A Short Piece

The Limits of My Language Can Move

Words are superpowers, not just dangerous.

Photo by Jo Hilton

Sticks and stone can break our bones, but words can kill our spirts. Most of us realize by now that the old advice that words are powerless is mistaken, and though there’s something to be said about not letting words control our lives, it’s not so easy. Words hurt, and today we’ve learned to be “careful with our words.” And yet there’s a sense in which we haven’t gone far enough, because most of our “caution” is reserved for emotional and social reasons. We are careful with words because we don’t want to hurt people, but what about being careful so that we don’t fail to make the most of our lives? The first extremely important concern is the focus of the councilor, but the second, which is equally as important, is the concern of the philosopher.

Think of Plato carefully investigating the meaning of the word “justice” or the endless debates on “freedom” — they sometimes seem needless and nick-picky, don’t they? Why go to that all trouble? Well, it’s because Wittgenstein was right: the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

What I lack words for are not things I cannot experience, but they are things I will struggle to understand, master, and keep. If experiences prove valuable but I don’t have words for the experiences, it will be hard if not impossible to keep them from slipping away from me. In other words, practically speaking, what I don’t have words for is what I will probably lose. Now, that doesn’t mean I have to have words that completely and utterly capture an experience, for when it comes to stuff like beauty, that’s likely impossible, and there are lots of things I can only approach with words (perhaps everything). To stick with the beauty example, things exist that can’t be put into words, and that’s part of what makes them so wonderful. But there’s a difference between trying to understand something that ultimately will always exceed our explanations and not trying at all.

Perhaps we can never capture a painting in words, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to put a frame around it. The frame can protect the painting and help us hang it up in our house; likewise, trying to put words “around” an ineffable experience can help us hang onto it. (And then there’s all that stuff Karl Barth said about a crater, but I’ll expand on that in “Meteors, Craters, and the Continental-Analytical Divide.”)

Thus, even when it comes to what’s ultimately ineffable, we still need to try articulating it, because even ineffable things are things I can lose if I don’t use words to “frame them” (perhaps especially ineffable things, precisely because they are so hard to “keep in mind” in how radically tied they are to experience). What I don’t try to articulate is what I won’t keep, and if I don’t try to explain beauty, the category of beauty will be one I lack more than hold. And what I lack categories for is what I will lack conditioning to enjoy, grow from, and more. Even if words always fail, their failure mustn’t be total.

No, I don’t need to try to understand beauty in order to experience beauty — philosophers can seem to think something like that, and it is mistaken — but I do need to try to understand beauty if I want to increase how often I experience it, what kind of beauty I can experience, what I can gain from it, and so on. The impact, magnitude, and meaningfulness of my experiences are tied to my efforts to articulate those experiences, but tragically if I never try, I never get a sense of what I am missing. Yes, there are things that, if we don’t have, we know we don’t have them, but many things missing from our lives aren’t even lacking to us. Rather, they’re absent entirely.

The more words I gain, the bigger and richer my world becomes, a truth of which many poets seem to sense. It’s true that words are limits like Wittgenstein notes, but they are flexible limits which can be moved, adjusted, etc., if only we prove willing to try.

I sometimes wonder if our fear of words hurting people keeps us from trying to push our limits. Words are almost like superpowers: when I learn the difference between “judging” and “assessing,” between “love” and “like,” “beautiful” and “pretty” — it’s like I can change the world. It’s like I’m suddenly in a new universe, able to understand things in ways I never could before. I can avoid misunderstandings in relationships that before I kept falling into; I can stabilize the existential anxiety that defines Pluralism; and more. It’s almost like I’m an entirely different person. Maybe I am.

Words are like electricity, and it would be silly to only think of electricity in terms of how badly it can shock us. Electricity can power, keep us warm in the winter, and help us travel to new places. Electricity is good or bad based on how it is used, and so it goes with words. Yes, words can be used to break my soul, but they can also be used to open my horizons. Words don’t merely represent my world; they expand it. But if we don’t take seriously the lessons of philosophers and poets, we will likely miss this truth. Ignorance has power too.

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