Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Lost in Communication: Wittgenstein's Early Philosophy

by Isabelle Welch

Lost in communication- a brief summary of Wittgenstein’s early works

Ludwig Wittgentein
A lot of unhappiness in this world comes about because we can’t let other people know what we mean clearly enough. One of the philosophers who can help us is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a recluse, he had a stutter, he would pause in the middle of sentences, and had a habit of storming out if someone disagreed with him. Oddly perhaps, this was the ideal formula for someone intent on studying what causes communication fails.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest child of a wealthy, highly cultured, domineering businessman.  Three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide, and w himself was frequently troubled by suicidal thoughts. When he was young his father encouraged him down a path to engineering, which he studied at Cambridge. Whilst he was at Cambridge his father passed away, and he inherited a large sum of money, which he lay off to other family members and a selection of young, ‘indie’, and often alcoholic, Austrian poets, before moving to Norway to live in a recluse mountain hut. It was here that he ‘Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.’

‘Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.’ was a short, beautiful and baffling work. The big question that he asked in was how humans communicate to one another. His answer, which felt revolutionary for the time, is that language works by triggering within us pictures of how things are in the world. He came to this conclusion through reading a newspaper clipping about a Paris court case in which, inn order to explain in greater efficacy the details of a road accident, the court had arranged for the accident to be reproduced visually: using model cars and pedestrians. It was a eureka moment.

For Wittgenstein, effective language is that, that enables us to ‘make pictures of facts.’ For example, to say ‘the bench is by the chip shop,’ paints a rapid sketch that, like the model, lets another person see the situation in their mind and understand. We are constantly swapping ‘pictures’ between us in this fashion, but the Paris court needed a physical model for a very important reason: on the whole we are poor at conveying accurate pictures in the minds of others. 


Communication typically goes wrong because other people have, as we put it, ‘the wrong picture’ of what we mean. It can take an age for two people to recognize divergences over the simplest of things. Problems of communication typically start because we don’t have a clear picture of what we mean in our own heads. We often say quite meaningless or muddled or unelaborated things, which therefor can go nowhere, in the minds of others: ‘I am a spiritual sort of person.’ ‘I love fairness’ ‘I can’t even.’ There is another danger, which I’m sure any teen who has sat staring at a text can relate too, that we read more meaning into the words of others that was ever intended or that is warranted. You may tell your boyfriend that you had a conversation with an ‘interesting guy,’ at last nights party, the picture in your mind is an innocent one, but he may rapidly form a very different impression.


The tractatus is a plea made by the awkward Austrian to speak more carefully and less impulsively. 

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