On Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Linguistics

On Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Linguistics

March 17, 2021 – Ludwig Wittgenstein has been considered by many as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century. He was certainly an interesting character and someone who was more than a little eccentric. Modern writers have questioned whether he was perhaps on the autism spectrum, or might have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. Wittgenstein’s ideas have influenced many modern writers and philosophers, including the late and great David Foster Wallace. It was through Wallace that I first discovered Wittgenstein, from his book The Broom of the System. Wallace used literary fiction to try to grapple with and tackle timeless philosophical questions, while still providing a story that speaks to our culture and time.

In considering Wittgenstein’s contributions to philosophy, Adrian of The Quintessential Mind writes:

His role in the development of analytic philosophy wasn’t just central, but also pivotal. For, he devoted his life in the examination of one of the most cognitively demanding areas of human interest, that of language.

Language constitutes the most powerful tool we have invented in order to communicate with each other, express ourselves, and evolve our perception.

But the essence of words and the use of language can be quite perplexing and can lead to anomalies in the way we operate within our social systems.

Language is like a living organism. It changes, it evolves, it has different forms, and it can be interpreted in different ways.

Wittgenstein was fascinated by that and he truly believed that, with the use of logic, language can become more clear and more useful.

This was his obsession, but also what tormented him throughout his life.

His ideas possessed a gravity that felt unprecedented to almost all of his readers.

Most didn’t understand him, but the ones that did, opened their minds to a world full of clarity and reason.

His life was quite tumultuous since his involvement with logic almost drove him mad. His mental anguish led him away from Cambridge. He went to Norway for a while and then he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War.

War changed him. He became more mystical and more ascetic and this could be identified in his behavior.

In 1918, he took military leave and he completed his first important work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The Tractatus was published in 1922 in an attempt from Wittgenstein to present a solution to the problems of philosophy that are connected with language, thought, and representation.

It is a short, mind-boggling, and mind-bending work. – The Quintessential Mind

Wittgenstein’s book Tractatus is a very interesting read. Initially it can come off as pretentious and overly vague, but the more one considers what is being said, the more one can appreciate what Ludwig was trying to convey.

Here are some examples of how Wittgenstein was grappling with concepts, using linguistics, meaning and usage:

Empirical reality is limited by the totality of objects. The boundary appears again in the totality of elementary propositions.

Some of the things he was mulling over were how language can form reality, but also the limitations of language — how something can be diminished by attempting to describe and explain it with words. He considered that without the words or language to describe something, how can one conceive of it in the first place? One can conclude therefore that the potentiality can be restricted by the imposition and limitations of linguistics.

The sense of a proposition is its agreement and disagreement with the possibilities of the existence and non-existence of the atomic facts.

Sometimes his writing can be abstruse and difficult.

Ethics and aesthetics are one.

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

These are some examples of concepts he touched upon in his book Tractatus, but you easily sense his esoteric flair. He wanted people to be more thoughtful and precise in the words they were using. If thoughts were too vague, he reasoned, it left them open to multiple interpretations, easily leading to what he deemed nonsense.

Wittgenstein took some time away from philosophy for a while. He then returned to the subject again with his next work.

In this work, he began to tackle subjects like logic, mathematics, propositions, consciousness and understanding, but language still played a key role in what he termed his Philosophical Investigations. Here is when he started developing the notions of things like “language games” where meanings and usage are important. If language is being used to paint a picture, the words that are employed matter, and the entire picture can change if the usage is changed. He seemed to be concerned primarily with clarity of thought. He believed that language could complicate, as much as it could clarify and that it was incumbent upon us to be certain that we understand this. He felt that so many fancy words could say very little of substance in reality, but conversely, very limited word use could easily convey something quite profound.

An article that I think conveys the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, comes from J. N. Nielson, entitled “The Limits of my Language are the Limits of my World“:

One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ (‘Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt’ section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.

One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with ‘idiom’ construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.

The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.

We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominant position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.

Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by physicists seeking to give a popular account of quantum theory that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. (For example: ‘For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.’ Niels Bohr) It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.

Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world. – J. N. Nielson

Nielson elucidates something very important that Wittgenstein was trying to convey, and that is that we often limit ourselves by the language we are using to explicate our worldview. Wittgenstein said “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” By this, he is hinting at the issue his first saw with predominant philosophy and how it approached understanding our world.

In a piece entitled Wittgenstein: Reality is Shaped by the Words we Use FS.Blog seeks to delve deeper into where Ludwig was going:

Philosopher Bertrand Russell described Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein as ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.’

Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, worked primarily in logic, mathematics, and the philosophy of language. He published one very short book: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The book’s aim was to identify the relationship between language and reality. Interestingly, he spent the last twenty-two years of his life disputing the conclusions he wrote in Tractatus. ‘I have been forced,’ he wrote, ‘to recognize the grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book.’ He started over but his life was cut short before he could publish his new conclusions.

After his death these works were assembled in a book titled Philosophical Investigations, which many people consider one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

‘Wittgenstein came to believe,’ writes Robert Hagstrom in The Last Liberal Art, ‘that the meaning of words is constituted by the very function they perform within any language-game. Instead of believing there was some kind of omnipotent and separate logic to the world independent of what we observe, Wittgenstein took a step back and argued instead that the world we see is defined and given meaning by the words we choose. In short, the world is what we make of it.’

To help us understand, Wittgenstein drew a very simple three-sided figure.

Wittgenstein explains:

‘Take as an example the aspects of a triangle. This triangle can be seen as a triangular hole, as a solid, as a geometrical drawing, as standing on its base, as hanging from its apex; as a mountain, as a wedge, as an arrow or pointer, as an overturned object, which is meant to stand on the shorter side of the right angle, as a half parallelogram, and as various other things … You can think now of this now of this as you look at it, can regard it now as this now as this, and then you will see it now this way, now this.’

In essence, reality is shaped by the words we use. – FS Blog

The narratives we use determine how we approach a problem, consequently how we evaluate our view of the world. The Democrats implicitly understand this, and this is why they strive to maintain an ironclad stranglehold over the media and the mainstream or official narrative. In effect, by coercion they are forcing people to accept the limitations imposed by the Left’s worldview and language games. Wittgenstein believed traditional philosophers had caused tremendous confusion with their failure to understand the pictorial nature of language. He felt that philosophers who delve into things like metaphysics, needed to distinguish between sense and nonsense by use of clear and concise language.

Writer James Bishop discusses Wittgenstein’s Theory of Language, and breaks it down into several categories:

Language as Social

Wittgenstein argued that a word can only have meaning within the context of human activity. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), he states that the traditional notion of the meaning of a word being an object it refers to cannot be true. Wittgenstein asks readers to imagine someone growing up alone on an island. This person might use the sound ‘red’ and ‘green’ to distinguish between certain colors, but if he misused the sounds he would not be aware of his mistakes. What this person lacks is a community of language users. Words require rules, and rules are necessarily public, shared conventions. Wittgenstein compared language to chess: if one does not know how to play then he cannot even begin playing. Same with language, which itself requires rules, and a knowledge of these rules.

Wittgenstein’s argument undermined some strong of philosophical beliefs, notably that of Rene Descartes. Descartes, widely regarded as one of the most influential philosophers within western philosophical tradition, argued that he could doubt everything, including the existence of other people and objects within the word, but with the sole exception of his own conscious mind. However, Wittgenstein’s idea claims that this is impossible, for thought require words, and words depend on the existence of other people.

Language Follows Rules

As noted, language is social and follows rules. For example, to understand the word ‘queen’ in a game of chess, one must know that a certain piece should be used in a certain way and not in others. The same is true of all words. To grasp the meaning of words one needs to know the rules of their use. The word ‘art’ seems to represent a single thing when, in fact, it describes a wide range of activities, and activities that do not have a single, essential thing in common. Wittgenstein called this overlapping similarity ‘family resemblances.’ When, for example, a person says that ‘pizza was a work of art,’ he is playing a particular language game in which the word ‘art’ means something like ‘perfection’ or ‘magnificent.’ However, when a person refers to the ‘art of painting’ he plays a different game in which ‘art’ means something like ‘profession’ or ‘expertise.’ Language, reasoned Wittgenstein, possesses no essential structure but is instead a network of interrelated language games, a view which caused him to reverse his view expressed in Tractatus. – James Bishop

Wittgenstein’s theory that language is social is very interesting, meaning that as a group we come to agree on definitions and rules for linguistics. He set about to debunk his own previous beliefs, and those of earlier philosophers. This influenced a group of “logical positivists” to try to debunk what they called “pseudo-statements” in an effort to get to an understanding on the limits of meaningful language. Wittgenstein himself went on to debunk his earlier theories and that of the logical positivists, claiming that rigidity and static beliefs were not healthy.

Dr. Tim Rayner says of Wittgenstein’s work:

Wittgenstein’s teaching has practical value. Why waste time arguing over issues that will never be resolved when the whole thing could be deflated with a simple question: ‘Are we even talking about the same thing?’ If you struggle to overcome the urge to define things too carefully, or find yourself becoming obsessed about the meaning of words and their ‘true’ definition, or if you are convinced, like many philosophers, that the existence of a word logically implies some metaphysical essence, or Platonic form, that corresponds to this word, remember that what gives a word meaning is the conventional social discourse within which it is employed. By attending to the ordinary language contexts that give words their meaning, we can avoid misusing them and trying to make them mean things that they aren’t made to mean. The more that we return words to their home, seeing them in terms of the ordinary language contexts that they work within, the easier it becomes to untie the knots in language and understand what is really being said.

Rayner believes that the main value arising from Wittgenstein’s philosophical work is the concept of clarity in the basic use of communication — that is, being certain in the social context, that what we are saying is clear in the language being used.

Finally, I will leave you with some Wittgenstein quotes that I hope you will find stimulating and perhaps encourage some of you to explore your own views and levels of clarity!:

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”

“What can be shown, cannot be said.”

“At the core of all well-founded belief lies belief that is unfounded.”

“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”

“Philosophers are often like little children, who first scribble random lines on a piece of paper with their pencils, and now ask an adult ‘What is that?”

“Our greatest stupidities may be very wise.”

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all”

“Ambition is the death of thought.”

“If you use a trick in logic, whom can you be tricking other than yourself?”

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