Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Words Can't Express

A Google search of "words can't express" gives 864,000 hits containing that phrase. That's a lot of things, written in words, that words can't express!

I don't mean to be flip. (See my previous post.) But someone has some explaining to do here. Here's a shot:

"Words can't express x" --> whatever one says about x will fall short of expressing all there is to x. (So, words can perhaps partially, but not completely, express x.)

As I said before, this is why we do other things, like paint pictures, write songs, make films, and (I might add) buy people flowers, as those activities are expressive in ways that get beyond language (i.e. word-use).

At the same time, it seems like one might find these non-linguistic modes of communication equally dissatisfying, such that we are tempted to think that nothing can fully express something, as it were, "inside us." Is that thought an illusion?

(I'm thinking here, for those who know it, of Wittgenstein's remarks aimed at debunking the notion that there are "private objects" or could be a "private language"...)


  1. I see you cover Wittgenstein, reading your post I am reminded of Sartre, particularly Sartre’s belief that words are only devices that are used by humans to protect themselves from seeing the world as it truly is. I am not a professional scholar but I would be interested in your view of Sartre containing his thoughts on words, especially since it appears you have studied Wittgenstein.

  2. Tom: I don't know the context of the Sartre quote, so I can't say. I imagine this is sometimes true. If the point is just that words aren't a substitute for reality, then I suppose I agree. But we use words to point to reality, to attune others. Of course, words can be used for other things, too, like manipulation. Sounds like typical provocative Sartre--using a half-truth to focus attention.