The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein

maxresdefault.jpgAustrian-born philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) originally studied engineering. In 1912, he went to Cambridge and became a student of one of the founders of the analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell (1872—1970). Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army during the First World War and subsequently gave up studying philosophy for ten years. In 1929 he became a research fellow at Cambridge, and subsequently Professor of Philosophy. Wittgenstein published only a single work during his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). All of his other writings, including the Philosophical Investigations (1953), Remarks on the Foundations  of Mathematics (1956), The Blue and Brown Books (1958) and On Certainty (1969) appeared posthumously.

The Tractatus is a work that concentrates primarily upon elucidating an account of language, which is conceived in terms of its representational function. Language is viewed by Wittgenstein as ‘picturing’ the world, and the aim of the text is to point out what must be true both of language and of the world alike in order for this picturing (representation) to be possible. The world, or reality, it is argued, is nothing more than the totality of’facts’ that can be asserted about it. There are, Wittgenstein holds, fundamental facts or ‘atomic facts’. An atomic fact cannot be analysed down into constituent parts and is not dependent upon the existence of any other atomic fact. Language reflects this, in so far as it contains basic propositions that are likewise irreducible — ‘atomic propositions’. It is these propositions that are regarded by Wittgenstein as picturing reality. Language, in other words, is fundamentally a medium that mirrors the world. Both language and the world are held to share a common structure. This structure is referred to as ‘logical form’. When we assert complex propositions, Wittgenstein says, we are effectively combining various components of language in such a way that any proposition refers back to the fundamentally representational function that all atomic propositions share in common. Since all atomic propositions refer to the world they have a truth-value, i.e. they can be either true or false. Since all other propositions can be understood in terms of them, it follows that all propositions are functionally dependent upon the truth-values expressed in atomic propositions. Given that the aim of the Tractatus is to talk about the logical form of language, which grounds the possibility of its representational function and hence meaning, Wittgenstein is driven to admitting that it is strictly speaking impossible to talk about language in the way he is. This admission takes the form of the ‘showing’ and ‘saying’ distinction. According to this distinction, what can be shown cannot be said. In other words, the logical structure that language and the world share in common shows itself to us by way of the representational function of language. But since this structure makes meaningful talk possible it cannot actually be referred to in language. To put it another way, Wittgenstein claims it is impossible to stand ‘outside’ language, since language makes our world what it is. Famously, he tells us that the limits of our language constitute the limits of our world. Thus, what the Tractatus argues is, taken in rigorous terms, nonsense, for what the text is telling us about cannot strictly be said at all. The Tractatus ends with Wittgenstein telling us that the work itself should be treated like a ‘ladder’: once one has climbed this ladder it is best to cast it to one side.

A key problem that the Tractatus aims to address is the issue of how it is possible for language to represent reality. From the fact that Wittgenstein went on to abandon this view of language in his later writings it is clear that it has many problems. Fundamentally, the issue that must be broached for any representational theory to be persuasive is the question of how language and the world are conjoined. One has, in other words, to demonstrate how a ‘fit’ occurs between propositions and the world, i.e. how, as one eminent scholar put it, language and the world can be ‘nailed’ together. The problem with this is that in order to demonstrate this, one would have to stand outside of language and, as Wittgenstein argues, such a perspective is simply not available to us. Equally, a number of aspects of meaning do not seem to be linked to the referential function of language (see below). Wittgenstein‘s later writings effectively abandon this problem by turning instead to a different metaphor for language.

Instead of cleaving to the notion of representation, in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein develops an approach that articulates questions of meaning in terms of’language games’. One can, in simple terms, comprehend Wittgenstein’s argument by asking how words have meaning. An advocate of the representational view of language might well answer in the following manner: words mean what they do because they denote objects or facts in the world of experience. On this view, one could envisage a situation in which a teacher is instructing a child about the meaning of words. In order to communicate the meaning of a word the teacher points to an object and utters the word, thus naming the object. This form of definition is referred to as ‘ostensive definition’. In turn, the child repeats the name and so the word’s meaning is communicated by referring to the thing that is named by way of ostensive definition. One central problem with this conception of how the meaning of words is secured centres on the question of how the child understands the meaning of pointing. In order for ostensive definition to be possible, the child must already know that the act of pointing is a way of indicating an object and that uttering a word while pointing means that the object is being named. Arguing that pointing is a means of establishing how the meaning of words is secured will not do since the meaning of pointing itself cannot be defined in this way. Wittgenstein’s turn to language games is a means of avoiding this problem. He envisages the process of learning the meaning of words as being akin to the ‘games by means of which children learn their native language’ (Wittgenstein 1996, para. 7). Children learn language simply by playing games. Any game is composed of rules and conventions, and if we envisage a situation in which a child learns about the meaning of words by repeating them then what he or she is doing is acting according to conventions. The form of activity that occurs by way of the observation of conventions Wittgenstein calls a ‘language game’. Language games consist of gestures, rules, customs, etc. Taken together, these constitute a structure of conventions. Such conventions always serve the purpose of the game. If we take this view, then a word’s meaning will, in many instances, be definable by way of its role within a language game (para. 43). In turn, Wittgenstein notes, there are many possible sorts of language game. Since speaking language is always part of an activity, different activities can be grasped as instantiating different forms of life (para. 23). In turn, different language games represent instances of different ‘forms of life’. If one speaks the same language as others then one is in effect observing a common set of conventions, and the collective observation of conventions implies that one thereby shares with others a common form of life. In this way, Wittgenstein effectively asserts that the practice of philosophy is not rooted in fundamental principles, such as the purportedly ‘immediate’ certainty of self-reflection (see Descartes). Rather, forms of life, since they constitute the basis upon which human activities are possible, cannot be questioned by philosophy and thus constitute its fundamental precondition.

Forms of life, however, are diverse. For example, flies and dogs are two species that represent fundamentally different forms of life. With regard to one another, such forms are incommensurable, i.e. the behaviour of one species cannot be translated into terms equivalent to the behaviour of another. Humans, too, are different from other animals. But humans can also inhabit very different worlds with regard to one another. Different cultures, for example, can be comprehended as different forms of life whose conventions are incommensurable with regard to one another. If someone from one culture were to be persuaded to accept the ‘truths’ (i.e. dominant beliefs) of another culture then it would not be the case that this would be achieved by their accepting the indubitable ‘truth’ of the assertions that constitute this web of beliefs (e.g. scientifically ‘proven’ beliefs). Such acceptance would merely indicate that this person had altered the way in which they look at the world: their ‘world-view’ would have changed. On this view, philosophy effectively becomes unwarranted nonsense if it displays any pretensions to endow life with an ultimate meaning. Rather, the role of philosophy is to note the differences that operate between different forms of life and thereby illuminate how misunderstandings can occur. Primarily, misunderstandings happen when we take the everyday conventions that go to make up a language game and start to use them to ask questions that are inappropriate to that game, i.e. questions that are not meaningful within the web of everyday activities that constitute that game.


Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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