Wittgenstein’s Two Greatest Insights About Language

We’re back, after another unfortunate hiatus caused by a lingering illness and furthered by a computer meltdown. Might as well accept it: I will never be a technology person. But anywize….

This post is one I’ve been planning for some time. One could argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein was the twentieth century’s most important philosopher. He made a substantial contribution to the ideal language analytic philosophy that began with Frege and Russell and emphasized formal systems, and basically pioneered the natural language analytic philosophy that rose during the 1940s and even more during the 1950s, emphasizing the varieties of uses or purposes natural language serves. Wittgenstein was one of those rare thinkers who developed two quite different philosophies, the second of which was a devastating criticism and rejection of the first. He also greatly influenced the historicists in philosophy of science (Toulmin, Hanson, Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc.) and allowed the building of bridges to other philosophical traditions such as French poststructuralism (Foucault) and outside of philosophy to cultural anthropology (Geertz).

To my mind, two of Wittgenstein’s statements stand out as singularly profound, and important in ways going far beyond the antiseptic groves of academia.

Despite the popularity of logical positivism at the time, a close reading of the Tractatus shows that Wittgenstein was no positivist: the influences on his philosophy of language and its relationship to thought — to what can be said versus what cannot be said — range well outside Russell and Frege. Think Tolstoy, for example, or possibly Kierkegaard, or even Kafka. But all them aside, one statement late in the Tractatus suggests that Wittgenstein was already trying to think outside the set of conceptual boxes that were constraining ideal language analytic philosophy.

The first statement, in this case: “In philosophy the question, ‘What do we actually use this word or this proposition for?’ repeatedly leads to valuable insights.” Final paragraph of 6.211, Pears / McGuinness translation.

The early Wittgenstein is observing here that whatever supremacy one gives logical form alone, use matters. Paying attention to it leads to “valuable insights.”

Language is more than form (logical, grammatical). It has purposes: communication, a storehouse of information, instruction, and so on. Wittgenstein lists a variety of the uses of language near the beginning of Philosophical Investigations. A language is a system. More precisely, it is a concatenation of systems: its own set of sounds or phonemes used in often specific combinations (it is interesting to observe that nonnative speakers of a given language will typically have difficulty pronouncing sounds or combinations their native language does not use, especially if they are trying to learn the language as adults); their combination into words; rules attaching words and phrases to objects or classes of objects or attributes; a grammar allowing for discussion of present continuous, past simple, future, and other tenses; words allowing for relations in space and time, movements within space and time (prepositions); and so on.

These, the careful student of language eventually must realize, are conventions only. There is no logical or any other necessity about them. They are what they are because they allowed for solving problems of communication, etc., and are taken for granted within a community of speakers.

This all becomes evident to learners of a second language if they spend some time reflecting. It’s tempting for a native English speaker such as myself to ask of Spanish, for example, Why do they say it that way? There’s no good answer to such a question beyond the fact that these are the linguistic conventions speakers accept and use, having inherited them from generations past. One may make the point further by looking back at English and retorting, Well, why do we English speakers do it this way and not some other way? It’s actually easier to ask the question of English, given that Spanish is a pure Romance language following the streamlined internal conventions common to Romance language, while English is messier, having drawn from both Romance and Germanic roots, resulting in greater complexity. In any event, one embraces and uses the conventions of the target language if one hopes to be understood by its speakers.

The point, though, is that a language consists of conventions “all the way down,” one might say. There is no “metaphysical” necessity between a word or phrase and a given object or class of objects, not in English or in any other language. These conventions include usages which can be observed; one can learn a language such as French or Spanish by noting what words and phrases in those languages are being used to do: the situations in which those words or phrases occur, the responses they generate from others, etc. Sometimes these usages involve human motivations which change over time. To the extent that the aggregate motivations of a human community affect the uses of language, its conventions are somewhat flexible, although this flexibility is always limited. New words and phrases are coined; others drop into disuse; a few are changed beyond all recognition. An example of the latter is the word gay. One may review the attributes this word was used for in, say, the 1950s, versus its conventional uses today. Conventions change in response to pressures placed on them, and these can come from a variety of directions, including political ones.

Summing up this part of the post, the primary insight here is that we learn the conventional nature of language from observing what words and phrases are used by speakers to do, and note how these change over time.

In Philosophical Investigations the later Wittgenstein makes many observations worth pondering, but the one I would single out is: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” End of paragraph 109, Anscombe translation.

Unfortunately, Wittgenstein’s primary concern, very likely his working premise, was with that departures from conventions that govern “ordinary usage” had given rise to traditional philosophical problems about knowledge and certainty, perception, free will versus determinism, and so on. Again, what do the standard conventions of the English language permit users of terms like knowledge, certainty, free, etc., to do? Is a philosopher’s language “gone on holiday” (another memorable Wittgenstein phrase from Philosophical Investigations) when he asserts, “I am certain that p” as opposed to just asserting “p“? I do not believe Wittgenstein ever dwells on the third of the above, free will versus determinism, but other philosophers did in his wake, and their results helped to sort out the often-ambiguous and therefore confusing fashion through which we describe ourselves as “free.” I used to ask students, “Are you free?” The proper response was to ask, “What do you mean by free?” That would have been to ask for a list of the standard conventions in which we use that word.

Calling something a convention, however, does not mean we should never question it.

Given the range of uses of language, if philosophy is indeed a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language, we neither can or should confine ourselves to the ‘problems of philosophy’ including the preoccupations of nearly all analytic philosophers, past and present. Drawing in human motivation is a factor here. Not all uses of language aim at uttering true or even useful propositions. Lies, conventionally, are propositions the speaker knows are false but wants you, the listener, to believe are true. And if Harry Frankfurt is right, bullshit consists of propositions uttered by a speaker who doesn’t much care about truth or falsity, only achieving some other effect such as muddying the linguistic waters. (See his On Bullshit, 2005.)

It is necessary, in this light, for philosophers (and any other interested parties) to consider propaganda, which uses language according to, or to establish conventions, less concerned with truth or falsity and more concerned with leading an audience in a desired direction. This direction may favor or disfavor that which is being described propagandistically.

Propagandistic language may be used to discourage independent investigation of an idea by discrediting it through what may be called weaponized language. An example is homophobia … a term almost automatically applied across the board today to anyone critical of the homosexual lifestyle, or of homosexual unions. This term has become conventional. One sees it everywhere. A phobia is, of course, an irrational fear. People suffering from irrational fears are answered with logic; they are offered cures or at least attempts to control their fear (“sensitivity training”?). There are legitimate phobias (agoraphobia, claustrophobia, etc.). Is homophobia one of these? What makes it such? The word was not used prior to the 1990s, which alone makes the matter suspicious, if not decisive. We can raise the matter because of those worldviews, religious or otherwise, that reject the mainstreaming of homosexual conduct, or produce claims backed up by scientific evidence, independent of anyone’s theology, that the lifestyle is physically damaging and actually shortens the lifespans of those who practice it. I cannot claim to know, sitting here, that such claims are true (I suspect they are). What I am sure of, though, is that they cannot be dismissed prior to investigation, and should not be circumvented by the application of a term designed to portray anyone raising the issue as subject to an irrational fear.

A similar situation exists with regard to the phrase conspiracy theory. As conventionally used in major media, calling something a conspiracy theory equates to dismissing it as irrational, and is usually sufficient to discourage closer looks. But is this the same as having supplied evidence that the idea to be rejected really is irrational, or unsupported by any sort of fact? Given the history of the convention, its creation by the Central Intelligence Agency back in 1967 to circumvent the arguments brought forth for questioning the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination, we have every reason to be suspicious of this convention. Why, in that case, is the claim that Seth Rich was murdered because he supplied Democratic Party emails to Wikileaks (a claim where we have no smoking-gun evidence) a conspiracy theory, while the claim that members of the Trump campaign might have colluded with agents of the Russian government to affect the outcome of the 2016 election (a claim also without smoking-gun evidence) not a conspiracy theory?

Calling a usage conventional does not exempt it from criticism if we can draw attention to what a word or phrase is being used to do (Wittgenstein’s first observation above), and especially if we can see that what it is being used to do is to bewitch our intelligence (Wittgenstein’s second observation).

It would be a great use of analytic philosophy of natural language, especially that which takes Wittgenstein as its point of departure, if philosophers were to begin questioning usages of terms and phrases, even those that have become conventions, that are clearly propagandistic, designed to sway audiences and move them in desired directions, despite their newfound conventional status. I used the two examples I thought of first. There are dozens of others. I am sure readers can think of some of them without trying too hard.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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