Funny Face: How Ludwig Wittgenstein “Invented” Emojis 😀

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Regarded by many as one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889, and died on April 29, 1951, so this week marks anniversaries of his birth and death.

The Austrian philosopher was the author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Philosophical Investigations, and other books that reflected his ideas on topics as diverse as logic, mathematics, mind, and language.

But Wittgenstein can also be credited for the creation — albeit indirectly and probably unwittingly — of images that have become a mainstay of communication in the digital age.

We are talking about emojis, the cartoon-like facial expressions used to convey a wide range of emotions, from happiness to sadness, perplexity, and disgust.

So how did a philosopher who died long before emojis were created on the cusp of the 21stcentury contribute to this global phenomenon?

According to this recent article, the published version of Wittgenstein’s lectures featured drawings of three faces: one with closed eyes and a half smile, one with a raised eyebrow, and one with a full smile.

In this lecture, Wittgenstein noted that “such words as ‘pompous’ and ‘stately’ could be expressed by faces.”

“Doing this,” he continued, “our descriptions would be much more flexible than they are as expressed by adjectives.”

Wittgenstein developed his “picture theory of language,” early in his career. It centered on the idea that statements are meaningful if they can be defined or pictured in the real world. This seems to be an unrefined definition of the latter-day emojis.

In all likelihood, Wittgenstein did not envisage that sketches he spoke about in his lectures would ever be used as widely and frequently to replace actual words. And though we don’t know whether he had a sense of humor about such things, he did once say, “If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”


Originally published at simplycharly.com on April 28, 2018.