The Dialectic of Limits

The Paradox of Structure and Creativity

The common view of limits is to see them as negative/wrong/repressive. Limits and limitations, we are told, interfere with the growth and full realisation of a particular thing. By limiting, we put something in a figurative box and close it shut. Thought of in this sense, limits are inhibitive. That is, they halt the expression of a given thing.

However, there is another sense in which to conceive of limits. Limits also function as guides/directions/boundaries for something to take place. Limits provide a sense of time & place that would render something incoherent if the limit was not there. By providing a given thing with a limit/structure/box/boundary, it can be interpreted, worked with and understood. Thought of in this sense, limits are enhancive.

Consider this metaphor. A limit is like the channels of a river. If the channels of the river were not there one of two things would happen. Either, everything would flood. There would be nothing but the immensity of torrents of water, drowning out everything else. Or, the water would seep into the ground and effectively disappear.

In this metaphor, water functions as creative expression. This creativity, without limits, lends itself either to incoherent torrents that drown out everything, or to nothingness and apathy. The limits of the channel aren’t the worst thing at all in this interpretation. The limits allow the water to take shape and have direction, becoming something we can interpret and admire. While not every limit is supportive as the banks of a running river, it at least complicates the conception of limits as necessarily bad.


There are two types of games. Finite and infinite games. In a finite game, the game has an end. That is, the game has a limit. These would be games like professional tennis, soccer and football; but also a political election, chess and Uno. You play to win, which means, in other words, you play to finish the game. To remove this limit would very much defeat the point of the game. Infinite games do not have an end. These would be games like down-ball, hide & seek, and Frisbee; but also culture, relationships, and love.

Of course, although infinite games are not limited by time, they remain, as with finite games, limited by space. After all, football must happen on a field, with two teams, using a particular ball. If it didn’t, it simply would not be football. A friendship between two people is limited by the fact that the two people are not interchangeable, for it to be their friendship, they both have to stay.

Yet these limits provide a setting in which the game can occur. If a game of soccer did not have goals you could not measure the score; if it did not have jerseys, you could not define the scorers; if it did not have umpires, you could not qualify the integrity. The limits support the game and enhance it.


It is through limits that language functions. On a structural level, words are classified into categories. Some are nouns, some are verbs and others adjectives, articles, prepositions, modalities, and nominalisations. This is the grammar by which the structure of sentences becomes intelligible. Without the strictly defined limits imposed by grammar, we would have almost no way of knowing whether someone was asking us a question, demanding an answer, speaking in the present tense, the past tense, referring to us or another person, or even what they thought of a given thing.

These classifications occur alongside others. For example, ‘animal’ and within ‘animal’ is dog, cat, tiger, kangaroo, wombat, etc. Even further, ‘dog’ functions as its own category as you then have corgi, jack Russel, German shepherd and so forth. These are symbolical maps that have their own structures and limits. They make up a symbolic universe in your mind where you see the interrelations and families of different concepts. These limits, in this case, structures, allow you to organise the world and make it intelligible, providing you the tools to speak, classify, interpret and share the world with other people.

Alongside this structural level is the syntactical structure of words. This is the limit of what something can mean. For human language to be at all intelligible and for it to even be called a language at all, words must mean what they mean. For example “c-u-p” has to mean any small object that possess qualities roughly resembling a base, a water-tight bowl for liquid, and a handle. It has to be a cup! If not, if the word “c-u-p” is not only used to refer to cups, but also to cats & dogs, hamburgers & hotdogs, then the word becomes utterly unintelligible. Words must mean what they have been declared to mean because it this was not the case, the entire language would fall apart.

The limits of words are meta-cognitive, interpretative, and structural. But these limits/structures/boundaries that have been set on what language can do are what allow it to flourish! Of course, there are other structures for other languages and this is precisely the point. The structures are all unique because each has grown to enhance the language in its own unique way.


The painter faces at least three limitations in his work. The first is the limitation of form. The painter must decide on what he will paint; a felt canvas, an old vinyl record, a wooden table, a wall. By choosing the form, the painter encloses his work within limits. But we would not consider this a terrible thing for how else would he get anything done?

The second limitation is that of content. The painter can choose from only so many textures of paint and of colours visible to the human eye. But these strictures force the painter to be more creative in his application of texture and colour. The human eye’s reception of visible light is not a limit imposed upon us by some malevolent third party. Rather, it is a product of human development that has led to human flourishing and enhancement by allowing us to appreciate artistry of colour both man-made and natural.

The third limitation is that of his own knowledge. We cannot use words we do not know, speak in languages we do not understand, think thoughts we have never thought of or paint images we cannot conceive. The painter is limited by his own knowledge but this almost invisible limit does not function as an inhibitor because that would be to presuppose the knowledge he does not yet possess. It is not a limit on his knowledge but the limit produced by virtue of his knowledge.


One of the curious things about human creativity is that it needs a structure, like the channels of a river giving the water shape. Without this structure, it is an amorphous mass of energy, bursting out in all directions, signifying nothing except meaningless exuberance.

By imposing limits, this creativity is allowed to take shape and become discernible, and when done properly, even beautiful.

Poetry is one such example. On the website The American Scholar, poet David Lehman poses the challenge: in the poem, use the numbers 1 to 10 in ascending order, one number per line. He allows the numbers to be phonetic, so one can use “to” or “too” instead of “two”. Lehman points out that even though this imposes a limit on what one can say and how they say it, it forces the imagination to work in a variety of new and interesting ways. The paradox is, the imposition of a limit actually spurns creativity!


Creativity and limitations are a paradox. While we traditionally think of them as opposites, we can observe that imposing limits can encourage creativity, while creativity itself necessitates limits.

Conceived in this way, they are not so much paradoxical as they are dialectical. For every enhancive limit imposed on a given thing, it encourages creativity to express itself. For every creative act, there necessitates a point where they creativity is to end; its natural limit. As such, creativity and limits define themselves through each other. The same way night cannot exist as a concept without day, right cannot exist without left, and self cannot exist without other; so too, creativity is something which cannot exist without limits.

It must be said that the limits considered above are all enhancive. They guide/channel/direct creativity in a way that allows it to express itself.

Consider a wooden stake and twine in a tomato patch. The stake and twine direct the tomato plant upwards. These two limits enhance the growth of the Tomato plant because firstly, without them the tomato plant would likely fall over on itself and not produce, and secondly, they allow it to keep growing! These structures on the plant enhance because they allow the plant to keep doing what it does: living!

Here we strike at the crux of the matter. A limit is enhancive so long as it allows the object in question to keep doing what it is driven to do. A painter wants to paint, the canvas does not stop this but supports it; people want to communicate and grammar does not stop communication but enriches it; people want to play games and rules do not stop games but allow them to make sense. All these limits are limits which enhance and respect the fundamental reasons why people (or tomatoes) wish to do what they do.

This stands in total contradiction to restrictive limits. We all know restrictive limits when we see them. They themselves are repressive, and worse so when they come under the guise of pretending to enhance. Because of these two features, people claim that restrictive limits are morally wrong. Perhaps rightly so.

But people often conflate restrictive limits with rules/structures/laws/guidelines because these generally tell us what we cannot do. The danger is conflating a limit as something inherently reprehensible, rather than as a more complex phenomenon of restriction or enhancement.

We know whether something is restrictive when we look at the fundamental drive of a thing in question and whether the limits help it flourish, or repress it. What we come to is not that limits or structures are wrong, but that anything which restricts the unique flourishing of the thing in question is wrong, and I think that is something we can all agree on.

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