Logic, Language and the Limits of our Understanding
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. There were few philosophical fields left untouched by the British-Austrian genius; he worked with logic, mathematics, ethics, the mind, and most notably, revolutionized the way that we understand language. He only published one book during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he challenged how we think of language and logic, suggesting that the function of language is to allow us to picture things.1 This is known as the picture-theory and it drove the logical positivism movement that defined philosophy up and into the 1960s.2
Bold claims made Ludwig Wittgenstein a controversial character, fluctuating in the eyes of his peers and students between a madman and a genius. He himself acknowledged that he had outlandish views and philosophies, once claiming “if people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done”.2 Regardless of his personal character, the work that Wittgenstein began in the 20th century started major conversations about metaphysics, logic, and language that continue to be discussed today. He always questioned what could be said about the world, causing him to even debunk some of his own notable theories after further reflection. Some of his work that was posthumously published in a book titled Philosophical Investigations actually contradicted much of what he had stated about language in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had an amazing thirst for knowledge and was never afraid to admit his own mistakes. His insights have had a powerful impact on not only the topics that philosophy undertakes but also on the way that we understand the purpose of philosophy.
Ludwig’s takes on Language
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein focused on how propositions acquire meaning. Up until this point, philosophists believed that through language, we were able to say exactly what something is. Language essentially mirrored reality. However, Wittgenstein believed that language shared the logical form of reality, rather than reality itself. A proposition is therefore a logical picture of reality, as it expresses an image, not reality itself. The function of thought is therefore to allow us to picture things.1 Wittgenstein explained that “every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the world. It is the object for which the word stands.” 4
In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein shifted his thinking, no longer believing that language had a fixed structure that mirrored the structure of reality. Instead, he later understood language as fluid and constantly changing based on our interaction with the world. He became interested in the use of language instead of the truth of what language represented. Now, instead of believing that language reflected reality, he came to believe that the way we use language also shapes reality. Meaningful statements moved from having to map the logical form of the world to use conventionally-defined terms in new and interesting ways to fulfill particular uses. Years after the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein suggested that “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it, and the context in which you say it. Words are how you use them.” 2
Wittgenstein’s shift in thinking was representative of a wider shift occurring in philosophy at the time. While philosophy in the early 20th century was originally dominated by logical positivism, it later moved towards pragmatism. Pragmatism views words as tools that we use to problem-solve, instead of being something that we passively use to represent the world. 2 The shift placed language as an activity, and this view also extended to the field of philosophy as a whole, coming to be seen as an activity rather than a science.
Wittgenstein suggested that people, therefore, engage in “language games”, which meant using terms that would be recognized by a certain community.2 By understanding language as a tool, that has some kind of socially-defined rules, Wittgenstein paved the way to our understanding of the different ways in which language operates within society, rather than in an abstract context.
The Sense and Nonsense of Philosophy
Ludwig Wittgenstein sought to reformulate people’s understanding of the field of philosophy. He believed that in the 1900s, philosophers had become too concerned with trying to discover a magical doctrine that explained the ‘truth’ of the world. They looked for an explanation for the nature of meaning, truth, justice, time, and so on, placing philosophy as a kind of science.4
Alternatively, Wittgenstein thought that it was impossible for philosophy to ‘get it right’ and that science was the only kind of knowledge that was factual. Instead, he believed the purpose of philosophy was to find explanations that allowed people to picture the world. He stated in Philosophical Investigations, “philosophy just puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything”.5 As such, he did not believe there was one school of philosophy that was better than another, or a particular methodology that all philosophers should follow. Philosophers’ expressions just needed to clear up confusion about a problem of the world in order to be valuable.
Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophy differed from traditional opinions because it placed philosophy as an activity instead of a doctrine. In his early days, he actually suggested that philosophy was all ‘meaningless’ because the logic of fact cannot be captured through language.5 But just because it was meaningless did not mean it was pointless; philosophy needed to point out the nonsense in order to dissect problems and dispel confusion. For Wittgenstein, it was not about becoming more knowledgeable, but about becoming less confused and understanding the limits of language in their ability to teach us about the nature of the world.2 The new role of philosophy was actually to clear up the problems caused by traditional philosophy and demonstrate that the questions about the essence of things in traditional philosophy were not useful because they were too abstracted from the world in which we live.
His views on philosophy are encapsulated by the following quote, written by Wittgenstein:
“‘What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.’ In philosophy we are not, like the scientist, building a house nor are we even laying the foundations of a house. We are merely ‘tidying up a room’”.3
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889 in Austria into a wealthy family, the youngest of eight children. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was one of the wealthiest men in Europe at the time. This meant that Ludwig brushed shoulders with some of the most fascinating intellectuals, artists, and writers of his day, including Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis), Karl Kraus (an Austrian poet), and Bruno Walter (a German musician).4 Ludwig himself was a talented musician, although one of his brothers, Paul, later became a famous pianist and was actually more well-known while they were alive than Ludwig was. However, Ludwig’s family life was far from perfect. Ludwig had three sisters and four brothers, three of whom would later commit suicide. Ludwig himself said that he sometimes considered suicide and had bouts of depression.6
Although Ludwig Wittgenstein showed musical talent, his real passion was engineering, so he left Austria in 1908 to go to England and study aeronautics. While working on a project, he became deeply interested in mathematical problems, causing him to read The Principles of Mathematics by Bertrand Russell, a British logician and philosopher, who became a great influence after Wittgenstein went to the University of Cambridge to meet him.4 Wittgenstein decided to leave engineering behind and study logic with Russell as his teacher.6 Russell once described Ludwig as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” 7
After a year of working alongside Russell, Wittgenstein left England to work in a small isolated hut in Norway. He put his studies on pause in 1914 when he enrolled in the Austrian army during World War I. He was hopeful that being in a near-death experience would help him focus on intellect and morality.4 His wish may have come true, as he was taken captive in 1918. The experience did change his philosophical understandings, as he no longer viewed ethics, aesthetics, and religion as separate from logic. He now understood that, just like the inexpressibility of truths of logic, they too could not be put into words.4 It was during World War I war that Wittgenstein made notes and drafts of what would become his published book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.8
When he returned from the war, he continued his study of logic but ultimately determined that the most important things about logic and philosophy could not be expressed by words. One of the most famous things that Wittgenstein wrote in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”.8 He left philosophy to become an elementary school teacher until 1929, where he returned, but with new theoretical understandings. He began working on Philosophical Investigations that would dispel some of his philosophy in his original book and finished it in 1945. However, he withdrew it from publication and did not get a chance to publish it before his death in 1951. Legend has it that as Ludwig Wittgenstein laid on his deathbed, the last words that he uttered were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”8
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical understandings definitely evolved and changed over his lifetime but Wittgenstein never viewed changing his mind as a problem. Making mistakes was just a part of the process. Similarly, he didn’t believe that the nonsense of philosophy was useless. He said, “don’t, for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must, pay attention to your nonsense.” 3
He grappled most with how to understand language and its relationship to meaning and the world. He originally viewed language as limiting the world, because he believed that anything philosophy uttered was meaningless. He said, “the limits of my language means the limits of my world”. 3 Although he may have later revised this belief, it is clear that he always understood that language had a complex relationship to reality and sought to undertake the challenge of understanding it through philosophy. He said, “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” 3
Wittgenstein’s emphasis on philosophy as an activity was predicated on the fact that he originally believed that philosophy need not solve problems but show that some of these problems weren’t actually problems at all. For example, he stated that “the real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does, what problem this really solves.” 3
Where can we learn more?
If you’d like to read more about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life, Ray Monk, a British philosopher, wrote his biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Ray Monk has written extensively about the genius philosopher and can be said to be an expert on Ludwig Wittgenstein and his theorizations. In the biography, Monk does a great job of explaining how Wittgenstein’s revolutionary take on common philosophical questions still matters today, even in a time where science seems to be the prevailing authority.9
James C. Klagge, a professor of philosophy, takes a different approach in explaining Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life in his book, Wittgenstein in Exile. He centers his understanding of Wittgenstein around the fact that he was exiled from his home. He believes this understanding helps unravel some of the difficult issues that Wittgenstein was grappling with in his study of philosophy.10
There are also a number of podcasts about Ludwig Wittgenstein that look into how his philosophical understandings have influenced culture and understanding. You can listen to BBC’s podcast here, or listen to Grant Bartley and Daniel Hutto, two academics, discuss Wittgenstein’s two different takes on language and its limits here.
- Jago, M. (2006). Pictures and Nonsense. Philosophy Now. https://philosophynow.org/issues/58/Pictures_and_Nonsense
- Rayner, T. (2014, March 11). Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language. WordPress. https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/meaning-is-use-wittgenstein-on-the-limits-of-language/
- (n.d.). Ludwig Wittgenstein Quotes. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7672.Ludwig_Wittgenstein
- Monk, R. (1998). Ludwig Wittgenstein. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ludwig-Wittgenstein
- (n.d.). Ludwig Wittgenstein Quotes. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7672.Ludwig_Wittgenstein
- Gottlieb, A. (2009, April 6). A Nervous Splendor. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/06/a-nervous-splendor
- Farnam Street. (2019, October 29). Wittgenstein: Reality is shaped by the words we use. https://fs.blog/2013/01/reality-is-shaped-by-the-words-we-use/
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2002, November 8). Ludwig Wittgenstein. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/#BiogSket
- Monk, R. (1999, July 20). Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson. Prospect Magazine. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ray-monk-wittgenstein
- (n.d.). Wittgenstein in exile. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9845528-wittgenstein-in-exile