Can language describe everything?


Language cannot describe everything.

To prove this assertion, let us take a simple example.

Certain Neoplatonic philosophers practised a ‘divine art’ called theurgy: by its very nature, the act of theurgy and the spiritual union with the divine it caused was ‘ineffable’, that is ‘unspeakable’, and furthermore unable to be described.

Our conclusion from this evidence: if something is ‘ineffable’, language cannot describe it.

My guess, however, is that the original question ‘can language describe everything?’ might expect the competent respondent to enter into detailed discussion on Wittgensteinian philosophy of language debates- debates whose subject matter I have not mastered!

Does this shed any light on the issue? :unamused:

Spiritual union with the divine? You don’t need a proof to show that ineffable means incapable of being expressed. A search on shows what it means. I think your proof is kinda silly though. Why don’t I just say that I have an idea of something but I can’t express it because words don’t describe it. But if I think in words, how can I have an idea of it that can’t be described via language using the very same language that I think about it in? Hmmm[/img]

Well, I suppose the obvious reply to that would be: perhaps you don’t think in a language. Wittgenstein holds, I believe, that language denotes the limits upon the world, or “all that is the case.” However, this cannot explain such a concept as value. It is not observable, you might find it infuriating to precisely define, but it seems that you know what it is. In this sense, language seems incapable of describing a large portion of human experience.

The question, “Can language describe everything,” doesn’t stipulate how accurate the description ought to be. The most primitive linguistic description involves naming or referring. It seems as though I can apply a name to anything that I can point to, or to any idea that I can imagine. Apparently, I can also give a name to everything that I don’t know about (the unknown) and to everything that does not exist (the unreal). If you argue that I can’t name what I don’t know, I can tell you that I’ve already named it; I’ve called it the unknown.

Describing entities in this way is so effortless that you might think that it would settle the question, “Can language describe everything?” in the affirmative. Yet it turns out that there is something we can’t name so easily. We can’t name the nameless. But wait…didn’t I just did name it when I referred to it? I called it “the nameless.” But my naming it means that it’s no longer nameless. The act of naming “the nameless” automatically turns it into “the named,” which means I haven’t named the nameless afterall. In his book, Quiddities, Quine wrote:

“Gödel’s theorem is akin to the reflexive paradoxes. It’s proof hinges on coaxing the notation of elementary number theory into talking, in effect, about itself.”

Alfred Tarski built on Gödel’s work. His proof implies that any logically consistant language will fail to be semantically complete. Completeness would require a richer, over-arching language which in turn requires another meta-language to express all of its semantics…


I think much of the sense of the question has been captured by gavtmcc & polemarchus!

Ineffable and meta-language make sense. In my attempts to write things down, I also thought that language came short :slight_smile: .

We also think in images, and feelings.

I think your question is framed wrong. We DON’T NEED language to describe everything because so much can be understood through eyes, body language, actions, etc., And because the end result is undertanding which would follow anyway, so you see, it is irrelevant whether language can describe everything or not. Why would I deliberate over a question that makes no sense?