184: “Limits of My Language” (Wittgenstein)

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
                -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.”
                -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

                I heard Wittgenstein’s famous comment about the lion when I was nine. I had no first-hand experience of lions, so I carried the idea over to the dog down the street. The dog had no mane, but it was large, and fierce, and barked at me in something that felt like a roar, so “close enough,” my young mind thought.
                All the same, I couldn’t understand what Wittgenstein meant. If I could only talk to the dog, in its language or mine, it seemed obvious, even inevitable, that we would work out our differences. “I’m scared you’re going to hurt me,” the dog might say; “I’m scared of the same thing!” I’d respond, and then we’d wag our tails and jump the fence. Or maybe it didn’t like the smell of my soap. That would’ve been fine; I didn’t like baths, either. A year later, I considered the strange scene of an angry, talking dog attacking me: a dog who could speak and think through what I said, but with whom I still couldn’t come to an understanding. It felt almost impossible, but I saw a glimmer of something else–a glimmer through my certainty in communication, my trust in words, as though the mountains were painted canvas and a seam was coming undone.
                I still would like to think that the dog and I could’ve worked out our differences, and to be honest, I might’ve practiced barking a bit, but it isn’t easy. Even when we’re both human and we’re both calm it isn’t easy. I’m a teacher, and in classrooms I sometimes find this assumption that a mind is a shelf, and if the mind is paying attention, someone else can reach up and set an idea inside it. The idea stays there, intact, informed, functional. I don’t think it works like that. I’ve spent as much time talking to my friend Mike as I’ve spent talking to anyone. We like each other, listen to each other–and when we get near the edge of our understanding (which is where we tend to steer), we end up checking and rechecking, asking and answering and asking again, because seemingly simple concepts turn into unknown islands wreathed in fog. That happens when we talk about his higher level mathematics (he has a PhD; I struggle along, trying to understand the outline), but it also happens when we talk about values, goals, or how we see the world.
                I think we each live in the palace of our mind. We make rooms, hallways, stairways; we make windows, and using our senses, paint watercolor interpretations of what might be beyond them. Some rooms are in most palaces: there’s a doorway from 2+2 into the room of 4 in my palace, and the same door exists in Mike’s. (Although the rooms are distinct: for me, the 4 room has a corner dedicated to Doyle’s The Sign of Four and another to Dumas’ refrain, “One for all, and all for one,” because my brain thinks of words more as sounds than as spellings). Other rooms are individually mine, and most rooms are always being built and rebuilt with stone and thread and fog. When Mike explains a new, nuanced idea, I can’t go walking though his palace, looking at what he’s done. It’s more like both of us trying to build, separately but cooperatively, a few rooms in a shared style, and then trying to stand in the same part of the same hallway, and call to each other. Of course, even the words we send out are tied to our palace: “I’m at the top of the stairs” means my stairs, not his. If he says, “Okay, now look to your left; see how this connects to altruism?” and my answer is, “No,” then we go back to our respective blueprints and start asking questions, trying to figure out where in the world (of the mind) the other is standing.
                I wonder how much of this made sense in your rooms. I wonder what it looks like as you build it. I wish I could see, though I can’t–but you can tell me about it, you can describe it, you can send me something that is transformed as I remake it in my world, and we can play this wonderful game of imagining, asking, listening and building.

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