The Subtle Art of Language

By Matt McKeown

Language is the vehicle of all thought; using it clearly and correctly is, accordingly, indispensable. But is it possible?

The twentieth century featured many great minds across a multitude of disciplines and arts, from astrophysicists like Einstein and Hawking to fiction writers like O’Connor and Tolkien. In the field of philosophy and especially the theories of mind, logic, and language, none stands taller than Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Born into a Jewish Catholic family in Vienna, Wittgenstein spent some time studying there and in Berlin before traveling to Cambridge, where he became a pupil of Bertrand Russell. Wittgenstein’s early work was concerned with what philosophers technically call propositions—in substance, declarative sentences—and their relationship to the world; he was convinced that if this relationship could be perfectly clarified, every philosophical problem would thereby be resolved. As he wrote to his famous tutor, “The main point is the theory of what can be expressed by propositions—i.e. by language—(and, which comes to the same thing, what can be thought) and what cannot be expressed … but only shown.”

The fruit of his researches (temporarily interrupted by the First World War, in which he served) was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Clocking in at well under a hundred pages, this slender book became closely associated with logical positivism, a philosophy grounded in the claim that propositions are true if and only if they are either logically necessary or empirically verified. The style of the Tractatus very much accords with this: each of its seven chapters opens with a simple statement, followed by a series of corollaries, and corollaries to those corollaries. The seventh chapter, headed “Whereof one cannot speak, one must therefore be silent,” addressed itself to topics like æsthetics and religion, dismissing them as incapable of coherent expression and thus shown not to be proper subjects of thought, but illusory.

The work made a splash in Germany and his native Austria, and Russell himself wrote an introduction to it. However, Wittgenstein was growing dissatisfied both with Russell’s thought and with his own early efforts. Notwithstanding his own difficulties with religious faith and his work in the Tractatus, his diaries from the war record philosophical and religious reflections, as in entries from 1915 that read, “The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God … To pray is to think about the meaning of life,” and “Certainly it is correct to say: Conscience is the voice of God.”

Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts; it is not a body of doctrine, but an activity.

The second period of Wittgenstein’s thought, which gave rise to the much more extensive Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously), is what he is best known for today. Here he largely repudiated both the conclusions and the premises of the Tractatus, especially with respect to language. Where he had been attempting to establish a way of using language that would, of itself, produce absolute clarity regardless of context, here he said that context is the only means of understanding language. One of his most celebrated examples is the word water. This can be a noun, indicating the wet stuff; it can be a verb, indicating giving or receiving water (or liquid in general); it could even be the password of a secret society, indicating that the speaker is a member. It might be a request or a command, or an answer to a question, or an exclamation on unexpectedly finding some. The word itself, he argued, has no meaning outside of actually being used, and no use happens except in some context. This focus upon use was the foundation of Wittgenstein’s whole theory of meaning.

In this, he in some ways goes back to and rejects what we sometimes take to be the very beginning of Western philosophy—namely, the efforts of Socrates to define the meanings of words. In the Meno, for instance, when asked to define virtue, the title character gives a list of different virtues that different people possess; Socrates objects that this is a list of examples and not a definition. In essence, Wittgenstein ripostes that this objection doesn’t really matter. Even without a rigorous definition of a word, one that includes everything it can mean and excludes everything it can’t, we can still use the word to communicate, and even identify correct or incorrect uses of it. Running a race is a game, but running from a murderer is not, even though they are “the same” activity (even if we happen to be running from the murderer on a racetrack); we know this whether or not we are able to articulate exactly why. Intuition supplies what a theoretically exhaustive logical analysis cannot.

Wittgenstein died of cancer in 1951. Though he never quite committed himself to religious belief, he was attended by several Catholic friends and pupils, and was interred at Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.


Matt McKeown is a staff writer for CLT and a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other profiles of influential authors, like Thucydides, Blaise Pascal, and Willa Cather. And make sure to tune in to our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate hosts discussions of education, policy, and culture.

Published on 4th April, 2022. Page image of the “duckrabbit,” discussed in Philosophical Investigations as an example of the distinction between perception and interpretation.

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