Or, why I sometimes felt like choking down tears while attending our classes on Wittgenstein. And no, that’s not hyperbole. Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language had emotional moment as well as intellectual fascination for me, and these past months, I’ve devoted headspace to trying to understand why that’s so.
As a lifelong reader, a professional editor, and an aspiring writer, I traffic in ideas and reel around the ceaseless currents of words. I worry about clarity and craft, about fantasy production and creative visualization, about the value of empathy and “mere” self-expression in writing. I think about the significance of literature and other art forms through which we realize our humanity and interrogate society, and about how the anxiety of expression must sometimes fall to silence. Writing an essay—albeit far from an exhaustive one—on Wittgenstein’s conception of language in his Philosophical Investigations gave me the opportunity to think about just how important our words are, how they mean and what for.
Below is an excerpt from the essay, which may be read on Scribd in full.
“Meaning (making it and making sense of it) is performative as much as it is retrospective. For one can make sense of something only in the context of what came before it—prior moves in the language game, linguistic conventions, and the practices and traditions from which they came. It is a function of accumulated performances, of repeated and repeatedly accepted utterances. Thus meaning—like language, like cultures, like people—is ever-evolving, alive, and subject to change. Meaning is constructed in discourse, and discourse shaped by human agency, and it is in this possibility not only of meaningful expression, but of meaningful action, interaction, and intervention that the morality of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language lies.
“Underlying all of this is the necessity of investigating established modes of thought and speech in the attempt to understand and to be understood. Anyone who uses language is caught up in this constant attempt to communicate, to learn in practice, and to bear upon the world. The more one is exposed to instances of the various ways in which expressions are used, the more one is exposed to human relations, activities, cultures, places—the weave of life in which language is threaded—the more one refines one’s sensitivities and notions of nuance, and the better one creates and conveys meaning.
“In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent‘ (7). With such a stark statement he summarily dismissed the infinite richness of human life and expression, and invalidated judgments of aesthetics or morality, which, arguably, represent the highest aspirations of humanity. Soon afterward, he gave up the practice of philosophy. But with Philosophical Investigations he turned around and reclaimed the value of the actual and the everyday, exhorting us to take off our blinders in the pursuit of the ideal and open our eyes to ‘what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful’ (PI 129) there, henceforth changing the way we practice and conceive of philosophy.
“It is not a matter of complicating things, but of clarifying them.”