‘The limits to my language are the limits to my mind’ … eh, what? … no they’re not!

Two interesting things came together this week (interesting to me that is). I was reading a book about cycling by music legend David Byrne (of Talking Heads… you remember, ‘Road to Nowhere’) and then I watched the first of two programmes by TV legend and naturalist Chris Packham.

So, in David Byrne’s book ‘Bicycle Diaries’, which intellectually meanders all over the place like his cycling and his lyrics, he quoted linguistic philosophy legend Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying ‘The limits to my language are the limits to my mind. All I know is all I have words for‘. This quote is taken from his epic ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ (1922) in which he also said ‘… what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence’. Now Wittgenstein was clearly talking about the use of language in a philosophical sense, because, as he also said ‘Philosophy is the logical clarification of thought‘, which it clearly is. Still, there is more to life than philosophy.

So, the other noteworthy thing for me this week was watching Chris Packham’s thoughtful and deeply moving TV programme ‘Inside Our Autistic Minds‘ (on channel BBC2 in the UK). However, one short passage from this programme made me think back to that quote from Wittgenstein about the primacy of language use in our culture. At a day service for people with autism, the clips shown focused entirely on the performative use of language within activities provided for the service users i.e. picking out named cards after a verbal request from staff (and Chris), or using electronic devices to name objects or emotional states, again on verbal request from someone else.

Hhhm, I thought, is this a fair representation of the activities used at this service (they didn’t show any Intensive Interaction being used, or mention it) or is the editor picking out activities that will be viewed by a general public audience as showing some kind of successful 2-way communication that they can recognise i.e. because it focuses on the performance of language use. I don’t know, it could be either.

So, that’s the point I think I take from this; that language use is almost always perceived to be the form of communication that is our collective and culturally desired end goal i.e. that our use and understanding of language frames our minds and thus our engagement with, and subjective experience of, the world.

And this is where I fundamentally disagree; our language understanding and use (outside of philosophical musing) is surely not the limit to our minds or our worlds. Our ‘knowing’ of the world as we experience it, I would suggest, is mainly very poorly represented (even to ourselves) by our available language use or understanding, which is always to some degree (perhaps often to a large degree) a gross simplification of our overall subjective experience.

Wouldn’t we all, collectively, be better recognising that verbal (i.e. symbolic) thought and communication is only one form of this cognitive and communicative phenomena, and that the entirety of our minds and worlds is actually based on the processing of the more fundamental subconscious thoughts, feelings and emotions that we experience (non-symbolically). Perhaps Wittgenstein should have said ‘The limits to my thoughts, feelings and emotions are the limits to my mind. All I know is all I think and feel‘.

Perhaps also, services for people who have a communication or social difficulty or difference (e.g. because of their autism) should also train their staff to respond to people using all the available communicative means, and not just focus on someone’s performance of symbolic language use. Perhaps they should also focus on a person’s use of the Fundamentals of Communication (Nind & Hewett, 1994) through the adoption of Intensive Interaction, and not pass over in silence what they cannot talk about.

2 thoughts on “‘The limits to my language are the limits to my mind’ … eh, what? … no they’re not!

  1. absolutely and completely agree. the view that’s primitively (and incorrectly thought) thought is that of ‘less’, due to a lack of verbal skills or ‘less’ iq……but, my own personal experience is that the people I support have a very different emotional experience (but not less), a very different recall or memories (never less) ,very different processing, thinking/cognitive pattern, sensory experience, relationship with their body, relationship with the social world etc etc etc.

    sadly, the view of one element of communication (the brain informing the body to exhale and move mouth, throat and vocal cord in a particular way) being ‘less’ is flawed. It means we need to be better at grasping the person and world view to ensure we build a world that meets their differences rather than telling them they are less.

    brilliant blog graham


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