Wittgenstein, language and truth: Lessons for PR

Considered by some to be the 20th century’s greatest thinker, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps better known for his eccentric character than his work. Born into one of Europe’s richest families in Vienna on 26 April 1889, he gave his fortune to his relatives and went to live in isolation for a year in a cabin in Norway upon receipt of his inheritance. He once attempted to hire a private train after missing a train from Manchester to Liverpool, eventually settling for a taxi. Later, he tried his hand at architecture, designing a house for his family, afterwards insisting that the ceiling needed lowering by three centimetres.

Given that he is an eminent figure in the philosophy of language, anyone who works in communications could do worse than paying his ideas more than a second thought.

United by a conviction that thoroughly exploring the workings of our language can help us to see how the miscommunications that trouble our lives arise, his work is generally divided into ‘early’ and ‘later’ phases, which are ostensibly incompatible with each other. This first in a two-part series paralleling the two branches of thought deals with his early work, corresponding with his famously mystifying treatise entitled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only work published during his lifetime, known by philosophers simply as the Tractatus.

Local connection

Wittgenstein’s father, who controlled almost all of the steel production in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, intended that his youngest son would follow in his footsteps and become an industrialist. However, Ludwig’s interests lay in the sciences, and after attending school in Linz, where he was a direct contemporary of Adolf Hitler, he went on to study engineering in Berlin before moving to Manchester to take up aeronautical engineering.

It was at Manchester that he became interested in mathematics and philosophy, in particular logic. He wanted to see if the same logic that had recently been shown by British philosopher Bertrand Russell to be the basis of the mathematics that he had used to design an aeroplane propeller could be used to explain how language worked.

He came to believe that if we could properly understand how our language works, that is how symbols and utterances can convey thoughts and meaning, we could solve the problems of philosophy: questions about right and wrong, existence and reality and aesthetic value.

This is the stated aim of the Tractatus, which he drafted in the trenches of the First World War after studying logic with Russell at Cambridge. However, rather than providing answers to the sorts of questions above, Wittgenstein believes that these philosophical problems arise from misunderstandings about how our language works, and that by properly understanding the logic of language, they cease to be problems at all. This is a theme that runs through both his early and later work, but the particular view espoused in the Tractatus is that language works by mirroring the structure of the world.

Foundations of thought

Wittgenstein was building on the work of Russell and another philosopher, Gottlob Frege, which considered how, if language has a logical basis, we are able to make statements that are meaningful but do not correspond with reality. The famous example analysed by Russell is a variant of ‘the present King of France is wise’, a perfectly grammatical sentence, but one that evokes a fictional monarch.

His explanation was that the above example is saying more than what it appears to be on its surface. It is really making three claims: that there is a present King of France, there is only one King of France, and whatever is the King of France is wise. This is its underlying ‘logical form’ and, crucially for an understanding of the Tractatus, shows that a proposition is either true or false based on the truth or falsity of its constituent propositions and how they are related. This is its ‘truth-functionality’. Both Russell and Frege developed logical notations in order to express logical forms.

Pictures and words

This leads on to the central argument of the Tractatus, which is that language works because it is essentially descriptive. In Wittgenstein’s view, all meaningful language comprises propositions that can be broken down into elementary propositions, which correspond with states of affairs and are effectively descriptions of how things are arranged in the world. In this way, language connects with reality by mirroring or ‘picturing’, although this should not be thought of merely in terms of physical objects and spatial relationships. This is the ‘Picture Theory’ of language.

Fundamental to the above explanation is that for language to work it must share a logical structure with the world. Importantly, this means that the limits of what can be said are the same as what can possibly be the case in the world. As we have seen, propositions can either be true or false depending on whether they correspond with reality. However, it follows that if we try to talk about anything that is not in the world (matters of ethics, religion, the problems of philosophy and perhaps anything that is inner) we cease to make sense. What we say will not be false, but nonsense. The only possible discourse, according to the early Wittgenstein, is factual discourse.

This leads him to make the following point at the beginning of the Tractatus: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about, we must consign to silence,” and the book’s famous closing aphorism: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”.

Showing not telling

This should not be taken to mean that Wittgenstein believes that ethics, spirituality and aesthetics are trivial; he thinks that they are of the utmost importance. It is just that attempts to say anything about them are futile. Instead, he insists, these truths must be ‘shown’. “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical,” he says.

Perceptive readers will have noticed a problem here. If only factual discourse has sense, the propositions of philosophy and logic that Wittgenstein uses to state his theory are nonsense. Language may have a logical structure and be capable of being represented by logic, but they are not the same. The propositions of logic don’t say anything – they are tautologies or contradictions. Using language to talk about logic and mathematics to explain the limits of language is proscribed by the picture theory of language, yet this is exactly what Wittgenstein does.

He acknowledges this and says: “Most of the propositions [in the Tractatus] serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)” It’s a metaphor borrowed from master of imagery Schopenhauer and it accounts somewhat for the abstract nature of the Tractatus.

This illuminates Wittgenstein’s view of the task of philosophy, which is one of elucidation and the clarification of thoughts, as well as setting the boundaries of what can be clearly expressed and thought. It is a process rather than a destination.

Takeaways

The implication of the theory of language asserted by Wittgenstein’s early work is that we must be extremely careful with how we use words if we wish to be clearly understood and avoid giving the wrong impression. This necessitates considering exactly what we want to say, as well as the pictures that our words may form in others’ minds, when finding the best expression for our thoughts. We should have an awareness of the limits of written and spoken language and the potential for misunderstandings to arise when we talk about the metaphysical, including expressing opinions or feelings, and know when to avoid saying anything at all.

Of course, inspiring feelings in people is often the objective of PR, which involves much more than simply describing products and services. It’s worth noting that sensational language often misses the target and can be more of a distraction (think ‘sensuous’, ‘luxurious’ and other buzzwords). In these situations, we must sometimes be prepared to ‘show’ rather than tell, remembering that if we talk knowledgably around a subject, our audience will get the feeling that was intended when writing.

Readers may very well raise objections to the doctrine of the Tractatus. They may find its central claim, that the sole function of language is making statements about how things are arranged in the world, to be a reductive one. Poetry and other literature apparently show language to be a highly expressive medium; and it seems that we are able to say at least some things about philosophical matters such as ethics.

Upon finishing writing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein thought that he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. Consistent with this view he promptly gave up the subject and returned to Vienna to become a teacher. However, he was later persuaded that his original thesis was not the complete picture of language that he first thought. This rejection would form the basis of his later work.

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