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Wittgenstein, the Tractatus, and the Investigations

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Philosophy of language is easily one of the most relevant areas within analytic philosophical discourse in the current century. This philosophy was first advanced by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the logical positivists such as A.J. Ayer. The most important figure during this movement is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Born in Vienna in 1889, Wittgenstein is known for originally creating a logical framework and outlook of language similar to the logical positivists (Lawhead 510). This is considered his early philosophy. Later on he denies his early work and formulates an almost entirely new philosophy of language. This paper will analyze his early philosophy, compare and contrast his early view to logical positivism, and take a look at his later philosophy.

Early Wittgenstein’s work entitled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was very important to the philosophy of language. The Tractatus, while short, mainly consists of factual statements that Wittgenstein uses to build his argument for his philosophy. The most important part of the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language. Propositions correspond to, or picture the world and reality. Suppose one were to say, “There is a black Honda Civic sedan outside” this statement would picture a black Honda Civic sedan which is outside at this present moment. The names within the sentence picture actual objects in the world and the whole statement pictures reality like it is. Like all statements, this statement would have a truth-value. “The world is all that is the case” (Grayling 40). Wittgenstein goes on by saying that facts make up the world, not things, and that facts are state of affairs — or a state of things (Grayling 40). He believes that the state of affairs determine the proposition and that the proposition is a picture of what reality really is. By analyzing the picture-proposition one can derive meaning from reality. Words in a sentence only make sense in relation to the whole sentence and the context itself. It must be noted here that words such as “not” and “or” are not part of the picture but rather they are a logical connectors that make sense of the sentence. For Wittgenstein all propositions are either true or false and he is trying to show what can be correctly stated as meaningful language (Grayling 41). He says that values, ethics, and religious claims are not in the world. “Ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental” (Lawhead 513). Wittgenstein also says that, “What we cannot not speak about we must pass over in silence” (Lawhead 514). At this point the logical positivists are agreeing very much with Wittgenstein’s views on language and the meaning it has. The positivists believed that there are basically two meaningful types of statements: tautologies and empirically verified propositions. Every other statement or proposition that did not fit in either of these two categories was, according to the positivists, meaningless. Statements such as “God exists” or “God does not exist” were rendered as being meaningless since they were not tautologies and they could not be proved nor disproved by empirical means. Also, ethical concerns were merely emotional suggestions about behavior and again were neither true nor false. Ayer once said, “The statement ‘It is your moral duty to tell the truth” means nothing more than ‘I recommend you to tell the truth’” (Lawhead 509). Ethical judgments were nothing more than recommendations of personal taste. Wittgenstein did not want to go down the route that the positivists were going down. He claimed that the things that we can not talk about — the meaningless ethical and religious statements and sentences — were actually more important than the things we can say. They are mystical for Wittgenstein. He once said, “My work consists of two parts; the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the more important one” (Lawhead 514). What Wittgenstein did not comment on in the Tractatus is more important according to him. This is precisely where he breaks from the logical positivists.

After working out his early philosophy of language, Wittgenstein thought he solved every single philosophical problem and thus stopped doing philosophy. He started working as an elementary school teacher for a number of years. He did some other work as a gardener and then later as an architect. It was during this time that he would rethink the whole Tractatus and his early thoughts and almost completely deny everything he once held to be true (Lawhead 514).

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is not only entirely different from his early philosophy, but it is also more influential. The Philosophical Investigations is the most important work of his later philosophy though it was published after his death. The most striking difference between the early and later Wittgenstein is the way he sees language. In the Tractatus he saw language as picturing a state of affairs but in the Investigations he sees language as a tool, “a form of life,” that work within the context of a language-game (Grayling 79). Also, along with this primary distinction, later Wittgenstein really tried to simplify his thought and tried to not make it so theoretical and complicated like he did with the Tractatus.

Wittgenstein’s analogy of a language-game is one of the most important concepts in his later thought. He says that what we call games — board games, sport games, casual games et cetera — has no essence to them. The definition of games are culturally defined and have resemblances to one another but no person can really get a set definition of what they all have in common (Grayling 84). Language for Wittgenstein is just language-games. That is to say, the only way to understand language is to understand its language game. Wittgenstein is pretty much attacking the whole philosophical tradition up to this point. He is attacking what is called essentialism. Essentialism says that there are essences to things, in particular, language. So when one talks about circles or cars or phones or whatever it may be, there is some type of essence that they all are connected to. This view is most easily seen within Plato’s thought. Plato thought there were immaterial forms that were perfect representations of what was found in the real world. In the allegory of the cave, Plato says that these objects are the most real and are the things that man should seek because he must exit the cave — the material world — and see the platonic heaven (Baird 278-283).  But Wittgenstein denies this Platonic essentialism through his example of a game. With this newfound concept, Wittgenstein says that the meaning of language is defined on how it is used in any particular language-game. The meaning of the word is its use. For example, the word materialism has two drastically different meanings in different language-games. In metaphysics it means that the fundamental substance of reality is wholly material, but in political theory and economics, materialism is defined as the obsession with wealth and material things such as money and homes and cars. The understanding and meaning is different for each language-game because it is being used differently within each game.

Wittgenstein says that because language is defined through cultural and societal language-games, language is completely public and not private. Wittgenstein says the language is public because it is rule based. The rules are public and in order to understand a word, sentence, or proposition, one must understand the public rules which exist within any given language game. A person cannot make their own private language. All language is learned through society and is a form of life according to Wittgenstein (Grayling 97). Any type of language deemed to be a “private language” is really determined by the public rules and external reality. This is another attack on the philosophical tradition of Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” His internal thoughts and “private language” proved that he exists. But Wittgenstein says that he must get that language from some type of society, from his parents who taught him how to process words. Thus, Descartes’ statement is not a private and internal statement but is rather ultimately public (Grayling 98). The external society is more important than the internal self according to Wittgenstein.

Later Wittgenstein seems to be absolutely correct in how language works and how we as humans get meaning from language. Everything seems to be public and learned through public means. His view of language-games seems to completely go against the logical positivist’s view of language. Ethical statements can now be analyzed with the ethic language-game. Religious talk can now be explained and talked about with relation to the religious language-game. He did not want this analysis to be over intellectualized but rather, he wanted it to be relatively ordinary (Lawhead 519). He preferred ordinary language over philosophical language because philosophical language in itself creates problems of definitions (Lawhead 518). If Wittgenstein is right about language being public and he’s right about language-games, then talking in ordinary speech is the best way to get at the truth of what we are saying “for philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (Lawhead 518). His attack on the Cartesian inner language is completely correct. He dismantles Descartes so-called private language by showing it to be public. Wittgenstein’s legacy will always remain highly influential. He once said, “Our language continually ties new knots in our thinking. And philosophy is never done with disentangling them” (Lawhead 519). This could be true, as philosophy can sometimes create more problems then solve them. This statement fully sums up Wittgenstein’s distaste for philosophy and shows that the real issue is language.

Works Cited

Baird, Forrest E. Ancient Philosophy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2007. Print.

Lawhead, William F. The Contemporary Voyage: 1900 –. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002. Print.


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