From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 8

Far West Editions


The Limits of My Language Are

 the Limits of My World

by Victor Zuckerkandl


Translated by Norbert Guterman, extracted from Man the Musi­cian, Chapter VII, by permission of the publishers, Princeton University Press.


... From the evolutionary point of view, speech unquestionably ranks higher than music.

I do not claim that speech existed before music. It is impossible to ascertain the exact sequence of facts buried so far back in time. What I do say is that man begins with the word. The word marks the crucial advance which sets man apart from all other living beings. With the power of speech he breaks through the closed circle of action and reaction that keeps other living organisms bound to their immediate environment. Unlike the animal, once man acquires the power of speech he exists no longer only in nature and begins to conceive of nature” as something distinct from himself. The word does not completely divorce man from nature, to which he remains bound, but it loosens his ties, sets him apart, creates things. Nature becomes world. The word is the sign by means of which man’s being-in-the-world is distinguished from the animal’s being-in-nature. The endlessly de­bated question of whether the power of speech is actually man’s distinctive attribute, whether some highly developed animal species are capable of speech, essentially centers around the definition of the term “language.”1 If language is defined by its social function, if the word is primarily seen as the instrument used by individuals of a given com­munity to communicate with one another, then there is no doubt that bees, for instance, possess a highly developed language. If language is viewed primarily as an expression of the “soul,” of inner feelings, states of mind, or as a game composed of sounds and gestures, whether imitative or merely playful, then it is clear that human as compared with animal language differs from the latter only in degree of efficiency, not in kind. But human language is actually something else, something more: it also has a purely denotative function; it designates things, names them. No animal names things. An animal can give the sign “water” when water is supposed to be found or avoided, it can express pleasure or aversion when encountering water, it may even perform a water dance,” but it would make no sense for an animal to say “water” in circumstances in which water had no relevance to the animal’s life functions. If language is defined by its specifically human characteristics, as something never found outside the human world—for no human language, however primitive, functions purely as sign, as emotive expression, as a game, or fails to be first and foremost a language of words—then the term refers to a power of speech different in kind from any and every animal language, a power that could not have just grown gradually out of animal language. None of us has ever been an animal, so none of us can take the measure of this decisive step. We can get an inkling of how momentous this step was from the autobiography of Helen Keller, in which she describes how she first realized that “water” was not just a sign or expressive sound but a name, and that it made sense to say “water” even when she was not wet or thirsty. The step from functional designation to meaning, the emergence of meaning, is the crucial one: with it, the human spirit rises above nature. The word marks the moment when man comes into the world and becomes aware of the world. Thus he can call the word “God”: the word created man.

Since man has sought to understand himself at all, he has under­stood himself primarily as a being that possesses the power of speech. This could not be otherwise. The idea man forms of his own essence may center on practical activities, on tools and technology, or on theoretical activities, art, thinking, science: what essentially charac­terizes all of them is man’s language-born attitude toward the world as something distinct from himself. Animals, too, work, fashion, think in their own way, but only man does all this as an “I” confronting a world. Only man has a world, and he has it only because he has the word. I have just said that tones open up a new dimension: the same can be said more justly of words. For the singer’s sense of being at one with his world has a sort of precedent at a prehuman stage, in the animal’s relationship with its natural environment, whereas the word marks the emergence of something utterly new, something that had never existed before. The passage to a new dimension here involves a radical break, a stepping out of nature: speaking man faces the world, sees it from “outside,” speaks to it; in speaking to it, he views it as distinct from himself, and himself as distinct from it; what the word names becomes thing, object. Philologists and psychologists agree that in the evolution of the race as well as of the individual, objects make their appearance concurrently with the advance from expressive sounds or signs to words. The dimension opened up by the word is called “objective reality.” This is not something that existed prior to speech, that speech merely discovers; it is first and foremost a creation of speech. Comparative linguistics is gradually destroying our naive notion of objective reality as an absolute, that is, absolutely autono­mous, entirely self-determined reality to which our words or our thoughts slowly find their way, guided by language. “It must be remembered, disconcerting though the fact may be, that so far from a grammar—the structure of a symbol system—being a reflection of the structure of the world, any supposed structure of the world is more probably a reflection of the grammar used.”2 For this reason the term “object” and terms designating the object-subject relationship have different connotations in differently structured languages: each lan­guage “discovers” its own objective reality. There is no reality “be­hind” all these different objective realities; the very notion of an objective reality “behind” language is meaningless. All this is not to belittle the importance of the idea of objectivity; it only helps us understand in what sense the word can be said to have created man and his world. Now it also becomes clear that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s proposition in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” must not be taken in a restrictive sense, but is valid without reservations.

At this point it might seem that our reflections have become self-contradictory, incompatible with our earlier assertion resulting from a longer chain of reasoning, that speaking man’s image of himself and his world needs to be broadened and supplemented. Actually, the incompatibility is only apparent. For although the limits of my lan­guage are the limits of my world, music lies within these limits: after all, we do name it, say “music”; the word places it before us, makes it a human thing in the human world. Music is not alien to us. We can appropriate it because we have the word, because we name it, because we can ask questions about it—questions concerning music not only as a “thing” or “object” but also as a reality not encompassed by the terms “thing” and “object,” questions concerning the intrinsic nature of music, its essence. True, many writers deny that such questions con­cerning the essence of music have any rational meaning. According to them, it is possible to speak rationally only about the “object” music, a specific human activity viewed historically, psychologically, sociolog­ically—the periphery, the shell of music, not the kernel; the latter, we are told, eludes verbal expression. To take this view, to conclude that music is by nature inaccessible to the word, to language, is to exclude it from the world of language, that is, the human world. But to regard any discourse on the essence of music as fruitless on the ground that the essential core of music eludes verbal expression is to misconstrue the significance of both tones and words. If rational discourse were possible only where the essence of a thing did not elude verbal expression, what would be left? Who besides a mathematician could say anything rational about color, for example? (Goethe’s monstrous folly!) No one could speak about himself, let alone about God. Man as a rational being would be forbidden to ask the very questions that more than anything else reveal him as a rational being, the questions concerning himself and the meaning of his existence.

All this, however, makes us more sharply aware of the paradox involved in our position. How can something—music—that extends beyond word language nonetheless lie within the boundaries of word language? How is it possible to capture in words that which eludes verbal expression? We are reminded of an old philosophical paradox: What is “nothing”? If every thought is a thought about something, how is it possible to think “nothing”? How are we to interpret the fact that when someone says “nothing,” he does not say nothing? Should not a man who wants to say “nothing” remain silent? Those who try to say something about music are confronted with similar questions. Our discussion of the tone-word relationship in folk song brought the paradox fully into the open. It has been shown that the word “tone” names a thing, that is, makes it an object whose essence manifests itself in negating every kind of objectivity and in reaching beyond anything that can be said in words. Our analysis could proceed only in the medium of language; it was an attempt to say in words not only that

tones say what words cannot say but also what it is they say: to say in words what words cannot say. Is this absurd? Only those who read the proposition falsely may allege so, as though we had written: “to say in words a thing which words cannot say.” But surely no one could mean to say anything so absurd, for this would amount to asserting and denying simultaneously the difference between tones and words. What is actually meant can only be: “to say in words what it is that words cannot say.” Anyone who denies that it is possible to do this is like a man who says it is futile to try to see the inside of things because the eye sees only their surface, and so sees only the outside. Such a man misunderstands what the phrase “to say in words” means. It does not mean that words can take the place of things, as though words were things all over again, in another form. Words do not duplicate things, nor do they represent the “spirit” of things, nor do they merely point to things already given. Words are boundaries: they create things by setting them apart, by tracing their boundaries. But a boundary is not the same thing as that which is bounded. That which is in this sense created by the word always extends beyond the word, extends “in­ward.” Sometimes this inner part is “empty”—when a thing is entirely defined by boundaries, when word and thing coincide, when the thing is identical with its definition as is the case with many scientific and abstract concepts, especially the symbols of logical calculus. Normal­ly, however, the “inside” of things is not “empty”; the thing is not identical with its definition, is more than its boundary. But this does not mean that words must now lag behind: what extends beyond the word is not for this reason inaccessible to it. The naming word will be followed by other words, directed inward, away from the boundary—words that reach into that which was circumscribed, words that trace ever closer boundary lines around the things, as though to rope them in. The things respond in various ways: depending upon their nature or structure, they submit readily or resist. To put it differently, about some things it is easier to speak; more can be said about them than about others. A visible thing, for instance, being itself delimited, accommodates itself more readily to the requirements of speech than a mood or a feeling, the static more readily than the dynamic, “words” more readily than “tones.” In a general way words, by their very nature, tend to emphasize boundaries, to draw attention to them; to counteract that tendency always requires a special effort. When words are given too much scope, when our thinking relies exclusively on words, on language, it may happen that the things, giving way to the words, seemingly shrink more and more within their boundaries, become identical with their definitions: the world becomes unreal. In this sense, we have said above that the mere word “subject” turns the subject into an object. If the same is allowed to happen to the word “tone,” our discourse about tones will very soon be confined to frequencies and sine curves, to figures and numbers, that is, to physics; if this happens to the word “music,” we will soon confine our dis­course to cultural history or the rules of musical theory. But language is never powerless. Words can say “no,” can time and again undo what words have done, can upset the thing’s fixation in its existence as object, pry open what they have enclosed within their boundaries, trace new boundaries and pry them open again—words acting against words, language against language, yet never ceasing to be words, language.

Once again the metaphor of the sphere comes to mind. The pre-linguistic stage could be represented by the undifferentiated sphere. With the emergence of speech a differentiation sets in, the sphere articulating into a center and a spherical surface seen from within—as we see the horizon, for instance, or the starry sky. The center stands for speaking man, the surface for his world. The words trace boundaries on the surface; the figures they delimit are things named by words, “objects.” This does not, however, reduce the sphere to a central point plus a surface. Not only speech exists; there is also music, tones, and the tones do not trace figures on the surface, do not extend in two dimensions on the surface but cut through it; they move outward and inward without creating something confronting them; they are pure beings of the third dimension, depth; they are, so to speak, perpen­dicular to the surface that represents words. Consequently, we must assume the reality of such a “perpendicular”: before and behind the surface there is not nothing. The sphere is not merely a central point plus a surface; it also has depth. The tones put the two-dimensionality of the verbal world in question. In the perspective of the tone, the surface is a cross section of the spherical space and the figures on the

surface are projections of three-dimensioned structures. This division, however, is not as simple as it might appear, does not imply that the surface is the domain of the word, and depth the domain of the tone. The depth opened by tones is not inaccessible to words. Although the word remains surface, this surface is not fixed at a definite place, a definite distance from the center: it can shift its position, can move closer to the center and move away from it. The tones do not run away from the words; the words catch up with them. To whatever depth the tones reach, words can reach too, but they never cease to be two-dimensional. Direct expression of depth is denied to words, is reserved to tones. Tones, for their part, are denied the sharp outlines, the definiteness of figures, which require the two dimensions of the surface to be represented. In itself, the dimension of depth can produce no figure. Thus both, words and tones, have each their own limits and their own limitless possibilities.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”: only now does the meaning of Wittgenstein’s proposition become entirely clear. “The limits of language” does not imply the existence of a domain inaccessible to language. No such domain exists. Nothing actually or potentially relevant to human existence is beyond the grasp of lan­guage; the domain of the word is limitless. The limit beyond which words cannot go is their own delimiting activity. The limit of lan­guage is its being-a-limit. However broad or narrow the limits it may trace, there is one thing it never reaches: that which is delimited. This is the unutterable—Wittgenstein calls it the “mystical.” It is not mys­tical in the sense of being infinitely remote, utterly hidden; it is what is closest to us, most manifestly present in everything that is not an intellectual or linguistic fiction. This is what Aristotle means when he says that the individual is the ineffable. This is what Rilke has in mind when he says “wagt zu sagen, was ihr Apfel nennt!”—”Dare to spell out what you’re calling apple!” He himself dares just that, in one of his poems of the “Orpheus” sequence. Wittgenstein was wrong to write “What we cannot speak of we must consign to silence.” Not at all: what we cannot speak of we can sing about.

Just what we mean here should be clear. Singing man does not raise himself above speaking man, musical man does not supersede rational man. The otherness of tones is not of another world. It does not derive from some transcendental beyond or from some “purely interior” self or thought or feeling. It is singing man’s different attitude toward his world. That from which speaking man sets himself apart and which he holds in front of himself, singing man brings as close as he can to himself, becomes one with. The two acts are like breathing in and breathing out, in one process, or the Chinese sage’s complementarity of love and respect.

1. Cf. Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man, Part I, Chapter 3.