When Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine visited her brother at Cambridge University in 1912, Bertrand Russell said to her, “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother.” He was only 23.
Ten years later, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in a parallel German-Edition, with an introduction from Russell. Written in seclusion in a log cabin in Norway, its key sentence was, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world”. Language should simply try to express pictures of facts; everything else, including talk of abstract concepts, values, philosophy et cetera, is meaningless. The Tractatus marked Wittgenstein in his doctrinaire phase, and is famously summed up in the line, “what we cannot speak about we must be silent about”.
With the completion of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein believed he had brought an end to philosophy, and left the academic world. He gave away all his money to his siblings (he was the eighth child in a wealthy Viennese family), worked as a primary school teacher in a mountain village, gardened in a monastery, and designed a house for his sister (to incredibly exacting measurements). In 1929, though, he returned to Cambridge as a research fellow, later becoming professor of philosophy.
Philosophical Investigations was published after his death. As Wittgenstein notes in a Preface, it is made up of remarks, statements and thoughts which often seem to jump from one matter to another. He had wanted to weave it into a more flowing work, but decided that giving it a direction would make it artificial. Consisting mostly of thought experiments and word games, it is an easier read than the Tractatus, and does not attempt the earlier book’s exactitude. But with both books, it is what Wittgenstein leaves unsaid (purposely) that is almost more important than the text itself.
What is language?
Simple language is not about explanation, Wittgenstein says, it is simply a pointer to things. Thus, when a toddler is beginning to speak, it is a matter of training her to know the names of objects. No explanation of language is required. “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination”, in which each ‘note’ or word conjures up a picture.
Since the meaning of words in relation to things differs according to the context, time and place in which they are spoken, Wittgenstein does not describe language in terms of a set of abstract rules. Rather, it is a ‘game’. As children we move from words almost literally ‘being’ things (e.g. the word chair comes to mean chair in our minds), to an understanding that words signify things, with use of the more abstract words like ‘this’ and ‘there’. Then, we start to think in terms of categories. In this way, Wittgenstein says, language grows:
“Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new
houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.”
Wittgenstein attempts to show the sheer variety of language games. They include: giving and obeying orders; describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements; making an object from a description (a drawing); reporting or speculating about an event; forming and testing a hypothesis; presenting the results of an experiment in tables; making up a story, and reading it, play acting; singing catches; guessing riddles; making and telling jokes; solving a problem in arithmetic; translating from one language into another; and ‘asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying’.
“It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)”
Here Wittgenstein is admitting he was wrong about language as being a means of describing the world. It is much more than this. Words do not simply name things, they often convey elaborate meaning, and many different meanings from the same word. He mentions exclamations like Water! Ow! Help! Fine! and No!... and asks: can you really say these words are simply ‘names of objects’?
Language, then, is not a formal logic that marks the limits of our world; it is a free-flowing, creative means for making our world. The depth and variety of our language-making is what separates us from other animals, and “Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.”
Actual words spoken often mean less than the way they are spoken and the line of speech as a whole. When we ask someone to bring us the broom, we don’t phrase it in terms of “Please bring me the stick with the brush attached to it”. Language does not break things into logical pieces, but if anything works to make representation of actual objects unimportant next to their intended use. If we ask someone to bring us the broom, it can be another way of saying that we are about to do some sweeping, and the other person may instantly understand this. A word does not exist on its own, but is part of a ‘family of meanings’. For instance, Wittgenstein goes to great lengths to identify what we mean when we say the word ‘game’. He exhausts all the possible kinds of games (board games, sports, a child playing etc) and is unable to say exactly what a game is and what it isn’t. And yet we all know what a game is. Again, this should tell us that definitions don’t matter next to meaning, or to put it another way, language does not dictate the limits of our world. It has no hard-and-fast rules, no objective logic as philosophers had hoped to identify. Language is a social construction, a game where the order of play is loose and evolves as we go along.
Naming things, Wittgenstein says, is an ‘occult process’ that philosophers take to extremes. They make connections between names and objects just by willing the connection to exist. Philosophical problems arise when philosophers see the naming of some idea or concept as a “baptism”, an important moment, when in fact contextual meaning is what matters, not names. Genuine philosophy, he famously says, is a constant battle against the ‘bewitchment’ of the discipline by language itself.
Wittgenstein raises the question of ‘private language’, or the words or meanings we give to ourselves to describe certain inner states or sensations. These private meanings are not really a language, because a language requires some external, social setting in which its meaning can be confirmed. He imagines several people who each have a box, and inside it they have something which everyone is going to call a ‘beetle’. But what if what is in the boxes is totally different in each case? This shows us that names of things, if they are made privately, are not really names at all, since names require common assent as to their meaning. By implication, thoughts only have validity if they can be expressed and understood. "An 'inner process’”, he remarks, “stands in need of outward criteria".
Another famous line in the book is, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” Language depends on common assent of meaning, and animals naturally have a wholly different order of what things mean. A lion, for instance, sees someone walking through the savannah not as a ‘person’, but a potential source of food. Without agreeing on what things mean, how could we have a conversation with a lion, even assuming it could talk? Wittgenstein applies the idea to entering a foreign country. Aside from any language barriers, we may feel no kinship with the people simply because their way of seeing the world is totally different to ours. We feel they do not ‘speak our language’, that is, our language of meaning, not actual words.
The problem with psychology as a discipline, Wittgenstein says, is that it is trying to study humans in terms of evidence...yet so much of our knowledge of what makes people tick is based on ‘imponderable’ information. We are able to perceive the subtleties of others’ inner states, but can’t say exactly how we come to have this knowledge:
“Imponderable evidence includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone.
I may recognize a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one (and here there can, of course, be a 'ponderable' confirmation of my judgment). But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference. And this not because the languages I know have no words for it.
Ask yourself: How does a man learn to get a 'nose' for something? And how can this nose be used?”
Knowing what moves someone else is not a matter of hooking them up to a machine and testing their physiological or brain states; it is a judgement, and it is possible to learn this knowledge, Wittgenstein says, only through life experience, not ‘taking a course in it’. If psychology has rules, they are not part of a system that can be studied, because you cannot put such indefiniteness into words.
Wittgenstein did not try to deny that we have inner lives, only that they could not be spoken of sensibly. Even though the ‘language-game’ is of extraordinary depth and complexity, there are areas of experience that can never be expressed properly in language, and it is wrong to try to do so.
Wittgenstein was strongly influenced by William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosophical Christianity of Kierkegaard, and the writings of Augustine; despite his largely Jewish ancestry, he was brought up a Catholic, and during his war years could not be separated from his Bible. He loved visiting churches and cathedrals, and told his friend M O’C Drury that “all religions are wonderful”. But was he actually a believer, or simply liked the trappings of spirituality? If we follow Wittgenstein’s own thinking it doesn’t matter either way, or at least a discussion of it has no meaning, since one can’t pinpoint another person’s inner states. What does matter is how one expresses one’s self. In a memoir, his Cambridge friend M O’C Drury reported him as saying:
“If you and I are to live religious lives it must not just be that we talk a lot about religion, but that in some way our lives are different.”
In an account of her brother, Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine fully admitted his extreme prickliness, social awkwardness, and sensitivity, but also spoke of his ‘big heart’. His Russian teacher, Fania Pascal, described him in similar terms, but also noted his unusual ‘wholeness’ and certainty about his views; someone good to have around in a crisis, but not forgiving of everyday human worries and foibles.
Such memoirs draw a picture of someone largely uninterested in himself, or the self, and instead suggest a focused on being of use, in a world where things might ‘work well’. When his friend Drury had doubts about his training as a doctor, Wittgenstein told him not to think of himself, only the good he could do. What a privilege, he pointed out, to be the last one to say good-night to patients at the end of the day! Though important to him, Wittgenstein saw his work as just another ‘game’; language and philosophising were nothing next to life itself.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
Born in 1889 into an illustrious and cultured Viennese family (Margaret Wittgenstein was painted by Gustav Klimt), Ludwig was educated at home, only attending a school for his final three years. In his teens he went to Berlin to study mechanical engineering, then to Manchester where he did research into aeronautics. While in England he read Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics, and it changed his course towards logic and philosophy.
He moved to Cambridge in 1911, and when war broke out in 1914 enlisted in the Austrian army; by choice made his way to the front line, receiving medals for bravery, but became a prisoner of war in Italy. In the prison camp he wrote the Tractatus, but it was not published in English until 1922.
Between 1920 and 1926 Wittgenstein had no university affiliation. The school where he taught was in Trattenbach, a tiny Austrian mountain village. The house he designed in the Kundmanngasse, Vienna, is now a museum. He returned to Cambridge in 1929 as a research fellow, and was later awarded a professorship at Trinity College despite lacking a higher degree. He died in Cambridge in 1951.