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.