's paradox, Liar whose source in a sense is the "wild" use of natural language. Feb 12, 2023 at 8:45
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    Obviously not, if we could they wouldn't be limits of language, would they? To get "actual propositions" you'd have to describe the limits from "outside" of those limits, which is nonsensical. This is why he writes:"My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them." The point of the talk about limits is to make people stop trying to turn them into "actual propositions" and only get "bewitched by means of language."
    – Conifold
    Feb 12, 2023 at 8:59
  • It is like a Goedelian problem (if that is a word). You can't do an end run around missing abilities by including the missingness in what you've got. Except in Accounting and loans / debts.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 14, 2023 at 10:55

5 Answers 5

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

5.61 Logic pervades the world; the limits of the world are also its limits

So we cannot say in logic "the world has this in it, and this, but not this"... we cannot think what we cannot say

He seems to claim that we can "show" and "mean" things that we cannot "think" or "say", such as solipsism and the limits of language in general. The preface says

in order to draw a limit to Thinking [Denken], we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought)

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  • that's how i read that last sentence, as directly answering your question, though google says everyone thinks it's a statement about psychology etc., and what do i know?
    – user65174
    Mar 14, 2023 at 14:27
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All I know is Wittgenstein's claim that meaning is use; phrased differently, words lack an essence.
Since philosophy is predicated on extracting the form/essence of words, Wittgenstein "essentially" scuppers the project. Has a Kurt Gödelian vibe to it.

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  • What he said. Cute use of 'essentially'.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 14, 2023 at 10:57
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    +1 That's because the incompleteness theorem says there are limits to logical arguments as exemplified instantiated by language.
    – J D
    Mar 14, 2023 at 11:37
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Can we reduce Wittgenstein's claims of human language being limited by some actual propositions about the limits of language?

I'm not sure what you mean by reduce, but we can exemplify:

  1. Language can never describe reality fully. We can build more and more sophisticated models of reality, but we can never build models as complex as physical reality itself. Consider the Uncertainty Principle. Some things are unknowable, and if they cannot be known, they cannot be expressed with language.

  2. Language cannot be treated as identical to physical reality. That is, if we expect language to behave like physical objects we represent with it, we will run into problems. Consider the map-territory relation. If you think you can physically manipulate a square, then you are wrong. You can at best manipulate an approximation of a square.

  3. One cannot use language to decide if some problem can be solved algorithmically. Consider the Entscheidungsproblem. It is logically certain that one cannot determine if a problem in logic expressed in the axioms of logic are provably logically certain.

  4. Language cannot alone determine if something physical exists. Consider Russell's teapot. You can argue until your blue in the face from a priori principles that a tea pot exists in orbit, but no measure of language use actually is sufficient for determining if the tea pot is there, since it is an a posteriori fact.

  5. Language does not allow you to transfer complete meaning by invoking itself. Consider a fully circular definition. Hoden in German means Hoden. If you have no understanding of a word, you cannot transfer the meaning of the word itself. If all words are defined by other words alone, there would be the problem of where meaning comes from.

There are many limits to language, and many suprising uses of it too. Consider that an imaginary number is something which exists as a first-class number with the definition predicated upon a contradiction of existence, or dialethia are meaningful contradictions.

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  • What he said. There would be the problem of where meaning comes from... if we choose to treat it as a 'problem'. You can get a lot done by employing "benign neglect". Just don't pick up the rope in the tug-of-war the other person offers.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 14, 2023 at 12:08
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    @ScottRowe You're quite the purveyor of wisdom! :D
    – J D
    Mar 14, 2023 at 12:48
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Wittgenstein speaks of "hinge propositions" in this connection:

That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn […] But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put (OC 341–343).

Neither knowable nor doubtable, for Wittgenstein, Moore’s “obvious truisms of the commonsense” are “hinges” (OC 341–343): apparently empirical contingent beliefs which perform a different, basic role in our epistemic practices.

Now consider Chomskian doctrines about language acquisition: we need linguistic schemata as much as, or even more than, we need individual cases (or, we have some schema ready at hand in our minds and we are prompted, by evolved neural wiring, to apply these schema to cases). Or this can be granted regardless of whether one traces this insight to Chomsky specifically. Anyway, the point would be that "the limits of language," as a phrase (in a language!), can have a schematic value, and then we will find not so much a "canonical" list of the same hinges upon which everyone's doors swing, but common types of hinges for the many and varied such doors (as can be peculiar to particular people).

It is difficult, for example, to argue, even with oneself, about the "existence" or non-hallucinatory status of the physical world, since one will tend to voice doubts aloud, either by literally speaking them aloud, or by writing them in public. There is a pragmatic catch in trying to prove, to someone else, that that someone else has no proof that the person they are speaking with (you!) is "real" as opposed to a philosophical zombie. And there is one contributor to this site who has emphasized that denying the existence of language, while using language, seems self-defeating enough such as to prove that language exists (which we might hyperbolically doubt, after all).

But so unfortunately or not, hinge propositions might be construed as "incorrigible," or as close to incorrigible (one might neither substantively agree, nor actively disagree, with a hinge; but one might also be reliably disposed to reason from some possible hinges but not others; whether this disposition is even an internal justifier for the higher-order claim that some or another first-order claim is a hinge, I will not argue here except to point out that we might argue about/on the level of such metaclaims, too; and the ability to imagine extending our reflection to indefinitely higher and higher orders either indicates an order-based limit in one linguistic direction but not in all directions (one limit out of however many, that is, then)).

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  • are hinge propositions from the Tractatus? If not, it would be worth noting that, due to how much his thought changed
    – user65174
    Mar 14, 2023 at 18:21
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    @zero from the IEP link, it seems that the phrase showed up in his later metasystem(?). I'm not much of a Wittgenstein analyst, so I've heard that the TLP differs very much from his later "system" (I know, it was supposed to be more of a non-system) but I've also heard that there's a solid amount of continuity in play, too, and IDK enough to have a committed view of my own on this score, although I do think the TLP's end sounds like Wittgenstein was picking up on the theme of his later ideas. Mar 14, 2023 at 18:40
  • If you've ever pinched your finger in a door, then you know that hinges exist. And language follows from that. Loud, swear words, usually. But you have to start somewhere.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 15, 2023 at 10:08
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Clearly it is possible to define some of the limitations of language.

It might be possible to define in a complete way what falls within the scope of language.

It is not possible to define in a complete way what lies outside the scope of language, since that would require what is outside the scope to be expressed in terms of what is inside the scope.

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