Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The limits of my language are the limits of my world


“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

Free Image Hosting at

This concrete poem makes use of a number of iconic and conventional signs.
The two most apparent signs is the shape of the man and the shape of the thought bubble.

The shape of the man is iconic and conventional. It is iconic in that it bears a resemblance to the complex realty for which it stands. The head, shoulders, body, arms and legs are all representative of a person. It would be hard to interpret this sign as signifying a fish for example as it bears little resemblance.

However it is also conventional, there is nothing in the sign that suggests it is representing a male figure and yet it is agreed by social consensus that this sign denotes masculinity. It is helped in doing this when put in contrast to the female counterpart to this sign which uses the shape of a dress to denote femininity. Furthermore the context of the femininity and masculinity is in labelling male and female bathrooms. Furthermore, you could argue that this sign is in fact indexical, as it is not a complete replication of the male bathroom sign, it merely takes its shape. The fact that it is not opaque and black (regardless of the words that make up its shape) mean that it is ambiguous as to whether it is representing this particular sign or is merely the shape of a person.

The thought bubble is entirely arbitrary and conventional, for it bears no resemblance to the concept reality for which it stands. It is simply a symbol invented by graphic artists to depict the thoughts of an illustrated character. Someone from another culture or society who is unfamiliar with this convention might infer that the sign is representing clouds of some kind. A clear denotation is hindered by the absence of any text inside the bubble. The connotations that may arise is that the sign may merely depict the act of thinking, or perhaps signifies the act of thinking nothing.

Lastly we have the words the make up both of these shapes. They are arbitrary in that they bear no resemblance to the complex reality for which they stand. This may be further emphasised by the fact that they are German words and that readers who cannot read German will have to translate them to understand what they signify.

What is immediately striking about this poem is that the words have been used to shape the signs of the man and the thought bubble. It is an uncommon association and thereby draws attention to itself, perhaps signifying that there is a relationship between the content of the words and the signs.

The words when properly separated, as there are no periods, spell out the phrase: “Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”. This is a quote from the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein which translates into English, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

I think that the shape of the words takes them from being having an arbitrary connection to the complex reality for which it stands to a slippery iconic one. Slippery because it is not easily understood what the sign of the poem as a whole may represent. It involves a high level of decoding.

To begin with the thought bubble is made from the quote repeating over and over again. The thought or the act of thinking is itself made out of language. This may infer that the reality, or the world to which language limits is one of thought. It may also infer that the limits of thought are the limits of language and that the person would be unable to think of anything outside of language.

It may be that the thought bubble is empty because it is irrelevant what we think given that it is constructed out of language. Or it may be that given this construction he is unable to think anything.

We also have the person created out of the repeating quote, out of language. This may infer that not only are his thoughts limited by or constructed from language but that he himself is a construction, as the iconic nature of the sign which represents him suggests. That the whole concept of identity is merely a stringing together of words.

With this in mind we may infer that the man is unable to think as he is unaware of the linguistic limits that are imposed on his reality. It is clear that these a very high levels of signification requiring an in depth comprehension of the quote and underlying philosophy.

It may be also significant that the two smaller thought bubbles, conventionally pointing upwards to the complete thought are illegible, that thoughts don’t originate as clearly defined concepts but vague compilations of ideas that are ineffable.

The multivalence of the poem is a result of shaping an ordinarily conventional quote into signs and thus complicating the interpretation. The poem demonstrates that what iconic signs may bear resemblance to, may depend completely on the context and connotations of the receiver. An interpretation of this may lead the reader to think that if reality is made from signs then for a sign to be iconic means only that it is highly motivated by another sign and one can never penetrate this language play to arrive at the pure signified.



Blogger Tor said...

The Madhyamika Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said that words are like fingers pointing at the moon. Many people look at the fingers, never seeing the moon to which they point.

6/16/2005 07:24:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home