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Mirror or game? A philosopher's quest to gauge language's reality and limits (Column: Bookends)


One thing that exalts the human above all other sentient creatures is its capability for speech, facilitated by language that is a medium of communication, of expression, of representation and so on. However, how does language relate to reality, and does it have infinite capacity for its functions? This may seem obvious. But is it, and if not, can philosophy help? Hardly -- according to this influential but singular philosopher.

It took this unlikely, or rather atypical, individual to offer a persuasive explanation to this conundrum -- an issue which many would not even be aware of or have thought was an issue at all.

However, the nature of language has significant implications for us -- in our use of language, our thoughts, our ethics, religion and the search for "truth", showed Austrian-born Cambridge don Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889-1951).

A business magnate's son, schoolmate of Adolf Hitler and aspiring aircraft engineer, he went on to become one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, if not the most influential -- while trying to limit what philosophy could, or should not do.

But he also famously also changed his mind about his theory on the reality and scope of language. "The Young Wittgenstein" used a mirror to explain the issue. In "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" (1921), he contended that language's logical structure mirrored the structure of reality, "whatever could be said at all could be said clearly", and statements about ethics were meaningless. It emphatically ended: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen" or "what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence".

But later, he said he had been mistaken and language was a "game", with universally-accepted "rules", as he strove to ensure philosophy is not seen as a search for truth but rather to clear confusions it has created. As he said, he was trying to "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle".

The "Older Wittgenstein" still believed that philosophical problems could be tackled through a study of a language, but that the purpose was not to show language mirrors reality to deliver the "truth", which is not a quality that figures (or doesn't figure) in our beliefs, but is actually -- and more prosaically -- an activity that is done or not done.

And this activity, or action, cannot be true or false but only appropriate or not in its context, and statements are also actions, being correct not in mirroring the world but in languages' correct use -- according to the rules of the widely-accepted "language game".

Thus his contribution lies in emphasising the importance of language to philosophy and that the latter is not a set of doctrines, but a method to help avoid confusions of thought, and that context is important for understanding.

But then Wittgenstein was far from a typical philosopher. Among his singularities was that, in his lifetime, he wrote just "Tractatus.." (only 75 pages long), a book review, an article and a children's dictionary, but left 83 manuscripts, 46 typescripts and 11 dictations, amounting to an estimated 20,000 pages, which have steadily been printed since his death. In 2011, two more boxes of his papers were found.

And due to his colourful and unconventional lifestyle, he has been a favourite of biographers, writers and filmmakers.

Wittgenstein wanted to become an aircraft engineer and pursued it, but his study of mathematics kindled an interest in logic and he was advised to meet Bertrand Russell.

As a tongue-in-cheek account holds, the Very Early Wittgenstein asked Russell if he had any future in philosophy, and was told to go and write something. He did, Russell read it and said he was too brilliant to build aeroplanes. Though the two had a falling out later, Russell termed him the "most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating".

After his father's death in 1913, Wittgenstein gave away his inheritance to his siblings and needy artists and writers. In World War I, he enlisted in the Austrian army and insisted on being sent to the front lines where he distinguished himself and was decorated for gallantry. He then chose to become a primary school teacher in rural Austria but didn't last long and in 1929, was wooed back to Cambridge.

Fond of classical music -- and able to whistle entire works from memory -- and crime fiction, he lived an austere lifestyle. His room in Cambridge just had a cot, a deck-chair and sink and he chose to wear the same clothes all the time -- but by having several identical shirts, tweed jackets, pairs of trousers and the like. Uncharacteristically for someone who focussed on language, he loved using hipster slang like "Hot ziggety".

Resigning from Cambridge in 1947 to write fulltime, he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 1949 but refused treatment. He died on April 29, 1951, two days after turning 62 with his last words being: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life!"

It was certainly interesting -- and inspiring for us.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at



(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sun, December 03 2017. 11:04 IST