Ludwig Wittgenstein & the Limits of Language

The 20th century discovered language, and nobody played a larger role in that discovery than the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

That role, like everything surrounding Wittgenstein, was a paradoxical one. First off, he did not aim at investigating language, nor did producing a theory of language ever interest him. He was interested in the nature and limits of knowledge, relentlessly pursuing that theme, ultimately becoming aware that language permeates human living.

He began to work in philosophy in 1912, assisting Bertrand Russell at Cambridge University in reformulating the conceptual framework of Russell’s Principia Mathematica by re-writing its first eleven chapters. When Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus appeared in 1921, what emerged both thrilled and chilled Russell – and the nascent Vienna Circle.

Wittgenstein’s dazzling achievement was a crystal clear formulation of the concepts underlying logic as the basis of scientific knowledge: what can be said clearly. However, he seemed to negate his own conclusion in insisting that his “definitive and unassailable” solution to the problems of philosophy merely showed how little was thereby accomplished: what we have to pass over in silence.

His solution, he thought, did not even touch upon the genuine human problems relating to ethics and the meaning of life at all.

In fact, the Tractatus was two books in one, and they were at odds with each other. But the story hardly ends there. By the early 1940s Wittgenstein seemed to be taking back all that he had said about formal logic as the foundation of human knowledge, turning instead to a pragmatic conception of language from which logic disappeared.

Thus, while his early work dovetailed with that of people like Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky, his later work contradicted it.

The Limits of Language

However, despite illuminating much that was central to linguists about – say, meaning – neither his early philosophy nor his later thought tried to define what language actually is.

What was common to both phases of his thought was an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis conventional philosophy – and the philosopher in all of us – including the very analytic philosophy practiced by the Vienna Circle based, paradoxically, on his own early work.

In both phases of his thought, his primary orientation was toward the limits of language. Throughout, his main concern was to demonstrate that the problems that tormented philosophers stemmed from their misunderstanding the logic upon which language rests, i.e. a matter of use, not form.

His response was to devise techniques – the truth tables in the Tractatus and the “language games” in his Philosophical Investigations – that would dissipate philosophers’ need to pose questions and thereby eliminate their need for theories to answer them.

The Mind of an Engineer

His contributions to our understanding of language, early and late, all involve dispelling the enigmas embedded in the workings of language that tempt philosophers to construct theories in the first place. His enduring critique of philosophy had to be a critique of language.

As dense and impenetrable as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus may seem to its readers, the task Wittgenstein faced there was a much easier one for him than the one he faced later, because the problem was simpler. Wittgenstein trained as a mechanical engineer and carried an engineer’s attitude with him into philosophy. Faced with a philosophical quandary, he sought a technique for dissipating his problem with crystal clarity.

Russell’s challenge to him could thus be met, if he could invent a technique for unequivocally demonstrating what propositions can do. While his contemporaries sought to grasp the perplexities surrounding the nature of propositions with a philosophical theory of logic, Wittgenstein sought a technique for representing propositions that would illuminate their perplexities at one go, distinguishing rigorously between:

1) the propositions that belong to science and
2) those that belong to logic, as well as
3) those pseudo-propositions, i.e, contradictions that are neither.

This he did in the truth tables of the Tractatus. Furthermore, he astounded analytical philosophers by showing, en passant, that there could not possibly be statements that were absolutely, necessary and empirically true. This insight, in fact and irrevocably, put an end to metaphysics.

This in itself was grounds for the Vienna Circle to deify him. So you can understand why they were totally perplexed at his insistence that his “definitive and unassailable” solution to the problems of philosophy merely showed how little it achieved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (with closed eyes behind the bouquet) having coffee with friends and family in Vienna. He inherited a fortune from his father in 1913 and initially made some donations to artists and writers. Then, in a period of severe personal depression after World War I, he gave away his entire fortune to his brothers and sisters./(C) Wikimedia Commons

Out of the Ivory Tower

Wittgenstein’s early quip that “language is as complex as the human organism” bore dramatic consequences in his later thought, as it was never possible to get outside of language to formulate a comprehensive theory about it.

His earlier assumption that the function of language was to represent the world precisely evolved into the view that language was constituted by myriad, fundamentally different “language games,” i.e., modes of weaving words and actions together.

So no single technique alone could ever show philosophers what language was all about.

Moreover, conventional grammar was a powerful force for directing our attention away from the manifold ways that meaning is fashioned in use. He wanted us to pay attention to language in practice, an exercise he termed “depth grammar,” the way meaning emerges from our collective interweaving of words (sentences and signs) and actions.

Ultimately, we can thank Wittgenstein for bringing philosophers out of their ivory tower, most crucially in his efforts to disabuse them of the distinction between thought and language. The idea that there could be a private language was actually nonsense, he demonstrated, as language was, by nature, social and collective. An inner process requires an outward criterion to give it meaning.

His example was our experience of pain. What could be more intimate than that; surely, nobody else can feel my pain. Wittgenstein, nevertheless, wants to show usthat in making such a claim, we really do not know what we mean. If I, and only I, can describe my experience of pain, I would require an absolutely unique language to do so, and so there could be no discourse about my pain that could be meaningful to anybody else.

The Importance of Nonsense

Wittgenstein’s explorations are never linear, but an assembly of penetrating questions, comparisons, aphorisms and thought experiments:

Could one teach a dog to simulate pain? What if humans showed no outward signs of pain? What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel? Couldn’t I imagine having frightful pains and turning to stone while they lasted? … And if that happened, in what sense will the stone have the pains?

Disabusing philosophers of their professional prejudices was like untying a knot; loosening it required patiently retracing its complexity. Nonsense, so dreaded by tough-minded philosophical analysts, had, he insisted, an important role in stretching our imagination.

Thus, in other contexts, Wittgenstein asks, how do you know that a rose has no teeth? We can speak of the teeth of the cow that dungs the rose as the rose’s teeth too, if we want to. And, see that table over there? Good, now translate it into French (i.e., not the word but the object!)

Little wonder Wittgenstein so admired Søren Kierkegaard; the latter’s writings are full of thought experiments whose logic requires us to strain our imagination to transcend the clichéd, banal character of conventional thinking.

The endless questioning formed an armory of techniques to help reorient the philosopher’s imagination toward unanswered questions, or even more shockingly, toward questions deliberately answered falsely – all this to fix our attention upon the embeddedness of language in practice. The philosopher’s task was to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

Wittgenstein’s enormous contribution to the 20th century project of investigating the nature of thought – with all its implications for history, art, ethnology etc. – was embedded in his efforts to show philosophers, including the philosopher in us, the limits of language.