Language Limits

Language Limits
Photo by Joshua Hoehne / Unsplash

Collaboration: it's only possible due to our ability to share information using language.

This is ironic because there are limits to language's ability to share information.

Defining words

Dictionaries create a definition for every word. We collectively define a word's meaning and then use it, assuming we all mean the same thing.

Despite this system's solid appearance, it doesn't work. Why?

We define words with other words.

If two people read the definition of "hope" and agree on it, they could still have different definitions of the words used to define hope.

This is rarely an issue in regular conversation. Minor changes in meaning aren't crucial if we're discussing the weather.

It becomes problematic with abstract ideas and opinion-based conversations.

Abstract limits

Imagine a debate where both people believe they are correct but cannot find common ground.

When they simplify their arguments, they agree. However, once they return to the big picture, they disagree.

They have the same internal understanding but cannot express it to the other person.

This is the abstract limit.

Efforts to define abstract concepts (such as hope, reality, etc.) often create vague, useless definitions. Accelerating confusion.

A language barrier between two people who speak the same language.

By definition, abstract concepts aren't easy to pin down concretely. Interestingly, this is also true with basic description.

Simple limits

We have no problem describing the world to someone who shares our senses.

The simple limit becomes apparent when we don't share this commonality.

Consider describing a tree. It's easy if the receiver has eyes.

Now imagine describing a tree to a blind person. Someone who has never seen a tree. Someone with no frame of reference.

This is true with every sense: Describe the smell of freshly cut grass to somebody without a nose; Describe a symphony to a deaf person.

Language hinges on shared senses and common experiences.

It seems like everything, from the abstract to the simple, is hard to explain with language.

Two solutions

Philosophy hinges on philosophers being able to accurate explain their position with language.

Naturally, it's the first place we should look to solve language limits.

I've noticed that Western and Eastern philosophy use nearly opposite approaches to navigate the language limits.

Western philosophy often uses logic, reasoning, and paragraphs of definition to explain ideas.

This works... but it often leaves me more confused. Do philosophic positions need pages of writing to be understood?

Eastern philosophy, by contrast, tends to emphasize finding through yourself instead of the external world.

Your own thoughts instead of another’s words.

Relying on personal experience and “ah-ha” moments to explain Buddhism, Zen, and the universe.

As an example, consider meditation.

Insights from meditating come purely from within. A meditation teacher can give you a starting point to unlock these ("focus on your breath"), but it's not a TED talk. You are learning from yourself.

We see this same sort of teaching style in ancient eastern philosophy. Using less words and leaving more thinking to the reader.

Maybe they understood the limits of language...