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Ludwig Wittgenstein: Analysis of Language

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The direction of analytic philosophy in the twentieth century was altered not once but twice by the enigmatic Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. By his own philosophical work and through his influence on several generations of other thinkers, Wittgenstein transformed the nature of philosophical activity in the English-speaking world. From two distinct approaches, he sought to show that traditional philosophical problems can be avoided entirely by application of an appropriate methodology, one that focuses on analysis of language.

The "early" Wittgenstein worked closely with Russell and shared his conviction that the use of mathematical logic held great promise for an understanding of the world. In the tightly-structured declarationss of the Logische-Philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) (1922), Wittgenstein tried to spell out precisely what a logically constructed language can (and cannot) be used to say. Its seven basic propositions simply state that language, thought, and reality share a common structure, fully expressible in logical terms.

On Wittgenstein's view, the world consists entirely of facts. (Tractatus 1.1) Human beings are aware of the facts by virtue of our mental representations or thoughts, which are most fruitfully understood as picturing the way things are. (Tractatus 2.1) These thoughts are, in turn, expressed in propostitions, whose form indicates the position of these facts within the nature of reality as a whole and whose content presents the truth-conditions under which they correspond to that reality. (Tractatus 4) Everything that is true—that is, all the facts that constitute the world—can in principle be expressed by atomic sentences. Imagine a comprehensive list of all the true sentences. They would picture all of the facts there are, and this would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole.

The tautological expressions of logic occupy a special role in this language-scheme. Because they are true under all conditions whatsoever, tautologies are literally nonsense: they convey no information about what the facts truly are. But since they are true under all conditions whatsoever, tautologies reveal the underlying structure of all language, thought, and reality. (Tractatus 6.1) Thus, on Wittgenstein's view, the most significant logical features of the world are not themselves additional facts about it.

What Cannot be Said

This is the major theme of the Tractatus as a whole: since propositions merely express facts about the world, propositions in themselves are entirely devoid of value. The facts are just the facts. Everything else, everything about which we care, everything that might render the world meaningful, must reside elsewhere. (Tractatus 6.4) A properly logical language, Wittgenstein held, deals only with what is true. Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful and ethical judgments about what is good cannot even be expressed within the logical language, since they transcend what can be pictured in thought. They aren't facts. The achievement of a wholly satisfactory description of the way things are would leave unanswered (but also unaskable) all of the most significant questions with which traditional philosophy was concerned. (Tractatus 6.5)

Thus, even the philosophical achievements of the Tractatus itself are nothing more than useful nonsense; once appreciated, they are themselves to be discarded. The book concludes with the lone statement:

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
(Tractatus 7) This is a stark message indeed, for it renders literally unspeakable so much of human life. As Wittgenstein's friend and colleague Frank Ramsey put it,
"What we can't say we can't say, and we can't whistle it either."
It was this carefully-delineated sense of what a logical language can properly express that influenced members of the Vienna Circle in their formulation of the principles of logical positivism. Wittgenstein himself supposed that there was nothing left for philosophers to do. True to this conviction, he abandoned the discipline for nearly a decade.

New Directions

By the time Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1928, however, he had begun to question the truth of his earlier pronouncements. The problem with logical analysis is that it demands too much precision, both in the definition of words and in the representation of logical structure. In ordinary language, applications of a word often bear only a "family resemblance" to each other, and a variety of grammatical forms may be used to express the same basic thought. But under these conditions, Wittgenstein now realized, the hope of developing an ideal formal language that accurately pictures the world is not only impossibly difficult but also wrong-headed.

During this fertile period, Wittgenstein published nothing, but worked through his new notions in classroom lectures. Students who witnessed these presentations tried to convey both the style and the content in their shared notes, which were later published as The Blue and Brown Books (1958). G.E. Moore also sat in on Wittgenstein's lectures during the early thirties and later published a summary of his own copious notes. What appears in these partial records is the emergence of a new conception of philosophy.

The picture theory of meaning and logical atomism are untenable, Wittgenstein now maintained, and there is no reason to hope that any better versions of these basic positions will ever come along. Claims to have achieved a correct, final analysis of language are invariably mistaken. Since philosophical problems arise from the intellectual bewilderment induced by the misuse of language, the only way to resolve them is to use examples from ordinary language to deflate the pretensions of traditional thought. The only legitimate role for philosophy, then, is as a kind of therapy—a remedy for the bewitchment of human thought by philosophical language. Careful attention to the actual usage of ordinary language should help avoid the conceptual confusions that give rise to traditional difficulties.

Language as Game

On this conception of the philosophical enterprise, the vagueness of ordinary usage is not a problem to be eliminated but rather the source of linguistic riches. It is misleading even to attempt to fix the meaning of particular expressions by linking them referentially to things in the world. The meaning of a word or phrase or proposition is nothing other than the set of (informal) rules governing the use of the expression in actual life.

Like the rules of a game, Wittgenstein argued, these rules for the use of ordinary language are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false: they are merely useful for the particular applications in which we apply them. The members of any community—cost accountants, college students, or rap musicians, for example—develop ways of speaking that serve their needs as a group, and these constitute the language-game (Moore's notes refer to the "system" of language) they employ. Human beings at large constitute a greater community within which similar, though more widely-shared, language-games get played. Although there is little to be said in general about language as a whole, therefore, it may often be fruitful to consider in detail the ways in which particular portions of the language are used.

Even the fundamental truths of arithmetic, Wittgenstein now supposed, are nothing more than relatively stable ways of playing a particular language-game. This account rejects both logicist and intuitionist views of mathematics in favor of a normative conception of its use. 2 + 3 = 5 is nothing other than a way we have collectively decided to speak and write, a handy, shared language-game. The point once more is merely to clarify the way we use ordinary language about numbers.

Pain and Private Language

One application of the new analytic technique that Wittgenstein himself worked out appears in several connected sections of the posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations (1953). In discussions of the concept of "understanding," traditional philosophers tended to suppose that the operation of the human mind involves the continuous operation of an inner or mental process of pure thinking. But Wittgenstein pointed out that if we did indeed have private inner experiences, it would be possible to represent them in a corresponding language. On detailed examination, however, he concluded that the very notion of such a private language is utterly nonsensical.

If any of my experiences were entirely private, then the pain that I feel would surely be among them. Yet other people commonly are said to know when I am in pain. Indeed, Wittgenstein pointed out that I would never have learned the meaning of the word "pain" without the aid of other people, none of whom have access to the supposed private sensations of pain that I feel. For the word "pain" to have any meaning at all presupposes some sort of external verification, a set of criteria for its correct application, and they must be accessible to others as well as to myself. Thus, the traditional way of speaking about pain needs to be abandoned altogether.

Notice that exactly the same kind of argument will work with respect to every other attempt to speak about our supposedly inner experiences. There is no systematic way to coordinate the use of words that express sensations of any kind with the actual sensations that are supposed to occur within myself and other agents. Wittgenstein proposed that we imagine that each human being carries a tiny box whose contents is observed only by its owner: even if we all agree to use the word "beetle" to refer to what is in the box, there is no way to establish a non-linguistic similarity between the contents of my own box and that of anyone else's. Just so, the use of language for pains or other sensations can only be associated successfully with dispositions to behave in certain ways. Pain is whatever makes someone (including me) writhe and groan.

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