Wittgenstein on Conversations Rather Than Fights

Joshua Ness@theexplorerdad

I come back to the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein over and over to clarify my thinking. Wittgenstein had a central insight into human meaning-making. It was this: in order to make meaning, a set (or a conversation/argument) must contain all the terms that are to be considered. In formal logic this is easy to see: If X is Y, and if Y is Z, then X is Z. Classically, the formulation is:

Socrates is a human.

All humans are mortal.

Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Wittgenstein realized that in human thought any “X, Y, Z” that is included must be given meaning. So, for example, I might say, “That’s much like Daisy’s work!” If you don’t know who Daisy is or which among more than one Daisy I’m talking about, I must add information into the conversation-set in order to communicate my idea: “You know, Daisy Zee, who paints those huge orange flowers.” Now “work” has a meaning: visual art; and “Daisy” has a meaning, a specific person. If you don’t know Daisy Zee or her work, then I haven’t communicated all that meaningfully to you. I you know know the things I’m referring to, I have communicated a full idea.

Wittgenstein famously ended his masterwork, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, saying, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This is erroneously understood to be a proscription of considering various mysteries. This is not the case. For example, Wittgenstein had a soft spot for discussions of the mystical.

Wittgenstein is saying, rather, that in order to make meaning, we — ourselves and any we attempt to communicate with — must contextualize — bring into the set — what we mean by “Daisy,” or “god” or “mystery,” and what have you. “That’s much like God’s work!” functions exactly as the Daisy example above, if we don’t both know what “God” means in the equation.

That’s one reason we Humanists ignore it.

Misunderstanding or not knowing about Wittgenstein’s insight leads to much confusion. Words such as “democracy,” “justice,” “love,” and “god” often appear as an “X” in conversation but are not defined mutually so that communication and/or agreement occur.