Wittgenstein and Language

What is language? Wittgenstein’s early project was to define language in the terms most familiar to the Western tradition, running through Augustine up until Russell. His aim was to show that all philosophy consisted in defining the logical form of sentences. A certain proposition was thought to be isomorphic to a certain event in the world. When this isomorphism lined up (i.e., when the sentence referred to a real state of affairs in the world) then the sentence was true. This project, of course, rests on the basic assumption that the world is independent of the proposition (and presumably the being who proposes it). This separation between the world and its description (and describer) is what lead the early Wittgenstein to see language as a mirroring of the world’s pre-given state [i.e., as a sharing of its logical form, or an accurate depiction (picturing) of it]. In this sense, a true thought is a thought that logically matches an event that occurs in the world. Philosophy’s job was to analyze these thoughts and sentences to make sure they were expressed in their true logical form. The driving force behind this project was, quite simply, to end all philosophy.

As far as the early Wittgenstein was concerned, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was the solution to every philosophical problem. To get the book published, however, Wittgenstein needed to include an introduction to his work courtesy of the more popular Russell. Russell seemed convinced that Wittgenstein was a genius. Wittgenstein himself, on the other hand, remained skeptical that Russell even understood the book. Nonetheless, the book was published and Wittgenstein left philosophy to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher. Years latter, he came into contact with the Vienna Circle, an influential group of thinkers that had built themselves up around what they took to be the central tenets of the Tractatus: a) we get knowledge only from sensory experience, and b) we can accurately understand that experience only in terms of logical analysis. These maxims are based on the Tractatus’ characterization of language as being composed of simple atomistic statements referring to empirical truths discovered in the world, such as “It is raining,” or “The ground is wet.” Such linguistic atoms can then be built into meaningful molecules of propositional thought, such as the statement: “It is raining outside, therefore the ground is wet.” The building and clarification of such statements is, for the Circle, the goal of all logically sound philosophical discourse. Their goal was to usher in a new age of thought centered around scientific positivism and linguistic analysis. Their biggest target was metaphysics, both theological and existential. For the Circle, any statement about the world that did not make reference to some sensory state given by that world is meaningless (i.e., it is a pseudo-statement). They saw the struggle between metaphysics and positivism as identical to the one between an out-dated, childish religion and a mature, levelheaded science. One ought to face up, the Circle would say, to modern human existence, an existence in which a statement’s meaning referred to its logical accuracy in comparison to the objective world, rather than to its value in relation to some silent and unseen transcendental realm unreachable with analysis. Wittgenstein, however, thought his work had been misunderstood once again.

The whole purpose of the Tractatus, he would try to explain to the Circle, was to show the limits of philosophy and logical analysis. It was not, as the Circle saw it, to make such logical positivism the be all and end all of humanity’s understanding of itself; quite the contrary, it was to show that logic, objectivism, and any breed of universalizing philosophy was necessarily silent on issues concerning genuine human life. In the final pages of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein discusses what his supposedly complete picture of language and its relationship to the world leaves out. He begins by asserting that “all propositions are of equal value” (6.4) In other words, every true statement about the world is just as true as any other true statement about the world. None of them are in any way more important or more valuable than any others. He does so to set the stage for the actual point of the whole book, which is to substantiate the ethical to a sphere beyond anything logical positivism could ever swallow up into its methods of analysis. The ethical is the intuitive sense an existing individual has concerning what is most important about life. Wittgenstein did not think being such an ethical being was optional, as even the members of the Circle made a value judgment by assuming their method of investigation was the most important among all other methods. One cannot live without making ethical judgments. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein thought “the sense of the world must lie outside the world” (6.41). If all propositions are of equal value, and yet “there is a value which is of value” (i.e., a value which is important), then “it must lie outside the world.” It does indeed follow from this that “there can be no ethical propositions” (6.42), which the Circle certainly agreed with. However, Wittgenstein did not mean to say that ethics was therefore meaningless. His claim was that ethics only existed outside the world of objects known to empirical/logical investigation. It was one of those areas of human existence that Wittgenstein chose to remain relatively silent about in the more philosophically oriented Tractatus because he felt it was transcendent and therefore propositionally inexpressible. For Wittgenstein, the question of ethics was always intermingled with the question of religion, as both are equally transcendent in his view. He saw the question of religion as being essentially about personal identity and the notion of an immortal soul. “The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive forever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.” (6.4312). In other words, because it seems that our current temporal existence is no less mysterious than any supposed eternal existence would be, we can only suppose that the solution to the problem of life comes from another dimension entirely. This removes the problem of life from the set of logical problems that natural science might attempt to solve. It makes a question of life that positivism cannot even begin to answer because it transcends the world that positivism can make propositional claims about.

“How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world” (6.432). What is “higher” is what is important, what has value, what senses the world from outside the world. The religious, for Wittgenstein, has nothing to do with how the world is, but that it is. “The contemplation of the world from the view of eternity is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling” (6.45). “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer” (6.52). Wittgenstein has already defined the only proper and true use of language as being the logical picturing of the world. He then showed how the problem of life, of its meaning and value, does not fall within the world that can be so pictured. The problem of life is transcendent because its value is not equal to the value of all other logically definable propositions, but is somehow higher. But because it transcends the world, one cannot speak about it and make any sense because all language can refer meaningfully only to facts within the world. Therefore: “The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other-he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy-but it would be the only strictly correct method” (6.53). The other “would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy” because there is an insincerity, a sophistry, about such a philosophical method. However, if philosophy is to leave behind its metaphysical past and come to terms with the empirical knowledge of science, it must let go of its otherworldly strivings and concentrate on logically mapping language to the facts of the world. This was Wittgenstein’s prescription for what he considered to be the disease of philosophy. He hoped it would also lead those who actually understood it to a solution to the problem of life, as “for an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed” (6.5). In other words, because science and philosophy are silent when it comes to the riddle of life, then there must not be any riddle to begin with. If there were, surely we would be able to answer it using their methods. “If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered” (6.5). If we doubt that we understand the riddle of life, we do so only because we question our own existence. But no question can be posed that cannot be answered, as if the question itself is meaningful then the answer must be implied by its logical structure. That Wittgenstein would have preferred to remain silent about all of this we can infer from the final lines of the Tractatus: “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” (6.54). He goes on to give what some might argue is the central thesis of the entire work: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (7).

The Tractatus was motivated by the early Wittgenstein’s desire to lift the ethical, religious, and mystical spheres of life so far above the hands of science and positivist philosophy that none of their methods could ever, even in theory, touch them. He wanted to save the transcendent from those who might try to call it sheer nonsense by removing it from the world of objects that is supposed to make sense. In a way, he was attempting to beat the positivists at their own game by pointing out the meaningless nature of metaphysical statements better than even they could hope to do. However, he did so not to make the purpose of such statements insignificant, but to elevate them beyond the “lower” significance of language (where value comes only by virtue of mirroring a true state of affairs in the world) into the “higher” significance of life (where value is assigned by virtue of what is beautiful). In so doing, he separated language and life in an attempt to preserve the best of both. However, by giving up the possibility of making meaningful statements about life and demanding that we pass over it in silence, Wittgenstein may have done more harm than good. Truth (science, the “It” world) had the persuasive power of language on its side, and so it was much more intellectually convincing than the mere silence offered by the Beautiful (life, “I” world).

Wittgenstein realized his mistake in his later works, most notably Philosophical Investigations. He totally revamped his theory of language in order to give life back its linguistic sense. Instead of seeing meaning as the correct representation of the world, Wittgenstein realized that language was the very fabric of life itself. It’s meaning did not rest on the empirically verifiable facts of the physical world, but on the use it was put to in the every day conversations of people. If philosophy attempted to take language out of this context in order to find the underlying essence or logical structure of a phenomenon, it would only force the meaning of the words themselves to dissolve into uncertainty and confusion. Meaning emerges in the context of use, rather than logico-empirical designation. Our ability to communicate depends on the silent context of grammatical normativity, not the correspondence of our words to an independent world.

This new view of language makes it resemble what complex systems theorists call an emergent property. Our ability to speak, write, and think (in short, our ability to exist as a mind) seems to emerge from our simpler bodily skills into a domain all its own. To say that the mind is an emergent property is to say that it forms its own autopoietic totality. In other words, the mind enacts a world, and this mental world cannot be explained away by reference to lower autopoietic levels (such as the biological or physical levels). If we view the entire kosmos as a nested hierarchy, from matter, to body, to mind, we find that the physiosphere (matter) must make up the lowest rung on the ladder. That is to say, the physical universe composes the most fundamental, and therefore the simplest and most common, level on the hierarchy. Positivist empirical science progressed as quickly and triumphantly as it did precisely because its object of inquiry (the physical world) was the easiest to understand. Emerging out of this lowest level is the biosphere. To emerge means to transcend the prior level while still obeying its basic laws. So the biosphere does something more complex that the physiosphere could ever do on its own, but never does it contradict the laws of matter. Organisms begin to enact their own autopoietic domains, building on the laws of matter to create a higher level of complexity. In so doing, they swallow up the world of the physiosphere, so to speak, forever altering our understanding of what it means for the kosmos to exist as it does. Once life is taken into consideration, no purely reductionistic explanation will ever satisfy us. That organisms, made of nothing but atoms, are somehow “alive” proves that matter is not at all what the materialists would have us believe. And when we begin to consider the emergence of mind, we see that life, too, is not at all what we expected. With the mind we have an even more complex autopoietic system built atop both matter and body. It is this level of mind that gave rise to our linguistic ability, and we can see in the work of the early Wittgenstein that this higher ability was mixed up in a kind of level crossing with the lower, physical level. He believed that language (or the mind) can state (or think of) nothing but what it finds in the material world. This belief was based on the power of the empirical method of investigation, which had proved so valuable when applied to the world of matter. When applied to the mind, however, it begins to show its limits. Sensory empiricism does indeed reveal the hidden laws of the physical world, but when we try to explain our use of language based solely on sensory experience we end up turning it into a kind of calculus or measuring device. To say that the only correct use of language is to logically map the facts of the external world is to revoke the very sense from language, destroying the significance that is vital for a full, ethical life. Language is not merely a tool designed to describe the physical world, though it can be put to this use. Rather, it is the “house of being” as Heidegger put it. It forms the matrix of our cultural worldspace. It brings us into a domain far above the physical world where ideas, values, and meanings take on a life of their own.


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