‘Camille de Toledo’s’ turbulent u-topos

Dans L’Inquiétude d’être au monde (2010), Camille de Toledo écrit:

A nowhere land, une terre sans mot,
sans doute pas même une terre.
Un non-lieu que je nomme u-topos,
où nous pourrions bien apprendre
à penser ; non pas dans la langue de l’autre,
mais dans l’entre, là où nous sommes également muets,
traversés par le même effroi.
Là, justement, où nous devons apprendre à vivre,
dans l’inquiétude de toute chose.


In antwoord skryf Catherine du Toit:

A nowhere land, ’n aarde sonder woorde,
sonder twyfel nie eens ’n aarde nie.
’n Geenplek wat ek u-topos noem,
waar ons miskien kan leer dink;
nie in die taal van ’n ander nie
maar in die tussen, daar waar ons almal ewe stom is,
met dieselfde vrees deurtrek.
Juis dáár, waar ons moet leer lewe,
in die onrustigheid van alles wat is.


In answer Peter McDonald writes:

Une terre de nulle part, a land without words,
probably not even a land.
A non-place that I call u-topos,
where we might learn
to think; not in the language of the other,
but in between, where we are all equally mute,
gripped by the same fear.
There, exactly, where we must learn to live,
amid the turbulence of all things.


Darauf erwiderten Tom Kuhn und Margit Dirscherl:

A nowhere land, ein Land ohne Wort
gewiss nicht einmal ein Land.
Ein Nirgendwo, das ich u-topos nenne,
wo wir wohl lernen könnten
zu denken; nicht in der Sprache des Anderen
sondern im Dazwischen, wo wir unterschiedslos stumm sind
ergriffen von derselben Furcht.
Genau dort, wo wir zu leben lernen müssen
inmitten der Unrast aller Dinge.


:رنا عيسى ترد

بلاد اللامحال
بلاد بلا مفردات
ربما لم تكن بلاد أصلا.
أسميه اللامكان
هناك بإمكاننا أن نتعلم
أن نفكر، ليس في لسان الآخر
ولكن بين الألسن
حيث نخرس جميعا
يجتازنا نفس الخوف
بالظبط هناك علينا
أن نتعلم كيف نحيا
في قلق كل شيء


Mar freagra, scríobh Bernard O’Donoghue:

A nowhere land, tír gan briathar:
gan amhras ní tír in aon chor é.
Neamh-áit a ainmníonn mé u-topos,
inar tuigfimid I gceart
cad is smaoineamh ann: ná I teanga eachtrannach
ach sa lár, ina bhfuilfimid uile balbh,
traochta leis an eagla céanna.
Ansin, cruinn san áit inar bheibh orainn tuiscint
cad is cónaí dúinn sa bhuairt rud go léir.


जवाब में Arvind Krishna Mehrotra / Sara Rai लिखते हैं :

अ-जगह, एक शब्दहीन देश,
शायद देश भी नहीं।
एक अ-स्थान जिसे मैं कहता हूँ u-topos,
जहाँ हम सीख सकते हैं
सोचना; किसी अन्य की भाषा में नहीं,
मगर उस बीच की जगह में,
जहाँ हम सभी एक जैसे मूक हैं,
एक समान डर की गिरफ़्त में।
वहीं, बस वहीं हमें जीना सीखना है
उन तमाम बेचैनियों के दरमियान।



UHleze Kunju uphendula athi:

Umhlaba ongekhoyo, umhlaba ongenamazwi,
mhlawumbi ayisingomhlaba.
Indawo engekhoyo endiyibiza i-topos,
apho singafunda khona
sicinge, hayi ngolwimi lomnye,
kodwa embindini, apho sonke sizizimuma,
sigutyungelwe luloyiko.
Apho kanye, sifunde ukuphila,
kweso siphithiphithi sezinto zonke.



Som svar skriver Tore Rem:

A nowhere land, et land uten ord,
kanskje ikke engang et land.
Et ikke-sted jeg kaller u-topos,
hvor vi kan lære
å tenke; ikke i den andres språk,
men et sted imellom, hvor vi alle er like stumme,
grepet av den samme frykten.
Der, akkurat, hvor vi må lære å leve,
midt i alle tings uro.




A nowhere land, 一个无言之地,
一个我叫u-topos 的非地之地,



En respuesta Xon De Ros escribe

Em nenhum lugar, un espacio sin palabras,
quizás ni siquiera un espacio.
Un no-lugar al que llamo u-topos,
donde se podría aprender
a pensar; no en la lengua del otro,
sino entremedio, donde todos guardamos silencio,
dominados por el mismo temor.
Es ahí, precisamente, donde se ha de aprender a vivir,
en el desasosiego de todas las cosas.


With thanks to Catherine du Toit, Tom Kuhn, Margit Dirscherl, Rana Issa, Bernard O’Donoghue, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Sara Rai, Hleze Kunju, Tore Rem, Biao Xiang and Xon De Ros.

Further contributions to this translation archive welcome.

Beyond the magic circle: Re-reading Humboldt

jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis

1. A series of citations, appropriations and translations gave the following two sentences from section §9 of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s posthumously published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (On the Diversity of Human Language Construction, 1836) a canonical status in the English-reading world:

Man lives with his objects chiefly—in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively—as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another. (9, italics added)

The quotation comes from Language and Myth, Susanne K. Langer’s 1946 translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Sprache und Mythos (1925). Her rendering of Cassirer’s citation of Humboldt’s original German (see below) appears to mark the moment these sentences crossed over to English for the first time. (In the introduction to the book I discuss the way Marshall McLuhan used this particular quotation in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).)

Uber title page1.1 Many aspects of Langer’s translation remain debatable, beginning with her insertion of the adjective ‘magic’. As Cassirer correctly had it, Humboldt referred only to einen Kreis (a circle), avoiding any hint of conjuring. Her choice of ‘ensnares’ was equally loaded. In the 1988 Cambridge edition of On Language, now the standard English version of Über die Verschiedenheit, Peter Heath used ‘spins’ (for spinnt), following Humboldt’s underlying analogy which figures language as an intricately-patterned fabric (Gewebe). In his own version from 1982, J. M. Coetzee also chose ‘spins’ (‘weaves’ is also possible). When it came to ‘the people’, however, the phrase Langer and Heath both used for Humboldt’s das Volk, Coetzee opted for ‘the national linguistic community [Volk]’, giving the key term a different political inflection while at the same time allowing for its untranslatability (181). The single word ‘nation’ has sufficed for other translators. Conscious of the racialized ethnolinguistic assumptions underpinning apartheid, Coetzee was no doubt thinking of the Germanic word’s specific resonances in Afrikaans. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of the Old English (Old Frisian/Saxon) ‘folc’, meaning ‘a people, nation, race’, to a sixteenth-century edition of Beowulf but it traces many of the compounds, where the word means ‘popular’ (e.g. ‘folklore’, ‘folktale’), to the 19th century. It also notes that the meaning of the Anglo-Norman (Latinate) word ‘people’ changed from the 14th to the 17th century, shifting from ‘the mass of the community as distinguished from the nobility or the ruling classes’ to ‘the whole body of citizens of a country, regarded as the source of political power or as the basis of society’.

1.2 Langer had a particular attachment to the phrase ‘magic circle’ because she thought it went to the heart of Cassirer’s larger project in Sprache und Mythos. Following in the tradition of Humboldtian philosophical idealism,  Cassirer set out to challenge the prevailing positivistic theories of knowledge in early twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy.  Concerned as they were ‘with “facts” and the development of orderly thought about facts’, she commented in her preface, the mainstream Euro-American positivists of the time invariably dismissed older mythic and poetic forms of thinking as mistakes or ‘vulgar superstition’ (viii). Rejecting this, Cassirer insisted that ‘language, man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency’ (viii). He also argued that ‘the mind’ expresses itself ‘in different forms, one of which is discursive logic, the other creative imagination’. His point, however, was not to affirm the latter at the expense of the former. He acknowledged, as Langer put it, that ‘myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas’, while ‘language, born of the same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds’, thereby taking ‘us from the mythmaking phase of human mentality to the phase of logical thought and conception of facts’ (ix-x). As this suggests, Cassirer shared the positivists’ progressivist conception of intellectual history. The difference was that while they discarded the prelogical poetic phase, he wanted to keep it in play. This influenced his own reading of the passage from Humboldt which, he wrote, ‘holds, perhaps, even more for the basic mythical conceptions of mankind than for language’ (9). Langer reinforced this in her translation, effectively recasting Humboldt’s neutral Sprache (language) as poetic ‘mythmaking’ in Cassirer’s sense—hence her choice of ‘ensnares’ and her eagerness to add ‘magic’.

2. Cut adrift from their initial moorings, re-framed by Cassirer’s reading, and re-worded in Langer’s English, these two sentences became something of a snare for Humboldt himself, sealing his fate as a caricature linguistic relativist for whom language, understood as the exclusive property of a Volk, determines thought, and casting him as a founding figure in a longer story about the historical origins of what came to be called the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ (see Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue, 2012, 6-10). Re-reading these sentences in their original context reveals a figure at once more complex and enduringly significant: a Humboldt for our own times who has surprising things to say about relativism in all its contemporary guises—cultural and cognitive as well as linguistic—and about the public value of literature (or poetic thinking in Cassirer’s sense) in today’s intercultural and increasingly interconnected world.

3. One of Humboldt’s main purposes in section §9 of Über die Verschiedenheit was to challenge an overly rationalistic ‘picture of language’ as a tool for naming things ‘already perceived in themselves’ (i.e. independently of language) and for serving ‘the need for mutual assistance’ or ‘sociality’ (i.e. communication, 60). ‘Man, as a species, is a singing creature’, he insisted, anticipating Cassirer, since language has always exhibited ‘a wealth and multiplicity of expressions that everywhere exceeds what is required’ merely for the sake of communication or labelling (60). Put in the terms of his other key analogyTweed fabric—language as a fabric—we could say that humankind is a spinning creature, only the artefact being spun in this case is not a piece of finely-woven cloth but a language with ‘a characteristic world-view’ (Weltansicht, 60). Crucially, as Underhill notes, Humboldt used the latter term to refer only to the lexical and grammatical ‘patterning within which we think’ not to any content-laden beliefs whether religious (e.g. Catholic), say, or political (e.g. Nationalist)—he used Weltanschauung (‘world-conception’) for the latter (106). So, while serving various practical needs or instrumental purposes, each language also does something more: it creates what Humboldt called a ‘conceptual fabric and mode of presentation,’ making certain ways of thinking possible (60).

3.1. In so doing, it also draws ‘a circle’ around das Volk to which it ‘belongs’ (angehört). Humboldt’s purpose in adding this further geometrical analogy was not to define a clear cognitive boundary, let alone imagine languages as snares or prison-houses. He wanted only to affirm the benefits of multilingualism in a diverse world, while acknowledging the finite, visceral way we inevitably experience language. ‘To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint’, he remarked in the next sentence, ‘but because we always carry over, more or less, our own world-view, and even our own language-view, this outcome is not purely or completely experienced’ (60). Here the qualifications (‘more or less’, ‘not purely or completely’) are as telling as the distinction between ‘world-view’ and ‘language-view’. In the preceding paragraph, he noted that ‘the native tongue possesses a strength and intimacy so much greater than any foreign one’ not so much because of ‘its mental content’ (the world-view) but because of ‘the very thing that is least explicable and most individual, its sound’ (the language-view or specifically phonology). This reflects the fact that our relationship to language is first and foremost bodily, specifically aural, rather than conceptual or cognitive—hence Humboldt’s emphasis on song. A native speaker cut off from her language for an extended period is likely to experience her re-immersion as a ‘sudden magic’, he wrote, because of the way ‘it greets the ear’ (59). Conversely, when she learns another language, the challenge is not so much to pick up its linguistic-cognitive patterns (the ‘conceptual fabric’) but to adopt its sounds and rhythms, something he believed she could never achieve completely. At some moments, no doubt when its speech patterns were most alien, her already well-trained tongue/brain would betray her visceral embeddedness as the speaker of different first language—hence the Old Testament story of the word ‘shibboleth’ (Judges 12:5-6). Stressing the ineluctable finitude of bodily experience was another feature of Humboldt’s anti-rationalism.

4. His other main purpose in section §9 was to show how the circle purportedly demarcating the circumference of each language can never be rigidly defined. This is in part because each belongs not just to das Volk but to ‘the whole human species’, a fact that makes it all but impossible to conceptualize as a bounded sphere, countable thing or object of positive knowledge (62). What each community might think of as its own language ‘flows out from an unknown wealth that is still to a certain extent discernible’, he observed, but, since it also shares an ‘infinitude, without beginning or end, with the whole existence of mankind’, it ‘then closes off, leaving only a sense of unfathomability’, a ‘dark unrevealed depth’—hence its ‘peculiar existence’ as something that both does and does not express ‘the soul’ (der Seele) of each Volk (62). As this wording suggests, Humboldt’s philosophical idealism was complicated by his anti-rationalism: if each language expresses the ‘soul’ of das Volk, on his account, it never defines its identity once and for all ‘for nowhere, not even in writing, does it have a permanent abode’ (62).

4.1 This peculiarity is also evident at the individual level. ‘When we think how the current generation of a people (einem Volke) is governed by all that their language has undergone, through all the preceding centuries’, he wrote, ‘it then becomes evident how small, in fact, is the power of the individual compared to the might of language’ (63). This sounds like straightforward articulation of linguistic determinism. Yet Humboldt immediately continues: ‘the manner in which language is modified in every individual discloses, in contrast to its previously expounded power, a dominion of man over it’ (63).

4.2 The idea that there is a constant interplay between individual and community, freedom and constraint, change and regularity was central to Humboldt’s philosophy of language. ‘In the influence exerted on [the individual] lies the regularity of language and its forms’, he continued, ‘in his own reaction, a principle of freedom’ (64). This anti-deterministic affirmation of creative potentiality once again put the boundedness of languages in question. By coining new words, importing others, or violating phonetic, orthographic and grammatical rules, any and every member of das Volk (in its populist sense) could, he argued, add to the ‘inexhaustible storehouse’ of the language (61). This aspect of his thinking had a direct influence on the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in the 1920s (see Chapter 3 of the book) and on Noam Chomsky in the 1960s. Yet, as a figure who owed much to the German Romantic tradition of the late-eighteenth century, Humboldt also believed that ‘a genuinely new and great talent’—above all a great writer—could do something more than the ordinary speaker (61). By opening ‘a vista’ beyond ‘the field of past achievements’ and by making it possible to think and feel in ways ‘for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances’, the emergence of a genuinely inventive writer, always an indeterminable event, could both transform a language and advance the ‘intellectual struggle’ of humanity as a whole (61, 64). ‘We should misconceive the nature of language, and violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena’ (64).

4.3 Humboldt returns to the generative capacity of language in section §20 where he describes how ‘the mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed, but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself’ (157). This was because ‘the nature of man has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region’ (157). In effect, simultaneously rejecting the basic tenets of linguistic relativism and determinism, he insisted that it is only by means of language that the ‘conceptual fabric’ of das Volk can be creatively stitched, unstitched and re-stitched, making it possible for new ways of thinking to emerge and its Weltansicht, that is its embedded conceptualizations, to be transformed. Again, he believed inventive writers were central to this, since it is through its literature that the language raises ‘itself to the pure evolution of thought, and to free expression’, and thereby ‘develops its character’ (151).

5. Langer’s translation of the two sentences from Über die Verschiedenheit itself highlights the generative possibilities and the potential perils of ‘stepping out’ of the ‘circle’ of one language into another, even for those as closely linked as German and English. This is especially clear in the case of a word like Volk which, despite having a life in both languages, simultaneously invites various translations, each with a different political inflection (‘people’ vs. ‘nation’), and tests the limits of translatability itself. Much the same can be said for Weltanschauung which the OED treats both as a loanword (itself a questionable metaphor given what it presumes about ownership) meaning ‘a particular philosophy or view of life; a concept of the world held by an individual or a group’ and as a calque (‘world-view’) meaning ‘a set of fundamental beliefs, values, etc., determining or constituting a comprehensive outlook on the world; a perspective on life’. It claims the calque, which it dates to 1848, entered the language twenty years before the direct loan. It also has an entry for Weltansicht, though it identifies it as a rare loanword meaning ‘world-view’ dating from 1892. Each interlingual transfer—loan or calque—added a new thread to the ‘conceptual fabric’ of English, extending its expressive capacity, though, as the definitions suggest, the particular use Humboldt made of the two terms did not make the crossover. In fact, the technical distinction he drew between Weltansicht (which is an exclusively linguistic phenomenon) and Weltanschauung (which encompasses extra-linguistic values and beliefs) remains peculiar to his philosophical lexicon even for speakers of contemporary German. Langer’s translation of den Gegenständen (‘his objects’) and seinen Vorstellungen (‘his perceptions’) raises other questions. While the first can be rendered literally as ‘the objects’, which makes no specific claims about ownership (simply the totality of things in the world, rather than those with which humanity is especially preoccupied), the second can more plausibly be translated as ‘ideas’ or ‘conceptions’ since Vorstellungen have less to do with what is seen with the eyes (the visible surface) than with what is imagined (the conceptual structure), framing rather than looking. Inevitably, with the Latinate English words we also lose some of the ‘conceptual fabric’, specifically the spatial or prepositional underpinnings, of the German originals: ‘objects’ are literally things that stand opposite you (Gegen-stand as ‘towards/against-stand’), whereas the more active ‘conceptions’ put things in front of you (vor-stellen as ‘before-set’).

6. In Humboldt’s original German, the two sentences appear as follows:

Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handeln in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer anderen hinübertritt. (Über die Verschiedenheit, 58-59)

I am grateful to Tobias Heinrich and Tom Kuhn for their advice on various aspects German usage.


Ernst Cassirer, Sprache und Mythos (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1925).

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946).

J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, ed. D. Attwell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). The essay ‘Isaac Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language’ first appeared in the Journal of Literary Semantics, 11.1 (January 1982), 3-13.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (Berlin: Koniglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1836).

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language, trans. P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. 

For further reading on Humboldt and relativity, see Aneta Pavlenko, The Bilingual Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Gunter Senft, et. al., eds, Culture and Language Use (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009); Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

For an engaging contemporary take on the centrality of phonology, which bears comparison to the emphasis Humboldt placed on sound and song, see Ray Jackendoff, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially pp. 43-44 and 103-107.

See also Lera Boroditzki’s blog Notes on Intercultural Communication.

And for a creative engagement with these questions, see Zineb Sedira’s three-part video installationMother Tongue‘ (2002). 

Strip Teasy: Wittgenstein and Joyce

Wittgenstein and Joyce

Die Sprache verkleidet den Gedanken.

1.This statement from section §4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/2), which Pears and McGuiness translate as ‘language disguises thought’, sets the terms of the early Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Drawing on the immediate context, we could parse it as follows: ‘everyday/ordinary language (Umgangssprache) hides the true identity of the proposition (der Satz)’. ‘So much so’, the next sentence continues, ‘that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the clothed thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.’ This is a perfectly good translation. Yet by deleting the word ‘clothed’ (bekleideten) from the first clause—because it seems redundant?—Pears and McGuiness downplay the poetic logic of the original which follows a thread of phonetic-orthographic associations peculiar to German: ‘verkleidet’ (disguises) links to ‘Kleides’ (clothing or dress) and to ‘bekleideten’ (clothed but also dressed up), reinforcing the idea of ordinary language as a cover or mask that needs to be stripped away.

1.1 It is as if, for the early Wittgenstein, the following three sentences disguise the essential thought or propositional content, namely, that the speaker’s female biological parent died on, say, 12 December 1992:

Mum passed away today.
Mother kicked the bucket today.
Maman died today.

In fact, Wittgenstein had no interest in recasting such sentences in an apparently more transparent or neutral everyday idiom. He wanted to re-write them in an alternative quasi-algebraic notation or propositional calculus that would make the logical form of the thought explicit (e.g. ‘aRb’, or, for this example, ‘∃x(Mother(x) ∧ Died(x))’, see also ‘Wittgenstein’s phonofilm’ post).

1.1.2 This was also the dream of the early twentieth-century positivists who attempted to turn philosophy into a rigorous science by developing what Bertrand Russell in 1918 called a ‘logically perfect language’ that could serve as a ground for all empirically verifiable truth-claims (25)—this dream morphed into the quest for a perfect computer language in the 1960s. Though Russell claimed Wittgenstein as an ally in this venture in his introduction to the English edition of the Tractatus (1922), he was at best an awkward fellow-traveller—the anecdote about Wittgenstein reading Rabindranath Tagore to the members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s reflects the testiness of his relationship to the more mainstream positivists. Whereas they tended, for instance, to see their perfected calculus as an alternative to the inherent illogicality of ordinary language, he insisted that ‘all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order’ (§5.5563). The trouble was that this apparent or simply opaque logic (the clothing) was designed for purposes other than revealing the real logic of the thought (the unadorned body)—hence the need for a more transparent notation that would make the underlying logical form visible.

2. Section §4 of the Tractatus begins with a statement that goes some way towards explaining why Wittgenstein felt this was necessary:

§4.  A thought is a proposition with a sense.

A ‘proposition with a sense’, we soon learn, is one that in some way corresponds to ‘reality/truth’ (Wirklichkeit), though here too his thinking took took an unorthodox turn:

§4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality.
  A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.

Few card-carrying early positivists would have felt comfortable with the second claim. For Wittgenstein, however, pairing these two statements held open the possibility that sense-making propositions can be true or false. We can picture the formal relations each describes (e.g. ‘The crowd at Trump’s inauguration was bigger than the one at Obama’s’; A>B) without having to check each one against reality. So, on his account, ordinary language needs to be stripped away not because it is inherently illogical but because it hides the logical form of sense-making propositions, which may be true or false, and therefore interferes with our capacity to represent reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be.

2.1 Wittgenstein may have been more open to the hypothetical than some positivists, but he set himself as firmly against radical scepticism as they did. Defining his own conception of philosophy in a brief aside, he invoked (only to reject) the most extreme linguistic sceptic of the early twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian writer-philosopher Fritz Mauthner:

§4.0031 All philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (though not in Mauthner’s sense).

In the opening of his monumental Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-02), Mauthner declared in Weiler’s translation:

‘In the beginning was the word’. With the word men stand at the threshold of the knowledge of the world and they remain standing there if they stay attached to the word. (272)

At best, for Mauthner, language articulates a linguistic community’s ‘fable convenue’ (literally ‘agreed fable’) of the world (Kritik, I, 25). Rejecting the idea that it could be re-designed to offer a secure ground for knowledge, he insisted it could only be destroyed—hence the motto on his book plate: ex-libris‘Whoever does not recognise and break the tyranny of language, is not free.’ By contrast, for the early Wittgenstein, language stripped of its everyday opacities can meaningfully ‘picture’ or ‘model’ reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be. For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave aside the question of what exactly the difference between Wittgenstein’s ‘imagined reality/truth’ and Mauthner’s ‘agreed fable/fiction’ might be.

3. Wittgenstein mostly relied on visual metaphors like Bild (generally translated as ‘picture’) to describe how propositions, construed in his formal terms, correspond to reality/truth, but he also proposed a series of other analogies. At one point he turned to the technologies of sound reproduction:


§4.014 A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world.

At another he invoked the history of writing systems:

§4.016 In order to understand the essential nature of a proposition, we should consider hieroglyphic script, which depicts the facts that it describes.

       And alphabetic script developed out of it without losing what was essential to depiction.

Anticipating and partly explaining these analogies, he noted:

§4.011 At first sight a proposition—one set out on a printed page, for example—does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned. But no more does musical notation at first sight seem to be a picture of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

       And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent.

In German, the shift from ‘phonetic notation’ to ‘alphabet’ to ‘speech’ is more suggestive as we move from Lautzeichen-Schrift (literally ‘sounded-signs-script’, e.g. IPA) to Buchstaben-Schrift (‘letters-script’ or more literally ‘book-staves-script’) to Lautsprache (‘sounded-speech’). By setting out the first two as ‘Lautzeichen- (Buchstaben-) Schrift’, Wittgenstein implied that both forms of writing can be understood as direct transcriptions of speech.

4. The main purpose of all this analogizing is clear enough. Re-working Russell’s logical atomism, Wittgenstein wanted to show how c-sharpdiscrete propositions map discrete facts (not things), the ‘totality’ of which constitute ‘the world’ as the opening of the Tractatus has it (§1.1): ‘The world is everything that is the case’ (§1). Stripped of its everyday disguises and re-analysed as a transparent propositional calculus, or logical form, he believed ‘language’ could represent ‘the world’ in this sense with the same exactitude as the symbol for C♯, or the groove in a gramophone record, represents the sound produced by, say, a specific key on the piano: different systems or notations, in other words, but the same one-to-one formal relationship. On his account writing corresponds to speech in the same way.

4.1 This last turn in his analogizing did not bode well. For one thing, hieroglyphs, like early Chinese pictograms, very quickly lost their pictorial character as scribes adopted many stylized conventions to deal with the problem of expressing complex facts or abstractions. For another, the frequency of, say, middle C♯ is precisely measurable (it ‘stands for’ 277.18 Hz); whereas the sound the letter C ‘represents’ is notoriously slippery (think only of the three English words ‘cat’, ‘circle’ and ‘chase’).  True, English is one of the most opaque ‘alphabetic’ systems. The sounds ‘r – eye – t’ rendered as /rʌɪt/ in IPA, for instance, can be written as ‘write’, ‘right,’ ‘wright’ or ‘rite,’ none of which can be thought of as ‘a picture of our speech’ in any straightforward or exact sense. But even more transparent languages, like German and Italiando not represent sounds in a simple one-to-one fashion (consider the German phrase ‘sechs schulen’ – ‘six schools’, pronounced ‘zex shoolin’).

5. Finnegans Wake puts Wittgenstein’s analogizing under more pressure. This is not just because Joyce devised a maze of improbable graphemes that rarely map onto a single meaning, or even language, let alone a specific phoneme. Whatever it is Wakese is not ‘a picture of our speech’ (see Fourth Proposition). Nor is it only because Joyce had some sympathy for Mauthner’s linguistic scepticism (see Chapter 3 of the book). It is because he challenged the early Wittgenstein’s conception of ordinary language by comically embellishing his clothing analogy, restaging it as a dubiously sexualized encounter between a ‘lady’ and an ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to Lady's Picratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (Wake, 109). On being introduced to the ‘lady’, the ‘josser’, who is one of the Wake’s many bad male readers, immediately imagines stripping off her ‘definite articles of evolutionary clothing’ so he can ‘vision her plump and plain in her natural altogether’ (109). Indifferent to her ‘local colour and personal perfume’—that is to the singular history and intricacies of each language, writing system or idiom—he also fails to see ‘that the facts of feminine clothiering are there all the time or that the feminine fiction, stranger than the facts, is there also at the same time, only a little to the rere’ (109). By implication, for Joyce, the empress only has clothes, that is, ordinary language can never be completely stripped away, exposing the logical form in its pure unadorned state. Equally, there is no simple way of disentangling facts from fiction, or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, ‘reality/truth’ as it is and as we imagine it. When it comes to knowledge, and much else besides, all we have is ordinary language ‘in all its featureful perfection of imperfection’ (109).

5.1 Reading the Tractatus alongside the Wake makes the notorious split in Wittgenstein’s early philosophy less puzzling than it might at first seem. Seen in Joyce’s terms, the apparently abrupt turn towards ethics and mysticism in the final pages is all of a piece with Wittgenstein’s worries about the opaque logic of ordinary language and his effort to devise more transparent alternative. The mystical (or Kantian?) Wittgenstein who insists that the ‘solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time’ (§6.4312) and that ‘ethics is transcendental’ (§6.421) repeats the gestures of the semi-positivistic Wittgenstein who claims that ordinary language ‘disguises thought’ (§4.002) and that ‘logic is transcendental’ (§6.13). Rehearsing an impulse deeply embedded in the European philosophical tradition, he turns his back on what Joyce calls the imperfect ‘citye of Is’ (601), positing an idealized City of Ought as the locus of all value in much the same way as he a posits an abstract propositional calculus as the locus of all truth/falsity. For a literary echo of this from the same period we have to look to T. S. Eliot not to Joyce (see Fifth Proposition) nor, for that matter, to Tagore. Whatever Wittgenstein hoped to achieve by reading the latter to members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s, Tagore was never quite the other-worldly Eastern mystic many European devotees of the time wanted him to be (see Chapter 4 of the book).

6. Famously, Wittgenstein changed his mind in the Philosophical Investigations (1953) — see also ‘Wittgenstein’s phonofilm’ post. Rejecting his youthful josserish inclinations, he now insisted that ‘nothing is hidden,’  including the logical form of a proposition (versteckt could also be translated as ‘disguised’, §435, see also §88-92 where he questions his earlier appeal to the sublime ideality of logic). Marking a clear line between himself and the Russell of the introduction to the Tractatus, he also rejected his earlier idea of ordinary language as so much discardable clothing, re-imagining it as ‘an ancient city’ with a Wake-like ‘maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’, all of which call out for exploration in their own right (§18). At the same time he re-considered his analogy with writing systems, taking issue with his earlier ‘over-simple conception of the script’:

§4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script may be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns [or ‘pictures’, Lautbildern].) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also a completely different function.

In another turn in his analogizing, he described ordinary language as a ‘multiplicity of language-games’ (Sprachspiele), underscoring the fact that it supports and even makes possible many activities beyond simply picturing the world — though he never abandoned the idea that this is one of the games language plays (§7, §23). The others range from ‘giving orders’ to ‘guessing riddles’ and from ‘requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying’ to ‘making up a story (Geschichte)’ (§23). Like games, these are all activities, that is, ways of doing things with words, they are rule-guided (though not necessarily governed), and they make sense within what Wittgenstein called a particular ‘life-form’ (Lebensform, §23). On this account language is not simply an instrument for describing the world. It is a changing repertoire of practices that shapes and is shaped by culture construed as a complex, evolving way of life.

6.1 This was the Wittgenstein who remarked, in a series of marginal notes to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), that ‘a whole mythology is deposited in our language’ (48). Reflecting testily on the English anthropologist’s overly scientistic rationalism, he added: ‘What narrowness of spiritual life we find in Frazer! Hence the impossiblity of grasping a life different from the English one of his time!’ (38).

7. Joyce would no doubt have welcomed Wittgenstein’s new openness to ordinary language in all its featureful diversity, though he may have questioned the usefulness of his games analogy when applied to some kinds of literary writing. While the many forms and genres of writing conventionally called literary, ranging from the sonnet to the novel, can be thought of as rule-guided games in the later Wittgenstein’s sense, some defy the implied sociability of the analogy by changing and re-making the rules all the time (like the figure of the errant pupil who recurs throughout the Investigations). Put in Wittgenstein’s terms, we could say they risk creating an impossible, or seemingly incomprehensible, private language, or, at the very least, a game with very vague rules (a possibility Wittgenstein in fact recognized, even embraced — see §99-103 of the Investigations). As Joyce acknowledged from the outset, Finnegans Wake is a case in point. On 16 October 1926, four years into the protracted seventeen-year history of its composition and already sensitive to the incredulity it was provoking, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘I know it is no more than a game but it is a game I have learned to play in my own way. Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case’ (144). This was a bit of artful self-deprecation designed to keep an increasingly wary patron on board. When it came to the various forms of early twentieth-century positivism—and many other kinds of thinking as well—it is clear that his idiosyncratically jocoserious, rule-defying writing-game (Schriftspiel) was neither trivial nor inconsequential (see also Chapter 3 of the book and Fourth Proposition).


Richard Ellmann, ed., Letters of James Joyce, III (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3 vols. (1901-02; Berlin: J. G. Cotta’sche, 1912).

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (London: Routledge, 2010).

Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Mythology in our Language (Chicago: Hau Books, 2018).

For more on the Tractatus and translation, see tractatusblog.blogspot.co.uk.

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