“The limits of my language means the limits of my world”

Coming across Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion above was appropriate, as I am learning German again, even though Wittgenstein wasn’t talking about learning foreign languages specifically — I’m afraid that interpretation is far too facile. Nonetheless it’s an assertion that sticks with you whatever language you speak, and I’m confident of its truth. It’s why I’ve been a bit of a pest with my children, encouraging them to take up a second language in the sense that it will give them a second world, and additional worlds mean additional possibilities. The fewer limits, after all, the broader the world — perhaps a worthwhile corollary to Wittgenstein’s assertion.

I came across it while reading Marjorie Perloff’s recent translation of Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks: 1914-1916. Read in the context of an exploration of Vienna in the interwar years, it’s an enlightening experience, too. I’m neither an academic nor even a casual student of philosophy, but the notebooks also remind me that I should be picking up Damian Searls’s new translation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which also features an introduction by Professor Perloff. The publisher, W.W. Norton, leads me to believe it just may reward attention even from a layperson like myself — “Searls renders Wittgenstein’s philosophy clearer and more accessible than ever before,” Norton says, and that can’t hurt. You can also get a taste of this from Searls’s introduction to the book, a version of which is available here at the online magazine Words Without Borders.

One thought on ““The limits of my language means the limits of my world””

  1. In my three years of studying German in college, I never achieved the level of subtle distinction that Searl discusses in his introduction. I wish I had: it would have helped a lot to understand Kafka’s “Die Verwandlung” (usually translated as “The Metamorphosis”).

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