Limits of Language

In a typically dense, which is not to say stupid, passage, a youthful Wittgenstein said ‘the world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy’. Like so many things in the book this is taken from, to ignore the genius behind it is to misread something as either obvious and trivial, or false and trivial. Happy is not unhappy, being the former analysis.

The somewhat less trivial analysis is that our world, when happy, is different in kind from our world when we are unhappy. By ‘in kind’ here I mean that the two states are incommensurable, not perceptible from their own standpoint, one world unable to be fully apprehended from the position of the other. And this is even truer in cases where it is one’s own world which has changed. Understanding, apprehension, between one person and another needs no difference in state to make of it a yawning gulf.

This is no break in reason or continuity. It is not a state of absent memory, nor is it a case of one world rendering the other false by virtue of it being the present one. One cannot see a country over the horizon, a country whose practices and law tables can differ comprehensively. But that other country is not falsified, or outside the potential bounds of one’s reason, because one resides out of sight. Nevertheless, being in one such country, one such state, to needlessly confuse things, removes the immediate possibility of experiencing the other.

As an elucidatory example, this serves little purpose, since the point being made is far more stark, perceptual and cognitive in nature than an example of someone, representing their own perceptual and cognitive world, existing at separate times in two separate countries. I use it mainly to indicate the sense in which a rational progression can yet be part of two entirely separate states.

And what, if any, is the wider purpose of stating this at all? My own feeling is that there is a note of enfeeblement here. A practical one, since happiness blinds one to the true possibility of unhappiness. And unhappiness precludes the possibility of happiness. We carry each world, we constitute each world at every step. The worlds are not the same because, when we change between states, the world itself is different.

Perhaps in the end it is trivial. We constitute our own world at every step and every moment. As we change, so it changes. And as its boundaries are ours, we do not see outside, and we do not experience the world as it was when we change. This is not, after all, about memory.

And it is very possible that Wittgenstein’s exhortation to silence about what we cannot speak of anticipated pointless extemporised blogging.


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