An Animated Introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein & His Philosophical Insights on the Problems of Human Communication

In the record­ed his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy, there may be no sharp­er a mind than Lud­wig Wittgen­stein. A bête noire, enfant ter­ri­ble, and all oth­er such phras­es used to describe affronts to order and deco­rum, Wittgen­stein also rep­re­sent­ed an anar­chic force that dis­turbed the staid dis­ci­pline. His teacher Bertrand Rus­sell rec­og­nized the exis­ten­tial threat Wittgen­stein posed to his pro­fes­sion (though not right away). When Wittgen­stein hand­ed Rus­sell the com­pact, cryp­tic Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus, he admit­ted his stu­dent had gone beyond his own ana­lyt­ic insights in the pur­suit of absolute clar­i­ty. Wittgenstein’s long­time men­tor and friend, famed logi­cian and math­e­mati­cian Got­t­lob Frege, expressed crit­i­cism. Some have sug­gest­ed he did so in part because he saw that Wittgen­stein had ren­dered much of his work irrel­e­vant.

Alain de Bot­ton gives a brief but fas­ci­nat­ing sketch of Wittgen­stein’s ideas and incred­i­bly odd biog­ra­phy in the School of Life video above. The eccen­tric Aus­tri­an savant, he asserts, “can help us with our com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems” through his pen­e­trat­ing, though often impen­e­tra­ble, claims about lan­guage. That may be so. But we may need to rede­fine what we mean by “com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Accord­ing to Wittgen­stein in the Trac­ta­tus, an over­whelm­ing per­cent­age of what we obsess about on a dai­ly basis—political and reli­gious abstrac­tions, for example—is so total­ly inco­her­ent and mud­dled that it means noth­ing at all. He revised this opin­ion dra­mat­i­cal­ly in his lat­er thought.

Though he pub­lished noth­ing after the Trac­ta­tus and soon became a near-recluse after his star­tling entry into ana­lyt­ic phi­los­o­phy, notes from his stu­dents were col­lect­ed and pub­lished as well as a posthu­mous book called Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions. This ver­sion of Wittgenstein’s approach to the prob­lems of com­mu­ni­ca­tion involves a devel­op­ment of the “ostensive”—or demonstrative—role of lan­guage. Wittgen­stein made an argu­ment that lan­guage can only serve a social, rather than a per­son­al, sub­jec­tive, func­tion. To make the point, he intro­duced his “Bee­tle in a Box” anal­o­gy, which you can see explained above in an ani­mat­ed BBC video writ­ten by Nigel War­bur­ton and nar­rat­ed by Aidan Turn­er.

The anal­o­gy uses the idea of each of us claim­ing to have a bee­tle in a box as a stand in for our indi­vid­ual, pri­vate expe­ri­ences. We all claim to have them (we can even observe brain states), but no one can ever see inside the the­ater of our minds to ver­i­fy. We sim­ply have to take each oth­er’s word for it. We play “lan­guage games,” which only have mean­ing in respect to their con­text. That such games can be mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble among indi­vid­u­als who are oth­er­wise  opaque to each oth­er has to do with our shared envi­ron­ment, abil­i­ties, and lim­i­ta­tions. Should we, how­ev­er, meet a lion who could speak—in per­fect­ly intel­li­gi­ble English—we would not, Wittgen­stein assert­ed, be able to under­stand a sin­gle word. The vast­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of human ver­sus lion would not trans­late through any medi­um.

Just above, we have an expla­na­tion of this thought exper­i­ment from an unlike­ly source, Ricky Ger­vais, in an attempt­ed expla­na­tion to his com­ic foil Karl Pilk­ing­ton, who takes things in his own pecu­liar direc­tion. Though Wittgen­stein used the idea for a dif­fer­ent pur­pose, his obser­va­tion about the unbridge­able chasm between humans and lions antic­i­pates Thomas Nagel’s provoca­tive claims in the 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” We can­not inhab­it the sub­jec­tive states of beings so dif­fer­ent from us, and there­fore can­not say much of any­thing about their con­scious­ness. Maybe it isn’t like any­thing to be a bat. Luck­i­ly for humans, we do have the abil­i­ty to imag­ine each other’s expe­ri­ences, in indi­rect, imper­fect, round­about, ways, and we all have enough shared con­text that we can, at least the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, use lan­guage to pro­duce more clar­i­ty of thought and greater social har­mo­ny.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus Sung as a One-Woman Opera

In Search of Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Seclud­ed Hut in Nor­way: A Short Trav­el Film

Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Short, Strange & Bru­tal Stint as an Ele­men­tary School Teacher

Wittgen­stein and Hitler Attend­ed the Same School in Aus­tria, at the Same Time (1904)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Roderick T. Long says:

    Near­ly every­thing the first video says about Wittgen­stein’s ideas is not just wrong but the oppo­site of what Wittgen­stein means.

    - Wittgen­stein’s point is that peo­ple gen­er­al­ly DON’T have trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing; the trou­ble aris­es when we start to form *the­o­ries* of what com­mu­ni­ca­tion is like.

    - Wittgen­stein’s pic­ture the­o­ry is not about pic­tures in the sense of men­tal images. His view is that *lan­guage* — words arranged into sen­tences — is a pic­ture of the facts, not that it involves pic­tures in the visu­al sense.

    - Also, Kierkegaard did not intro­duce the word “Angst,” which was a well-estab­lished Dan­ish word. It was intro­duced into *Eng­lish* by trans­la­tors of Kierkegaard.

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