Words, Wittgenstein, and the Language of Religion (i)


Anyone interested in language is likely to be attracted to the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).He began by studying mechanical engineering and then aeronautics, before being inspired, by Bertrand Russell’s ‘The Principles of Mathematics’, to begin study of the philosophy of mathematics under the great man himself. He then started to develop his own ideas about the role of language in human thinking and life, and published a book with the not entirely enticing title, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, in which he reckoned he’d solved all philosophy’s basic problems, and so went off to explore pastures new. Later on, he began to think he’d got things wrong, came back to philosophy and developed a new and quite different approach to the role of language, leading in due course to the posthumous publication of ‘Philosophical Investigations‘.

In this first post of two, I’m sharing my own (limited) understanding of some of Wittgenstein’s initial ideas. These suggest a picture theory of meaning. For words and sentences to be meaningful, they must in some way mirror reality. This suggests that reality, and language which describes it, must be structured in similar ways. Words will denote actual entities in the world, but it’s the way words are organised in sentences that pictures the way these entities are organised in the world. We’re able to talk about reality, that is, not only because words denote, but because sentences picture. This suggests that we can ‘read off’ the structure of reality from the structure of language, and that it’s the structure of reality that largely determines the structure of language – a view that later was to change.

The most important unit of meaning for Wittgenstein, then, was not the word, but the sentence, since the meaning of words can change depending on the sentence in which they appear. Whether or not they are in themselves true or false, every meaningful sentence is one that corresponds to a possible state of affairs, and every true sentence is one that corresponds to an actual state of affairs. It should be noted, however, that Wittgenstein wasn’t referring to the surface structure of sentences, which can obscure a deeper logical structure underneath, which he called the ‘elementary’ structure. A process of logical analysis was needed to dig down and unearth what that ‘elementary’ structure was, before the corresponding structure of reality could be accurately determined.

This picture theory did, incidentally, raise some interesting questions such as, how do you picture a fact that doesn’t exist? What would a picture of ‘there’s no orange on this plate’ look like, and how would it differ from a picture of ‘there’s no apple on this plate’? And how do you picture such words as ‘and’, ‘not’, ‘no’, ‘or’ and ‘if’? Wittgenstein called these ‘logical constants’ and agreed they were not part of the picture relationship. We can think of a no-smoking sign, consisting of a lit cigarette with a big red line across it. The red line isn’t part of the picture of the cigarette – cigarettes in reality don’t have big red lines across them. The red line corresponds to a ‘logical constant’ and, in language, these are used to link together, negate, or juxtapose pictures, while not being part of a picture themselves.  

What Wittgenstein was basically after, was distinguishing talk that was meaningful, that made sense, from talk that didn’t, that was non-sense. That sounds entirely reasonable and desirable, but is problematic. If the only language that’s meaningful, as in Wittgenstein’s early thinking, is ‘fact stating’ language, then what about all the rest? What of religious language about beliefs, aesthetic language about values, or ethical language about standards, which address some of the most important issues in human life? Can it really be the case that any language which does not state empirically verifiable actual or possible facts is therefore ‘unspeakable’ and is to be dismissed as nonsensical and empty of meaning?

That idea suited a group of thinkers known as ‘logical positivists’, who held that scientific knowledge, being experimentally verifiable, is the only factual knowledge, and that all other kinds of so-called ‘knowledge’, based on metaphysical ‘notions’ or personal ‘experience’ should be rejected as meaningless. They thought that Wittgenstein was ‘one of themselves’, but he wasn’t, as his next publication made clear. In my second post, leaving aside Wittgenstein’s later, hotly debated, views about the possibility or otherwise of a ‘private language’, I’ll simply look at my understanding of what he had to say about ‘religious’ language in particular. 

[ These being brief posts, this is a very limited, and non-professional, account of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. I’ve made particular use of a first-class, and highly recommendable introduction, in “The Great Philosophers”, edited by the philosopher, author and broadcaster, Bryan Magee, in conversation with John Searle, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. ]

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