Monday, May 8, 2017

Words and Language

May 8, 2017

Words & Language

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein wrote: In most cases, the meaning of a word is its use.1 This phrase from Philosophical Investigations, published after his death in 1953, is often given as: The world we see is the words we use. Wittengenstein may or may not have written that version of his famous dictum.

The man was a piece of work: Austrian immigrant, Oxford University don, philosopher, misogynist, madman, genius. Never dull, our Ludwig. And oh so quotable. Here he is again: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. This suggests that the world we see, is not the world a lion sees; nor is it one a bat sees. Nor a bee, a bear, a weeping willow or whathaveyou. So many realities, so little time

Words do seem to be the tool that homo sapiens use to create the phenomenon of their world. The genus homo---homo erectus, homo habilis, homo naledi, among others---evolved over a million years ago. From then until just a few thousand years ago, these folk were without language as we know it. They managed. This has significance.

The world we see is not quite the words we use. In fact, words and language, it might be argued, are nought but a veritable rat's nest; and, further, that they hinder humans far more than they help. Huang Po, a 9th century CE Chinese philosopher, Zen master, recluse, genius and teacher non-pareil suggests that words and the concepts that follow are precisely what ail us. The conceptual tails we chase are the words we misconstrue. Too many words. Entirely too many words.

Milarepa, one of Tibet's most illustrious yogis and poets, had this to say: When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.

Words and language have brought us to the current state of the world. By most any measure, things ain't goin' so good. What to do? Ask Ludwig. He'll know. Enigmatically, W responds: There are remarks that sow and remarks that reap.2


But wait; there's more: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.3


Enter Huang Po (we'll give the Master the last word, shall we? Silence is a sentiment he can get his head around): If you would spend all your time—walking, standing, sitting or lying down—learning to halt the concept-forming activities of your own mind, you could be sure of ultimately attaining Reality. Only he who restrains every vestige of empiricism and ceases to rely upon anything can become a perfectly tranquil man."4

1Ludwig Wittegenstein, Philosphical Investigations, Anscombe translation, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1958, # 43.
2Ray Monk Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin Books, 1991, p404.
3Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

4John Blofeld, Translator: The Zen Teaching Of Huang Po, Grove Press, Inc, New York, 1958, p. 57.


  1. I enjoyed this very much and the words of Milarepa ... I've got to stop running after my thoughts.

    Coming back for more....