Wittgenstein and the limits of language

There’s a point in everyone’s life when they suddenly realize that other people have a mind of their own. You always knew it, but you suddenly think to yourself, “That person has his own thoughts and desires.” Then, of course, the next obvious question: “What does he think of me?” This next question is the cause of a lot of angst during teenage years.

If you’re philosophically inclined, at some point you also realize that the link between your language, your thoughts, and their thoughts isn’t as obvious as it seemed to be. When you described something as “blue”, you had always assumed they knew what you meant. But it’s possible, you realize, that they see a different “blue” than you do. Perhaps when you see blue, they see green, and you two have been using the same word to describe completely different experiences without ever knowing.

This can even be a reality for some people. Every colorblind person can tell you a story about the first time they realized they were colorblind. Perhaps it was when they realized that blue and purple were actually separate colors, or when they realized the reason they were stuck on that videogame puzzle was that it relied on telling the difference between green and red. Immediately after they realize this, though, colorblind people have the same thought as the rest of us: how could I have never figured this out before?

It all comes down to the same thing. Language has limits, and colorblind people run smack up against one of them. In fact, once you start thinking about it, it’s astonishing how effective language is. If I combine these letters in the right way, I can cause an image to form in your head: hweti eelptanh. Ready? “White elephant”. Now, I can reasonably assume that you have formed an image in your head that’s pretty similar to the image that I wanted you to form, assuming that nothing crazy is going on, like our color example from before. It’s powerful stuff.

More importantly for our purposes, language is also what I’ve been using to walk you through my arguments, and it’s what Bacon, Descartes, and the rest of our merry bunch used to walk me through their arguments. Or, more precisely for most of them, to walk translators through their arguments, who then transmitted the arguments to me in a way I could understand. This essay series and, indeed, education as a whole, relies on the assumption that language has this capability. It relies on the idea that the understanding someone has in their own mind can be replicated in someone else’s mind through language.

This is a more extreme proposition than we give it credit for. Hume and Kant have both shown us how our understanding can be mistaken, or based on unconscious intuitions. So, before we even get started with transmitting our understanding, our understanding is not guaranteed. Then, when we transmit it, it’s obvious that the understanding can get twisted. Bacon gave us sneaky ways that language can skew our understanding through his “Idols of the Marketplace”, but we don’t need to be as subtle as that. Everyone has misunderstood something that someone else has said.

Presumably, though, if the other person tries really hard, and our language is good enough, we can accurately transmit this information. That is, unless there’s anything else in our language like our color example, which is something that can’t be transmitted. It sure would be nice if some philosopher had discussed the limits to language, and what can and can’t be transmitted…

Luckily, there is! Yet another German (well, Austrian), a 20th century philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein. Now Wittgenstein is one of the most interesting, strange philosophers in the history of Western philosophy. Born to one of the wealthiest families in Europe, throughout his life he was a schoolteacher, gardener, philosophy professor, hospital orderly, and laboratory assistant…in order! By which I mean after he became a philosophy professor at Oxford, he quit his job to become a hospital orderly! If this sounds interesting, you can check out his entire biography here.

Wittgenstein is also complicated because he published two major works, one during his lifetime, and one after, that completely contradict each other. So, whenever you discuss Wittgenstein’s beliefs, you always have to clarify whether you mean the earlier Wittgenstein or the later. For us, we’ll be discussing the earlier Wittgenstein, as the later Wittgenstein’s essential belief is that no philosophical statements can be made about language whatsoever, which makes it difficult to write an essay about language philosophy.

The earlier Wittgenstein, on the other hand, is a bit difficult to understand. I’ll be taking a certain interpretation of him, but you should probably know that there are other interpretations. The ambiguity in Wittgenstein’s writing wasn’t helped by the fact that, whenever anyone would ask him about his philosophy, he’d turn to the wall and start humming classical music. As I said, he was a strange guy.

Anyhow, back to the issue at hand. According to Wittgenstein, when we speak to someone else, we’re really trying to convey a certain set of facts, or statements which are definitively true or false, but don’t have to be true or false (so a definition, like “a bachelor is an unmarried man”, doesn’t count as a fact). Each fact is made up of smaller facts, which Wittgenstein called “atomic facts”. So, for instance, if I say “Socrates was a man with white hair,” I’m trying to convey a set of facts about hair, whiteness, men, and Socrates, and combining them together. Wittgenstein’s not concerned about whether or not the facts are real or represent the world correctly. The important part is that I’m trying to convey a true or false idea for you.

But, of course, that doesn’t describe all the ways in which we use language. As later Wittgenstein puts it, there are many different language games. We joke around, sing, talk business, and flirt with our fellow humans. Earlier Wittgenstein tells us, however, that if these statements aren’t attempting to be true or false, then they can’t be relied on to accurately transmit ideas. Or, as he puts it in his own, inimitable way, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

This is a bold claim. It’s an interesting one, but there’s some wiggle room here, which is the reason that later Wittgenstein gets frustrated and blows his whole theory up. It’s certainly true that language often accurately transmits ideas when it’s attempting to be factual, and not otherwise. For instance, if I say “the dog is taller than I am”, then you can imagine the dog’s height, assuming you know mine. But if I say, “the dog is so pretty”, it’s much more difficult for you to imagine what I’m talking about.

However, our “color” example from before would seem to contradict Wittgenstein’s idea. I could say “the apple is red”, and try to convey a fact about the world to you, but fail because you are red-green colorblind, and so you imagine it differently. Or, I could say “Spiderman is obese in the medical sense,” and not convey a true or false statement to you, but you can still imagine fat Spiderman, even if Spiderman, a fictional character, can’t look like anything.

So, let’s modify it a bit. My modified claim is this: language works to convey meaning only so far as we assume that the other person has a similar enough experience that they can understand what we mean. If we’re not assuming that, or if we assume wrongly, language can’t cause ideas to pop up in someone else’s head. This is more vague and weak than Wittgenstein’s theory, but it’s easier for me to defend my sandcastle than it was for him to defend his stone castle.

Socrates, when he persuaded us with his examples, assumed we had a similar enough experience to be persuaded by them. This wasn’t true of Aristotle’s deductions, but that’s because he didn’t need it to be. He didn’t need his deductions to convey meaning, only to make logical sense. Kant, on the other hand, when he made his arguments about space and time, needed us to have the experiences that he had. He needed us to have an impression of our mind similar to his impression of his mind, so that his discoveries about his mind would seem convincing.

This is what Wittgenstein was missing. “Spiderman is obese” makes sense to people who know who Spiderman is, and have experience with the character in a comic or movie. “This apple is red” would have made sense, but we weren’t justified in thinking that everyone had the same experience of apples that we’ve had.

So, for you, when you’re making an argument, or attempting to persuade someone of your idea, think about whether you can assume that their experience is similar enough to your own. If it is, then your language will make ideas pop up in their head. If it’s not, it won’t, or it’ll make the wrong ideas pop up in their head, ideas you don’t want them to have. Even if you are just making a logical argument, like Aristotle, you need to make sure that your audience has the same experience and idea of logic that you do.

But how do you think about other’s experiences? Well, with the help of all the philosophers we’ve talked about who discuss how we experience the world, and the way that we process it and try to make sense of it. Descartes, Hume, Bacon, Kant, all of them can help you.

And above all, when you’re arguing or discussing with someone, make sure that you’re arguing about the ideas, not about the language. Then you’re no longer talking on the same grounds. If you need to, double check that the idea in their head is the same as the idea in yours. Or, if you’re trying to understand someone else’s views, first make sure that you understand their ideas, and the idea that they’re trying to convey to you. As Socrates shows us in his Dialogues, they might not even know themselves. Then a disagreement is really pointless.

But enough about language. Modern philosophy is filled with discussions of language and truth and facts, but that can grow tiring. What about the real world, and, you know, science? We’ve left poor Francis Bacon drifting in the wind, his induction savaged by Hume then forgotten by time. It’s time to leave aside these insubstantial arguments and get back to the meat of the matter. What do we know about this world, how do we know it, and how can we make sure we know it? Well, the first question is left to science, the second already addressed, but the third seems meaningless in the light of Hume’s critique of induction. As you can probably guess, not everyone agrees. Karl Popper is on the case, determined to save science from Hume’s savage attack. Will he succeed? Tune in next time, and find out!


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